“The House of Loki” is a fic I started in 2014. I pulled it from fanfiction.net in 2016 after publishing multiple chapters but never finishing it. I have kept the text, however, and I hope to finish it here on Hunterverse. I can’t guarantee how quickly I can post chapters, but I hope it is something that fellow Marvel Cinematic Universe Loki fans can enjoy. It is my first stab at a fantasy-ish story, with characters both familiar and original. Hopefully when it is all done I can package it up as an ebook and make it available for free here on Hunterverse.
“The House of Loki” takes place after Thor: The Dark World and does not include many MCU events after that, especially Thor: Ragnarok, for the simple reason that I started it before T:R was even in production. It takes the answer to the question of what Loki did with Odin and the throne of Asgard in a different direction. I tried to use canon information (up to that time) as much as possible and then made a leap into the fantastic. To fill in the MCU gaps, I used comic book and Norse myth canon as I felt appropriate.
A note on character names: For original characters, I tried to follow comic canon where I could find it. For elves and dwarves I used the pattern set out in the Thor: God of Thunder comic series, especially the arc of The Accursed, by Jason Aaron. It’s an excellent read and can be picked up in graphic novel form. I highly recommend it. I also used this series as the basis for my descriptions of the nine realms. By now, of course, you’ve seen a few more in the movies… and they don’t necessarily match up with mine. I decided to stick with the settings I used in 2014 when I first began writing, so there are many ways in which this story diverges from the MCU.
Where I could not find MCU or comic precedent, I used traditional Norse/Viking names as laid out by The Viking Answer Lady on her wonderful website.
I will post new chapters every other week or so as I am able. When it is complete, I will note that here. We have a ways to go, though, so buckle up!
Table of Contents
O, my dear ones, what shall I tell you of the Hidden Kingdom, that land of poets, that Last Home for the Lost? What shall I sing to you of its people? Of Ellisif the Silent, Child of the Infinite, whose power was Boundless, whose spirit was Gentle, and whose beauty was Unspoken? Of Magnus with the Skin of Stone, his valiant wife Kolla, and their sons, the Pebbles Three, bravest and heartiest of warriors, who guard the King’s right hand? Of the Lawspeaker, the Blind Seer, Ulf the Just? What of the realm’s secret treasures and treacheries? What of that great people that conjured such a paradise out of a forgotten land that it became the envy of the Nine Realms? And what, O dear ones, shall I sing of their King, the founder of their city, the giver of their law, the defender of their fields and protector of their little ones, the beloved of Ellisif, he who was once prince and prisoner in Asgard, the Rightful and Good King Loki? What shall I tell you of my home, the Most Peaceful Realm of Eddaheim?
– Erik Selvig, from The Chronicles of Eddaheim
“Off duty already, Hjalmar? It’s just now past mid-day.”
The speaker beckoned to the yellowcloak passing between the columns of the open-air tavern. The smell of wood-fire and roasting meat met him as he crossed the threshold. The soldier was tall and willowy and moved with an easy grace.
“Ho, there Gunnar,” Hjalmar replied. “Aye, they wanted fresh guards on watch. The All-Father’s making the rounds today. The lieutenants wanted everyone looking pretty.”
He removed his helmet as he crossed over to Gunnar’s table. Gunnar, who was swarthy and broad in the shoulder, was carving rude runes into the rough planks of the table with his knife.
“Again? That’s, what, the third time this month?”
“Fourth,” Hjalmar said. Still standing, he removed his vambraces and set them on the table next to his helmet. “He’ll be going by here, so we should get a good view of him. He’s on his way to inspect the memorial to Queen Frigga. It is nearly complete, which means that Asgard’s reconstruction is almost finished.”
“Took long enough,” Gunnar grunted. He shouted at the tavern keeper across the room. “Agnarr! My boon companion is here! Bring us mead and meat!”
“I blame the elves more than the All-Father,” Hjalmar continued as he sat down on the bench across from Gunnar. “The most skilled at that sort of magic died the same day as the Queen. They have had to use actual tools in some instances. Reconstruction has moved along pretty quickly, considering.”
The tavern keeper plunked down two mugs between them and shuffled off.
“Speaking of the Queen,” Gunnar said, raising his mug high into the air, “Valhalla’s the better for having her, and we’re the poorer for losing her. To the Queen!”
“Aye,” replied Hjalmar. “To Queen Frigga!”
They clinked their mugs together and drank deeply. Gunnar spat his out, spraying it onto Hjalmar’s face.
“Phaugh! Agnarr! What is this dishwater you’re trying to pass off as mead?”
“You can blame the damned elves for that, too,” Agnarr replied as he approached them with a platter of cold sliced beef and a wheel of cheese. “Barrels of the best stuff got burned up in their first attack, along with half the realm. The bee hives are recovering, so we have honey, but the mead from it hasn’t had time to age yet.”
“It is rather foul, indeed! Sleipnir’s piss would taste better,” Hjalmar said as Gunnar’s mead trickled down his face and off his chin. He made a futile swipe of his face with the back of his hand.
“Or that Cloudless Swill from Jotunheim,” said Gunnar. “Got any of that in the cellar?”
“Aw, quit yer moanin’.” Agnarr flung the platter down upon the table. As it rattled to a stop, he barked, “Jotunheim’s not had proper bees in centuries. You know that. Let me see if I have any Foaming Bull left. The Vanaheim barrels are almost dry now.” He stalked off, muttering about cranky Einherjar under his breath.
“And a towel, if you don’t mind,” added Hjalmar.
The normal clamor and scuffle outside the tavern increased, growing louder as they waited for the tavern keeper’s return. Gunnar turned on his bench, sitting on the very end so he could see out the open side. Asgardians were gathering on either side of the street and staring with wonder at something approaching.
“I believe they’re coming,” said Hjalmar.
As Agnarr emerged from the cellar door, towel in hand, the people pressed back against the building even more to allow an entourage to pass. He handed the towel to Hjalmar as he passed the table. Hjalmar stood next to him to get a better view as he wiped the mead from his chin.
Great gray Sleipnir, the All-Father’s horse, trotted by, majestic, strong, and rather loud with his eight hooves. In his saddle was Odin himself. His face turned slowly from one side of the street to the other, fixing each Asgardian with his single eye for just a moment before moving on. His golden armor gleamed in the bright mid-day light, and a light breeze stirred his cloak so that it floated over his mount’s back.
Hjalmar pointed to the small man skulking behind the great horse. He carried a shovel over his shoulder and an enormous sack strapped onto his back. Its contents bounced against his legs as he shuffled along the route.
“I do not envy him his task,” Hjalmar said. “I’d rather guard the old dungeons for a year than have a single day of that.” He dropped his voice to a conspiratorial whisper and added, “Prince Loki’s ghost walks there sometimes, you know. My brother’s captain’s cousin said he knew a guard that’s seen him. They’ve not used the cell since his brother broke him out. All his books are still in there. The bed, too.”
“So I’ve heard.” Gunnar snorted and nodded toward the be-shoveled man. “That’s one of the Marauders, isn’t it? All-Father’s getting more creative in his punishments these days. No, I wouldn’t be that fellow for all the uru in Nidavellir. Can you imagine mucking out his stall?”
Hjalmar grimaced. “The yellowcloak behind Odin is called Einar,” he explained. “We joined the Einherjar at the same time, so I’ve known him for a while. Decent archer, fair spearman. Told the best bawdy stories. Even guarded the Prince down in the dungeon for a while.”
“He ever tell any stories about this ghost?”
“That is the odd thing. After the battle last year, he stopped speaking, stopped drinking. Took a vow of silence, or somesuch. Valhalla knows why. But Einar is always by the King’s side, especially when he leaves the palace, which is a lot these days. I don’t recall him ever being this close to the people in the streets so often. It’s a refreshing change, even if I don’t get to hear any more of Einar’s tales.”
“Well, at least Einar won’t be wagging his tongue about the goings-on in the palace, unlike some people I could mention,” Gunnar said with a meaningful flick of his eyes at Hjalmar. “I will say that Odin’s getting out of the palace rather more than he used to. Used to be pretty hard to see.”
“Losing a wife changes a man,” Agnarr said in a soft, hoarse voice.
“Who’s the fellow beside the king, in front of Einar?” Gunnar asked. “The one that looks like he’s left over from Bor’s reign? He’s so decrepit he can barely stay ahorse.”
“Refkell,” replied Hjalmar. “He is left over from Bor’s reign. He retired from public life when Odin took the throne, I hear, but he was recalled to service when Prince Thor renounced his claim to the throne last year. The Prince has been everywhere but Asgard ever since. I hear he’s taken a fancy to some Midgardian lass.”
“Wouldn’t be the first time that’s happened,” Agnarr said with a roll of his eyes. “Maybe he’ll return when he’s gotten her out of his system. It’d be nice to have proper patrons again. What with him gone and the Warriors Three always trotting about the realms on the King’s errands, I’m stuck with you lot.”
“They’re probably on a mission to find better mead,” Gunnar grumbled.
Hjalmar shrugged. “Anyway, the King recruited experienced advisors after that, especially for the rebuilding. Refkell answered the call.”
“Think he’ll remarry?” asked Gunnar.
“Refkell?” asked Hjalmar.
Gunnar punched him in the shoulder. “No, the All-Father, witless.”
“Why do you ask?” grunted Agnarr. “Man’s got a right to mourn his woman as long as he sees fit.”
“The House of Odin is thinning out,” Gunnar observed. “The heir renounced his claim to the throne, and the spare died saving the heir. Line of succession is looking a wee bit shaky. A realm is always stronger for having a crown prince in the wings. Not fair to the people, leaving them in uncertainty like this.”
Hjalmar nodded. “I agree. The All-Father’s not getting any younger, you know.”
“You are not getting any younger, you know,” Refkell said. “There are rumblings amongst the nobles that you should remarry, and soon.”
Odin nodded with regal slowness at the crowd as the entourage moved through the streets of Asgard. The mountains of rubble that had once blocked the way were long gone, and the path was clear for both people and horses. Buds popped from the branches of newly planted trees. Roses and chrysanthemums would soon bloom in courtyards beside fountains that flowed freely once more. The air smelled fresh and clean. His people cheered and clapped as his party rode by. He gave them a firm, yet gentle, fatherly expression in return.
He spoke from the side of his mouth so that only Refkell could hear. “That is too private a matter for the marketplace.”
Refkell’s voice shook, but only with age. He pressed on. “The line of succession is never private, my lord. If you wish for your house to continue the rule of Asgard, you must make preparations. A crown prince takes time to birth, let alone groom for the throne.”
“It also takes a queen,” Odin replied. “We are not ready–“
“There are many noble families with daughters ready to take on the responsibilities of royalty. I do not think you would have to search very hard for a likely candidate. The Lady Jord is still young enough for childbearing, but old enough to be dignified company for you. Amora has the glamour and the power, but she is terribly ambitious. Then there’s Sigyn. Not quite as stately, nor as ambitious, as she is a bit younger, but she has a gentle spirit and could learn quickly. I believe that at one time your younger son was quite fond of her.”
“Later, Refkell. I would rather complete the memorial to my first queen before I take on a second.”
“But as you just witnessed, your majesty, it will be finished quite soon.”
They halted in front of the stable gates. Odin dismounted and approached the ancient adviser’s horse. Leaning slightly against Gungnir, the spear that was his badge of office, he grasped the bridle gently and rubbed the horse’s nose.
Refkell gazed down at him with weary eyes. “Please, your majesty. I speak only in your best interest. The rebuilding of the realm has gone so well. Please do not neglect your own House in the process.”
“I know, old friend. I value your advice, as did my father. Very well, I will consider it. Go. Rest now, and we will discuss this tomorrow over some mulled wine.”
He watched the adviser ride away to his own house, escorted by two Einherjar. When he was well away, the King turned to Einar, who was standing back and holding the reins of both his own horse and Sleipnir.
“Einar, I am off to the vaults for a bit. Please see that Sleipnir is cared for, then have a meal as well. It was a long morning, after all. I will call for you later.”
The silent soldier made a gesture of assent and led the horses away. The king strode off, not bothering to watch as the yellowcloak made his way through the stableyard. He did not have to; Einar could be trusted to perform his tasks above the call of his duty. Einar was the one guard who had bothered to deliver news of Frigga’s death to the dungeons the year before. He had delivered it to the man that everyone now recognized as Odin; but that man only wore Odin’s face. Underneath the illusion lay the face of the rumored ghost of the younger prince of the realm.
While it had been hard news, horrible news, the worst of news, Loki had been grateful to the guard for telling him. Loki had discovered later that the man had done so without any orders from Odin. Even if Einar did not know he now served the former prisoner, Loki felt he should have some sort of reward for his actions, so he had promoted him to personal bodyguard. The man never argued, and he never stepped beyond his place. He found Einar’s presence soothing when he needed company but did not feel like conversing. Einar had not spoken a word since he had taken on the role; even Loki did not know why. But he was one of the few, outside of some specially-trained grooms, that could lead the mighty Sleipnir by the halter. The great steed had plenty of horse sense; if he trusted Einar, then so could the King of Asgard. The soldier was a mystery, but he was a welcome one.
Loki slowed his pace. A year into his reign, it was difficult to continually act the part of an elderly ruler. Even in the heavy armor of the All-Father, he felt that he moved too quickly for an old man at times. No one had yet pierced his disguise, and he had kept those most able to do so far away from him. He had seen no point in harming the Warriors Three, or the Lady Sif, or even Thor, even though he was now in the best position to revenge himself on the ones who had teased him so painfully and kept him in shadows all those years.
They were far too useful for that.
At the same time, they might have found some chink in his illusion far more easily than the eager-to-please nobles; they would have caught it not because they knew what Odin would not do, but because they knew what Loki would do. Ever since he had sent Sif and Volstagg off to the Collector with the Aether, he had kept them all busy with various errands and peace-keeping missions; they were banished in fact if not in name.
His footsteps echoed off along cold stone as he made his way down the stairs into the vault. The guards saluted and moved aside from the doors quickly and silently. Even before Malekith’s brutality, they were used to the All-Father spending time with his treasures. Everyone knew that they needed a little extra magic to bring Asgard back to its accustomed glory.
Thor had not yet seen the work that had been done. The last Loki had seen of him was his retreating back after he had turned down the offer of the throne. Loki had savored that moment like a sip of well-aged wine. Even though the expression had been meant for Odin, the look of awe and filial love on Thor’s face just before he left had scratched an ancient itch deep within Loki’s heart. It had been easy to let him walk away, then, after Thor had finally looked at him, albeit camouflaged. Loki had been content to rule in peace without the worry of Thor discovering who had really turned down Mjolnir that day.
But contentment was not Loki’s lot. The itch had returned, as itches always do.
But Thor had not.
Loki relaxed his disguise for a moment, allowing his taller, leaner figure to emerge. He studied his reflection in the metal wall and brushed at his long black locks with his fingers. The vault was the only place that he dared show his true face. Even in his chambers, someone might be watching. He always slept with the curtains drawn about the bed, in case the spell slipped while he dreamed. This would be a problem, if he did actually take a wife. He knew kings and queens often had separate chambers, but they did not always sleep apart. He could hide well enough as an isolated bachelor. How could he hide from a wife?
He gazed up at the latest addition to the vault: a statue of Laufey. It was not a memorial to his jotun excuse for a parent; it served as a stand for the Casket of Ancient Winters, which it held between its enormous icy hands. He had molded it from ice himself, and he had kept it frozen using the magic contained in the Casket. But it also served another purpose. It stood upon a high wide block of obsidian, a fitting tombstone to cover a being not quite dead. It was his own private joke: one father of Loki guarding another, and each the other’s sworn enemy and under control of their shared – and wrongly rejected – son.
He rested his hand on the block beneath the statue. “Resting well?” he asked as he traced the edge of the dark rock with his finger. “You will find this funny, but I am so glad I spared you, Odin. At the time it was only for Frigga’s sake. I could not let you reunite with her in Valhalla too soon. Besides, I have grown to enjoy our little talks. You’re the only one I can speak with and be myself. Oh, except for Sleipnir, of course. He remembers me. But he is good at keeping secrets.”
Loki sighed as he strode over to another ornate casket across the room. “Even your ravens avoid me. The House of Odin, it seems, is getting rather empty,” he said. “The nobles want you to marry again.”
He set Gungnir aside and waved one long hand over the chest’s intricate lock in a single elegant gesture.
“I should have foreseen it, really. I knew eventually they would find it odd that you were living long past the usual five millennia, but I had forgotten their eagerness to gossip about royals. Sometimes the throne feels like its own sort of prison. But it is certainly a good deal better than the dungeon. So much more scope for the imagination.”
He picked up a set of tongs made of dwarf-forged uru, with which he lifted the Tesseract. He turned the cube in the cold light of the vault, watching the blue flame within it writhe and turn in upon itself.
“The people are pleased with the progress we’ve made. Asgard looks even better now than it did before Malekith’s arrival. The talk of Odin’s success is all the rage now, and they thank you all the day long. Here you sleep, and you get all the credit for my sweat and sleepless nights.” Loki laughed, but the laugh was without mirth. “Now that the aqueducts are functioning again, they are demanding an heir. To be honest, I’d much rather focus on the House of Loki than the House of Odin. But, I suppose that will come in time. It is almost too bad that you are napping. You might have something sage to say on the matter.”
He replaced the cube in the casket and set the locks with another graceful motion of his fingers. “I would pity such a wife, truly,” he said as he reached for Gungnir without looking. “She would not know if she were married to you or to me, should you ever-“
He stopped mid-sentence as his hands grasped empty air.
Gungnir was gone.
Sudden pain and a stab of light hurled him to the cold floor of the chamber. Stunned and aching all over, with his ears ringing, he was barely able to turn his head to view his attacker. A young man, garbed in Odin’s robes and eyepatch, pointed Gungnir directly at Loki’s face. Loki watched, paralyzed for the moment, as the man removed the cover from his eye and tossed it aside, to reveal a whole unpierced orb staring at him, full of fire and vigor.
“Pity yourself, Loki,” the man said through a crooked smile.
“Some call me the god of lies. If that is so, then I am a god of more than just my own lies. I am also the god of all the mendacities and fabricated aspirations that Odin fed to me as a sham Princeling of Asgard. He set before me a goblet overflowing with his guile, only to mock me when I swallowed it down.
I am the patron god of those who suffer from false dreams, false hopes, and false love given to them by the ones they trust.
If I am adept at Deceit, it is only because I learnt at the feet of its Master.”
– King Loki, The Chronicles of Eddaheim
Loki, trembling as the wave of pain washed away his strength, gazed up at his attacker.
Before him was a young god, a strong god, a strange god. He wore the same robes that Odin had worn when Loki had tucked him away in the vault, but he did not wear Odin’s face. At least, it was not the timeworn face that he remembered. This man was young, younger than Loki; if this was Odin, it could only be an Odin that had devoured Idunn’s entire orchard of golden apples in a single gulp. He didn’t look a day over a thousand and ten.
But, Odin, or not, Loki was on the business end of Gungnir. For the moment, that was all he needed to know.
“Once again, you are your own undoing, Son of Laufey,” the stranger growled. “We can see you now.”
Gathering his wits and what little strength he had left about him, Loki feigned a roll to the left. He cloaked himself with invisibility and rolled to the right and away from the next shower of pain. A chunk of the stone floor burst into a shower of broken pebbles in the spot that he had just vacated.
“I know you’re there,” the man that could be Odin said. “I know your tricks. I know what Frigga taught you. Her skirts are no longer here for you to cower behind.”
He fired again on either side of where his target had vanished from view, but Loki had managed to crawl out of the way and avoid dragging any potentially revealing dust along with him. He kept glancing from his assailant to the statue of Laufey that served as a cover to where Loki had hidden Odin the year before after lulling him into a deep sleep.
The pair drew a strange circle as Loki slipped towards the statue and the stranger walked backwards to the foot of the long staircase that led to the vault’s only door.
The initial shock of unexpected violence had hit Loki so hard that he was surprised that his heart still beat. As it slowly wore off, rage welled up in its place. As the peculiar new enemy guarded the single way out of the vault, Loki peered around the back of the statue. The back panel was as shattered as Loki’s nerves. The softly padded space beneath was thoroughly unoccupied.
Another bolt from the spear sizzled in the air above him, vaporizing the stone head of Laufey. The neck crumbled away, and fragments of blue rock rained down on the Casket of Ancient Winters in the statue’s hands. Loki sidestepped the shower to avoid revealing his outline.
“Frigga taught you much, but she didn’t teach you everything,” the man that must be Odin laughed. “You should be more careful how you store magical treasures, ice-rat. That casket houses more than the power of a thousand winters. For its holder, it contains a thousand springs. You kept it too close to me, runt.”
Loki cursed at himself, but silently. In all the records he had devoured in the long lonely nights over the past year, that particular property of the casket had never emerged. It seemed, however, that more than a thousand springs inhabited this man.
“But you didn’t know, did you? Even with free access to all of my books and scrolls, you didn’t know.” Odin asked. “Ha. I did not lock down all my knowledge in runes. Some wisdom is for the All-Father alone.”
Loki’s mind whirled as he only half-listened to Odin’s taunts. Retorts raged like a storm in his chest, but a year in the dungeon and a year on the throne had given him a measure of prudence. “Escape” was the only word in his mind as the man continued to gloat. Silence, for now, was his only shield. He needed all his focus to maintain his invisible shroud until he found a path out.
“Only one way out of here, jotun.”
Loki bit back a snarl and looked over at the tesseract across from the now-headless effigy. All the humor had been drained out of his private little joke, and in its place was something that almost tasted like regret. Almost.
“You can’t stay silent forever, Loki. I know you too well. Speak, you scrap of rubbish. Dazzle me with your ripostes. Lash at me with your whip of a tongue.”
Loki noticed that Odin was watching the tesseract as well, almost as if his thoughts were runes in the air that the All-Father could read.
“You know you don’t dare use it,” he continued, his voice a low purr. “The tesseract will signal the one who searches for you like a beacon across the Sea of Space. Escape is within your reach, so very close, but it would call down fire on your head. It seems you are cursed, after all, boy.”
Loki made a dash for the tesseract, and Odin aimed at the sound of his footfalls. The blast missed Loki, but the shockwave was enough to knock him down onto the floor next to the pedestal. Loki raised himself as high off the floor as he could and heaved the tesseract’s casket off its pedestal. It crashed down upon his chest, and he roared at the impact. What little focus he had left shattered at the shock, and he became visible once more.
“Yes, yes, I know about The Other and his master. They search for you. You talk too much, Loki,” Odin said, stopping a few steps away. “I heard everything you said while I slept. I am tempted to send them your head in a silver basket. And this time, I’ll make sure you stay dead.”
He aimed the uru spear at Loki’s head just as the fallen man summoned the strength to turn the handle on the casket. As the next blast leapt from Gungnir’s tip, Loki vanished in a flash of blue flame, with only one name in his mind, the only one his scrambled consciousness could conjure now.
The world re-formed around him as a forest of equine legs and yellowcloak boots. The air was a miasma of dung, hay, and horse sweat, but it was sweet after the confining air of the vaults. Loki clutched the casket to him and gazed up into the silent eyes of his bodyguard.
It was as if the man, as strong as Volstagg but as lean and blonde as Fandral, had been waiting for him. Einar did not even seem startled as he bundled Loki into his arms, casket and all, and onto the back of a waiting Sleipnir. Before Loki could utter a word, Einar swung up into the pillion saddle in front of him, took up the reins, and urged Sleipnir on toward the stable gates through the milling crowd at a slow walk, as if everything were normal. Loki cradled the casket between them, wrapped his long arms about the rider’s waist, and held on as they moved forward.
It took a moment for the always-bustling throng in the stable yard to realize just who was sauntering past them. Faces froze in various stages of recognition, disbelief, and outright horror at the pair; they seemed stunned into inaction at the sight of the peculiar bodyguard and the ghost of a prince riding in broad daylight.
Loki managed to find his voice at last. As they merged onto the street, filled with yet more townspeople, he said between gasps for air, “Einar, loyal Einar, turn and head for the wharf. If you can get us to a skiff, I can get us out- Einar, where are you going?”
The mysterious yellowcloak turned the great horse in the opposite direction, down the hill and toward the glowing prism of the bridge that led straight to Heimdall’s observatory. Perhaps this guard was not so loyal after all. Too weak to stand on his own, let alone run or use the tesseract again, Loki had no choice but to hold on. His only thought now was to regain enough strength to wrench Einar off Sleipnir and take the reins himself. Given his head, Sleipnir could run across the surface of the water as well as a skiff, if he had the room to build up the speed first. Einar twisted in the saddle enough to wink him, and then he turned and urged the horse to a near-gallop down the tree-lined street that they had passed through not long before, when the people still saw Loki in his guise as the All-Father.
The multitude parted before them yet again, but this time their movement shimmered with a far different kind of excitement. Cries of “Ghost!” and “The dead prince!” pierced the air as they rode past. He caught fleeting glimpses of old faces as they made their way through the stunned crowd; he thought he saw Amora – or perhaps it was Sigyn – peering out from behind a market stand. The rest of the faces were a sea of emotion, washing the street with waves of amazement, wonder, and more than a little fear.
As Sleipnir’s speed increased to a full gallop, the folk scattered in front of them. Some, though, seemed frozen with fear and could not get out of the way fast enough. The stretch of market seemed to go on forever. A hopelessly lumbering cart piled to the sky with barrels and baskets barred the way; with all the people pressing to the sides of the streets, there was no path around them. Sleipnir gathered up all eight legs and launched the three of them over it. Of all the horses in Asgard, only he could have powered over such a massive wagon.
He landed at full speed, jarring Loki from his hips to his teeth to the top of his head. He nearly lost his grip on Einar but somehow managed to hold on. He pressed himself into the casket between them, wondering when he would have the focus to use it again. But where in the universe could he possibly go?
Turning gracefully for such an enormous mount, Sleipnir blazed his own meandering trail through the mass with very little direction from his rider. Dodging this way and that around clumps of stunned Asgardians, he carried the pair farther and farther away from the stables but closer to the front of the palace.
“It’s just a rumor, I tell you,” Gunnar said. He swallowed another gulp from his mug and wiped his mouth. “People love their ghost stories. I bet your brother’s captain’s cousin’s friend does as well.”
“More’n likely he ain’t even dead,” Agnarr said. “They said he was that time before, when Thor hammered down the Bifrost. Turned out he wasn’t. Bet this time is no different. Maybe he found a lassie on Midgard, too.”
“No, no, I tell you,” Hjalmar replied. “The Town Crier said they found a body on Svartalfheim.”
“Phaugh!” Gunnar said. “Everybody knows The Town Crier is an unreliable sheaf of privy-paper. Fills in the gaps without the facts. No one I know saw a body that came from that place. But let’s say they did find a body. Who knows who or what they found? Could’a been Malekith, for all I know.”
Agnarr stood up from the worn table and shuffled over to the open wall of the tavern. He peered out as the usual noise of the street rose to a higher pitch.
“Gunnar, Gunnar, you only listen to the Asgardian Herald. Half their tidings are sheer fabrication, and the rest of them are sheer exaggeration.” He picked up his own mug. Before taking a swig, he muttered, “The truth is, we’ll never really know the truth.”
As a streak of gray galloped past the tavern, the blare of the alarm horn rose from the heart of the palace complex. Agnarr grunted at his patrons, who knocked their ales aside in a scramble to retrieve their helmets.
“Maybe you can ask Prince Loki about it. He just rode that-a-way.”
The unlikely trio reached the end of the market quarter and approached the sparkling bridge to the Bifrost. Loki could hear only the pounding of the hoof beats and his own hammering heart and the wind whistling in his ears. Einar urged Sleipnir to run all the faster. The way was clear now, and Loki could feel the muscles of the great gray steed rippling beneath them as he ran faster, and faster yet. Sparks arced from the each of the eight hooves as they struck the unforgiving surface of the causeway.
“Einar! There! Jump us off onto the water!” Loki panted, the words puffing out of him to the rhythm of Sleipnir’s charging. “There is still a chance to-“
Einar’s helmet swung back and forth in a shake of his silent head. Loki made a grab for the reins but Einar grasped Loki’s hands with one of his own and pressed them into his breastplate. The grasp was firm, but as gentle as a parent that was holding the hand of a child. Gripping the thick leather straps in his other hand, the guard leaned forward in the saddle, and Loki hunkered down with him, feeling the weight of the tesseract between them and the rough scratch of the man’s cloak against his face.
They were riding full-tilt toward the tall golden gate that guarded the way to the Bifrost itself. Everything was melting into a blur around Loki, and he could barely see through the hair whipping about his face. But one thing was for certain: the gate was closed. Heimdall was watching, now, for certain. Loki could almost sense the watchman’s personal guard galloping toward them on the other side of the gate. Loki knew that he was one of the few in Asgard that would not be fooled by a simple ghost story.
“Turn,” Loki shrieked into Einar’s ear as they fell into the shadow of the gate. “Turn, turn, we cannot stop at this speed before-“
The wind ripped his words away, and even Loki could not hear what he had said. The air about them took on a golden color as near and far melted together into one indistinct blur. For a fraction of an instant, Loki felt the same joyful wavering in the pit of his stomach that he had felt when he and Thor had soared toward the hidden passage to Svartalfheim. It was the joy of a god who had shaken off his chains at last and returned to the land of the sun.
“Turn,” he screamed again, but all he could hear nothing but roaring in his ears and feel nothing but the pounding of his heart. “There’s no passage-“
The glowing air grew brighter, still brighter, and before Loki could utter another sound, just before they struck the unyielding door, they disappeared into a shimmering ball of light.
Hjalmar and Gunnar stood at the closest they could come to attention after so much time in their cups. Other yellowcloaks poured in around them as they answered the call of the horn. Its call could not be ignored. It was the alarm that summoned every possible Einherjar, even those off-duty, to the aid of the King. They had not heard such a call since the dark elves had invaded.
Heimdall was down on one knee before a man they did not recognize. The watchman said, “I only saw him for an instant, my King, after I saw you and before he disappeared. Wherever he went, he is concealed from me once more.”
“King?” Gunnar whispered to Hjalmar with a slight nod at the strange young man that Heimdall addressed. “I don’t see the King.”
The stranger scowled. “And what of his companion, this Einar?”
The man held Gungnir, the All-Father’s badge of office, with the same confidence that they had always seen in Odin. However, he was far too young to be the sovereign of Asgard. They had rarely seen him up close, but even a child could see that this was not the All-Father.
“The gates were between us, so I could not view him directly,” Heimdall replied. “But with my Vision, I saw no one else, my Liege. Except for Sleipnir, Loki was alone.”
“Told you there was no ghost,” Gunnar muttered.
“Well, if it was Loki, he certainly wasn’t alone,” Hjalmar muttered back. “Should we say something?”
“Keep your ale-pipe shut,” Gunnar warned, “until we know who’s who and what’s what. We were drinking at the time, remember?”
Gungnir shook as the man’s hand trembled with rage. “Where is Thor? Summon him. Summon the Warriors Three, the Lady Sif. Summon the rest of my guard. Find Loki. Track him down and weld the shackles onto him. Slay the one that helped him escape. This is his final treachery.”
Hjalmar shrugged and whispered back to Gunnar. “Is Heimdall blind after all these years? Who is this fellow? Where is the King?”
“One of physics’ charms is the discovery of patterns: of how we are all connected, of how outwardly disparate things are hopelessly entangled, and of how the Universe is more alive and beautiful than we can ever know.
I have described to you two great wonders so far, two of the Infinity Gems that predate the Universe as we know it. There are more stones in this little family, and they are all connected. Together, they have a mind and a will of their own.
S.H.I.E.L.D. did not choose me, out of all the scientists at its disposal, for the Tesseract project by sheer coincidence. The Tesseract sought me out. For a while, in ways I still cannot explain, she was a part of me. Even after she returned to Asgard, she did not release me completely. In many ways, I still feel her touch.
My colleague Jane Foster did not stumble upon a portal to the Aether. The Aether used the power of the emerging Convergence and its connection to the power of the Tesseract to summon her to it. It chose her as a host to accomplish its own enigmatic ends.
We did not know this at first, of course. We discovered this phenomenon when yet another gem emerged and called upon someone who had already been touched by the other two. At the time, he seemed the most unlikely defender of all.”
– Erik Selvig, Personal Memoirs
“-there,” Loki said.
It took Loki a moment to gather his wits after such a race, but a glance around told him that they were well away from the Eternal Realm. It was full night here, except for the white circle of a moon shining down upon them. He could feel Sleipnir slowing himself from gallop to trot to walk. But what he noticed the most was the change in Einar.
The shining helm that had towered above Loki’s head as they rode was now poking him in the face. Tall Einar had shrunk by head and shoulders at least. The broad hands that had held his still were now tiny, and soft curves gave way where there had once been hardened muscles.
“You’re not Einar,” Loki said as Sleipnir came to a halt at last.
He leapt off the back of the horse and seized the reins from the small stranger in one smooth motion. He placed the tesseract casket between his feet to free his other hand. Loki’s focus had returned enough for him to conjure a fireball in his palm, which he held aloft like a torch. He blinked in the sudden brightness as he studied his would-be rescuer.
“Who are you?”
She – he had no doubt that this was a she – only shook her head, causing the helmet to rattle around on her suddenly smaller skull. She was like the child of a yellowcloak playing in her father’s armor. She seemed to be of a size with Thor’s mortal love, albeit a bit stockier than Jane Foster had been. A helpless toothy smile peeked out from beneath the shadows of the helmet as she looked down and realized that her shape had slipped. She removed the golden covering and revealed her face.
Loki’s perception rippled with her new appearance; it wasn’t often that he could not see through an illusion or a shapeshift. Realizing that Einar was not Einar irritated him. This girl certainly didn’t resemble Einar; she couldn’t even claim the look of a distant relative. The color of her hair defied description. Loki put it somewhere between dirty straw and withered winter grass, though it did have highlights of red that flashed in the firelight. It floated around her head like a sad cloud, as if it had seen neither comb nor braid in quite some time. Though, to be fair, Loki thought that his own hair must be in similar shape after his long stint in Odin’s form. Bad hair was a shapeshifter’s occupational hazard, one of many.
In the light of his fireball, he could see the hue of her eyes. They were not quite brown and not quite green, but they refused to be hazel all the same. Einar’s warrior’s tan had slipped away with his warrior’s height. She was pale, but not the alabaster pale of some of Asgard’s more famous beauties. It was a simple, washed-out, I’ve-spent-a-year-in-the-dungeon sort of pale, a sort that Loki was all too familiar with. A small nose, thin lips, and eyebrows that could use some attention framed the rest of her face. She was, except for her height, utterly unremarkable. “Ugly” might have been an improvement, for then at least some feature would merit notice. As it was, she was simply a lump of a girl perched on Sleipnir’s back. She could have been anyone’s thrall in Vanaheim, for all he could tell, except that a thrall might be better groomed.
It was as if some god had shaped a being out of clay and walked away without finishing the job. All of the parts were there, but none of the polish. She had shown far too much power and skill to be a mortal, but she was far too tiny to be of Asgard.
“Well?” Loki asked. “Explain yourself. Are you from Alfheim? No, no, you’re definitely not an elf, and you’re far too big to be a pixie. Where is Einar? The real one. And where are we?”
A shrug was her only answer to the barrage of questions. The armor hung off her at strange angles. She had been wearing the actual armor instead of making it part of her shapeshift, and now she no longer filled it. She was a turtle in a shell much too large for it. Every move was a tangle of scrapes and clangs.
Loki held the reins more loosely; he perceived no threat here, and there was no one nearby to hear the din of her movements. Sleipnir seemed to trust her. He was in the habit of shedding any rider that met his disapproval. The horse nickered at him; Loki dropped the reins entirely to allow him to graze in the moonlit grass beneath them. There was something familiar about the horse’s trust that danced on the edge of Loki’s perception. He could not pin it down, but something about her – not her face, but her feel – was achingly familiar. It was like a song he might have heard in his youth, a faintly remembered melody whose words had long faded from his memory.
Loki planted a fist on his hip and pursed his lips. He felt, for the first time, the ill-fitting royal robes that he himself wore. Whoever she was, they agreed on this one point, that it was easier to maintain a shape if one did not have to extend focus to clothing. Or transport themselves to another realm with little notice. He had more pressing issues than garb at the moment, though, so that would have to wait.
“At least say your name. And the name of this realm.”
She pointed to the moon above them. Loki took a closer look at it and recognized it now that the shock of pursuit was fading. There was no mistaking that pattern of light and shadow.
“Midgard? Interesting choice. We’re out of immediate danger, so long as we stay away from any cameras. But we cannot stay here for long. I’m sure Stark would love to send me back to Odin one piece at a time. But where do we go from here?” He frowned as he looked at her again. She tilted her head as he spoke. “Do you know that name? Stark?”
She pointed once again, this time to a collection of lights in the distance.
“No,” he replied. “The less we are seen here, the better. I don’t feel quite up to illusions just yet. And I’m not going anywhere with you until you say something. What is your story?” He paused, remembering that Einar had never spoken to him, either, after his promotion. “Can you speak?”
She stuck out her bottom lip and pointed at the cluster of lights again.
“I’ll take that as a no.” He growled to himself, low in his throat. “Still, you have gotten me this far. And I’d rather avoid using the tesseract if I can help it. Is there something specific you need to show me? Then can you take us somewhere a little more comfortable?”
She patted the pillion saddle behind her.
“Very well,” he sighed. “At the moment I have nowhere else to go. Let us take our time so I can cast a decent glamour over us. We won’t exactly blend in. Especially Sleipnir.”
He secured the tesseract casket to the back of the saddle and took notice of the bags attached there. One was a wineskin, heavy and distended; another carried the perfume of golden apples about it.
“You seem to have thought ahead, Lady Nameless. Points in your favor.” he said. “But this time, I’m driving.”
“We’ve already discussed what happens during the Convergence,” Erik Selvig said as he pointed to the sketch of Yggdrasil on his board. “Now let’s talk about the aftershocks.”
The lecture hall was dark behind the lamp that lit the board. Even the moonbeams slipping through the one window to his left could not compete with its brightness, and his audience was lost somewhere in the darkness behind its warm glow. The odor of the markers assaulted his nose as the pen squeaked across the white surface. Its spongy tip bounced as he drew dotted line from the circle marked “Midgard” and another bearing the name of “Svartalfheim”.
“During the actual event, the ‘veil between the worlds’ – so to speak – thins out and allows instantaneous travel between the realms. Ordinarily, that is not possible without special technology, such as the Bifrost or the tesseract. Most of these passageways are temporary, and they disappear once the realms pass out of alignment. However, with each Convergence, some of these passageways remain open, for reasons we have yet to uncover. Some people are sensitive to these pathways, even drawn to them. It is possible that one such person or persons may have used this phenomenon, in conjunction with the tesseract herself, to develop the Bifrost in Asgard. The existence of such pathways outside of the Convergence will have an impact on the Foster Theory, which we will discuss in the next class.
“Sometimes the Convergence has other, completely different effects on the Universe. We mentioned the tesseract a moment ago. Sometimes during this event she-“
Erik dropped the pen at the sight of three heads staring at him through the first-floor window: a strangely familiar young woman, a gray horse, and a face that he had never expected to see again.
“Damn it! Not you again!”
“Erik Selvig? You brought me to see him?” the face of Loki asked, looking down at the young woman. He seemed startled that Erik could see him, as if some sort of disguise had slipped away at an awkward moment. The lean figure leaned through the window and peered around the large chamber. “To whom are you speaking? And where are your trousers?”
“I think better without them. But never mind that! Thor told me you were dead,” Erik groaned. “Why couldn’t you stay that way?”
“And I thought you liked me,” Loki sniffed as he climbed in through the wide window. “Dead? No. I am a god, after all.” He looked about the room, peering into its darkness. “Are your students wearing invisibility cloaks, or is this some form of madness?”
Erik watched as Loki turned and lifted the woman over the sill and set her down. Erik suddenly forgot to scowl. There was nothing familiar about her face, but Erik had a fleeting sense of déjà-vu when he looked at her, all the same. The too-big armor that clinked and clanged as she walked wasn’t the strangest thing about it. There was something in her expression, something in the wideness and brightness of her eyes as she gazed about the room, trying to take it all in, which drew him in like an iron filing to a magnet.
“And who is she? Who have you shanghaied now?” Erik asked as she walked towards him. “Do I know you, miss?”
“Why do you assume I abducted her? She brought me here! Though how she knew about you is beyond me.” Loki asked. “As for who she is? I’m as much in the dark as you are. I do admit there is something of the familiar about her. So far, she has not spoken.”
Loki paused, ignoring him for a moment in favor of the sketch of Yggdrasil on the board. He followed the rendering with his finger, disrupting Erik’s carefully drawn lines. He picked up one of the markers, uncapped it, and held it out to the stranger.
“But perhaps she can write?”
She stared at the pen in Loki’s hand as if she had never seen such a thing before. Approaching with caution, as if it might bite her, she sniffed at it and made a face.
“I agree, my dear. It does reek. It’s just a quill, of sorts, little one. You write with it.” He waved it at her. “Come, write your name. I know it isn’t Einar.”
“Einar?” For the first time, Erik hoped that the two figures were just another hallucination. He often dreamed of the villain standing before him. He vaguely recalled seeing the small woman at some point in his foggy memories. But the horse was new, and he could smell it – a mixture of hay, manure, and sweat – from across the room. The horse, in a way, made it all too real. He kept the conversation going, just in case. “You really don’t know her? How did you hook up with her?”
“It’s a long story, Erik Selvig.”
“Everything’s a long story with you. Why are you here? Couldn’t drive me mad enough the first time?”
Loki replied with an amused frown. “You seemed happy enough with your work at the time. Knowledge, truth, all that. Like a child with a new toy.”
“Happy? It felt that way. But it also felt like I forgot everything else I was supposed to be doing! I wasn’t exactly in the driver’s seat at the time. I had a god in my head.”
“So did I!” Loki barked.
They both turned at the sound of a marker squeaking against the board.
The woman was not writing. Instead, she had drawn a cube, and she was now shading it with blue. The tip of her tongue peeked out of the side of her mouth as the image took shape. She had already tapped out a series of red dots next to it and a green ellipse below it. Erik felt the seeds of a headache in the back of his head as he watched her work. He noticed that Loki, too, could not seem to examine them without a squint of pain in his eyes.
“Perhaps she cannot write, either,” Loki sighed. He glanced back at the dark – and empty, Erik now realized – space beyond the lamp and then back at the board. “You should not know these things, Selvig. It is no wonder you feel mad.”
With a simple gesture, he erased the images from the board, including the woman’s drawings. She flared her nostrils and hurled the marker at Loki, who merely shrugged as it bounced off his chest and clattered onto the floor. She stomped back to the window, leaving the scraping sound of metal on metal in her wake, and stroked the horse’s nose.
“My work!” Erik yelped. “Look, if I have gone crazy, it’s your fault! I didn’t ask for it! You put it there!”
A loud neigh startled him out of his rant.
“Sleipnir?” Loki asked. “What is it?”
“Sleipnir?” Erik asked. “Don’t tell me that-“
“Peace,” Loki said, tilted his head as if listening for something. “People are coming. Did you summon someone, Selvig?”
“This thing probably did,” Erik said. Now even he could hear the drone of helicopter blades through the open window. He pointed at the cuff around his ankle. A tiny red light flashed like an angry eye from its edge. “They don’t like it when I leave the hospital. Fury keeps me on a short leash these days.”
“Hospital? Are you ill?”
“Don’t you listen? I went a little crackers after our last team-up, Loki. Even after my performance during the Convergence, they locked me up. Said it was for my own protection.”
“Hmph. Sounds familiar,” Loki grunted. “Any excuse to get the geniuses out of the way, eh?” Loki asked. He made his way back to the window, and Erik followed him.
Erik continued, “I’m usually low-priority, though. They don’t normally find me this quickly, but I am running out of lecture halls to hide in.” He pointed to a security camera high in the corner of the room. “Something bumped me up the list.”
“So I see. My lady, you’ve shown me what you had to show me. Now I think it’s time we were well away from here. If you please?”
She nodded. Erik watched as she guided Loki’s hand to Sleipnir’s bridle, then rested one of her own hands on the horse’s mane. Before either of the men could say anything else, she grasped Erik’s hand in her own, and the lecture hall disappeared from view.
Thor took his time on the long walk from Heimdall’s observatory to the throne room. His feet knew the way so well that he did not have to think about it. He wished he did not have to think about anything at all. His stony face concealed the churning heart in his chest. He missed Jane already.
“It would speak only from my heart.”
The words tugged at his brain as he strolled along the prismatic path and tasted the salt air of the waves rolling by on either side. In the distance, he could see the lights of a rebuilt Asgard twinkle in harmony with the emerging stars in the twilight sky. Who had spoken those words? Who had sat on the throne that day? He had thought it was his father. He had carried the warmth of those words with him, the rare and wonderful pride and love in them, through many arduous adventures on Midgard. He wondered now how real that warmth had been. Despite the pounding of his heart, he felt numb. In his absence, he had even missed Loki from time to time. Now, he did not know what to think.
The breeze stirred in his hair, and the small braids behind his ears tickled the skin on his neck. It reminded him of the harsh dust storm on Svartalfheim on that hard, hard day. He had held a dying Loki in his arms. Even with all the enmity between them, even with all those sharp edges honed by years of striving against each other and pushing each other away, that loss had pierced his heart. He had lost half his family in an eyeblink, first his mother, then his brother. It had felt so real, so final. He had watched the color of Loki’s face drain away with his life; Thor had heard his last words; Thor had felt his brother’s last exhalation against his cheek.
Or so he had thought.
He turned, once, to look back at the Bifrost, its fin-like crest gleaming in the darkening sky. He felt its pull, like a magnet tugging at his armor. Jane was only a Bifrost leap away. No, he thought, I can only escape duty for so long. Perhaps this is the Elder Gods’ punishment for shirking my responsibilities.
He made his way through the tall gate of the bridge, which Heimdall had already opened for him. He stopped for a moment and stared at the high doors. Heimdall’s tale of Loki’s disappearance through them sounded far too familiar. It reminded him of all those portals he had chased Malekith through, tumbling from realm to realm until –
He turned to the soft voice and saw two ladies approaching him. One had the highly dressed hair and flowing dress of Asgard’s highest nobility, and the other had the shorn hair, shot through with grey, of a thrall.
The noble nodded as she neared him. A small flame – the hallmark of Frigga’s teaching – blossomed from her hand and lit her way. Nearly as tall as Thor, she walked with such a practiced grace that her feet seemed to skim the ground, and the fabric of her pale cream cloak whispered as she moved. Her wide eyes were as green as the spring grass of Midgard, and her gold-spun hair floated high in a carefully ordered bundle of plaits and twists; her coif made her seem even taller than she was. Her skin was smooth and milk-white, the very bloom of Asgardian splendor. While they were growing up, Sigyn’s beauty had been one of the handful of things that he and Loki had agreed upon.
“My Prince,” she said, “I am thankful you are here. My father asked me to escort you the rest of the way. He is most impatient for your arrival. Perhaps you can make some sense of all this.”
“Iwaldi? The Regent Apparent-“
“Regent, now,” she said. “Nobody else knew what to do. The nobles are in confusion. The throne is empty, and my father will not yield the regency to anyone but you or Odin himself. Thank Valhalla you are here so quickly! You can tell us if this man is truly the All-Father, as he claims.” She turned to the thrall and said, “Let us go to the palace, Sefa.”
Thor fell into step beside Sigyn as they made their way to the palace. The air was so still here. The streets were too empty, even for the evening. Usually the taverns were doing a brisk trade, but their doors were shut and their windows were dark.
“Did we run out of mead while I was gone?” he asked with a watery laugh.
“Father has declared a curfew for the night,” she explained. “Until a King sits on the throne once more.”
He studied her face in the light of her magical flame. “The message I received was very confusing,” he said. “Are you certain that it was Loki?”
“I saw him with my own eyes just before he disappeared again. I had not seen him in quite some time, even before we all thought him dead. I had wanted to visit him when… when he was in the dungeon, but the guards always turned me away. The All-Father forbade visitors, even the high-ranking nobles. Yet I still know his face well.” She leaned her head toward him and whispered, “Despite Heimdall’s claim, he was not alone. Someone else held Sleipnir’s reins, a yellowcloak, and it sounds like the rider disappeared with him. What does it mean? Could he… could he have been abducted? Instead of just escaping?”
“Like everyone else, I thought he died on Svartalfheim,” Thor mused. “But I did not see his body again. When I returned after we had defeated Malekith, the All-Father – or whomever it was – told me that the body had already been recovered.” He looked away for a moment so she would not see his face. “I did not ask about any other arrangements. Perhaps I should have paid my respects. To make sure.”
He cursed himself silently; he should have known that Odin was giving up his Crown Prince too easily. Had he been so elated to rejoin Jane – so exultant that the All-Father was not going to lay the charge of treason down on him or his companions – that he had not bothered to sit down and think about why? He felt he would drown in should-haves. He longed again for Jane and her mind of science. She could sort this out in short order, he was certain.
“With magic, you can never be completely sure of anything,” Sigyn sighed. “There was no funeral, not like for your mother. It made me sad, then, to not say a proper farewell to him. We studied together for many years, you remember, with Queen Frigga. I never understood why there was no ceremony for him. Not until today.”
“The All-Father is always surrounded by advisors and guards,” Thor said. “Did none of them see something amiss at some point? Some change in him, some harshness, some-“
Sigyn shrugged. “Asgard focused on mourning its dead, healing its living, and rebuilding its homes. Many saw a shift in their roles, but with so much destruction, that was to be expected. They wanted a strong king, a sense of shelter and continuity, and that is what they got. Mostly he kept Refkell and one guard with him. I have little knowledge of kingcraft, but I did not hear many complaints about how things were going as repairs were underway. Bread was in the marketplace, and the transport skiffs ran on schedule. What might have happened when the construction was complete? Who can say? But now we have a young man claiming to be our old King. Normally we would just call him mad, but it is difficult to argue with the one holding mighty Gungnir in his hands.”
Thor merely nodded in reply, and they continued in silence until they approached the door to the throne room. The opening soared into the sky, tall enough for the tallest frost giant to pass through if he sought an audience with the All-Father. The ghost of a smile wafted across Thor’s face as he recalled his younger brother’s wide green eyes drinking in the grandeur of the hall every time they were forced to attend ceremonies there. When he and Loki were children, they had often whispered to each other that the door stretched all the way to Alfheim, and they had dared each other to climb to the roof. Thor missed the little raven-haired boy that had toddled after him while they played Bilgesnipes and Bandits. That was who he had seen in Loki’s eyes before they had closed for the last time; that was the one who had said, “I’m sorry” over and over, as if the phrase were the only thing tying him to the world of the living. Ever since then, he had imagined that little boy playing on the porch of Valhalla.
If I die, Loki had said as they laid out their plans for Svartalfheim, leave me behind. Finish the quest. Avenge her.
I thought you there with Mother, Thor thought. If you were alive, brother, why did you not tell me?
Sigyn extinguished the flame with a gentle flourish of her fingers. They passed through a vast forest of carved stone bound with gold, with a ceiling so high it disappeared into the growing darkness. The air was chilly, as it always was; Odin did not want anyone to grow too comfortable in his presence. Sharp voices ricocheted from the columns, the stairs and platforms resting between them, and the granite tiles that lined the floor. The massive throne on its high strong dais was a symbol to any pilgrim in the hall of the ruler of this realm and the marshal of so many others.
The throne itself was empty, and its horns hovered above the arguing crowd, the tips curling upwards like fists over a giant’s head. It was nighttime, and the intricate window that normally poured a halo of light upon the person seated there was dark. Iwaldi, Sigyn’s father and unmistakable with his golden regent’s chain hung about his shoulders, stood two steps below the seat itself. Another man, broad of shoulder and bearing a more than passing resemblance to Thor in his younger days, claimed space on the same stair with Gungnir clutched in his hands. A cluster of other nobles, soldiers, and guards spilled over the rest of the stairs and flowed into the chamber at the end of the hall like boiling water.
“And he took my horse!” shrieked the stranger. “Iwaldi, we grew up together in the House of Bor! You know me!”
Iwaldi pointed at the trio as they approached the throne. “Thor!” he called. “Come to me, my Prince. We have need of your judgement.”
Thor left the ladies behind and strode up the stairs with Mjolnir tight in his grasp. He watched Gungnir flash in the light of the brazier as the man brandished it. He was young, younger than Thor. His back was tall and straight, even without the aid of armor, and he had planted his feet upon the stairs as if he were a great oak that had been growing there for millenia. His blonde hair and beard were wild and unkempt, as if he had been dwelling in a cave without a looking-glass. His eyes – eyes! with no sign of Odin’s eyepatch – were sharper and bluer than Odin’s had ever been in Thor’s memory, and in them he saw no trace of madness… only a rage that was all too familiar. It was the same rage that Odin had poured out on Thor when he had banished him to Midgard after the disastrous raid on Jotunheim.
“You know me, my son!” the man exclaimed. “I am the All-Father! I am your father! Kept prisoner by a traitor since you last saw me. Where have you been? Why are you not King?”
Thor stopped two steps away. “My father sat on the throne when I left Asgard, and he released me without argument. What proof do you have of your claim? Besides your grip on Gungnir?”
Another man, ancient and worn, stepped forward from the throng that covered the floor.
“Regent Iwaldi,” he said, “if I may speak with the Prince and the claimant alone, I may be able to provide some assistance. I would confirm things with him that only the All-Father would know. I require privacy for this, naturally.”
“Refkell,” Iwaldi replied, “If you can clear this up, we would be most grateful.” He motioned to the other two men. “Follow Refkell to the antechamber.” He lowered his voice and added, “I would not ask the venerable one to ascend the stairs.”
Thor and the strange man followed the elderly Refkell into one of the chambers on the hall to the right of the great throne. Thor closed the door behind them.
Refkell leaned on his staff and stared at the stranger, drinking in every detail. He touched the man’s wrist for a moment, and when nothing happened, he released him. He hummed to himself for a few minutes. His eyelids drooped shut. Just when Thor thought the old man had nodded off, his eyes opened and pierced the stranger with a sharp expression.
“No illusions here, then. Humph. I toured Asgard with Odin this morning,” he said. “What was the last matter I discussed with him before we parted ways?”
The stranger balked. “I was not there! Loki ensured that in my Odinsleep I could not hear beyond the vault itself.”
Refkell looked at Thor. “I believe that this is not the man I advised this morning, then. The question is, if this man is who he claims to be, then who was the man I advised?” He fixed his gaze back upon the stranger. “I served under King Bor,” he said in a voice that sounded stronger than he looked. “I was with him for many centuries. I watched young Odin become a man, and I was there when he took the throne. That was a very long time ago. But you do have his face, even without an illusion. This is not impossible. I am privy to many secrets of the realm, entrusted to me by Bor. There are several artifacts that can return a man to his youth. Idunn’s apples have that quality, certainly, but they work in small increments. One would need to consume the entire orchard at a sitting to do that in a single afternoon. I do not think anyone but a mountain giant could accomplish that, and you do not have the look of a giant about you.” He coughed for a moment. When he recovered his breath, he continued. “Young sir, is there possibly something in the vault that would work in a similar fashion?”
The man grimaced and tapped the end of Gungnir on the stone floor and filled the chamber with its ringing. When the sound faded into silence, he said, “Heimdall believes me. With his vision and wisdom, you still do not recognize the All-Father?”
“Heimdall is wise,” Refkell replied, “but he is not infallible, and there are things even he cannot see. He could not see Loki’s companion, yet there are others who saw him clearly. Answer the question.”
“Even Thor does not know this, but if it will prove my claim, then I will tell you. The Casket of Ancient Winters. Loki kept it in close proximity to me whilst he kept me in Odinsleep. When I awoke today, I found I had shed my old age and regained my youth.”
“Refkell?” Thor asked, his eyes growing so wide that he thought they would fall out of his head.
Refkell chuckled. “Only a very, very few know of that special property. It sounds as if even Loki did not know of it, or he would have separated you from it. The Casket makes its holder grow ever younger. It works slowly, also, but I am certain that the tesseract’s presence only amplified its power.”
“Loki took the tesseract, as well as Sleipnir,” the fellow replied. “We must get them back.”
“If Sleipnir were here, he would know you, no matter what face you wore,” Refkell said, “I never argue with horses. At the same time, he seemed friendly enough with his rider this morning, and we all know that Sleipnir would never deny Loki. We all know why.” The old man sighed. “But, we must work with the evidence before us. You did have access to the vault without the Guardian’s complaint, and the guards never saw you enter it. Hmmm. Prince Thor, as far as I am concerned, this man is the All-Father, grown young again. My King, I would kneel, but I am afraid that this old man would never stand again. As it is, I will go out and render my verdict to them. Then I will go get some Refkellsleep of my own.”
“Venerable one,” Thor called after him. “What advice did you render this morning?”
“I told him to remarry, as we are fresh out of heirs.” He turned away from the door and swept them with a final gaze. “That advice still stands, by the way.”
Refkell mumbled to himself as he closed the door behind him, leaving the two men alone. For a moment, the only sound in the room was the crackling of the fire in the hearth and the murmur of the crowd outside in the throne room.
Thor curled his lip in thought. “If you are my father, then tell me this. How long was Frigga in labor with Loki?”
The man chuckled. “Very safe way to ask, my son, in case I truly did not know his secret. She did not bear him. I brought him back from Jotunheim when he was an infant after the battle with Laufey.”
“I would still like to know how that was hidden from all of Asgard, but that is a tale for another day,” Thor replied, closer to belief now. Even knowing what Asgardian magic could accomplish, he was still a bit wary. He set Mjolnir down on the floor between them. “One last test,” he said. “There is only one man besides myself that can lift Mjolnir. I trust its judgment.”
The man smiled and picked up Mjolnir with an effortless sweep of his hand. He hefted the handle for a moment before handing it back to the slack-jawed Asgardian prince.
Thor dropped to one knee. “Father! All-Father! My King!” he cried. “Forgive me for not knowing you.”
“Stand, my son. Wariness I can forgive,” Odin replied. “I taught it to you. Heimdall has his gaze, and you have yours. There is still much for you to answer for, but that can wait until all of Asgard recognizes the rightful King.”
“By our own laws, that is for the Regent to say,” Thor replied. “But I will give you my support.”
“And then we must find Loki and his accomplice,” Odin growled. “And there is no Frigga to plead for him this time.”
Sigyn and Sefa met Thor as he left the hall much later, after hours of debate, commands, and orders. As the sky began to lighten with the coming of the day, he could see the young lady’s pale beauty was now washed-out and bloodless, and there was a tinge of red in the whites of her eyes. They tried to speak of ordinary things as they walked down the causeway, of Sigyn’s betrothal to the noble Theoric, of the memorial to Frigga, of anything but Thor’s newest burden. At the high gate to the Bifrost, she stared hard at the great leather sack that he bore on his back. The clanks and clangs of the two sets of rune-inscribed shackles were the only noise besides their footsteps in the pre-dawn quiet.
“Where does the All-Father send you first?” Sigyn asked.
“Back to Midgard. Loki tried to conquer it once, and he has some contacts there. They did not capture all of the mortals that aided him before. And I have a friend or two that might be in peril of him. I have some companions there that might be able to locate him. Of all the worlds, it seemed the place to start.”
“I bid you a safe journey,” she said. “Please, if you can, let me know if you find him. Perhaps… perhaps I can help.” She pointed at the sack on his back. “And be as gentle as you can, for my sake. He was my friend, once.”
Thor bid her farewell and watched her walk away. She leaned wearily on the older Sefa’s arm. He made his way back across the bridge, still in no great hurry, and with an even heavier heart than before, heavier than the chains that he carried. Twice he had thought his brother dead. Twice he had been wrong, and twice his brother had not returned to him. At least, he had not returned willingly.
You betray me, and I will kill you.
Thor’s words echoed in his own ears. Loki had fulfilled his promise, even though Thor had promised little more than a chance at vengeance and the rest of his life in a cell. He had even seemed to die to save Thor’s life from the pounding fists of Kurse, even after Thor’s desperate plan to destroy the Aether had failed. Yet Loki had still found a way to betray him, a way that Thor had not even conceived of in his aggrieved state. He had captured Odin, held him in Odin-sleep, and taken his place as All-Father. He had gotten what he wanted all along, and Thor had simply walked away and let it happen. But in the space of a few hours, it had all unraveled, and Loki had once again disrupted the very fabric of Asgard.
Thor felt the weight of the uru shackles on his back as he settled them on his other shoulder. He hated them, but now he also loved them. They would buffer him from fulfilling that promise he had made when Loki was still a prisoner; at least, it would for a while. Thor had longed to see his brother alive again, and he had wanted to return to Midgard, but not like this.
When I see him again, Thor wondered, who will I see in his eyes? The wide-eyed child? Or the monster that ravaged Midgard?
He was so lost in thought that he reached the observatory long before he thought he should have. He hailed Heimdall, and he saw his own worried look mirrored in the watcher’s face.
“What troubles you, Heimdall? That he was hidden from you, all this time? Or that you could not see his companion?”
“Both. But there is something more,” Heimdall said. He curled his hands around the hilt of his sword and slipped it into the observatory’s control panel. “If that was Loki on the throne all this time… he could have executed us as traitors at any point. You, me, the Warriors Three, the Lady Sif. As King, there was no one to stay his hand. Ever since his escape, I have asked myself, why do I still have my head?”
“So you’ve shanghaied me again? Or are you trying to hire me? I did not get my Ph.D. in astrophysics to be your personal Doctor Strangelove. “
“Doctor who?” Loki asked without looking at Erik.
Sleipnir whinnied as Loki inspected the Tesseract casket and the saddlebags. He re-secured the bag of golden apples. He nodded in approval at the hunks of cheese and round of bread in the other. Whoever she was, the ersatz-Einar had thought ahead. At least, for a little bit. “We are a bit short on provisions for three. This was her idea, Selvig, not mine. In fact, this whole venture is all her, though I am grateful to be anywhere but Asgard.”
“Well, who is she, then?”
“I am still trying to figure that out. I also wonder why she thought we needed you. In the meantime, we have other needs. Water, for one.”
Loki looked up at their new surroundings. They had left the night of Midgard behind and arrived in the bright sunlight of a completely different place. Great cliffs towered in the distance, both ahead of and behind them. They had emerged on a rolling hill in a sunny meadow dotted with wildflowers; Loki had urged them into the shade of the edge of a small wood just down the hill. From there he could see the land falling down in a gentle cascade to a wide river below, with more hills and trees climbing out of it and running to another canyon wall on the other side. The water cut a crooked smile out of the landscape as it snaked out of a curve in the canyon to his left, peeped in and out of a view blocked by hillocks, and then curved away again in a haze to his right. He could hear the buzzing of bees and the twitter of birdsong along with the whisper of a breeze winding its way through the vibrant green of the trees that shaded them. He could even hear Sleipnir grazing in the soft grass a few yards away, and he watched the horse out of the corner of his eye to make sure he avoided the many buttercups scattered over the field. The last thing he needed was a sick horse, especially one of Sleipnir’s bulk.
He could perceive no villages, no fences, no trails, nor any sign of habitation at all, on what appeared to be rich, fertile, open land with plenty of water. Why no one had yet staked an obvious claim on the land was a mystery.
His reverie ended with the clank-clank of his rescuer removing the last bits of armor and dropping them on the ground. She stood there in the awkward under tunic and leggings, which bunched up on her so much that it made Loki uncomfortable to watch her tug and pull on it. After adjusting his own Odin-esque gear into something more Loki-like, he studied the tiny figure before him.
“Can you transfigure?” he asked her with a sharp edge of irritation in his voice. “I may be stuck with you, but I’m not going anywhere with you dressed like that.”
She stuck her tongue out at him, and then she squeezed her eyes shut in concentration. With a ripple of light – blue, Loki noted, instead of the green he had seen with his own magic – the folds of clothing reformed into a rather plain but serviceable pair of leggings, a loose tunic, and a pair of soft boots in the same cream color as the original outfit.
“Apparently, with great power does not come a great sense of style,” Loki groused. “With all this sun and your pale skin, you’ll want a hood with that.” With a wave of his hand, the tunic grew a hood and turned a lovely familiar shade of green with some gold trim around the sleeves.
The tiny woman looked at the result and growled – apparently, she could make some sort of noise – and with a stamp of her foot changed the colors to a very Thor-ish red and blue.
“Oh, no, no, no,” Loki said. “Not those colors.” He promptly changed them back to green and gold, with black leggings and soft, high boots this time. “There. Much better.”
She bared her teeth at him, but before either of them could move, Erik shrieked, “Oh, cut it out, you two! Just leave it at green, Miss, please. All these magic flashes are giving me a headache.”
She pulled the hood over her head and marched away down the hill in the direction of the river, staying in the margin of shade.
With an arched eyebrow, Loki looked Selvig up and down, eying the man’s rather knobby knees with a pained look. “While we’re on the subject-“
“I left my pants back at the lecture hall,” Erik replied. “As well as my medications.”
“Not to worry, my friend. You do not need your potions anymore. You are not mad,” Loki replied. “Be loyal to me, and you will never have to wear trousers again unless you wish it. However, so you won’t blind us…” With a wave of his hand, the scientist’s shirt melted and stretched until it grew into a flowing robe of the same shade of green that Loki had given their companion, who by now was quite a ways down the hill from them.
“Hmmm,” Selvig replied, looking down at his new ensemble. “Not bad, except for the colors.”
“They’ll grow on you,” Loki growled. He called after the woman, “I still need answers.” She did not stop. He trudged after her. “Come, Sleipnir,” he called, and the horse meandered along behind them at his own pace. Selvig strolled along after them, studiously avoiding the steed’s four rear legs as they thumped through a layer of pine needles and leaves from the previous autumn – if this world even had autumn in its seasonal repertoire.
“Speaking of Sleipnir,” Erik said. “Is it really true that you -“
“Oh, don’t tell me you’ve read that mythical propaganda. If that Snorri person were still alive, I would kill him. I wonder what Odin promised him to pen those lies. For some reason, Mother saw fit to include them in the stack of books she sent to me in the dungeon. You know, I was just a few centuries old when he wrote that. Still a child, by Asgardian reckoning.” He shook his head in wonder. “Honestly, what your people don’t know about animal husbandry would fill the Sea of Space! Asgard is a culture of horsecraft! We all took our turns in the stables while we were growing up, even in the royal family. I planned the breeding. I paired the sire and the dam. I assisted in the foaling… all those legs… it was a difficult birth, but worth it. They both survived, I’m proud to say. He’s the finest bit of horseflesh in the Nine Realms. Naturally, I did most of the work, and naturally Odin –ahem– appropriated him.” Loki allowed himself a crooked smile. “But now he’s mine again.”
“You’re enjoying tweaking the All-Father, aren’t you?”
The smile grew even more crooked. “It seems Odin planted a lot of stories through those silly eddas, so no one on Midgard would take me seriously. He did that, and other things. I consider the horse partial payment of the wergild he owes me.”
“Wergild? You mean blood money?” Erik frowned. “How did I know that?” He shook his head violently. “I can’t tell if I’m remembering stories from my childhood or the cosmic stuffing you filled my brain with, anymore.”
“It will settle out. Give it time,” Loki said. “Yes, blood money. Gold paid to fend off a vengeful family when one of its own was taken out in an untimely fashion. Or in my case, for myself, after being tossed off a bridge like so much garbage!” He shuddered for a moment, pushing away the memories of what had come after that. “It seems that revenge against Odin is a very slippery fish, indeed. He may have his throne back by now, or he will soon enough. But getting my horse back is just the beginning.”
He looked around at the eight-legged horse, the disheveled Midgardian scientist, and the nameless silent woman that was currently chasing a butterfly through the meadow. A deep sigh escaped him, and he willed himself to calm down. He did not have much, but he had started out with even fewer assets last time.
“But first I need to figure out a few things. Like where we are. And if we are safe here.” He gestured at the river below them. “I’ve trekked all over the continent of Asgard and a great deal of Vanaheim in my day,” Loki said. “I don’t recall seeing a canyon quite like this.”
“Reminds me of parts of Switzerland, actually,” Erik said. He pointed at the trees in whose shade they walked. “I recognize several species of trees.”
“So we may be in Midgard, yet,” Loki mused. “It’s certainly not Svartalfheim. Too sunny. Not Muspelheim. Too cold. And it is too warm for Jotunheim or Niffleheim.” He sniffed the air, and the freshness of it tickled his nose. “And I doubt it is Alfheim.”
“What makes you say that?” asked Erik.
“Not enough peppermint.”
“I’ll have to take your word for it,” Erik sighed. He squinted up at the bright, cloudless sky. “You know, that looks exactly like the sun back home. Sky is the same sort of blue, so Rayleigh scattering seems to be at work here. If we’re still here when the sun goes down, I could tell you if we’re still on Midgard by the stars. Since I seem to be stuck here with you two, I might as well try to get some work done. At least there’s no light pollution here.”
“Selvig, I must say that you are better company than some, at any rate,” Loki quipped. “You always were. Your skills of observation are sharp; you cannot be so very mad. I would add that we are in a deep valley. Depending on which way the sun moves, the daylight may fade early. I wish this one could talk to us-“
They had finally caught up to their companion, who was ignoring the men in favor of something furry in her hands, something Loki thought might be a young wild rabbit. He was about to bid her to put it down when he realized that this was no rabbit. It was a bee the size of a rabbit.
“Well, that leaves out Midgard,” Erik observed as he edged away from the fuzzy insect. “I’ve got nothing.”
The bee flew out of her hand and buzzed around them, bouncing through the air this way and that, as if it were dancing an odd sort of jig. Suddenly, an anguished roar rolled toward them from the direction of the river. Loki had a sudden memory of Banner’s monster.
He pursed his lips and said, “I think it would be wiser to go upstream.”
The bee buzzed even louder at the sound, and it danced like a dervish. The girl pulled on Loki’s sleeve and pointed to the river.
“If I recall my undergrad biology class correctly,” Erik said, “I think the bee is giving us directions.”
“Not to anywhere we want to go, I’m sure,” Loki replied. “We don’t know where we are, and we don’t know what’s down there. It could be anything, from a bilgesnipe to a-“
“Merely cautious. We aren’t exactly prepared for a skirmish.”
A mare appeared where the girl had stood, one with a beautiful chestnut sheen and a simple saddle where her clothes had been. She trotted over to Erik with a toss of her mane and a loud snort.
“Well, why not,” the Midgardian said as he climbed into the saddle. “I am a scientist, after all. And if I am crazy, I might as well have fun.”
“I advise against that sort of ploy,” Loki warned as Sleipnir pranced in the mare’s direction with a suggestive neigh. “Trust me.”
Sleipnir followed them, stopping only long enough for Loki to regain the saddle. Still reluctant to use the tesseract again, and not having anywhere else to go at the moment, he trailed them down the hill. “I take it back,” he shouted after them. “You are both mad!” He swore under his breath. “I believe that mortal is having fun tweaking me.”
He caught up with them at last at the top of the last hill overlooking a small slough just off the main track of the river. There, moored in the lea of a boulder and safe from the swift current, was a boat. It wasn’t a skiff that rode the air like the ones in Asgard; this one sailed in the water. Its single sail was furled high up on the mast, and the mid-deck, which was lower than the deck of the bow and the stern, was covered by a cloth as a makeshift tent.
“What is it?” Erik asked.
“It is a knarr, an older form of sailboat. It -“
“No, no, no, I know what a knarr is. Earth had them, too, at one time, just like we had longships. Don’t tell me my own culture.” He pointed at the large lump of cloth-covered stone sitting in front of the tent. “What is that?”
The bee flew ahead of them, down to the knarr, and buzzed around the stone, which suddenly raised an arm and allowed the bee to land on its hand. It danced about for him, and he looked up at the three of them on the hill. He roared at them, and the roar was a definite match for all the bellows that had drawn them here. Sleipnir pranced nervously at the sound.
“Whoa, son, whoa,” Loki said to the horse, giving him a comforting scratch between the ears. “That, my friend, is what I tried to warn you about. That is a rock troll. Rather small one, actually. A troll with a boat is not something you see every day.”
“Small?” Erik sputtered. “You call that small?”
“Hold,” Loki replied as he held up his hand for silence. It took him a moment, but he soon realized that the sounds were not incomprehensible howls. The troll was screaming for aid. On the boat, it dropped to its knees, as if to plead with them, and the boat rattled and splashed with his weight. Then another, more anguished, howl danced upon the wind, even though the troll’s lips did not move.
The chestnut mare whinnied and took off down the hill despite Selvig’s protests. Loki urged Sleipnir to follow her down to the narrow gangplank that connected the boat to the shore. He pulled his steed to a halt just shy of his companions. The girl was a girl again, with a trembling scientist huddling next to her. To his credit, the mortal had not run away shrieking. Loki cautiously dismounted as the troll crossed the gangplank to them, stepping carefully as he went, as the board could barely sustain his bulk.
“Follow my lead, Selvig, little one,” Loki admonished them as he tightened his grip on Sleipnir’s bridle. “Let us see what he is about. In our world, introductions can make or break us.”
Loki thought of him as “small”, though in truth the brute was as tall as all three of them put together. He was better dressed than most of his kind that Loki had met, with not a glint of armor or knife about him. Loki examined him in a single glance. A sleeveless tunic of crimson encased his granite hide, which glistened here and there with hints of mica and green copper where the tunic allowed it to show. It was not a simple trimmed hide, as most wild trolls wore. This was a highly detailed and lovingly knit shirt graced with raised cables and loops and made from a high-quality dyed wool. Long side-laced leggings of black hide hid his legs, and his great bare feet stuck out beneath them. His enormous toes sank into the soft mud of the shore, and he left deep scars in it as he walked toward them. This, in Loki’s estimation, was a troll of some sophistication.
“I am Magnus, son of Fargrim, lately of Alfheim,” he said in a deep grinding voice, as if smaller rocks tumbled and polished themselves in his throat in lieu of vocal chords. He turned his head this way and that, drinking them in, with a look of hope crossing the granite of his face. A streak of cinnabar above his left eye twitched as he spoke. “Are you the rulers of this realm? Or do you wear the livery of the king that rules here? We know not where we are, but we are in dire need.”
Loki inhaled deeply before answering. He was not just a wealthy troll, but articulate as well. “We are but travelers here as well, Magnus. I am Loki, formerly of… several realms. I am a king, to be sure, but we are…um… a nomadic people at present. You see my House before you. This is Erik Selvig, my court astronomer and chronicler.”
“Hey!” Erik barked, but Loki simply glared at him for a moment and kept going.
“And this is… this is… my bodyguard. She is-“
The moans from the boat washed over them again, this time with more strains of anguish in them, and all introductions were shattered in its wake.
Magnus covered his face with his iron-veined hands and howled with her. “My mate, Kolla, is with troll, and her time has come. The infants are… are stuck … I know not what to do.” He pulled an oversized pebble from his face, and Loki saw that it was actually a tear. The troll continued, “We have a companion, an elf, called Tickseed, who went to gather herbs to help Kolla along.” He pointed in the direction from which they had just ridden. “She is long overdue. She is… she is… her mind is not well. She may be lost, but I dare not leave Kolla. I fear she will die.”
The troll woman’s moans increased, whipped up to a wail, and amid the cries, Loki discerned a few words: “Frigga… Lady Frigga … please help… help me…”
She was praying.
Loki’s eyes fluttered shut as he listened to the groans and the thrashing of distress that flowed from the tent. He thought about the water. He mulled over the tiny amount of food in the saddlebags and the piles of crates on the boat that might contain more provisions. He considered their desperate lack of any sort of plan whatsoever. He rejected the cold shudder that threatened to dance across his spine with the thought of who might, even now, be hunting for them. He heard the supplication of pain coming from the tent once more, and he saw Frigga’s face as he had seen it last in the dungeons, with a tight smile and tear-rimmed eyes. It all blended and swirled together until he could stand it no longer. He opened his own eyes again and studied Magnus’ twisted face.
“She is of the old faith,” the troll said. “Can you help us?”
Loki looked at his two fellow travelers, both of whom – even the one who seemed to have magical power steaming out of her ears – looked helpless in the face of a laboring troll. Here, at least, was something definite that needed doing; here, at least, was something he knew how to handle.
“I will,” Loki said with a tinge of steel in his voice. He turned to the girl and handed her his reins. “You, take Sleipnir and search for their companion. Tickseed, was it?”
The troll nodded. “Red of hair and green of eyes,” he added. “Tickseed Sunflower, one of the Elves of the Vale. She was on foot, so perhaps she has not gone too far.”
“Magnus, one of your bees found us,” continued Loki. “Can one go with her, so that your friend will know the girl comes from you? She cannot speak.”
As Magnus crossed the gangplank once more and made his way back to the hive on the stern, Loki pointed back to the forest they had passed on the way down. He said to his silent cohort, “The fields are pretty open, and we did not see her on the way. But there is a stand of woods where she might have gotten lost over there. Stay with Sleipnir. He can always find me. Selvig, come with me.”
“Why me?” Erik groaned as he pointed at the strange waif, who was even now riding away from them. “Why not her?”
Loki poked him in the shoulder and herded him across the gangplank. “Because I think she can handle Sleipnir. And she’s not afraid of magical creatures, and it seems there are plenty here. Besides, aren’t you a scientist?”
“Damn it, Loki, I’m an astrophysicist, not a doctor!”
“But don’t they call you Doctor Selvig?”
“I’m not that kind of doctor! And neither are you! What do you think you’re doing?”
“Answering a prayer,” Loki replied.
He grasped the scientist by the wrist and pulled him across the deck and into the tent, which was filled with an enormous flat stone cot covered with a thin blanket. On it, with her granite skin streaked with obsidian and rich green olivene and glistening with sweat, writhed another troll. The blanket was torn in several places from the strength of her grip. She continued chanting her prayer through gritted craggy teeth as Loki knelt in the small space beside the bed.
“Kolla, Kolla,” he said gently, taking her clamped fist into his hands, “I am Loki, the son of Frigga.”
Relief spillt across the troll-woman’s face. Loki brushed a sweat-sodden lock of hair from her moss-pocked forehead. “She sent you,” she whispered through her clenched mouth. Pebbly tears rolled down her black-flecked cheeks, and her voice creaked, as if it were worn and frayed from her screams. “Mother Frigga sent you to me, didn’t she?”
“I can help,” he cooed. “The Lady Frigga watches over all those giving birth. She taught me her magic. And I know the All-Father’s charms for healing. Do not fear, sweet Kolla. All will be well.”
Loki rested a hand on Kolla’s swollen belly, which rumbled and groaned with the movement inside; it sounded like an avalanche were about to burst forth. He closed his eyes once more, calling on one of the charms he had just mentioned so that he could see within. “There are three little ones within you, Kolla,” he said, adding an extra charm of calm to his voice. “They are just a little tangled up. Fear not, for I have done this before.” He looked up at Erik and Magnus, who had just entered the tent and was twisting his hands in sympathy pain. “Selvig, Magnus, here is what we need to do.”
Later, Loki and Erik emerged onto the deck, their faces drawn out with bleary, vacant stares. They both took deep, cleansing breaths of the cool evening air. Loki, stripped down to his undertunic and trousers, felt rather rumpled in the aftermath of trollbirth. His other layers of leather and metal littered the interior of the tent, each removed as another child had been born. Erik’s sleeves were rolled up to his elbow, and his hair – slightly grayer now – stood up on end as Magnus bellowed again with great joy.
Erik brushed at a layer of dust on Loki’s shirt. Loki was so numb and tired that he did not even protest the touch. This was certainly not the way he had expected this rather busy day to end. If Refkell had predicted this before they had parted that day, he would have called it madness.
“What in the world is this all over you?” Erik asked.
Loki grunted and rolled his chin down to his chest. “Granite dust, I think. I hope.”
Erik laughed, and the sound was deep and hearty. “So, now we have three little Pebbles? Well, congratulations. That was something else. That was really something else, Loki.” He laughed again. “Troll babies. Who would’ve thought they’d be so damn cute? Wish I had some cigars.”
“I’d rather have mead, if there is any.” Loki looked down at the dust that covered his tunic and let out a sigh of exhaustion. “That was thirsty work, indeed. I could really use Stark’s drink right about now. I never did get it.” He sighed again, more deeply this time, as the feeling of life, new life, coming into the world through his hands soaked into him. He was tired, so tired, but for once a good sort of tired. Selvig was right; infant trolls were an irresistible sight, even to a god such as he was. “I rarely indulge, but in this case, make it a double.”
Magnus rushed out of the tent door and exclaimed, “Oh, my Lord Loki! Son of Frigga! Prince of Asgard! Forgive me for not knowing you. In Alfheim, we had heard you had perished during the Converging of Worlds. It delights me to see the reports were wrong and that you have a House of your own. Never have I known a king who cared so much for his people. My beloved Kolla and my little ones live because of you. My house has grown due to your generosity. Surely only the greatest of kings would deliver his people with his own hands.” The giant dropped to one knee and bowed his head low. Loki stumbled and nearly lost his footing as the boat rocked with the force of it. “If you will have me, I pledge my loyalty to you, King Loki, for you have given this poor troll what he needs.”
Truth danced on the edges of Loki’s perception. The troll’s speech had no stain of guile or mockery about it. The heartfelt and willing submission slammed Loki in the chest; the stone man may as well have punched him. The taste of someone kneeling to him in fear in Midgard had been sweet, but the flavor was nothing so rich as this. He rested his palms on the troll’s shoulders for a moment, then stepped back and savored the awe that permeated the deck.
“Rise, Magnus, son of Fargrim,” Loki said, injecting an extra bit of energy into what was left of his dignity so he could think of something to say with a ceremonial flavor. He shook a little, though from exhaustion or amazement, he could not say. One did not take the loyalty of a troll lightly.
“Your children are healthy and handsome,” he said. He waited a moment for another vigorous chorus of cries to abate. “And have strong lungs. Your wife is fierce and filled with faith. You have a stout and generous heart. You are a worthy troll, indeed! I will have you in my house.”
Magnus rose, slowly, with poise not often seen in one of his size, and grasped Loki’s hands between his own. He bowed his head at Erik. “And my thanks to you, Selvig of the House of Loki. I have mead, my lord, for both of you. It is the treasure of my family, and worthy, I hope, of a king’s table. My dear Kolla brews it herself from the hive we carry with us.”
Amid the cries and gurgles of the infants, Loki could hear the buzzing of the hive on the other side of the tent. The bees were settling down for the night.
“The mead is the treasure of my family, my lord,” Magnus continued. “As for the bees, we… ahem… liberated them from Alfheim.”
“Tell me the tale, then, Magnus.” Loki attempted to sit on one of the crates and missed, sliding down the side of it instead. He ended up in an exhausted pile of bones on the deck. Rearranging himself with as much dignity as he could summon, he craned his neck to look up at the troll and said, “I love a good story.”
“We were but a couple of poor trolls, scratching out a life in Alfheim where we could, wandering here and there as our legs could bear us.”
“Why were you not with your own people?”
“I made the mistake of learning how to read.”
“Ah, not a popular skill amongst trolls, I’ve heard.”
“Aye, m’Lord. But I would not give it up, not for all the treasure in Yggdrasil. Also, Kolla is of the old faith. You saw how she believes in Mother Frigga. Most of those beliefs have faded out among our people, and her prayers lonely ones. So we each had our reasons to seek a more nomadic life. The elves were not overly fond of us, either, but we lived in relative peace with them. We travelled through the Vale one day, near the lands of the unicorn herders, where we met our companion. Tickseed Sunflower had wandered away – as she is wont to do – from her people while she was gathering herbs for dying wool. She is… she has an illness of the mind, we think. She cannot use her own magic.”
“Tickseed. A rather unfortunate name. And an elf that cannot use magic?” Loki asked, rubbing the back of his aching neck. “I have never heard of such.”
“Oh, she tried once or twice for us, so we could see. It was horrible. She sneezed unendingly, and she swelled like a mossy pufferfish-“
“Allergies?” Erik interjected as he carefully settled himself on the deck a few paces away from Loki. “You mean, she’s allergic to her own magic?”
“If that is the word,” Magnus said. “We did not know that name of her condition. We only knew that she was lost, and ill, and she could barely remember her name. She talked in strange words. When we did find her people, they did not want her back. They did not understand her problem, either, and did nothing for her except give her an unlucky name. But we could not just leave her, as helpless as she was. Besides, she knew about simples and poultices, which are but herblore for elves, not magic. And fibercraft! She made this for me.” He pointed to his tunic. “She can weave and work the finest cloth you have seen! She has great skill, when her mind is working well. So we took her in with us as part of our House. Soon after, still in the Vale, we came upon the great orchards, and the many hives of bees. Upon a cold rock, the keepers had left a princess out of the hive to die.” He paused for a moment, wiping a pebbly tear from the corner of his eye. “She was the runt, you see, and they did not want to waste royal jelly on her. They thought she would die anyway. But she had already mated and was heavy with eggs. She turned out to be a very special queen, indeed. And her children create the best honey in all the Nine Realms. She shared it with us, in return for our protection. Our wealth grew. We were rich travellers, no longer just homeless wanderers. We acquired the boat, among other things.”
He cleared his throat for a long moment, as if debating whether to continue. He ploughed on. “Unfortunately, word of the mead spread a little too well, if you take my meaning. The original keepers demanded the return of the hive and the Queen. Naturally, we – and the Queen – disagreed and decided to take our business… elsewhere. We were fleeing a group of them when we happened upon a portal between the worlds. We passed through it a few days ago. ‘Twas in the middle of the river, so our hunters could not find it, nor could they follow. We were safe, here in this new place, but we were far from help when Kolla’s time came.”
“And this is the reason you are pursued? Because their trash turned out to be treasure after all?”
“Yes, my liege.”
Loki’s ears prickled with heat as he turned the story over in his mind. Small pains lanced the back of his eyes as Magnus talked about the Queen and the rock upon which she had nearly died. It brought to mind Odin’s words about finding a similar tiny creature on a similar rock in another realm, another time. He stuffed the memory back into the darker corners of his mind, but at the same time he reminded himself that it was not just Odin that owed him wergild. Laufey had paid, yes, paid with his life, but it had been over too quickly to settle the bill. Loki felt he would never be truly satisfied on that account, but tweaking someone else’s similar ploy might lower the debt a bit. Just a bit.
He drew himself up and arranged his face in as noble a fashion as he could muster from his seat upon the deck. “Well, as long as we’re clear. I can respect that, as long as you don’t liberate anything of mine. Not that there’s much to liberate at the moment. The hive is welcome, then, in our little realm, as are you and your family. The bees should have blossoms aplenty soon enough. We have an opening for a beekeeper, as it so happens. Are you up for the job?”
“Yes, my lord!” the giant shouted with relief. “I would be pleased to do so. I shall be Magnus of… of… what do you call your people, my king?”
“We’re still working on that. For now, you are of the House of Loki.”
Magnus chuckled as he said, “Very well. And a great House it is. We shall be small, but we shall be agile.” He nodded and disappeared behind the tent for a moment. When he reappeared, he handed each of them a heavily carved drinking horn overflowing with sweet-scented drink.
“I have spoken with the Queen,” said Magnus. “The bee you sent with the girl has returned. I am happy to say, Tickseed has been found. They are safe, and they should be back soon.”
“The Queen said that?” Erik asked. “The bees… talk?”
“After a fashion,” Magnus replied gently, as if explaining to a child. “They are good, strong Alfheim bees. They wax rather poetic at times, so one must listen carefully. Their language is more flowery than the bees of Nidavellir, and their accent is thicker that of the bees of Vanaheim.”
“Ah,” replied Erik. “I see.”
The troll bowed slightly before ducking back into the tent, leaving the two men alone on the deck. They stared at each other for a moment, without drinking, not knowing what to say without the mitigating presence of either their silent companion or the rock trolls.
“To troll babies,” Erik said, raising the horn in a toast.
Loki nodded wearily without words and tapped the rim of Erik’s outstretched horn with his own. He took a silent sip of his own mead.
“I wonder where what’s-her-name is right now, even if she is on her way,” Erik said at last, breaking the tense quiet between them. “I thought she might have come back by sunset, elf or no elf.”
“We cannot keep calling her ‘what’s-her-name’,” Loki replied before taking a sip of his own. “She was ‘Einar’ when I met her, but I’m not about to call her that.”
“What is the story, anyway?” Erik asked. “How did you two hook up? And where were you when everyone thought you were dead?”
“I just delivered three infant trolls, Selvig,” Loki said before gulping down another mouthful to wash down that particular memory. “Later.”
“I think I have a right to know, seeing as you spent so much time in my head. Honestly, I was relieved when I heard-“
“I’m feeling a bit out of my head at the moment,” Loki observed as he noticed the new gleam in the Midgardian’s eyes. He peered into the horn and frowned. “I think this would put hairs on Thor’s chest. Are you certain mortals should be drinking this?”
“Hey, I can drink anything you can, Mischief Man. I had a few rounds with your brother the first time he came to Earth. Boilermakers. The man can hold his booze. Better than you can.”
Loki grunted and took another pull of the drink. “That much is true. I don’t indulge often. Magic and mead can be… an explosive combination.”
“Oh, right. Gotta think clearly so you can go ’round possessing people.” Erik chugged down half the horn and belched so loud that his lips rippled.
“Oh, do shut up about that, Selvig. If I hadn’t ‘been in your head’, as you so eloquently put it, you wouldn’t be here now.”
“I don’t want to be here now.”
“Silly mortal, you know what I mean,” Loki said. He surrendered his elegant sipping and imbibed a deep draught before he continued. He could feel the philosophy rising in his blood, along with the sudden warmth spreading across his chest. “Here. Alive. All that work you said you did with the … what did you call them?” Loki rubbed his temple with his free hand. “Oh, it hurts to think now. Spikes. How did you even know about the convergence? The aether? All that… stuff. Where do you think the knowledge came from? You didn’t read about that in any of your puny halls of learning.”
“You mean… you mean to tell me… that we saved the universe… because you rented space in my head for a while… you mean that I knew what you knew. And I made the things… because… because of you.”
“Yes. It’s… it’s… what you said.” Loki’s words blurred into one another. “And—and you didn’t seem to mind so much at the time. Tess-tesseract showed you… stuff… too… your little mortal mind… just needed time… time to sort it all out.” He hiccupped. “Nice to know my little venture on Midgard was useful, after all. Not that anyone cares about that part. No, no, they’re happier thinking it’s all my fault. I’m a convenient scapegoat. Earthquake? Blame it on Loki. Famine? Sure, that’s me. They probably blame me for Malekith’s first invasion, too. And I wasn’t even born yet! They’ll likely blame me for Ragnarok, too, whenever it comes.”
“Pbbbbbbbbt. You fried my brain. I ran through Stonehenge.”
“Naked. On television.”
“Isn’t nudity required for that sort of thing?” Loki snorted and waved his hand in a dismissive gesture. “Oh, Selvig, my friend, that is nothing, nothing. You should see Volstagg after his third keg of ale sometime.” Loki shook his head violently, then stopped when the world started to spin. “On second thought, don’t. Some things cannot be unseen.” He tapped his chest with the side of his fist and belched, and the sound echoed across the water. “But you got better.”
“I suppose,” Erik furrowed his brow for a moment. “Say, whatever happened with whats-her-name… Sig…Sigga…”
“Sigyn?” Loki hiccupped. “Please don’t tell me you know about that, too. That was…” He drifted off for a moment and began counting on his fingers. He shook his head and started again. After the third try he waved his hand in exasperation and took another drink. “That was a long, long, long time ago.”
“Mostly I remember facts. Book-y things. Don’t unnerstand most of it. But most of the personal stuff is kinda… fuzzy. Like, I didn’t really know ’bout the horse thing, not for sure. But then again, everything’s kinda fuzzy right now. Old girlfriend?”
“No, not if I unner-understand what you mean by ‘firlgrend’. She did kiss me, once, though. Hunh. A pretty girl kissed me. That was… that was nice. We shtudied magic together, you know. Frigga—Frigga taught us both for a while.” At that, he downed the rest of the mead, with some of it spilling down his chin. He set the empty horn across his lap and sobbed. “Oh… Mother…”
Erik reached out and patted his shoulder after missing it three times. “Hey. Hey, man. I heard about your mother. Thor told me. Sorry, so, so sorry, big guy.” He kept patting Loki’s shoulder. “Bad way to go. Tough break.”
“I didn’t even get to see her funeral ship,” Loki cried. The horn rolled out of his lap and onto the deck as he buried his face in his hands and moaned. “They didn’t even tell me until it was all – hic – over. And a guard – hic – told me. A guard!”
Erik felt the air around Loki’s back for a moment and finally landed his hand on the other shoulder and gave him a man-hug that would have put a drunken Volstagg to shame. “My mother died of a heart attack a few years ago. Worst phone call of my life.” He pounded his fist in the general direction of his chest. “Gets a man right here, doesn’t it? Here, Loki, let’s have one more round.”
Somehow, Erik managed to stumble to the barrel and refill the horns without getting stung by the bees. He lost half the mead on his way back. He pressed the horn into Loki’s nearly limp hand.
“A toast!” Erik roared as he raised his own drink to the sky. “To Mothers. To troll babies. And to old flames.”
“To Frigga,” Loki murmured before he gulped another mouthful of the golden liquid. “The best mother in Asgard. And to your mother, Erik Selvig. What was her name?”
“To Ellisif, mother of my dear friend Selvig.” Loki swigged again. He gave Erik a thoughtful look as he swallowed the honey-wine and enjoyed the fresh wave of fog in his brain. “A goodly name. A queenly name. You know, our little friend that brought us here needs a name. I refuse to call her ‘Einar’. Do you mind-“
“Why is her name so important?”
“Names. Powerrrrrrrful magic in a name. You’ll see, when our friends down below,” he said as he pointed to the glowing light spilling from the tent, “name their little ones. Besides, I am of Asgard. Or, I used t’be. We name our houses. We name our weapons. We name the damn silverware. She may not be pretty, but the lady still deserves a name. Everybody should have a name. Your mother’s name is nice.”
“What if she doesn’t like it?”
“She’ll like it. It’s a damn sight better than ‘what’s-her-name’. Ellisif it is, then. Now, Odin has his Sif, and I have mine. Sort of. I should tell her the good news. Whenever she gets back. And as soon as I am sober enough to stand. Mebbe then we’ll get some answers from her.”
“Thish place needs a name, too,” Erik added.
“Figure that out tomorrow. I’m all named out.” Loki crawled to the gunwale and leaned dangerously far over the edge of the boat and flung remainder of the liquid out onto the water. “Just a libation for the dead. Not to worry.” He pulled himself back up and wiped his mouth upon his wrist. He crawled back to the crate and took a moment to let the boat stop spinning. “Didn’t get to do that then, either.”
He was answered by a sudden weight on his shoulder and a shuddering snore. Loki rolled his head over in that direction and found Selvig’s head resting there.
Normally he would not have tolerated such boldness. But he was too tired to move, and the mortal had just helped him with what even Loki had to admit was an arduous and more than slightly disturbing task. He had no wish to wake him. Loki rolled his eyes up and looked at the stars winking down at them, and he drew a little comfort from the sight. They were gods, after all, at least Frigga and her son, Loki. In the warm haze of mead, he realized that Odin was wrong, had to be wrong. Someone still believed in them, even if it was only a rock troll.
He grunted softly and whispered to the stars, “Good night, Mother. I hope I made you proud.”
He felt a soft, warm breeze caress his cheek as the sound of joyful newborns burbled across the deck. The buzzing of the bees, ever fainter in the deepening darkness, sang to him like one of Frigga’s lullabies. Or perhaps it was Kolla singing to her newborns; he could no longer tell the difference. It wasn’t long before Loki, too, slipped into a soft, deep sleep, with his other cheek resting against the top of Erik’s shock of hair.
It was the best sleep he had had in centuries.
“Dragons are indeed of temperament sweet!
– From the last poem of Unnarr the Unlucky, as recorded in “An Exploration of Troll Poetry”, edited by Magnus Fargrimsson
The swaying of the deck nudged Loki from his sleep. It took him a moment to realize that he was no longer sprawled next to the crates but cradled in a hammock beneath a sky spread thick with stars. Even in Asgard he had never seen so many; it was as if Ymir’s saltcellar had spilled across the heavens, flinging glimmers of white – and the occasional spot of red or orange – over every visible patch of firmament above the canyon.
He was amazed to find that his mind was as clear as that sky now, even though the events of the night before were lost in a honey-wine haze. He craned his neck above the folds of the hammock and peered around the deck. Across the way, Selvig was similarly ensconced as a rounded lump in a sling of striped canvas. Loki smiled at the thought of Magnus scooping the mortal up in his arms and depositing him in the hammock like a child in a cradle.
In between the mortal’s snores, he could hear the steady, heavy breath of something below him. Stretched across the deck was, of all things, a tiger, with its striped back to him. He could not remember bringing a tiger aboard – surely, they had not drunk that much mead, that was more Thor’s style – when he spied the tunic and boots piled up not far from its whiskered head. He noted the lack of any other resting place on the deck.
“Resourceful,” he muttered.
He had not spoken above a whisper, but it had been enough to twitch the girl’s tiger-ears. Instead of waking, though, her body quivered in an enormous hiccup and shook off the befurred form. She grew quiet again, and curled up into a shivering, bare-skinned ball. Loki felt a flutter of consternation; how could a being have such powers but not be able to maintain her shape properly? The sight before him was no more alluring to him than that of a hairless cat, and he no desire to continue gazing upon it.
“Why do I always get the broken ones?” he asked no one in particular.
He plucked at the blanket that someone – probably Magnus – had draped over him. With as few creaks of the ropes and deck planks as he could manage, Loki slipped out of the hammock and tiptoed the few steps to her sleeping form. Something caught his eye as he draped the cover over her. He knelt by her back and flicked a small flame into being on the tips of his fingers to get a closer look.
A white scar snaked its way across her back, hopping back and forth over her spine like a twisted vine that extended some tendrils up over her shoulder blades and others down into the small hollow between her hips. As he moved his small light, the blemish writhed in and out of the shadows like a ferocious tattoo brought to life, now a tree, now a serpent, now a tongue of lightning flicking white heat across her skin. The mark was old, and the skin around it was tight, as if Muspelheim had caressed her and left claw-marks in its wake.
He rifled through his memory of the last year, of everything that the man he had called Einar had done. He could recall no adventure that would have resulted in such a wound. In fact, that stretch of time had been rather tame from the perspective of a bodyguard. The hard ridges of skin were too old to be a consequence of her rescue of Magnus’ wayward elf. She had had some trauma, then, before she had come to Asgard. She had fought something, or suffered something, and survived it. She had never complained of pain, not even a wince to betray the map pricked out in her flesh. Something in his perception jangled in alarm, as if he should already know the cause. Curiosity had flickered in his mind since they had escaped Odin; now it burned within him. There was far more to this strange child than shapeshifting.
Loki extinguished his light by curling his lit fingers into a fist. Instead of merely draping her with the blanket, he wrapped her up in it. Moving slowly, carefully, he stood up with the little bundle and settled her into his abandoned berth. He had no sleep left in him, anyway.
The sky was a shade less dark now, and he could feel the sun – whosever sun it was – sliding its way towards dawn. Sleipnir whickered from somewhere near the stern. Loki took his time making his way back to the horse. He enjoyed the smooth feel of the teak on the soles of his bare feet, and he timed his steps with the ever-present groans and squeaks found on all sailing vessels, no matter the realm. He stopped short of the back of the tents. A ghostly figure was already there, stroking the steed’s nose with gnarled and spotted hands and muttering to herself in some ancient tongue. Her hair, more iron-gray than the red Magnus had claimed, floated about her head in all directions. She hunched towards the horse like a gnarled knob on a time-worn oak. Loki crept closer to see the slightly wilted points upon her ears and the lines worn deep into her face, looking more like a figure carved from wood than from flesh.
“Tickseed?” he called softly.
The elf ignored him, still muttering to herself, though he could catch a word here and there of some antique ballad. She was so pale that, had she not been so wrinkled and bent, he would have sworn she was a dark elf. This, then, was the trolls’ companion, the weaver that could not use her own magic. Sleipnir did not shy from her but allowed her to continue stroking his velvety nose. He regarded Loki over her shoulder with a knowing warmth in his eyes. His back was free of saddle, and he had all the appearance of having had a good rubdown and a carrot or two after the adventures of the day before. The girl had taken much care of the horse before resting herself; no wonder she had not stirred when he had moved her to the hammock.
Loki stole back, quiet as a god can be, to find Magnus waiting for him in front of the makeshift tent. They greeted each other softly and watched the growing light with a comfortable silence between them. He could still hear Tickseed’s song and Erik’s snoring, and he could almost smell the morning as the moon and the sun caught a fleeting glimpse of each other from either end of the canyon.
One of the infants whimpered, which stirred the other two to outdo him with louder and louder cries. Kolla stirred within, and the sounds of the boat switched to a new song as the day began.
“My Lord,” Magnus said, “When we are all awake, we shall have a naming for my sons.” The troll pursed his lips and then spoke again, a note of shyness creeping into his deep rolling voice. “I would be most honored if you and your companions would be part of it. And then, after, we can travel down the river, and resume our search for a home, together.”
Loki inhaled the crisp dawn air and enjoyed the touch of a fresh breeze against his cheek. All was peaceful here. No Odin, no Chitauri, no threatening Other lingered over the horizon. No Thor, either, but he was unsure if he relished the thought or pitied it. There was nothing here but the river and the grass, the rocks and the sky, and a handful of the most harmless creatures he had ever encountered (except, perhaps, the bees). He still needed time and space to think and to plan, and this little gem of a land promised him a great deal of both.
“We will search together, Magnus, son of Fargrim. We have much to discuss, you and I.”
The rest of the company soon stirred to life. A hung-over mortal toddled over the gangplank towards the privacy of the trees. An eight-legged horse soon followed him for a morning run upon the grass. A remarkably recovered Kolla, shorter in stature and broader of shoulder than her husband, emerged from the tent with a squalling pebble on each hip and one in a sling in front of her. Her skin was a lovely midnight charcoal color stippled with white and rose quartz and veins of copper. He was certain she was beautiful to Magnus’ eyes, but even so, she was pleasant to look upon. Loki had forgotten just how resilient rock trolls were. She was walking scant hours after a difficult delivery. She would probably be hauling lumber before sundown, at this rate.
A mumbling elf with a drop spindle in her hand perched on one of the many crates and spun thread from a pile of combed wool. A blanket-wrapped lady ducked into the tent, clothes in hand, and resurfaced, dressed a twinkling later. Loki pointed at her with a twist in his lips. The hood of her tunic hung down in front of her. She jumped in surprise and plunged into the tent once more to right it. She still showed no signs that the marks on her back pained her. If he had not seen it, Loki would never have guessed it was there.
After much abstract busy-ness and turning about in drowsy circles, the small tribe made its way to the green hill that overlooked the boat and the inlet in which it rested. Sleipnir waited behind Loki and nibbled thoughtfully on some grass. Erik and the girl stood with Loki between them. Tickseed hovered on the other side of the girl, who held the elderly elf’s hand in her own to keep her steady. One of the bees buzzed about them and landed on the girl’s shoulder. She absently scratched its back with her free hand.
“What do I do?” Erik whispered to Loki. “I’ve never been to a troll party before.”
“They are less formal than the ones in Asgard,” Loki whispered back. “Just listen and nod.”
They fell silent as Kolla cleared her throat. It sounded like a tumbler polishing a diamond.
“Beloved Frigga,” she called out to the sky, “I give you thanks for sending your son, Loki, to us in our hour of need. Thanks to him and his gallant companions, our sons live, and the House of Magnus, son of Fargrim, will grow. I, Kolla, Daughter of Farbjorn, ask you to bless my sons as Magnus names them.”
“I’ve never been called gallant before,” Erik whispered.
“Peace,” answered Loki.
Ignoring them, Kolla handed the child on her left hip to Magnus. The troll lifted him up for all to see, a tiny fellow in his father’s massive hands. Loki had only seen them as wailing lumps of rock the night before, but in full daylight, he was able to get a good look. This one was a tawny brown rather than the gray he had expected, and he was freckled with mica that sparkled with flashes of gold and garnet in the morning sun.
“Let the realms know, a troll walks among them, a troll that we name Farbjorn, son of Magnus, son of Fargrim. Farbjorn, the traveling bear, I call you, in honor of the father of Kolla.”
Loki watched Magnus hold his son close. Fatherly pride beamed from the troll, and for a moment Loki thought the big rock would weep. Finally, he held the child out to Loki and bowed.
“My King? Would you do me the honor?”
Loki nodded and took the child into his arms. Much of the future danced on the edge of this moment; he would have these little ones know that he had always been there with them. He would dwell in their earliest memories. He was not surprised that the child was dense and heavy for his size. He was a rock, after all. Still, he was not too heavy for a god to hold. In all seriousness, Loki turned the child to look him in the eyes and said, “Farbjorn, I name you.”
Magnus clapped his hands with a joy that echoed over the valley as Loki handed the child off to Erik, who nearly collapsed under his new burden.
“Put your legs into it, man,” Loki whispered to the mortal as he staggered beneath Farbjorn’s bulk. The child no longer seemed so tiny.
Magnus had another child in hand by now. This one was brown as a beaver, with copper and terra cotta streaks from the top of his head to the bottoms of wiggling toes. A star-shaped birthmark of rose quartz shone on his left arm.
“Let the realms know, a troll walks among them, a troll that we name Faraldr, son of Magnus, son of Fargrim. Faraldr, the traveling ruler, I call you, in honor of the king who travels with us.”
He once again handed the child to Loki. He had to blink back a bit of morning mist in his eye at that last statement, and he waited a heartbeat before he continued his part. “Faraldr, I name you.”
He skipped Erik this time, who was still trembling under Farbjorn’s wriggling. Loki turned to the girl, who quickly reformed herself as a grinning Einar and even managed to reshape her tunic at the same time to fit. She settled Faraldr on one hip, then with a sweep of an Asgardian-length arm relieved Erik of his burden. The poor fellow fell to his knees after that, then he finally plopped down on the dew-moist grass. Loki shrugged it off and let him be. Mortals.
Magnus held up the last child with just as much adoration as he had the first. Unlike the other two, he was a charcoal gray like his mother, shot through with veins of copper that glimmered in the growing light of the day. He had a streak of white quartz mottled with garnet just above his left eye and a mole of cinnabar on his right cheek.
“Let the realms know, a troll walks among them, a troll that we name Fargrim, son of Magnus, son of Fargrim. Fargrim, the traveling mask, I call you, in honor of my father.”
Loki took the child, who burbled with delight. He wrapped his fingers, which had already captured the warmth of the day, around one of Loki’s own and would not let it go. They were all astonishingly mobile for newborns, but trolls had to mature quickly. Otherwise, life for them would be even shorter and more brutal than it already was.
“Fargrim, I name you,” he said.
The rest of them closed in around him in a circle. Fargrim, Faraldr, and Farbjorn reminded him of another trio that he had once known. But this little clutch would serve him much better as friends than the last ones had. He would make sure of it.
“The Pebbles Three!” Loki exclaimed.
Magnus roared with delight. “The Pebbles Three they shall be, m’Lord,” he said as he gathered his little ones back into his arms. Prying Fargrim’s hand from Loki’s fingers took some work, for as they loosed the one tiny hand, the other took hold of a lock of raven hair and held fast. After much tickling and coaxing, Kolla pulled away her little “Grimmie”. His arms felt a bit empty afterwards, but he told himself that it was just relief that the weight was gone.
“And there is one other,” Loki said as he helped Erik to stand once more. He reached out for the girl’s hand – for girl she was again – and pulled her to him. “Someone else is in need of a name.”
Her eyes widened in astonishment at him, but she did not protest. She clasped her hands in front of her with a tilt of her head, which he took as a signal to continue.
“Let the realms know, a … a… ” He was not sure what to call her, and naming was a serious business. Gods and kings had the privilege of defining things, so he made do. “Let the realms know that a very powerful person walks among them, a person that we name Ellisif, of the House of Loki. Ellisif, I call you, in honor of the mother of Erik Selvig.”
“Ellisif,” Kolla repeated as she pulled the girl into a crushing embrace. “Oh, it’s lovely! Ellisif we shall call you, then.”
Ellisif pointed to herself, still with a questioning look in her eyes, as if she still expected people to call her by the name she had worn all this time.
“You do like it, yes?” Loki asked as the group meandered back in the direction of the boat. “‘Einar’ was just a name for one of your many faces. This one can be your name, your name for your true self.”
She nodded so vigorously that he thought her head would pop off.
“Can you say it? Can you say your name?”
She shook her head with a wistful smile as she held up her hand between them, palm and her first three fingers pointed down to the ground. The gesture resembled the rune Ehwaz, the first letter of her new name. She skipped away, chasing the bee. She pointed to herself and then made the Ehwaz gesture again. Perhaps she was singing it to herself as she zigzagged down the hill.
Sleipnir walked by his side, and they lagged behind the others on the way back. He could hear Magnus asking Erik, with a meekness that did not match his bulk, if he had any books with him.
“I am partial to poetry,” the troll explained, “especially the works of Unnarr the Unlucky. I have memorized them all. They are in the oral tradition, as he never had the chance to write them down.”
“He was called Unlucky for a reason.”
They continued in that vein, with Erik encouraging the fellow to write his own book on Unnarr. The question reminded Loki that he had some planning of his own to do. Loki reviewed his assets and caught himself counting them on his fingers: a mortal scholar, quite learned but with a only a few years left in him; Ellisif, powerful yet naive and in need of guidance; an elderly elf that could weave wonders out of nothing but needed watching in case she wandered off; a husky and well-educated rock troll, very handy in any situation; a new mother that could brew mead so powerful that it could blast the boots off a god; three troll infants with a high adorability factor there that could prove useful, somehow; a hive of sentient bees; and Sleipnir, who was in a category all his own. Having the swiftest horse in the universe could never hurt, not to mention that having custody of him irritated all the right people. And, lest he forget it, he had access to a rather nice sailing vessel. He looked forward to their journey. He had been away from the water for far too long over the past few years.
They boarded the boat and sat down to a breakfast of bread, cheese, and honey. Loki supplemented the meal with the contents of Ellisif’s saddlebags. It would not last beyond the next day, at any rate, and Kolla was grateful for the extra victuals. They discussed what would happen next, and he found the trolls looking to him for guidance. By the end of the meal, they had decided to continue with Magnus’ original plan of exploring the river, which they – being in a naming mood – named the Friggavatn, much to Kolla’s delight.
They clambered over the deck for an hour, securing the hive and the horse and getting the whole of it shipshape and “in Bristol fashion”, as Erik termed it. Loki reviewed what little luggage he had. He had almost forgotten the tesseract, wrapped up in a saddle blanket and stowed with Sleipnir’s tack until he could find a more secure location. As long as he had Ellisif, he would not have to use it, thus avoiding attracting unwanted attention from certain quarters. But the cube was not completely useless. If he had it, then Odin did not. Odin still had the Bifrost, but he would have to track him first, and Loki had woven a bit of magic into his everyday glamour that had concealed him from Heimdall’s gaze for quite some time.
The only other treasure he had was the bag of golden apples, precious and magical and reserved for… a wet crunching sound disrupted the stream of his thoughts, and he turned to the source of the sound.
“Ugh,” Erik grunted between bites. He scratched at the scraggly roots of a salt-colored beard on his chin. “I may need another nap. I feel like death warmed over. Twice.”
Loki paused, mid-breath, and fluttered his eyes until they shut tight. He pinched the bridge of his nose and choked down a shriek. Normally he would have reminded the man of his place, but now Loki simply felt a mild irritation as he mentally revised his list of assets.
“Oh, I would not worry about that,” he said once he had reined in his agitation. Loki pointed at the fruit. “Not for another century or two, at least, if you manage to keep your head about you.”
Erik looked down at the apple and licked the corner of his mouth. His lips worked up and down like a puzzled fish while he worked out exactly what Loki meant. “You mean-“
“Yes, Erik, you have just nibbled your way into a longer life. Don’t get the idea that you are immortal, though,” Loki said. Despite the after-effects of mead, the man had dropped a dozen years (by mortal reckoning) since breakfast; gold suddenly outshone the silver in his hair in the bright morning sun, and some of the deeper lines around his mouth and eyes had fled the flavor of the fruit. The sight jarred him a little, as it reminded Loki of Odin’s newly rediscovered youth. Turning back the clock for others was becoming a bad habit. If this continued, Thor would be in swaddling clothes if he did not pay attention. Loki snorted once at the thought, but then his eyebrow twitched as an idea galloped across his brain. He extended his hand to Selvig. “Give the rest to me, my friend. I will keep the seeds. They will prove useful in the future.”
“Oh,” Selvig said. He stood there for a moment, thinking, and the impact of Loki’s words finally hit him. “OH! Good grief.”
“Give it to me, Erik. Many more bites, and I won’t be able to call you ‘mortal’ anymore.”
“You don’t think I’m ready for immortality? Is that it? Don’t like to share?” he asked as he slowly passed the remains of the fruit over to Loki.
Loki pinched the fruit between two of his long tapered fingers, avoiding the nibbled-upon edges. He turned it in the sun and studied it for a moment. “Let us just say, I am not sure that immortality is ready for you.”
Magnus’ laughter at their banter echoed across the water. His mirth was deep and rolling, like that of a giant wheel tumbling down a hillside, without the slightest trace of malice in it.
“Oh, my dear King,” he chuckled as he untied the last rope holding them to shore, “he may be the Court Astronomer, but I do not think you will require a Fool anytime soon, all the same. Hold fast, my friends. We are off.”
With that, Magnus plunged a massive oar into the water. Using it and the rudder, he aided the weak current of the stream in pushing them out into the main channel of the river. He maneuvered the boat with a practiced hand into the deepest part of the water, away from the sharp rocks by the shore. The swift current caught them, and off they went, watched by a rather surprised-looking badger that hunched over his breakfast on the muddy beach. They left the sail furled to give them time to study the landscape as they passed by. A warm, sweet breeze swept its invisible fingers through Loki’s hair, and he felt the wild joy of a free man tugging at the corners of his mouth as they skimmed downstream.
The river and the canyon defined each other. Their margins tugged each other this way and that, so that together they meandered slowly like a sun-drunk serpent. Over time, the swift current had cut into the rock, widening its track and stretching its liquid self into a wider body. While the water did its work, the cliffs dropped boulders into the banks and nudged the river back into its older bed.
Ripples on the water revealed the footprints of the breeze, and the stillness in the wind-shadows looked cool and inviting. Where the cliffs had left room on the riverbank, tall reaches of pine and cedar lined their path and cooled them with their shade. Their roots slithered around the sharp rocks that poked out of the mud like lichen-sheltered bones, and long-legged herons roosted on their gnarled wooden fingers. Loki could smell the needles of the evergreens as the boat drifted close to shore. Where the cliffs receded into the distance to either side, they could see stands of maple, oak, ash, and many other trees that defied recognition. The forests rode the waves of gentle hills, and he could hear the cry of an unseen bird of prey echoing through the canyon and between the tops of the knolls.
The rolling shades of green called out to Loki. He felt a strange craving to pull off his boots and run barefoot through it, and once or twice he almost asked Magnus to pull in to shore so that he could. He had not felt such a longing in centuries.
When the sound of the water faded, he could hear the soft plop of turtles diving under the cool surface of the water from their sunny perches and the sharp splash of a fish leaping out of the water to grab a moment in the sunlight. Over the course of the day, they passed streams that fed the river from waterfalls springing from clefts in the rock, some of them tucked away into the high cliff face. Water danced from stone to stone as it journeyed down the rocky ladder to the depths of the river.
Every once in a while, the raucous snores of Erik – who had returned to his hammock – broke in, until he turned over and settled back into a deep slumber. Loki could hear the lusty howls of the newborns down below, which quieted down when Kolla sang a lullaby. It was a tender song, and he caught the name of his mother woven into it here and there. Kolla was wasting no time in passing on her beliefs. Sleipnir’s nose was deep into a nosebag of oats that Magnus had given him, and he swatted away the rather large flies with his own rather impressive tail. He neighed an occasional comment on the scenery (especially on the estimated quality of the grazing to be had) but otherwise seemed rather content.
The canyon continued in front of them, drawn out into the distance as far as the eye could see. The walls dipped and curved along the track of the river, and every time they rounded a bend, Loki could see that the canyon merely stretched out ahead of them. He wandered aft, where Magnus handled the tiller with an easy grace that Loki had not expected from a troll.
“Magnus,” Loki asked, “how long have you been touring this river? When did you arrive here?”
“Only a handful of days, m’Lord. Most of that time was in the inlet. The scenery changes but little.”
“In all that time, have you seen any break in the cliff walls?”
“Except for the waterfalls? No, m’Lord. The canyon seems endless, does it not? The sun tracks along it, so the days are not cut short by the cliffs.” He pointed at Loki’s face. “May I suggest you and the Astronomer and Ellisif cover your heads? My stone skin is not sensitive to the sun, but you three may redden here on deck. Tickseed discovered that quickly the first day. She stays belowdecks in the heat of the afternoon.”
“My thanks, Magnus. We will.”
As Loki made his way back to the prow, he took a closer look at the details of the boat. With all the excitement – and the mead – of the night before, he had not taken the time to examine their temporary abode. Every nook and cranny bore some sort of carving, a delicate jungle of knotwork that slithered from bow to stern, with a menagerie of dragons, griffins, and serpents woven in. He followed one line with the tip of his finger as he walked along the deck, and it wound in and out of other lines all the way to the prow. With every turn, the line reminded him of something, the same way Ellisif reminded him of something, but he could not remember exactly what it was. At the bow, the line grew up and out of the gunwale in a branch that spiralled upon itself, with a dragon’s head roaring at its center.
He felt a tugging upon his sleeve. Ellisif was pulling on it and signaling that she had a question for him. She held a comb from Valhalla-knew-where out to him. He agreed, mostly out of a slight sense of ennui and the need to do something with his hands. She was truly helpless when it came to caring for her base form, having worn Einar’s face for so long. He sat her down in the wind shadow behind a crate and attacked her mane with the comb. Normally a girl-child’s mother would have taught her to do such things. However, if his guess was correct, Ellisif had had no mother to teach her, and that lack left a lot of room in which he himself could work. He decided on a single braid down her back. His long clever fingers imitated the one that Frigga had favored in his nursery days.
A memory pinched the back of his mind, one of a pre-adolescent Thor asking Loki to braid a bit of hair behind his ear. Thor had tried to reciprocate, but Loki’s fine raven hair had been so soft and slick that it slipped out of any braid almost as soon as it was done. He was almost lost in those thoughts as he neared the tips of Ellisif’s hair. That had been before Odin had pulled the slightly older Thor out of the nursery and started his warrior training in earnest, leaving little time for such things. That act was a hairline fracture between the boys, and over the centuries it had yawned into the abyss it was now.
They had been so close, once.
But that was also when Frigga had started teaching him magic that Thor did not learn. She taught him how to move swiftly, silently, with grace and skill. Much later she schooled him in how to dance that way with a blade or a trick of the eye.
“There, child,” he said as he secured the braid with a ribbon borrowed from Tickseed. He locked those memories, so sharply pleasant, away as he released her. He led her back to the bench in the bow and was relieved that her cloud of hair was under control at last.
“I think it is time for your story, Ellisif,” he said. “From whence do you come, little one? Can you show me?”
Her face was relaxed and happy, as if she had enjoyed the dressing of her hair. She unfolded her hands in front of her like two small pale ferns, and between her fingers a soft blue light sparked into life. From that light blossomed a set of images, images like the ones she had drawn the night before. They sparkled in the bright sunlight. They floated like gems between her fingers: a cube that glowed with lightning’s indigo fire, a cloud of blood-red droplets, a metallic orb that resembled the pitted surface of a moon, and three gems that burned with a life-giving green, a sun-burnt orange, and a golden yellow.
Tickseed, who had been watching them with hooded eyes, ceased her constant spinning and said, without a trace of mutter, “She is a stone child.” Then she mumbled and spun the spindle once more.
“Stone child.” Somehow, he knew she did not mean she was like the rocky infants in the tent. He scoured the knowledge he had gained from the Other, though it gave him a headache to do so. The stones, the Convergence, and the emerging pathways between the realms all pointed in one direction. A frisson rippled down his spine and left him cold. No wonder there was something familiar about her.
“You are a child of the gems, aren’t you?” he asked at last. “They did it again, during the Convergence?”
Kolla sat down opposite them, holding Faraldr in her arms. “M’Lord? What says she?”
Ellisif nodded, holding the illusion between her small palms.
Loki continued, “She says that she is a creation of a collection of powerful entities. We see them as stones, as artifacts. They are the remnants of an ancient, powerful being that died long ago. Each gem bears a portion of that being’s power.”
“If it was so powerful, why did it die?”
“It destroyed itself. Out of loneliness.”
Kolla clutched the child to her until it squalled. She loosened her grip, but the fear and wonder in her eyes remained. “I have heard of them. I thought they were just a myth!”
“They are real, dear lady,” he replied with a barely suppressed shudder. “Far too real. They are said to fashion a sentient representative, from time to time, for reasons they keep to themselves. We had quite a bit of power flying about during the Convergence. They must have used that to bring you to life.”
Ellisif gave him a long, slow nod.
“So, while Thor fought Malekith, you were, shall we say, a work in progress?”
He had learned the most obscure of facts about the gems in his time with the Other, and the tuition had been expensive, indeed, and a steeper price than he wished to recall. But the fact that occurred to him was almost as harsh as the way he had learned it, and he shoved that nasty little question aside. His other question was harsh enough, even though he was certain he already knew the answer.
“And your scar?”
She turned away, the illusion dissolving as her body passed through it.
“Scar?” Kolla asked. “Has someone hurt you, dear?”
“It is an old one,” Loki said. “If you will excuse us.”
He took Ellisif by the hand and led her aft, past a musing Magnus and a snoring Erik, to Sleipnir’s berth. He was sure the horse would keep a secret. Ellisif’s face was a twist of panic. He held her by the shoulders, firmly but gently, until her breathing slowed.
“It is all right, little one,” he said. “I only caught a glimpse of it. But I believe I should know, if we are to be companions. Kolla did ask the right question. Did someone hurt you?”
Her eyes darted left and right, as if unsure of the answer. She wiggled her shoulders free of his grasp and held up her hands again to show him a new illusion. He saw a scene in miniature, as if someone had painted a battle in the air between her fingers. This battle, though, was far too familiar to him. He saw himself and Thor, frozen in time on the desolate plain of Svartalfheim. Thor’s mortal Jane Foster was there, and so was Malekith and his crew. A thread of lightning sprouted from Mjolnir and reached for the cloud of Aether hovering over them all.
Loki closed his eyes so he could not see that oddly placid face. It was one of the few times in his life that he detested being right. They had done it to her. They had not known. They had had no way of knowing, that somewhere else in the universe this little one, a little one meant to protect him for some unknown reason, was coming into being. They could not know that they were interrupting that process with their failed attempt to destroy the Aether. But it had been even worse than useless, worse than futile. He had told Thor that it would not work. He had hated being right about that, too.
No wonder Ellisif had such an unfinished air about her. She was unfinished. What else had that fruitless act cost this little one? What useful gifts, what stature, and what beauty might she have possessed if she had been left to blossom fully? What had Thor done?
He peeled his eyes open and studied her. She averted his gaze and turned to pet Sleipnir, who nickered at her softly.
“Does it hurt?” he asked. “Do you suffer?”
She shrugged one shoulder without looking at him. He could not tell if that meant it did not hurt, or that it did hurt but the pain did not matter. She did give him the definite sense that the conversation was over.
“Very well,” he said. “That is all, Ellisif. For now.”
He left her to the company of Sleipnir, who seemed to be as good a comforter as any, and walked forward. He waved off Kolla’s questions as best he could and asked her to leave the girl in peace. A numbness sprouted behind his eyes, and he resumed his perch behind the dragon’s-head prow, trying not to think for a few minutes.
Selvig rolled out of his hammock and sat on the bench across from Loki. He inhaled the fresh air like a parched man quenching his thirst in a cold lake. He stretched, yawned, and scratched his chest.
“You know,” he said, “when I first woke up, I fully expected to be back at the hospital. Thought this was all a crazy dream. Heh. Either that, or they’d given me the really good meds this time.” He yawned again. “I may be crazier than ever, between the rock trolls, the eight-legged horse, and the really big bees, but this beats the hell out of the looney bin.” He paused and dropped his arms by his sides, drooping for a moment. “I…I don’t have to go back, do I?”
Loki chuckled, grateful for the distraction. The mortal might not be in mad in a god’s eye, but there was definitely something rolling around in that head of his. “You do not have to do anything. You are a free spirit, Erik Selvig. I am certain that if you ask Ellisif nicely, she will take you wherever you wish to go. I get the feeling that she wants to protect you, not hold you prisoner. But if you returned to the hospital? Well, at this rate, you would be there for some time, considering the amount of immortality you just imbibed.” He smiled at his own joke, but beneath his words Loki felt a bit of worry nibble away at his throat. He leaned closer and said softly, “The Astronomer bit was for their benefit, Selvig, but I would not mind if it were true. You are my favorite Midgardian, to be frank, and I do think we could benefit each other. We share much knowledge, including an acquaintance with a certain god of thunder. The trolls like you. Stay with us.”
“Stay? Stay where? On the boat? Won’t we run out of supplies soon, with all these mouths to feed?”
Loki studied the shoreline without answering. He had been staring at the trees and the rocks the whole day, and everything was starting to look the same. That cedar, that rock beneath it with the peculiar white blaze, and yet another badger watching them go by with a look of mild surprise on his furry visage, looking much like the same surprised badger he had seen that morning –
“Magnus,” Loki called out. He pointed to the rolling and stand of woods and inlet creek that they had just passed. “Magnus, does this place look familiar to you at all?”
Magnus’ eyes followed Loki’s finger as he looked at the shoreline. “Why, yes, my Lord! That creek! That tree! That looks like where we stayed last night.”
“I agree. Can we turn round and see?”
“Aye, we can,” he said.
A few moments later, Magnus and Loki scrambled over the re-extended gangplank and examined the ground around its end.
“My Lord,” said Magnus, “here are my footprints in the mud. Unless there are other trolls here – and I have not seen any – I would say that we have come full circle.”
“This is a peculiar river, indeed. We are going in circles inside this canyon. There are no paths out. Even this creek falls down the cliffs, there in the distance. I have never seen anything quite like this.” He shouted in the direction of the boat through his hands. “Oh, Court Astronomer!”
“What?” barked Erik.
“Selvig! Focus!” Loki snapped his fingers. “You are our scholar. Any ideas on where we might be? Know you of any circular canyons on Midgard?”
Erik replied, “Not like this one. If I can manage to stay sober tonight, I might have a look at the stars and have a guess. At least eliminate a few things.”
“My friends,” Loki declared, “I believe we may be somewhere outside the Nine Realms. There are many worlds, strange and stranger still, outside of them.” He crossed the gangplank once more and said to Kolla as he walked aft, “Like to stretch your legs?”
A short while later, the group that had tramped up the hill that morning marched up it yet again. The horse would stop a moment, graze, then catch up quickly on his swift legs. Two scout bees flew above them and circled over Ellisif, who was still pale and avoiding Loki’s gaze. She was arm in arm with Tickseed, who babbled excitedly over the patches of herbs that they passed. Magnus and Kolla carried Faraldr and Farbjorn. Loki, with a makeshift sling, carried Fargrim, who giggled as he bounced along with Loki’s long strides.
“Let us have a look around, shall we, Grimmie?” Loki asked.
They passed the margin of the forest and continued up into the meadow where they had first arrived. Loki could see the confused hoof prints that could only be Sleipnir’s. They continued up and up and gentle slope, until they reached the base of one of the cliffs that bordered the canyon.
The place was empty. They had not passed a single village or building, not even a hen house, the entire day. The land was bright and green and ripe for the taking.
“I believe I know where we are,” Erik said. His voice startled Loki out of his reverie.
“I share some of your database, remember? Doesn’t this place strike you as a bit idyllic and impossibly empty? If all this is related to the stones…”
“Yes, I think you are on to something, there, Selvig. The green one. The soul gem. It was said to contain a kingdom within it, among other properties. An idyllic kingdom. Could that be this place?”
“The physics of it is a bit wonky, but somehow with all that knowledge you stuffed into my head, I am sure I will figure it out.”
“I have no doubt you will. In the meantime, I will ask Ellisif. She should know, since she brought us here.” He glanced back at her face, and she yet again found a reason to look somewhere else. She was unfinished, true, but powerful (and just a bit grumpy) nonetheless. “Perhaps later.”
“My Lord,” Magnus said. “We have had a great day for names. We should name this place. It is so beautiful, quite beyond my words. I wonder what Unnarr would say about it.”
“You should write your own poem for it, Magnus, and use your own luck,” Loki replied. “As for its name…”
It was indeed a land that begged for the eye of a poet. Not all poets were a curse, like that Snorri. He snickered for a moment and realized that he was not done tweaking people for the day.
“It is indeed poetic, my rocky friend,” Loki said at last. “Dare I say, eddic, even. It is time we reclaimed some history for ourselves.” He looked deep into that blue, blue sky and shouted, “I name you Eddaheim! The land of the poets!”
“An edda is actually a specific poem, but what the hell,” Erik said as craned his neck up to stare at the cliffs. “Maybe we should paint a sign,” he chuckled.
Loki sidled up to the cliff and pushed his back into it. He enjoyed the solid feel of it against him, as if the land itself were embracing him. He closed his eyes and let his mind soar free, forming an image of many chambers of wood and stone. He breathed in the scent of grass and cedar and sunshine and let it soak into his brain. He could almost hear the startled glances of the people – his people, now – as they watched him grow as still as the stone now supporting him. Plans and possibilities germinated in his mind; this land shimmered with potential so bright that it made him shiver.
The buzzing of the bees brought to mind the sweet flow of honey and mead, and that prickled the remembrance of the apple seeds he had taken from Erik earlier, those precious golden seeds… Before him lay a land to tame, a people to rule, a kingdom to build from the ground up in his own name, a House of his own, the House of Loki … it was all spread before him, a banquet in the making… like a ripe golden apple, trembling in the wind, ready to be taken… It was small, yes, but even the mightiest of Idunn’s golden trees had sprouted from a single seed. And the Universe had started as a point far smaller than that.
Surely, there were others that were lost during the shifting of the Convergence, wandering in a realm that was not theirs. Surely, there were those fleeing from the troubles of other lands, searching for a home and a king. Or a god.
Eddaheim called out to him like a mother calling her child home.
The rock wall next to him grew warmer, and he knew that Ellisif had joined him there, her melancholy shed like an old coat in the heat of summer. That soft glow of power that had lingered on the edges of his perception all day brightened, and he allowed himself a half-smile. She had still spoken not a word, and she had not even touched him; but somehow he still knew what she was trying to say: she stood with him. What gifts he now had! The power of the Stones lived within Ellisif. She did not have to be finished, nor all-powerful, to be potent. He possessed both the tesseract and the gem in which they now stood. He had the sturdy hands of the trolls and Selvig’s learning. He had his own deep and ancient knowledge of magic and kingcraft. Here he could use that hard-won tuition, and here he would be safe from those who had taught him. He would be safe until he was ready.
He could see no limit to the sky.
He would, at last, claim his birthright.
Opening his eyes, he stepped off the spot, the first step in his new journey. He paced forward with long, measured strides and counted under his breath. Ellisif watched his march with knowing eyes while the rest simply gawked at him. Sleipnir ignored him in favor of a particularly tasty patch of grass.
Selvig finally broke the silence. “What the hell are you doing now?”
Without stopping, Loki replied, “If Eddaheim is to be the home of the poets, then then poets need a home.” He pointed at the ground as he rounded an imaginary corner and winked at Erik. “This will be your observation tower, if you wish, O Court Astronomer, where you’ll never have to wear trousers again! We’ll have a special room just for a giant loom, as big as Tickseed wants. And the finest brewery we can imagine for Kolla. A nursery for The Pebbles Three!” He pointed back at the cliff. “The library will be over there, Magnus, and it will overflow with books.”
Sleipnir looked up from his meal and neighed a question at him.
“Yes, yes, of course, Sleipnir, do not worry. You shall have the most magnificent stable in all of Yggdrasil! And carrots! So many carrots!”
Magnus looked down at his feet, where his three sons already crawled about and tugged on his leggings, then looked back up at Kolla and Tickseed with shining eyes. “A home? With books?”
Kolla exclaimed “Truly? For all of us, m’Lord?”
Loki called over his shoulder without looking back as he continued his pacing.
“For all of us.”
In one of the small audience chambers off the main throne room, Odin stared into the fire roaring on the small hearth and tried to ignore the bristling old man in the chair next to him.
“What’s this about, Odin? I’ve heard that you’ve sent the Warriors Three to fetch Marauders here,” demanded Refkell. “Have you gone mad?”
Odin sniffed and continued staring at the fire. “Justice must be served, Refkell. And finding Loki will be no small task. He could be anywhere. We need boots on the ground to bring him back. Many boots.”
The ancient advisor shifted in his chair. “Why them? Asgard spent a lot of resources quelling their raids after the Bifrost was restored. Why hire them?”
“To prevent Asgard from spilling any more blood on Loki’s account!” Odin snapped. “It is obvious we cannot hold him here any longer. I have something… special in mind. Someone he fears even more than me. And they can help me find him.”
“And that would be?”
Odin did not answer, and he still would not meet Refkell’s gaze.
Refkell snorted. “You have a kingdom to rule, Odin. You are ignoring it. Instead you’re obsessing over someone that is out of reach. And has done you a favor, it seems, in returning you to your youth.”
“You think I should let a traitor go? One that has the tesseract in his possession?”
“Not a true traitor to the realm, no. But is he? Did he actually harm Asgard? I think, when he was wearing your face, he made some progress where you had faltered.”
Odin finally turned his eyes upon his visitor and glared at him. He flared his nostrils and clenched his fists, but he said nothing.
“Did you know that he had made plans to share the Soulforge technology with some of the other realms?” Refkell asked.
“What, give our knowledge away? Put in the hands of barbarians? I cannot believe that, even of Loki. I made sure he shared my… opinions… of the peoples of the other realms.”
“It was a way to gain their trust without giving up any true advantages. It wouldn’t be quite the same as if one were to, say, duplicate the Bifrost.”
“Never! To both! They shall have neither!” Odin snarled. “He is a thief and a liar. A tyrant in the making.”
“You speak of your own reflection, Odin! You plowed that particular field, and then you punished him when he bore the fruit you had sown.”
“You tread on fiery ground, Refkell. Be careful. I tolerate you for the sake of Bor’s memory, but do not try me.”
“Bah! I am an old man. I will tread on what ground I wish. Death and I are old companions. You will hear me. You raised Loki to be a dragon. And when he finally stretched his wings to fly, you shackled him to the ground and declared him a mere worm. Then you buried him away and out of sight, for being exactly what you made him to be. What in Valhalla’s name did you expect?”
Odin simply stared into the fire while the frown etched itself more deeply into his face, forming the first wrinkles in his now-young skin.
“He was taught to be a king!” Refkell said. “And he labored to do well at it. All those years, I watched both those boys. While Thor slept off a night’s mead, Loki studied the histories of the realms. When your eldest filled the taverns with his ribald tales, your youngest haunted the Halls of Science. Loki mastered rhetoric and treaties and kingcraft. He took his turn in the stables and the Halls of Healing while Thor fought and feasted. It was his life, his skill, and he did not know how to be anything else. All that time you held the throne out to him like a lump of sugar to a horse, only to hand it to Thor, as you had always intended. Why tempt the child, then? I wonder.”
“We both know that sovereignty is brutal. But a good king makes it no more brutal than it has to be. And for damn sure, he doesn’t enjoy it. Sentencing your own child to a life in the dungeons should have been the most bitter moment of your life. But you relished it.”
“How do you-“
“I have eyes everywhere, Odin, except for on the Bifrost bridge itself. I see. It isn’t natural for a man to treat his own flesh and blood that way. And now, looking back, none of it seems right. From the time he was born, you treated him like he was different. I remember how you turned a blind eye every time Thor tumbled a willing wench in the stables. But let Loki kiss the Lady Sigyn once – oh, yes, I remember that day in the orchard! You could not separate them fast enough, and you never let them be alone again after that. In fact, you suffered him no such dalliances at all. What were you doing, saving him for a peaceweaving marriage with Vanaheim?”
“What is your point, old man?”
“My point, young man, is that this is every color of wrong. The point is that you are calling on the wrong powers to track down your wayward son. Thor spent how much time in the other realms tracking down these very same Marauders? And now you endanger Asgard by hiring them? By bringing them here? Why not simply recover the tesseract and let him go? Other than the tesseract, he has nothing. Or do you wish to see your son dead? It is plain that something lurks within Asgard’s royal family. Something deep. Something dark. And it makes me ask myself, what really happened on that bridge when the Bifrost was destroyed, hmmm? “
“I owe explanations to no one, Refkell.”
“Was it an accident, as some say?”
“I keep my own counsel on my own House.”
“Or did he leap into oblivion to escape you? Or did he have a little help tumbling into the abyss?”
“Sedition! Say no more! Get out of my sight! Leave! Before I -“
“Oh, I will, Odin,” Refkell cut in. “I will. I will leave, and I will get to the bottom of this.” He leaned on his staff and grunted as he stood. As he shuffled his way to the door, he turned and said, “But for what it’s worth, that boy made you look good.”
In another room, by another fire, in a sprawling home in another quarter of Asgard, Sigyn stood stock-still by the richly polished mantle in her father’s library. She had heard, but not quite believed, what her father had just asked of her. She looked to Sefa in the corner for confirmation, and the thrall nodded at her. She had not misheard him.
“I will always see him as the King, Father, but I cannot imagine Odin as my… my husband. I have no wish to be a queen! Loki-“
Iwaldi shook his head. “Think no more of him, child. When Odin finds him – and he will – Loki will be bilgesnipe fodder. Your old friendship with him was a child’s passing fancy. Leave it in the past. You were meant for better things.” He took a long swallow from his drinking horn and handed it to Sefa, who crossed the room to refill it at the heavy carved table beneath the wide arched window. The night-braziers on the streets of the city sparkled like stars on the ground in the distance. He paced back and forth, dragging his sky-blue and silver robes across the intricate knots and whirls woven into the rug. “Both of Frigga’s sons were rotten, rotten to the core. One is a criminal with a mad and bitter heart, and the other would rather dally with mortals and swill mead all day than learn to rule the Nine Realms. You can help set that aright with a new dynasty. This is a chance for Asgard to start over.”
“Loki was starting over, albeit in disguise. In fact, if he were still there as King, and if I knew it was truly him, I would consider what you say! But will not Odin just keep things the way they have been for his entire rule?”
“Not if you ply your influence as Queen aright.”
“You mean your influence. But you are already a Regent. Isn’t that influence enough?”
“No, and you have seen that it is not.” Iwaldi stepped forward and took her hands between his own. “Oh, my darling daughter. Nothing is set yet. So much is in motion right now! The Lady Jord’s family also vies for the Queen’s throne, along with many other noble houses, from other realms. We need a Queen of Asgard. One who can influence the next generation that will rule our people. “
She pulled away and turned to stare into the fire. She could no longer stand to look into those eyes, the eyes she had always trusted to love and protect her. “What about me? Or what I might want? What about Theoric?”
“You have always dreamed of doing deeds both brave and good, Sigyn,” he replied as he brushed a hair that had escaped her elaborate coif off her forehead. “You have a great and gentle heart, just like your mother. I have always admired the way you wanted to aid the little ones of all the realms. Here you have the opportunity to do just that. You spent much time in the palace under Frigga’s tutelage. You know how the royal household works, more than any other lady of your position. You know that peace and stability are built in these ways. You know I love you, my child, and I will not force you into something you despise. But I will persuade you that this is best. Think about it. Could you accomplish as much as the wife of Theoric? Think of your family’s honor. Think of Asgard’s future.”
Hjalmar adjusted his helm as he set out to cross the causeway leading to the Bifrost. His transfer to Heimdall’s command had been sudden and mysterious, but he had lost track of the sudden and mysterious things that had happened since – well, he was not sure what to call what had happened. Since he had seen the Prince’s ghost? Since the All-Father had reappeared (even though no one knew he had been missing)? Since Odin had become Young Odin? It was all so confusing.
He jogged along, not wanting to be late for his first post under Heimdall. He had never worked under the Guardian before, and he did not want to make a bad first impression. When he was three-quarters of the way across, he saw a lone, slow figure ahead of him. He slowed down to a walk as he approached an elderly man making his own way to the observatory. He tapped along, one step at a time, with a long staff. Its grip glowed with the patina of long use. He smiled at Hjalmar.
“Greetings, young warrior,” he said between heavy breaths. “Nice evening for a walk, isn’t it?”
“Um, y-yes, m’Lord,” Hjalmar stuttered in reply. The man was dressed in the heavily decorated armor of a noble, which slowed him even more than his advanced age did. “Do you require assistance, m’Lord?”
“I’m an old man,” he replied. “I no longer care for formalities. Call me Refkell. No, son, I’ll get to the observatory at some point, hopefully before someone notices I’m not enjoying a posset at my hearth and orders me to stay put.” At Hjalmar’s puzzled look, he continued, “I travel to Vanaheim. I have some business there. We used to exchange advisors with them, once upon a time. Perhaps it is time we did so again.”
“Oh,” Hjalmar replied. Not being used to being on a first-name basis with a noble, he was not sure what else to say.
He accompanied the man anyway. Hjalmar was nervous about the wizened fellow tumbling from the rail-less bridge into the rocky waters below them. Refkell hummed as they went along and said nothing else the rest of the way. They had reached the main portal of the observatory, where the guard that Hjalmar was relieving awaited him.
“I must take my post, m’Lord Refkell, but I wish you a safe journey.”
“Keep your eyes and ears open, young warrior,” Refkell replied as he continued through the portal, “for there are about to be some strange things afoot. If I am right, lad, I weep for the future.”
“-but that’s all the old man would say,” finished Hjalmar. He watched his companions on the other side of the rough table for their reaction to his news. As soon as his watch had finished, he had headed straight for Agnarr’s tavern. He had nowhere else to go to discuss such things.
Agnarr grunted as he tore off a corner of bread and dipped it in the crock of butter. “So you don’t know who in Vanaheim he went to see?”
“No,” Hjalmar replied. “I know so little about Vanaheim that I can’t even hazard a guess.”
“Hmmmm.” Agnarr pushed a plate laden with cheese and bread over to Hjalmar. “Legend has it that in Refkell’s younger days, he was involved in the Congress of Worlds.”
“What’s that, now?”
“Oh, they wouldn’t tell youngsters like you about it nowadays. But time was that when there was a threat to all of Yggdrasil, people from all the realms had a conclave to decide what to do. They didn’t call them for just anything, though. There had to be a danger to pretty much everybody. They even had the power to override Asgard. But such hasn’t happened for millennia, since before I was born! Reckon Odin thinks he can make all the decisions on his own. He sure didn’t call for one when the Invasion hit.”
“Wasn’t really time, was there?” asked Gunnar. “Even if he had been so inclined.”
“I wouldn’t know anything about that,” Hjalmar said as he carved off a chunk of cheese. “I’m a loyal subject of the King, no doubt, but I don’t like getting drug into royal family feuds like this.”
“I’m loyal to the King, too. Question is, which King? I’m still trying to sort it all out in my noggin.” Gunnar set his mug down with a grimace. “Keeping the rest of Asgard out of it may be the whole reason he’s sending for those dark folk. Still, I agree, I don’t like it. I can’t believe the Warriors Three would want to bring Marauders here as hired hands when they spent so much time and blood getting them under control in the first place.”
“Don’t think they had much of a choice,” Agnarr replied. He leaned in closer and whispered, “Volstagg was in here earlier, with his family, eating a hurried meal before he took off. But he was quiet, real quiet. He didn’t throw his mug around and demand ‘Another’ like he always does. He just politely asked for refills. Lots of them, even with this swill of a mead that I’ve got left, like he couldn’t get drunk enough. Ate all of my roast capon for the day. Same with Fandral and Hogun. I didn’t even see the Lady Sif. You know how much they enjoy a good fight. But this was different. Trust me, they don’t like it, neither.”
“You know what I heard,” Gunnar said in the same whispering tone. “I heard that the All-Father used where they helped Thor get to Svartalfheim against orders during the Invasion. King’s got a long memory, we all know that. It’s said he told them they’d avoid the treason charges if they found the Marauders and helped bring Loki back.”
“Not a choice I’d like to make,” Hjalmar said. “Sounds dangerous, no matter what they do!”
“Not so loud, boy! Let’s make sure you don’t have to ever make such a choice,” Gunnar warned. “Only a few of us know about the plan with the Marauders, and only we know about Refkell, so far as we know. Keep your eyes and ears open, like the old man said, lad. But let’s keep all that between us three, for now.”
“He has Selvig again?” Tony asked. “Are you sure? I thought he was dead. Can you send me the vid? Yeah, yeah, I’ll call you right back after I’ve seen it.”
Tony Stark disconnected the call and waited for the file to arrive on his virtual desktop. It was already cluttered with windows filled with the last of the mess from the Invasion of New York two years prior. Most of the damage to Stark Tower had been repaired, but some other Manhattan buildings were still in rubble, even after all this time. Tony had been entangled in multiple debates over who bore responsibility for compensation. He had repeated over and over that neither Loki nor the Chitauri were viable targets for lawsuits.
To one side of the screen, always open, was the list of the dead and their families; it was long, far too long. Stark Industries had attempted to set up a foundation to assist them, but the organization of it was damn near impossible. It had taken forever just to compile the list.
He hadn’t known how to feel when Thor had told him that his brother was dead. And that he had died saving Thor! He had settled on relief, relief that he wouldn’t have to deal with that particular Norse god anymore. But that relief had evaporated with Fury’s call. The desktop beeped as the file arrived, but before he could open it, another more familiar Asgardian made a graceful landing on the platform just outside Tony’s penthouse office.
“Well, isn’t that a coincidence,” Tony said as Thor entered the room. He pointed to the sack on Thor’s back. “Is it Christmas already?”
No laugh, not even a hint of a smile, responded to his joke. It seemed that the blonde lug already knew what Fury had just told him.
Tony continued, “That was a quick trip back to ye olde homeland. What’s in the sack?”
Thor set it down with a loud clank and frowned more deeply. “Shackles. I have strange tidings, Stark.”
“Your brother is on the loose again. And he might be here on Earth.”
“How did you-“
“Just got the call. Seems he’s getting the band back together. He’s got Selvig.”
Thor growled and clutched Mjolnir until his knuckles turned white. “I do not know how to feel, Stark. He died! He died in my arms, and I thought I had lost half my family that day. But he was alive – alive all along – under my nose – and now-“
“Whoa, whoa, there, thunder-god, what exactly happened?”
Thor recounted the story to him, from being recalled to Asgard, to discovering Loki’s Bait and Switch scheme, to finding that his father now appeared younger than Thor himself. Tony let out a low whistle.
“Well, I gotta hand it to the big guy. That was a pretty slick move.” He prodded the mysterious sack with the toe of his black sneaker. “I’ve got some video here that you might find interesting. Fury just sent it to me.”
“Who is in it?”
“Your friend, Erik, or so Fury said. And someone else you might be able to identify for us,” Tony said as he poked into the sack again with his finger. He drew it open and pulled out a collar etched with runes. Gears and bolts crawled all over it, like something out of a steampunk nightmare, with a little Leif Erikson vibe. “Interesting. Not exactly Versace, is it?”
“I’m not in a jesting mood, Stark. Those are uru shackles. The markings prevent the wearer from using magic. I’m to use them to bring him back. You saw a smaller set when I took Loki back to Asgard last time. These are more powerful.”
“Magic-absorbing metal. Very durable. Mjolnir is made of it as well.”
“Really?” Stark asked as he shoved the collar back into the sack. “Just think of the tech I could design with that! Where can I-“
“It’s only found in Asgard, and it’s very rare even there,” Thor replied in a weary tone. “And it is most difficult to form without a dying star or enchanted forge at hand. But rare as it is, Odin sent two pairs with me.”
“Loki wasn’t alone when he escaped Asgard. He had help. And they took the tesseract. I am to bring all three back to Asgard, if I can.”
“Double trouble,” Tony mused as he strolled back to his displays. “Just what we needed. Let’s take a look at this, then, and see what–“
They watched as the film clip played. They restarted it and watched again two or three times before they spoke.
“Who is that?” Thor asked. “They said Loki escaped with a yellowcloak. A guard named Einar.”
“Well, if she’s an Asgardian, she’s one short-ass goddess. Maybe she can do illusions, too? Are you sure the person he escaped with was really a guard? Her armor doesn’t exactly fit. Or maybe there’s more than one person helping him?”
“I know not. But I have never seen her before.”
“This is odd,” Tony observed. “It looks like she is the one grabbing Erik, not Loki. Is it possible he didn’t escape, technically speaking?”
“Your brother? You know, the diva? Six foot two, eyes of blue?”
“Loki’s eyes are green.”
“No, no, I saw him up close and personal, big guy. It’s been two years, but I have an eye for details. Icy blue, no doubt about it.”
“And I’ve known him for more than a thousand years. They are green.”
“Did you ever actually look at him in those thousand years, Popeye? They’re blue.”
Thor simply stared down at the sack again. “The color of his eyes is beside the point. I need some way for you to contact me if you encounter him, the girl on your screen, or the guard.”
Tony reached into one of the horde of drawers in the office and pulled out a wristband, the largest size he had. He tossed it to Thor.
“Use that,” he said. “Just press the big red button on the side and ask for Stark. Jarvis will buzz me. You look like you could use a drink, Fabio.”
They talked for a while over shots of whiskey, catching up on the whereabouts of the rest of the crew that had faced down Loki the last time. As they chatted, Tony’s mind ground on in the background, like it always did. The difference in the eye color nagged him. Natasha had said that both Selvig’s and Clint’s eyes had been a strange shade of blue when they were Loki-fied. In fact, she had compared it to that strange blue of the scepter’s jewel that had brought them under his spell. If Loki’s green eyes had turned that same shade…
Stark wished he could get his hands on that glowing Q-Tip, but it had disappeared into the bowels of SHIELD almost as soon as Thor had clapped handcuffs on Loki the last time they had tangled. Had someone even more powerful, in turn, used it on him? Granted, Loki had more than a few toys in the attic; but he had known who he was. But, according to Natasha, so had Selvig and Clint, after a fashion. If that someone had (for lack of a better word) hypnotized Loki, had they found him again? What state of mind would Rock of Ages be in when they found him? The man in the video had seemed awfully calm. And awfully uninterested in taking Erik Selvig for a galactic joy ride. And who was the girl? Was she a new threat?
After they had talked a while, a lull came over them. Thor threw a sharp glance at the sack and gripped Mjolnir again until his knuckles popped.
“Poor Erik. He has been through so much already at my brother’s hands. I wonder what new tortures he suffers now?”
“And then the princess said, ‘Well, at my age, I’d rather have a talking frog!'” Erik guffawed and slapped his knee.
On the other side of the fire ring from Erik, Magnus leaned down and whispered to Loki, “I am sorry, my King, but I do not understand what is so amusing.”
“He’s never been to Alfheim, my friend,” Loki whispered back. “Midgardian frogs are a bit different.”
“So I gathered. A strange place, Midgard.”
Tickseed cackled away. Over the course of the day, Loki had discovered that she always laughed when someone else did, even if she could not always follow the conversation. It was the same for the Pebbles Three; if Kolla laughed, so did they, just for the joy of making noise. Ellisif simply scrunched up her face and wrinkled her nose and shook from head to toe; Loki had come to recognize her particular — if somewhat irritating — form of silent laughter.
Their small campfire punctuated the end of a long day. They were in the lee of the hill overlooking the boat’s anchorage and dining on some honey-roasted wild yams that Tickseed had found with Ellisif’s help. Kolla had also concocted a soup with the roots of wood sorrel, a handful of tiny wild onions and sage, and a teasing hint of the ever-present mead. The savory scent had tickled his appetite for hours, and Kolla had had to swat hands away from her cauldron more than once. As tasty as it was, everyone had agreed that they needed meat. Magnus had talked of fishing the next day. Something would need to be done, and soon, for additional victuals. They had all agreed that it might not be wise to rely upon magic for every little thing. Kolla had put her foot down and declared that Loki and Ellisif should not wear themselves out with such mundane things when there was plenty of food within a troll’s reach.
Loki had summoned the fire at dusk after a day of frenzied planning and preparation. The darkness that bloomed around it was far from quiet. Burring frog-song accompanied the whirring of crickets, and a whippoorwill called in the distance. He could hear the occasional whisper of a bat skirting by them on its nightly foraging expedition; thankfully, the bees had herded themselves into the hive for the night. Magnus had reported that the Queen was quite satisfied that they would at last have a home on land. Sleipnir had gone back onto the boat with them and settled in after a long hard day of grazing.
In the light of the merry crackling flames, the trolls and Erik had taken turns spinning tales. Erik had enjoyed his own jokes far more than they had, but they had laughed anyway. The Pebbles had bounced back and forth between the rest of them the entire evening and were just now settling down. They were already crawling, and at this rate they would be walking within a few days. Part of Loki’s long education had included learning the ways of all the races of the Nine Realms, so he knew the usual growth rate of troll offspring; yet it was still surprising to see it unfold before his very eyes.
Memories of other campfires flickered across his mind, those that had lit quiet nights after stormy campaigns under the stars in Nornheim with Thor and his companions. But this was better; here he could speak, and his people would listen.
“Elli, dear,” Kolla said, “have some more soup! Eat! Eat!”
Her words snapped him back to the present. Loki was half-turned away from the fire as he tended to an illusion floating in the air beside him. His design for their new home glowed as he brushed his fingers across it, turning it this way and that. He added doors here and removed windows there. He lifted off the lines of the high roof and traced a balcony around a great open room. It was to be the heart of the house. It was more than a longhouse, and yet far less than a castle or a palace. It was more like one of the country manors scattered across the mountains of Asgard; it would be large enough to comfortably accommodate a growing family of trolls yet small enough to maintain with ease until they needed more room. That, Loki believed, would be soon enough.
He moved more walls around while casting glances at Ellisif, who faced him on the other side of the illusion. Tickseed, who was sitting cross-legged behind her, had pulled out the girl’s braid and had draped the ribbon around her neck. The elderly elf was examining her hair one strand at a time.
“Hold still, Tansy,” she said, her voice thin and watery. “Ticks, ticks, we must all check for ticks, my sweet.”
“Who is Tansy?” Erik asked in a low voice. “She’s been calling her that all night.”
Kolla cast a wistful glance at the elf. “An old sweetheart, I think. When we first found her, she told us about him. Sometimes she gets a little confused.”
“A little? She thinks Ellisif is a man?”
“Well, she was one earlier today.” Kolla shrugged. “But I gave up correcting her long ago. As long as Elli doesn’t mind. You don’t, do you, dear?”
Ellisif twitched her shoulders in response. She made no move to stop Tickseed. She simply watched Loki with a mild drowsy look, the same kind of expression that Sleipnir wore when the elf scratched behind his ears.
“Oh, don’t forget!” said Magnus. “Don’t forget, it should have a great big fire pit, right in the middle. The largest of hearths, the god of hearths! For nights like this. For the singing of songs, the telling of tales!”
The troll was an endless font of suggestions. Loki had more than once chewed the tip of his tongue to hold back a bark of agitation; was this not his house? But something held him back from snapping away at the little irritations, something he could not identify. Perhaps it was knowing that trolls didn’t have to tolerate verbal barbs the way thralls in a palace did. Magnus reminded him enough of Banner’s beast that he found it the better part of valor to stay on his good side. Or perhaps it was that Magnus usually had a good point. Loki had noticed how the storytelling had affected Selvig. The mortal had relaxed around the trolls and the elf far more quickly than Loki would have guessed. If he gathered subjects from other worlds, they too would need to forge such bonds to become a single people under his rule.
As his fingers outlined an enormous hearth on the house plan, Loki asked, “Ellisif, do you think you can manage this much tomorrow? We’ll focus on the large-scale structure at first. We’ll worry about ornamental details later.”
Ellisif nodded (ruffling Tickseed’s feathers a bit at the interruption) and pointed at the tower on the far end. A question danced in her eyes.
“Erik’s tower,” Loki explained. “For his particular brand of magic.” He examined her face, or at least as much as he could see of it through the shimmering outline of the illusion. He recalled the branching scar on her back. Had he overestimated her ability? “If this is too much–“
She shook her head and squinted as she studied the hovering box of light. She poked her finger through some of the doors, watching the little images swing back and forth, like a girl playing with a dollhouse. Her head tilted from side to side as she did so, and the movement caused Tickseed to surrender her operation entirely. Loki was not sure if he should be pleased or annoyed that she was so easily amused. How had she passed as a yellowcloak for so long, even in disguise?
“I have never met anyone from Midgard before,” Kolla said to Erik as she bounced Faraldr on her knee. “How exciting! What is it like?”
“Yes!” added Magnus, who was holding a sleeping Farbjorn in his massive arms. “Tell us of your poets.”
“Oh, I didn’t spend much time on them at university,” Erik said between bites of honey-drenched yam, “as literature wasn’t exactly my field. But let me think. Well, there’re the classics with Homer and Virgil. ‘Et in Arcadia Ego’ and so forth. Then there’s Byron. You’d love him. He was quite the rascal! What was it, ‘Give me again a faithful few, In years and feelings still the same, And I will fly the midnight crew, Where boist’rous joy is just a name.’ “
“Midnight crew,” repeated Magnus with a rolling laugh that caused the infant in his arms to wake and yawn. “Sounds like us!”
A firefly trailed its glowing light near the margins of the fire. Faraldr squirmed in Kolla’s lap as he reached for it, and when she held him still, he howled at such injustice. Loki cringed as the baby’s cries and shrieks drowned out the other night noises. As Kolla fussed over the child, Loki reconfirmed that his chambers were on the other side of the manor from the trolls’ quarters. Ellisif was turning the little house with her hands; her tongue poked out the corner of her lips as she concentrated on the image.
“Lewis Caroll was fun,” Erik continued when Faraldr’s tantrum had simmered down. “I bet you’d get a kick out of ‘Jabberwocky’. Heh, right now I wouldn’t be surprised if one popped out of the woods. There’s Ibsen, from my neck of the woods. Lao Tzu, too, from China. One of my schoolmates was fond of Solomon Mutswairo down in Zimbabwe.”
“Zim-baaaaab-way,” Magnus repeated, drawing it out, as if he were sucking juice out of each syllable. “Chiiiiiiina. What strange names! What beautiful names! Ah, I must go there some day.”
“Oh! And there’s Shakespeare, the Bard himself. I bet even Loki’s heard of him.”
“Of course,” Loki said as he turned spun the illusion around to its far side with the tip of his finger. “There was a time when books were my sole companions. I read the ones that Mother collected from across the realms, including Midgard. His works were among them.”
He glanced up at Erik to see his reaction to what he did not say, that he had spent an entire year doing nothing but reading in a cell buried beneath Asgard. Loki had no true feeling for what the trolls did or did not know about him. Their exposure to tidings of other realms was spotty at best. To his credit, the mortal’s knowledge did not register in his eyes.
When he had worn the face of Odin, he had read Frigga’s will, in which she had left her personal collection of books to her youngest son. A great deal of that collection had found its way into his cell during his incarceration. She had had no way of knowing that she would die long before she reached elderhood, or that he would not long outlive her, or that he would return soon afterwards. He had left the books in his former cell; in fact, he had ordered the entire room to be left untouched. Dealing with them had been too painful. It was no wonder there were whispers of ghosts about the place. He wondered if the books were still there and if they still smelled of primroses, leather, and old paper. Those scents had been one of his few true comforts in that forsaken place. Even now, the memory of that fragrance was raw and rough in his heart. But he also knew that collection would be the foundation of a magnificent library, if only he could get to it.
“Perhaps we can retrieve some of them,” he said at last. “Eventually.”
Erik said, “I had a small library, myself. Mostly science texts, but some of them were antiques, first editions. Quite valuable. And I had an astrolabe or two. I asked Jane to take care of them while I was… away. It would be nice to have them here.”
“Until then, we should tell our own stories,” Magnus said. “Know you any long tales, Astronomer?”
“Ehhhhh,” Erik said with a cringe, “Not offhand. I am sure Loki knows some good chestnuts, though. ” He winked at Loki. “Maybe tell them about our first encounter.”
“Oh!” exclaimed Kolla. “Marvelous! I was curious about how you two met. We don’t get many mortals around these parts.”
Loki looked down as he felt a weight on his knee. Fargrim had crawled around the ring and was clutching at his trousers. He looked up with joyful eyes and cooed. Loki gathered the infant into his arms.
“Hullo, Grimmie,” he said.
“Wooooooooooaaaaaa,” Grimmie shrieked with delight.
He settled his chin on Loki’s shoulder, and Loki patted him on his back until he emitted a troll-worthy belch that echoed across the water.
“Ah, that’s your son, all right, my Mangi,” Kolla said with a giggle.
An owl hooted in reply. A chunk of darkness tore itself out of the night and flitted around them for a moment. It settled in Ellisif’s hair and revealed itself as a rusty grey moth, one with a wingspan that spread over her head. Its feathery antennae twitched, but Ellisif did not even blink, as if she were unaware of her living headdress. No one made a move to shoo it away. At worst, it made her look extremely silly, and Loki was too tired to demand much propriety at what currently passed for his hearth.
Loki gave Erik a sly grin back, not taking the bait. As he manoeuvred Fargrim into his lap, he said, “Perhaps we should tell them some other tales first. For a little… background.”
Fargrim settled in and gazed up at him with adoring eyes, smiling at the sound of his voice. Yes, he would give them a story that was educational, one that was insurance against any number of possible futures.
“I met a group of adventurers in Erik’s realm. They called themselves the… the Avenging Knights of Midgard.” Loki began, adding just the right tone of storyteller craft to his voice.
Erik cleared his throat. “I think I’ve heard this one. I’ll go take a look at the stars for a moment.”
The man dusted himself off and wandered out of the small circle of light, but Loki could hear his footsteps in the wet grass not far away. He watched the mortal for a moment, then he returned his gaze to the group around the fire. The trolls leaned in, their eyes glistening with innocent anticipation. Ellisif merely smiled softly at him, as if she were listening to an often-heard and much-beloved story, as she put an arm around Tickseed. The elderly elf leaned her head on the girl’s shoulder and sighed contentedly, like a child after a long day of play. Even the moth waved its antennae at him in a show of attention.
“A very… colorful group, shall we say,” he continued. “One of them, known as The Archer, told me many wonderful stories while I was visiting there. The first one he told me was about a very special mortal with powerful, magical armor. He called himself…the Iron Knight…”
The morning mists had just started to lift when they approached the rock wall again. They stared at it, rubbing their chins, as they shook off the fog of sleep. Even Sleipnir was still shaking horse-dreams out of the braids Tickseed had woven into his mane. She had been on a grooming tear after she had finally gotten Ellisif to stand still long enough to braid the wiry mess on her head.
The trolls paced the section of wall that Loki had chosen and a little beyond, into a little hollow where the wall drew back and was no longer straight. Kolla found a cleft in the rock there, one that cut through the wall itself. She clapped with joy at discovering a cave and declared she would enjoy scouting it out after they had all settled in.
Loki was pleased that the trolls were so easy to handle and eager to please. Mostly they managed themselves, although Magnus did steal glances at him from time to time, seeking his approval. Loki recalled how they had listened with rapt attention at his tale of Stark. He had not needed to invent it. It had all been true, simply dressed in the sort of robes that trolls could appreciate. Electronics and torpedoes were a bit beyond their experience; but armor? Armor they understood. Agent Barton had told him much in a short amount of time in their little underground hideaway. Loki had no shortage of true tales to pass along until he could, somehow, get hold of his books again. He did not simply want what was, by all rights, his; the irritation that an educated troll would cause a certain All-Father was just too delicious to resist. He also wanted them for Ellisif. She had power, indeed, but he was unsure of her knowledge of its use. She would need guidance, his guidance. He would teach her, mold her thoughts, as his mother had taught him. The word disciple simply whet his appetite.
He felt restless, needing to get started. He could feel the ever-present itch in his brain flaring up again. He craved action, anything that would make it fade into the background.
“So, how does this work, exactly?” asked Erik. “Are you two going to just conjure up a house whole-hog out of thin air?”
“Hog,” Magnus said with a happy growl. He rubbed circles into his tummy. “We must strive to start a herd, if we can find any. Bacon would be most agreeable.”
“Indeed,” replied Loki. “But one thing at a time, Magnus. It’s a little more complicated than that, Selvig. Think for a moment. Check that little store of knowledge that we share.”
“Yes, yes, I remember now,” he said. “You’re going to warp reality itself? With no starting mass? That goes against the laws of thermodynamics!”
Loki pointed to Ellisif with his head. “With most magics, you would be correct. But with her particular talents, we can… circumvent… certain physical laws. At least, if my guess is right. She reports to a somewhat higher authority. Isn’t that right, my dear?”
She flashed a smile at Erik and nodded at Loki. He took her by the hand and guided her to a spot in front of him. He hoped that the tremble at the base of his spine did not make it to his arms. The element of danger loomed larger than he had let on to the others. The Tesseract had touched him before, when he had made the leap from the home of The Other to Midgard. It had left him wrung out and aching, with barely the strength to face the men at the other end. But he had faced them, and he had defeated them. But that had been just a brush of the Tesseract’s fingers, just the warmth a blind man feels as he walks by a hearth. What it would it be like, abiding within that fire itself? Would it merge with him and heed his commands, or would it simply reduce him to ash? It was a moment of both dread and hope.
“I have all the plans set in my head,” he continued, forcing the tremors back down his throat. “She has the power to construct whatever she wills. I will guide that power.”
Erik scratched his head and asked, “Loki, have you ever done anything like this before?”
“Not quite. I have studied how others have done it, of course, but rarely found anyone willing to attempt it.” He rested his hands on Ellisif’s low, narrow shoulders. He threw them a glance over his shoulder. “The rest of you might want to stand back. Just in case.”
“Oh, do be careful, Elli,” Kolla said as she guided Tickseed back out of the way.
Magnus herded the Pebbles towards Sleipnir, who was inspecting the quality of the grass farther down the slope. Bees buzzed about in the warming air as the drones scouted out potential sites for the hive.
Loki squeezed Ellisif’s shoulder and whispered, “Don’t be afraid. Do just as I told you. Focus on wood and stone. Listen for my call.”
Her braid — already unraveling — bobbed as she nodded. She tilted her head back until it touched his chest, and he watched her muddy eyes shut out the world before he closed his own. The warmth of the sun, the smell of the grass, and the chorus of birdsong dwindled from his senses as he drew all of his focus to the power within him. He let the phantom home of the night before bloom in his mind’s eye. The only thing he could feel was her, the soft fabric of her tunic under his hands, the light pressure of her head against his sternum, the slight movement of her body as she breathed. He concentrated on that until he could feel her presence in his head, like a gentle push that he usually felt with a change in air pressure or like Frigga’s hand stroking his hair when he was a boy. He inhaled deeply and pulled that sensation into him. Awareness of anything outside of that connection faded away.
He whispered a single word into the wind: “Arise.”
For a heartbeat, it felt as if the ground had opened beneath him, and he was falling, falling, falling, like he had from the Bifrost so long ago; he had been thrown, or had he jumped? The memory was lost in a haze of time and thought. He fell until tendrils unseen caught him, as something else had caught when he had truly fallen.
He had been mistaken. He had no control here. None at all.
Wisps of power formed between him and the silent Ellisif. He could feel them anchoring themselves along the length of their bodies, invisible but unmistakably present. But inside, somehow, things were not so silent, not so invisible. It was like hearing the night-song all over again, except it was the rumbling of memories. His were too many, too heavy, and hers too few, too light, most of them involving him to some degree. In among it all was warmth bathing his mind, one that he had never known before, like a comforting bath, like Kolla’s trollish lullaby, like a sunbeam held down by a drowsy cat.
Feeling that power was like dying again. It was like dying in Thor’s arms under a purple sky, like hearing that beloved voice soothing that thrashing fear inside him as his vision had faded into darkness. Then it was that magnetic force that had, somehow, pulled him back into Svartalfheim and injected life back into him. That force was inside of him now, and it was singing. He had never heard her voice in the waking world, but he heard her now. The task at hand was all but forgotten.
This child of the stones was no child. This was a force made flesh.
It grew more intense, changing, reaching deeper in, drowning the image of the lodge in his mind. The warmth soaked into other parts of him, and it was no longer a lullaby but a siren song pulsing through him. It stirred him more than any loveplay ever had; it drenched him until he screamed from it, screamed from the ecstasy of it. All thoughts of building and creating something so mundane as a house evaporated in its heat, and he felt the fire that he had both dreaded and desired flooding through his veins.
The Tesseract was touching him again, not just touching him but embracing him, plucking strings in his soul as if he were a harp in its hands. But it wasn’t just the Tesseract. It was the heart’s-blood red of the Aether, too, and the icy blue of the Mind stone, and the colors of gems he had yet to see, all blended into one current, all melded into the being that he had named Ellisif.
He had named her, and in so doing he had marked her as his. He had not wanted her but the power within her. He found now that he could not separate the two. The power was her. She was that power. He couldn’t hold one without embracing the other. He tried to grasp it, contain it, but it surrounded him, engulfed him, instead.
He could not control her. She was guiding him.
It began to fade, slowly at first, and he didn’t want it to leave, didn’t want it to go, didn’t want it to stop, but it had to… it could not last. The wave of energy rose, then receded, then rose and receded again. It pulled back a little more each time, like the tide rolling back out to sea.
With one last soft caress across his mind, Ellisif pulled away. She was pulling back, disengaging, and for a fleeting moment, he held on, not wanting to let go. Still, she slipped out of his mental grasp; the connection was now just sand in his fist. The song faded, note by note, and broke apart, until all he could hear was the huzzahs of the trolls and the chirping of the birds. It was over.
Had it worked? Or had his perceptions spilled out and exposed his heart for all of them to see? Had they heard his roars of rapture? He was almost afraid to look up.
When he finally opened his eyes, he discovered he was on his knees. His face was wet, and his eyes stung. He could not tell if it was from sweat or from tears. His heart pounded, and his muscles ached, as if he had been clenching them all for a week. Ellisif had collapsed into a little heap in front of him on the ground. His body wasn’t heeding his commands; nothing would move, not even a finger, and all he could do was stare in wonder at her tiny crumpled form. She seemed a tiny pebble, but he now knew that a mountain lurked beneath that placid silent surface. A mountain that urged him to ascend its summit once more.
Was this what Thor’s pretty little mortal had felt when she had played host to the Aether? Had it been anything close to the flood of power of all the stones at once?
Thor’s warning came back to him: It would consume you.
But it had not. He was still there. Shaken, yes. Drained, yes. But still there.
He blinked the craving away. Ellisif was not his lover, nor did he want her to be. He had a kingdom to tame; there would be world enough and time for such follies when his land swelled with people. Determination shouldered the shreds of sentimentality out of the way, and as it did he regained control of his limbs. He leaned down and pulled Ellisif to her feet. She, too, trembled for lack of breath in the wake of their connection. The ribbon had slipped out of her hair, and the braid had unwound. She wobbled as she stood, and her eyes were inscrutable and distant, as if she could not focus on the world around her. She seemed such a far cry from what he had just experienced that he began to wonder if it had been real at all.
Was it true, then? Was that scrap of ancient knowledge, that one fact that only he and Erik knew, that only he and Erik could ever know, about her be true? He didn’t want to think about it, but it nagged him like a loose tooth that would not let go. It had been easier to believe when The Other had exposed him to the knowledge of the gems; it had just been no colder a fact than gravity. But he had just joined with that power. He had touched it, and it had touched him in his deepest places. How could that exist without a spirit to guide it? How could the gems create a being with such power … and then give it no soul?
He grasped her by the shoulders once more to hold her up; he could feel no trace of the song he had just heard inside of her. He could only feel weariness weighing her down. Perhaps it had been too much, after all. Thor’s folly, it seemed, had done more than stunt her body, or perhaps she really was no more than a beast or a tool. Was that why she could not speak?
This would not do. The stones had given her to him, he was sure of it. He must teach her, train her, prepare her. How could he build a kingdom in sprints, when it was a marathon?
He asked no one in particular to give Ellisif some water. Kolla, smiling and weeping a troll’s gravelly tears, appeared by his side and took the girl from him. Magnus held a water-skin up to the girl’s lips.
Content to let them tend to her, Loki finally turned to look at the source of the trolls’ joy. Before him, glowing softly in the morning sun, was the design he had so carefully crafted in light the night before. The power that had flowed through them both was manifest here, in wood and stone. Loki looked upon it and saw that it was beautiful.
The house was long, but not overwhelming. It ran along the face of the rock wall, and its own walls were of a slightly darker stone that sparkled with flecks of mica. The high sloping roof of conjured wood extended out over the Porch, which thrust out towards them. Stairs flew up from the ground to carry them up to the shaded breezeway, lined with columns of rough tree trunks. There were hints of roots reaching into the floor and branches reaching up into the porch’s roof, as if the trees themselves were growing up through the entryway. That had not been part of his design; it was a little touch of Ellisif.
The core of the manor stretched between two towers, one on the left for Erik and his scholarly duties and one on the right for Loki – and Loki alone. In the center, the porch led to a pair of large plain wooden doors, framed in bronze with a blank-faced transom, which ached for the touch of an artist’s hand. Just beyond the threshold lay the Great Hall and the Great Hearth. On either side of the portal, the porch turned and ran along the front of the house. The covered walkway begged for benches and planters overflowing with flowers. Closed shutters covered the windows that lined both stories of the front and hid the honeycomb of chambers within. The house slept, waiting for him to awaken it.
The fresh-scrubbed beauty of it smote him to the heart; he forgot to breathe. Here was something he had never had before, something to call his own. He could almost feel it, the way he could feel the presence of others in a small room; in the brightening day, it felt alive. No majestic palace of Asgard had ever called out to him like this; no grand feast hall had ever felt like such a part of him. There was only one thing left to do. There was one last magic, that of naming, that would bind the hall to him. It would make this place his home. It would be his treasure, another asset for his growing list.
“Let the realms know, the Hall of Loki stands among them, the hall that I call Lokasala. Lokasala, I name you.”
Watching his ruddy face for a reaction, Sigyn looked up at Theoric as they walked arm-in-arm in the warm morning light. With Sefa only a few steps behind them, they strolled along a bridge that crossed one of the many lakes in Asgard. This one, not far from the palace, was not tranquil and still but bubbling and roaring as the water plunged off the falls into a lower tier of the city. The ancient stone beneath their feet resisted the relentless pull of the water, but crossing that restless expanse still sent shivers up Sigyn’s spine. She and her betrothed met here from time to time, when Theoric had a day free from his duties in the Einherjar. Many of the other visitors to the bridge were used to seeing the pair of them here; his reddish blond curls, closely trimmed beard, and warrior’s build often garnered them admiring looks from the passers-by. The din of the water was frustrating at times, but now she was grateful for it, as it would conceal their words from any eavesdroppers that might be admiring him a little too closely.
The bridge afforded a grand view of the palace, which gleamed in the morning light that poured over the Eternal Realm. The glare of it was nearly blinding, and the glory of it stung her eyes. They paused near the far end of the bridge, which ended in an angled block of still more stone, which bore carved images of old King Bor. They turned away to look over the cityscape on the other side of the bridge and leaned onto the rail that separated them from the open air over the rushing water.
“Would that not be strange?” Theoric said at last. “You were pupil to his wife and close friend of his son. And, grown younger or no, his mind is old enough to be your grandsire’s.” He shook his head and observed her with his sharp yet warm green eyes. “This is happening all too fast, Sigyn. A handful of days ago, Asgard was enjoying its first peace since the invasion. Now all is in an uproar. Odin, not really Odin. And the man who is Odin is not old Odin any more, he is young Odin. And the prince who was the king, but not really the king, is missing. This is very confusing. I am a warrior. I like a clear chain of command, and right now that chain is full of kinks.”
“Yes,” Sigyn replied as she rested her head onto his shoulder. “Everything is in an uproar.”
“Interesting how Iwaldi was so keen on arranging our union until something better came along,” Theoric sighed. He rested his hand on hers and gave it a gentle squeeze. “Well, Sigyn, what are your wishes? Ours was an arranged match from the beginning, though for me it has always been a happy one. But I also told you from the start I would not be husband to an unwilling wife. I know that you were once fond of Prince Loki, and you might well have been his consort if… well, let us just say, would you rather be queen of Asgard instead of an officer’s lady?”
“I would rather be just plain Sigyn.” At his frown, she added, “I have no interest in breaking our betrothal, Theoric. It has been a happy one for me as well. Given my will, I would indeed be your wife. It is just that I want to be who I am, not defined by who my husband is. To be honest, the King has not yet summoned me in this matter. I think my father is awaiting my answer before he presents me at court. But he grows impatient.”
“It is difficult to go against the All-Father, once his mind is set,” Theoric replied. “But if your father has not approached him yet, perhaps out of sight would put you out of Odin’s mind.” He scratched at his beard, his fingers searching for answers among his whiskers. He tugged at her elbow, and they resumed their walk back to the shore side of the bridge. The soft scent of cedar met them, wafting down from planters on the balcony that shaded the shore.
A couple of ravens circled overhead. They dove down to the walkway and perched on the stone rail, watching silently as the trio passed them by. Theoric waited until they fluttered away over the water before speaking again.
“There is a delegation headed to Nidavellir in the next few days,” he said. “There is a drought in one of the provinces there, and they plan to assist several dwarf villages. Irrigation, herbals, supplemental foodstuffs, that sort of thing. I am friends with their leader. Their goals fall in line with many of your talents. If you wish, I will speak with him. They had permission to go from Odin — or the Prince, or whoever it was on the throne at the time — before all this happened. With the recent confusion, perhaps that permission has not been rescinded. He may not even be aware of it. Heimdall may yet let them through.”
“Yes,” Sigyn said, brightening. She planted a kiss on his cheek. “Oh, Theoric, you are indeed a worthy man! Speak to your friend. Find out what I need to pack. I will go.”
“And I will go with you, my lady,” replied Sefa, who was walking just behind Sigyn’s other shoulder. Her jaw rippled as she clenched it as some memory, unknown to Sigyn, crossed the woman’s mind. “Nidavellir can be a rough place. The Aesir are not always welcome there.”
Theoric smiled at Sefa. “You two will be inseparable, as ever. I have faith that Sefa can keep you safe. I for one certainly want to stay on her good side! They will only be gone a short while, but things are moving quickly. Perhaps he will choose another bride in the meantime. Your father will object, but you are a woman grown. Marriages can be arranged, but you cannot be forced to marry against your own wishes. I will part with you here and go speak with my friend.” He brushed his lips against her knuckles and then bowed as he walked away. “And, Sigyn–“
“Yes, my betrothed?”
“It gladdens my heart to know that you prefer me to a king.”
“It’s still not right,” Jane muttered.
She erased her last squiggle on the board with a blue-stained thumb. She then plopped down on the closest stack of boxes, which overflowed with Erik’s collection of books and Thor’s Midgard garb of cotton and denim. She tried to bore a hole into the equations with her stare. The darkness outside turned the windows into dim mirrors, and she cringed at the sight of her tousled hair and weary eyes.
“How the hell could you know that it’s not right?” Darcy growled. She picked up a paper cup from the counter lining the back of the room and stared at the scribbling on Jane’s whiteboard. “That looks like Greek alphabet soup to me.”
“It’s not just one equation. It’s a set. And they should balance out. Except they don’t.” She stood up and slammed the marker down into its tray. “I’ll feel really stupid if it’s just a flipped sign or something–“
“What’s that ‘i’ there in the middle?” Darcy asked. She peered into one of the cabinets and pushed aside several boxes of pop tarts. She tugged an envelope of hot cocoa out of a battered shell of cardboard in the back.
“An imaginary number.”
“Imaginary number? Get real! No wonder it’s not working.” She shook the envelope and dumped its contents into the cup.
“Pfffft. I wish you had taken that calculus class like I asked you to.” She could hear Darcy’s eyes rolling towards the ceiling, as usual. “Anyway. I was hoping that coming back to New Mexico would help, that I could make progress closer to where we started, but so far it’s not helping. I admit this would be easier if I could get someone in Asgard to verify a few things for me. Or just let me get a peek at the Bifrost…”
“Yeah, like Odin would ever let that happen,” Darcy said with a snort. She reached for the overworked coffee pot and poured the remainder of it over the powder. She rummaged around in the drawers for a stirrer.
“Why not? Why can’t we share our science? Shouldn’t knowledge flow freely?”
“C’mon, Jane,” Darcy said as she jabbed the air with the plastic straw she had managed to find. “He doesn’t even want you there in Asgard, never mind poking around in their techy stuff.” She stirred the concoction with a flourish. She then took a noisy sip of her mocha and licked the milk mustache off her lips. “Aaaaah, yummy. Balance of power. The universe is easier to control if you’re the only one with keys to the car.”
“What makes you say that?”
“Hello! Political science major here. You’re good at the math, but you don’t know squat about politics. I call it the Darcy Principle. Knowledge is power, babe. In their eyes, the ones with the knowledge are the ones with the power. You’re on your own.”
“I don’t think I am. At least, not entirely,” Jane said. She swallowed hard before continuing, unsure of the words to use next. “When I had the Aether inside me, I saw things, Darcy. It spoke to me … not really in words but in feelings, images. I — I don’t think it was as evil as Odin said it was.”
“Wasn’t good,” Darcy murmured between sips.
“No, no, it was kind of… neutral. Like a tool. But a tool with a brain. Sort of. I think there were things it wanted me to know.” She hugged herself tightly as she shivered, as she always did when she recalled that crimson-tinged memory. Her scientist’s mind pushed the fear aside, and she dug into the recollection, looking for more data to work with. “It warned me, Darcy. It warned me of what Malekith wanted to do. I don’t think it was on his side.”
“Maybe it’s not on anybody’s side. Except its own.”
“Exactly. So, why would it help me along on this? And why not tell me everything? There’s something missing… some constant… or some additional equation that I just can’t see.”
Darcy pulled out a box pastries, noted the flavor, and grimaced. She pulled out another one and said, “Look, Jane, you can take a break on the great Foster Theory for the night. It’ll still be here in the morning. We’re the only ones here, and I don’t understand it enough to screw it up on the board.”
Jane shook her head. “I can’t sleep. I’m worried about Erik. And figuring this out may be the only way to get him back, if Loki’s taken him somewhere else. Somewhere we can’t just… just drive to.”
“I’m worried about him, too,” Darcy said as she opened a box and pulled out an envelope. “But you won’t figure anything out if your brain is fried.”
“I don’t get it. I don’t get why Loki took him again. Or even how he’s still alive. I watched him die.”
“Maybe he was just playing possum,” Darcy said between bites of pastry.
“Possum. You know, faking it.”
“Oh, who knows. It didn’t look fake. I can’t figure him out. I really can’t. He tries to take over Earth. Then he saves me — twice! He dies saving Thor. And I was actually sad when it happened! Can you believe that? He comes back. And now he takes Erik. Again. And that girl, whoever she is.”
“Well, you can’t do anything for him if you pass out from lack of sleep.” Darcy tossed the wrapper into the recycling bin and hit the switch for the lights, dousing Jane in sudden darkness. “C’mon, Jane, get some sleep. Something will come up.”
The Pebbles’ bubbling laughter echoed off the sides of the empty hall. The joyous noise ricocheted off the honey-colored walls and floated about Loki’s head as he and his people explored the great central hall of Lokasala.
The sun climbed in the sky outside and strolled beside them in glowing rays that streamed in through the balcony windows that lined the enormous chamber. Their warmth flowed across the floor and touched the silent hearth in its center. Even bare of furniture, the room seemed to come to life with the touch of the sun and the unbridled joy of the trolls as they danced (and crawled, in the case of the infants) through it. He could hear Sleipnir’s eight hooves plodding around the perimeter, sniffing about for carrots and neighing an occasional suggestion for improvement. Even Tickseed seemed content as she traced the grain of a log in the wall with her finger.
It matched the illusion he had designed the night before, with little touches of Ellisif here and there that he had not expected. Carved trees that sprang up from the second floor, twisting and branching like things alive, supported the rails that ran along the balconies. The flat stones lining the hearth bustled and jostled each other in a rainbow of coppers and tans and grays. A stone dais, anticipating its future throne, rose from the floor and met the far wall, and the front of each step leading to it was inlaid with the same winding lines and knots that he had found on Magnus’ boat. The sharp fragrance of freshly sawn wood tickled his nose, even without the use of sharp-toothed tools.
Truly, we are gods, he thought, to tease such beauty out of nothing.
He breathed in the scent of his hall. As he watched the trolls gawk about them, he sensed something different. Was the light falling at a different angle? Was it simply later in the morning, or was he fatigued from their creative endeavors? He felt fine… something was just… changed. Or missing. The eternal itch in his brain. That was it. It had faded; it was still present, but it had receded into the darker corners of his mind, at least for the moment. It was a pleasant feeling, like a sip of mead taking the edge off some inner sharpness that had always seemed to slice away at him.
“Oh, home at last!” Kolla hollered. She yelped as Magnus swept her up in his arms and planted a firm kiss on her lips.
He noticed Ellisif standing stock-still a few yards away from the milling troll family. She still moved slowly after their shared act of creation. She was still a shade on the pale side, but he was pleased to see that she had refused to give in to fatigue. She had frozen in her tracks as she watched the trolls embrace. Then she tilted her head back to stare up at the high rafters of the ceiling as if she could not tear her eyes away. Loki circled around her and tapped her on the shoulder. She jumped, as if she had not heard his approach.
“Are you all right?” he whispered.
She bobbed her head once and then gestured at the embracing trolls with her chin. She pointed at her own lips with a questioning open-handed gesture.
“Ah,” Loki said, “Something new for you, I suppose. It’s called kissing. It’s what people do when they feel affection for each other. When they love each other.” He studied the fluid expressions on her small face, from confusion to deep consideration. “You would not have seen much of that in the streets of Asgard.”
Ellisif inhaled a brief, sharp breath, her mouth flying open in what for anyone else would have been the precursor of a comment. He narrowed his eyes in anticipation of a word, a grunt, or any kind of meaningful sound. But she held that breath within her, closed her mouth, and looked away at the floor. Loki narrowed his eyes. He let the observation pass for now, but he filed it away for later discussion. He could sense the crackle of her frustration in the air, but he held his peace in front of the trolls. He had much to teach her, and he needed her trust.
Now, he merely asked, “Do you understand?”
She looked into the space between them, avoiding his eyes, and bobbed her head. With a twisted smile, she wandered over to Tickseed and placed a soft kiss on the elf’s wrinkled cheek.
Tickseed’s delighted squeal of “Oh! Tansy!” followed Ellisif as she embraced Kolla, cuddled each of the Pebbles in turn, clasped Magnus’ great paw of a hand, and bussed the top of a rather surprised Erik Selvig’s head with a shockingly loud smack of her lips. The scholar, sitting in the middle of the cold hearth and staring through the roof portal that would allow smoke to escape, frowned playfully at the sudden deed.
Observing her embracing them gave him an odd feeling, one that started out as mild amusement but soon slid into a light despondency. Their earlier sharing of power had been so intimate that he had not the words to describe it. He had no desire to touch her, not really, but seeing her shower such attention on the others pricked at him. He did want to touch that power again. He was hungry to feel it, to have it within him, to swim in it and have that warmth suffusing him again. It had scratched that ever-present itch in his brain, and the itch had not yet returned. He wanted to hear that song again, even though he could not remember its melody, only how it made him feel: as the god he knew himself to be. Powerful. Young. Strong. Unstoppable.
He composed his face into an expression of royally bored indifference as he looked on, knowing that Kolla was glancing his way. He could not tell why Ellisif was avoiding him during her little parade of affection, or why he even cared. He was a king; he must not appear to care about such antics. Was she simply respecting a king’s dignity? Was her mind as stunted as her body, that she did not truly understand what he had said? Or was she trying to tell him something else?
He could comprehend the whinnying speech of Sleipnir, but he could not understand this broken child of the Stones at all. The power of the Allspeak held no sway over Silence.
“Oh, my wicked little magpie,” he sighed as she rubbed Sleipnir’s muzzle with her nose. “We must find a better way to communicate.”
The great stone monuments emerged out of the thick mists that loomed over the valleys of Vanaheim. The veil of fog flowed over them and crept through the pine forest that cradled the cluster of cottages. Low and round, they blossomed out of the ground like a fairy ring of great thatched mushrooms. Villagers lounged at tables by their doors in the still morning air, trading gossip over bowls of sweetened barley and clay mugs of steaming cider.
Behind the largest cottage was a walled garden that overflowed with berry vines and plum trees. Two figures meandered along the path that wound among the bushes. Each grasped a walking staff as gnarled and worn as the hands that held them, and the perfume of cedar and pine followed them as they strolled along. One reached for the elbow of the other, who waved it off.
“I think I know the way around my own garden, Refkell,” he said.
“As you wish, Ulf,” Refkell replied. “Why did you wish to speak out here anyway? Wouldn’t we be more comfortable by the fire?”
Ulf smiled back at him. Despite the rumples in his face and the snow in his beard, Ulf’s face still bore the constellation of freckles and moles on his caramel-colored face that Refkell remembered from their youth.
“Much has changed since I returned to Vanaheim,” Ulf said. His rich voice was still smooth and strong, even if his hands trembled. “But I still enjoy causing a bit of trouble from time to time. Like in the old days, when we wasted so many hours drinking Alfarr’s mead barrels dry. Is he still there?”
“His son Agnarr runs it now.”
“Little Agnarr, all grown up? Ah, those were the days. I learned a few secrets along the way, like how to avoid Heimdall’s ears. I have made an enhancement to this garden. Puts a buzz in the ear of anyone trying to listen, even the Bifrost’s watchdog.” He hummed to himself while a smug smile slithered across his wrinkles. “But Asgard has seen its own interesting days of late, it seems. Do you truly feel a Congress is warranted, though? It’s a rather bold step, especially these days. With Odin young and strong again–“
“Especially with him young and strong again, Ulf. His body is strong, yes, but I fear for his mind. His obsession with the prince is leading him down a strange path. One that could impact all the realms.”
Ulf stopped in the path and leaned on his staff. “Hmmm. I have been away from court since before Loki’s birth. I only have your words to go on, friend, as to his character. Still, some news manages to trickle down here from time to time. Tell me, did Loki really try to conquer Midgard on his own?”
“Indeed, he did,” said Refkell. “I am not sure what madness prompted that move. I have been to Midgard, but it’s been centuries. Even then, ’twas a very silly place. Why anyone would want to rule it is beyond me.”
Ulf chuckled as they approached one of the many benches scattered about the garden. He grunted as he sat down upon it. “You forget, old friend, the lessons we learned at the feet of Bor himself. Asgard may think it’s the center of the Nine Realms, but Midgard is the point around which everything rotates. And, remember, it is the one realm that does not feel subject to Odin. In their eyes, the rest of us are just legends about fellows twiddling about in horned helms and longboats.”
Refkell joined him in his laughter. “Ah! So, if Loki could re-take such place… and make us more than legend… he would be a force for Odin to reckon with.” He grunted as he, too, sat upon the bench. He leaned his head onto his staff. “Competition?”
“Odin was ever a lover of conformity. Of keeping things on an even keel. Competition would certainly warp the keel. He felt that way about any changes.” Ulf pointed to his sightless eyes, which had lost the tawny brown that Refkell remembered so well. “When I lost my vision, not long after he took the throne, I found that I was… less than welcome.”
“I remember,” Refkell sighed. “Those of us who valued your wisdom missed you greatly. It was one of the reasons why I retired when I did. I always wondered, Ulf, why they never attempted to heal your eyes with the Soulforge?”
“Ah,” laughed Ulf again, this time with an edge of bitterness to his voice, “they do not waste the Soulforge’s great energies on Vanir. Or anyone who is not Aesir. You know that.” He mused a little space before continuing. “You know, Kell, I suspected something was not quite right when I heard whispers that Asgard might share it with other realms.” He scratched his chin through his thick beard and licked the edge of his mouth. “Do you happen to know if they ever used the Soulforge on Loki?”
Refkell was taken aback. “I would not know. I am not exactly privy to such matters. Why?”
“There is another reason why I left my post in Asgard, old friend. It is a reason that I have never revealed to anyone. Not my wife, not my sons. I– I found I could see through illusions.”
“Illusions? Like the ones Frigga was famous for?”
“Aye. It turns out I had had that gift for some time, but it took me a while to realize that I could see what others did not. That I could see past glamours.” He shuddered and grimaced. “What lies beneath some of them! Truly terrifying!” He tapped his staff upon the ground as if shaking off the memories. “Sometimes I am glad I can no longer see. It is ironic that the Fates would take away my sight so soon after my realization.”
“I could see how that could be both a blessing and a curse,” replied Refkell, “but why tell me now?”
“Do you recall the time leading up to Loki’s birth? With the Queen? I was in Vanaheim then.”
“It was over a thousand years ago, Ulf! But I do seem to remember that she was seen but little as the time of her confinement neared. That is not unusual for Asgardian mothers, though.”
“But her condition was obvious.”
“From a distance, yes. I had little interaction with her. What of it?”
Ulf leaned across the bench and whispered in a low, tense voice. “I left Asgard not long before the last war with Jotunheim. Before the last withdrawal from Midgard. Not long after Laufey’s defeat, two things of note occurred. There was the widely-announced news that Frigga was with child again. Everyone rejoiced. Heir and a spare, you see.”
“And the other thing of note?” Refkell whispered back. Even without the danger of Heimdall’s hearing, some things required quiet words.
“Just prior to that, a young widow and her two small children, one just a babe in arms, came to stay in the village. That was odd enough, as Vanir are not known to roam far from home. But she presented herself as a visitor from a nearby town. I was headman of the village at the time, so I paid them a visit. I could not see her, but her voice, her poise — so very much like the queen of Asgard that I had left behind. I held the infant for a time. Refkell, that child was not Vanir. He was not Aesir.”
“How could you tell?”
“I can feel through illusions as well. I could feel markings on his face. Not wounds, mind you. More like a tattoo in relief.”
“Tribal markings?” Refkell asked, fighting to keep his voice quiet. “Frost giant tribal markings?”
“Aye. He was very small for a jotun. Healthy size for an Aesir or a Vanir, though. The markings puzzled me. No one around me commented on them afterward. And you know what gossips we Vanir are! That’s how I knew some powerful magic was at work.”
“Indeed! And where is the young woman now?”
“She returned to her home town later, never to be seen again,” said Ulf.
“And I take it we celebrated the prince’s birth soon after that.”
Ulf nodded, slowly, but remained silent. Refkell noted that the warmth of the sun was penetrating the veil of mist at last. The light was still soft and mottled under the shade of the plum trees. For a few minutes, all he could hear was the faint buzzing of the bees flitting about the berry bushes.
Refkell rubbed his knee and mulled over his friend’s words. At last he said, “I respect your need for discretion. Nothing definitive, really, but a strong enough coincidence that it warrants looking into. Discreetly, of course.” He cleared his throat. “But why would Odin want to pass off a jotun as an Aesir, let alone a member of his own royal house?”
“Who knows the mind of a king? Perhaps he was on the road to madness even then. Or perhaps it simply seemed like a good idea at the time. I cannot imagine that what Loki did later was what he had in mind.” He rested a hand on Refkell’s shoulder. “Have a care, friend. This is a deep magic that you are dealing with, if Odin was able to conceal the prince’s identity for so long. Perhaps even from the prince himself.”
“Do you think Loki knew all along? Or did he discover it later? If this is even true?”
“Again, who knows? But it would explain a great many things if he discovered it later.” Ulf leaned hard on his staff and pulled himself to his feet. “And it would mean the All-Father has some explaining to do. That would indeed be a reason for a Congress, and they are the only ones that could hope to hold him accountable for anything. Deception for the good of the realm is a long-standing tradition of kingcraft. We learned that from Bor. But I believe this is quite beyond that tradition.”
“Especially since it did not succeed,” observed Refkell with a groan as he, too, stood up.
“Oh, doubly so. Well, old friend, if you dare to fly in the face of the All-Father, I will fly with you. I can speak for Vanaheim, if you can pull the rest of the Congress together. I don’t envy you your task. Where do you go next?”
“Jotunheim. If what we suspect is true–“
“That is a dangerous place, even for the young,” Ulf said. “The last time an Asgardian visited there, he nearly ignited a war. And as much as I hate to state the obvious, Refkell, you haven’t seen ‘young’ for millennia.”
Refkell chuckled. “‘Tis true, ’tis true, we have both seen greener days. Still, I feel the need to go. Perhaps Laufey’s successor –“
“Would kill you on sight. Listen to your old drinking companion. If you insist on including Jotunheim in your schemes, Kell, at least visit the other realms first before you lose the chance to speak with them. Alfheim, perhaps?” He leaned forward and whispered. “There is a new portal to there not far from here that will take you to the shores of Marmora. My son discovered it when he chased a rampaging bilgesnipe through it. We have found it to be fairly stable. The portal, mind you, not the bilgesnipe. You would still be within Heimdall’s view, but you would not have to rely upon him for travel.”
“And the bilgesnipe?” asked Refkell with a sidelong glance.
“Somewhere in Alfheim, I suppose. We haven’t seen it since. And good riddance, too. Such a nuisance. If I never encounter one again, it will be far too soon. The other question is, where is Loki now?”
“I have not the faintest idea, Ulf. But if you do see him, please, help him and keep him safe, if you can. Let him know he is not alone.”
They unloaded Magnus’ boat by hand. Ellisif could have teleported the lot to the house, but Kolla insisted that she rest after their morning’s exertions. The troll had tucked the girl in with the Pebbles in a quiet corner of Lokasala for a nap. Magnus did not seem to mind. He carried the heavy crates on his massive shoulders as easily as he did his sons.
All day long Magnus talked about books … books he had read while he hauled Tickseed’s loom, books he hoped to meet again as he settled the beehive into its new home, and the new books that he was looking forward to discovering while he unpacked the crates full of pots in the kitchens. He held forth on the chronicles of Unnarr the Unlucky that he planned to write while he helped Loki pull a net of fish out of the Friggavatn for their evening meal. All day long, it was books, books, books.
This was going to be a problem.
As he surveyed the empty shelves of the library, Loki mulled over what to do next. The sun poured through the high windows on the open second floor and spotlighted the spaces that cried out for paper, ink, and leather. If they were but mortals, he would not need to coddle them so; a touch of fear would have had them well in hand. Trolls, however, required a different approach. Magnus seemed a gentle soul, but trolls were not known for their patience. It was difficult to avoid Kolla’s watchful eyes; gentle and motherly as they were, they were also pensive and probing. Loki felt the need to demonstrate that he could fulfil his promises, if they were to trust him later. He needed to get to his books in Asgard. And for that, he needed Ellisif again.
Loki made his way to his private tower and through the veils of enchantment that ensured he was the only one allowed to climb its winding staircase. Not that there was that much to see there, yet, except for the small casket he had placed in the center of the top chamber earlier that day. Within it rested the Tesseract. In one niche he had placed the rest of the golden apples that Ellisif had filched from Asgard, along with the seeds that he had rescued from Erik’s earlier snacking. Unlike normal fruit, they would keep in his care until he needed them. The room was a far cry from the vault in Asgard, but even it had been just an idea in someone’s mind before it bulged with its treasures; even Asgard had been a cluster of huts at one point. Soon he would fill it with trophies and magical relics of his own.
Loki traced the frame of one of the vacant alcoves set into the wall. Only Ellisif knew of their existence, and he could not tell if she understood their significance. Like the shelves in the library, each one waited for an occupant to fill it.
“This one is just for you, Mjolnir,” he said.
He turned to face the Tesseract and shifted his gaze between it and the ceiling. “As for you two, my, my. Concealing one gem inside another is quite the trick. I’ll have you know, I’ll not pay for my realm by being your puppet, no matter what sort of help you send my way. I’ve had enough of playing that role.” He shook his head and sneered. “I will have to toughen the child up, you know, since you did not see fit to heal her from her initial injuries. Surely you are powerful enough for that.” He leaned against the frame of the door, relieved to get the thoughts out of his head. “I am not sure what use she will be if we ever have to defend ourselves. I do not know what you have in mind, and I truly do not care. I have plans of my own. Fret not, though; they do not include surrendering you to anyone else. My terms with Taneleer Tivan were settled when I sent your associate into his custody. And as for Thanos… I owe him nothing but oblivion.” He stood again and straightened his tunic. With narrowed eyes, he said, “No more bargains. No more promises. From here on out, others will supplicate me.”
His last words faded into the hush of the room. As he had expected, he heard no reply, not even — thankfully — a clap of thunder in the distance. Satisfied, he left the tower, renewing his protective enchantments as he did so.
As the sun sank beyond the canyon walls, his handful of subjects bunked down for the night around the giant hearth. The trolls huddled together in an affectionate pile of rocks with Tickseed and Ellisif tucked in beside them, a shared blanket wrapped around their shoulders. Their eyes shone in the light of the small fire burning in its corner. Sleipnir — so far sans stable — stood on the far side, enjoying a feed bag of oats. Loki had agreed that he could stay with them in the hall until his stable was ready … so long as he did his business outside.
Loki joined Erik on the stairs flowing down from the great porch, where the not-quite-so-mortal stared up at the emerging stars. Loki heard Ellisif’s light footfalls behind him, and he knew she was listening to their quiet conversation.
“I think I know where we are. I mean, where the stone that we’re inside of is, if that makes any sense,” said Erik. “It is still difficult to believe we’re inside a gem! It simply shatters every bit of physics I know. But if the sky here reflects the sky above the stone, then I think we’re on Earth. I mean, the gem is on Earth.”
“Midgard?” Loki asked as a cast a quick glance at Ellisif, who was playing with a firefly that had landed on the back of her hand. It glowed as it crawled across her knuckles, and the soft green glow gave her the look of a faerie. “That is… that is extraordinary.”
“Yes!” Erik replied, commanding Loki’s attention once again. “See, there’s the North Star, there. And that W-shape there, that’s Cassiopeia. Given that we can see them, I can at least put us in the Northern Hemisphere. I can figure out that much. I can think more clearly here than I have in a while, but I’m still not there yet.”
“Could you use an instrument to confirm our location?”
“I’m not certain a GPS would work here, even if I had one. An astrolabe, though, now that would be something that could work here. Unfortunately, it’s with my books.”
Loki nodded. “I know of what you speak. We will see if we can retrieve them, along with my books from Asgard. And perhaps Ellisif can give us an idea of where we are as well.” He clapped a hand on Erik’s shoulder. “Come, Astronomer! I give you hearty praise for thinking ahead. We’ll tell tales again tonight, then go to our rest. We will discuss how to solve it in the morning.”
They returned to the hall, followed by Ellisif. As they settled around the hearth, Magnus said, “Tell us more of the Archer and the Avenging Knights! Is he as good as Svenn the Steady, who could pip a pixie at a thousand paces?”
“Even better. I did catch one of his arrows, though.”
Magnus gasped. “You can catch arrows?”
“Oh, one of those odd bits of skill I picked up here and there over the centuries.” What he didn’t say was that it was a bit of Odincraft that he had happened upon during one of his youthful all-nighters in Asgard’s more esoteric libraries.
“There is much to tell! There are many stories of the Iron Knight and his companions. The Emerald Beserker. The Star Spangled Warrior. But first I will tell you an adventure of the brave Archer and the cunning Lady Natasha, in a little Midgardian village known as Budapest.”
A sudden movement in the lab awakened the security camera. It panned around the room to find the rustle and zoomed in on the figure. Recognition software sprang to action and identified the face: Jane Foster. The camera settled back into its passive mode and waited for another target to watch, like a drowsy vulture.
The figure of Jane Foster scanned the room in imitation of the camera. Her gaze settled upon the pile of boxes labeled “Erik Selvig”. She crossed the room and ran her fingertips along the letters, as if greeting an old friend. She unfolded the top of one box, and her eyes glistened as she retrieved the astrolabe that was nestled in the folds of a scarf.
She tucked it back into place and pulled the boxes, one by one, to a spot underneath the camera, just outside its range of view. As she moved the last one, the white board caught her eye. She stopped in front of it. With the tip of her tongue peeking out of the corner of her mouth, she read the equations that marched across it. Her eyes squeezed shut as her mouth opened wide in a silent laugh. Red had picked the perfect host. The seeds that it had planted in Jane Foster’s mind — along with the warning about the plans of the Dark Elf — had germinated well. But, like all growing things, they needed a little nudge in the right direction. She licked her lips and picked up one of the markers scattered about its base. Grimacing at its scent, she scribbled a few characters between two lines of equations.
With a deep exhale of contentment, she replaced the marker. At last, she could communicate something meaningful to someone. A vocabulary of nods and pointing was frustrating for her and useless to her new friends, and she ached to sing. She brushed the side of the board with her fingers. Mortals were clever; perhaps she should add some of these boards to her new home. They were useful. Stinky, but useful.
Ellisif turned to the waiting stack of boxes. She stepped out of the camera’s view and assumed her own form. She rested her hand on one of the boxes. Together they faded into the air, leaving only dust behind.
Hours later, the raven had perched on the window-sill long enough, unseen by the warriors gossipping with the tavern-keeper. She now had news to deliver, but she had another task to perform first. With a rustle of feathers, she took to the Asgardian sky. She wheeled over the observatory as she watched golden-helmed Heimdall greet a troop of travelers that were crossing the prismatic bridge. Laden with provisions, they shouted “Nidavellir” and “drought” along their words of salutation to the guardian.
Heimdall cast no glances her way. Knowing she was still safe from his far-reaching gaze, she banked away from the bridge. She rode the wind towards the gleaming spires of the palace. Treasure called to her from its depths, a treasure of bound leather and ancient paper. It belonged to the one the stones had placed in her care, her Loki, but still she was eager to hold them and drink in their stories. She, too, wanted to fill the shelves of their new home.
She had been to the palace many times in the past year, but then she had worn another face. She passed by the familiar gardens and stables that had known her as Einar. Instead, she landed on the stone balcony of the chambers that had once housed a Queen. Since Frigga’s death, the rooms had remained untouched except by the King. Only she had known that the King was actually Frigga’s son, not her husband.
Ellisif feared neither cameras nor the eyes of Heimdall here. Still, she shifted and grew until she took on the form of the chamber’s former occupant. She strode through the chamber and stopped before a looking glass to see herself. It felt strange to be so regal and beautiful after a year in Einar’s lanky body; royal robes were alien to her. She knew they were beautiful, even as she had called them into reality, for Red had seen them through Jane Foster’s eyes. Wearing her new face, Ellisif continued past the looking glass and into the next chamber, allowing Red’s memories of the place to guide her footsteps.
The haunted voice behind her made her turn, but she managed to school her face before the intruder could see it. The King — the husband now, not the son — stood in the doorway. Shock and hope battled for control of his face. He reached his hand forth into the space between them.
“Frigga!” he called out. “Frigga, come back to me. I do not want another.”
She faded from his sight, growing invisible by degrees as he cried out for her again. She stepped back out of his grasp and into the shadows as he embraced the now-empty air. She shrank back into her original form, though he could not see her. Everything in the room seemed to swell and grow around her as she grew smaller, and she shivered in her dark corner.
He stood there, gasping and waiting, until the light streaming through the window dimmed into Asgardian dusk. Ellisif held her breath and silently begged the stones to mask the sound of her hammering heart. Odin finally shook his head and strode from the room in a cloud of confusion. She watched him go, and a sadness of her own clung to her. Red had watched Frigga save Jane Foster’s life and had recorded the mortal’s grief and shock. Those feelings were just facts to the stones, but Ellisif could touch them at will. Wearing Frigga’s form — hearing that same grief in Odin’s voice — made those emotions keen and sharp.
She shook the mist from her invisible eyes and faced the wall of books, ready to complete her task. When she could no longer hear the echoes of Odin’s footsteps, she emerged into view again, once more in the form of Frigga. She could no longer help the Queen; no, she was well enough where she was. But she had helped the one Frigga had saved, assuming that Jane Foster understood her little hint. And now, she could help Frigga’s son. The thought buoyed her as she rubbed the leather binding of the closest volume. She could feel a wily smile — Frigga’s smile — dawning across her borrowed face.
Feeling a heavy weight upon him, Loki awakened in the quiet lull before dawn. He could hear Magnus snoring away on the other side of the hearth. Peeling his eyes open, he discovered the source of his heaviness, three sleeping trolls: Fargrim curled upon his chest, Faraldr around the top of his head, and Farbjorn draped across his knees.
“They’re worse than cats,” he muttered.
Having no desire to sear his ears with the bawling of infants, he eased Fargrim onto the floor. He sat up slowly, worked a lock of his hair out of Faraldr’s rather tight grip, and rolled Farbjorn off his legs. All three still slept — he cringed as the phrase “like rocks” crossed his mind — as he stepped away. Magnus snored away, and Erik still slumbered under his blanket, muttering about bosons. Tickseed lingered on the porch and watched Sleipnir trotting about in the lifting darkness. He could not see Kolla, but he could guess where the relentless mother troll was. As for Ellisif… her bedroll was empty and not nearly as warm and wrinkled as it should have been for a night’s rest.
He started for the kitchens and found Faraldr crawling next to him. He swept the child up in his arms and addressed him with a serious face.
“You haven’t seen Ellisif, have you?” asked Loki.
“Goo!” hiccoughed Faraldr through a toothless grin.
“That’s what I thought,” Loki sighed. “Well, let us quest for her together, shall we?”
Attempting to walk again, he found himself rooted to the spot. He looked down to discover that the other two clung to his ankles. Sighing again, he slowly clomped down the hall, a living troll-tree, no longer worried about waking anyone up. He called out for Ellisif as he went. Doing so felt a bit silly, for how would the silent girl answer him, except by showing herself?
Kolla was there by the kitchen hearth, enjoying some solitude by the warmth of an ordinary fire and a cup of hot mulled mead.
“She woke up before I did, I think,” Kolla said. “At least, her blankets were empty when I got up. I have not seen her.”
They moved about Lokasala as the sun rose, searching, with no sign of the girl. Magnus and Erik joined them, rubbing their eyes as they poked their head into room after empty room. Tickseed plodded along in their wake, calling for her lost Tansy. Kolla pried the two Pebbles from Loki’s ankles and carried them about on her hips, leaving him only with Fargrim, who had changed his “goo” to “boo”. He said it more urgently, more as a word than as a babble, as a slight sense of panic rose in Loki’s throat. Did the gems resent his earlier bravado? Had they swept her away, out of existence, after his little speech in the tower? Hairs on the back of his neck rose to attention as each successive chamber proved empty. Broken as she was, he still–
“Boo!” Fargrim sputtered, pointing in a direction that Loki had yet to investigate. “Boo!”
“Magnus,” Loki shouted down the corridor, “has anyone checked the library? Perhaps he’s trying to say ‘book’?”
“Perhaps, my lord, perhaps!” Magnus said. “Let us see.”
Kolla preceded them to what should have been an empty room. She stopped and gasped in the wide doorway.
Stacks of books and boxes reached towards the ceiling and covered the center of the room. Curled between a set of Greek classics and a crate of physics textbooks was Ellisif, sound asleep.
“The poor dear,” Kolla said. She rested her large stony palm against the girl’s still face. “Look at all the books! She must be exhausted.”
Loki created a flame in his palm to give them a better look at the room’s newest occupants. He retrieved the top book off the nearest stack and read its title, mostly to veil his relief from the others.
“Plato’s Republic,” he read. He set it back down, stroked the frayed corner, and breathed in its scent, a mingling of worn leather and his mother’s perfume. “Hello, old friend,” Loki whispered to it. He peered at the one that rested below it. “Proust.” He scanned down the spines turned his way. “These are my books! And some from mother’s library!”
“These belonged to Lady Frigga?” Kolla asked, her eyes filled with reverence. She set down the book she was holding and stepped away gently. She bowed, just a little, to one of the stacks.
“And these are mine,” Erik said. His voice was muffled, as he had buried his face into one of the boxes. “My astrolabe!” He held up a silvery instrument. “I can’t believe it! She found them on her own!”
“Yes,” Loki said with a scowl smoldering beneath his delight. “On her own.”
Despite the noise they were making, Ellisif never stirred. Her stillness diluted his relief at finding her. He crouched down beside her and shook her shoulder — roughly — until her eyes opened. She blinked at him with bleary and confused eyes.
“What were you thinking?” he hissed. “Going alone? We were going to go, weren’t we? What if something happened to you? You are our only way in or out of here!”
She scowled back, as only someone yanked from a deep sleep can, and popped an illusion of the Tesseract from her hand. The picture was dim and transparent, unlike her previous illusions, and it faded quickly. She trembled, but her jaw was set as she matched him stare for stare. Only the sounds of the Pebbles cooing and playing with Erik’s boxes broke the silence.
Kolla knelt down on the other side of her, gently pushing some of the books out of the way.
“You know we don’t dare use it, child,” Loki replied. “You know what fire that will rain down–“
The sound of leather scraping leather interrupted him, and the groan of a toppling tower of books rippled across his perception. The ones Kolla had moved leaned and plunged toward a giggling Fargrim in slow motion, but before he could push the child out of the way, a golden flash flared past him. It rested above the child, becoming almost solid and suspending the tangle of books just over his head. Kolla pulled him out and held him against her in a tight embrace, and the small shield crumpled and dissolved. The tomes crashed to the floor.
Loki regarded her with suddenly cool eyes. “Shields,” he whispered as his thoughts caught up with what had just happened. What was that he had said, about her usefulness in a fight? His mental list of assets required revision. “Shields.”
Kolla set the baby on the floor and patted his behind, sending him crawling towards Magnus. She cradled the girl against her. Kolla kissed her forehead, rocked her, and fussed over her.
“Frigga bless you, Elli, for bringing these to us,” Kolla said, not sparing a glance for Loki as she spoke. “But take your rest now, and eat something. Slow down! Even Magnus would tell you, love, that you must leave a little honey in the hive for the winter.”
Ellisif stuck her lower lip out and snorted at Loki. Shuffling behind them caught all their eyes. Erik was hopping up and down and showing another treasure from his boxes to Magnus.
“It’s Asterix!” he babbled. “I haven’t read this for years! Look at this, Magnus! It’s what Midgardians call a ‘comic book’.”
Magnus’ mouth was wide in wonder. “I have seen illuminated books before, but nothing like this.” He pointed at the open book. “So many pictures! What are the little white circles?”
“Speech bubbles. See how each one has a sort of arrow, pointing to the character’s mouth? It combines the words they say with the picture. Have you ever seen these, Loki?”
“Not now, Erik! I–“
He tottered over as Ellisif rose and pushed him aside. Surprised at her strength, Loki watched her as she peered at Erik’s book. Erik let it go and started fussing over a book of sign language in another box. She stared at the ‘comic book’ for a long, slow moment, turning the pages back and forth. Her brow furrowed, and Loki could almost hear gears whirring in her little head.
“Very well, Ellisif,” Loki grunted. He dusted himself off and helped Kolla to stand. “We will discuss this later, you and I.”
She glanced up, her eyes hard and gleaming, now more like amber than mud. A small flame flashed into being in the air between them. Loki and Kolla both gasped as out of that flame emerged a set of floating characters as clear as the ones in Erik’s book:
Tony took another sip of coffee and watched the video again. He had flown to the lab as soon as he had received the call from Thor, who had been notified by a furious Jane that there had been an intrusion there. What they showed him on the security feed had given him more questions than answers. He cast a sidelong glance at Thor, who merely looked tired of the whole situation. The sack of shackles, which had become the Asgardian’s shadow of late, lurked in the spot where the boxes belonging to Erik had once stood.
Thor stared at the sack and spoke so softly that only Tony could hear him. “I feel sorrow over Erik’s situation. All of it. His madness, now his disappearance… perhaps I should have tried to convince Father to let Eir use the Soulforge upon him. Except I would have been addressing Loki at the time.” He sighed. “I am not sure if he would have been any more inclined to allow a mortal into Asgard than Odin is.”
“Well, if he’d give us one – or even just the design for one –”
Thor snorted with laughter. “Ha! I think he’d rather invite all of Manhattan for a feast in the palace!”
“Maybe you were sleepwalking?” Darcy’s voice broke into his thoughts.
“I don’t sleepwalk,” Jane snapped. She pointed to the small addition to her equations with a shaking hand. “Even if I had this time, that doesn’t explain this. This is not my handwriting. And why would I have taken Erik’s things? It just doesn’t make any sense.”
Tony knew he would have been just as angry if someone had screwed around with one of his designs – though he had much better security than she did. Still, the sweat and tears that went into such work made it feel sacrosanct to the person who created it.
“Could it have been Loki?” Tony asked. “We know he can change his appearance—“
“Yes, he can,” Thor said slowly. He took a long drink of his own coffee from a tall lidded stein. “So perhaps he was here. But I cannot think of any use he would have for Erik’s books unless he was fetching them for Erik to use.”
“Meaning he’s still alive,” said Tony.
“Very likely. But there is one thing that bothers me. That,” Thor said as he pointed to the board, “is not Loki’s script, either.”
Tony scratched at his goatee. “I’ll have to take your word for it. But I do think that whoever it was had Loki’s means of travel.” He gestured to the camera. “The intruder came and went through the camera’s one blind spot. And that spot’s nowhere near a door.”
“The tesseract?” asked Darcy.
“Or something like it,” said Jane as she continued to stare at the strange notation.
“Indeed. The girl in the images of Erik’s abduction seemed to have some sort of powers along those lines.”
“Why would she help me? Help us?”
Tony and Thor stared at her, but she did not look at them. She was too busy gawking at the note on the board.
“What do you mean?” asked Darcy.
“Just look at this. Stark, you’re supposed to be some kind of genius. I’ve been at a dead end with these equations for months. Take a closer look at this and tell me what you see.”
Tony squinted at the lines, as if noticing them for the first time. Soon his jaw was hanging open as well.
“They balance,” he said with a tinge of awe in his voice. “Son of a bitch, there is quantum tunnelling going on there! With that new little squiggle, they balance!”
“They balance!” Jane squealed, dancing like a quarterback after a touchdown in double overtime.
“Yay, they balance!” chirped Darcy. Then her voice fell flat. “What does that mean? In English?”
“What does it mean?” asked Thor. “Allspeak holds no sway over that form of sorcery.”
Tony and Jane answered in harmony.
“It means we can build our own Bifrost.”
Loki leaned against the wall and stared at the dais before him. On its stairway, Magnus labored over a volume of Tennyson from Erik’s former library. Ellisif frolicked with the Pebbles in its middle, which was still bare of a throne. The children screeched with joy as she morphed into a kitten, then a fox, then an alarmingly large hairy spider. Loki flipped between watching their play and musing upon the still throneless space. He had toyed with many ideas, even sculpted several illusionary designs as he had with Lokasala, but he had waved them all away.
“You still haven’t finished it?” Erik asked from behind him. “You’ve been staring at that space off and on for a week. After all these years, I would have thought you’d have the design down to the last carved rune.”
“I dreamed of the throne of Asgard, to be sure,” Loki replied without turning around. “This is something else entirely. We could replicate it, I suppose, but–”
“But it would clash with Lokasala’s rustic aesthetic,” Erik said, the edges of his mouth curling upward as he said it.
Ellisif resumed her normal form, and golden words shimmered above her head, growing from tiny letters to larger words as they emerged from nowhere. Thrones are boring popped out first, then dissipated. You would be alone in it. Too cold. Too far from the hearth. Hearth is for stories.
Magnus closed his book and read her words. “I agree with her. And you were going to tell us how you met the Emerald Berserker tonight, m’Lord!”
Erik narrowed his eyes and mumbled, “I think we’re all looking forward to that one.”
A neigh echoed through the large front chamber. Sleipnir crossed the threshold with careful steps, turned around, and thrust back one of his front hooves for them all to see. It was missing a horseshoe.
Kolla appeared beside him and called to them across the wide floor. “He’s thrown a shoe, m’Lord. Elli, I hate to bother you with this, but–“
Ellisif jumped from the stairs and jogged over to them. As she worked her reality-bending magic on Sleipnir’s immense hoof, Kolla approached the dais.
“I think we will need to find a farrier, m’Lord,” observed Magnus.
“Not just a farrier!” Kolla said. “Don’t get me wrong. I am grateful that we finally have a home. But we’re not done yet. We need metal and someone to work it. We need sheep and goats. Seeds for crops. Wool for Tickseed to weave. We cannot live on honey alone, and the bees need to keep some of it for themselves. We don’t have enough of anything here for a proper farm, let alone a kingdom.”
She fixed her gaze on Loki, and he could hear hints of Frigga in her speech. It was not an order, nor an accusation; it was just a simple statement of what he knew to be true. Mundane concerns, so far beneath the royal family of Asgard as to be invisible, loomed like giants here. In a few short days, they had accomplished much along those lines, and in a way the hard work had given him a sense of contentment that he had never known. He and Ellisif had blended their powers each day to add to Lokasala, and he was growing used to her soothing presence in his head. It was warm, like a mother’s hand resting on his temple while he slept. He could sense her, even when they were not blended, even when he was alone in his tower and she was on the other side of Lokasala.
There was so much more to do before he could even consider their little gathering a royal court. There wasn’t so much as a village in Eddaheim. There was just Lokasala and the stable. The stable, as grand as any horse’s dream, was large, airy, and beautiful… and empty, except for a very lonely Sleipnir. Game and wild herbs were plentiful in the nearby forest, and they had mead to last them for years. But it was not enough to build a kingdom upon. It was difficult to dream of golden thrones and cloud-capped towers on an empty stomach.
“The best herds are in Vanaheim,” Loki said. “With Ellisif’s help, we could acquire one.”
“I agree, m’lord,” replied Magnus, “but we have little to trade for them. Perhaps Ellisif could create some for us, just this once?”
Loki arched an eyebrow at the girl. She released Sleipnir’s newly-shoed hoof and returned to their side of the chamber with her mouth twisted in thought.
Her answer floated in the air between them. Furniture yes, she said, live animals not so much.
She frowned and pointed at her back. Over the past few days, she had made that gesture anytime a request surpassed her limitations, limitations she would not have had if not for Thor’s blundering about with the Aether during her “birth”.
Loki pinched the bridge of his nose, biting back a sharp retort. She could do many things; she could not do everything, all because of that injury. Even in this remote place, the idiocy of the Prince of Asgard had found a way to creep in. He shoved the irritation aside. Loki knew where there might be plenty of trade-able goods lying about; they would be in questionable condition, but there would be no one left to fight over them. He did not want to go there. The place invaded his dreams and clung to his thoughts like a vicious parasite. But it was a chance to move Eddaheim forward. He would have to swallow his nightmares of the place if he wished to nurture his birthright.
“I know where we can find metal,” Loki said. “I know where there is plenty to be had, in fact. Ready to use and no one to say us nay. Some to work, some to trade.” He pointed to the empty dais with his chin. “The throne can wait. Are you ready for an expedition?”
“To where, m’Lord?”
Kolla breathed a sigh of relief. Between mothering three newborns, listening to Magnus’ latest bit of rhyme, and making sure that Tickseed didn’t mistake a soap root for a chunk of roast beast — as she was wont to do in her less lucid moments — Kolla had not had a second to herself. She had watched in wonder as Ellisif swept the others away to Svartalfheim. Now that she had the boys tucked in for a nap and seen Tickseed safely ensconced at her loom, she took some time to breathe.
She was not interested in Svartalfheim in the least. Loki described the place as if it were as dead as Unnarr the Unlucky. She needed a rest from all of it. She loved Magnus with all her heart, but a little bit of Unnarr went a long way. Besides, she had some exploring of her own to do.
She waited before the entrance to the cave in silent contemplation with a lit torch clutched in her stony hand. It had called to her ever since they had found it in the cliff wall that first day. There had been some lovely caves in Alfheim, but since she and Magnus had lived on the boat, she had had little time to explore them. Now was her chance to serve herself. Kolla shivered with anticipation as she ducked — sideways — to fit through the narrow cleft in the rock face.
She shuffled like a crab through the tight passageway as she held the torch in her right hand, lighting her way. As she was alone, she did not wish to plunge into some unseen abyss, never to be found. Moisture glistened on the walls as she passed by, and flecks of gypsum glittered in the torchlight.
Suddenly, the reflections disappeared as the walls fell away from her tiny circle of light. She no longer felt the pressing of stone all around her. She held the torch higher and gazed around the enormous cavern that yawned before her. She gasped softly.
Shadows veiled the ceiling high above her. Mica and quartz streaked through the walls on either side of the tunnel opening, reminding her of her sons’ birthmarks. A veritable rose garden of silicon blossomed before her in the flickering torchlight.
She reached into her belt bag and pulled out a small chunk of pressed powder. With it, she smeared a luminescent stain on the rock. She drew a circle that could not be mistaken for anything natural just to the right of the tunnel she had just exited.
She continued to her right. She studied the formations and inclusions of stone as she went, and mentally she sketched out a map of the cavern as she shuffled along. To Kolla, the place had the feel of a temple, and she prayed aloud as she walked.
“Mother Frigga,” she said, “thank you for my little ones. Thank you for sending your son to us so he could save them and provide us a hearth and home. I never dreamed of such a place! I am grateful for my Magnus’ sake as well. At last he has found someone he feels worthy to call his King. And his friend.”
Her words echoed around the vast chamber as her torch pierced the darkness and revealed one treasure after another to her weary eyes: stalagmites thrusting up from the floor, rising like dragons to pass within inches of their mates, monstrous stalactites that dripped down from the unseen roof above. Rock sculpted by untold centuries of water drops resembled toadstools and corals and alien faces. Minerals and gems flamed, only wanting her small light to reveal their shimmering brightness.
“I worry for your boy, though,” she continued. “I know not why he left his father and brother and the rest of his people. I mean, truly why not. He tells us many tales of Midgard, but few from his life in Asgard. There is something in his eyes… I think he has been lonely without you, Mother. I do not think he feels your presence the way I do. It makes me sad.”
She paused every few yards to draw a small glowing arrow with her chalk.
“I know he is grown, but I think he still needs you. Don’t we always need our mothers? I know I miss my own, and I have not seen her for many years,” she said as she drew another piece of her lifeline back to the entrance.
There was a break in the rock at last, one just wide enough to accommodate Kolla’s shoulders. She thrust the torch ahead of her into the opening. Finding a clear passage, she marked the door with a thick line of her chalk and passed through it.
“If it is not too bold, my Lady, I would ask if I may… if I may stand in your stead for him, to give him motherly comfort when he needs it. If it be your will, Mother, give me a sign.”
As the last words left her mouth, she lifted her torch high to examine the new chamber. She blinked a few times to be sure, but indeed she did see long vine-like inclusions in the walls. She stepped closer to the inner wall to examine the vein of ore embedded within it. She traced it with her eyes. Realization of what it was broke across her face like a stormy dawn. It knocked her down, and she landed hard on her backside. She stretched her legs in front of her and sat there gaping in silence for many long minutes. She wiggled her toes in the darkness. The only sounds she could hear were the distant drop-drop-drops of water, carving the ancient rock beneath the mountain, and her own soft breaths.
“I’ll take that as a yes,” she whispered.
The sky of Svartalfheim was just as Loki remembered it — bruised and brooding over a shattered landscape. Mountains, bare of any blade of grass, shed rocks like molting snakes shaking off old skin. Neither trees nor shrubs broke up the endless rolling plain; neither leaf nor twig sought what faint sunlight managed to penetrate the almost unbroken bulwark of clouds above them. The eternal thunderheads held no promise of rain, though. They only yielded an army of dry winds that drove the loose scree back onto the naked mountain slopes; the winds howled across the lonely valley like wolves calling to a moon they would never reach. Loki had heard those howls before; he had heard them in the storm that had erupted when he had died here, one that Thor had fled. The god of Thunder! Fleeing a storm! His brother had wept over him, and then he had left him alone in that gods-forsaken place.
But Loki had not been alone. Something, something in the eye of that maelstrom had pulled him back…
The word yanked him back to the present, and he dropped to a crouch behind a derelict control panel. They had been searching through the bones of a crashed ship, possibly Malekith’s vessel. It was one of dozens of former Dark Elf ships that dotted the otherwise barren valley.
At least, they had thought it was barren.
This dead world was not as dead as it seemed.
Loki did not recognize the voice. It had emerged from behind an enormous shard of hull that was half-buried in the ground. He signaled the others for quiet, but he found that they were already frozen in various stances, as startled by the sudden company as he was. Magnus hunched down behind a ridiculously small chunk of charred metal, looking much like a mountain attempting to hide behind an anthill. Selvig had stopped mid-gesture a few yards away; he was an awkward statue pointing out something to Ellisif, who had perched on his shoulder in the form of a raven.
Loki cocked his ear in the direction of the exclamation and heard the groaning of a heavy lid being pushed off some unseen container.
“Ooof,” continued the same voice in a deep rolling bass. “Just like the rest. Nothin’ here.”
“Nor here,” replied a second voice, a gentle tenor. There was a rattling and clanking of loose metal. “Surely these people ate something.”
“Ah, it would give us indigestion anyway, like as not.”
“Oh, Beardtongue! You always say that! It’s always sour figs with you.”
“No, it isn’t, and you know it, Cinderbark.”
“Yes, it is. I knew we should have brought more provisions. ‘But no,’ you said. ‘We need to travel light,’ you said.”
“Oh, come off it,” replied Beardtongue’s graveled voice.
“‘Let’s do it for the huzzahs,’ you said. Phooey. We don’t have to poke our beards into every hole to nowhere that pops up!”
“We haven’t had any new commissions in weeks. The smithy’s idle, and you know it. Not a scrap of work to be had. The drought has ruined everything, and now we have all those Asgardians slumming about the place thinking they can fix it all with a few handouts. They were in a real panic when they found out what really caused the drought. On top of that, we didn’t have any provisions to bring. But one, just one, good chunk of uru out of this dungheap and –“
Loki motioned slowly at the others and mouthed, “Dwarves.”
“We don’t even know if Dark Elves had any uru! And now we’ve lost the door!” the voice called Cinderbark barked. “Now we’re stuck here with no food, no ale, and so far, no treasure! This is your fault.”
Magnus’ face caved in as they listened to the argument. His brow furrowed, and it appeared to Loki that the troll was grinding his teeth. He was a trembling lump of rock, and he leaned in to his slender cover in a vain attempt to get a peek at the owners of the voices. Loki scowled at him and motioned for him to sit still, but it was too late. The metal screeched as it bent under the troll’s weight.
Loki’s entire body winced as both of the voices cried out. Two dwarves scampered into sight, their argument abandoned and their weapons brandished high above their heads.
“Trolls!” they roared.
“Dwarves!” Magnus howled.
The troll pounded towards the strangers, and they launched themselves at him. Before Loki could speak, Magnus had collared the redheaded dwarf and hoisted him high into the air, where he struggled to strike his captor with his long axe. The other dwarf, a snarling mass of dark hair and hammer, slammed his weapon against Magnus’ shin. The troll balled his free fist, prepared to strike back.
“Hold!” Loki shouted.
They froze, like one of the more bizarre statues in the gardens of Asgard, gaping back at Loki like children caught in a hair-pulling frenzy over a toy.
“Magnus! Put him down!”
A pouting Magnus dropped his quarry, plopped himself down onto the ashy ground, and stuck out his lower lip.
“What’s an Aesir doing with a troll?” the dark dwarf asked as he helped the other one to stand.
The red-bearded one sniffed the air as he dusted off his axe, which was nearly as tall as he was. “Beardtongue, he smells more jotun than Aesir!”
The one called Beardtongue leaned on the handle of the hammer and studied Loki’s small crew with narrowed eyes. “Well, lay down with
“Peace!” cried Loki as Magnus glared in their direction.
“These are dwarves, my King,” Magnus snapped. “I thought you wanted more people.”
“Magnus, I’m surprised at you.” Loki glanced over towards Erik’s hiding place. “It’s all right, Selvig. You can come out now.” He turned back to the pair. “We are travellers, like yourselves. We mean no harm. If you require assistance, I think we can work something–“
“You’re a King?” asked Beardtongue. He snorted. “Of this pile of rock?”
The red-headed dwarf — Cinderbark — sniffed the air again as Erik stopped beside Loki. Ellisif flew from Erik’s shoulder and fluttered into the ruins, out of sight.
“A human?” he asked, his nose wrinkling in consternation. “They’re still around?”
“Bah!” snorted Beardtongue. “Vanir, I’ll wager. I don’t believe in humans.”
Loki allowed his stance to relax a little as the air between Magnus and the dwarves cooled a little. His perceptions pinged against the two, and he liked what he saw. Cinderbark, slightly taller than his companion, had a bushy beard of flaming red that was tamed by a set of ruby and emerald encrusted gems. His eyes twinkled with the same warm green that graced his gold-trimmed cloak. Runes invoking wealth and protection marched across the bracers shining on his forearms. Rings in a rainbow of precious metals and gemstones graced fingers that were rather long and tapered for a dwarf. Beardtongue, shorter and broader of shoulder, had beads of delicately carved bone and wrapped leather throughout his ebony hair and beard, and his faded black cloak was patched and ragged at the edges. Scars crossed the rune of brotherhood on his leather bracers. A few of the scars continued into the flesh of his hands, where the dwarf’s life story was carved into his knuckles.
“I think introductions are in order. I am Loki of As– ahem. Loki, King of Eddaheim, where you, metal forgers, will be most welcome.” He clapped Erik on the shoulder. “This is Erik Selvig, my Astronomer, formerly of Midgard.” He pointed to the troll. “And this is Magnus, son of Fargrim, my Master-at-Arms. And the raven–“
“King of what, again?” Cinderbark asked. “You folks don’t exactly look royal.”
“Eddaheim,” Magnus replied in an official tone, standing as tall as he could and puffing out his mighty chest.
“Eddaheim? Never heard of it,” Beardtongue replied.
Loki sighed. “I did not expect you to–“
“Wait, wait! Beardtongue, isn’t that a province of Nornheim?”
“Doubt it, love. Sounds more like one of the seedier parts of Ringsfjord to me.”
“Harrumph,” snorted Magnus. “Dwarves. Wouldn’t know class if it stabbed them in the arse.”
“That’s fine talk for a troll,” Beardtongue replied. “Everybody knows they eat dwarf babies for breakfast and fart–“
“Enough!” Loki screeched. He scrunched his eyes closed and pinched the bridge of his nose for a moment before he continued in a slightly calmer tone. “We are here to salvage, much as you are. We seek to grow our population as well. If you are unhappy with your present conditions, you are welcome in our sunny land. Be warned, though, that we have a variety of races with us, including trolls. I can’t have everyone bashing each other’s heads in. So you can come with us if you can behave yourselves. Or you can stay here and starve. Or go back to Nidavellir and starve. Your decision. Eddaheim is a package deal.”
Silence reigned for a few heartbeats. Cinderbark shuffled his feet and pulled on his beard clasps. Beardtongue grumbled something, but it was difficult to hear his words over the rumbling of his stomach. He stared at a glittery scrap of metal on the flaky, ashy ground.
“Very well,” Cinderbark said. “But only because my growling belly overrides my good sense. I am Cinderbark, joiner of chain mail. And this is Beardtongue, master forger of armor and weapons.”
“Are you a farrier as well?”
“I’ve been known to shoe a horse or two when the armor business is slow,” said Beardtongue.
“Very well. See that you keep a civil tongue, even when your belly’s full, and we will get on just fine,” Loki said. “I think we will find plenty of work for you, and plenty of food. We’ll get on, just fine.” He glanced at Erik only to see that his shoulder was bare of birds. “Now, where did that Ellisif sneak off to?”
Loki searched the tangle of debris surrounding them, but he found no sign of either a small humanoid or a raven… or any other form she might take. This disappearing act of hers was becoming quite an annoying habit.
“My associate, Ellisif the–“
Loki flinched at the screech of metal on metal that drowned out his words. The source was somewhere over Magnus’ shoulder; Loki spied a tottering tower of debris there that was on the verge of crashing in their direction to avenge itself upon whatever had collided with it. A bevy of deep thunks quickly followed, harmonizing with a flutter of clonks and accented with a shower of tiny clinks. Cringing at each successive noise, he shepherded Magnus, Erik, and the dwarves out of the trajectory of plunging rubble.
“–the Silent,” he said through a deep sigh.
“I hope she’s not in that pile,” Erik said.
“I get the feeling she is just on the other side, there,” Loki said.
They followed him around the hill of scrap only to find a gap in the wreckage. Loki peered down into it at an open container, flame in hand. There she was, in her base form, floating only a few meters below him, with a stunned look on her face. The bottom of the metal container reflected the light in his hand.
“Are you quite all right?” Loki asked her with a tinge of annoyance in his voice. “I’d rather you not die just yet.”
She sat up and glowered at him.
Erik appeared at Loki’s side and called out, “If you’re okay, Elli, just give me the thumbs-up, like I showed you.”
She smiled up at Erik and raised her thumb above her head.
“She’s good,” Erik called out to the rest of them.
Loki leaned forward and shouted to her, “What have you found? Looks like you landed on something.”
“Looks like — oh, but it can’t be,” said Cinderbark, who had poked his beard over Loki’s other shoulder.
Beardtongue pushed Cinderbark’s head down so he could peer over it. “Oh, my! ’tis! I didn’t think it would have lasted this long, but you guessed aright, my dear.”
“What is it?” Loki asked.
“Threads. Invisible threads. A whole cartload, it looks like,” replied Beardtongue. “Them elves didn’t like to be seen. They could make anything invisible.”
“Yah!” exclaimed Cinderbark. “Nobody, but nobody, could hide things the way they could. Ships, individual elves, whole armies of them, you name it. What she has there is some of the raw material. If we knew someone that could weave it–“
“I just might,” Loki said as visions of Tickseed’s loom danced behind his eyes. “We’ve found some treasure after all. Is there a better way down there? Ellisif, can you–”
Her reply glowed in the air around her: Yes yes Loki silly Loki.
The words disappeared when, in raven form once more, she took flight. A single ebony feather floated down as she departed. It landed on the invisible fibers, forever floating on nothing.
“Have a care, Ellisif!” Loki shouted in her wake. “You are still having trouble keeping your shape!”
They picked a path through the towers of scorched and twisted chunks of hull and bulkhead down to the crate. Their course narrowed enough that Magnus could not pass, so he waited – sulking – and guarded their rear. Loki lit their way with a flame in his hand. Just before they reached their goal, the close tunnel made of blackened decking opened up into a chamber that was piled high with many smaller containers, some in neat stacks and others scattered about, some nearly crushed.
“Rather organized for a crash,” observed Cinderbark.
“Looks like someone survived,” Erik remarked as he poked a nest of blankets in the corner with his foot. “Wonder if he’s still about.”
Loki saw the glint of unscorched metal in the light of his handheld flame. He knelt to examine it as the dwarves continued forward. He showed the slender arrow to Erik after they had gone on.
“It’s a Yaka arrow,” Loki said in a low voice. He held it up and squinted down its shaft. He whistled gently, and the arrow quivered like a thing alive. “A very special metal, sensitive to sound. Controlled by whistles very few races can make. This is not a weapon used by Malekith’s people.”
“But you know who does use it,” Erik said.
“Yes. The metal is only found on one world, and not this one. I’ve seen this weapon before. Used by a Centaurian pirate. A fellow named Yondu.” Loki scanned the scattered wrappings and blankets again, noting that the pattern of debris. “The survivor is no longer here. But he didn’t go without a fight.”
“Are you sure they didn’t just kill him?”
“None of the remains we have seen are fresh enough. Looks like he’s been Collected.” Loki shook his head. “Poor fellow.”
“Collected?” Erik asked.
“Never mind. It is not important.” Loki swirled his hands in a graceful arc as he tucked the arrow away into his unseen magical pocket that had held everything from daggers to magical caskets. He knew exactly which alcove in his new tower would hold this new treasure, broken as it was. He clapped a hand on the demi-mortal’s shoulder. “At least they overlooked the invisible thread. Let us gather our goods, round up our people, and go home, Erik.”
“Do you think they’ll get on?” Erik asked in a low voice as they walked on to catch up with the dwarves. “I admit to being woefully ignorant here. Do dwarves and trolls always hate each other so much?”
“There is always some sort of tension between realms.” Loki’s nostrils flared as he remembered the Asgardian folk tales of frost giants lurking beneath beds and wardrobe-dwelling goblins. “Sometimes I believe it’s encouraged.”
“Trolls, dwarves,” Erik mused, “I’m not sure what to make of them. Where I’m from, they are just fairy tales. Are you sure I’m not mad?”
“They are just as real as you are,” Loki replied. “You are an astronomer, Selvig. If it helps, just think of them as aliens.”
“Astrophysicist. And, no, that doesn’t really help.”
“You’ll get used to it,” Loki replied as they arrived at the crate. “Just so you know, to them, you are a fairy tale, too.”
Loki was as grateful to see Kolla’s face as he was to leave the darkness of Svartalfheim behind him. He greeted her warmly, and the Pebbles bubbled and cooed as they crawled over to inspect the pile of new crates. The dwarves scowled as they took in their new surroundings.
“Exactly how many trolls do you have here?” asked Cinderbark as he swooped Farbjorn into his arms. He turned the baby this way and that, examining the sparkles in his stony skin. “Though I have to admit, the little ones are so hideous, they’re charming.”
Farbjorn howled in protest. Magnus pulled the squalling child away from the dwarf, gathered the other Pebbles into his massive arms, and plopped down on the top stair of the hearth. The wood of Lokasala trembled with the force of it.
“My boys are beautiful,” he rumbled, “and if it were not for the command of the King, I would crush you into jelly for saying that.”
“Oh, leave him alone, Cinderbark,” said Beardtongue as he poked a wall. “Come here and look. Nice solid construction.”
“Decoration is a bit sparse, though,” added Cinderbark. He stroked his beard and hummed a few bars of a dwarven forging song. “But, you know, a few banners here and there, some weapons on the walls, a little paint, this could be a right proper manor. I know the perfect shade of green to bring out the warmth of the wood.”
“A couple of crossed spears over there,” Beardtongue said as he pointed to a far wall. “Oh, and some shields on either side would accent them quite nicely.”
“Oh, remember that lovely mace you made for that nice chap from Nornheim? The one with all the delicate runes ’round the handle?”
“That was a morning star,” said Beardtongue.
“Was it? Oh, love, they all blur together after a while. I just remember it made his root cellar into a proper dungeon. Oh! It just glowed in the brazier light. We should really get a forge going and make this place look homey.”
They continued in that vein as Loki regaled Kolla with the details of their journey. She listened, her focus on something far away and her face an inscrutable mask that even Loki’s perception could not penetrate.
She nodded at his requests. “I would never turn away anyone who is hungry. You know that, m’Lord. Even dwarves.”
“If you two will follow Kolla,” said Loki, “She will help you pick out your chambers.”
“We’ll just be needin’ the one, thank you,” Cinderbark said.
“We can arrange for some furniture, too, some beds–“
“We’ll just be needin’ the one, thank you,” said Beardtongue.
“That’s what I thought,” muttered Loki. “Kolla?”
Kolla jumped at his soft remark and stared at him, as if seeing him there for the first time. She continued to look only at him when she said, “Actually, m’Lord, could Elli help them get settled? There is something I need to discuss with you.”
“By way of the pantry, I hope,” said Cinderbark.
Ellisif took the dwarfs by the hand and led them away. Beardtongue’s voice echoed as they moved out of sight.
“This is it? I thought this was a kingdom. More like a barony–“
Kolla turned to Loki, who now wore a confused frown of his own.
Loki began, “Let me know if they–“
Kolla held up her hands. “I am sure we’ll all get on fine. This is not about our new friends. I discovered something while you were gone,” she said. There was a tremor in her voice that set Loki’s teeth on edge. “Something that I need to show you right away.”
“Just the place for a Snark! I have said it twice:
That alone should encourage the crew.
Just the place for a Snark! I have said it thrice:
What I tell you three times is true.”
-From “The Hunting of the Snark” by Lewis Carroll
“I didn’t know that royalty was in the habit of playing in the dirt,” Selvig quipped, not bothering to look up from the heavy atlas in his lap.
“We’re not,” Loki replied. “Normally I leave such tasks to menials, but we are rather short on those at the moment.” He knelt over the small hole he had dug and carefully placed the golden apple seeds into it. “At any rate, magical plants require a delicate touch. These trees can grow straight from seed in the ground, but they have certain needs that only I can fulfil at present. When it comes to planting barley, however, I think we’ll all have to pitch in, at least at first.”
Loki was grateful for the sunshine that warmed him as he covered the seeds with soil. The visit to the uru cave with Kolla the day before had chilled him deeply. He had never seen so much of the precious ore at a single glance. The combination of the dark cavern and the lifeless rock of Svartalfheim had left him feeling cold and smothered. He would never admit to the mortal that he needed, more than anything, to plunge his hands into the warm current of his new domain and feel the pulse of living soil between his fingers. He had spent the morning searching for the best spot for the seeds from the same apple that had granted the mortal an extension on his years. He had found a sunny spot, well watered and not far from Magnus’ bees, after a morning’s search. Selvig had joined him, maps in hand, as he attempted to turn the results of his astrolabe work into their containing gem’s location on Midgard.
“What are going to do about the uru?” Selvig’s words echoed Kolla’s worried questions in the cave. “From what you tell me, you could buy Yggdrasil with it and have change left over. That is a lot of roast beast and ale.”
Loki shook his head as he sat back on his heels and observed the small mound of soil. He placed a river rock to one side in order to mark a circle around the planting. “It stays where it is. At least until we can forge it ourselves.”
“You want to keep it all to yourself? Build some sort of superweapon?”
Loki blew a stray hair out of his face. The mortal could be so obnoxiously astute about science and yet so horribly ignorant where magic was concerned.
“With what forge? Do you have a dying star in your pocket?” Loki placed another stone. “Of course I want to keep it, but there are other considerations. If we trade it, others will know we have it. They will come looking for it and take it by force. It might alert others to our existence, and for now, secrecy is our best protection.”
“From anyone that craves uru,” Loki said aloud. In his mind he added, Or anyone looking for me! “That is pretty much anyone aware of uru’s properties, including Asgard. Up until this moment, its mines were the only known source, and Odin keeps a tight rein on its use. It is essential to the Bifrost and the Soulforge, which are under Asgard’s control as well.” He pointed to the mound of soil before him. “Same with the apples. I’ve spent many a long night poring over the histories of the Nine Realms, and one of the many constants I discovered was this: a people will not trade for what they can simply take by force.”
Selvig snorted. “You sound like Darcy.”
“A friend of mine. Jane Foster’s intern. You remember Jane, of course.”
The golden letters floated between them. Ellisif, sitting with Tickseed a few feet away, had grown more talkative since their return from Svartalfheim. Tickseed, ever the weaver, sat with a long dowel tucked into her belt. Far below the crossbar lashed to the top of it, Tickseed splayed her hands, moving them in a formal dance, seeming to play with thin air. Bobbins floated below her hands and swung back and forth like ghostly pendulums. Anyone who did not know that she was whip-cording invisible thread would have thought she was mad. At Loki’s behest, Ellisif poked at the bobbins every so often to confirm that they still bore thread; otherwise, the elf might continue weaving empty air. The technological wizardry Malekith’s people had used to create the invisible fibers did not seem to bother the elf’s sensitivity to magic, and for this Loki was grateful.
“That’s a kind of helper, Elli,” Erik said. “An assistant.”
“And a wise one, it seems. Has she studied kingcraft?” Loki asked as he waved at Kolla, who approached their small gathering with a pitcher of fresh cold water drawn from the nearby creek that flowed down to the Friggavatn.
“I suppose you could call it that. Political science, actually.”
“Close enough. Perhaps we should meet and compare notes at some point. I will require advisors as Eddaheim grows.” Loki dusted the soil and memories of darkness off his hands and stood up to observe his handiwork. “There. Perhaps in a few years we will have fruit, and in a few decades, an orchard that even Idunn would envy.” He looked in the direction of the new beehive. “And the honey from the blossoms will be a healing balm, I believe.”
Selvig finally looked up from his maps. “Advisors? You?”
“Any wise king needs sounding-boards, as long as he remains in charge, Selvig. Back in Asgard I had a fellow called Refkell–“
Tickseed muttered something under her breath as her fingers continued twirling the invisible threads.
“What did she say?” asked Erik.
“Manure,” replied Kolla as she sat the pitcher down.
Loki’s nostrils flared at the comment, but he swallowed the sharp retort that sprang to his tongue. He could never be sure of the meaning behind any of Tickseed’s mumblings. Berating a senile elf for a moment’s irritation could wreck any troll loyalty forever.
When she heard Erik’s snickering and observed the beginnings of a scowl on Loki’s face, Kolla spoke again. “Bilgesnipe manure, I think.” At Tickseed’s confirming nod, she continued. “I agree, Tick. It’s a long-standing bit of farmcraft that bilgesnipe manure makes excellent fertilizer. It’s known to hasten the growth of magical plants tenfold.”
Loki relaxed the tension in his jaw before replying. With relief, he said, “Mother said as much. But bilgesnipe are hard to come by! At least, living ones. Asgard would not tolerate a bilgesnipe within its borders. Few would ever bother to domesticate one.”
Kolla said, “Before we arrived here, we heard rumors of one such beast that kept slipping between Alfheim and Vanaheim. I think it had found a passage between them. It caused quite the terror there for a while. When a hunting party in one realm tracked it down, it would just run into the other one. Some of the local villagers were considering applying to Asgard for assistance with it.”
“So there is no telling where it is now. Another Convergence passage?” Loki retrieved his small knife and began to dig the soil out from beneath his fingernails. He spent a moment contemplating them before he spoke again. “Perhaps we can use that.”
“What are you thinking, Loki?” asked Selvig.
“Perhaps we can trade a service instead of goods. I would like to keep as much of the thread as possible, rather than trading it,” he said, pointing at Tickseed’s dancing hands. “It’s more of an advantage if no one knows you have it. Bilgesnipe removal should be worth a couple of herds and wagonloads of seed to one village, at the very least. Kolla, are you and Magnus up for a visit to Alfheim?”
Kolla twisted her hands and worried her stony lip between pebbly teeth. “Alfheim? We just fled from there, my King.”
“Oh, the fuss over the bees! I nearly forgot. Well, I won’t risk losing my friends to thieftakers. Magnus can keep an eye on things here until our return. The dwarves can go. They are quite sturdy. As is the Astronomer, now that he is decades younger.” He clapped a hand on the man’s shoulder and laughed at Erik’s grimace. “I cannot remember the last time a Midgardian appeared there. ‘Twill be the stuff of legend, unless we put a glamour on you. Ellisif, you know the way to Alfheim, yes? Your shields will be useful in a live capture.”
The girl pursed her lips in thought, and then she pointed vigorously at Tickseed.
“What do you mean, Ellisif? Use your words.”
Take the rope. Make a net. Very strong.
“Can you not just contain the beast in a spherical shield? I’m sure you can do it.”
The girl snorted and waved away her previous text.
Not while we travel back here. One thing at a time.
“We really have to work on your multi-tasking, Ellisif.”
With a grunt, she lifted her arm over her head and pointed at her back.
“Even I can blame Thor for only so much, my dear. I will not let you use your scar as an excuse. You can at least try.”
Not with a bilgesnipe. Take the rope or take the tesseract.
Loki crossed his arms sharply and glared at her. Only the fact that she could leave anytime she wished, leaving him with only the dangerous tesseract as his pathway out of Eddaheim, kept his retort in check. Except for the difficult to reach window to Alfheim in the middle of the Friggavatn that Magnus had found, he knew of no other ways out of the soul gem in which they now lived. Without her, Eddaheim would become a very pretty prison.
“Very well. This time. Once Tickseed has made enough rope, we’ll go. I may not have Heimdall’s vision, but I am certain such a creature won’t be difficult to find.” He reached down for Ellisif’s hand and pulled her to her feet. “In the meantime, you have some training to do. If I could not do many things at once, Heimdall would find me in the blink of a hummingbird’s eye! I’m going to teach you how, or I’m not the god of mischief!”
“That could have gone better,” Heimdall said gently as Thor entered his observatory.
The guardian’s back was to him as Thor crossed the threshold from the prismatic bridge into the domed chamber. He passed the central control dais and stopped beside his old friend. He looked out into the starry fields that were Heimdall’s charge. Even though he could not see what the watcher saw, he could still appreciate the view. The peaceful swath of nebulae across the sky eased the tension in his clenched jaw.
“You were watching?” Thor finally asked in a weary voice.
“One doesn’t need my skills to have heard that particular argument,” Heimdall replied with a soft chuckle. “I’m not sure they heard him in Muspelheim, though. It is plain to see that Odin is not pleased.”
“So far, the only traces of Loki we have found have been on Midgard, but they are still only traces. My friends have all returned empty-handed. Volstagg had heard rumors of Loki ruling in Jotunheim, but it turned out to be a frost giant of a similar name, one Utgard-Loki. Hogun and Sif have found nothing in Vanaheim, and Fandral combed the taverns of Nornheim to no avail. And Father demands that this issue be resolved before the wedding.”
“How long before he introduces Asgard to their new Queen? I am sure Lady Jord will be a fine companion, but our people still mourn Frigga.”
Thor blinked slowly at the mention of his mother. “As do I. He had hoped to announce it with the news of Loki’s capture.”
“I suppose his plans will have to change.”
“Heimdall, what do you think of Father now? He has changed so much–“
“I am sworn to obey the King of Asgard. No matter how much he has changed, Odin is still King.” He lowered his voice. “At the same time, I am careful about going above and beyond my stipulated duties, until I see how much he has changed. For example, I do not see the need to report your Lady Jane’s research until it becomes viable.”
Thor shot him a sharp look. Heimdall enjoyed peeking in on Thor’s mortal friends a little too much at times. “I cannot truly help them,” Thor said. “I know nothing of its inner workings. But how do you know they won’t succeed in building their own Bifrost?”
“I do not know for certain. Midgardians have accomplished much over the centuries, even without our guidance. And they have played with our technology before. Remember the weapon they made out of the remains of the Destroyer? But I do wonder how they will build a Bifrost without a supply of uru. Until they solve that problem, I see no threat to our security and therefore nothing to report. All they have now are some scribblings on a board and lines of light in one of their machines. A far cry from this beauty.” He tapped the side of his fist against the rim of the observatory window. “I see no reason to interfere as yet.”
“Jane Foster is very clever, as is Stark. Perhaps together they will find an alternative.”
“Perhaps. It is enlightening to watch them. And very charming.” Heimdall turned to gaze in another direction. “Speaking of diversions, there is a bilgesnipe hunt in Alfheim that has entertained me for some time. A few Vanir have pursued it all the way from the Sea of Marmora to the Forest of Sigurd and back again. Quite the merry chase. I think a stray Norn has gotten in on the action.”
“Vanir? Norns? In Alfheim? Did you allow them passage?”
“No, but you are well aware that the Bifrost is not the only passage between realms. They found their own way. A gift of the Convergence, I believe. I am sure it was not there before. The bilgesnipe is quite the stubborn beast. Perhaps you could help. How long has it been since you’ve been on a true hunt?”
Thor smiled with real humor for the first time in days. “Thank you, my friend, but unless Father orders me there, I must continue my search for Loki. That is the only hunting I am allowed at present. And already, I am fatigued with the whole business.” He ran weary fingers through his hair. “You still cannot see him? Or his companions? The mortal Erik Selvig is said to be with him. Perhaps we can find Loki by finding Erik?”
Heimdall frowned. “I can see anyone I wish, but there are ten trillion souls out there. I can only focus on a few at a time. He is the friend of Jane? The scientist?”
Without another word, Heimdall’s eyes glowed with a warm golden gleam. After a long stretch of silence, he shook his head. “Loki has him hidden well. I do not see him, either.”
Thor growled and clenched his fingers about Mjolnir’s shaft until his knuckles popped. “More blood on Loki’s hands? The mortal was my friend.”
“I did not say he was dead. If he were, I would still see his soul in whatever realm had received it. I see no trace of him at all. Perhaps Loki and his companion have found a way to conceal others as well as themselves. It would not be a stretch for one trained by your mother.”
“We shall see. At any rate, watch for Erik Selvig, when you can. He has suffered enough at Loki’s hands. Enjoy watching the hunt, Heimdall. I am for Midgard. I wish to speak with my Jane.”
“Just the place for a bilgesnipe!” Cinderbark observed.
They had entered Alfheim on a high bluff that offered a sweeping view of a wide valley. A brook smelling faintly of champagne burbled past them and tumbled into a wider, deeper creek far below. That creek snaked away through the valley floor past orchards laden with candy-striped fruit and gardens buzzing with the cousins of Magnus’ bees. Beyond them rose a sprawling castle that pierced the high wispy clouds with gleaming spires the color of gingerbread.
The creek poured into a wide river before it disappeared into the rock-hewn mountains in the distance. Songbirds gossipped about their sudden arrival over the distant sound of pounding surf. Life pulsed here in all the ways the cinders of Svartalfheim did not, almost unbearably so; the honey-perfumed air laced with the scent of salt made Loki a bit giddy.
After a brief glance about Ellisif’s entry-point, the dwarves — whose race visited Alfheim often enough that they required no disguise — nodded to each other and bustled off in opposite directions to search for any signs of their quarry.
Ellisif gave Sleipnir’s muzzle a quick kiss and gazed up at Loki. He thought she might be getting one more eyeful of his guise as a slender grey-eyed sea elf before taking off. Ever since he had constructed the glamour, complete with hair the color of sea-foam and a coral-colored tunic, he had noticed her slipping about to view his new look.
Sleipnir, too, was in disguise, with four of his legs invisible; even in Alfheim, eight-legged steeds were rare enough to attract attention. He had attempted to keep their disguise on the plainer side to avoid catching the eyes of strangers. Even so, she had not resisted waving the word pretty at him. Then, with a nod, she took to the skies in a mass of eagle-feathers, to search for the beast’s tracks from above.
Alone with the horse and the mortal, Loki turned from the grand view to watch Selvig’s response to it. The human looked uncomfortable with the illusive points on his ears — he kept scratching them — but Loki was confident that he would get used to glamours in time. The mortal gazed down at the fields brimming with sweetness as he fanned the air away from his face.
“The view is lovely, Loki, but the peppermint! Phew! It’s a bit much,” Selvig observed.
“Yes,” Loki replied as he adjusted the soft jacket of his camouflage. “Cloying, isn’t it? Do you detect the hint of salt, though? That is the Sea of Marmora, on the other side of these woods.”
“This… this is beautiful! Amazing! I thought this existed only in stories! Those rose blossoms are bigger than my head! The mushrooms down there are taller than oaks! Are those– are those candy canes growing in that field over there?”
“They are indeed. But do not be fooled by its sweet appearance, Erik Selvig. It is a savage beauty. These are the same people that cast our queen bee out to die.” Loki stroked the saddlebag that contained coils of the invisible rope that Tickseed had made. “The wood behind us contains the Vale of the Unicorn Herders. Our weaver’s people. They abandoned her, as well. Luckily for us our friends found her.”
Beardtongue reappeared and led them to a wide track of destruction over the next rise. Rainbow-hued grasses and chunks of mushroom fluff lay trampled into the ground. Many of the smaller trees had been reduced to splinters, with their fruit squashed into a slimy pulp that already smelled of rot. The swath of devastation flowed in both directions, with massive footprints making circles in the champagne-scented mud.
“Any way to tell which direction it went?” asked Selvig.
“The mushroom bits indicate he ran this way,” reported Beardtongue.
“No, no,” countered Cinderbark, “the hoofmarks go that-a-way!”
They bickered on over their respective tracking skills. Loki sighed deeply as he sidled Sleipnir up to one of the larger undamaged sugar maples, which was dotted with a series of miniature doors and windows around its trunk. The awnings over them were made of bark shingles no larger than his thumbnail. With a delicate tap of his index finger, he knocked on one of the bright red spearhead-shaped doors. When it snapped open, a tiny ivory-haired fairy scowled out at him with her iridescent wings fluttering in agitation.
Loki addressed her with as gentle a voice as he could summon. “A thousand pardons, my good–“
With a fist pounding the air, she jabbered at him with in a voice reminiscent of a crabby chipmunk and then slammed the door in his face. One lock of Loki’s hair blew back with the force of it, and the sugar pane windows surrounding the tree rattled in their casements.
Loki blinked twice, and then he tucked the stray lock of hair back behind his pointed ear and mentally counted to three. Normally he would not brook this sort of attitude. He could have pinched the wench’s head off as easily as he could pick a gooseberry, but he had no wish to give away his presence in Alfheim. Asgard had eyes and ears everywhere, searching for someone claiming to be a King. He didn’t wish to leave a trail of fairy corpses like breadcrumbs in his wake.
Sleipnir snorted and stomped one of his front hooves.
“I agree,” Loki replied. “How rude! But I should not have expected any more from fairies. Such grouches.”
Loki dismounted to get a closer look at the confusion of indentations in the mud. There were other prints mixed in with the shredded fungus. The marks of horseshoes far smaller than Sleipnir’s crept between the enormous gouges left by the bilgesnipe’s gigantic feet. They were not the only hunters on this trail. He looked up from the muddle to find Erik studying a massive lump of frog, which was keeping watch along the path where it intersected with the brook.
Erik asked, his tone flippant, as if he did not expect an answer, “So, seen anything exciting lately?”
“Bilge-SNIPE, bilge-SNIPE,” the frog croaked back.
Erik lost his balance and plopped down into the mud with a wet squelching noise. Loki chuckled at the scientist’s bewilderment. He wondered if the man would ever tell his fireside frog jests again after this. He led Sleipnir over to them and addressed the frog as he handed a still-agog Erik up.
“Did you see in which direction it went, my friend?” Loki asked.
The enormous amphibian pointed to its left. “That WAY. That WAY.”
“Ah. My thanks–“
“Then that WAY, that WAY,” the frog croaked again as it pointed to its right.
Loki turned to the dwarves, who were still arguing. “He must have doubled back, gentlemen. He’s made for the shore.” To the frog, he said, “Was someone in pursuit?”
“Did you see it pass by a third time, perchance?”
“Very well. You have our thanks.” Loki took Sleipnir’s bridle in hand and led him away. “Come, friends, let us find Ellisif and go catch ourselves a bilgesnipe. But be aware! I don’t think we’re the only ones giving chase.” When they were out of earshot of the frog, he said to Erik, “One must be painfully specific when conversing with amphibians.”
“How do you know so much about frogs?”
“Well, you have to know these things when you’re a king, you know.”
Beware the Bilgesnipe, my son!
The jaws that bite, the claws that catch!
Beware the Falcon bird, and shun
The frumious Cumberbatch!
Beware the Bilgesnipe, my son!
The horns that pierce, the feet that crash!
Beware the fierce Hawkeye, and shun
The frumious Hulksmash!
– From the preface of “The Glorious Sagas of Eddaheim”, by Magnus Fargrimsson
As the two dwarves scouted ahead, Loki strolled along the path of devastated forest with Erik. Ellisif, in Sleipnir’s saddle, followed behind them as Loki pointed out the varieties of mushrooms (giant and otherwise) and shattered peppermint candies that littered the bilgesnipe’s wake. The track soon turned away from the bluff, and the gingerbread castle passed out of sight. Trilling thrushes and chirping sparrows overhead accompanied them. Loki could hear the cry of an eagle soaring above the forest canopy, and from time to time he could catch glimpses of it through the high trees as it rode the breeze. That same breeze stirred the leaves and ferns that had managed to escape the bilgesnipe’s charge. As they moved along, he could hear the roar of water colliding with stone somewhere on the other side of the gradual slope that rose beneath their feet.
One dragonfly buzzed past him, then another. When each lazy drone stopped suddenly, instead of fading into the distance, Loki arched an eyebrow. He turned to see the insects alighted upon a grinning Ellisif. One had alighted on her shoulder and another on the wrist of the same arm. She held her hand before her, turning it this way and that as Sleipnir’s slow gait carried her through sunlight and shadow. She sniffed at it, as if she wished to know its every aspect. The creature was monster-sized on her small wrist, and the iridescent blues, yellows, and greens on its darning-needle abdomen were outshone only by the bright gold on its thorax. The one on her shoulder glittered with flecks of crimson and scarlet like a lace-winged ruby.
She lifted her other hand and made a gesture around her face, using one of the signs that Erik had taught them: Pretty.
“She’s easily amused,” Erik observed with a chuckle.
“Thank Valhalla for small favors,” Loki replied.
As they moved along, the alternating warmth and cool of the woods tasted delicious on Loki’s skin, even through his elfin glamour. It reminded him of earlier ventures in these same lands with Thor in happier, younger days. The sudden remembrance of the thunder god forced a colder recollection to the surface. Unbidden, the memory of his false brother tossing him from the wreckage of the Bifrost emerged. It stabbed him behind his eyes, and he scowled silently for a moment, his face wrinkled in pain. The memory was rimed with frosty hate, glowing in his heart as if it had been carved out of ice and driven into him from somewhere else.
One bright spot pushed the feeling aside as he glimpsed the black and ginger beards of the dwarves moving ahead of them: his new companions loved him. They were his people, and he was their King. They were his subjects by choice and not by birth. He even had one of Thor’s new friends as a companion, and that friend was happy, even in the throes of curmudgeonliness. He had rescued the scholar from imprisonment and granted him a new life, and Loki relished his own magnanimity. He could be a generous lord when the occasion called for it.
Loki also had possession of an entity who seemed made entirely for him, an entity who could manifest the most glorious treasures in the Nine Realms. When she felt like it, anyway. Ellisif could remake the entire universe, an inch at a time. She was a gem herself, after a fashion, his own pearl of great price. Anyone trying to tempt her (and her power) away from him would be hard-pressed to do so, when her simple pleasures were so readily available.
Loki wandered ahead of his companions to examine an upcoming intersection with a dirt path in the forest. On one of the larger trees hung a battered bill that had managed to avoid the bilgesnipe’s wake. On it, poorly rendered but still recognizable, loomed the faces of two trolls of his acquaintance. The smudged and crooked lettering promised a pile of gold for the capture (dead or alive, but preferably dead) of a pair of stony bee thieves and abductors of elderly elves. The corner of Loki’s mouth twisted as he looked down the intersecting path and spied more of the posters every dozen yards or so. Ellisif and Sleipnir trotted by and Erik passed by behind him, none of them noticing the paper in his hands. Loki sliced the air with a gesture that banished the sheet into his unseen pocket, for later review, not yet ready to disturb his friends’ tranquillity. If they found the creature, it would end soon enough.
“Ah, the treasures of nature,” Erik mused into the peppermint-laden air. “‘Who steals my purse steals trash,’ the Bard would say, though I think he meant–“
Loki stopped the man with a grasp of his forearm and pointed ahead. The sound of Sleipnir’s numerous hooves on the path behind them dribbled into silence. Ahead, the path opened up onto a broad meadow carpeted with tall waving grass and peppered with the yellow dots of wild mustard and buttercups. At the end of the road of flattened greenery could be seen the rump of a massive beast that had stopped to drink at the pond that bordered the far side of the open space.
Ellisif quietly climbed down from the saddle and stood between Loki and Selvig. After a few hushed moments, the dwarves slipped out of the woods to their right, with two unfamiliar faces in tow. Loki, remembering the tracks they had seen when they had first arrived, was not entirely surprised. One, with dark brown skin and close-cropped curly black hair, had donned hunting gear that would look at home on Hogun. His companion, a tall broad-shouldered woman, was pale in complexion, and her auburn hair was braided and pinned up in the complex style of the Norns. She was armed for combat rather than hunting, also in the Nornish fashion, but she moved so skillfully that he could barely hear any of the armor scraping or jingling.
As he studied them, letting his perception absorb the details of their dress and (so far) nonthreatening movement, Loki held a finger to his lips and indicated the beast ahead by jerking his chin in its direction. The group, crouching low in their own fashion, crept forward to the edge of the forest to gaze at their shared prey. Sleipnir stayed behind, safe among the trees. Loki had not seen a bilgesnipe for more than a decade, but there was no mistaking the creature’s species.
“It looks like a rhinoceros,” whispered Selvig.
Loki waved him into silence, but he knew the Midgardian had the right idea. Except this rhinoceros was protected by a waterfall of serpentine scales that shimmered from an ocean-blue at the back of its head to an emerald-green just above a thin rope of tail that swished along its broad backside.
Cautiously, as if it had caught their scent on the wind, the bilgesnipe raised its head from the water and looked about. Immense antlers that would make a moose pale with envy sprouted from its broad head, reaching outward and upward to the sky like the hands of an ancient suppliant. The tips tapered into curled fingers, almost claws, and were sharp enough to slice down any greenery (or trees, or Alfheim mushrooms, or frost giants disguised as Aesir disguised as elves) that had the misfortune to stand in its path. A few dragonflies sheltered here and there on the antler’s branches, and more of the bejewelled insects rested along its spine as it drank.
Its four massive legs were thick as oaks, ending in leathery three-toed hooves that could throw up enormous clods of earth when it ran, which it could do with surprising grace and speed for its bulk. Its relatively small eyes, like tiny black beads stuck to the sides of its head, reflected the warm sunlight as it swung its head back and forth. The clinging dragonflies scattered at the movement. Its antlers sheared away what little greenery was left around it, and then it nibbled away at the corpses of trampled purple daisies at the edge of the pond.
“You want to bring that thing back to Eddaheim?” Erik squeaked softly from behind Loki. “Are you kidding me? There won’t be anything left of us for Odin to find!”
“Peace, man, peace,” Loki growled in a hoarse whisper. He motioned for the others to back away from their grassy blind, leaving Beardtongue in place to keep an eye on the beast. “She can hear us.”
“She?” asked the Norn, finally close enough to hear as they approached Sleipnir’s shelter in the trees.
“You agree, Ellisif?” Loki asked as he turned to the small figure, who now seemed anchored to his side.
She nodded vigorously, admiration writ large across her face, and signed pretty yet again.
Well, Loki thought, there’s no accounting for taste.
“Besides,” he continued, “there is plenty of room for her on the far side of the Friggavatn. It’s mostly grassy meadow, anyway. Not much there to destroy. If she turns up the ground, well, there’s that much less for someone to plow, when the time comes.”
“Good luck gathering the manure for your apple tree, then,” Erik groused. “That’s not my job.”
“Nor mine!” said Cinderbark.
I can do it. Ellisif waved her hands wildly below the words, as if the task would be a joy to her.
“Friggavatn?” asked the Norn’s companion as he poked at Ellisif’s floating letters. “I have never heard of it.”
“Neither have I, Ulfsson, even in my exile,” the Norn said. She pounded a mailed fist lightly upon her chest. “I am Vigdis, formerly of Nornheim.”
“Formerly?” asked Cinderbark.
Her face fell.
“Were you sacked?” Selvig asked.
“He means, were you exiled?” Loki asked.
“Banished. It is a long tale,” she said with a sigh and pointed at her companion. “This man hired me to help slay that brute. She’s torn a swath of destruction through here and his village in Vanaheim.”
“I am Skadi Ulfsson,” the man added. “I am the headman of my village. We sent for help from Asgard, but apparently they are far too busy chasing down their lost prince to help with any real problems.”
“Lost prince?” Loki asked casually, thankful for his glamour and for the one he had put on Sleipnir. Eight-legged steeds were rare indeed, even in a land of giant mushrooms and gingerbread castles.
It would be good to have some news from outside Eddaheim. He could feel the gazes of his friends wander in different directions, deliberately looking at anything but him. Cinderbark hummed softly and pretended to check Sleipnir’s saddle fastenings but still struggled to not sputter with laughter. Loki bit back a witty retort that might have given up the game to their new acquaintances.
“Yes. What was his name again?” Skadi asked. “Lothir? Leifi?”
“Perhaps Leiknir?” Vigdis said.
“Loki,” Selvig said, then grunted as Ellisif elbowed him in the ribs.
“I suppose that’s it,” Skadi said. “Yes, Loki. Thor’s younger brother. He’s king. He’s dead, he’s alive, he’s in prison. Then he’s dead, then he’s alive, but they’ve lost him. I wish they would make up their minds. If Odin cannot keep the royal family in line, then maybe we need someone else in charge.”
“I would drink to that,” Loki replied as he cast a glance at the back of his hand, confirming his disguise was still in place. He fought to keep a sneer of satisfaction from punching through his glamour. “Still, a debate for another time. There’s work here needs doing. We will gladly remove the bilgesnipe from Alfheim and take her someplace where all parties will be safe and happy. You are welcome to join in. Or watch, if you prefer. Either way, our task is to capture her alive and unspoilt.”
“I beg your pardon?” Skadi asked, his eyes as wide as Volstagg’s dinner plates.
“Alive?” asked Vigdis.
Ellisif’s words danced in the middle of their circle. Loki smiled at the confused but silent reactions on the faces of their new friends.
“Of course,” he repeated. “Any other questions?”
“Just one, good sir elf,” answered Skadi.
“Are you mad?”
“Possibly,” replied Loki.
“Definitely,” replied Selvig.
“But there is a method to it,” Loki continued with an amused glare at his Royal Astronomer. “You should stay here with the horse, my dear scholar, and witness the capture. Perhaps it will make for an interesting tale.”
“Fine by me.”
“What shall we call you?” asked Vigdis. “The dwarves have told us their names, but not yours.”
Loki’s mind raced. He had anticipated being seen, but he had not thought about actual introductions. He could not use just any name; most people outside of Midgard had a good sense of what names belonged to which realm. He needed an elf name. He glanced at Ellisif, who winked at him, either guessing his answer or giving him permission to use it.
“I am Tansy Ragwort,” Loki answered with the name of Tickseed’s imaginary sweetheart. “And these are my companions, Ellisif and Selvig.”
“What region of Alfheim? Not this one, Tansy Ragwort,” Skadi said. “Accent is all wrong. Where do you plan to take this brute, if whatever plan you have works?”
“Does it matter to you, as long as it is out of your way?”
“I suppose not. Just keep it away from the portal to Vanaheim. We are not far from it.”
“Will I still get paid, Ragwort?” Vigdis asked. “I must have gold in order to eat, and I must eat to live long enough to regain my honor!”
Loki studied her. Her movements were strong and graceful. A former member of Queen Karnilla’s court, whatever crime she may have committed, might be useful.
“I guarantee you will be cared for, if you help us,” he replied. “Perhaps even a new place in which to establish your–”
A deafening roar pierced the air and shattered the rest of Loki’s sentence. Most of them were knocked to their knees, their mouths open to release screams that could not be heard. The entire world was muffled; birdsong, wind, and water had been drained of all power, as if all sound had been sucked out of the universe. Silence, like a living thing, pressed down on Loki’s ears with a great weight. He panicked for a moment as flashes of the last time he had suffered such a sonic blow sputtered through his mind: Has the Other found me? Is Thanos here? The vibrations of his heart thundered in his chest so hard it threatened to burst, but he could not hear it. He beat down the sheer terror in that awful silence, reassuring himself that his guise held.
Time stretched out like honey, and even the wind in the trees froze. Seconds melted into hours as he struggled to his feet, pulling Ellisif along with him, only to see Beardtongue rushing in their direction. As the pressure on his ears eased off, the silent workings of the dwarf’s mouth resolved into actual words.
“–coming this way!”
Loki had no idea who shrieked the command — perhaps he had — but everyone instantly obeyed. The ground was a moving target for his feet as it rumbled beneath him.
They exploded away from the spot. Loki ran perpendicular to the course that he guessed the beast was most likely to take, telling himself that he would swing back around and end up behind it and give himself a few heartbeats in which to come up with some sort of strategy. His eyes caught only flashes of the others, but his gift of Perception fed him details. Vigdis stood her ground, sword at the ready, only to be bowled over as the brute charged by. Erik vaulted into Sleipnir’s saddle with surprising agility for a mortal, and they bolted into the woods. Ulfsson shimmied up an ancient oak, demolishing a fairy porch in the process. The tree swayed in the bilgesnipe’s wake, and the resident fairy buzzed about the lad in fury. The dwarves dived beneath a fallen log that rained moss and bark upon them with the beast’s thunder.
And yet the bilgesnipe ignored them all, making a beeline for Ellisif, little Ellisif, who for some unknown reason pelted back towards the bluff overlooking the gingerbread castle. With a silly grin plastered across her face, she somehow kept yards ahead of the stampede.
“The little minx is enjoying this,” Loki muttered.
He circled round to Vidgis, who was swearing as only Norns can and flinging mud from her sword. He shook his head to clear his Perception and focus on the warrior in front of him.
“Slaying it would be easier,” she spat. She pointed at the newly blazed road through the forest. “At this rate, there won’t be much of Alfheim left, even if we do catch her.”
“And how do you propose to do that, Ragwort?” Ulfsson wheezed as he approached, still swatting at the chattering fairy. “We still need a plan.”
“Lull her to sleep, of course,” Loki replied.
“Sleep?” Vigdis snorted. “If you could do that, elf, why haven’t you already?”
“Because he has to touch it first,” answered Erik as he and Sleipnir emerged from the woods. “Right, Loki?”
Loki cringed as the others jumped at his name.
“Loki?” demanded Vigdis, squinting hard at him, as if that would penetrate his illusion.
With a sigh, he let it fall away, almost glad to shed it. He rolled his eyes as he did so; he would have to fuss at his astronomer later.
“Whatever. Whoever,” Ulfsson said has the fairy punched his earlobe. “As long as we do it here and not in Vanaheim.”
The bilgesnipe bellowed again, closer this time, as if it had doubled back. Loki opened his Perception to check on Ellisif, but he did not see her. Not at first. Arching an eyebrow and staring unfocused into space, he searched for her. He could only see the shape of the bilgesnipe. One with longer antlers…
“The original idea was for Ellisif to contain it within a tight shield, long enough for me to cast sleep upon it.”
“Missing something, aren’t you?” Erik asked. “Where is she?”
Loki’s eyes widened as he realized that he had not actually lost her.
“Oh,” he observed in a mixture of concern and amusement, “she’s still in the–“
He was cut off by a bellow and a tremor as the trees swayed around them. They all dove into either side of the splintered track as the bilgesnipe exited his Perception and blundered into his actual vision. He had only a brief glimpse of a bolt of copper and gold scales flying past, but that was enough to tell him that the situation had changed. Drastically.
“There are two of them now?” Erik screeched.
“Did you see those antlers?” Ulfsson cried out, still slapping away the buzzing fairy.
“Antlers?” Vigdis moaned. “More like a tree! This new one must be male!”
Letters shimmered in the air in the creature’s wake.
The original blue-green bilgesnipe ripped through the text, scattering the letters like glowing leaves as it charged past in pursuit of none other than little Ellisif. Loki smiled at the new extent of her shape-shifting powers and filed that fact away before turning to the others.
“She’s leading it,” Loki announced to his stunned crew. “Maybe she can–“
“She’s a shapeshifter?” Ulfsson sputtered as he darted his gaze between Loki and Selvig. “And you’re a prince of Asgard? Who are you people?”
“She’s getting better at multitasking, I’ll give her that,” Erik mused. Sleipnir neighed in agreement.
“Which way is the portal to Vanaheim?” Loki asked.
Ulfsson’s nostrils flared as he pointed at the female bilgesnipe’s enormous rear end, which was rapidly approaching the pond where they had discovered it. “That way.”
Loki frowned. “Then we must catch up with them. If Elli can cast a shield…” He grunted as he mounted Sleipnir, riding pillion in front of Selvig, leaving the rest of his sentence behind in the dust.
“Catch them?” Cinderbark laughed as he and Beardtongue emerged from beneath their log. “At that speed?”
“Sleipnir can,” Loki said, much to the horse’s scream of protest. “Follow as fast as you can. If Ellisif can contain that beast for even a moment, a moment’s all I need.”
He urged Sleipnir on as they skirted the pond through crushed grass and trampled pussy-willows. The track wound away from the pond and over the crest of a grassy hill that hid what lay beyond, including the bilgesnipe.
“At least we have a clear path to follow,” Loki said to Erik over his shoulder. “What say you, Astronomer?”
“Cry ‘Havoc,’ and let slip the dogs of war,” the human replied as he tightened his grip on Loki’s waist. “I suppose.”
“Good for all occasions.”
Despite his protests, Sleipnir galloped along the beaten track that rose and fell beneath them. The scenery bounced in Loki’s view: grass, sky, more grass, blue and green and blue again… blotted with the a bilgesnipe rump always disappearing over the next hill. Loki tasted salt on the wind. Alfheim sun warmed his hair as Selvig blew it out of his own face. Sweat trickled down his neck. Sleipnir’s muscles rippled beneath him as he ran, ever faster. A thrill danced down Loki’s spine as they dashed across the rolling hills, the thrill of chase and danger and the closeness of the sea.
For a heartbeat he wished his brother were by his side, sharing the adventure. Then he scowled the wish away. Thor would have simply blown past him, stomped over all his plans, and fried the beast with lightning before anyone could say him nay.
“Dragonflies! They make them big here,” Selvig shouted as a bejeweled shadow flitted past them.
“That’s no dragonfly,” Loki replied over the roar of the chase. Ulfsson’s nemesis, the near apoplectic fairy, zipped between Sleipnir’s ears before careening away and disappearing into the Alfheim sky.
“Persistent little wench,” Loki muttered.
“And though she be but little, she is fierce!” Selvig howled with laughter as he clung even tighter.
Loki wasn’t sure if he meant the fairy or Ellisif, but he agreed on either count as they crested yet another hill. Then he saw it, a pockmark marring an otherwise perfect sky, a dot of midnight lurking in the sun.
“But soft, what dark through yonder window breaks?” Selvig managed to wheeze out as Loki brought Sleipnir to a halt.
“Vanaheim,” Loki said, catching his own breath. “What we need to avoid!”
“Does Elli know that?”
“She’s just got room to turn at that speed,” Loki replied. “But only just. Wish I had some way to tell her–“
“Ever seen a billboard?”
Loki nodded, remembering the enormous signs that blighted Earth’s roadsides. He had never thrown an illusion of words before, but surely it was easier than duplicating himself. He needed a message, something simple and direct. He blinked, and a moment later a message glowed in front of Ellisif’s animal form, so close she nearly burst through it.
The copper-gold blur that was Ellisif was only a few lengths ahead of the blue-green female. Ellisif banked and deflected her path away from the patch of Vanaheim darkness. From his perch on the crest of the hill, Loki observed that the grass ended just before its shimmering margins. The sea rumbled far below.
Ellisif led the beast away from the cliff and the portal, circling back towards Loki’s hill. After gaining some lengths, her coppery bulk leapt into the air, twisting and reforming into a raven, dropping a few feathers as she took to the air out of the other bilgesnipe’s way. She banked around, faster than the larger beast could turn. At a safe enough distance behind that massive pile of blue-green, she resumed her human form. Before her feet touched the ground, a shield of light bloomed around the bilgesnipe. The cage began to shrink immediately, closing in around the stomping, snorting creature.
Loki shouted his approval as he guided Sleipnir down the slope. He had to urge the horse on continually despite his protests. Loki understood his hesitation; Ellisif was still learning! But his tutelage was bearing fruit at least. The shield held.
It tightened as he approached, step by step. The beast was tall enough at the shoulders that Loki had no reason to dismount. Fortunate, in case a fast getaway became necessary. He wasn’t that confident. Still, he smiled at his small friend, and she nodded, breathless, at him.
“Focus,” Loki cautioned.
The shield was tight now, tight as a second skin over the bilgesnipe’s scales.
Loki sidled the nervous horse and human behind him up to the shield. Colorful scales glittered like sun on water just inside. They were so close to the portal that he could see torches lighting the streets of the village on the other side, and the stars twinkling in its dark sky. The scent of pine nearly overcame that of salt.
The shield retracted a little, exposing a patch of flank. Loki recalled the sleeping enchantment as he reached for the shining scales. As he reached out, the shield blinked off, then on again. Loki held his breath, chancing a quick glance at Ellisif, who was swatting at something buzzing around her head.
“That damn fairy again,” Erik snapped behind him. “Oooh, She just bit Ellisif on the–“
The shield winked out.
Loki was side by side with an outraged bilgesnipe.
The bilgesnipe snorted and fixed them with narrowed eyes, as an archer fixes a target.
And Sleipnir was having none of it.
The mighty steed launched himself away without any command from Loki and headed straight for the only safety he saw.
Loki pulled at the reins and shrieked commands as they slipped closer to the edge, but Sleipnir only had one thing on his equine mind. And the bilgesnipe had only one thing on hers: an eight-legged horse.
“Where did you learn how to steer?” Selvig demanded as they zigged. “Mind the cliff! I wish Thor were here!”
Loki groaned as Sleipnir changed directions again, wondering how the man had enough breath to speak.
“He’d make short work of it,” Selvig continued. “We’d have bilgesnipe barbecue for days!”
They threw up clods of earth of their own, left, then right, as Sleipnir built up a full head of steam. On one turn, Loki caught a brief glimpse of dwarves running down the hill. But he had neither time nor breath to hail them. The only thing louder than hooves was the pounding of Loki’s own heart. Sleipnir obeyed his terror as the bilgesnipe bore down. Ellisif was somewhere behind them. The magic streamed around them again and again, trying to recast the shield, but the enraged bilgesnipe was too swift this time.
No choice. No time to turn.
The cool Vanir night caressed his face as Sleipnir vaulted over the edge of the cliff and into the portal. As they plunged into darkness, the human guffawed his own resignation to absurdity over Loki’s shoulder.
“Exit,” quipped Selvig, “pursued by a bilgesnipe.”
Refkell followed Ulf’s advice and used the portal from Vanaheim to Alfheim. He gasped at the damage done to the forest in the Vale of the Unicorn Herders, who were nowhere to be seen. The trees that were not splintered were plastered over with bills advertising a bounty for trolls, wanted for bee-theft. He hobbled down to the gingerbread castle in the valley below as quickly as he could manage. He slipped past the bilgesnipe, which was taking a nap by the Vale’s pond between rampages. He was relieved when he had finally reached the Hall of the Chamberlain of the Court of Queen Featherwine of the Fay.
And then Refkell was irritated.
“So, is Asgard finally sending someone to deal with the bilgesnipe?” The Chamberlain leaned across the podium, phoenix-feather quill whipping above his head, and sniffed. With eyes full of sneering doubt, he took in Refkell’s ancient armor and worn walking staff. “Though I did not expect them to pull one from the old warrior’s home. What happened? Valhalla got a waiting list?”
Refkell snorted but plowed ahead. This wasn’t his first trip around the realms. He squinted at the runes on the podium’s nameplate. “Lord Basil… Pansyblossom, is it?”
“Yes, of the Crystal Grove Pansyblossoms.”
“Well, Pansybottom, let’s set one thing straight. I was defending your realm against Svartalfheim invasions when you were knee-high to a tree fairy–“
A distant roar cut him off.
“Oh, there it goes again,” the Chamberlain moaned. “Day and night, night and day. Nobody can get any sleep round here! And the fairies! They fuss about it endlessly. I’ve told them that sugarpane windows are not rated for bilgesnipe stampedes! If they want to keep rebuilding that way over and over again before it’s slain, well, that’s the definition of insanity, that’s what I say–“
“Pansy,” Refkell interjected.
“But oh, no, I’m only the Court Chamberlain and the Chair-elf of the Confectionery Building Codes Committee, what do I know?”
Refkell took another deep breath. “I’m not here about the bilgesnipe.”
“We sent a pixie courier weeks ago!”
“It never arrived, as far as I know. We’ve had issues of our own.”
“And so, Asgard’s issues are everybody’s issues.”
“What are you here for, then?”
“Congress of Worlds. As I said.”
“Whatever for?” The Chamberlain snorted. “We haven’t had one since, what, Bor’s day?”
“That’s for me to discuss with your Queen. I need to see her. Now.”
“Now? There’s no now, if you’re not here for the bilgesnipe.” Pansyblossom paused. “Unless the Congress of Worlds plans to do something about the bilgesnipe.”
Pansyblossom whipped the long quill around the hall filled with impatient elves, pixies, fairies, and brownies, all waiting their turn in the audience chamber. “Look, we’re very busy.”
“Doing what, exactly?”
“Unicorns to herd. Sugarplums to harvest. Bee thieves to catch. Bilgesnipes to slay. The usual. I’ll just have to quill you in.”
The Chamberlain made a show of speed-reading through the leaves in his dragon-leather-bound appointment book. “We can take you in… eight weeks.”
“Eight weeks? Why you little whipper–“
Refkell was cut off mid-flyte by another bilgesnipe roar, this one much closer to the castle than before.
“Unless you are dealing with that, you wait,” Pansyblossom said as he scratched Refkell’s name down in his book. He then reached down into a basket beneath the podium and pulled out a candy-cane key. “In the meantime, old timer, be my guest here at the castle. You’ve got the Asgard Suite in the north tower. Go enjoy a champagne sauna. Or have some butterscotch rum in the tavern. Odin’s got a tab running. And mind the fairies, though. They’re mean drunks. Next!”
After two weeks of waiting, Refkell was restless. He had considered going on to the next realm on his list instead of simply waiting at the castle. He reckoned he could visit everywhere else in eight weeks (except perhaps for Midgard, what a mess that was going to be), even with the time zone differences between realms, and be back with time to spare. Rumor had it that there was a portal to Muspelheim open on the far shore of the Sea of Marmora. But it was heavily guarded against dragon incursion, and the Air Elves had refused him passage on their Sky Ships until he had permission to cross from the Queen. So he was forced to wait for his appointment anyway.
He tried to take advantage of the time and catch up on his old man’s rest, but who could sleep through the constant cries of the bilgesnipe, even with the help of butterscotch rum? No wonder the fairies were so crabby.
Still, he tried to enjoy himself and spent most afternoons lounging on the lily pads in the castle’s quiet lake with a butterscotch rum in each hand. It was a small jab, drinking on Odin’s bill, but it was something. He wished Ulf were here with him. He missed his old drinking companion. He would find some way to laugh through the endless roaring.
Then, one afternoon, just as he had given up on the rum and moved on to gooseberry gin, it stopped.
Rumors flew through the court, then the Vale fairies reported in. When he received a summons from Pansyblossom, Refkell changed back into his formal robes and made his way back to the Hall. The Chamberlain was tipsy with glee.
“Never mind the eight weeks,” the Chamberlain said with a giggle. He took a sip of the celebratory champagne being passed around the Court. “Queen Featherwine will see you now.”
Refkell dodged one of the cheering fairies flitting about the Hall. “What happened?”
“The Vale fairies are reporting that the bilgesnipe has been chased back into Vanaheim. All those appointments ahead of you? Clear now.”
“By whom?” Ulf gasped.
“Who cares? As long as it’s not here.”
“Oh, Ulf,” Refkell muttered as he was led into the audience chamber. “I’m so sorry.”
Erik’s prattle was swallowed by the Vanaheim stillness, and the scent of peppermint was overwhelmed by that of cedar and larch. For the space of a few breaths, all Loki could hear was the pounding of Sleipnir’s hooves and his own heart running wild and alive. He couldn’t help but smile into the night.
That is, until the roar of an enraged bilgesnipe shattered the silence.
Loki could feel its hot breath steaming around them. He urged Sleipnir on, faster, then faster, but still staying only a few steps ahead so he would not lose the beast among the whispering pines. As the chase neared the warm night fires of the village, Loki looked about for a clear path away from the maze of mushroom-shaped houses.
But Sleipnir had ideas of his own. Ignoring Loki’s commands, he made a beeline for the lights in the village ahead. They galloped past the line of stone columns that marched along the road, like running a gauntlet of carved trees. Loki fussed and pulled at the reins, to no avail. Sleipnir scampered down an alley that was far too small for the bilgesnipe. It howled in frustration, backed off, and began a one-beast stampede around the clump of houses. At the first opening large enough for him, Sleipnir tiptoed — quite impressively for a horse with eight hooves — into a barn and halted so fast that he nearly ejected Loki from the saddle.
“Sleipnir!” Loki barked.
The horse neighed back but refused each yank on his reins. Loki sprang out of the saddle, grabbed the bridle, and shook his index finger at his mount.
“You have one job,” Loki said. “Just the one. When you’re wearing the saddle, you go where I tell you to go! We have to–“
Sleipnir snorted back through curled lips and stomped four feet. He was answered by the cries and bleats of the barn’s occupants.
“I agree with him,” Selvig said, remaining firmly in the saddle and shouting to be heard above the shrieks of extremely agitated goats. “Are you certain you want to bring that thing to Eddaheim?”
A tall man leaned out of the shadows and into the thin light slipping in from the street. He tapped his way into full view with a staff in one hand and a large empty bowl in the other.
“Do not be afraid,” he said. “I am Ulf.”
“Ulf, as in Skadi Ulfsson, Ulf?” Loki asked.
“Indeed. And this is Ulf’s barn. You’re scaring my goats.”
“Sorry,” said Selvig. “We were just–“
“Hunting a bilgesnipe?”
“You seem to have found it. How can I help you?”
Loki opened his mouth to reply, but his response was drowned out by the ear-splitting cries of the bilgesnipe somewhere on the other side of the village. Ulf tapped his way a few steps closer, until he stood between Loki and Sleipnir. He leaned his staff against the stable wall and reached into the pocket of his robe. He pulled out a carrot, which the horse accepted with nickers of thanks.
“You’re welcome, young man,” Ulf said before turning to Loki. “Pardon a blind old man,” he said, “I don’t think we’ve met.” Before Loki could protest, he raised his hand to Loki’s face and brushed his fingers across his forehead and cheekbones.
A look of shock flashed across Ulf’s face, but only a flash. Just as Loki flared his nostrils at the man’s daring, his Perception poked his brain and told him the man had magic, more than the average Vanir, and that allowing the touch would be wise. Ulf withdrew his hand and retrieved his staff.
“You mentioned my son. Is he with you?”
The bilgesnipe roared again, this time much closer, accompanied by cringe-worthy booms of collapsing walls a few streets away.
“He’s behind us,” Loki said. “Still in one piece, last I saw. We’re helping him. But we intend to take the beast alive. Take it somewhere where it will never trouble you nor Alfheim again.”
“This Eddaheim you mentioned? Where’s that? What’s your plan?”
“A sleeping spell, but I–“
“Need to get close enough to touch it,” Ulf replied, nodding. He held up the bowl. “I can help. Wait here.”
The man faded back into the darkness. Loki heard the rattle of bowls, shuffling, the surprised cry of a goat, the squirting of milk, more shuffling, the uncorking and pouring out of bottles, all while the old man hummed a goat-herding song in the darkness. Loki’s eyebrows danced up and down in impatience, but his Perception — awakened by the blind man’s touch — told him that something deeper was at work here.
Soon enough he reappeared, bowl brimming with liquid in hand. “Would you do an old man a favor and lead him into the village square?” He leaned his staff against the wall again. “Take me by the elbow. I need both hands for the bowl.”
“What is that?”
“Bilgesnipe bait. If you just lean out the barn door and look to your right, you should see the square’s fountain. Take me to the north side. It has a long, low table. Perfect height.”
“Duck under the table. Really fast. Have your spell ready.”
The memory of Ellisif’s failed shield flickered across his mind, and he with a small gesture of his hand, he sent a worded illusion — bless Selvig and his billboards — through the portal to where he had last seen her. He pursed his lips for a couple of breaths as he waited for a reply, but none came. He would have to trust the others to look after her until he solved the current crisis, the one wrecking this village. He could not afford for word of its destruction to get back to Asgard.
“Let’s go,” Loki said as he grasped the man’s elbow.
He peered out into the night to confirm the path was clear. They slipped past door shut tight against the howls of the beast, although he thought he spied curious eyes peeking through cracks in the shutters as they padded by.
As they entered the square, Loki asked, “Have you done this before?”
“Oh, once or twice in my greener days, with my friends. But youth just aren’t interested in bilgesnipe tipping anymore! The creatures can’t resist this concoction. Goats milk and honey, with a touch of Vanaheim cinnamon and Muspelheim rock salt. It’s like candy to them. Tastes like their mother’s milk. They crave it, to distraction. Once it shows up, you’d best use that sleep enchantment of yours right away.”
“How long will I have?” Loki asked as they approached the table. He guided Ulf’s elbow to show him where to rest the bowl.
“As long as this concoction lasts. Not long. Best be ready.”
The ground shook with the bilgesnipe’s approach, and they dove beneath the table just as it trumpeted its arrival at the square.
Loki could smell its musk before he could see it. It sniffed the air, searching for the bowl that called it like a siren. It cried with joy as it stomped across the square to the table. Its front toes nearly crushed Loki’s hand, and the reek emanating from it was nearly as unbreathable as Muspelheim sulfur. All the same, it grunted with happiness as it lapped away at the milk. He held his breath to keep out the stink, until Ulf poked him in the ribs. Nodding, Loki reached out for the foot that had nearly squashed him. He released the sleeping spell.
The bilgesnipe froze between slurps. It snorted for a few breaths, then the snorts melted into snores. It remained standing, like a horse. Cautiously, Loki poked at the toe. Getting no response, he poked it again, harder this time.
“I think we’re fine,” he reported to Ulf.
He turned to assist Ulf out, but the man rolled out easily on his own. Loki stood and stretched like a cat. Then he poked the sleeping bilgesnipe hard in the flank, something he would never dare if it had been awake. All he got was more snoring. And with the touch, his Perception told him that the beast was pregnant. Very pregnant. Loki smiled. No wonder she had been rampaging. They were about to have two bilgesnipe.
Applause erupted behind him. Loki turned at the noise, only to find Vigdis and Ulfsson (carrying a limp Ellisif over his shoulder), along with the dwarves, clapping and cheering as the villagers peered out of their doors.
Loki rolled his eyes. “Thanks for the help,” he growled.
“How long will she sleep?” Ulf asked. “The bilgesnipe, that is, not the young lady.”
Loki studied Ulf by the light of the village’s celebratory lamps, fairy lights of soft pinks and greens among the pines. Lean and tall though slightly bent with age, he seemed spry and sharp of wit despite his snow-white beard. He needed the staff to find his way about, but he was still strong and nimble.
The villagers danced around them, yipping and singing and sloshing tankards of drink over the formerly silent square. Vigdis plunked one that smelt strongly of butterscotch in front of Loki and then punched him in the arm.
“Remember our bargain,” she shouted over the din, before running off to join the dwarves in another rowdy Nidavellir drinking song.
“Ow,” Loki said as he rubbed his arm. “What’s this?”
Ulf sniffed the air and smiled knowingly. “Ah, butterscotch rum. Bilgesnipe aren’t the only things to come through that portal. Best nurse it if you’re not used to it.”
The villagers had draped garlands of violets and daisies over the beast’s rack of antlers. Every time she snored, their petals showered Ellisif’s sleeping form. Between the fairy-bite and all the shapeshifting, the girl was worn out. After Ulfsson had put her down, Loki had examined her gently. Other than the welt on her ear from the fairy, there was nothing wrong with her that a nap could not cure, and she would need one to have the strength to take them all back to Eddaheim. Even if they had had a portal to Eddaheim right there, there was no budging the bilgesnipe without her. She had curled up on the table next to the snoring bilgesnipe and passed out with her hand resting on its muzzle, no sleeping spell required. Loki reached beyond the tankard and stroked her temple, searching for a fever that wasn’t there.
He finally responded to Ulf’s question. “Until I wake her. A colicky dragon wouldn’t disturb her at this point. How did you know, really? About the bait, I mean.”
“Oh, I worked for Odin once. I picked up a thing or two in the royal household.”
Loki nodded. No wonder the man seemed familiar. “Of course.”
“And you’re king of this Eddaheim, you say.”
“Indeed. Can you tell me anything else about bilgesnipe care? We need all the lore we can–“
“It’ll be dawn soon.” Skadi plopped down next to his father and wiped his rum-soaked lips on his sleeve. “We haven’t caroused like this since Thor defeated the Marauders here, oh, going on two years ago. The bard’s already composing a song about the great bilgesnipe capture.” The man laughed into his tankard and took another gulp. Loki was thankful Ulf couldn’t see him wincing at his brother’s name. Skadi seemed too tipsy to care as he belched and set his tankard down again.”I didn’t know you knew so much about bilgesnipe, Father.”
“You never asked.” Ulf turned to Loki. “In fact, no one has ever asked. No one has ever done this before. It would take a while to tell you all of it. You wouldn’t believe what you can do with bilgesnipe urine.”
“Urine?” Skadi blanched at the word.
“Boiled down, of course. You don’t want to use it raw. And then there’s…” He stopped, then muttered something under his breath. It might have been “kell” or “kill”, who could tell? The old man sighed deeply, as if he had just argued with himself, and lost. “We’ll be here until next year if I tell it all. Why don’t I just come with you?”
“I’d like to be useful, son. I may be old, but I’m still up for an adventure. I’m tired of sitting in my garden every day.”
Loki frowned in thought as he sipped the rum, then brushed a violet blossom off Ellisif’s cheek. His people were so few in number, and he plans for all the adults to keep busy. They were still on the ground floor. He wasn’t sure he had anyone to spare to lead a blind man around.
Still, Loki thought as he eyed the staff propped by the man’s elbow, he seems independent enough. And we do need some help with this bilgesnipe. As we need so many other things…
“I’ll bring my goats,” Ulf coaxed.
“I’m not leaving you, m’lady.”
Sefa frowned at Sigyn as she said it. Sigyn shifted uneasily from foot to foot as she tried to think of something that would send her servant — and dearest companion — back to Asgard without her.
“I need to know what is happening,” she replied. “I need to know if it is over.”
“If Odin has chosen a wife.”
“Yes,” Sigyn said as she glanced over Sefa’s shoulder at the leader of the mission as he gathered the team around him. “I like Dir well enough. But he doesn’t know the situation. Theoric didn’t tell him everything when he talked him into taking me on. And anyway he wouldn’t know if… if father…”
“Yes, m’lady. But your safety is, as always, my first concern.”
Sigyn patted the scabbard hanging at her side. “I have my sword, Sefa. I can manage for a while.”
Sefa sighed. “Every Asgardian has a sword, m’lady, but you haven’t drawn that in years. I have to remind you to oil it.”
“But I do oil it! Well, I may not be Lady Sif, but I can defend myself.”
“Against a child, perhaps. You would be better off simply disguising yourself as a rock. You always were better at illusions than swordplay.”
“I’m in Nidavellir. With the dwarves. What could possibly happen?”
She waved at Sefa as the team disappeared into Bifrost. Her smile faded with the light of the rainbow bridge. She hoped that her friend returned with good news, but her hope was drying up.
Sigyn took a moment for her self in the bright sunshine. It was the first time she had seen the sky since their arrival in Nidavellir, at the other end of the mountain range that loomed over her. The Bifrost had deposited the small team of Asgardians in a small clearing in the same narrow valley, just a league from the entrance to the first dwarf outpost. The rainbow bridge had left a similar labyrinthine stamp on the ground here, and she traced it with her gaze to give herself a little more time in the fresh air.
The rescue mission had gone well, she thought as she made her way back to the gate that led to the eternal night of the dwarven kingdom. They had travelled from city to town to village beneath the mountains, distributing much-needed water and food as they went. As the child of Asgard’s Regent Apparent, Sigyn had visited this realm many times in her youth. She had always enjoyed the beauty of the homes and markets carved out of living rock. Snowy peaks served as a protective roof over their cavernous nation, warmed by forges where great weapons and machines valued across the Nine Realms were born. Those forges were cooled by the rivers that flowed clear and cold through the caves that connected the underground communities. The road followed the main river, the Myrkvattn, that flowed swiftly through the ancient mountains, cascading down high waterfalls into deep pools that reflected the lights of the underground cities.
But as the Asgardians visited village after village, they found mere trickles, with more dust than moisture. Sigyn had gasped as she had stood beside the Sigtryggborg reservoir, their first stop. Once a wide lake, now it was but a collection of puddles and cracked mud flats. The team had made their way from there, slowly upstream, following the once mighty river to its source here in the village of Myrkheim. The story was the same here.
The need for more water was great, and they had used up the supplies they had brought. Sigyn had volunteered to stay while Dir took the rest back to Asgard to resupply. But avoiding a royal marriage had been only one reason. She was determined to solve the mystery of the missing river. She could no longer bear to see the children of Nidavellir suffer from thirst. She also knew her father would be following the other impacts of the drought; without coolant the forges were still; other realms would soon feel the effects of this one’s drought. If Sigyn could solve this problem, perhaps her father would forgive her for running away.
The scabbard — worn but not worn enough, in Sefa’s opinion — bounced against her leg as she walked towards the gate of the mountain. Her servant was right, though. Every Asgardian — boy or girl, noble or thrall — learned to fight at a young age, with a variety of weapons. Sigyn’s heart had never been in it, though. She had enjoyed her lessons in magic with Queen Frigga, though. She sniffed back a tear as she recalled her lost queen and her lessons. She wondered if Thor had found Loki yet. She had forgotten to ask Sefa to check on that strange situation as well. But Sefa was clever, and perceptive, and Sigyn was certain she would bring back news of many things. Sefa had watched over her since she had been very young. She knew about Loki. Sefa had been the one to comfort her in the wake of the apple tree incident.
Even though she was alone, Sigyn studied her broken and dirty fingernails to hide her sudden blushes, the ones the scent of apple trees always awakened in her even this many years later. It had been the awkward kiss of youth, not the experienced passion (or at least what she thought was experienced passion) of adult lovers, but it had been innocent and sweet, sweet as Idunn’s apples themselves. She hoped that he was safe, wherever he was. Asgard had recovered well under his disguised rule, though she did have her questions; she hoped Thor was gentle with him. She knew she would not find him here, of all places, but she did wonder what her old companion would say if he could see her now. The water they had brought was for drinking, not washing.
The dwarves standing post at the gate nodded as she passed through into Myrkheim. She paused just inside to allow her eyes to adjust once more to the lower light of the town’s glowglobes, artificial lighting of dwarf design that made even the days here feel more like an eternal candlelight dinner.
Sigyn threaded her way through the streets, her slight Asgardian form towering over the dwarves, and sometimes over their homes, and pondered where to go first in her investigation. A baby’s sudden shrill cry nearly made bump her head into the sign for Soggybeard’s tavern in the armorers’ market square. She recognized the lady holding the squalling child as the keeper of the inn where she was staying, the Myrkheim Arms, the only one with ceilings high enough for Dir to stand up without banging his head. She wound through the crowd, past the Bastard Sword Emporium and Warhammers R Us, to salute her, mostly because she hoped to get in some baby-holding practice before she and Theoric had little ones of their own.
“Greetings, Gingerbraid,” Sigyn shouted as politely as possible over the shrieks. “And how is little Skullsplitter today?”
She greeted the people she had come to know as she toured the square in the light of its smokeless glowglobes: Grimkell Hairybreeches (tavern barkeep at Bor’s Beard), Askold of the Blue Beard (expert beard dresser), Rosefoot the Bald (considered the local beauty queen), and Skyaxe the Hasty. When she turned the corner into a side street, she nearly bumped into a fellow parked in front of a forge with a boarded-up door beneath a sign that said “Helm & Greave: Meeting All Your Shield Wall Needs”. Wood was precious in Nidavellir, too precious to waste; she guessed that this was a prominent forge. A heavy gold chain held a fine red cloak over his shoulders, indicating that he was a very important dwarf.
“Rurik Moonracer, Mayor,” he said by way of introduction. “So they’ve gone, eh? Since they left you here, I hope they’ll be back soon? With more water?”
“Yes, your honor,” she replied quietly. “They should be back in a couple of days.” She silently envied the fact that Dir and Sefa would probably work in a bath while they were in Asgard. But, all in all, she would happily never bathe again if that was the price to pay to avoid Odin. “Is there anything I can help with in the meantime? I hope to discover the cause, if there isn’t anything more–“
“You shouldn’t go poking around outside the village alone,” he said. He looked her up and down, eyed the none-too-worn scabbard, and cleared his throat. He nodded at the boarded up forge. “The fellows that lived here did just that weeks ago, and they never returned.”
“Did you know them?”
“Beardtongue is an old friend of mine. I had to seal up the forge to keep the thieves out, just in case he is visiting his mate Cinderbark’s cousin down in Sigtryggborg and didn’t tell me. You didn’t happen to run into a Beardtongue when you were there, did you?”
“No, sorry. But you said there were thieves? It’s such a small village–“
“Normally it’s not that much of an issue here, but there’s been a lot of foreigners about. No offense.”
“Foreigners? Asgardians wouldn’t–“
“Not you lot. But I’ve heard rumors of trolls wandering in and out. Even a fire demon or two. We think a new portal or two has popped up since the Convergence. Permanent-like.” He sighed. “Well, look around, let me know if you find anything. We’re at the far end of the range, so there’s not much upstream of us. Be careful, all the same. There’s strange folk about.”
“Torfa seems to have settled in nicely,” Selvig said.
The bilgesnipe was now safely ensconced on the far side of the Friggavatn from Lokasala. She grazed calmly in the shade of the stable that Ellisif, with Loki’s guidance, had created for her and the calf that now nursed beside her. Loki was not sure that the bilgesnipe ever bothered to enter the shelter; she wasn’t exactly domesticated. But The Pebbles Three had insisted she have a house, and they would not take no for an answer. And they would not rest until they gave her a name. The Pebbles Three, now a climbing, whirling trio of giggling rocky toddlers, were a force difficult to resist. And so, one naming ceremony later, they had Torfa, the resident bilgesnipe.
When she calved the next day — thank Valhalla she needed no assistance with that — Loki claimed the right to name him.
“So has Snorri,” Loki replied.
Selvig guffawed. “I don’t know what Sturluson would have said about his little namesake.”
“It’s the only revenge against him I’ll ever have,” Loki replied. “But it will have do.”
Selvig laughed again. “An interesting form of justice. But it’ll do, I suppose.” He clapped Loki on the shoulder. “I think I see a piece of shade with my name on it,” he said as he set off towards the trees.
Loki’s subjects — all of them — were gathered by the river for a well-earned day off. They had been busy ever since the return from Vanaheim. Loki had let the bilgesnipe sleep until her paddock and shelter were ready. The Pebbles had danced around the sleeping behemoth and lovingly patted the muzzle and insisted on a name. After clearing everyone else out, Loki had decided that it was time. Then, with Ellisif holding his hand and ready to transport him to safety, he released the beast from the sleeping spell. He was thankful for Elli’s assistance as they watched the creature immediately plow a channel into the sod in anger and frustration. They watched as she tested the limits of her new home, then snorted in exhaustion and plodded down to the river for a long drink. It was only a few hours later that little Snorri emerged into the world. Torfa had been calm ever since.
From this distance, the calf was deceptively small. He would grow quickly, Ulf had told them, and be his mother’s size within months. Of course, being male, he would most likely be a bit larger, with brighter scales and larger antlers than his mother. At the moment, though, his antlers were only nubs, and his scales were a dull grey. Perhaps, as he grew up in his protective paddock, he would be manageable. Only time would tell.
They had worked hard after that, adding a few new buildings around Lokasala, including a stone-lined forge for the dwarves a safe distance away. Safe from their roaring fires, but also a buffer zone between Magnus and the dwarves. Kolla could get along with anyone she had to, but Magnus was still very wary of his people’s ancient enemies.
They hadn’t killed each other yet, though, so there was hope. Loki needed both in his grand plan for Eddaheim. But now they had quarters for Ulf and Vigdis, as well as a shelter for Ulf’s goats. With a steady supply of bilgesnipe manure, graciously collected by Ellisif, the golden apple seeds had sprouted into saplings. The bees happily zipped around the young orchard in anticipation of the coming apple blossoms and the resulting enchanted honey.
After such intense work, they were all — with the exception of the children — exhausted. Loki had declared a holiday for the bilgesnipe’s naming ceremony, held at a safe distance on the Lokasala side of the river. He didn’t think Torfa would care. They had spread a feast out on blankets in the shade of the grove at the intersection of the Friggavattn and the smaller creek that fed it, the one that sheltered the trolls’ knarr.
Loki shaded his eyes against the bright sunlight as he turned to look back up the slope towards his longhouse. His gaze drifted up the cliff behind it to its snowy crown. They had not had time to explore the source of the creek, let alone check out the top of the cliff above them. (He had not even had time to resolve that pesky throne problem, either.)
They would need to map the peculiar landscape out, around the entire circle, he thought, not only to see what resources he had at hand, but to chart and secure any other portals into Eddaheim. The one in the middle of the Friggavattn, the one that had brought the trolls here from some watery location in Alfheim, stayed on his mind. The dwarves had wandered into Svartalfheim from Nidavellir — who else was unwittingly trespassing into his kingdom? He needed to know.
Loki smiled as he surveyed his people, who seemed happy dashing about on the green grass (Ellisif and the Pebbles), eating (Magnus), or napping in the shade (the dwarves). Kolla was deep into a discussion of bilgesnipe lore with Ulf as she urged Tickseed to eat. Vigdis, resting from a vigorous workout with her sword, guzzled mead under her own tree. She stared at the napping Magnus like someone who recognized a stranger but couldn’t quite put her finger on from where. Loki’s eyes widened as he remembered the hand-drawn bills in Alfheim. If he had seen them, then the Norn warrior must have seen them as well. He had kept the crumpled paper hidden in his secret pocket and had only withdrawn it during a few moments alone in his secured tower. He had not told the trolls about it, though he was sure they had some notion of the danger they were in. He would have to, and soon, but not today.
Let them be happy today, he thought. The sky was a deep welcoming blue, dotted with clouds that resembled mounds of sweet cream, with grey shadows along the bottoms and the tops glowing as the sunshine caressed them. This one held the shape of a dragon, and the wind would mold it into a phantom longboat sliding across the heavens. Tendrils of moisture would peel off and disappear. Clouds were never quite the same from one moment to the next. Loki felt a sense of peace at last, here in the green fields of a land he could call his own. The eternal itch in his mind had faded to almost nothing. He knew it was fleeting, as all such feelings are, but he wanted it to last as long as possible. But, still, the possibility that someone would find them here through open portals nagged at him.
A tug at his elbow interrupted his thoughts. He turned to find Ellisif standing there, motioning for him to come along and play with the Pebbles who were calling for their Unka Loki. They were rolling along the ground, calling out the shapes of the clouds, seeing bees and piles of mashed potatoes where he had seen dragons. Grimmie pointed at one and squeaked out “Sleipnir!”
He smiled at her, welcoming the break. She returned his smile. He saw innocence, optimism, and loyalty — sweet, sweet loyalty — in that young face. She was not pretty, no, not compared to the beauties of Asgard. She was no Sigyn, no Amora. But the joy in her face as she looked at him was pleasant enough. She had worked so hard, helping him expand their holdings, even while recovering from a fairy bite. She deserved a little attention. He took her offered hand gently in his own and led her back to the Pebbles.
“Oh, my gracious Silence,” he said as he stretched out beside them and studied the sky once more.
He felt the warm grass tickling him through his thin tunic. He hadn’t done this, hadn’t felt free to do this, since he and Thor had been very young. He hoped that, once Eddaheim was growing on its own, he could spend a little more time studying the clouds and teaching Ellisif, perhaps coax her into speaking at last.
She curled up next to him and rested her head on his chest. The edge of his mouth curled into a half smile at the warmth pressing against his side. She was not lover material, no, but he could give her enough affection to bind her to him. He could allow her some familiarity. Yes, he could do that much.
He kissed her hair, as he would a child’s, and whispered to her, “We have earned a moment of leisure.”