You very nearly choke on Astrid’s blood. You hit the artery so you get a face full of it, so much it drowns you. Astrid goes rigid above you, her hands dislodge from your neck and reach for her own. She’s gurgling, strangling but you roll out from underneath her and away, retching as you try to breathe air instead of her hot and sticky blood.
You dry heave, you spit up, your blood and hers. Fear makes you turn to face your opponent, to assess if the threat remains. But Astrid lies in the dirt, hands weakening as they try to pull a knife out of her neck. Then they stop.
When was the last time you took a life?
Ok so those bandits don't count, they were trying to kill you.
Astrid was too.
But she's somehow different. She feels different. Killing her feels wrong, and for however much your heart knows you did the right thing, you don't feel that you did.
She made a mistake. Why was her life the consequence? You’ve made fatal mistakes and lived through them, why couldn’t she? You tried, you know you tried everything to stop this from getting this far.
But looking at her body in the dirt--
You didn't try hard enough.
You should have never accepted this. Should have never let your damnable pride override your reason. You're older, (somewhat) smarter. More to the point you've seen war, you've fought, you've watched loved ones die, and you've taken loved ones from others. Made many a widow and orphan. Nameless and faceless, you've cut them down all the same.
Astrid was not nameless nor was she faceless, but you still cut her down.
You could have stopped this before it began. You should have.
Odin was right, you're a damn fool.
You scream as the crowd screams. You wail, tears mixing with the blood on your face, streaking messy lines down from your eyes, painting on you a ghoulish mask of suffering. You don't know what to feel, ripped into tiny pieces of relief, shame, guilt, joy, and pain.
Priests appear, they try to lift you from the ground, heralding your victory.
"Get off me! Get off! Let go! Don't touch me!"
Odin releases him, suspecting nothing of the clandestine magical trickery between his wife and son. The Allfather suspends his magic the moment the priests declare your victory.
“Go.” He tells him, as if Loki would wait for the permission. His voice is devoid of anger and tinged with what would sound like shame if Loki remained long enough to hear it.
But the minute the magic shackles on him are released, he blinks out of existence and reappears inside the ring.
They reach for you, unfamiliar arms grabbing you, hands curled like claws for an attack.
"Let her go!"
And they cease.
There are thousands of people in this arena, including his mother and his father and his brother and a woman who looks like a friend but is far from it. You both make them all watch, no damns spared or cares given, you make them watch as you launch yourself into his open arms.
Nothing is forgotten, nothing melts away. Thousands of people are still watching and yelling and cheering, (some of them sighing happily or wistfully but those noises get lost in the din). They are still there watching you both, but they don't matter, buzzing insects on a hot summer day, the background noise to the magic of you two together again.
"Stop shaking," He tells you, imperiously, commanding it away like his words contain the power to do so. "I'm here."
"You cheated." You reply, stammering from behind a shaking jaw. There's more you want to say, need to, but that's the first thing you can think of. That dagger in your hand was nothing but his magic.
"What did I tell you Princess?" He lifts your chin out of his shoulder, thousands still watching. "Not every fight is fair."
"No. Be quiet. You would have died in this fight, and I would break every rule, forswear every vow in these realms to prevent that. Now come, you’re a mess.”
"My Lord." One of those wistful sighs came from a priest, inching closer to eavesdrop for juicy gossip later with the temple virgins, but something makes him break his silence.
Loki’s half-turned, walking away, you sheltered in the arc of his arm around your shoulder.
“My Lord! Wait!”
“Speak again and I'll --”
“The Lady Astrid! She’s…”
Both of you, both defensive, ready to begin the fight again but...it’s not Astrid you’d fight.
The body in the dirt stretches, elongates. The bones in the legs pop when knees displace, shifting lower as the thighs and calves lengthen, the greaves filling out to proper proportions. The chest swells, big enough to fit the breastplate strapped to it like it was indeed smithy made. Thin willowy limbs thicken into arms that have held swords and killed men before. Astrid’s fine features harden, then change completely.
Into someone decidedly not Astrid.
“That’s the instructor.” Loki recognizes the face that stares glassy eyed into the sky, unseeing, as her blood pools and dries around her neck. “The one teaching Astrid how to fight.”
“Treason! Treachery!” An elder priest shouts. “Seize everyone! Have them brought before the king!”
The priests don’t wait, nor do the soldiers. His father’s personal guard comes, appearing from thin air, Heimdall at their head, ready to escort you to the foot of the King’s throne. He approaches with iron shackles dangling from his hands.
Loki throws an arm in front of you. “Do you plan on making this messy Lord Heimdall? You will not take her.”
“Taking her, my Lord, implies that she will go where you cannot follow. The cry of treason is a serious one. All are called into question so rest assured, you two will not be separated.”
Heimdall reveals a second pair of shackles, golden, a consideration of the prince’s rank.
“Do you plan on making this messy Lord Loki?” Heimdall asks with an unsmiling face, his humor as dry as the dust beneath him.
When the priests called for everyone, they meant everyone. Niti and Se’risa. Thor, Sif, Volstagg, Hogun, Fandral. Lady Ylva. Astrid’s mother and brother. Everyone who had the slimmest hand in or proximity to this duel are brought to the throne room before a seated Frigga and a livid Odin.
You, of course, are shoved to the fore with Loki. And you’re pretty sure Lord Heimdall would have forced you to kneel if not for Frigga.
The Allfather bristles, it’s rare for the Allmother to be so casual for so serious a matter. Her tone sounds like a censure and he takes it as one.
“I see you’re going with the ‘arrest them all and let Fate sort them out’ approach.”
Watch my what?
Odin’s retort dissolves on his tongue, melted away by his wife’s acid stare.
“Fate’s not sorting anything out. I am. Princess.”
He levels his one eyed molten gaze at you. “Explain yourself.”
Frigga’s eyes are sympathetic, soothing. Your injuries feel lessened in her stare, a steady ‘Answer him child’ implicit in her gaze. Loki is unhelpful, glaring at his father. You can’t see Se’risa or Niti and you do not want to look Astrid’s mother in the eye. The woman gains no comfort in knowing that wasn’t her child dead in the dirt, and won’t gain any comfort at all until she’s safe in her arms again.
You are alone, tired, bleeding, and exceedingly done with today. Odin demands an explanation, you give him one.
“You wanted a fight. I fought.”
Half the assembly laughs, none louder than Loki by your side, his contempt for his father dripping from the silver tones of his laughter.
“Indeed!” Odin huffs. He concedes the general point, acknowledging his hardline stance on the idea that you were going to participate in this duel. “But you didn’t kill who you were supposed to.”
“And where is she?” You rattle your iron fetters. “Find her! Put her in chains not me! All I know was that I was fighting for my life when I didn’t think I had to!”
“And why is that? Did you collude with Astrid beforehand? Make this some kind of joke!”
“No. Lord Odin… I…”
“It was me.” A voice comes to your aid, timid and trembling. “Please. Don’t blame the Princess. This is all my fault.”
Ylva. She steps from the crowd, releasing Astrid’s mother’s hand, patting it gently. She submits herself before the monarchs, her bow low and sustained, like a supplicant before gods.
Odin peers down at the Duchess. “You did this?”
Ylva nods turning to you. She wipes her eyes and sniffs. “Princess. I’m so sorry, please. I really, really am. None of this was supposed to happen.”
You don’t know her that well, having only met her twice but both times the Duchess left an impression upon you. She’s a noblewoman without peer, one who seemed the closest to your friendship. Someone who cared.
So her confession hurts. “Ylva...why?”
“Astrid is my friend, and you are too. I just wanted this to end with everybody alive and well but…”
Ylva fidgets, wringing her hands. “I saw Astrid struggling to hold a sword and her mother was in tears about all this. So I thought maybe I could come up with some clever plan to satisfy everyone. That’s why I asked Lord Loki to convince you to make the fight quick and relatively painless. I had no idea she would do this. I...”
“Wait,” Frigga holds up a hand for silence. “What exactly are you confessing to?”
“It was my idea that the Princess fight only to a draw. It was clear Astrid couldn’t hold a sword much less use it. If you two were fighting for real you’d win handily. Astrid knew this too. So she must have convinced Mistress Tarth to stand in for her and cast some kind of spell to disguise Mistress Tarth as herself. That way you'd be convinced you were fighting someone who didn’t know a sword from a kitchen knife, someone you had already been told not to take as a threat.
I tried being clever, I thought I was helping, and…” Ylva stutters, gasping on a moan. “It cost a life, almost two!”
Ylva takes your hands and folds them between your own. “Princess I am so so sorry.”
She knows she plys dangerous waters. The Prince of Lies stands but a few feet from her. A word from him and her Great Game is done. She gives an equally penitent glance to the Prince feeling funny when she does, a mix of irritation and relief. He gives no cares or spares no damns for her or her tearful ‘confession’, his green eyes are firmly fixed upon you . Gauging your reaction, assessing your feelings. It rankles her that you are afforded such attention and she is not. He can’t see through her lies because he doesn’t see her at all.
And neither can you or anyone else for that matter.
One day, she will make them see her.
“She tricked you too then?” Damn Astrid, damn her for this. One life lost and many others damaged and for what?
Ylva nods tearfully, gratefully. “There's nothing I can say to undo what’s been done. And I’m so sorry I had an unwitting hand in your hurt.”
“It’s okay. I forgive you.”
Odin had already sent his scouts and soldiers out to scour the Palace and beyond for the Lady Astrid. You’re unchained with the Allfather’s apologies and dismissed but you’re surprised when you can’t make it out of the throne room before a cadre of troops return with a length of silk tied in a loop and piece of parchment.
--The depths of my shame and deception will be soon discovered. And rather than subject my honored family to such torments, I would rather end my life. I regret the loss of Lady Tarth. I regret the sadness my death will bring my family.
However, I do not regret an ounce of suffering or pain inflicted upon the Traitor. May the Lord Odin in his Wisdom one day see her for what she is and strike her existence from all Nine Realms--
“She was not hard to find. In her room.” Heimdall lays the cord of silk at Odin’s feet and says nothing more.
Astrid’s mother floods the chamber with moans of her grief. The scrap of joy at the knowledge her child did not die in the ring disintegrates. She collapses, has to lean on her last living child to remain on her feet. “No! Why! My child! Astrid darling no!”
Frigga has to dab her eyes with her sleeve, too moved by a mother’s sympathy to notice the covetous glances cast upon her throne from someone for whom there is no too high a price to pay for it.
That Someone cries too, opening her arms for the mother of the girl she murdered the moment Mistress Tarth fell--a liability better removed than discovered.
But her tears, while genuine, are only of relief.