“You search in vain, brother.”
Thor snorts, a wry twist of lips darkening the bright gleam in his eyes; Vanaheim is a riot of colour, and the air is thick with the multifarious scent of high autumn: apples, bright and crisp, the dry musk of fallen leaves, and the soft, sour scent of wheat left to bleach in the heat of the sun. Asgard rarely wears such splendour, though she burns with an equal magnificence.
“Sister, what makes you so sure?” He turns away from the towering steppes of Vanaheim's fields, layered green and golden bright as if in mimic of a woad dragon's scales. Sights like these are few and far between, and though Asgard grows food enough for its peoples, there is not the love, the unrestrained worship of all things that grow and flourish, to mark to the long tracts of the Realm Eternal as there is here, in Vanaheim. “I seek nothing here save a word or two with the King, and a cask or two of the finest mead in all the Nine Realms.”
“If the boy wishes to be found, he'll make himself known.” A wisp of gentle mockery held firmly between her teeth, Skuld regards her half-brother with no modesty to cover over her bald curiosity. She knows why Thor is here, and it is not to speak to the Sea-Son. Or to drink some unsuspecting Vanir tavern master out of his hard-won stores.
“I am not here to be idle, sister.”
A bolt of laughter catches Thor squarely in the chest, and Skuld gives him her reddest grin. “Aye brother, we none of us ever are, but that is how the Nine Realms works.”
~ * ~
Mead carries few memories for Thor: a rimur or six, sung in the high halls of his father on the feast days, a cool spring night in the sheltering, redolent bowers of his mother's moon-touched gardens. Realms between each memory, but none more dear than the other, only different.
A pale hand lays a polished horn afore him, a little dragon biting round the hollow mouth; the Vanir is tall – long braids of burnished red and eyes as pale as a winter's chill sky – and aware of who it is he serves. Thor knows they none of them care for him, for his red cloak and his great, ancient hammer. None would have the son of Odin Spear-Breaker sitting neath their halls, drinking their mead, muddying the waters of their bitterly won isolation. And so it is that he is sharing a bench with Odin's first Valkyrie, and his own sword-brothers: a sea of stiff, cold Vanir faces regarding the Aesir as if a knot of snakes had been dropped into their warm nest.
“You would think we had come to steal their women and burn their fields,” Fandral murmurs, his eyes sweeping over Vanir matron and maiden alike; all fair, all with great ropes of braid in all the colours of high autumn, warm and sweet in all the ways a high lady of Asgard was not. But not for him, for him cold eyes and still hands; hushed voices like nervous birds watching a ranging cat.
“As like it was in the old days, Fandral the Dashing?” Skuld snaps, and at her side her wolf-shadow whines, low and piercing.
“We are not all of the old days, Valdyrsdottir.” Nothing more than the barest of touches, and Hogun withdraws, his fingers quick and his smile bare. All in Asgard know their place, and he ever knows his, no matter the thread she has put in his hands. Skuld quiets, but her teeth are bright in the honeyed light of Ubsola.
“Aye, not all.”
Thor turns away from his sister, a tiny frown bending his lips. Who she speaks of, he is not sure he wishes to know, but that is the privilege of Odin's first-born daughter: she keeps her own heart, her own council.
“I hear the Vanir are breaking bread with their honoured dead tonight,” Volstagg barks out, laughter echoing beneath the great black beams of the hall. “We should pay our respects in Asgard's name.” An empty horn and a good half-dozen eyes on his back make for a heavy, dolorous cloud hanging above all their heads, and he likes not how his friends wear their silence. Tis a recipe for disaster, most especially if Thor is hemmed in any further.
Six greater cycles of our third sun have we been at peace with Vanaheim. You would think it time enough to bury all our dead. Volstagg cannot keep the thought from his mind, but it is easier to keep it from his tongue.
Suddenly there is in place of Volstagg's unspoken thought the snap of wings, and the clacking of beaks; two dusty, razor-fine voices come a'muttering into Ubsola's halls.Thor watches, his fingers tightening round his mead-horn. Not a handful of hours away from Asgard; tis not as if he has only gone some meagre distance from his father's sight, but that he has put a Realm between himself and those damnable birds, and still...
kaldri vetrar nóttu á,
verður margt að meini;
verður margt að meini;
Thor sings the rude little rhyme with the understanding that his father is watching. He finds he does not care, not with any manner of honesty. “Why must you hound my steps?” is his reply, and for the ravens he shows more teeth than smile. “You are no more dogs than I, so why is it you screech and cackle for Odin All-Father's pleasure alone?”
Huginn's laughter rattles through Ubsola like bones in a rusted coffer. “We are here to keep eye on the Prince. Ignorance and youth oft compete to outstrip the other.”
“Hand in hand, father like son.” Muninn chimes, his little eyes bright and steady. The only hand to trust is Odin's, so he'll not wander any nearer the Far-Rider's red-cloaked son.
What are those damnable birds japing on about? Thor wonders, the words are snide, full of venom and an old disregard, even to his own mind. He has never liked these black, rustling monsters who only wear the feathers of ravens to keep the lesser creatures from the terror of their true shapes falling o'er all the wide Universe.
“When one is seeking treasure, son of Odin, it is often best to range through places wherein treasures grow,” Huginn snaps, his wings mantled, blades for pinion feathers and a snide, cackling beak for armour. “Not tarry in places of drink and dead songs.”
Thor growls, and Memory alights from the rafters like a fell wind.
Hogun must bite the smile from his lips; he dares not look at the wolf by his side, for she must be a ruin of laughter at her brother's expense.
“Aye that is all well and good,” Fandral bellows, watching Thought follow on darker wings. “But what in the name of Urðr is that to mean? Damn birds and their damn riddles. It's a wonder our Queen is so tolerant of their nonsense.”
“Mother hates them,” Thor murmurs. He turns his gaze to his hands: rough, and strong, large enough to seem to swallow whole the horn and its golden drink. A sudden dislike wells up in him, and he leaves the drink and the chatter of his friends, his sister's eyes hot upon the back of his neck. It is likely only the stern set of her mouth that keeps the others from following. She will understand, she always does, though he cannot fathom how it is always thus. Perhaps he does wear his heart too proudly upon his face.
Skuld watches her brother's shadow grow small and thin, like a spool of thread being winnowed out for some strange purpose. If those little monsters have set him to flight, tis for no little reason. But alas, the hand of Odin is a heavy one, and ever does it fall across his Realm, and the Realms of others, for none may deny Hliðskjálfar. None save Jotunheim, but that will not endure much longer. The thought sends an indelicate finger of dread along the curve of her spine, and she must not look to the nearness of Hogun's fingers upon the tabletop, nor the quiet questions held in Sif's fine, bright eyes.
This is Thor's puzzle, and they are not welcome to its rewards.
~ * ~
“Brother,” Helblindi sighs, “what are we doing?” Rough against his back, the bark of this strange, pliant tree is a puzzle to him. So green and strange, soft and yielding, though he uses not his true strength. Beneath its leaves is cool, quiet, and from above the savage sunlight of Vanaheim falls upon the tree as gently as rain, dappling his skin with flickering, golden coins. This moon-touched skin he wears bothers him, makes him clench his teeth and hide his hands beneath his robes.
“We are waiting.” Is Loki's quiet, mischief bright reply.
Helblindi resists the urge to dig up this soft green grass by the roots and fling it at his brother in a fit of childish annoyance. “So we are waiting for danger to find us?”
“Oh,” Loki chuckles, low and ever so haughty, “no dearest brother. Trouble flew overhead some few hours ago. It shan't be long now.” From his cradle in the bowers of this old, gnarled apple tree, Loki can spy the great vault of the sky above him, and the thin white striations of clouds weaving through that endless blue sprawl. He has the mind to be jealous of all these colours, all these scents, but he finds his eyes searching for white, for that burning, blistering slate of untouched snow stretching out eight thousand els in any direction he should turn. Too much beauty in one place robs the one who gazes upon it, for it is easy to forget, to relish true grace, with so much to treasure.
Below, neath the flecked shading of the tree, Helblindi growls. There is no blade upon his arm, no voice of Winter in his ear, and he wonders, pained, if he will prove as true a sword to his Prince with no ice to call upon. Steel is a poor substitute, and he likes not the weight of it in his hands – more like a clumsy bludgeon than a malleable weapon. At least the hilt is pretty, though why Loki would choose a hawk, Helblindi has no good reason to understand.
A sudden breath of this strange Realm rattles through the green bowers, and Helblindi tastes a hundred unknown things beneath his tongue: red fruit, a dry, sweet welter of golden stalks swaying in the breeze, black earth, green leaves. He closes his eyes, and lets the heat pull apart his bones.
~ * ~
The sun has reached its zenith, and all of Vanaheim is filled with the sonorous hum of insects and the sighing of wheat and of leaves, the murmur of waters deep and valleys wide. Thor has forgotten where he is wandering to, only that this red-dirt road seemed as good as any other, and that there are no rustling of wings dogging his steps.
Treasure? What manner of treasure was he meant to search for? Surely they could not mean, could not have meant...
Thor finds his hands have become fists.
Damn his father.
There is an orchard at the end of this road; he spies a great archway made soft by the weathering of ages and the touch of moss, white slabs of stone peeking out from between green fingers. As he passes beneath its bower, Thor touches the rough face, and beneath his fingers is porous chalk and old stone; for some strange reason, he smiles, and slips into the garden.
The trees are tall, old and gnarled as the men of Midgard; the grass is long and high, swayed by the whims of the wind. Strange that the Vanir would let an orchard run to ruin like this, Thor wonders, passing beneath wild, snake twisted branches heavy with blossoms and green fruit. Perhaps the owner is simply forgetful.
There is a boy beneath a tree, and there is a sword laid across his lap.
From nowhere, from everywhere, a voice picks up a thread of song.
When I see the lark break
its wings against a sunbeam,
and fall from that sweet joy that pierces the heart,
O—my own could melt,
envying all those I see rejoicing.
The boy beneath the tree opens his eyes, eyes the colour of a dragon's hoard, and tilts his strange, proud face up to the gnarled bows above; from the tree, the voice is coming from the tree. Thor takes a step forward, Tilkváma swaying on its cord, and the boy's head snaps down; a look of outrage touches upon the boy's face, and the sword laid across his lap flashes in the sunlight.
“Hail, stranger,” the voice from the tree laughs, its song gone away with the sighing of the wind. “You seem far from home.” A pale white hand reaches down to snatch a green apple from a branch, and retreats back into the shade of the tree's leaves.
“Aye, perhaps.” Thor will not let that sword leave the line of his sight, it would be a fool's mistake. “But might I not say the same for you, stranger? Or are you Vanir, minding all that grows here?”
“I might be, wanderer.”
Musical, dark and strange; woodsmoke and ice against thin glass, that is what the voice sounded like, though it made no sense to think as such. Thor searches amongst the branches for any sign of the creature in its bowers. Perhaps...
“Are thou Hulda? The boy in the Sea-King's library?”
The boy with the sword raises himself up from the grass, and Thor cannot help but note just how very tall the lad is, and just how like a bird of prey are his eyes.
“Peace brother,” the sibilant, darkling voice continues. “No need to spill blood.”
Thor sets Tilkváma down upon the soft grasses, and give up a smile to the voice and his tall brother. “Will you come down from the tree, Hulda, son of Vanaheim?”
A face appears, two fine hands part the maze of leaves and green apples, and Thor is given an answer in a red, wolf-shadow grin.
“Aye, Thunderer. I will come down.”
Before his eyes, from the bowers of this gnarled old tree, slips out a lean, tall young man, with all the colours of high-crowned autumn wrapped round a body as fine as a bright blade. Not a boy, not any longer. Not the same boy who'd hidden in the shadows on that great monster of a horse, not the soft-mouthed scholar who'd given him that gentle smile in and amongst the dusty light of Vanaheim's library.
“Rune-speaker.” Thor rumbles; young thunder peals in the distance, and the boy with the wolf-red grin laughs. A hundred chiming needles swaying on thin threads, pushed by a none too gentle breeze. Heat bleeds into Thor's belly, and the boy's teeth put a fine iron band round his lungs. Oh, oh what a strange, lovely face.
Proud. So very proud.
“And who taught you those words, Thunderer?” says the boy, with all the breath of a snake's subtle hiss; the sound glides up Thor's spine, to nest between his rubs. Jealous green eyes watch every little twitch, every inflection, as if to pluck out something Thor has kept hidden away, and all for the boy's own use.
“Tis how we speak of those who know the wyrd ways, in Asgard.” His tongue is unruly, and he knows himself a fool to be so careless with his words. But what harm is there in a boy, in Hulda? “Few have the skill.”
“And your realm is all the poorer for it.” The boy laughs, that same cutting, shifting peal of mirth that still crowds round Thor's ears. Insults rarely come from such a fine mouth, and for a moment Thor is unsure if he is insulted, or merely annoyed. Few dare to speak of Asgard in such bare-faced terms, fewer still would dare do so in front of Odin's son. Perhaps the boy knows not who he is, nor why most fear the hammer set down in the long, shifting grass.
“I am Hulda, if you must have my name again.” His mind is spinning, cutting, shuffling, knotting: a hundred threads of possibility on the tip of his red tongue, and all be truth or lies upon his whims. All be in his hands, and his to do with as he pleases. This golden son of Asgard will be King some long ages from this day, and there are things to build and to take and to plant afore that old, one-eyed carrion bird returns to pick what little flesh still clings to Jotunheim's bones. “You must forgive me, but I have forgot yours.”
Thor frowns, and holds out his hand as if it were a natural thing to give to a strange creature crept down from a broad, green bower. Were his sister here, she would bare her teeth and keep her hand upon her blade. There is not quite the same species of distrust in him, though sense tells him he would be wise to change this failing. Alas, but he has never been good at following the example of others, for those are well-beaten paths, and there is no adventure on well-beaten paths.
From the crown of the apple tree's long shadow, though it hardly brushes against Thor's boot, he can see every stitch of indelicate apprehension cross the eagle-eyed Vanir boy's face, but looks not upon him long. “I mean no harm, son of Vanaheim,” Thor placates, his hands spread wide in mimic of that tree's branches. “But it would seem we have been chasing one another for quite some time.”
It is the boy with the vicious green eyes that calls to him. Hulda. Though if he must, Thor would treat first with this tall eagle boy for access to the other. Protecting one's sibling is a fine and noble task, but it is no less a hurdle.
The boy's golden eyes narrow, thin nostrils flaring; he wears his disdain with pride, and an iron-boned surety, as if no matter the colour of Thor's cloak, nor the force of his hammer, the boy will never see aught but a creature come creeping round the fire. The siblings are alike: both wear a royal height in the touch of their gaze, in the tilt of their mouths.
Loki wraps a hand round his brother's arm, and Helblindi shivers. No matter if this is necessary, if this is some great plan of Loki's to tear out the stones of that red road that is drawing ever closer to Jotunheim, tis hard indeed to step aside and leave his brother to the company of this brightly-burning Aesir. Laufey would have his head, and be right to do so. This is a fool's game, surely, and played to the greatest risk: one wrong step, one unintentional word, and this will all come crashing down. And Odin's son will have for Asgard a prize and a sword to turn against the whole of Jotunheim.
A prisoner of their quiet war, carried off to a distant, savage land where all is dipped in fire and gold, where all is laid bare under an unkind sun.
Helblindi shivers, and steps aside to let his Prince beguile another. There is some small part of him that wishes for a mourning song, but it would not be wise to lament for something he has not yet lost. That would only encourage the Norns, and only fools lift their voices to those maidens.
“Hulda of Vanaheim, why are you so far from Nóatún? And where is that fine horse of yours?” It is not good manners to throw questions at a stranger's feet, but Thor would wager this stranger more than capable of answering them, should the fancy strike the boy.
Loki arches one thin, black brow, and regards the Thunderer with the same face is wont to give to Angrboða: I tolerate thee out of use, nothing more. Such bold questions, and from such an honest face. How ever did this Prince reach past adulthood? Laufey's court would have eaten the golden haired creature alive at the first scent of this tenderness. “The horse is conducting his own business. As for Nóatún, well, books will only teach us so much.” He reaches out to pluck another apple from the lowest branch, green and sweetly-sour as his voice, and tosses it to the son of Odin. “Ofttimes it is better to go a'roaming than wait for adventure to find thee.”
Thor finds a curious grin has stolen upon his face, too-wide and ungentle in its shape. “Aye, Hulda, that is true enough.”
“I might ask the same of you, son of Asgard. Why are thou so far from those bright halls?” Loki continues, feeling his tongue as like a blade between his teeth. “Surely there is nothing in Vanaheim that could hold the interest of a Prince.” Threads in his hand, wrapped round his fingers; it is only too easy to wrap those same threads round another.
“Ah,” Thor laughs, thinking to be disturbed by Hulda's clever words, “I see I am discovered. You know who I am, who my father is.” Being perturbed would hardly suit keeping this lean, green-eyed Vanir with him for but an hour's passing. Some times it is best to be silent, and let others talk.
“I know,” comes Loki's reply. A thousand little breathes it takes him not to hiss that acquiescence, for he would rather cut his own throat than speak that name in any shape other than kindness, or respect. “And well amazed am I, that you wander so far from Asgard. Does your father not worry?” Ah, there it is. Hesitation laid flush against sour dislike, rebellion. Were he away, alone, now would be the moment to fling his voice to sky, to revel. Such a naked, guileless face.
“Princes keep their own rights. Mine is freedom.” Thor snarls as softly as he might, not wishing to give Hulda a row of white teeth bared in anger. Odin strides over all the Nine Realms with but a whisper and a word. His name alone is enough to leave the echoes of his footsteps ringing through the redolent, blazing orchard. Damnable old man and his wicked servants; not a moment's peace for any creature now alive, not while Hliðskjálfar is his to rule.
Is it, Thunderer? Loki cannot help but wonder, watching the anger slip away from that strange, golden countenance. “Then I should count myself fortunate to have met thee. Freedom is the greatest prize in all the Nine Realms, and I should expect a Prince would hold nothing dearer.” There is an art to this, this trading of blades till one or the other is cut, and the truth comes spilling out; lying is a similar game, for the best of lies always ring with the smallest note of truth. That is why lies are as dangerous: all flow from some unattractive truth.
“Yes.” Such a rough, raw reply. Thor cannot abide that it is, for the better part of honesty, a bald faced lie. He has no freedom but the circles of the Nine Realms through which his father has first walked, through which his father had first tamed. What joy is there, in a land already sewn? In a people already made quiet and forgetful? Or worse, bitter and full of sharp memories? Like the Vanir.
There is no thought for the Jotun. Nothing but the memory of that black-horned Realm and its cold, cold vistas, its white, shattered plains, and the weight of Odin's hand on his shoulder. Lessons learned and not learned, riddles and old stories that could never truly be jus that – stories.
Loki smiles, thin and swift as an arrow, and raises his hand to the sea of verdant leaves, to the sun quivering above the stone walls of the garden, and knows a moment of...dislocation. That first step, that first stone, here, in his hands, at his feet. This will be his road, and no other's. He is tired of walking the paths set by others, by his father and his war, by the histories he cannot read – the ones that wrote themselves on his father's skin.
“Thunderer, would you like to know what it is your father has sent you to catch?” Here. Right here. No faltering now. He will build, stone upon stone, until he is the tower, and Odin aught but the bitterest of winds.
Shock paints itself over Thor's face, and for a moment he is not sure how to pick his words out of the dust on his tongue. How could this Vanir know anything of Odin, or his plans? “My father has not sent me for anything.” Clumsy, but the best he can scrape up, standing here in this green bower, with this green-eyed charmer and his eagle-eyed brother. “Why do you think thusly?”
“I speak the language of the world between.” Loki replies, a singular note of magic resting on the tip of one white finger. “Runes.”
“Aye,” Thor breathes, watching the rosy blush of the apple tree bend towards the boy and his long shadow. The boy suddenly wears a crown of branches, horns of green and brittle brown, mirth bright on his lips. A strange creature, with a knowing, darkling gaze. “That I can see.”
“Can you?” Laughter rings, fine and silvery. “There is much more to the old tongue than tricks and illusions.”
“Such as?” By no will of his own, Thor moves through the long grass with a steady hum beneath his skin. The golden-eyed brother watches him with a row of white teeth bared to the sun, mistrust sparking on every angle of his frame. “Surely there is great fun to be had in little tricks. But no really use.”
“Ah.” Loki shakes his head, and forgets his horns make no music here. “That is where you would be wrong, Thunderer.”
Thor frowns, coming to stand, too-still and wary, in the lee of the boy's long shadow.
“Illusions are the best swords of all. In them you see whatever you wish to see. They are dangerous.” So easy, too easy. Pluck one thread to shake another, one line of contention to bring another to the fore. A word and a look, a thread and a little,clever shearing. “Such as your father's illusion of the freedom given to you.”
What? A question hisses in the bite of his teeth; Thor has no response, no clever words to pary back. For a moment, he is simply stunned into an incredulous silence. Did a son of Nóatún truly just speak of his freedom as a Prince of Asgard as an illusion? A lie? And yet, was it not entirely true? “Boy you go too far.” Thor snarled, the question, he pushed from his mind. “None should speak to a Prince of Asgard with such a bold tongue.”
“Perhaps they should not,” Loki chuckles, and the breath between his teeth is as hot as any fire he has held in his hands. “But I hardly care for should, or should not.”
“Who are you?” Thor blurts the question out, awkward and undignified in his ignorance. He feels as if he is stumbling about in a sudden darkness, with only the smoke of the boy's voice to mark his path; it is not a good feeling, not one that inspires safety, or certainty. “I demand to know! As the Prince of Asgard, I demand to know.”
From beneath the bent tree, Loki laughs, fine and silvery, and turns to go. The first stone has been laid; he will lay another tomorrow, or the tomorrow after that tomorrow. It does not matter. “If you have your freedom, Thunderer, than you have nothing to demand.”
Helblindi follows, close as any shade, the heat of his outrage bright and brightly burning. To play tricks and games with a son of Asgard was foolishness beyond measure, but the first son of Asgard? Too far, and with no good reason he could yet pry from Loki's twisting grasp.
“Wait,” Thor barks, though he does not reach for Tilkváma's leather cord, nor call his father's birds from their post at the weathered, chalk-soft gate. “We have not finished speaking.”
“Come find me, Thunderer,” the wind carries back to him, “when you are ready to see true freedom. A real adventure.” A sweetly-sour taunt, born on the winds of high-crowned summer, in the heat of a fading day. A good way to hook a fool, golden and without guile.
Jealous green eyes peer back at him for only a moment, and Thor finds the warm wind cold against his teeth. He watched as the boy and his brother seemed to embrace deep shadows, the world bending around their tall frames, the scent of a bitter, bloody magic filling the air, sticking in the back of Thor's throat.
What would he tell his mother, when she asked him where his travels took him today?
I met a boy and his brother, in a garden dark and strange. He told me things I did not wish to hear. He moved through shadows and trees, and kept a too-clever tongue.
Thor bent down to pull his hammer from the grass, and by the weathered, chalk-soft gate waited Huginn and Muninn. Two inky voices japing and jeering.
Well, son of Odin?
Princes kept their own counsel.
Tomorrow, he would return tomorrow.
Odin would not be master in all Realms, nor in all moments.
He knew what his sister would say.
An adventure, brother? Only fools and mortals have those. But then again, Valhöll's stories are getting old, and the honoured dead know only one song, sung a hundred different ways.
Thor found a wolfish grin on his lips; down the little, copper-dirt road, stood Sif, and Fandral, and Hogun, and Volstaag. Friends, shield siblings, companions. It would not hurt to add another to that number.
~ * ~
An age or more has passed since first I bent my knee to your Blood, and it will another age or more before I would betray that oath. It is my duty to give over to you a troubling thought I have kept close of late.
Your Princes may do as they please, as is their right, but even the highest must understand that some roads are better left untravelled. Though I know Kings and Princes keep their own orbits, I cannot imagine, oh mighty first son of winter, that it would please your own orbit to know how far beyond Jotunheim some dragons may reach.
The charcoal feels as brittle as an eel's spine between his fingers, and Arngrìmr cannot imagine an hour at which his King should find this letter, and its contents, any less an insult than if he were to be as frank as the accumulated secrets between them might have permitted. To write in the tongue of the Court, all galling, scraping obeisance, is the first, perhaps the worst, insult the Chieftain could give. And yet, there is no choice. What hides between the words is far more dangerous than the words themselves.
A hundred cycles could pass beneath his weary gaze, and still would Arngrìmr remember the scent of pine, and the bright, clean touch of sunlight on skin.
He drags the charcoal through the words.
Speak to a King with the words of a servant, and he will treat you as such. They are, they should be past such pettiness. What the Chieftain of Útgarð knows of Laufey is what Arngrìmr knows of Nàl. Much more than any creature ought to know, but far too late to set aside, and feign ignorance like the lesser beasts of Court and tjald.
Time is never as gentle a scour as we would wish it to be; children often remember what a parent wishes to forget. You would think the universe would have scars enough to seam over certain roads, but that seems to be a childish wish. I write to warn you, though I know you will think it not my place. As I understand it, there is little reason to let the Norns work as they will – their weaving has brought no good to Jotunheim for many a long, long year.
Your sons wander farther than they should.
Do you not fear where those roads may lead?
Parchment is always too white for his taste, too blank. And once used, it is somehow made into an ugly scrawling of all that its writer has no tongue to give voice to, at least one one that would spare him his life, or his sleep. Dramatics, Arngrimr understands, have their place, but he is old, old as the stones that shiver above his head, and worn as the black slate at his feet; he is tired of the expenditures of rank, and the cost of Laufey's pride.
He should like to write, at the close of this foolhardy letter, is this: have we all not suffered enough? Is there no better way?
Some risings, when the eldingstjarna is bathed in a bloody light, he finds he does not even know what way he is seeking, nor where he hopes to go. It is a poor thing indeed, to wander so in a land once more filled with the voices of the old ones, and the breath of Winter ever on the wind. A poor thing indeed, to still wear that blindness called ignorance, and all for the sake of days long gone to dust, and the stupidity of youth.
The words are brittle on his lips: the runes have never been his ally, and they can be temperamental, slippery beasts of the deep as far as he is concerned. But, some words are not for the hands of others, and he'd not have this be magicked into a blade to stick between Laufey's ribs.
A rune burns on his tongue; Arngrìmr digs the sharp nail of his thumb through corners of the folded letter, and gathers a twist of red thread to seal up his words.
He calls for a wolf and a rider to bear his words away across the flats of Thrym, and finds his heart a heavy stone to carry beneath the cage of his ribs. This will either go well, and all his fear shall be for naught, or this will, like the great Serpent of old, turn round and bite the hand that feeds.
For a moment, he nearly bends a knee in favour of the Serpent – that beast is better by far than the one-eyed Geirvaldr that sits on Asgard's throne. If there is only one fate woven for Jotunheim and all her children, the Chieftain would rather it be at the hands of a god that knows no compassion, no pity, no kindness with with to check a wanton cruelty, a god who knows no drive but to eat, to devour, to consume. If it is Ginnar who holds Jotunheim in his hands, and Ginnar alone, it shall be the worst of ends, for Argnrimr knows, as surely as he knows what lies in his own heart, that those softer emotions once dwelt in that accursed Aesir's heart.
Once, those gentling creatures dwelt in Laufey too, but that was so long, long ago.
He does not leave the stone halls of his ancestor's tjald, he does not watch the wolf and the ride track out across the scoured, wind-torn plains.
It is out of his hands now, and it was never his to hold in the first place.
Let the little dragon twist his way out of his father's grasp, Arngrimr has done more than any Chieftain ought.
No less than what a father should have done, had this been a better world, or a kinder fate.
~ * ~
The night is washed in green, vivid and sour in its creeping across the planes of Harvetrtjald's war-room. Sleep eludes the King, and memories make him sharp, vicious. Beneath his hands he traces his sons' wanderings: a polished stone from Vanaheim's white shores, a delicate Vegvisír that smelled of Alfheim's rare, honeyed ash wood, a chipped blackstone flint from the belly of Muspelheim.
Nothing from Asgard. And for that, Laufey is perversely grateful.
Helblindi has been leaving these scraps in his brother's own garden, for Laufey to find when Loki runs wild and far in his stride. Always buried beneath the brittle thorns of a gnarled shrub, some desgin of Loki's clever mind, Laufey finds these little markers bu which to map out the trails his child is forging. Tis not to difficult to guess at his purpose, each token moving an orbit or so close to Asgard, closer the that echoing vault, and the heart of Odin's sprawling dominion.
Laufey knows who Loki is leading on this merry chase, this game within a game. Only a son of Odin would be so foolhardy, so sure in his seat atop the world, as to consort with a face made for lies and pretty words.
That had once been he, when Nàl had been his name; it should have been the first of many warnings, when the son of a beast like Fárbauti kept only two names, where Odin kept a thousand – each with an equal place in his heart. What did that say of fathers? That each was three-fold worse than the other? That all are guilty of a father's crimes, raised by their fathers' wars?
He does not wonder if his own children have escaped such a doom.
A noise draws the King from his musing, bitter though it is, and he finds a messenger waiting in the thin shadows of the war room's great doors: a wolf and a rider have come to the gates.
Waving the messenger forward, Laufey plucks the sealed letter from the Jotun's hand, and gives his dismissal.
Red thread binds the letter closed, one knot in each corner; Laufey slices the threads with the nail of his thumb, and tastes the scent of Arngrìmr's rune-speak on the parchment. Words whisper to him: faint traces of a deep distress, old memories, and older loves, gone soft and bitterly dull with Time, and Distance.
Laufey shakes his head, even the music of his horns sharp, angry in the silence: rings of gold and chips of stone shivering together in a misplaced rage.
There are so many threads, so many, many tangled threads. He stares at the red, trailing strings, thinks of blood, and ropes of flesh.
Here is his choice: trust his first born child to pull their Realm from the pit of this yawning destruction, or trust that Odin has grown kinder in the long years of Jotunheim's exile. Laufey snorts, and feeds the letter to one of Loki's too-bright witchlights, the little burst of magic devouring the parchment with eager tongues of not-flame. He does not think too hard on what it is that burns, only that it does.
That name, that damned Name.
It has been nothing less than an age an half that he has written to anyone, never mind to the best of his Chieftains. But he must, he should, and there is no time left to wait for the Norns, or the Stars, or the Dýr of the Deep.
The charcoal stains his hands, gathers in the great lines of his palm, but does not break. A moment passes, in which he has no sense of what to write. No words come to him from the hard wind of the falling day-star, no clues skitter round the shadows at his doors. How do you tell the keeper of your Blood that he must trust a young shape above that of a King? That this is a long game they play, and the outcome is poor no matter the choices made. To Laufey, it seems a breed of discourtesy. But that cannot be avoided, not now.
I have asked much of you. I will ask more of you yet.
Some things are not best left to the Weavers and their loom, and if those who weave thread were to know they were being watched, perhaps the work would not be as they wished it to be.
There is no greater force in this universe than Freedom.
We must trust in it.
Laufey seals his letter in the same manner that the Chieftain had sealed his, and sends it off with the wolf and the rider waiting at his gates. Ofttimes it is best not to dwell on moments which, to his great discomfort, feel as if he has been stood upon the edge of a vicious blade, and all he has done is chosen the edge upon which to be cut.
It is not a good letter, nor a kind letter. It is not filled with comfort, or honesty, or any other little trifle that one might owe another who has for so long been the only creature on the great sprawl of Thrym that he might trust. But such are the circumstances, and such is life.
Loki will come wandering back soon enough, and then will there be consequences to be had, plans to begin, worlds shift or destroy. All on the tricky, twisting smile of a child who is more fire than cold, more dragon than snake; not a Jotun, nor an Aesir, nor any other shape in this wide universe than whatever he so wishes to be.
Not for the first time, Laufey wonders what would have been the end of his struggle with Odin, were not for Loki, and Loki's clever, clever mind. There is little chance it could have been worse, for what brightness is there in choosing war, or the fleeting, fickle spectre of pity and heavy-heartedness to save a Realm from the yoke of the Aesir?
Would it be best to fight, to die, rather than watch Jotunheim and her children become as like the Vanir?
Skaði's high, clarion laughter haunts Laufey, neath the shades and the witch-lights, old memories and older alliances laid bare beneath his scarred, long-fingered hands. She had been the brightest, strangest creature. And then a wife. A hostage sent to distant lands.
And yet she loves her children, as Laufey loves his.
It is a hard thing indeed, to stare into the face of one's child, and see the stranger lurking beneath.
The valley between he and the daughter of the Thunder Bird is not so wide, nor so vast, that they could not see one another reflected out across that divide. Few lives are different, when there is so much that bleeds between, when there is no one shape denied to any who draw breath on these Realm's shores.
What a great shame, that none save the Jotun e'er learn such a lesson.
~ * ~
“Brother.” Jotunheim embraces its second prince, and the fulsome heat of Vanaheim slips away from Helblindi's skin like water over polished stone. “You play a dangerous game.”
A burst of wind, high and sharp, knocks Loki's reply into nothing more than an equally fine-edged smile.
“That is the son of Odin you are leading about by the nose!” Indignant, Helblindi wishes to grab his Prince by the shoulders and shake, shake till there is no thought greater than concern for the meal hour they will shortly miss. No more thoughts of Aesir, bright and golden. No more pretty, slippery words that coil about his teeth like snakes near the heat of a fire. “He is not some low, stupid creature. His kind wear our horns for decoration.”
“I know,” Loki replies, and takes the wound where it is deserved.
“Then why?” Helblindi hisses, baring his teeth.
Answers are flighty, insubstantial whispers in Loki's mind, hardly fit to be given breath. He could say that it is for nothing more than sport, for a bit of entertainment, but that will only cause anger, distrust. The answer is simple: brother, I can find no other way, save this one small chance to to trick this King's son into giving me back what was stolen from us. It is a poor chance at best, and a foolhardy gamble at worst. This little game is all the choice I have, lest we accept that war is the only answer.
Rather than speak all that, Loki chooses something else.
“Would we survive a war, brother?”
Helblindi jerks away as if stung, red stones chiming together; his horns flash in the falling light, and Loki cannot help but grimace. “What sort of question is that?”
“One that must be answered,” Loki replies. He puts his tongue between his sharp teeth, and waits.
“I,” Helblindi sighs, bitterness touching his eyes, “I do not know.”
“Nor do I.”
From the mean height of the eldingstjarna, there is but an hour afore the last meal is to be served, and neither brother has eaten at the Chieftain’s table in some time – roaming too far and too wide for the use of meals, or the company of others.
The shadow of Arngrìmr's ancient hall is growing longer, and the distance sewn between not so much a physical thing, but a valley built of intent, and all the paths that must be discarded.
Neither prince has ventured home in half a rising of the green-ringed moon; Loki imagines his garden has run wild, the magic in his not-trees and his not-birds, his not-deer, turning all to tangles and brambles. Laufey will not keep it sharp, only bright. Whether king, or father, Laufey has never been one to show just how fine a voice he keeps for the rune-tongue; it is not his way.
“Come,” murmurs Helblindi, reaching out to catch his brother's hand. “We will ride for Harvetrtjald on the next rising. Tonight, we will break bones and share meat with the Chieftain and his son.”
Loki does his best to shut away his laughter, behind his teeth where it will not make Helblindi scowl, or hide his eyes in a vain effort to not be flayed open by Loki's knowing smile.
Few things go unmarked by the First Prince of Jotunheim, few things that creep, or crawl, or smell of chalk circles, and time spent alone.
The Chieftain is waiting for them at the crown of the stairs, and his smile is thin, and warm, and worn.
Tomorrow, Loki thinks, tomorrow the game will begin in earnest.
Tomorrow he will meet Thor Odinson on some shaded path of his choosing, under some strange sun, neath a wide sky. The first born son of the House of Laufey will twist and murmur and beguile till the first born son of Odin Ginnarr willingly returns the heart of Jotunheim.
The Vetrljós will sing in the high temple again, and Loki will make no war to have it so.
Jotunheim cannot afford such an expense, and he is sure the House of Laufey would not survive, should Odin ride down the Bone Road, straight to the heart of Winter's Realm.
The Red Road, the Bone Road: war.
Loki spares a moment to wonder if Thor walked that Road as he had, when they were young and their fathers nearly tore to two realms asunder for some cause now lost to half-healed wounds and the merciful blunting of Time.
Had Thor feared Death, and Ruin, as Loki had? Somehow, Loki doubts the answer is yes.
All Roads lead to Asgard, in the end.