His training complete, Máligr is brought at last to the palace. He's a big lad, even for the Einherjar, so when he refuses to go inside, three strong men and his father's pleading aren't enough to move him.
"You know what to do, boy!" his father cries. "Norns bless you, you've never had much brains, but the rules are so simple even you couldn't forget them! Come on, say them back to me."
Máligr's tongue, as always, sits thick in his mouth. He counts off on his fingers: "Bow to the royal family—d-down on one knee for the king—'my lord' for the princes—'your highness' for the king and queen—"
"That's right!" His father encourages him with a desperate grin, but Máligr is still shaking his head. "Oh come on!" the old man shouts. "There's hardly a chance you'll even see them! And if you do, nobody expects you to say a word!"
"They'll ask me s-s-something," Máligr protests, "and I'll stutter. Or I'll f-forget."
His father nods to the three brutes, who lean their collective weight against Máligr's back and push him, inch by inch, across the threshold.
So begins Máligr's life in the palace.
In the barracks, after everyone has had a good laugh about his name ("máligr" means "chatty") they start in with the advice.
"Pretend you've had your tongue cut out," someone suggests. "You can learn sign language."
"I'd j-just mess that up," he says.
"Act like you've gone deaf," says someone else.
"No, no—a deaf palace guard?" another objects. "They'll wonder what Lord Marshal Týr was thinking, won't they?"
"Perhaps you can feign laryngitis," another man offers.
If his new friends don't put him at ease over his lack of eloquence, they make up for it in other ways. For weeks, they oooh and ahhh over his physique, and applaud as he thrashes one after another of them into the dirt. He's always been big and strong and more graceful than a fellow his size has any right to be. His comrades regard him so much, actually, that he starts to get uncomfortable. He's never liked attention, admiring or otherwise.
One day, all fighting halts in the yard and the exercise tribune shouts, "Make way for the crown prince!"
As everyone else snaps to attention, Máligr goes numb from the neck down. Glancing about, he does his best to imitate the others with arms and legs he can barely feel.
Footsteps crunch in the gravel, and then Prince Thor appears, golden hair gleaming and scarlet cloak swaying. Máligr has only ever seen Prince Thor on public occasions at Odin-King's right hand, high up on a terrace a quarter of a mile away. The old men are right—majesty sits on his brow, as the poems put it. The prince's eyes are searching but kind. His smile is self-assured but genuine. He is a god decked with every blessing of Yggdrasil. If he asked Máligr to run himself onto a pike, Máligr would cheerfully oblige.
The prince stops in front of him and says, "I hear you have a mighty swing. I wish to test it for myself."
Máligr falls to his knees—not out of respect, but because they have turned to jelly. Everyone in the yard laughs, the prince loudest of all, but his laughter is friendly, not mocking. "There's no need for that," he says, and helps Máligr up.
Máligr blushes dark red and wishes he had been ordered to die.
"On your guard," Prince Thor says.
As they lift their weapons, something magical occurs. Máligr's mind goes blank, but his body remembers. The prince asks him no questions, but they talk in the language of battle, which has no words.
Three hours later, he accepts the prince's bloody hand and gets up from the dust. His vision blurs with exhaustion and blood, and the prince too is smeared with blood and sweat and dust, his majesty undimmed by a layer of honorable grime. Both of them pant like oxen.
"A very near thing," the prince says cheerfully between gasps. He gives Máligr a salute, shakes his hand, and turns to leave. Máligr has to be carried from the yard.
As he floats naked at the deep end of the bath, examining the bruises from his chest down to his thighs, his friends celebrate and slap his shoulders. "See, big fellow?" they say. "You didn't have to open your mouth after all!" The stone chamber echoes with their laughter. Máligr smiles faintly, and then joins in. He no longer cares if they mock him or not.
Lord Marshal Týr stops confining him to the lower levels. Now he sees the sun more than once a day, and walks the vaulted galleries on his patrols. Up here, the lords and ladies read and stroll and talk politics; ambassadors in funny costumes pass by, wafting the scent of strange food; and sometimes, even the royal family can be caught sight of, if one is audacious enough to stare. Máligr isn't. But his fear of such an encounter has turned to hope. He still hasn't seen the king or queen or the other prince, but his confidence has increased enough to make him greedy for a glimpse.
While he is posted at the doors of the chapter house, Odin-King comes forth with a flock of ambassadors, and Máligr kneels as he's been taught. The king, in mid-sentence with his ravens on his shoulders, passes his gaze over Máligr as though he were part of the architecture. Just as he ought to. Unlike Prince Thor, Odin-King is unconcerned with all but the highest-ranking of his servants. His privilege is to move people and things about at will. Máligr's father was careful to teach him this. In fact, it is best not to be noticed by the gallows-god.
The queen, when he first sees her, comes upon him so suddenly that he doesn't have time to worry, just as he's whiling away his watch at the doors of the armory.
"Have you seen either of my sons come this way?" she asks, appearing from around the corner in a cloud of golden silk. His voice stops in his throat, and so he shakes his head, the bottom of his helmet clanking against his armor.
"If you do, please mention that I'm looking for them." She favors him with a smile and vanishes around the next corner before he can attempt to reply.
That's three down and three survived, he thinks as his racing heart slows.
He sees those three many more times before he ever sees the fourth. This comes as no surprise. Prince Loki is spoken of very differently in the barracks, when he is spoken of at all. At first, Máligr thinks they hate him, and indeed, he is the only member of the royal family who is ever reported to be cruel. Nothing truly sadistic, but—little, motiveless acts of unkindness. Malicious tricks. Tricks. Is it even possible to imagine the king, the queen, or Prince Thor playing a trick?
Well. Maybe the queen.
But it's not exactly hatred the men feel for Prince Loki. They speak of him with suspicion and curiosity, revulsion and fascination. When superior officers aren't present, rumors abound of his peculiarity—rumors that to speak them aloud would get any man cast from the realm, but somehow Prince Loki makes them bold. They would cut out their tongues before accusing Queen Frigga of any untowardness, and so theories focus on Odin's indiscretions—with some foreign witch, say. Karnilla of Nornheim is a popular choice. Queen Frigga took pity on the bastard child, perhaps, or else Odin didn't want his illegitimate issue brought up in a hostile principality somewhere, dreaming of a higher throne, and so Loki was placed nearby, where his proximity to the crown prince would make his own lesser worth more obvious.
Máligr burns with the desire to see him. Just not up close.
He gets half his wish. On his way to the armory, he is walking too fast to be wary of raised voices up ahead and comes up against Prince Thor's broad back as he turns a corner. The prince spins around in a whirl of scarlet and reveals a second person with whom Máligr locks eyes.
Instantly he understands the gossip. Jet black hair and black brows on a high, pale forehead are the first thing he sees, then the poison-green eyes that pin and peel him like a toad in a necromancer's lab. He thinks, momentarily, of a beautiful woman before realizing the face belongs to a man. Something of that confusion remains, though, even as Prince Loki tilts his head and continues to dissect him, cold and imperious, utterly lacking Prince Thor's aura of benevolent power.
"Well?" says the second prince, icy and impatient. "Have you a reason for intruding, soldier, or have you lost your voice?"
Máligr's mind flits back to the useless advice his comrades once gave him. It's happening now, his worst nightmare. Could he pretend to be deaf? Missing a tongue? He makes a high-pitched sound in the back of his throat as he attempts to clear it.
The corners of Prince Loki's thin mouth curl into a cruel smile. He inclines his head toward Prince Thor's and says in a mock-whisper: "Brother, do you suppose he's some kind of idiot?"
"Loki, hush." Prince Thor lays a hand on his brother's chest, and says to Máligr, "You have some business with us, soldier?"
Máligr opens his mouth, but only makes the high-pitched sound louder. "I—" he squeaks. "I—I—"
Prince Thor seems embarrassed on his behalf, but Prince Loki looks as if he's the perfect afternoon's amusement. "Do you hear that, brother? A stuttering palace guard! How oddly appropriate!"
"The defenders of Asgard don't defend it with their tongues, Loki," Prince Thor snaps. Prince Loki returns his glare with a look of such stunned offense, such wintry, corrosive hatred, that for a moment Máligr actually fears for Prince Thor. Then he remembers to fear for himself.
"On your way, then, soldier," Loki snaps, still locked in his brother's gaze. "If you've nothing further to say."
Thor breaks Loki's gaze to give Máligr an apologetic nod. Máligr returns the salute and hurries off.
He could swear that as he goes, Prince Loki follows him with a lingering look, which he doesn't understand. But it travels from his face all the way down to his toes and back again.
That night, he doesn't have the heart to tell his friends. He says only, "I saw the second prince today." When they ask for the story, all he can offer is, "He looked at me f-funny."
He expects amusement, perplexity, ridicule—"what kind of funny?" or "of course he did, who wouldn't?" Instead, nobody says a word, though their faces look like they want to say plenty. The awkwardness lingers until somebody changes the subject.
"Hey," he says as the conversation moves on, "wh-what aren't you saying?"
One of the men pats his meaty shoulder. "I'd steer clear of Prince Loki, if I were you."
"Why?" asks Máligr. When nobody replies, he lowers his voice. "Is he a witch?"
"Oh yes," says another man, "but that's not why."
Máligr glances from face to face. "You're not g-going to tell me, are you?"
When they won't answer that, he sighs and gives up.
It doesn't make sense. The black-haired bastard, the womanish witch-prince with his white hands and silver tongue. What's odd isn't that the Einherjar might hate him, but that they don't hate him more.
Máligr joins the elite rank permitted to train with the royal family and their most important vassals, at which point he learns that Prince Loki rarely comes to the yard, even to spar with his brother. When he works up the courage to ask why this is, he's told it's because the prince prefers to fight with magic—with magic. Imagine! Sorcerers aren't unheard of in Asgard—the whole realm stands upon Odin's magic, after all—but it has no place in the yard. A fight is only fair if a man knows his opponent's resources, which means no tricks, no ambushes, and no hidden weapons. Magic counts as all three. In a real war, of course, it's different—one fights with all one has—but the yard is a place to exercise in good faith with one's friends. That's what it comes down to: Prince Thor is everybody's friend, and Prince Loki is nobody's.
Once, and only once, Máligr shares the yard with the second prince. He's minding his business, putting down one man after another, even Volstagg the Brave, who is getting up and dusting off his hams when a cold, musical voice says, "Ah! The stuttering giant! I think I'll take a turn with you, then."
"Er," says Volstagg, looking alarmed, "perhaps that's not the best—"
"Oh come, Volstagg," Loki snaps, with a smile that tries for good-natured. "He's a strapping big fellow but I think I can look after myself."
"It's not you I'm worried about," Volstagg shoots back, then adds, "my prince," with a hasty bow.
Loki's laugh is high and melodious. "You do me an honor, then! How unlike you." He turns to Máligr, who freezes.
When they raise their weapons, Máligr waits for the customary motions of his training to take over, but they're nowhere to be found. He's too busy thinking, too paralyzed by the prince's cruel, intelligent gaze. Will Loki use magic? He hasn't done so yet, but his eyes don't promise he won't. Máligr has at least a stone and three inches on Loki—he has to look down to make eye contact—but this gives him no confidence. He's off-balance. He hesitates.
Prince Loki twirls his long, hooked glaive and grins. "I do believe he's frightened of me," he says. "Volstagg, are you seeing this?"
"Just leave him alone," says Volstagg, not attempting to sound even passingly respectful. "He's done nothing to you, there's nothing sporting about—"
"He hasn't, has he?" Loki's smile melts into sour displeasure. "He's done nothing at all. Do you suppose he's holding back? Why would he do that, I wonder? Does he think me unworthy?"
"N-n-n—" Máligr gives up and just shakes his head.
Loki breaks into cruel peals of laughter. "Why, I ask you, have we taken on soldiers who can't bloody speak? Does Týr know about this?" He's not even looking at Máligr—he has turned aside to address Volstagg, who looks as mortified as Máligr has ever seen any man look. "I'm telling you," Loki goes on, "this could be a seriously liability, don't you—?"
A great plume of rage boils up from Máligr's heart and he raises his axe over his head, only remembering to shout, "On your g-guard!" a moment before bringing it down on Loki's head.
Fortunately for Máligr and his future with the Einherjar, the shaft of the glaive shoots up to block it, and a light foot plants itself in his belly and shoves him back. He barely feels it. His limbs have been seized, not by habit and training but by killing rage. His axe comes back up and slices toward his enemy, who blocks it and turns aside, sending Máligr's force skittering past. "That's more like it," says a cold voice in his ear. Máligr roars and swings toward it.
He doesn't remember what happens next. When he comes back to his senses, he's on the ground and several men are struggling to pull him away from something trapped between his knees. One of them has the shaft of a pike shoved under his chin while the others grip him by the arms, trying to pull him up and off the prince, who lies on his back. His face is covered in dirt and blood and he grins like a skull while Máligr makes a bellowing sound.
Máligr shuts his mouth. The prince laughs merrily. "Now that was a fight!" he says.
Volstagg pries Máligr's fingers off the axe one by one. Once he has let the weapon go, he begins to tremble. He sees the panic on the men's faces, the careful way they ease their guard as he returns to his wits. He sees the deadly edge of the axe that had been inches from the prince's head. His trembling turns to shaking and tears burn his eyes. The prince—one of the four people he has trained his whole life to protect. His doublet grows too tight. He can't breathe.
Loki's laugh follows him as the men lift him to his feet. "There, there," Loki is saying, "don't look so upset—you won!" His chuckle takes on a note of bafflement. "By the Norns, what's the matter with him?"
The exercise tribune lifts off Máligr's helmet and helps him to a cask of water where he can bathe his face. Behind him, Volstagg and Loki argue.
"That one nearly beat Thor, you little fool!" Volstagg is saying. "You had no business—and then to goad him like that, like a beast—have you no sense? He's got a ruddy great soft heart, too, that one—"
"What, so I've wounded the gentle giant?" Loki no longer laughs. In fact, he sounds offended and angry. "Perhaps you didn't see," he goes on, "but I don't think he needs you to defend him—unless he's soft in the head too, in which case I really do wonder why he's even—"
"Shut up, Loki!" Máligr can't see them, but it sounds as if Volstagg is shaking the prince by the shoulders. Máligr would turn around, but he's weeping very hard now, and he'd rather do it into the water where nobody can see.
"It's all right," the exercise tribune says softly, patting his unarmored side. "You're not in trouble, lad. We all saw what happened."
Máligr splashes his face and sobs, then splashes his face again. He can't speak, and so he can't explain that it's not punishment he fears. It's the sight of his father's face when he learns what his son almost did.
He stays as far away from Prince Loki as he can. He understands now: the prince is witchy and clever, and Máligr is not. He might not be as dumb as everyone thinks, but he has spent his life training for one kind of battle while Prince Loki excels at another, and the prince is eager to show everyone how much he excels.
He's ashamed to catch himself hating the prince just a bit. He tries to make his love for Prince Thor extend to Prince Loki, but the second prince just doesn't have that thing, that greatness of heart that would make men die for him. So privately Máligr pledges his duty to Loki, but not his love, and decides this will have to do.
Then the draugar come.
The lords and ladies notice them drifting up from between the palace flagstones like man-shaped wisps of steam. The wiser folks know to run for their lives, but a few still watch when the steam condenses into bodies that reach for them, ripping open bellies and tearing off limbs.
Máligr is changing in the barracks when the Gjallarhorn sounds. By the time he has armed himself and joined his cohort, the halls are empty of all but the Einherjar.
Shouts and clashes echo in the distance, but the wing where his cohort has mustered is silent. "What's happening?" he asks a fellow beside him, who doesn't know either.
Two figures lurch into view. They are larger than men but smaller than giants, and they don't seem to move very fast or possess much cunning or skill. Máligr and his fellows raise their weapons. When the front line thrusts their pikes, their blades pass through them. Then the figures coalesce inside the ranks and the slaughter begins.
Máligr watches in horror as one man falls after another, but for all the clashing of weapons, no-one ever lands a blow. What kind of enemy can kill but not be killed, can destroy bodies without possessing one of its own?
"Hold the line!" the tribune shouts. "Keep fighting—!"
Máligr sees them getting closer, churning their bloody way through the ranks, and wonders if he has it in him to leave his friends and run. That would be the clever thing to do. Living men might find a way to kill the vapory creatures, but dead men don't have a chance. When the tribune falls and there's no longer anyone telling him to stay, he shouts and motions to his fellows nearby. They glance at each other, glance at him, and run for their lives.
They agree to make for the great hall, where Odin, the queen and the princes might be, along with the sages and counselors—the people who know. If they're going to fall pointlessly, better to fall defending the royal family, not alone in some little-used corridor.
Halfway there, they come upon more sounds of battle, and Máligr realizes they'll have to make the same choice again—the choice to be cowards. And they'll have to keep making it until they reach safety, if safety exists. Máligr's steps slow. He can't make that choice, not again. All but two of the others run on.
He and his companions exchange looks, but there is nothing to say. They turn their steps toward the battle.
What they find is a crowd of the strange figures gathered at the dead end of a corridor. These, however, fight like men, some with hands and some with weapons. Periodically, a few of them fall.
Máligr and the others ready their weapons. "Who's th-there?" Máligr calls.
"What does it matter?" comes the peevish reply. "Just get in here and help me!"
Máligr's heart leaps at the sound of Loki's voice. Duty or love, it doesn't matter. He has sworn to protect the royal family of Asgard.
It takes but a few minutes to slice their way through, now that they fight creatures with solid bodies. They find Prince Loki fighting with his back to the wall, trembling and wild, his face spattered with ichor and even paler than usual. His bared teeth are stained with ichor, and Máligr half-suspects he's been using them to fight.
Nobody speaks until the last creature has been hacked to pieces. Prince Loki lets out a rattling breath and slides down the wall to the floor, where he sits staring at his hands. He doesn't seem aware that Máligr and his companions are still there.
Máligr takes a careful step forward. "Prince Loki," he says. There are rules for what to call the prince but he's not thinking of them now. "Are you w-w-wounded?"
The prince's head jerks up. His eyes are unnaturally pale in their dark sockets, and Máligr prepares to be recognized. The stuttering giant, isn't that who he is?
If the prince does recognize him, he doesn't show it. "Well," he says blandly, "at least someone was clever enough to survive. Here, help me up. That spell takes everything out of me."
They haul the prince to his feet. Once up, he can't stay up, so they sling his arms around their necks.
"So," the prince says as they drag him along. "How's it been going?"
When nobody else replies, Máligr says, "Their bodies are like s-smoke, my lord. We can't k—kill them."
"Yes, precisely." Prince Loki coughs. "Hence the spell. But I can't be everywhere at once, so we should draw them all to one location, where I can fix them in place and we can have a nice, big battle. The great hall, perhaps."
"Good—idea, my lord."
"Oh, not really." The prince yawns as his head pitches forward. "It's all rather obvious, provided you know a bit of magic."
Well before they reach the great hall, they find another band of draugar. Prince Loki mutters and his hands fill with blue flame, which startles the guard on his other side enough to drop him, leaving Máligr to clutch him tighter. The blue flame drifts from the prince's hands and winds up the ankles of the shuffling creatures, who groan as their bodies solidify. The two other Einherjar rush forward, weapons drawn.
"Well?" snaps Prince Loki in a strained voice. "They're not going to slay themselves. Put me down and get in there!"
"M-m-my lord," says Máligr. "I c-c-c-can't leave you."
"This is no time to be sentimental, you fool!"
Máligr shakes his head. He's not being sentimental, he's being clever, but he can't possibly explain himself. "You d-d-do the magic," he finally gets out. "W-without you, we're s-s-s—we're buggered."
The prince laughs his high, musical laugh. "True enough," he says. "But you can hardly defend me if I'm using one of your arms."
Máligr lowers him down and props him carefully against a wall. Then he draws his short sword and stands over him, prepared to fight.
They're making progress when Prince Loki's magical flame dissipates. The draugar turn back into steam and shoot up to hover high in the air, and dread falls over Máligr's heart, so cold and profound that he drops to his knees. His comrades do the same. He tips forward until his forehead rests on the stone, cold tears trickling down his cheeks. To continue fighting seems pointless.
The slow click-click of heeled shoes echoes on the flagstones. Máligr shudders with horror as they pass by, his insides turned to freezing liquid.
"Ah, cousin," says Prince Loki. His voice is bright, cheerful, mocking—not exhausted as it was before, and not at all affected by whatever force has made Máligr and his comrades cower like children. "Is this your doing, then?"
"Loki," says a woman's voice, otherworldly, horrid, but still capable of registering irritation. "It's more proper to say it's your—father's doing. Since he drove me to it."
"Oh really. And what's your grievance this time?"
There is a scuffle and a quickly in-drawn breath. Máligr peers through his legs to see a tall woman—very tall, much taller than him—pinning Prince Loki to the wall by his throat. "So amusing," she hisses in his face, "that you always defend him."
"Well—" The prince tugs at her hand to gain himself a bit of air— "Whatever else I can say, he is my father—"
She throws her head back and laughs. "Little Lord Loki," she cackles, "I know all your secrets." She releases him and he drops like a sack to the floor. "I suppose he is your father—but he's not a very kind and loving one, is he? Not to you, at least?"
"We can't all be Odin's favorite." The prince coughs and massages his throat. "But you don't see the rest of us throwing a tantrum about it, do you?"
"I know your fate," she says. "I've seen it. I could tell you so many things—the whole screwed-up mystery of your existence."
"In exchange for what, exactly?"
"In exchange for ceasing that annoying spell that makes my soldiers so frail." She places her sharp heel against his neck. "If you don't, I'll have to kill you, and then you'll have no choice but to join my side."
Prince Loki shrugs and lifts his hand to display a small object. "What's this, by the way, hanging around your neck? Or was, I should say?"
The woman makes a choking noise and lunges forward, but Loki curls his body around his closed fist. "Ah-ah. It's mine now."
"I will rip out your entrails through your mouth, Loki!"
"Oh, good idea—" Prince Loki takes whatever was in his hand and pops it into his mouth. The woman gives a horrid shriek. "Now it's really mine. The scarab key, isn't that right? I should be able to do this now—" He snaps his fingers, and the clouds of man-shaped steam hovering in the air dissipate. "Oops. So much for your army."
The woman shrieks again, but already her body too is dissipating, or rather fading, like a shadow on a wall.
Máligr and his comrades help the prince to his feet. "Shall we?" Loki says with a sweep of his arm. "Tally-ho, then. Let's go find out who's still alive."
When they throw open the huge doors to the great hall, they find most of the court gathered, along with a few palace guards. The queen cries out as she runs down the steps. Carefully, Máligr releases Prince Loki into her arms, and she pets him frantically, sobbing into his hair.
"My darling," she says, "my baby—I thought you were dead—"
He rouses enough to hug her back. "You know," he murmurs, "I actually did rather well this time. I think I might be the reason others aren't. Dead, that is."
"Well you're a foolish, foolish boy, then," she says, covering his wan, ichor-streaked face with kisses.
Odin-King and Prince Thor have come down to meet them. "Hela sends her regards," says Loki, looking up. "She's gone now, of course. By the Norns, Father, what did you do to her?"
"Hela was here?" Odin regards the prince coolly. "I do wish you'd kept her. If this was some nonsense of hers, I should very much like to have spoken to her."
The prince gently disengages himself from the queen. "I'm sorry I didn't wrap her up in a bow for you, Father." His expression is sour and frozen. Then a fit of coughing seizes him. Once it ends, he spits out the scarab key into his hand and passes it to Odin, who accepts it between thumb and forefinger with distaste.
"Thought you might want that," Loki mutters. "And by the way, here are the only palace guards who kept their heads."
Odin pockets the scarab key and turns to Máligr and his comrades. "I commend you for protecting my son," he says. "You will all be rewarded for your service to the House of Bor."
Máligr falls to his knees, so sapped by fear and exhaustion and supernatural interference that he can no longer stand. "Your highness," he says, bowing his head. When he looks up, the royal family has gone.
"You all right?" asks the man sitting to his left.
Máligr's eyes lift from his plate where he's pushing at his food with his fork.
"Long day for you." His friend pats his shoulder. "Your first proper battle and you were right in the thick of it."
Máligr blinks. Terrifying as it had been, he hadn't been thinking of the draugar just then. He'd been thinking of Prince Loki's burning eyes, of his face as pale and bright as the moon. Of his cleverness and swift hand as he fought, and, when his father had waved him off, of the proud sneer with which he'd covered his hurt, so touching for being so transparent.
Speechless before his plate, he sits, his heart full of hail and fire. He understands now why his comrades prefer not to speak of the second prince. What can a man say about such a person?
Máligr is no innocent. He's lain with both women and men, joyfully, even confidently—after all, in bed no-one requires you to talk. He's as familiar with desire as he is with battle. But Prince Loki stirs up stranger passions. Máligr fears him and admires him and now, it seems, wants him, with the suddenness of a lightning strike.
He remembers the prince's body against his side, the smell of his hair and his labored breath. He longs to touch him again. He longs to undo his clothes and stroke and kiss his soft skin. But even if he were allowed—well. How could it end? Loki's beauty shines like the scales of a snake.
Still, that night in his bed he wonders how Loki's bare thighs would look, and how it would feel to thrust between them. How his heart would swell if Loki praised him again, and not just for bravery this time. How sweet it would be to hold him and cherish him, and be held and cherished in return by this man no-one thinks capable of love. And maybe he isn't. Máligr still dreams of what he'd be like if he were.
Once the many stories of the battle coalesce into legend, Máligr barely recognizes what he hears. For one thing, there's little mention of the second prince's role. He explains to his comrades that Prince Loki in fact saved them all, and when another man argues with him, he hits him in the jaw. This scenario repeats itself several times until he and his most recent opponent are brought before Lord Marshal Týr.
"He lied about Prince Loki," Máligr explains when Lord Týr asks irritably what the trouble is.
"Soldier," says Lord Týr with false calm, "may I speak to you alone?" When they are out of earshot, Lord Týr hisses, "Have you no loyalty? Cease your tale-spreading at once!"
Máligr's mouth drops open. "I d-d-don't understand."
Týr glances over his shoulder. "It's already said that Prince Loki and Hela have an understanding. Too much in common, if you will. She attacks Asgard, he has words with her, and she just up and leaves? How do you suppose that looks from the outside?"
"Like—like he's very c-c-clever?"
"Like he had something to do with it, that's what," snaps Týr. "Like he knows more about necromancy than a young prince ought to. Whatever the truth is—it doesn't matter. You can show your devotion by keeping quiet."
Despite his alleged disloyalty, Máligr finds himself moving up. Lord Týr has an informal cadre of Einherjar whom he trusts with the direct protection of the royal family, and at some point Máligr discovers he has joined it. He spends most days outside the queen's weaving rooms or the king's council chambers, and when he has night duties, in the corridors around the princes' quarters. More and more, he craves those nights, hoping for another sight of the second prince.
It comes, alas, the night Máligr nearly dozes off at his post. He'd let his friends fill his cup too many times the night before, and he sees no harm in leaning on the wall and closing his eyes. Then he's blinking awake to the sound of boots on stone. He's just finishing an enormous yawn when Prince Loki rounds the corner.
Mortified, he braces himself for the cutting remark. But Loki's eyes are fixed on the ground, his face pinched and weary, his thin mouth even thinner than usual. Just as he's about to pass Máligr, he glances over.
Máligr stares. Loki stares back. Narrowing his eyes, he gives a curt nod. "Soldier," he says, and continues on his way.
Once Loki's footsteps have faded away, Máligr lets out a breath. A smile spreads over his face. From Loki, a curt nod is as good as a warm handshake from any other man. And despite the prince's obvious distraction, his eyes as they recognized Máligr had been free of disdain. How different he looked that way.
After training, he's kept in the yard by the exercise tribune long after his fellows have gone inside, and their raucous voices have ceased to echo by the time he enters the baths. He passes through banks of steam into the bathing chamber, silent except for the drip of the great taps. He wonders how his friends finished so quickly. Normally they have to be dragged from the water so they won't miss supper.
One man lingers, lounging in the central bathing pool, both arms flung out along the sides. Máligr draws nearer and with a shock recognizes Prince Loki.
Heart pounding in his chest, he's about to bow and excuse himself when the prince says, "No, no, soldier, don't let me chase you out. These are your baths I'm invading, are they not? Come in, let your muscles be eased."
Máligr forces himself back to the side of the pool. Once he has plunged in, he plasters his back to the side and fixes his eyes on the water to avoid the prince's unblinking stare.
There's a light splash as the prince pushes toward him through the water. "Really," he scolds, "I've seen temple statues more relaxed than you." Máligr jerks when the prince's hand touches his rigid shoulder. "Don't be frightened, now—take a deep breath—" The hand begins to knead.
While he splashes about, the prince somehow slips behind him and grabs him by the back of the neck. Máligr freezes as he's reeled back in. "Yes, that's it." Kneading fingers seize both of his shoulders while Máligr's heart hammers away in terror. "Breathe in." For lack of any better ideas, Máligr obeys. "And breathe out." Máligr exhales. Fingers crawl up his neck into his hair, and in a daze, he lets his head tip forward. "Good heavens," says the prince, "your muscles are like steel. Here, I need more leverage—" He draws his leg in to straddle Máligr from behind. "I doubt I could even get both arms around you." The hands continue drawing stripes of healing fire up and down his rigid back, walking up and down his sore, exhausted arms.
My lord, I don't think this is appropriate, Máligr thinks, planning the words that will get him out of this fix, but his body succumbs one knot at a time. It's not his place to tell the prince what's appropriate. My lord, you're up to some devilry and I don't want to be caught up in it would express his thoughts better. Your mind is a deep well and your plots a thorny tangle for the unlucky to fall into, perhaps—please, whatever you're scheming, don't involve me. But his throat won't cough up the words, and his aching limbs can't muster any resistance.
"Another deep breath," says Loki, giving both shoulders a bracing squeeze— "Breathe in?" They both fill their chests. "Breathe out." The prince's breath chills the spot between his shoulder blades. A tingle crawls over his scalp and his cheeks begin to burn. Hasn't he dreamed of this for weeks? But he's too terrified to enjoy it, and too enthralled to move. He begs his body to relax.
"That's the idea." The prince's voice drops low, suddenly very close. The hand on Máligr's back slips around his ribs and down his twitching belly as a tongue touches him just below his ear.
Máligr jerks away and lurches out of the bath, intent only on escaping, knowing this can't be right, that princes of Asgard simply don't choose to dishonor themselves like this, so there must be some other—
The prince catches his arm. Máligr could easily fend him off with force, but he would never do so, not for all the world.
"I apologize," says Prince Loki. The very words sound wrong. "I ought to explain—I intend no mischief, I promise you." He laughs, falsely humble with a too-wide smile, and looks up at Máligr through wet lashes. "But you deserve a reward, I think, for what you—"
Máligr gets a word out—"No!" Loki is the prince and Máligr is his servant. For the prince to apologize to him violates the order of things. Then he remembers what the king said—you will be rewarded—and a new and different horror floods him. "D-did the k-k-king make you—?"
Loki breaks into a peal of laughter. "Oh, Norns, no! Are you mad? He'd tear my hide from my bones if he knew that a son of his—well." He forces his smile to grow gentler, as gentle as it can be, and tugs Máligr around to sit on the bath's edge again, bare ass on the cool stone. Still in the water, the prince moves between Máligr's knees and runs his hands up his thighs, standing the hairs on end and making his ticklish flanks twitch, until his palms frame Máligr's crotch. His molten gaze drops down to it conspicuously. "No, no, this is merely my way to—show appreciation for your loyalty."
Máligr shakes his head. "My lord—I'm to p-p-protect you—"
Loki rears up in the water, so suddenly that Máligr falls back onto his elbows. He stares slack-jawed as water sluices off the prince's naked body, as slender and smooth as the gypsum pillars in the Hall of Heroes. For a moment, the prince's swollen pink cock dangles right at Máligr's eye level, and Máligr feels a jolt in his loins. Loki, cruel Prince Loki, laughs again. "Do you think I'm somehow endangering myself? I don't need your protection, soldier, make no mistake. If anything, you need mine." He leans forward with a narrow-eyed sneer. "I could destroy you, if that's what I wanted." The sneer dissipates, and he sinks back into the water up to his chest. "But that's not what I want." His hands go back to wandering up and down Máligr's thighs. "Do you understand? That's not at all what I want."
Letting out a breath, Máligr nods. The prince is so beautiful, so enchanting, like a sphinx—no, no—this is foul magic, making him betray his duty. But—his thighs ease wider apart—the prince is his duty, is he not? Whatever the prince wants—but how can the prince want this? Is he compelled by magic too? The prince gives him a whorish smile as he cups his testicles in one hand and takes hold of his cock with the other. Prince Loki is like no man Máligr's ever seen, lovely like a woman but as hard and cunning as the king himself. A tender shoot from the immortal stock of Bor, past and future rulers of the universe, the greatest of the ancient gods—and he's about to—Máligr's eyes roll up as Prince Loki pulls back his foreskin and touches his tongue to the tip.
"Oh yes," says Loki, smacking his lips as though tasting a fine wine. He plunges the purple head into his mouth and sucks it thoroughly before popping it out. "You're magnificent, aren't you? I've dreamt of doing this since that day you nearly split my skull in two." He sinks his mouth down and moans as Máligr slides deep into his throat.
It takes all of Máligr's strength. Not even that first step across the palace's threshold had been so difficult as pushing the prince's head away and scrambling back onto the tiles. He pants and shakes his head and covers his stiff prick with his hands.
Prince Loki stands again, displaying his body, but without any air of seduction. His face is hard.
"You're digusted by me. You condemn me for this."
Máligr shakes his head frantically. "I just—c-c-can't let you dishonor yourself, my lord!"
"Is it so dishonorable? This thing women do? Would you look with such disgust at my mother or the Lady Sif?"
Máligr is too appalled to reply.
Loki's face shifts. "I thought you'd jump at the chance to dishonor me a bit, after how I've tormented you. Come, don't you secretly want to shove me to my knees and stuff my mouth shut? Wouldn't you love to paint my face with your spunk?" He takes a menacing step forward. "I can assure you, plenty of others would."
"They don't!" Máligr cries. "You're their—p-prince!"
Loki sneers. "Soldiers hate nothing more than serving under an unworthy man. They don't even think I am a man. They'd love to put me where they think I belong."
Máligr blurts out without thinking, "You'd let them!"
"No." Loki's cool gaze is full of defiance. "But I'd let you."
Máligr shakes his head. He can't explain what he can only sense dimly, that Prince Loki wants to be hurt, and Máligr would sooner lay a wrathful hand upon himself than upon the prince. But he can't find the words for this. Only, "It wouldn't be honorable."
Loki's face twists with rage. "Honor!" he shouts, and the word pings around the the tiled walls like a tossed pebble. "Is there no-one who would not use honor to beat me about the head with? Never was there a more self-serving notion!" He springs out of the pool and strides for the door, still unconcerned by his nudity, but now Máligr sees a pitiful bravado in it, an attempt to seize humiliation with both hands before anyone can force it on him.
There will be consequences for what Máligr has done. But as fear settles its cold mantle over him, another feeling competes. Tenderness, he thinks. And sadness. He rises from the bath with unnatural calm. Inside, his gut churns, but his body moves him through his evening routine as if guided from without. By magic, perhaps. Neither of the hostile nor the benevolent sort, just practical and patient. What happens will happen. He has done the best he could.
A few days hence, Lord Týr informs him that he has been demoted to the lower levels. "For insubordination," he says, with a voice full of apology. Máligr salutes and turns to go. "Soldier—" Týr stops him. "You and I know you've done your duty, lad."
Máligr nods, his throat too tight to speak.
Everyone knows he is being punished, but he wonders if they know the exact nature of his offense. It must puzzle them, given that not long ago, he'd been in such high favor. But nobody asks, which suggests they have an inkling. The prince's name is now spoken with open contempt, if only in the relative privacy of the barracks, and it saddens Máligr despite its origin in his comrades' loyalty. Loki is wicked and changeable and cruel, but now Máligr knows why—is one of a very few to know, no doubt—and so his stabs of anger fade as quickly as they flare.
But Loki isn't finished. One by one, Máligr finds himself stripped of the privileges he has gained—his priority in the training yard, his comparatively spatious bunk, his position at table, and finally his rank. His status is reduced to that of an unranked trainee, the worst dishonor the Einherjar can suffer without being expelled from the palace altogether. He no longer sleeps in the barracks but in the underground quarters with the servants, who smell his disgrace and keep their distance. When he serves the Einherjar—he is their servant now—they barely meet his eyes. Not, he thinks, out of revulsion but out of guilt. He understands. His continued presence must discomfit them when they must witness his abasement every day without any power to help.
One morning, as he assists the ostler in the stables, he is sent for. He finds his father waiting for him in the courtyard.
"News has reached us," his father says without greeting him. "I have come to discover what has happened. Boy, what have you done?"
Máligr opens his mouth but can make no sound. He wants to throw himself down and explain the whole thing—that he tried to serve the prince as best he could, as his conscience demanded, but in dodging one trap he'd stepped into another. Of course he can say nothing. Loki's bitter words about honor come back to him—never was there a more self-serving notion!—and as false as they are, Loki is falser—Prince Loki, who tears away other men's honor without remorse, who tramples the very concept under his feet.
From below his grief, anger unfurls its hot red leaves.
Night falls, and it hasn't faded. He sleeps and wakes and still it is there. It grows hotter and hotter until his breast burns every second of the day.
Late at night, he's woken by a sound. Sitting up, he blinks away the darkness to see two glittering eyes at the end of his bed.
An enormous black rat.
He leaps out of bed. Among other things, he is now the palace ratcatcher, and if one is spotted, he'll be punished. He lunges for the thing and it squeezes its slippery body under the door.
Still pulling on his trousers, he bursts out into the corridor. He hears claws scrabble round a corner, and reaches it only to see the black shape disappear up the stairs. He's a strong but not an especially fast man, and once he achieves the top of the stairs—a very long flight of stairs—his quarry has vanished. In the empty hall, his heart sinks. He has merely chased the filthy thing into the palace's upper levels, where it will get him into worse trouble.
A figure steps out of a shadow.
"Ah," it says. "The stuttering soldier. Former soldier, I should say."
Face heating with rage, he forgets about bowing to the prince. He just stumbles back, eyes fixed on his enemy's face, knowing full well what he'll do if Loki gets closer.
And Loki does get closer. He comes on until Máligr's back touches the wall, eyes glittering like the rat's. Máligr remembers a story told about him—that he can shift his shape into that of an animal, and that he uses this trick to spy on his many foes.
"I wonder," says Loki with an abstract glance around—"I wonder if you've reconsidered my offer."
Máligr's jaw drops. "O-offer?"
"Yes," snarls Loki, "m-m-my o-f-f-f-er."
Don't you secretly want to shove me to my knees and stuff my mouth shut?
Maybe he does.
Máligr slams into the prince's chest. Loki falls back onto his ass, and as he struggles to sit up, Máligr strikes him hard across the face. When Loki lifts his head, his nose and lip are bleeding, and he has a wild look in his eye—terror, pain, outrage, and behind them all, hunger.
Loki's offer. Extended so generously, for his own selfish pleasure. Máligr has waited on the prince's pleasure for too long. He seizes Loki's hair and traps his head against the wall. Loki gasps and struggles, but his trembling hands reach for the fastenings of Máligr's trousers.
At that touch, he comes back to himself. He takes a large step back that pitches Loki forward onto his hands, where he stays, breathing loudly and saying nothing, his lank hair hanging in his face.
"You c-can't have what you want," says Máligr.
Loki doesn't snarl, doesn't spit curses and sneer that a prince can have whatever he wants. He stays with his head bowed, his rasping breaths filling the quiet hall.
Against all reason, pity stirs in Máligr's breast.
He has always been a soft-hearted fool, an easy mark for the likes of Prince Loki. But that is his nature. He sees into Loki's heart, that's all. He wishes he didn't, but he does.
Máligr sinks to his haunches. "Are you sorry for what you've done?"
"Never," spits Loki, but there's no conviction in it. Only shame.
Máligr gazes at him with a tenderness the prince doesn't deserve. But it's just as well. If Loki looked up and saw it in his eyes, it would burn him like no hatred ever could. An urge fills him, both cruel and kind. He has paid the price for Loki's self-hatred long enough. It is his turn now.
He lifts Loki's chin and gazes boldly at his blood-streaked, tear-streaked face before leaning down to kiss him.
The prince jerks back, but Máligr holds him in place, clasping his dark head. When Loki bites his lip, Máligr pulls back. "N-none of that," he says, and kisses the slack mouth again, sweetly, wiping a smear of blood away with his thumb. Loki trembles with rage. Longing fills his eyes, followed quickly by shame.
Máligr's fear has vanished, and his anger too. Truly he could not have devised a sweeter, sharper punishment if he'd had a thousand years. "Well, my lord? Will you do this my way?"
Loki stares at him, stricken.
"Fine," he spits.
As he leads Máligr through the royal chambers, Loki stops and rounds on him. "You will speak of this to no-one," he hisses. "You will take no liberties with me, in public or in private—"
Máligr smiles. "Be quiet," he says, and kisses him again.
Loki surges forward, all teeth and tongue, but Máligr detaches him patiently and holds him by the hair the way he might scruff a cat, spreading soft kisses down his jaw. "I hate you," Loki snarls, then sighs wretchedly as Máligr presses his lips to his throat.
Máligr tugs off the belt of Loki's dressing gown. "Oh stop f-fighting."
"Why should I?" The prince pulls them down onto the sumptuous bed. "I didn't proposition you in that bath because I wanted you to be gentle."
"You could use it." Máligr gets to his knees. "G-gentleness, I mean." He parts the dressing gown and finds nothing but bare skin underneath.
"What do you know of me, you witless brute?" Loki squirms as Máligr runs his hands worshipfully over his chest and sides. He appears to be ticklish.
Máligr holds his struggling body down and kisses his nipples one by one. "You don't fool me."
"Do you think I'll show you mercy after this?" Loki lifts his head to watch uneasily as Máligr moves down his stomach. "I'll make it worse for you! You have no idea how much worse it can get!"
"I live to s-serve you," Máligr says mildly. "If not the way you like."
"Some might say that's the very opposite of servitude."
"Maybe the prince doesn't always know what's best for him." Máligr nudges Loki's thighs apart and picks up his hardening cock.
"And you do, you thick-headed fool? You can barely tie your shoes, you brainless—"
"Shh." Máligr takes Loki's cock tenderly in his mouth. He has no trouble with it, as it's not especially large. Slender but perfectly shaped, like the rest of him. Loki snarls and gasps and grabs Máligr's head to force it down harder, but he may as well be shoving a stone pillar. Máligr sucks at his own lazy pace, holding Loki by the hips, stroking thumbs up and down his smooth sides. Loki writhes away from him, to no avail. Still, Máligr lets Loki fight—as Loki must. They both understand it's mere show.
Máligr rises up. Below him, the prince lies in a tangle of green silk, flushed face flushing darker under Máligr's gaze.
"You're very beautiful," says Máligr sincerely.
"Shut up," says Loki.
Máligr lifts Loki's thighs over his shoulders and returns his mouth to its work. He's never done what he's about to do and he trembles with excitement just thinking about it. Kissing his way farther down, he hefts those slender thighs higher and pushes his face in, his tongue seeking out the prince's quivering hole.
"What are you—Stop!" Loki twists violently. "I don't—that's—ahhh!—stop, damn you!" His heels pummel Máligr's shoulders, but his words give way to moans. "Ahhh—why are you—ahh!"
Through it all, Máligr licks patiently. Under his tongue, the little muscle clenches, then reluctantly softens. Noticing that Loki's protests have weakened a bit, Máligr looks up to see that he has thrown his arm over his face, as if pretending none of this is happening.
He licks the prince through the rises and falls of his moans and threats of harm, until moans and protests alike turn to sniffling. "Enough," Loki pleads, "enough, you pitiless monster—"
It is enough, Máligr decides. He rises again and spits in his palm, gets himself wet, and tenderly thrusts inside.
"Yes," Loki growls as Máligr bends him in half, "finally—" He squeezes his thighs around Máligr's implacable hips— "Harder—"
Máligr lifts Loki's arm away from his eyes. The prince turns his face but Máligr nudges it back so he can study it as he thrusts, ever so gently, waiting for the sound in Loki's throat when Máligr's cock goes deep enough.
"Harder—harder, you jibbering idiot—you slack-jawed half-wit—"
Máligr kisses him quiet and cradles his head as he fucks him.
Loki's moans and cries grow higher, more voluptuous as Máligr slides in and out, and when Loki's insides begin to pulse, he lets out a frustrated sob like a child who has lost a game. And in a way, that's what he is. He has lost, and Máligr has won. With his own heaving cry, Máligr comes inside him. Once he has unfolded the prince's limbs, he gives him a last deep kiss. Loki doesn't even try to push him off.
"Remember," says Loki from the bed as Máligr pulls on his trousers, "say a word of what happened and you die a traitor's death.
"Your desire is my duty, my lord." Máligr bows and leaves the prince to his roiling thoughts.
His triumph doesn't survive the cold light of day. Bracing himself for retribution, he wonders what form it could possibly take now that he's been stripped of everything but his life. Perhaps he'll be cast out of the palace, or sent far away to the border garrisons, or merely shuffled off to an inconspicuous death without a trial. Surely the prince's pride could not suffer a witness to his defeat to live.
He is shocked, therefore, when a tribune comes down to the servants' level and informs him his rank has been restored.
So he isn't to be punished. Nor, once he has returned to his duties, is he sent for by the prince to play the stud, another outcome he'd considered. Which leads him to conclude that Loki is letting him twist in the wind, putting off his revenge until Máligr has grown complacent. Exactly the sort of cunning torture Loki delights in. What can he do against that? He tries not to think of it. What comes will come. There was never any predicting the whims of power.
As he patrols the upper halls one day, a cold breeze brushes the nape of his neck, and he turns to see Loki, standing with his hands clasped behind his back.
"Soldier," the prince says carelessly, "I've been rather offended these past few weeks."
Máligr bows and says nothing.
"You've sent me no tokens. No poems, no gifts."
Máligr lifts his head, brows furrowing.
"Surely," Loki says coldly, "you did not intend to make a whore of me."
"N-no, my lord," Máligr protests, honestly. Of all the effects he'd meant his actions to have, that one had been farthest from his mind.
Loki lifts his chin. "You praised my beauty. Did you lie to me, soldier?"
"Of c-course not." On impulse, he falls to one knee. "You're most lovely."
"Very well." Loki studies his nails. "I will forgive you. But I expect you to be more attentive from now on." He extends his hand.
Hesitating only a moment, Máligr takes it and kisses the prince's knuckles. He looks up and sees that Loki's face is cold and imperious, as usual, but with the faintest trace of a smile. Understanding what's happening now, he turns over Loki's hand and kisses his palm, a wetter, more lingering kiss. Still Loki doesn't pull away. Máligr waits another moment before pushing up the prince's sleeve and kissing the inside of his wrist, touching it ever so lightly with his tongue.
"That's more like it."
His rises to his feet. Never lowering his eyes, he crowds the prince against the wall and kisses him—deeply, thoroughly, grinning and open-mouthed. Loki's eyelids flutter. He sighs when their lips pull apart.
"My lord," says Máligr with a gentle smile. "I wait upon your pleasure."