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Mackie

Loki – Family Ties

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Angrboda’s brows shot up all the way in surprise. Loki tried to use her momentary distraction to get hold of the box again, but his hostess kept it safely away from him.

 

“Farbauti!”, she exclaimed. “Since when do you even acknowledge your father’s existence? Or is this about Laufey, once removed?”

 

“It is about Farbauti,” he insisted, refusing, as always, to be questioned.

 

“You are still better at questions than at asnwers, aren’t you,” the woman said, sourly. He dismissed it with a shrug and repeated, “Farbauti. Well, as you probably can guess, there isn’t a lot about him I am interested in. Just a few minor details.”

 

Angrboda waited. After another sip of mead, and a longing glance at the box with the cakes, he finally said, “Laufey always said if it was you who gave him a spell to stun her and then rape her. You never told me if it was true.”

 

“That’s because I never gave him a thing,” she said curtly.

 

“But you do know Farbauti.”

 

“Of course I know Farbauti,” she snapped. “We grew up in the same village. All the more reason to avoid him. He always was an unsavoury brute.”

 

“So he did not get the lightning spell from you.”

 

The woman did not respond for a while. Eventually she said, “You of all people should know that I never had a spell like that to give, to begin with. I have lore, not spells. I try and protect my house against mice, using chants. I know herbs, and potions against sicknesses. I am not the one who can start a fire in an empty hearth with a snap of his fingers.”

 

He shot her a swift glance again, a hint of irritation in it, and then asked, “Do you believe Farbauti had a spell like that, ever?”

 

“Ah …” Angrboda sighed softly, her head tipping back a little as if in relief of a long-held tension. “So you finally have arrived at that point, have you. It took you quite some time.”

 

The green eyes blazed with instant anger.

 

“I suspect,” Angrboda continued unimpressed, “that somebody put you up to it. Who was it? Not your mother, I guess.”

 

“I haven’t seen Laufey since the night of the spring fires a long time ago,” Loki said, his tone as frigid as his eyes.

 

“Yes,” the woman said with a grim smile, “I thought so. So – who was it? Who made you finally question your paternity?”

 

His baleful stare seemed to amuse her, and when he did not reply, she said, baiting him, “I bet it was a woman.”

 

Clearly against his will, Loki grinned, a flash of sunshine from between stormclouds. “You’d win that bet,” he said curly, making it clear that he did not intend to elaborate. “So –you don’t think Farbauti ever commanded a spell like that?”

 

“No,” she replied. “I cannot imagine he could. How would he have come by it? And why would he use it only that once, and then go back to being a dumb lump of lard for the rest of his miserable life? He does not have the brains or the guts to handle a spell. He is a bully, and a wimp. He is scared witless of your mother. I think he does not even dare to flee the village for good.”

 

Unimpressed with Farbauti’s plight, Loki asked, “So – what happened?”

 

“That, my dear,” said Angrboda, fully aware that he did not want to hear it, “you will have to thrash out with your mother. She is the only one who might be able to say – even though I suspect even she might not know it, either. A flash of lightning is probably quite effective when it comes to stunning somebody.”

 

From the dark frown on Loki’s face it was obvious that he did not relish the prospect, but he remained silent.

 

“So,” Angrboda picked up her earlier question, “who is she?”

 

Balking, he retorted, “Who is who?”

 

“The woman who gave you the idea that Farbauti might not, after all, be your father.”

 

He emptied his beaker in silence and reached for the skin to refill it.

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“She must have come pretty close,” Angrboda continued, enjoying the speculation, and Loki’s discomfort. “Not just a chance acquaintance, I think … And it was not your wife, either. Who, by the way, is leaving you on far too long a leash for your own good.” She was quite unperturbed by the murderous glance he shot her at this, and went on, “Though it has to be somebody who knows where you come from.”

 

She watched his lips press into an angry line and added, “It all smacks more of a family connection than of one of your usual bed mates.”

 

With satisfaction she noticed the quick flash of green anger that told her she had scored. Trying to keep his further reactions from her, he lowered his eyes to the table, and picked up the ornament sitting there, one of the few items in the cabin that were not there for their practical use, a small soapstone carving of a wolf cub. It had the soft sheen and the smooth surface of something handled frequently, and he turned it over and over in his hands without seeing it at all.

 

Meanwhile, Angrboda was getting uncomfortably close to the mark, and enjoying herself hugely, too.

 

“Family?,” she asked. “But if it isn’t Sigyn …”

 

Then her grey eyes widened, and she sat up straight. “So there is more family than you have let on …”, she said softly. “For I am quite sure it was not Hel who put you up to this.”

 

“No,” Loki said grudgingly, “it was not Hel.”

 

For a long moment the crack and whisper of the fire was the only sound in the cabin as they sat in the small island of lamplight flickering orange over the scrubbed wood of the table between them; then Angrboda said, “Well, I hope for her sake that Sigyn does not know.”

 

Looking exasperated Loki put down the little wolf with a bang, but otherwise he remained silent. He returned her searching gaze with a black frown, and then closed his eyes with a groan, rubbing his face with both hands.

 

With a crooked smile, Angrboda pushed the box with the cakes across the table and said, “Breathe. I am not going to ask anymore.”

 

His eyes opaque, Loki sat for a moment, his face unmoved, his eyes unseeing on the honey cakes. Finally he breathed another sigh, and looked up, all defenses back in place.

 

“Can you bear my company for the night?”, he asked, and Angrboda knew that he would leave without hesitation if she refused. She shrugged, and said, “I think so,” and watched the quick smile as he acknowledged the lack of enthusiasm in her reply. She hoped that he didn’t see past it to the loneliness, and the painful memories.

 

When a little later she returned from a visit to the outhouse, he had rolled himself into the bed furs again, and was fast asleep. She curled up with as much distance from him as her bed allowed, and in the failing light from the banked fire, studied his face. In sleep, he was still looking as she had first seen him. In his sleep, the shadows were invisible.

 

***

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At dawn, which came late now that winter had arrived, she went out into the oppressive grey morning, and found the cabin empty at her return. Only after she had been raving angrily — and hurt – at his cavalier ways did she realise that his sword was still there. it actually came as a bit of a shock to understand that he had not, in fact, left without a word. But when the door opened a while later to admit Loki in a whirl of heavy snowflakes, she was sitting at the table, composed, with a pot os steaming gruel, and a kettle with hot, sweetened herb tea for their breakfast.

 

Shaking the snow flecked hood of his anoraq back, Loki put her bow and quiver back into the corner they belonged, and said without a greeting, “I shot you a red deer. Where do you want it?”

 

Angrboda realised that she was staring at him open-mouthed. Mistaking her confusion, he added, “I skinned and gutted it right where I shot it, it’s just the meat and the hide,” and she replied, still baffled, “I … I guess I will have to smoke most of it …”

 

“Right. I put it in the smoke hut then,” he said, and was out of the door again.

 

When he came back, he put a slab of fresh meat on a platter on her kitchen shelf, said, “For your dinner tonight,” and sat down at the table. He gave the herb tea a suspicius glance, filled his bowl with gruel, and started eating.

 

When he finally realised that his hostess was still conspicuously quiet, he shot her an inquiring glance, and asked, “What?”

 

“Nothing,” she said. “It’s just that I am not really used to having somebody bring me meat.”

 

He shrugged. “Winter is here; I thought you’d need it soon enough.”

 

“I do. But still … I usually have to provide it myself.”

 

He grinned. “And you are not really used to me going out and shoot your meat for you, or do anything else useful.”

 

“No, I’m not,” she agreed. “That was adding to the confusion.”

 

“Well,” he said, giving her a level look, “I guess I’ve grown up since I was living with you.”

 

She just lifted her brows at that, and was entertained to watch some exasperation enter into his expression. Then she said, “Thank you for going to the bother,” and he relaxed, and gave her half a smile in response, and then finished his breakfast.

 

She knew he would be gone soon. Against her better judgment, she asked, “Will I see you again?”

 

The seagreen gazed instantly cooled as if frozen over. He didn’t reply, but just sat looking at her quietly for a moment.

 

“There was a time,” Angrboda continued, knowing she was making matter worse, “when you came by for a visit now and then.”

 

“Yes,” he said, his voice devoid of all emotion. “After all, you were the perfect hostess, were you not, particularly the first time I was a guest in your house.”

 

“As far as I remember,” Angrboda said, anger faintly colouring her voice now, “that was when I saved your life.”

 

“Yes – and then used me as a means to get back at my mother. You just failed to mention to me that she is your sister, didn’t you. Only a minor oversight on your part, I am sure. It needed Laufey’s second son to tell me that you are in fact my aunt.”

 

“Ah …” Her voice was barely audible, and the lines in her face had suddenly deepened as if she had been out in the icy cold for hours. “Herkir … I’ve always wondered who told you.”

 

With a red flame of anger in his eyes he threw down the wooden spoon he had been turninhg over in his long fingers. “Well, it certainly wasn’t you,” he snarled.

 

His blazing eyes boring into her grey ones, they sat motionless until the woman, letting go of the breath she had been holding, lowered her eyes to the table. Silence was freezing them in place until Loki, with a violent motion as if he had to break ice, got up from the bench, and started to gather his possessions, making ready to leave.

 

Her eyes were following him around the room, her face calm now, and her hands found the small soapstone carving, and held it. She watched as Loki pulled the fur lined anoraq over his head, and expected him to walk out in silence, but suddenly he stood looking down at her, his face unreadable. His voice soft like a well-honed blade, cutting deep, with the pain coming much later, and terrible, he said, “I’ve lived here with you, and you have born three children we made together, and you never thought to tell me that you were sister to my mother. You used me as a tool to hurt her, and humiliate her. It wasn’t much fun to find out.”

 

She was surprised to find a voice to say, “… and you’ll never forgive me for that.”

 

“No,” he said. “Why would I?”

 

And then he was gone.

 

***

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His tired horse tethered to a branch a little away between the trees, with snow sifting down from an oppressive sky the colour of lead, Loki stood over the sleeping man whose body was very similar to the lichen covered rocks next to him, the small detail aside that other than the stone, he was rumbling with mead-heavy snores.

 

The hood of his anoraq pushed back, snow flakes melting on his hair, Loki stood staring at the sleeper, his eyes cold, his sword ready. Then he lifted a booted foot and nudged the huge man, lightly at first, and when that did not even disturb the snoring, once more, and rather forceful this time. He did not look like he regretted the use of violence, either.

 

The snoring stumbled, and fell over itself, turning into a series of gasps and smackings, and finally a baleful eye opened under the reeking thicket of grizzled hair.

 

Loki stood back, waiting. When the eye, after a moment of bleary inspection, was closing again, though, he said, “Hey! Wake up, old man.”

 

There was no immediate result, so he swept a load of snow from the low branches, and stooped to rub it rudely on the part of the face not covered by beard or hair. Then he stepped out of reach of the long arms again, wiping his fingers with fresh snow, his face twisted in a grimace of disgust.

 

This time the eye popped open to murky anger, and the whole uncouth body heaved and shifted, grunting, until the huge man was sitting more or less upright, the snow-clotted hair dangling drippily into his small, malevolent eyes. Breathing noisily through his mouth, showing the dark ruins of his teeth and, inspite of the cold, emanating a fetid stench, he blinked at the lissom figure standing in the grey snow light. Recognition took its time dawning; but eventually there was a hazy spark deep in the narrow set eyes, and he growled, “You!”

 

Loki met Farbauti’s stare unmoving, inspite of the compelling impuls to turn his head away to avoid the smell. Leaning a little in his direction, Farbauti rasped, “What are you doing here? Does she know you are back?”

 

With a derisive half-smile, Loki replied, “I didn’t come back; I’m just passing through. What would be here for me to come back to anyway?”

 

The small eyes, blinking out from under the matted hair, gave him a once-over, and then Farbauti scoffed, “Ah … you think you are a prince now, do you? Got a big head, think yourself an Aesir? One of Lord Odin’s golden family …? Trying to make people forget the stock you come from, huh?”

 

His eyes still narrowed in disgust, Loki said in a deceptively soft voice, “Actually, that is the Big Question, old man. Do tell me what stock I come from, won’t you?”

 

The huge man, still sitting on the ground, darted furtive glances into the gathering dusk between the trees. They were far from the open skies of Asgard’s plain, far from the banks of the river Iving, far from Angrboda’s part of the woods. Not so far from the village where Loki had been born, but still too deep in the unkempt, moss hung, lichen covered woods for anyone to see or hear them unless they stumbled directly upon them, and around them there was nothing but a huge expanse of winter silence. If it was help against this hostile and merciless wanderer Farbauti was hoping for, he was hoping in vain. He had hidden away to drink himself into a stupor and then sleep it off, away from the keen eyes and acid tongue of the tribe and their chieftain in particular, not counting on her firstborn son, of all people, to turn up and harrass him.

 

And, “Well …?”, that evil-begotten, spell-weaving, fire-calling pretty bastard pressed him, the icy eyes in open loathing on his own father’s face.

 

The fumes of the badly fermented mead still scrambling his brain, the roughly hewn jötun blustered, “You know where you’re from. That woman’s your mother, and I sired you upon her.”

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He was licking his lips as if remembering a particularly tasty dish, and Loki felt the strong urge to ram a fist into that face and feel the teeth, or what was left of them, crumble into a bloody pulp. But he kept his distance, the only outward sign of his anger the hissing intake of his breath.

 

“You did, did you?”, he asked in dangerously friendly interest. “You never told me much about it. So, why don’t you show a little fatherly feeling, however late, and give me a few details? That famous lightning trick, for instance … very neat. How did you come by that?”

 

Farbauti grinned, squinting up at him.

 

“That’s an easy one. You should know, being a fire caller and all …”

 

Loki stepped closer to the unwieldy bulk.

 

“Fire, yes,” he said quietly. “Like this …”

 

And with a flick of his hand he let a pillar of flames roar up between Farbauti and himself, watching coolly how the drunkard almost fell over backwards as the fire licked against his hair and beard.

 

“But fire isn’t lightning,” Loki continued. “Laufey wasn’t burned, she was stunned. I am quite sure it wasn’t Odin coming by to help you out, so – how did you do it?”

 

Farbauti, with smelly tendrils of smoke curling up from his beard, growled angrily, “If you think I’ll teach you, think again!”

 

Loki snorted.

 

“You haven’t done anything remotely close to that trick in your whole miserable life, not before that day, and certainly not afterwards. I want to know what happened.”

 

Farbauti, held up only by the aftereffects of drink, crowed, “I made myself a fine son, that’s what happened, even if that princeling doesn’t like it.”

 

But his last word gurlgled into a wet gasp as Loki’s sword, with a speed fuelled by lifelong contempt and newly finished patience, suddenly lay against his throat, the cold edge pressing against his grimy skin, already drawing a thin line of blood.

 

For a few heartbeats, immaculate silence hung between the two men, one of them still, intent, and lethal, the other frozen. Then Farbauti’s alcoholic bluster dissolved in a blubbering whine, as, snot and tears streaking his face, he was wailing, “I don’t know! I really don’t! The woman must know, go and ask her! Leave me alone!”

 

All through this he tried to hold still, but fear, self-pity and mead were shaking his heavy frame until Loki, disgusted, and not really intent on murder just then, lifted the blade away from him to sheath it. With a last glance of open revulsion, he turned, and disappeared between the trees without another word. Behind him he could hear the snivelling and howling of the big jötun, and when he reached his horse and swung up into the saddle, Farbauti roared in recovered anger, “A fine son you are, treating your father so! Go and talk to her! She’ll whip your pretty face bloody and teach you manners!”

 

His face a thundercloud, Loki spat into the snow, and then urged his grumpy horse into a canter, by far too fast for the slippery ground, the closely standing trees, the failing light. Even though he hadn’t been in this part of the big Eastern Woods, he still knew his way. He would be there at nightfall.

 

***

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From way back in the shadows among the trees, still on horseback, Loki sat watching the village. The dark stallion, tired and hungry, was shaking his head violently, eager to get closer to the low houses promising shelter and food for both man and horse, but he was held on a tight rein, and his training kept him from neighing in exasperation.

 

“I know,” the voice of his rider said, somewhere between irritation and amusement. “Believe me – me too.”

 

But still they did not move forward.

 

The village lay peaceful under the sinking sky; the snow was only coming in small flurries now, but the open bowl of the clearing was already covered in solid white, the thatch on the semi-sunk houses downy ridges, with smoke the colour of the leaden sky creeping in furtive tendrils along the roofs, the woods in inky silhouette all around.

 

They were still using the outdoor cooking fires – the time where they would have to huddle inside the dark houses would get long enough once the blizzards came roaring down from the eastern mountains, with the storms, the snow, and the brutal cold making survival out of doors impossible for long stretches of time.

 

Loki’s brows drew into a dark frown as he felt his past settling around him like a stiffly uncomfortable old cloak. He still knew all these routines by heart, whether or not he wanted to. He sighed. Anya’s house was very far away now …

 

His eyes on the shadowy figures moving among the cooking fires, he considered his next move. He knew that a guest – any guest – would find food and shelter with the tribe for at least one night – guests were far too scarce a commodity to be treated roughly. But he did not mean to come to Laufey’s fire as a guest if he could help it …

 

His stomach growled, siding with his horse in the matter of priorities, and a rueful grin lit up Loki’s face. Wistfully he remembered pizza delivery, Anya’s well-stocked fridge, and Tabula Rasa … Then he rolled his eyes, forced the horse around, and urged him back into the woods. He had to fight him for every single step away from the clearing; sidling, balking, bucking, the stallion tried to have his will. Loki did not allow it, and eventually the horse resigned himself to going back into the thick of the wood, but every footfall on the soft ground declared that he was doing so under duress.

 

Loki leaned forward and patted the muscular curve of the black neck, saying soothingly, “We have gone soft, you know. You with your warm and dry stables, and the oats and sweet hay in winter, and I …” He snorted a laugh. “Spare me the list, will you,” he concluded.

 

If it hadn’t been for the snow, they would have moved in almost complete darkness – the last of the grey light did not reach the ground under the thick cover of tangled old trees. But the dry snow, carried on the wind, had formed ridges, banks and drifts between the huge moss-covered trunks, lending a ghostly blue-grey light to the scene. Slowly weaving his way between the black shapes of the trees, Loki tried to come up with a plan. Even considering that he had been in a hurry, it had been less than clever not to bring his bow – or to take Angrboda’s. His sword would do a good job in a fight, but for hunting it was useless, and his dagger wasn’t much better.

 

At least he didn’t have any trouble to keep his bearings – like all living things, the woods had changed since he last had been here, but he saw familiar landmarks often enough to keep his main focus on the meager options of prey he could hunt with just a knife.

 

There was, of course, the possibility to look for traps – so close to the village they had to be rather numerous, and he knew where to look for them. But it probably was not recommendable to carry a snow hare into camp with the markings of somebody else’s traps on it, thus obviously depriving someone of the tribe of their catch – not if he wanted to find Laufey in a mellow mood.

 

It was the sight of a huge, gnarled, stooping Old Man Tree appearing from the inky shadows that gave him the inspiration he needed, and a satisfied grin lit up his face.

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“Tree lizards,” he said, and the horse’s ears turned hopefully in his direction. He guided it closer to the twisted tree, and tethered it; then he unbuckled his scabbard and hung it on the saddle, adding after a moment of hesitation the heavy anoraq. Then he jumped, grabbing hold of one of the lowest branches of the tree to hoist himself up, and proceeded to climb until he reached a fork in the mighty trunk some 20 feet above ground. There was a hole gaping darkly in the tree where a long time ago a blizzard had ripped one of the mighty branches off, and the weather had rotted part of the wood away over the years. There was a hole now big enough for a couple of grown men to curl up in, providing a good dry place Loki remembered as home to a family of tree lizards when he last had hunted in these woods.

 

The size of a man’s leg, tree lizars were sleek and fast, and quite ferocious when disturbed, which made their fastness in the tree a place to give a wide berth to in summer. In winter, though, the cold made them sluggish, and if you could find them they were easy prey – as long as you could catch them at night. So early in the cold season, they also were bound to be nice and fat in preparation for the long fast until spring …

 

Eyeing the dark hole in the V of the fork, deep black in the dark greys of bark and branches, Loki made sure he had a good foothold; then he brought his hand before the opening, and snapped his fingers. To be able to call fire always had been a nice advantage when hunting lizards …

 

In the almost complete darkness, the small flame seemed as bright as a flare, and in its light he saw a coil of scaled bodies inside the hole, green and black with lines of red markings. They were packed so closely that it was impossible to see how many there were, or to know which limbs belonged to which body. Loki’s eyes narrowed in concentration – then, leaving the small flame hovering in the air, he reached into the hole with both hands, grabbed hold of a muscular, serrated tail, and yanked.

 

The big lizard’s body came free of the tangle of limbs, but even though it was slow, it still curled up in reaction, making it impossible to get it through the hole. But it had been only a reflex – the body went limp again immediately, and Loki tugged again, hard, and just when the small flame winked out, leaving him in darkness, the big body of the reptile slid out of the tree, and fell to the ground.

 

The horse, not used to this prey, nor to the distinctly un-Aesir way of hunting, all his thorough-bred instincts offended, shied and snorted and shook his head in exasperation, but the lizard, still caught in long, slow winter dreams, lay unmoving in the snow. Loki came down the tree swiftly, jumped from the lowest branch, somersaulting just for the hell of it, and landed with efficient precision on the reptile’s neck. He could feel the bones give way under his soft boots, the sound like a dry twig breaking, and his hand with the ready knife relaxed.

 

Looking up, he noticed his horse’s disapproval, and giggled.

 

“I know, I know,” he muttered, “One Eye wouldn’t do it like this. And trust me – if he tried, he’d go splat.”

 

The horse, eyeing the lizard with deep suspicion, was trying to dance away from it, and Loki went to pat his neck, saying, “Easy, easy … Nothing to be afraid of. Just my dinner present to sweeten up the old lady … and very dead already.”

 

Whistling under his breath, he prepared to prepare the meat. This definitely was the best part of coming back to Jötunheim … He liked hunting, and the lizard was a good, young one, fat and tender. Of the two guests about to arrive at Laufey’s fire, it would be the welcome one…

 

With this cheerful thought, Loki went to work.

 

***

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Nearly all the cooking fires were deserted by the time the rider was crossing the clearing, and the few people still tending to their dinners did not take much notice of the solitary man on horseback threading his way through the village to the chieftain’s house, taking him for a member of the tribe. And of course he was, too … only he had been away for a long time, and with reason.

 

He found the chieftain’s stable where it always had been, and left his horse there, placating him with hay and a few handful of oats from Laufey’s store. Then he slung his bundle across one sholder, and hefted the lizard meat on the other, and made his way to the steps leading down to Laufey’s house.

 

He had a foot on the topmost step when below the door opened, and shoulders and back of a sturdy dark-haired jötun came in sight, outlined in orange light from within the house. With him, the voice of a woman came through the door, saying acidly, “I have been punished with two sons, one of them too lazy to hunt, and the other too dim. I wonder why the Goddess thought either of them necessary.”

 

Wincing visibly under those cutting words, the man in the doorway retreated up the steps backwards and wanted to close the door on the voice when he heard a malicious chuckle behind and above him. His hand still on the latch, he turned and looked up, and then he froze.

 

A few lonely snowflakes came tumbling out of the dark sky, leisurely making their way between the two men facing each other, one of them arrested in open-mouthed surprise, the other smiling derisively under slightly raised brows.

 

Then the woman’s voice whipped through the door again.

 

“Herkir! Close the door! If you can’t bring me decent meat, do not add insult to injury by freezing me!”

 

The big dark man flushed scarlet under his beard, and the lithe blonde one on top of the stairs laughed softly.

 

“This”, said Loki, “clearly is the cue for the lazy son to magically appear with lavish offerings.”

 

Herkir stood staring at him, his brain refusing to acknowledge that it was really his own mother’s firstborn son standing there in the snow blue night. He had seen Loki only once before, on a market day in a border town, where some busybody had pointed out to him that the wild, glittering warrior in the cirlcle of roaring listeneners was indeed the half-brother whose antics still were the talk of the tribe. Herkir had tried to ward off feelings of inferiority by telling this light-haired, careless, arrogant stranger that the woman he had been sharing a bed with for years was in fact not just his lover, but also the sister of their mother. He still winced inwardly at the memory of the white-hot anger that had followed: he himself had nursed a broken arm, two black eyes, and a sprained ankle on his way home, and the market had ended prematurely in a brawl of historic dimensions – th border lands were, in fact, still talking fondly of it.

 

Now he found himself opposite this half-brother again, and didn’t know what to do or say; but it seemed he didn’t need to bestir himself – Loki clearly had no attention to spare. He was down the steps in a blink, pushing past Herkir without consideration or apology. Utterly baffled, Laufey’s second son was left to close the door, and he did so quietly, not at all keen on witnessing his mother’s reaction to Loki’s unlooked-for return.

 

For a moment, Laufey did not react at all, because she had her back to the door, bending over the rather pathetic carcass of a small woodhen, clearly the maligned result of Herkir’s hunting. With an exasperated sigh she put it down on the table, and was confused for a heartbeat by the heavy, meaty sound it made – then she turned around, realising belatedly that she was not alone.

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Across the big, fresh, cleanly skinned tree lizard lying on the kitchen bench, she stared into the seagreen eyes of her firstborn son, who was returning her baffled gaze with an equanimous stare of his own, a green flash of laughter in the depths of his eyes.

 

“I thought I’d bring something for dinner,” he said with a cool smile, and just the tiniest flicker of a glance in direction of the woodhen. She knew then that he had overheard her words to Herkir, and flushed angrily.

 

“What do you want?”, she snapped.

 

His brows rising a little, Loki said politely, “You’re very welcome. And yes, I’ll stay for dinner.”

 

“Oh no, you won’t,” she gave back, unsettled by his presence, unable to curb her anger, getting even more furious because he was clearly enjoying himself.

 

“You mean you are not deliriously happy to see me?”, he mocked. “Well, I’ll settle for politeness if you feel you cannot manage motherly joy just now. I understand it might be a little sudden, after years without practice.”

 

She had to turn away because she wasn’t used to being played like this anymore; trying hard to calm her voice, she repeated, “What do you want?”

 

“You mean, aside from bringing meat, and celebrating a reunion with my family?”

 

Laufey realised that she was gripping the table hard enough for her fingers to hurt; she waited in silence – it was all she could do.

 

She heard him chuckle and wanted to throw the meat cleaver at him; but after a moment he said in a less grating tone, “I want to talk to you.”

 

She let go of the breath she had been holding, and slowly turned to face him again. There he was, standing in her house as if he had never left, the hood of his anoraq pushed back from his bright hair, his hands relaxed at his sides as if he was at home. Then she registered the sword, and the Asgard made scabbard and clothes, more refined than anything a man of her tribe would be wearing. His hair was shorter, too, than a jötun would be wearing it, barely brushing his shoulders, and his beard was no more than three days old, just a golden glint on his jaw. He was a stranger, and still he was looking so much like the boy who had left the village long ago, that she felt the same pain and anger, mercilessly fresh.

 

“What do you want?”, Laufey asked a third time, but this time her voice was soft, and tired.

 

For a moment, there was surprise in his eyes, and confusion, as if he had expected something different; as it was, he, too, repeated himself: “I want to talk to you.”

 

She found that all she could manage was a vague gesture, part resignation, part invitation, and with a wary look he dropped the small bundle he had been carrying; then he pulled his anoraq over his head, and left it on a stool close to the door. When he came back to the fire, she saw the fine lines around his eyes, the only visible traces of all the years gone by.

 

Supporting her weight on the table and a chair, she hopped awkwardly to where the lizard meat was lying, and Loki asked, baffled, “What is wrong with you?”

 

With a snort that was spelling self-derision and thin-worn patience, Laufey said, “I broke my leg.”

 

The breath he released was somewhere between laughter and exasperation.

 

“So that’s why you’re stuck with Herkir’s hunting attempts,” he said.

 

Laufey’s lips were a thin line of disapproval when she snapped, “You do not know Herkir well enough to comment on that.”

 

“No,” her son smiled sweetly, “but you do.”

 

She swallowed her reply, vowing in silence to avoid this kind of battle, because there never had been a way of getting the better of Loki in a skirmish of words. To look down on the unexpected abundance of meat made that a little easier, and after a pause she said, “I haven’t eaten tree lizard in a long time. Somehow they became rather scarce around here after you left.”

 

Loki laughed.

 

“There is a big and well-fed family of them right where they always used to be,” he said.

 

“Oh.” Laufey eyed him from a few steps away as he cut a good-sized piece off of the cleanly prepared meat, and then looked a question at her, with just a hint of that infuriating mocking grin on his lips.

 

He waited, thus forcing her to ask, “Could you go and cook it?”; then, satisfied, he smiled and left the house for the cooking fire Herkir had built for the woodhen, whose sorry carcass was still lying where Laufey had dropped it.

 

***

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Loki had re-built the fire, and had spitted and seasoned the meat. Now he was sitting cross-legged on the rough-hewn block of wood that was serving as a fireside stool; reflecting the flames, his eyes were slightly unfocused as he sat turning the spit. It was probably a good idea to give Laufey a little space – he hadn’t meant to make his entrance quite so, but the sight of Herkir had goaded him into behaving much more outrageously than he had intended. It hadn’t been too wise to anger Laufey; but then, he thought with a grin, she would not go anywhere anytime soon, even if she would like to. Not with a broken leg …

 

Then he remembered the morning, and the first hunt of the day, and with a sarcastic twitch of his mouth, said softly, “Seems to be my day for providing for the elderly.”

 

And while the meat was starting to sizzle, dripping juices into the white hot coals, a mouthwatering smell rising from it, his eyes were wandering around the village. It was fully dark by now, and Laufey’s cooking fire was the only one still giving some light. All others were down, the coals banked, only a hint of a glow remaining under the ashes, pulsing orange in the dark blue of the night. The snow was a ghostly blue-grey, and the moonless sky was clearing up, the brilliant flash of stars on deep cobalt blue replacing the clouds that had been hovering all day.

 

With the starlight came the cold, cutting like an unsheathed blade, freezing the world into white ice, pushing closer to the warm island by the firelight, probing relentlessly for bare skin. Never very susceptible to cold, Loki didn’t bother to get his anoraq, but when he eventually picked up the meat, brown and crisp on the spit, the warmth of the dimly lit house was welcome nonetheless.

 

There was bread on the table, and a dish with pickled vegetables, and Laufey was sitting there, waiting in silence. When he set the meat before her, she sighed inspite of herself, and with a nod, received the slices he carved for her.

 

Loki sat down opposite her, and for a long moment she looked at him, her expression unreadable. Then, finally, she said, “Thank you.” He realised that it was not easy for her, and he was not going to make it so, but at least he nodded in reply, without giving in to temptation and make things even more difficult.

 

They ate in silence, and drank the thin beer that was the tribe’s usual beverage, and Laufey noticed Loki’s grimace at the first taste of it, but she, too, did not comment.

 

When they had finished he hesitated only a moment before he cleared the table, stacked the dirty dishes, and took the remains out of the house for the dogs, including – without asking – the scrawny woodhen. Finally he stood looking down at Laufey, who had been watching the goings-on with a slightly puzzled look. Now she broke the long silence to say, “It must be something important you came to talk about, when I see the work you put into smoothing the way.”

 

He almost immediately suppressed the green flare of temper, and eventually managed a wry grin.

 

“It is,” he said then.

 

“It is for you, you mean.”

 

His gaze grew a little more intent.

 

“That remains to be seen.”

 

“Well,” Laufey said, getting up from the bench painfully, “it will remain so until the morning. I am far too tired for any more drama tonight.”

 

She watched quick irritation flit across his face, and the way he managed to smother it, and caught herself just before she smiled. Then she turned to laboriously make her way to the hearth, to bank the fire for the night. When it was done, she realised that Loki had built his bed in the alcove where she kept a straw mattress and additional fur coverings for guests. Noticing her frown, he said coolly, “If you prefer to be alone, I can go and ask for a bed elsewhere. Is Màna still living over the way? I am sure she wouldn’t mind …”

 

Laufey, aware of the lively curiousity of the tribe, even after all these years, in all matters concerning her firstborn, was quite sure, too … and to have him at large in the village, spreading tales, or whatever it was he would be doing in a night like this, was the last thing she needed.

 

Hence, “You can sleep here,” she said gruffly, and he smiled, perfectly aware of her motives. Then she slowly made her way to the far side of the longhouse, to find her own bed, and to think about her surprise guest, and the reasons behind this sudden return.

 

She did not expect it to be a restful night.

 

***

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Satisfied so far with how things were unfolding, Loki curled up under the furs, expecting to fall asleep immediately as he always did – only to find that this night, sleep was eluding him. He was not used to insomnia, and now that it was sitting on his bed, insistingly peeling his eyes open, he had no patience for it. After tossing and turning for a little while with growing irritation for a prickly cushion, he gave up with an exasperated sigh. In the last umber light from the hearth he pulled on his clothes, boots and anoraq, and quietly left the house.

 

From her own sleepless bed, Laufey watched him leave, feeling a familiar surge of anger. Some things, she thought, never change … She knew there was nothing she could do, but that did not make it any easier. She could not understand how after all these years he could come back, reclaiming a place in her life, and make her feel just as raw and confused as when he had left, barely more than a boy. Well, a boy and a wolf … and the source of almost every trouble and outrage in the tribe, too. And that, she thought with another heavy sigh, probably had not changed, either.

 

***

 

The source of trouble and outrage was presently sitting on the woodblock again, in the orange circle of warmth and light from the re-kindled fire, his elbows on his knees, playing with flames. He let them flicker across his fingers, from left hand to right and back, and now and then blew on them softly so they flared up with a shower of yellow sparks. His mind was wandering sleepily.

 

It was a weird and disturbing thing to find himself in this village again, at his mother’s fire, surrounded by memories heavy as millstones and much clearer than they should have been after all this time. It felt as if his whole life was suddenly suspended, as if the Nine Worlds were nothing but a dream, and he had awaken to find himself stuck. Stuck here, of all places …

 

It was not a pleasant feeling.

 

His eyes unseeing on the flames, his hands warmed by their mesmerising dance, he started to sing under his breath; a Midgard song, a song from a world so different from this one that it was jarring him a little, ascertaining the existence of Loki away from Jötunheim; the existence of his own world. It was a song he always had felt an affinity for, ever since he had heard it for the first time in a truck-stop diner somewhere in the deepest Midwest. The song had been new, then, and every trucker in that place had been singing along with it. Loki had found the lyrics strangely appealing, as if they had been written for him …

 

“Well, I'm running down the road

tryin' to loosen my load

I've got seven women on my mind.

Four that wanna own me,

Two that wanna stone me,

One says she's a friend of mine …”

 

He chuckled.

 

“Yeah, right …”

 

He realised that he was a little homesick for Midgard, its easy comforts, its quick if superficial cameraderie. Take it easy, indeed …

 

His mind drifting, more relaxed now, he thought of his wolf runs in the ancient woods surrounding him, alone or as one of the pack. The beauty and clarity of it – the other side of Jötunheim; the one he had loved better. That would not be the worst way to spend a sleepless night … Only the languor after a couple of very long days on horseback made him reluctant to leave the village right away; instead he remained sitting, drowsy, dreamily spinning the flames between his idle hands into a thin dancing line, a bright chain of living fire.

 

Suddenly a soft voice from beyond the circle of light said with awe and delight, “You must be Loki Laufeyarsson!”

 

Lifting his head, he let the flames die and narrowed his eyes to see who it was. A woman was standing where the fire light was giving way to the shadows. She was bundled up against the cold, but a fresh smooth face with wide blue eyes was shining out from the furs of her hood. It stirred a distant memory, and after a moment Loki asked tentatively, “Màna?”

 

She laughed.

 

“Màna is my mother’s name,” she said. “You have been away for a long time – I was born after you left.”

 

Once bitten, twice shy, Loki frowned at her, and prompted by recent experience, asked, “Who is your father, then?”

 

“My father is Hrímnir,” the girl said, not registering the implications of the question. “They both died a few winters ago, when they went hunting on the mountains and there was a rock fall.”

 

“Oh.” Remembering the rounded, baby pheasant prettiness of Màna as a young girl, and their happy and rather tumultuous trysts in the woods the summer before he had left the tribe, he smiled up at Màna’s daughter and asked, „What’s your name, then?“

 

“I am called Grìd,” she beamed, coming closer, managing to walk gracefully inspite of the formless bundle of wrappings and furs, and the huge fur-lined boots. That, Loki thought wryly, watching her, was another option of losing some sleep in a pleasant way …

 

He smiled up at her and said, “I knew your mother quite well, back then.”

 

“Yes,” the girl giggled, blushing deliciously, “she told me.”

 

Loki laughed.

 

“I see my bad reputation is preceding me again,” he said, his eyes reflecting the fire.

 

“Oh no,” Grìd replied, her gaze openly interested, “I would not call that a bad reputation at all …”

 

The rosy tip of her tongue was flicking over her lips, and she blushed even more as she added, “I have the house all to myself, now that my brothers have moved out …”

 

Loki grinned. Jötun women did had no need for subtleties; they were free to choose their bed mates.

 

She was standing right in front of him now, the fire adding even more glow to her plump prettiness. Loki reached up and ran a careless finger along her chin and cheek, lingering on the soft lips for a moment; they parted a little under his touch, and she shivered, but did not pull away. He dropped his hand to where under all these clothes would be her waist, and pulled her down on his knees; from up close he looked into her expectant face, and asked softly, “Would you like for me to keep you company tonight, then?”

 

“Oh …” It was the breathless, unspoiled delight of a girl who is offered an unlooked-for treat, and she nodded with artless enthusiasm.

 

Again a little more careful than he usually knew himself to be, Loki said, “I am not here to stay, you know …”

 

She beamed at him again and gave back, “As long as you stay the night …”. Then, with a giggle, she wrapped her arms around his neck, and kissed him full on the mouth. His arms closing around her, he returned the kiss with adequate thoroughness and dedication; then he got up, the girl still in his arms, and carried her to the steps leading down to her house. It was going to be fun to peel her out of all these layers of wool, leather, and fur, like unwrapping a present. If she was at all like Màna, there would be a warm, soft, and energetic surprise at the core of it all … and he loved that kind of surprise.

 

He kicked the door shut after them, and the cooking fire in front of Laufey’s house collapsed in a last shower of sparks, leaving the sleeping village in deep cobalt darkness under a diamond sewn sky.

 

***

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She was very much like Màna, but then very much herself, too. She was not without experience, and once inside her own house, she lost all her inhibitions. There was a moment of awe and hilarity when Grìd discovered the wonders of the Midgard zipper: she got rather distracted by this clever piece of outlandish engineering, and Loki had to get quite severe with her to finally manage and get out of his jeans; then the proper sense of priorities came back to her. A little later she became happily vocal …

 

He enjoyed every curve of her, every dimple, every happy squeal, not wasting a thought on the ears of the rest of the village; it was a good thing that the low, thatched roof with the duvet of snow on it was amazingly soundproof. As it was, the village slept on, unaware of any fresh outrage.

 

When they finally surrendered to sleep, Loki and the girl lay entangled on the upset furs of her bed, and his sleep was deep and dreamless. Laufey lay open-eyed through a long stretch of dark hours until she, too, finally found a little rest.

 

A thin sliver of moon travelled across the deep blue night sky. Far away in the woods, a wolf sang.

 

***

 

Loki woke up mid-morning to an empty house; but there was a fire in the hearth, and on a shortened chain over it, a pot of gruel keeping warm under a lid.

 

Still wrapped in warm contentment, he stretched, and yawned, and got up and put his clothes on. It was probably too late for a breakfast at Laufey’s anyway, so he took his time, ate two helpings of the gruel, washed down with thin beer, and then strode leisurely across the small snow-crunching space seperating Grìd’s house from his mother’s. He noticed in passing the cold black wood coals on Laufey’s cooking fire, and went down the steps, and into the house.

 

At first he thought she had gone out inspite of her leg; only when his eyes finally had adjusted to the darkness, he could see her even darker shape on the bench opposite the hearth. There was barely a fire to speak of, and it was not only dim, but also chilly in the house. Laufey was bundled up in shawls and furs, and she did not look up when he stood before her. Loki frowned, and turned to the ash-smothered fire; an bsent-minded wave of his hand, and a blaze, hot and bright, roared in the hearth over the black, spent skeletons of old logs.

 

Her voice was cold and rusty with silence when Laufey said, “You will use wood when you make a fire in my house.”

 

Loki shot her an exasperated green glance, but went to rake out the grey ashes, and put dry wood under the blaze. With a mulish expression on his face he snapped his fingers to light them, and when they had caught sufficiently, he waved the floating blaze away.

 

Warmth was filling the house, and orange light fell on Laufey, still and quiet on her bench. Loki eyed her for a moment, noticing the white streaks in hair that had been all dark when he had left the tribe; around her eyes and mouth the signs of worry, of responsibility, of years gone by; her hands with their marks of work, and more work.

 

But she was still a strong woman, and even though he was certainly not afraid of her, there was a healthy respect, and some strong sense of self-preservation that told him to tread carefully. And he was here to get her to talk. It would not get him anywhere to start the day with a confrontation …

 

He ran his eyes around the house, and noticing what was missing, he asked, “Did you eat any breakfast at all?”

 

This certainly got her attention. The previous evening clearly had not gotten her used to this side of him, and she snapped, “What do you want? You did not come all the way from Asgard to serve me breakfast.”

 

He laughed. He knew she hadn’t meant it as a joke, but the situation was ridiculous enough to tickle his sense of humour.

 

“No, I didn’t,” he said, “but I remember that you used to be in a hellish mood whenever you’re hungry.”

 

She snorted. She was not seduced into laughing, but still …

 

He said, “There is still some gruel left at Grìd’s if you want me to get it for you.”

 

It earned him a sharp glance.

 

“So that’s where you were,” she snapped. “I won’t have you sleep around the village again, spreading havoc.”

 

His brows high over cool eyes, Loki gave back, “What do you propose to do about it – lock me into the root cellar? You tried that when I was four, and I do not remember it to be one of your more successful attempts to keep me in check. Anyway – it is none of your bloody business where I spend my nights.”

 

Her grey eyes met a green blaze, and fell away in silence. After a moment, Laufey said, “You can get me some of the bread from the box, and some water.”

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Loki went to assemble a breakfast, and came back to set bread, goat cheese, dried fruit, and mint leaves steeping in hot water before her. He pretended not to notice the ironic show of surprise, and went to get something from his own bundle of things. Then he pulled a wooden stool close and sat down on it, facing Laufey across her meal. Reaching over the table, he laid a sticky square of honey cake on the platter with her bread, and took a bite from the second one he had kept for himself.

 

She looked at him, something like confusion in her eyes; then she repeated, “What do you want?”, but her voice had lost some of its earlier harshness.

 

“I told you,” he said. “I want to talk.”

 

After a longish pause, putting his silent vow of patience to the first test of the day, “You know that your wife was here a while ago, don’t you?”, asked Laufey.

 

“Yes, I know,” he said, wary. “She has been all over, despite One Eye’s attempts to stop her.”

 

“She is a strong woman,” Laufey said, with grudging admiration.

 

Loki, not knowing where this was going, looked at her in cautious silence.

 

“So, tell me,” she continued, “how does a cheating, faithless, two-timing bastard like you end up with a wife like Sigyn?”

 

Only a tiny flicker deep in his eyes showed that she had hit well. Keeping a tight rein on his temper, he shrugged, saying, “Maybe she likes me.”

 

“You do not deserve her,” Laufey insisted.

 

“No, I don’t,” was the laconic reply. “Fortunately she doesn’t seem to think so – or at least not all the time.”

 

“As I said,” Laufey went on, sipping on her tea, “she is a strong woman. For her own sake, I hope she is strong enough to send you away one day.”

 

His patience wearing noticeably thin by now, Loki said deceptively softly, “She is sending me away a lot.”

 

“A lot is not enough,” the woman said, her gaze on his face.

 

“It is definitely enough, thank you so much,” he gave back, not trying anymore to hide his irritation.

 

Laufey met his furious eyes with a searching look; after a moment of silence, with the tension between them like a bowstring, pulled tight to test its limit, she said abruptly, “I look at you, and I find I do not know who you are. I think I never did. All these … twisted talents, all this restlessness, all this mayhem … where are they coming from?”

 

Under the weight of her eyes, and railroaded by a question he had indeed come all this way to ask her himself, Loki leaned his elbows on the table, tipping his head back at the same time – getting closer, but with all his instincts telling him urgently to run, and run now.

 

“Well,” he said slowly, “the only one who can say anything about that is you, actually, isn’t it?”

 

Several degrees colder, even considering that her voice had been rather chilly to begin with, Laufey snapped, “What are you talking about?”

 

“My father, for instance.”

 

Laufey hissed, and sat the bowl with the steaming tea back on the table with a bang. “You want to talk about Farbauti? Not with me, you won’t. You know where to find his house – just follow your nose, in case you have forgotten, and talk to him. I have nothing to say about him.”

 

“No,” Loki said calmly, “I don’t want to talk about Farbauti. I want to talk about my father.”

 

The grey eyes icy, Laufey was staring across the table as is she couldn’t believe her ears, her hand with a bite of bread forgotten in mid-air.

 

“Don’t look at me like that,” Loki said with the ghost of a smile, “I haven’t lost my mind. Actually, I think I have finally found it, even. How could I ever believe that that piece of shit has anything to do with me?”

 

“Ha!” It was more a bark than a laugh. “So that’s what all this is about – this miraculous homecoming, this brand-new family feeling! You are trying to make your ancestry a little more appealing! Are they hissing behind your back, your high and mighty Aesir friends?”

 

Now it was Loki’s turn to laugh, and there was even some amusement in it.

 

“Oh, they did that right from the beginning – give me a little credit, please. I am a lot of things, but I am not slow. No, this hasn’t got anything to do with Asgard, it is coming from a different and rather … recent encounter. But never mind where it comes from – it got me thinking, and now I am intrigued. Now I want to know.”

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Slowly, her eyes on his face, Laufey leaned back against the wall, her eyes impassive.

 

“You know all there is to know.”

 

“No, I don’t think so.”

 

The seagreen eyes did not let go of hers, and Loki added softly, “I wonder if you know for sure yourself.”

 

Suddenly she almost spat with anger, her breakfast forgotten, her face pale with fury. “You think I don’t know what happened to me?”

 

“You had been stunned,” Loki said calmly; “with a flash of lightning, no less. You might not remember everything that happened after that.”

 

His mother stared at him out of narrowed eyes, and when she spoke her voice was grating with sarcasm.

 

“And you think, coming to, finding that stinking brute grunting and sweating over me, in me, I might have misunderstood what was happening to me …?”

 

Loki refused to be baited.

 

“No, of course not. But maybe you didn’t understand everything that was happening to you.”

 

“Oh?” By now there were two tell-tale blotches of red on Laufey’s cheekbones, but she still didn’t avoid Loki’s eyes. “You think that somebody else had been forcing himself on me, planting his rapist seed before Farbauti came along? And who would he have been, this mysterious wielder of the lightning spell – an Aesir prince? Or a Vanir wizard? to give my firstborn son a lineage he can boast about?”

 

Loki, too, had gone a little pale, now that they had reached the core of the matter. But they were both still alive, and the house wasn’t on fire, yet, so it wasn’t too bad, all things considered …

 

“Yes,” he said, “that is about what I think happened. Only it wasn’t an Aesir, or a Vanir, or a Jötun …”

 

“Oh wasn’t it?” Laufey was in a cold rage by now. Her hands were grasping the table so hard that her knuckles were white, and her face was frozen in harsh lines. “Then tell me, Loki Laufeyarsson, since you seem to know it all, who was this mysterious man who sired you on me when I was lying in the dirt, stunned and helpless, and who then disappeared quick enough for Farbauti to take his pleasure with me before I came to? A nice father to claim, really … a paragon of all the virtues one wants to see in a man. Who was the man you want for your father enough to come back here and talk to me?”

 

For the first time since they had started this conversation, Loki’s eyes had lost focus, and his gaze was drifting to the flames dancing in the hearth, unseeing.

 

“A spirit,” he replied, his voice barely above the silken whisper of the flames. “I think my father is a fire spirit.”

 

Too baffled by this to keep up her attitude of acidly mocking condescension, Laufey stared at him. Eventually she laughed, incredulous and shaken, but less harsh than before, as if her consternation had mellowed her.

 

“A fire spirit? Really, Loki – who gave you that ridiculous idea? Or perhaps you suddenly found out you can disappear at will? Living in Asgard must have messed up your head. When will you grow up and accept who you are? What you are? You are a jötun – nothing less, nothing more. Get used to it.”

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But he wasn’t having any of that. Suddenly standing, leaning far across the table, he hissed in her face, “Oh really? Suddenly I am all jötun to you? Then why did you treat me like a changeling all the time? I think you know better, even if you cannot admit it. But show me one jötun who can call fire, and I’ll believe you.”

 

“Your aunt can,” Laufey snapped, leaning as far back as the wall behind her would allow, her arms folded over her chest.

 

“If you’re talking about Angrboda,” Loki gave back, “no, she can’t. I know your sister, much better than I want to. She can change the colour of the flames by throwing resin on them, and she knows a lot about all kinds of herbs to make the smoke healing, or harmful – but she cannot call fire. You know I can, though. I always could, even as a child. It is one of the earliest things I remember. Calling fire, playing with it, talking to it.”

 

Laufey sat staring at him in hostile silence from behind the fortress of her folded arms.

 

“And the flash of lightning,” Loki pressed on. “Do you really believe Farbauti would master a power like that? If it was his spell, why would he stay around afterwards, living in that dump, suffering through a long lifetime of being afraid of you without using it ever again? He is not pretending to be nothing like a lump of clay – that’s really all he is. – No.” He shook his head, his hair flying around his face with the violence of the movement. “He is not my father.”

 

Silence held them motionless then, their eyes mercilessly locked into each other. Finally, the air already solid with emotions, Loki said almost tonelessly, “Don’t you think I have a right to know, Mother?”

 

It was as if he had slapped her face. Her head snapped back, and even the hectic colour on her cheekbones bled out of her face, leaving it a stark white mask. Angry confusion darkened her eyes, and she opened her mouth only to snap it shut again without saying anything. Instead she broke the connection, turning her head away, looking across the dim room until her eyes, like Loki’s before, were resting on the fire in her hearth. Her whole body was leaning away from Loki, his relentless questions, his intent eyes.

 

He waited. He bit his lips, understanding that one question too many now, and she would shut him out for good, never to let him get this close again. So he was quiet, holding back everything he had burning his tongue, trying to give her enough space when all he really wanted to do was to shake the answers out of her.

 

The only movement in the gloomy house came from the play of the shadows on the rafters and walls as the fire was dancing, orange and golden, the daylight on the other side of the small windows too weak to make its way inside.

 

After what seemed to him a long time, Loki saw Laufey’s shoulders sag a little as the rigid tension was draining out of her, and he heard her sigh as she was taking a deep breath, coming up for air after a long dive. She was still facing away from him, her profile shaded by the hair she had allowed to fall halfway over her eyes, but he could feel her resistance crumbling. His voice barely audible, he said, “What did you see that day, when your eyes were closed?”

 

She gasped then, and he saw her hands clenching into fists. Still, she said nothing …

 

Warily, like a wanderer on the treacherously thin ice on a river on the brink of spring, he continued, “Did you ever see – him, before that day?”

 

Loki saw a tremor run through Laufey’s hands as like the wind in the reeds, her voice drifted to him through the dimness.

 

“I had dreams …”, she said.

 

***

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