“Where are you wandering too, little starling?” Murmurs Odin, the pinch of Huginn's talons but a twinge in the noise of his thoughts. He cannot take his gaze from the boy, from the tall, wolf-lean shadow that gives his son a smile more fit for wile beasts than Princes.
Bright white teeth, and Winter coloured hands.
The boy has grown into a fine young dragon; Odin cannot help but wonder at the godling's face, at whose hand has played strongest upon the boy's features. Is it Laufey: proud and sharp, haughty as any bird of prey with a small, shivering creature beneath its talons? Or is it the House of Odin that shape his son's brow. Does Laufey's little starling wear a noble, staid face, fit for the golden halls of his father's fathers? Fit for the weight of Asgard's throne?
Odin could not bear such a thought. Could not imagine. What if it were Bestla's blood. Mouth like an upturned bow, yet twice as sharp; eyes bright and quick as any fox. It would be his luck: to wrest back what Laufey has so denied him, only to live with the echo of the face he so willfully chose to set aside.
No King of Asgard would put a Jotun upon the sprawl of Hliðskjálfar. Bor put his son upon the throne, not Bestla's. And yet, here does Odin Borson conspire to tie Asgard, golden and terrible, to that green-ringed moon, and those fine, proud horns.
In Odin, the warlord cries that he has every right to do with his own get as he pleases; the father, well, the father bows with grief, with shame. The King...the King knows all the Nine realms sit as stones upon his shoulders, and he is ever in their service. What the tender heart, the tired mind, desires is but a fleeting, foolish sentiment.
Odin wishes for nothing more than to see his son's face.
“What are you planning, my little dragon?”
Huginn shakes his wings, an inky blot in the narrows of Odin's vision. “That little dragon is roaming wide and far, All-Father.” Muninn takes up a trilling echo, voice laden with the red dirt of distant roads. “He goes where he pleases. Your son is at his heels, ever seeking his shadow.”
Odin hisses, bares his teeth and curls his tongue.
“Who is it that waits for me?” Memory cries, high and wailing. “Who sits beneath the shade of this ash tree?” So worn, so old is this remembrance that Muninn's sibilance is aught but the whisper of dust, and half forgotten roads.
“Silence, little beast,” Odin roars. “I'll not be reminded. Those memories are not for your tongue.” What is worse: that he cannot keep his own past beneath his breath, or that through this little, winged shape does he know the memories of a million, million others, and still are there lives more wretched than his own?
That name, that damned name.
All that fire, gone to ash and hate. So many regrets, oh so many regrets. Alas that all Kings must learn to trade in that coin.
Odin rises from his wide, soft couch, and searches out the only thread he has left to tie him to his mother's Realm.
~ * ~
“Ah, Odinson, well met are we.”
The day is fine, and not yet passed the first blush of dawn; in the quiet, the great green vaults of the library are softened, its knotted shapes made into gentle pools of root and vine. “Alfheim is an odd place indeed, for our paths to cross.”
“No,” Thor laughs, it is not, Hulda of Vanaheim.” Taking in the sight of the young man and his brother, dressed in colours as muted as the heavy scrolls that surround the pair. He cannot help but wonder if the golden-eyed boy does not get bored; there is is so little adventure all this dust and silence. “Alfheim has a very fine library.” A little, fleeting smile touches his lips. “Or so I have heard.”
A silvery peal of laughter catches on Loki's teeth, and he watches Helblindi tense.
Play the game, Loki wishes to whisper. Play the game brother.
“A wise gamble indeed, Thunderer.”
Thor's smile widens, and his eyes are as clear as the great vault of the sky that the knotted beams of Alfheim's library has hidden away. Loki has never met a creature who delights so in showing his own joy. Such honesty, such disregard for the privacy of one's finer emotions is...disconcerting.
“Why is it libraries, Hulda of Vanaheim?” Thor cannot say that he takes no pleasure from books, but nothing caught between the pages of a book is quite as thrilling as what he may catch between his hunter's net.
“Libraries are Old Houses, Odinson,” sighs, Loki, folding his hands atop his sharp knees. “Old Houses keep good wisdom, and it is right and proper to seek that wisdom out.”
Without asking some pretence at decorum or permission, Thor seat himself in the soft grass betwixt the shaded lees of the towering, shivering scroll shelves. Close enough to feel a little heat curl from the young man's body. Such an odd, proud face, and such a sharp, knowing smile. Even the stone-faced brother is a cipher, a knot Thor cannot untangle. Vanaheim must keep such fine, fair blood in its ancient halls well hidden, for Thor has ne'er met the likes of these high-blooded creatures.
“Old Houses keep great treasures, in equal to their knowledge.” Of what he is truly asking, Loki is well aware. There is the treasure of the mind, and the treasure of the hand, of the war lord whose shadow towers over all but the Norns themselves. Not all are as well versed in subtlety as he, and there is a moment spent in wondering whether or not the aesir will pick out the brighter stitching Loki has sewn into his words.
“Ah,” Thor laughs, plucking aimlessly at the grass beneath his fingers. “My father keeps a great many treasures in the belly of Þyrstrbeitr.”
“Yes,” a little note of amusement colours Loki's answer, “the vault of Odin All-Father is famed throughout the Nine Realms.” And all, each priceless artifact, wrested from a nation thrown down by that Far-Rider and his Thanes. The House of a conquerer is never in want of gifts.
Thor has learned to hear the most delicate of rebukes, and beneath the rune-speaker's sharp tongue lies a sharper note. He cannot imagine what it is that troubles the boy. “Does my father's collection trouble you, Son of Vanaheim?' Only the Hammer has ever mattered to him, and he is in ignorance of much of what lines the walls of Þyrstrbeitr. Mother would be angered by his pointed indifference, but use has always had the upper hand in Thor's mind.
Loki smiles, a thin, brittle bend to his mouth. “Not all treasures may be sealed away in a vault.”
Thor snorts, running a hand through his hair. How often has he heard Odin speak those same words?
“Not all treasures should.” Tis hardly a matter of telling lies, nothing quite so simple, or of wringing answers from an unguarded mind. Any fool with the least sense can do that. No. Tis better by far to plant a spark, to sew a little tongue of fire into an empty space, and watch it grow into a conflagration. A great, burning tower of mistrust, and unanswered questions.
After all, Loki guards his truths as he sews his lies; he doubts that Odin is any different.
Ignorance is the finest of swords: it cuts both victim, and wielder.
“And what do you mean by that?” Thor grins, though there is a tightness to his cheer.
From between the pages of a thick, yellowed tome, Helblindi growls; smoke trapped beneath thin ice. Just how close is the Prince of Jotunheim going to get to that particular truth? Your father stole from us, Aesir, Helblindi wishes to howl. Give it back.
Loki's eyes flash: a little, gleaning reprimand.
Helblindi returns to his book
Picking up the corners of his mouth, Loki adheres his grin with steel. “I mean nothing by it, Aesir.”
Thor lifts an eyebrow, and reaches out to pluck the book from Loki's grasp. He scans the brittle, weathered pages, ignoring the Vanir's protesting hiss, and the shiver it sends up his spine.
Loki grasps at air, and hides his smile with a little frown.
Old tales are Thor's familiar grounds, for he has heard many of them in halls of his father, from the tongues of the honoured dead, from his sister and her sisters, from his mother. Old tales are the meat shared between good companions, the fine mead passed round the cackling fire; he has lived more lives through soaring rimurs than any adventure he might ever have expected to find, as Odin's only son. It is not a difficult text to read, but why a rune-speaker from the sea-swathed halls of Nóatún would care for an old tale of the plunder of the Járnviðr is beyond his ken. What use might this odd, sibilant, honey-tongued mage have for the forgings of giants, or the teeth of valdyr?
The Odinson wears his curiosity so nakedly, and no matter than Loki has invited it, he cannot help but feel a welt of unease crack between his shoulder blades. What sort of creature wears so naked a face? What benefit is there in presenting to the Realms one's utter lack of guile, or the ease with which emotions rule the flesh? A mystery indeed, Loki thinks, as he tips the edge of the book, and watches Thor's gaze greedily devour all those worn grey words.
“If it is adventure you seek,” Thor murmurs, his fingers drifting across the sprawl of page to rest near Hulda's warm fingers, “then the Járnviðr is nigh on the finest one might seek.”
His reward his a wealth of bright laughter, and a wicked, wicked grin.
It is only then that his mind catches up with his mouth, as always. “Wait,” Thor ventures, “surely it is most unwise. Rune-speaker or no, Hulda, there is no means by which to reach the Járnviðr. My father has torn that Realm from the reach of the Bifröst.”
When the brother finally speaks, it is with such a mountain of voice that Thor finds he cannot help but startle, just a little.
“Well then, Aesir, you do not know my brother.”
“Indeed,” is Loki's measured reply, and in his jealous-green eyes, Thor cannot catch his breath.
~ * ~
“No, brother, it is madness!” With no better target for his rage, it is a delicate, blameless copse of brambles he has smashed, the scent of seidr heavy in the back of his throat. A little sparrow, beak open in song, falls from the shattered brambles and lies insensate on the white earth, its ice-sharp wings gleaming in the light of the eldingstjarna like fire. Helblindi stares at the tiny not-bird and feels a bitter lance through his guts, a sour omen dancing on the wind. “You cannot bring him here, to play some clever little game of your design.”
“Why not?” Loki puts forth. He plucks a nub of pink salt from his bowl, and cracks it between his fangs; the noise, oh the noise makes his dear brother flinch. “Do you doubt I have wit and guile enough to string along that tender-hearted fool about like a snow-ox?”
Helblindi does his utmost to keep his shoulders unbent, though his feet have a mind of their own, and he is as restless as a beast in a little, thorny cage. Turn one way, speak one truth, and he has insulted and belittled his Prince, turn down another path, and he has betrayed their father, their King. No good may come from a game in which all stand to lose, no matter the outcome.
“Brother,” says Loki, careful to sew just enough hurt into his voice to make Helblindi cease his restless, vicious pacing – it is beginning to make him nauseous, all this fear and anxiety beneath the bowers of his not-garden. Seidr drinks down emotions as earth devours water, and what grows here should not be fed by fear, by pain. The tangles here are thick enough, and watered well by other means. “This is no different than our first ride to Útgarð, nor to the heart beneath Harvetrtjald.”
At Loki's words, Helblindi stills; the garden is so quiet, so full of animal sounds that will never fly from throats of ice, nor wind that sighs through brittle branches. He cannot imagine this place gone, smashed, left to grow, left to sour. Tis so very hard to live with all this fear, all this terror.
“Helblindi, we have conquered Naŕþengill!” And the joy in his voice is vicious in its brightness, savage and proud, and as fresh as the day they both drew first blood. To cradle a warm heart in one's hand is not a memory that may be dulled by Time. “We brought back our old ones' voices,” Loki recounts, fire in the reach of his voice, pride in the tilt of his lips, “we have seen from the plains of Thrym to the dragon-toothed shore of the Titan's Steps, to the Cradle of the Dýr himself!”
“We can lead one Aesir prince astray,” Helblindi finishes.
This time, Helblindi will not not be satisfied with small answers, with little threads to puzzle out of Loki's knotted intentions. “Aye, aye brother, but I will not be kept in the dark this time. If we are to succeed, you must tell me everything.”
From the set of his face, and the height of his shadow falling across him, Loki knows that there is no give in his brother this time. This time it must be honesty. Damn. “I play a long game, my sword, are you sure you wish to know exactly where we are going?”
Loki is given his brother's answer in a singular, keening ululation, a high note of plains scoured by wind, and the beat of wolves over shattered white earth. A red, wide grin full of their particular history, and all that need not be said between their shadows.
“Come with me to the forges.”
The princes of the First House of Jotunheim leave the shaded bowers of ice and little wings caught mid-flight, and race down and down, through rooms that roar like oceans, and halls that sing like mourners washed in the heat of pyre. Labyrinths as old as Jotunheim herself, and as familiar as their own Lines. They pass the great Titan doors of their father's war room, and the long, long shadow of the Throne only one of them will sit upon, one day far distant from this moment.
They do not think, as they race, that they cannot move a Realm from its orbit, that they can shift neither the branches, nor the roots, nor even the leaves. Some orbits were set long before either Prince was given breath, and will endure long after they have both gone down to the mighty House beneath the Dyr's Cradle. Some things must run their course, and it is only in the little, fragile details that there is any difference.
Loki will always remember, this was the hardest of lessons to learn.
The forges are quite on this rising, with only a few carts of iron tithes, quartzite tiles, and other building materials to be sent out neath the next face of the green-ringed moon. Loki knows which forge-master he is looking for: the same that crafted the beast wrapped round his neck. It is a gift, of sorts, that the Odinson cannot see the trophy Loki wears, for how can a son not see the likeness: thunderous blue skies, washed clean of humility. Dead flesh or not, the eye has never quite lost its power.
“Master Ulfr, are you within?” Loki summons, noting the long, chitinous shadow that paints itself upon the high walls; the heat makes his skin itch, but there is no green breeze, no clear skies, to alleviate the oppression. How do the forge-masters bear such unkind environs? For Need, and the will of the King, he supposes.
“Aye, First Son, I am within,” comes the rumble of Ulfr's reply. Many risings have passed since first the rune-tongued blade had ventured down into Harvetrtjald's warren of smelters, forges and crafting tables, and now it is a strange echo, to kneel before this boy who is not a child, who has never been a child. To see the second Prince is no shock.
Both have grown; so much like the great spires of Winter's High House, so much like the King, and yet not; Ulfr cannot help but feel the touch of age upon his brow. “What need brings you here, my Prince?” To work the forges is to be half mad in the first place, and it is never without purpose that one would venture into such heat.
“Forgemaster, I need a spear.” Such is the note of command on his tongue, Ulfr can only offer an bowing of neck in reply; Loki is unsurprised, not no less pleased.
“And what, First Son, is the purpose of this spear?”
A frown cuts Loki's sharp grin in twain, an unruly irritation colouring his gaze. “Of what concern is my need to you, Flame-Worker?”
“All weapons must have a purpose, or they are merely tools, as with the lives we gather to us, so must a weapon have something to define its existence.”
For the smallest of moments, Loki thinks of Helblindi; Angrboða had said much the same, when first he had brought the crude shape of this design to the Naŕþengill. No matter the glint of disbelief, of insolence ever in his eyes, Loki needed a creature as capable of the red, binding tongue of seidr as he, and Angrboða is unmatched.
Prince, this is madness.
Oh come now, King of Corpses, surely you are not so cowed by the boot of the Aesir that you cannot see the merit in this scheme?
Tis not that it lacks merit, Laufeyson, tis that it lacks reason! Little stands between you and failure, and the cost of that failure would be the end of this Realm. Your father...
My father is not a fool, nor is he a King who knows not what his sons do in his Name. He allows me my freedom for no less than this reason: I will move worlds, to preserve this one, even unto the ruin of others.
And you believe the Golden Realm will take pity on a rune-tongued child's desperate weavings?
No. But the Odinson is little more than a child himself. Children are malleable, and I intend to twist, to bend. After all, a father's love is the greatest of motivators, and the greatest of deceivers.
And what a fine dragon you have become.
Such a fierce, high-handed pride had Angrboða's words; their steel pushed betwix the bones of Loki's chest, and made for themselves a fine, red mess.
“First-Son?” Ulfr ventures forth, the height of his audience giving him pause; it is, and always shall be, unwise to interrupt princes.
Loki blinks, and the world comes rushing back in, the roar of furnaces and the graceless lurching of his pulse overloud in the silence. “The weapon has a purpose, Forge-master,” he pronounces, a show of teeth to accompany the flourish of a scroll being rolled out. Loki would not be without a little show, even if only for his own amusement. “All that I need from thee is a clarification.”
Ulfr remains quiet; tis no great stretch of the mind to catch the hard, glinting shiver of his Prince's particular breed of pride, and that is never without some danger.
“I have designed this to be...”
In the silence, in that tiny, fractious moment between the Prince's words and Ulfr's understanding, there is a bright bolt of fear; he touches upon the curling parchment, soft as ox wool between the scarred pads of his fingers, and knows that no matter Loki Laufeyson's hand in this monstrosity it is Naŕþengill Angrboða who has given this thing its true intent, and terrible shape.
“Greedy,” Ulfr finishes, his breath a sodden red mass beneath his tongue. “You wish this weapon to leech, to devour, to glean flesh from bone, and soul from breath.”
Only a King of Corpses could scrawl such a thing into existence. When the Prince raises his chin, Ulfr nearly shies from the golden webs refracting in the sour orange light of his forges: King Laufey chose well when he set such age-rings upon his son's horns. Yet the master smith cannot help but think how few are those rings, when stacked against such cruelty as displayed across this fine, bone white parchment.
And yet, and yet this is no Realm for kindness. That age died a bitter death long, long ago; he himself had watched it die long, long ago. All such grief is irrelevant, and does nothing to amend the situation, regardless of what he remembers, and what he chooses to forget.
There is a strange distance crowding in Master Ulfr's grim gaze and Loki cares not for the greater implications; he knows the jotun is old, as old as the Naŕþengill and the remaining heads of the Old Houses, the rings upon his horns tell him so. If Loki cared to make an honest reckoning, he might find a handful more rings upon those horns than upon his own father's.
“I have a goal, Forge-master. I have a task that stretches across worlds, and I need a weapon that can feed that task as well as the Dýr of the Deep feeds in the darkness of our oceans.” The words are lit with an ugly sort of joy, as if they have been living neath his tongue for so long they are well soaked in the unspeakable secrets the first prince keeps sewn to his chest. “Greed is a creature that touches all who dwell in these Realms. Not even the dead can escape its teeth.”
Of course it would be wise to simply bend his neck and acquiesce to his prince's choice, but age buys much in the realms of cold and patient ice, and Ulfr knows that greed is the last, the very last force that any should want to drive their actions.
But he has chosen fire and heat and the steady drip of molten metal over black iron, has chosen to bring no breathing child into this thickly shadowed hall, and he cannot gainsay the one who brought his sire's shade back to the dark slab upon which Ulfr places each morning's offerings of bones and glistening fat.
“Greed cuts both ways, my Prince,” is the entirety of what he dares reprove.
“I am well aware,” Loki challenges, and raps his knuckles on the soft parchment between he and Ulfr. “Think of it as a reminder, Forge-master. As a failsafe.”
Ulfr glances up, and even the second prince looks at his brother as if he were mad. There is no guarding against greed, against the avarice of that particular dragon which dwells in all creatures, regardless of life or hearth or station or realm. You cannot draw out a poison that has rooted in your bones since your first breath. Helblindi shakes his head, and the silvered peal of his beads cuts up the silence into manageable segments of inaction; Ulfr wonders if perhaps the second Laufeyson would speak differently, or perhaps speak at all, were he alone in the warren of the forges. He doubts the younger prince could be so utterly devoid of opinion.
No one speaks, not even the shades.
“If this is what you desire,” speaks the forge-master, “then I shall give it to thee, First Prince. But there are things I need, things that cannot be got from a well-kept treasury, nor traded upon the glittering of some rare luxury.”
“I know the roads to every Realm strung upon Yggdrasil's branches,” Loki reprimands, fingers curling in the sooty lines of the spear's outline. “You shall have what you need, no matter how distant.”
The Flame-Worker sighs, a shearing of ice touched suddenly by heat, and bows his head over the sheaf of parchment, studying the vicious lines, the violent curves of cutting edges, and knows he'll regret this making. “I need wood and iron.”
“Wood and iron?” Helblindi frowns. “We have that.”
“No, it cannot be just any wood, any scrap of iron.”
Standing between the two mighty shadows, Loki begins to laugh, and laugh and laugh. He puts his hands on his knees, bends his frame and touches his horns to the earth, and laughs.
~ * ~
A little voice is whispering beneath his white ribs, a little darkling voice, green as fresh young vines sprung from wet earth. Today, it whispers. Today. Standing at the cusp of a wide, sighing plane of lovingly tended Vanir farm land, Thor hears the voice again, twined through the sharp, heated drag of his breath against his tongue.
Not a soul in Asgard knows he stands here now. Not one.
The sky above is thunderously clear, a vault of scathing blue neath the sun's bright anvil; Thor hear the insects hum, and catches a welt of laughter drifting down upon the tumid wind.
“I see you are not as cautious as I had presumed,” Hulda smiles, a great show of teeth not meant to impart comfort, and knocks his staff against the hard-packed earth. Ulfr had been so kind as to dress up Gridavolr in the best of disguises, and Loki has no fear of the Odinson turning wise to their little adventure. Foolish golden creature, he thinks. “Your father...”
“Has little to do with my choices, Hulda.” Thor interrupts with a forceful note, his gaze turning dark as a blot of iron banded clouds. Whatever mirth he had felt in that moment fades with a little breath of anger. Always, always is it that he walks beneath his father's skies, his father's hands; no place in these Realms is free of Odin's mighty tread, no place save one.
Loki lifts a brow, a sharp question held in his bitterly green eyes. No doubt this is truly what the Odinson believes – and it will be the height of pleasure to strip this foolishness from the golden son of Asgard. To slice away the falsehoods, the clever quirks of duplicitous tongues, the concessions made for treaty, for pride, for peace, all to plant newer, subtler shapes that make a mockery of what grew before: this universe is wicked, and cruel, and there are no exceptions to this rule. Asgard has forgotten that rule. One cannot always be good, one cannot always be just, and it is high time Thor Odinson learned what is the true shape of the nation he calls home and hearth. As with all things, one must learn to accept ugliness in the same breath as one accepts beauty.
Loki will teach Thor how to read the true face of Asgard, and in the end, when Odin rides down upon Jotunheim, Thor will be a clear eyed snake in abeyance of a thoughtless, golden Prince.
Silence slips between them, replete with the ringing noonday song of Vanaheim, and Thor notices that one is absent: the eagle-eyed tower of a brother Hulda is never without.
“Where is your brother, green-eyed shade?” He questions, the sudden rumble of his voice snapping Hulda from some private thought whose thread he cannot parse.
“I am here, aesir,” comes a stony reply, followed by the noise of feet against dirt, and the sharp chiming of a sword in its scabbard.
“If you have such a profound dislike of my people, why keep company with me at all?” Though it is not meant to seem little more than an after-thought, Thor adds, rather bluntly: “I would not harm your brother, if that is what you fear.”
Laughter is the only reply that Helblindi can summon up, but it is not so much a bolt of mirth as a quiet hiss between sharpening teeth. “My brother can protect himself, aesir. He has never had any real need of my breed of violence.” Somewhere behind the bright crackling of amusement there is an equally polished threat, strung between the two princes by the thinnest of threads. “We are not to be parted, it is as simple as that.”
Unbidden, an image of his sister – red mouthed and copper dusted from her sparing in the ring – pushed itself to the fore of this thoughts. For a moment, Thor chooses to keep his peace, and thinks upon how vastly different this joinder in the road would be, had there been nothing but years separating he and Skuld. Young or not, Thor has known, and still can trace all the many year it had taken his mother to best those unexpected wounds. The nine daughters of Odin are his sisters, and there would always be love in his heart for each of them – but the shadows that haunted his mother's proud fae are hard to forget. Though time is a great forgiver of wrongs not your own.
“That is as it should be,” Thor offers back, searching out those vicious, shaded eyes; when he meets that calm, far-flung gaze, he is gladdened to see that strange, bitter fire burn a little gentler, if only for a moment.
“Come brother, Odinson, it is high time we departed,” Loki interrupts, an unwelcome stone of nervousness burning in the pit of his belly. Such a thing almost pushes a smile upon his lips; it has been some time since he felt the keen blade of fear, and it is a welcome reminder of one thing: he has the power to do this, the force to reach beyond his own realm and grasp. No matter the outcome, no matter how red the consequences, he is prepared.
When his father had returned home from the war with Jotunheim, Thor had been young, truly young, and all the more awed by the All-Father's triumph. It takes but a little push, and he is washed in the hard-edged golden revelry that swept through Asgard's bitingly hollow courtyards and hearths. He remembers, so clearly it comes weighted with the strength of scent, how his father had borne back to his own brightly-burning hearth the sour, stinging traces of the mighty act of cutting a realm from the branches of Yggdrasil. Yet here stands a green-eyed child of the greener earth, confidently telling him that it is no trouble at all to make a mockery of that memory which holds in Thor's mind with such an unexpected force.
Jotunheim has not known the touch of Bifröst in nearly ten ages, ten unbroken ages where no soul in all the Realms has seen, heard, or had dealings with the jotun, the terrible creatures of ice and bitter winter winds. And, no matter its true origin, neither has the Járnviðr. To defy the All-Father and his workings, with a rune-tongued Vanir and his brother as his guides, would be the height of offence, and a bold declaration of his ascent unto the rank which he will one day hold: future Lord of the Golden Halls.
If he could not make war upon the Cold Realm, he would leave his mark across Jotunheim's white continent in another manner.
Seeking out Hulda's gaze, Thor turned form the long shadow of the lone tree to meet a wide, endless sea of autumn browned grass; Vanaheim shall always be a place of good, green memories to him, and the sight of this ocean of shivering grass is another he will carry away from this day.
“How shall we break the All-Father's decree?”
“Ah,” Loki trills in reply, offering up a grin replete with a fearsome, naked pride. “Odinson, that is half the fun.”
“Is it?” Thor returned, walking with the wind, and Hulda's silent brother, at his back.
“Do you remember when you first set foot on Vanaheim's shores?” Loki does not have a love for the many questions on his tongue, but trust is a delicate thing, and he has only so much time.
Thor's brow furrows, thoughts flying back upon salt-ladden wings: he and his shield companions stood upon a burning white shore, a sea fit enough to dye a King's robe resplendent eating up the great sprawl of a cloudless horizon. “Aye, son of Vanaheim, I do.”
“You saw me in the shadows, in the dark of the forest along that shore.”
Suddenly, Thor laughs, a rolling thunder stripped of its harsher violence. “Have we been chasing one another for so long, Hulda?”
For a moment, Loki's reply sticks in his throat – a bird that will not fly. “You have been seeking me, Odinson.” He lowers his gaze, but does not bend his neck. A thin, think wisp of a smile flits across his lips, a slice of his white teeth in a dark mouth. “It was not my intention to be noticed by you.” A fleeting emotion that bears no name passes through his ribs clean enough to leave no trace. “I have been chasing knowledge.”
Helblindi wants to rolls his eyes to the great vault of the sky; he wants to put his fist through the Odinson's teeth, peel that quiet, bright with promise grin off his pale, too-expressive face. How does anyone on Asgard keep their secrets close to their hearts when their faces carry their intentions like fire through brittle wood? Frustrating, too-warm creatures; he cares little for their sort.
Thor laughs again, a softer sound, and comes to rest at the young man's side; here, the silence is shaped more like quiet. “My mother would like thee very much, scholar,” he offers up. “She is the keeper of a formidable wisdom.”
“Asgard's wealth is her Queen,” Loki murmurs, and he must bite off the half formed questions at their roots. Even the oldest Vanir, well used to the bitter fruit of a war lost a hundred, hundred ages gone, knows much of the Queen of Asgard. Jotunheim has preferred to forget, and has taken to that silence exceedingly well. Loki receives a burning, loving, prideful smile as a reply, and the force of it steals the breath from his throat.
Thor loves his mother.
And it is time to be gone from this place.
“Wisdom is indeed a mighty currency,” Loki begins; he prefers to believe that Thor cannot see the slight shiver in his steps, nor hear the sour roil of nervousness in his voice, “but I would wager none know the Roads I walk.”
“My father knows All.” Thor counters, words falling off his tongue in an ungainly rush. He had not mean to speak, but that singular fact, that immoveable stone, has been the crux of his universe for as long as his memory can reach back.
If there is any truth to be had in all the sprawling limbs of Yggdrasil shade, it is this and this alone: Odin knows all.
A fallow wind soaks up Loki's mirth; laughter mixes with the scent of wheat and wild herbs, and distant salt. There is an unbearable lightness in his chest, and he knows not what to make of the width between his ribs. “I assure you, Prince of Asgard, Harri Hliðskjálfar does not know all.”
A challenge? Thor wonders, watching as Hulda's brother circles round to stand at his sharp-mouthed sibling's back. “Will you be the one to show me, Son of Vanaheim?”A boast is nothing more than that, and Thor has long loved to trade one outrageous claim for another of his own. If this boy believes he knows more than the All-Father, Thor will more than happily disabuse Hulda of such a notion.
Loki feels his lips peel back, tastes the swelter of Vanaheim's winds, and know what a red picture it is he paints: red as a wolf's snout.
Taking in a thin sliver of breath, Loki brings the runes up from the meat of his bones, from the bite of his teeth and the weft of the air – spaces between bursting open under the sweep of his gaze – and Calls. Sleipnir, he croons. Come to me, Child.
Magic is a rare thing in Asgard, kept behind doors and women's hands, but Thor knows its particular taste. His mother's garden drinks deep of more than just rain and sunlight. Seidr creeps across his skin, wraps hot fingers round his heart, sparks on the tip of his tongue.
Without warning, this is a might clap of thunder, a gleaning coruscation gathering atop the wide sea of grass. Above, the sky is cloudless and utterly blank; beneath his feet Thor can feel the earth shivering: there is a pulse in the air, a hammering that is seeping into his blood. A circle of stones flashes in his mind, the weight of his hammer in his hands, red mud on his forearms and a long, thin shadow pressing down upon the earth.
Hulda parts the silence with a curl of his tongue, and the earth peels open like soured fruit. A mass of fractal edges and twisting grey planes rises up from the tear in the earth. Thor flinches, a feeling none too distant from terror stopping up the heady rushing of his blood.
“Sleipnir,” the Vanr summons, and in that Name is a Shape. A horse. Six legs and a frame as grey as the most barren winter's day.
“I – ” Thor stutters, grasping for words like a fool reaching for smoke. “I have not a word to say.”
“Of course not!” Loki chuckles, leaning forward to press his cheek to his child's soft muzzle. Forgive me for inflicting an aesir upon you, dear one, he whispers in Winter's Tongue.
“Tis a horse,” Helblindi barks, sour faced. In all truth, he hopes this is not a fruitless endeavour, that there is great profit to be had from this one singularly outrageous gamble. For all that he loves his brother, Helblindi is no gambler.
“Aye, plainly,” Thor snaps, caution and confusion warring in his brittle tone. “But not a moment before, he was not a horse.”
“No experience with shifting your shape, Prince of Asgard?” comes Helblindi's hooked reply, a spark of silvered mirth burning in his gaze.
Thor snorts, raking a hand through wind-tangled hair; his eyes do not leave the hulking grey beast being pet like child by the Vanr who summoned it here, to this green rolling of grass and sprawling sky.
How strange has this moment turned? He cares not to pick apart his concerns, thinking only of how rare, how curious, is this sight afore him. “No, that breed of magic is frowned upon in the Realm Eternal.”
Helblindi bites his tongue, his shoulders shaking; laughter is often the rarest coin in Jotunheim, and though it is no such thing on Vanaheim's shores, Helblindi knows that his laughter shifting through fragile, illusory Vanir lungs he wears would be too much the stuff of rocks and thunder. Silence is no mean feat, nonetheless.
“In fact, most magic is discouraged in Asgard,” Thor continues, shifting his gaze to find the darkling rune-worker. He would see what this creature thinks of Asgard and her proscriptions. “To know the rune-tongue is to do a woman's work.” Spine wrapped in steel, he awaits whatever answer the boy will deign to give over.
Poison-green eyes roll to the vault of the sky, and, with a face as blank as stone, Loki replies with a flint-edged tongue: “So Asgard values strength of arm over strength of mind?”
Thor cracks open his mouth to growl out a reply, yer the best he can muster is a brittle warning. “That is as close as you may come to calling me a brute, son of Noatun.”
“It is most unwise to put words in my mouth, Odinson.” Long fingers curling into fists, Loki slips the words from the sharpness of his teeth, and it occurs to him that Thor is without censor. There is nothing to stay whatever thought comes flying into that tow-headed idiot's mind, not when pride is the bone over which they are both snarling.
“Peace, the both of you!” Helblindi growls, a long suffering sigh bubbling up in his throat. At this rate, fool and charmer both shall open the other's windpipe afore the day is even half done. “We should be away. Any more of this scraping and those damn ravens will follow us as wolves after blood.”
Loki finds his eyebrows crept nearly to his hairline, mouth bending into a little frown. Thor laughs, bright and burred warm at the edges; the sound set's Loki's teeth on edge.
“That is the most I have ever hear thee speak,” chuckles Thor; his humour has always been easy to recover. Suddenly, he is left grasping at the tail of his words, realising that he has no name to put to the stone-faced sibling who seems to live in his wolfish brother's shadow. Frigga would have his head for such rudness, for he has asked for it no more readily than it has been offered.
“I have never asked your name.” A bold statement, threaded with a shade of apology. It would appear that all those lessons with Asa were not without their use. Save for that feast day he nearly kicked a dwarf into the cooking fire for his obdurate behaviour, Thor has never had much use for courtly graces.
A silence built of a fresh uncertainty winds through the gathered adventurers; meadow sounds roar back to life, and the weight of the dying summer day presses rough fingers into the spaces between their shadows.
With a disorganised twist of his lips, Helblindi offers up: “my name is his.” A stark and undecorated refusal. Loki may be bold enough to dole out little scraps of his true self, but Helblindi is jealous of what is his, and he'll not share even that much of himself.
Thor turns to Hulda and the young Vanir gives a shrug of his fine shoulders, as if to say the argument is not worth the breath expended.
“My brother values his privacy, and the security that comes with a name held close to one's heart.” He catches the Odinson's eyes with a particular steel of his own, and wills the questions to wither on the aesir's tongue.
“Perhaps,” Thor chuckles, moving round to plant himself at the grey horse's withers, near enough to lay his fingers near Hulda's own strange, sleek hands. “When we have come to the end of this venture, one of you will tell me. Few have I met who bear such a devotion to their kin.”
Helblindi flings his gaze from Loki, and the Prince feels his heart clench, an utterly alien chill bleeding into the marrow of his bones; the loss cuts so finely, deep as an spear of ice.
Aye, Odinson, tis all we have.
Loki must force the words out, the questions that will distract Thor form further inserting himself into all that lays between the first and second princes of Jotunheim, lest something more terrible fly out from between his pursed lips.
“Do you have any siblings, Thunderer?” Forcing this unadorned question out has mangled something in Loki's chest, and they are all over red-edged. Perhaps Thor is not so skilled in the art of nuances as he thinks.
The aesir's answer is quick, bright and piercing as the sun above, worn by the gentleness of a well built affection. “Aye, I have nine sisters, though the eldest is my most unwavering companion.” There are many a goodly reason Thor did not bring Skuld down that dusty copper road those few weeks ago, but that does not keep him from wishing the wolf rider were here at his side.
“Ah,” Loki replies, and without permeable, swings himself up upon Sleipnir, motioning for Helblindi to do the same. “That is a surprise indeed. The All-Father keeps a crowded hearth.” His smile is all together too sharp.
Thor sucks in a breath, a certain and wholly unexpected fire wicking up between the splay of his ribs. It has been some time since he has had a true adventure, a journey towards some unknown, alien landscape. He tell himself it is not fear that moves him, but a sudden rushing of excitement.
Helblindi throws himself up behind Loki with a practiced ease, grateful these odd, pink, stunted limbs of his no longer tangle quite so frequently. Wearing a different shape is not so much fun as one might assume.
“Odinson,” calls Loki, motioning for the aesir to come nearer to his side. From Sleipnir's great height, Loki stares down at the warrior Prince, and pulls out from the space between a long swath of red cloth. Thor gazes up at him, a wealth of questions gathering in weedy profusion upon his face.
“Give me your arm,” he commands, a little, poorly felt smile touching not his eyes. He leans down, near enough to feel the discomforting shiver of the aesir's warmth press into his skin. “Your education in the rune-tongue is sadly lacking,” Loki's teeth are sharp, and there is so little breath between he and the son of Odin. “I should amend that.” Thor's eyes are narrow, over-bright, lit with an unfamiliar fire; Loki finds more humour under his tongue, sees well enough what might be hiding in the thunderer's gaze. “Not all magic is to be feared.”
Hulda is so close; Thor gulps in a welt of air, thick with the tumid roil of Vanaheim, and that bitter, burning skein all mages wear upon their skin. The young Vanir paints himself across Thor's senses with no effort of his own. “Tis best to be wary of the unknown,” he grits out, restraint a thin twist of thread worn bare.
“Aye,” Loki laughs, “That is a wise choice.” Slowly, as if Thor were a wild thing with teeth, Loki reaches out and ties the red rope around the aesir's wrist. Without a thought for comfort, he ties the knot enough to bite into skin, smiling all the while. “But then how would we ever learn what moves beyond our own small horizons?”
Thor can find no trace of that quiet, guarded apprentice who walked the cavernous halls of Noatun's ancient library, and he cannot decide whether he is pleased by this turn of events, or oddly bereft. No matter, there is time a plenty afore he must coax this wolfish young Vanir to Asgard – time enough to learn the landscapes of this beguiling creature.
“You think very much like someone I know.” Thor offers up, a tacit acceptance of Hulda's actions.
Thor only grins in return, he does not think the young Vanir would take kindly to knowing his words echoed Odin All-Father. Hulda lifts one finely shaped brow, a shiver of humour on his lips, and only then does Thor notice the red rope has been securely tied round the boy's own wrist as well.
With a click of his tongue, Loki turns from the aesir and falls deep within himself, the runes in his bones shrilling out to the creature beneath him. Sleipnir rears up and Vanaheim dissolves around them, bleeding into spires of shapes and colours that have no place beneath the light of reality.
Rather than ride through the void, out across the eternal trench of Ginnungagap, Loki chooses to simply fall between the realms like so much sand between parted fingers.
Thor feels the void yawn beneath his feet, and suddenly he understands the red cloth tied fast round his wrist. Tis an anchor, and there is nothing more than this binding him to realms of the living, nothing more than Hulda's red thread.
The universe pitches before his eyes: sky and earth, stars and blackness, branches made of roaring nebulae muddying the sprawl of his vision. Bile sours in the back of his throat, and the rope goes taut. In one singular moment, one bare exhalation, the world tree pushes through his bones, its limbs scraping away his innards to fill them with fire and the thunder of nothingness, and in the other there is earth beneath his feet, and a shivering wind against his cheek.
Lungs burning for air, Thor stands in an ungentle darkness, waiting for the world to come creeping back into his sight; the bite of the rope is a comfort unlooked for. His thoughts run together as if they are leaking from a hair-fine crack in his skull: never has the universe been so bare, opened up before his eyes as if it were nothing more than a segment of fruit to share. As if the act of peeling it apart was no more shattering than drawing breath.
Perhaps under Hulda's fine tongue the universe is just that: a thing to be peeled apart. Thor hopes the Vanir does not intend to devour what he has just split open. The thought of that boy's sharp teeth pushes a shiver through Thor's aching bones.
“Welcome, Odinson, to the Járnviðr!” Loki proclaims, his fingers twisting savagely into Sleipnir's mane. Elation creeps up like a sudden flame, wicking between heart and lungs to unfurl in his chest; he cannot keep his teeth behind his lips, a breath of towering pride puts a savage howling in his mouth, silent and all his own to keep. Taking in great gouts of air, he waits for that savage roaming creature that is his baser note of triumph to fade away, as if he is cleaning away the red success of a good hunt.
Thor cracks one eye open, and then the other, impatient for the world to settle back into some semblance of reality. The sight that greets him steals his breath away.
Above his head is a soaring horizon washed in the gentle, abiding hues of early evening, and above even that is a fierce white moon, ringed in a shade of green as vicious as Hulda's own hooded gaze. No words come to his tongue, and the taste of the air is unlike anything he has ever known: wet earth and the rich, sour tang of thickly plaited moss; tundra scrub and mushrooms, white fleshy roots grown to profusion under the great canopy of this tangled sprawl of wood and shade, and quiet.
Thor realises, with a dull twist of alarm, that he cannot see the forest through the tree. Tis as if a mighty hand has swept across this place, each clever finger knotting each branch, each scaly gnarled branch till all was a riotous snarl of aged green and brown, and murky, sulphurous yellow. He watches the sprawl, taking note of al that his reeling mind can process: here, unlike Vanaheim, these trees seem overwrought, grasping at the pale ghost of a vanishing day as if hungry for something they once received in profusion.
“Do you know the story of the Járnviðr, Odinson?” Loki asks, his voice oddly, willfully blank.
Hulda's ringing query startles Thor from his increasingly troubled thoughts, and he stumbles over his reply, each new concern o'er leaping the last in an unbecoming tangle.
“Yes, I know the story.” One of his tutors, a sallow faced scholar from the labyrinthine monolith of Asgard's library had told it to him in a pinched and discomforted tone, as if they whole of the tale were beyond the young Prince's concern.
“This patch of dirt was the first action which drew all Asgard down the Bifröst to war.” There is no need to elaborate upon which war he is referring to – after all, he is not such an insensitive brute as to discuss the conflict that once seethed between his golden realm and Hulda's palace beneath the violet sea storms.
“Aye.” The singular syllable drags across Loki's palette, catching on the rage he holds between his teeth with a fearsome determination. Now is not the time for anger, but a little education is never harmful.
“Yes this place was what began the war between Asgard and Jotunheim. Farbauti made motions, centuries before that moment, in the belief that all wild things made by the blood of Yimr should reside in the same Realm.”
Thor pivots around to stare at the Vanir, watching as the young man climbs down from the creature he is sure is only pretending to be a horse. Only when the boy's feet touch the moss laden earth does Thor feel a gentle tug upon his wrist: he and Hulda are still bound by that red rope, a note of surprise wells up in his chest, strangely warm round the edges.
Distantly, distinctly, Loki knows he is still tethered to the aesir, but he finds in himself a certain species of hesitation – the golden son of Asgard is always warm to the touch, and even in this Vanir skin it is a prickling discomfort to lay hands on the Odinson for longer than a fleeting moment. He does not care to examine this disconnect further; with steady fingers he unties the knot linking his shape to Thor's. The cloth is cold to the touch, heavy with the weight of seidr only just beginning to slip back into the spaces from which it had been called forth.
Loki makes a noise in the back of his throat, and Thor's brightly burnished eyes meet his, a mote of uncertainty marring the clear stretch of blue.
Hulda's gaze moves down to the red knot tied firm round his wrist, and for a moment Thor is unsure what is being asked of him.
“You must untie the rope with your own hands, Odinson,” is offered up, a little breath of humour invading the hard set of Loki's lips, softening the shade of anxiety colouring his gaze.
“Why?” Thor questions, fingers curling over the well tied binding. By all appearances, his question is most poorly felt, and Hulda heaves a great sigh, as if he is about to explain something terribly, obviously simple to a child.
“This binds you and I together.”
Thor lifts one brown, a singular bark of laughter bubbling up in the confines of his chest. He finds a familiar grin creeping across his features. Eyes turning bright as the Further Sea. “Does it now, little starling?”
The young, towering shadow of Hulda's brother draws nearer, and Thor is struck by how very much the boy moves like a shadow, like a beast of the darker waters. Silent and full of fine, cutting teeth.
“You cannot travel the roads between on your own power,” Loki replies, stalking nearer, a wolf come to a strange fire. “Without this,” he gives the rope a hard tug, “you would have floundered in the dark, and the beasts that roam the violence of Ginungaggap would have caught you up in their teeth.”
I could drag him home to Asgard by this thread. Thor muses to himself, but a little of his wondering must have crept to his eyes, for Hulda gives a throaty growl, and there is an answering fire in those viper-green eyes. Forthwith he regrets his notions; his mother's unadorned cautions push to the fore of his tangled thoughts.
Do not bring him here in chains, my son. Let him come here to our halls because it pleases him to do so.
A long shadow falls over Hulda, and there is again the viciousness of an eagle striking amongst lesser creatures in that boy's yellow gaze.
With a steady hand, Thor undoes the knot and walks till he has coiled the length of red thread in Hulda's open hands.
Loki is shamefully, wretchedly grateful for the immoveable wight of Helblindi's hand laid against the sharp valley between his shoulder blades. Here, neath the ungentle gleaming of the green-ringed moon has Loki brought a creature of the Realm Eternal. Here, to Jotunheim, has he lead the son of Odin Ginnarr, the only Prince of Harri Hliðskjálfar, Lord of the Gallows. Not in nearly ten ages has a warm-blooded, pink skinned aesir tread upon the earth of Winter, and the shock of his triumph pierces Loki cleanly; pride is a stone that cuts, and his cuts deep, true.
“Ready to see the Iron Forest, Odinson?” Is murmured into the little space between he and the aesir. “They say King Laufey's rune-workers bent Yggdrasil itself to bring this land here, and even now there are places where the world of Men bleeds into the realm of the Jotun.” Loki says, careful to watch, to gauge how much of his speech is old news, or fresh knowledge. He tucks the red rope into a pouch on his belt, and motions for his staff, pulling it from the grasp of the Nameless Road they had all just travelled down.
“Truly?” Thor wonders, a far from subtle disbelief touching upon his features. “My tutors made sure I knew in detail what caused the War, Hulda, but I was not taught why, or how.” Gesturing to the gnarled sea of trees, to the fading light pushing through creeping sheaves of hanging moss and spiralling branches. “Why would a king risk so much for such a...” Thor searches for the right word; this place puts the heady heat of caution against his spine, and he cannot shake the sensation of too many eyes tracking across his skin. “Such a violent landscape?”
Turning his attention to the Járnviðr, Loki nearly cleaves his tongue in two, sour copper stinging the back of his throat. He knows the answer, oh does he know that answer, but that knowledge lies in no book in all the Nine Realms, well beyond the reach of red-tongued, green-eyed Hulda Sea Son.
Only a child of Laufey-King would know why there is a great horizon of trees, of monsters and rootless lakes hailing from Midgard here upon such cold and inhospitable shores.
“If there was a reason, Odinson, no Vanir knows it, and I have found no trace in any tome I have ever read.” Words chosen as carefully as red-edged runes, Loki considers speaking the truth of Laufey's choice to the aesir, but when that particular blade is in his hands, he desires to be certain of its edge. Thor's understanding of the Realms is built atop soft sand, and there needs be a greater length of weathering afore Loki chooses to knock the golden son from his high perch.
“Aye,” snorts Thor, a wry grin lighting up his face, “tis not often that the motivations of such savage creatures are clear to those with some reason in their heads.”
The wind blows sudden and sharp, carrying in its bite the familiar burn of salt, and the roil of black waters. Loki raises a silent, sibilant paean to the dead titans of Jotunheim, and begs Helblindi has learned an iron-boned control. Were it not for his oath, Loki is well certain that Thor would be drawing breath through a clean red gash across his throat; Helblindi has quite the talent with his blade arm.
“Reason has little bearing on the choices of Kings,” mutters Loki, white teeth sharp against drawn lips.
Thor scents another argument on the salt-ridden wind; he knows the wise men of Asgard think him brash, a hot-headed pup with the bite of a young berserker, but Thor has nine sisters – when to shut his mouth had been his first, and roughest lesson.
A moment passes, wherein all the words are eaten up by the landscape, and the sinuous howl of the wind through twisted branches. Such a wild place they have come to, such a stretch of dark earth washed in seidr, and old, festering wounds. Thor feels as if his skin is stretched too tightly across his bones, an alien taste coating his tongue; at least Alfheim had the comfort of a true sun, and the beauty of its people to distract him from the lurching oddness of its horizons. The Járnviðr has none of these things, and he cannot bear to think how strange is Jotunheim in comparison.
“Have those books of yours imparted the secret of our destination, Hulda?” He is unsure how wide these lands sprawl, but cannot think horses find this place a good land in which to roam.
“Of course,” Loki replies, drawing away from the Odinson. These trees are alive, as the trees that shift and sway across Vanaheim are alive. He lays a hand upon the nearest one, bare feet rasping against prickling moss and rough bark.
A sudden bark of laughter fills his chest, and Loki croons in a silent tongue: the trees drink seidr as readily as they do water.
Thor lifts an eyebrow, Tilkváma swaying on its cord. Helblindi moves through the dense crush with only half Loki's easy, thoughtless grace, a question on his lips.
“This Ironwood is savage and old, but it remembers. Seidr moved it, and seidr stirs it still,” Loki whispers, fingers gliding and eyes roaming. Glancing over his shoulder, he smiles wide and feral, “a home for wolves and giants: children of the first wilderness before Time and Order. Made by Father Ymir's blood.”
“I think my tutors left that bit out of my lessons, Hulda.” Thor laughs, young thunder overloud in the darkling snarl of wood and gloaming light.
“Can you hear them, Odinson?” Loki says. “The trees, the wind, the earth. Each has such a roaring to them, I cannot imagine you are insensate.”
“Hie,” Thor mouths back, feeling Tilkváma sway on its cord. “I am a warrior of Asgard. We are taught the song of metal, of steel and fire, and intent. I know little of green things, or of the rune-tongue that seems to make such things all the greener for its singing.”
Helblindi snorts, lowering his shoulders to push aside a great tree limb, thick with moss and groaning with age; Loki covers his derision with a wide grin, shaking his head. The motion tosses great spools of green refraction about, a careless riot of seidr-touched green against a landscape of muted browns and soured light.
“Perhaps,” he begins, tongue caught between his teeth, “you should consider listening. The music of a place such as this is not something one wishes to overlook. Tis part of the adventure,” Loki barks, laughter finally winning out over better sense. “Do you not have forests upon the shores of the Realm Eternal?” He adds, though the question is soft at the edges, as if it is only an after-thought.
“We have forests,” Thor sighs, a dozen memories and more crowding over him in a rush of racing hooves and baying dogs, the slap of steel and arrow shafts, and the pungent perfume of smoke and roasting meat. “We have great tracts of wild woods, and a hundred breeds of wild things to hunt within, but it is for sport, and training, not for an idle walk. We keep gardens as large as forests for that activity.”
Loki is plain astonished. “Do you pen everything in, aesir?”
Thor frowns, and with a bright, disorganised smile replies: “No, not everything.” The answer is yes, of course, but he would have it be no, for the boy's sake. If there is one thing Thor has begun to understand about the Vanir, it is how much he prizes the wilderness, the wildness of his own freedom. Put a forest-born bird in a cage, and surely it shall sicken an die. Thor does not want a broken, penned in creature on his hands.
Helblindi snorts, coming to stand in Loki's narrow shade. Where to, my Prince, say his eyes, arms loose and mouth bright with mirth.
“Odinson,” Loki calls. “Have you any knowledge of wolves?”
“Aye.” Thor speaks, stepping cautiously over the forest bed; it would be most embarrassing to let one of these gnarled, wicked looking trees trip him up. “My sisters are the Nine Valkryja, and they carry the souls of the brave in their wolf's jaws, to the halls of my father.”
“Good,” Loki replies, shrugging out of the thin slate-grey cloak to lay it across the arms of the tree he has just twisted his way through. “This is the hearth of all wolf-clans, and here they do grow large and savage in their isolation. It shall be fun to give chase: a worthy challenge, do you think?”
“Catch them?” Shock wars with naked delight, and Thor finds his cheeks stinging with the force of his grin. “How large do these wolves grow, Hulda? I have fought bilgesnipe, I have hunted trolls under Midgard's skies, and svartálfar in the dark realm, even the sons of Múspell have I tangled with in circles of combat. I like a challenge.”
“They put my horse to shame.”
Thor laughs in response, a resplendent fire caught in endless blue eyes; he grins, white teeth gleaming, and shakes his golden head. “I enjoy hunting the hunters, there is much to be said about the satisfaction of surviving a creature intelligent enough to know to crack your bones where it matters.”
Loki rolls his eyes and crosses his arms. “We are not hunting them to shed their blood, Odinson.” Thor frowns, and Loki again feels the bite of irritation. “We are hunting them to tame them, to ride them into the heart of the Járnviðr afore the moon above us gives up one of its faces.” When no reply comes, Loki spares a moment to wonder if the Odinson has some how swallowed his own tongue.
“Now, now,” Loki laughs, sudden and sharp, “I thought you were the Golden Prince of Asgard, the young lion. Are you, perhaps, afraid?”
The young, golden prince rolls his eyes skyward and snarls as fiercely as any lion ought. “No, Sea-Son, I am not afraid.” He puts a little force into the sway of his step towards the boy, and the dying light catches upon the surface of Tilkváma, spinning silver webs round Hulda's feet like the fine thread his mother uses to weave stars into her finer dresses. Sometimes it is best to let one's intent go unspoken, to give it over in action rather than awkward words. “It is simply that I was not expecting you to ask me to tame a feral beast, Hulda. Wolves make quick work of much that creeps through a shaded forest.”
Loki shrugs, rolls his shoulders with an effortless air of disinterest, and thinks, briefly, of telling the Thunderer that he has cut hearts from ancient chests, and pressed those same hearts deep into thick, black earth; that he has lain down to sleep with a beast far more terrible than a wolf, and learned from him the secrets of replacing one skeletal shape with another. He would do it, if for no other reason than to watch the Odinson battle with his full-hearted, unchecked emotions. Loki imagines, with dizzying clarity, that Thor would be the finest picture of disbelief and horror Loki has ever had the pleasure of observing.
Heat creeps upon him, touches at the edge of his senses; Thor has drawn close, closer than Loki is wont to permit him, and together they are both staring into the tangled, distant reaches of the Járnviðr as if a fall of honey'd light through thick branches will offer up what each is searching for.
“Brother,” comes from behind, and Loki lifts his chin high: fear and wonder, pride and old, old vengeance unfurl with such crushing strength that he can do aught but drown, sink under the roil with no thought for air or relief. He gives himself a moment to drown. Only a moment.
“Come now!” Loki speaks, and his voice is as fine and sure as a little knife's blue edge. “Let us find some wild thing beneath this Ironwood, and make of him a friend.”
Thor nods, a grin cracking apart his features, and finds he is pulled inexorably onward as Hulda darts out ahead, black hair flying behind like a battle standard. The instinct is old and true: a hundred hundred summer days, a thousand days of brightly-burning sun above, and the clarion music of his sisters and his friends racing through green woods and golden fields, through halls high and heavy with gilt light, through copper dirt rings and wide, white beaches. Like a bird, Thor's heart races in his chest, races out to meet the coming stars and the chill in the wind that takes a strip from his skin.
“It has been a long, long time since I have felt so alive,” Thor shouts into the wind, heedless, reckless, and utterly unconcerned with the consequences. Beside him, Hulda crows, a burst of wild, green-crowned joy, and behind the eagle-eyed brother laughs, a great peal of laughter fit enough to shame a mountain.
In this moment, all the world is good and golden and true; in this moment there are no shadows.
If this is augury of what is yet to come, Thor can only imagine how grand a thread the Norns have laid out for him, and for this young, wild creature racing beside him.
Thor cannot help but wonder just how grand shall this tale be?
We defy augury.
There’s a special providence in the fall of a sparrow.
If it be now, ’tis not to come.
If it be not to come, it will be now.
If it be not now, yet it will come—the readiness is all.
Since no man of aught he leaves knows, what is’t to leave betimes?
Hamlet, act 5, sc. 2, l. 219-22.