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Mackie

Loki – Family Ties

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The cold air was rushing past as he ran, the early winter dusk blurring trees, snow and sky into streaks of grey as they flew by. His breath white puffs freezing to ice needles on his face and chest, his pelt frosted with rime, he was racing through the woods, his tracks crossing and re-crossing in a calligraphy of loops, forming a wide circle with the village at its center.

 

There was nowhere he wanted to go, except, perhaps, away; the running in itself was relief, as was the wolf mind, remote, single tracked. There was a pack not too far away, and the pull was strong, and increasing. The wolf and the man were involved in a tug-o-war over whether to go and run with them. There were also hunters in the woods, but that had never scared him off; and as long as the wolf was running like this, the man would not get to assert himself. Running was right. Running was what was best.

 

In a world without depth or definition, the narrow grey body was hurtling into yet another clearing when the bright red scent of fresh blood stopped him in his tracks as if he had run into a solid wall. He whirled to face in the direction the smell was coming from, and saw a man stooped over a trap, frozen in mid-motion by the huge timber wolf’s sudden appearance, the still warm body of a snow hare limp in his hands.

 

The wolf stood unmoving, yellow eyes on the man who slowly, slowly reached for the bow he was carrying over his shoulder. The slanted wolf eyes narrowed as the body of the hare dropped into the snow, and an arrow was nocked. The wolf’s ears flicked forward, his head tilting slightly, as the bowstring tautened. He did not move an inch as the string sang its sharp note; he didn’t blink an eye as the arrow whizzed past him and into the snow, the shaft burrowing deep, with only the fletching sticking out, a blurry spot in the dim light. Only then did he wrinkle his snout, and shook his light grey head – and Loki was standing there, looking from the hunter to the arrow, and back. Then he said, “Honestly, Herkir. How can you possibly miss an unmoving target less than twenty steps away?”

 

He bent to pull the arrow from the snow, and strode over to where the dark-haired man was standing, the bow still in his hands.

 

“And I trust,” added Loki icily, “that you knew who you were shooting at. You must believe me to be very forgiving, or very stupid, brother. Or were you just a little over-confident?”

 

Herkir’s face went from pale to purple with anger and frustration, he snapped the arrow out of the steady hand holding it out to him, and said sharply, “I was shooting a wolf. That’s what we do here.”

 

“Ah, yes. Well. You missed.” And with a fleeting glance at the snow hare, “At least it is not a half-starved woodhen this time.”

 

Then Loki turned away, and strolled out of the clearing, offering his unprotected back to any arrows Herkir might care to send after him. They never came.

 

Somehow that made him even angrier.

 

***

 

Now that his solitary run had come to this sudden end, his mind back within himself, he decided to leave. He had had his talk with Laufey – if he had halfway expected for it to end differently, tough luck – staying around wouldn’t change anything now. He would take the horse back to Asgard by way of one other place he meant to visit while he was in Jötunheim, and he didn’t mind going at night. He would leave right away.

 

***

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“I had dreams …”, she had said, and in that moment Loki had known that he was right.

 

After a pause, “You had dreams …?” He tried hard to be careful, not to push, but he had to know.

 

Her voice was coming slowly, hesitatingly, almost as if she were talking to herself.

 

“They were … nice dreams. No: they were … wild dreams. Dreams that made the spring fires seem tame. I didn’t tell anyone …” Laufey exhaled – it was not quite a laugh. “I wanted to keep them for myself. And I was afraid that if I told, they would stop … I did not want them to stop. I was starting to look forward to my nights when I should have been living my days. There was no man in my life at that time, but those dreams … they were almost better than a real man.”

 

She paused, shook her head as if she had gotten something wrong.

 

“They were better than a real man.”

 

Another pause.

 

“They were better than any jötun man I had known.”

 

She fell silent again.

 

“And in these dreams … it was always the same – man?”

 

“I never …” She sighed, and closed her eyes, her face still turned to the fire. “I never really saw him clearly; only his eyes. Golden eyes, amber eyes, with firelight reflected in them. His hair, red and golden around his face; his glorious body …”

 

Her voice was so low now that Loki had to strain to understand. He waited for more, but she just sat in silence, her eyes closed, the light of the flames playing over her face.

 

Finally he said, “And when lightning had stunned you, you saw him again.”

 

But suddenly Laufey’s eyes were open, and she returned Loki’s searching gaze coldly.

 

“No. When lightning had stunned me, I had this dream again.”

 

“But it was the same man.”

 

“It was the same dream, only more … real, if that was possible.”

 

“So that was when I was sired.”

 

Suddenly, shockingly, she yelled at him. “It was just a dream!”

 

He did not recoil; his voice urgent, he said, “I know how it is, meeting a spirit. You only see them with your eyes closed; and you have to let them behind your lids to feel them, to touch them … But if you do, they are as real as anyone you find in your bed, or around the spring fires.”

 

There was a hint of despair in her cold voice when she said, “Nonsense! There are dreams, and there is the real world.”

 

“But don’t you see that he is my father? Don’t you see that it is all making sense now?” roared Loki, his patience finally at an end. He hit the table with his flat hand, and continued, “Wouldn’t it help you to know it was not Farbauti after all?”

 

But she laughed; a harsh sound.

 

“And how would that help me, to know it was not one rape, but two? Even if you are right – it does not change a thing, don’t you see that? You are the changeling child I always knew you to be, and if you are delighted not to be Farbauti’s son after all, I wish you happy with that. But go and be happy elsewhere.”

 

For a moment he stood staring at her like a fool, unable to grasp what was happening. But he got a grip on himself; he managed to ban the raging storm to the back of his mind; his eyes opaque and almost grey he said, “I have never been happy anywhere but elsewhere,” and turned away from her.

 

***

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There hadn’t been anything he could have said after that – he had left the house, and had changed into the wolf while still on the steps up from her door, and after that he had been running all day.

 

Now he crossed the clearing and went straight to the stable; the horse was instantly suspicious, and accordingly disgruntled when he found himself saddled and bridled within minutes. Loki walked him to Laufey’s house and left him at the post, and went to get his sword and the few things he had brought with him.

 

Laufey was sitting in front of the fire, mending a garden tool. She looked up when he entered, and watched in silence as he went about the house, picking up his things. It took only a moment; then he stood looking down on her with a frown, and she returned the look, her defenses back in place, her face unmoved. In the end Loki turned away withouzt a word and walked to the door; only at the last moment, his lips twitching into half a grin, he said over his shoulder, “I could tell Herkir where to find the tree lizards, but then I guess he’d break his neck trying to get one, and that would be chalked up as my fault, too, so I won’t. You’ll have to make do with his bag – it’s the grandfather of all snow hares this time.”

 

And he closed the door behind him, leaving her in the silence of her house.

 

Next to his horse, Grìd was waiting, her eyes anxious on Loki’s face. But when he stood before her, she just said, “You’re going to need some food,” handing him a small bundle.

 

It took a little while for the smile to reach his eyes, but eventually it did. He quickly strapped his baggage and the food behind the saddle, and then wrapped his arms around Grìd, lifting her up so they were eye to eye.

 

“It definitely was a pleasure meeting you,” he said, and she giggled, and her arms around his neck, they kissed until the heat was rising rosy into her cheeks. Then, very suddenly, she found herself on her feet again, and the dark stallion already halfway across the clearing. She stood looking after him and sighed, and then saw Herkir standing with a dark frown at the edge of the woods. Loki, without as much as a glance, cantered past him almost in touching distance, and then he disappeared into the darkness among the trees, and was gone.

 

With a deep sigh, Grìd lifted a hand to her still glowing cheek; then she went home to catch some sleep.

 

***

 

Loki’s anger carried him through the first hour of his ride; from then on he cursed his impulse, wishing himself back into Grìd’s bed. The night was clear and very cold, and it was very dark under the trees. Going back was, of course, out of the question, but he wished he could at least run again. But the fool of a horse would bolt the moment he turned into a wolf, and get lost in the woods, and then get himself eaten by something big, hungry and determined – enough of those in these woods …

 

There would be a great deal of yacking to deal with in Asgard if he failed to return the stallion to Odin’s stables; and aside from that, he did not mean to abandon his sword together with the horse, and that was that. He would keep riding and take the long way to reach his destination because the shortcuts were too rough for a horse … and he would arrive some time mid-morning, and would probably be as grumpy as the horse. Well, he actually was already, if he was honest.

 

The stallion snorted, and sidled from the imagined threat from one of a thousand black tree trunks, and Loki growled, “Behave, or you end up as my breakfast.”

 

Indignant at this treatment, the horse proceded through the night, entering with mincing steps a particularly dark part of the woods, with not even snowdrifts to break the blackness. Loki remembered fondly the wonderfully decadent convenience of eletric light, blinked in an attempt to adjust his eyes to the almost complete darkness, and resigned himself to a long, chilly, boring ride, hoping that the silly horse was at least clever enough to avoid bothersome roots and fallen branches.

 

***

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When the morning came, pale and grey under an overcast sky, they reached the edge of the woods, and before them, winter-bleak, opened the rough terrain leading to their destination. Stark and black, the top wreathed in smoke, red tongues of liquid fire running down its slopes, the land around it ever-changing with the cooling lava, the wide-based cone of the Fire Mountain rose out of the rugged plain. Mountain ranges circled the plains and the woodlands in three directions, in several days’ distance, and to the west he knew the bed of the Iving and Asgard’s wide plains; and all four horizons flecked white with snow. But the Fire Mountain did not suffer the winter; snowflakes, if they made it that far, hissed, melted, and evaporated, leaving it black and red under its smoky skies.

 

The prospect of a warm place and some sleep was invigorating, and Loki urged the stallion into a canter again. The animal, after a night of fruitless resistance, had finally resigned himself to the madman on his back, and was cheered by the return of daylight. Within an hour they had reached the foot of the volcano; a landscape like a frozen stream, the dark rock eroded in places, forming walls, bowls, caves, and turrets where the weather had been working on the multiple layers of lava, giving it the look of a half-molten castle.

 

Loki recognised some of the formations; in other places, the lava had recently reclaimed the territory, leaving waves and spills of frozen blackness. He reined the stallion in when they had reached a shallow bowl where even some grass had found a foothold, and a wall of lava in a shell-like curve was offering shelter against the weather. He freed the horse of saddle and bridle, and hobbled him loosely so he could get at the grass.

 

Leaving his anoraq and sword with his saddle, Loki started up the flank of the mountain. The lower reaches made for easy going, and he knew it would take him little more than an hour to get where he needed to be.

 

He had come to visit the place that had been his refuge when he still lived with the tribe, the place he had come back to whenever he was in the vicinity; the only physical place where he had ever felt at home. He had come to visit the lava streams; the rivers of dancing fire.

 

***

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Cooling on its way down the mountain, the bubbling liquid was sluggish, its surface already darkening into a black skin, constantly cracking into scales with red fire blazing up between them. The air over it was undulating with heat; the rock on the other side seemed to be alive, breathing like the flanks of a huge sleeping beast.

 

Loki had taken off his boots, and stood as close to the stream of lava as he could without singeing his feet, or burning his hair. He could feel the scorching heat on the skin of his hands and face, baking hot and dry; his hair was flying in the rush of hot air, and the surface of his eyeballs was drying, gritty under each blink of the lids.

 

He pulled his tunic over his head, enjoying the way the heat was pressing on him with a gloved fist. Standing with his eyes almost closed, he tipped his head back, his skin growing ruddy in the fiery wind. His whole body was easing into the heat, the rivulets of sweat running out from under his hair dried on his skin into salt-glittering trails before they reached his shirt, and the frown lifted off his brows as he was breathing the shimmering red-hot air.

 

Eventually he ran a hand through hair wild with the turbulent dry heat, and opened his eyes on the mountain side where he had felt at home each time he came here.

 

“Are you here?”, he asked, softly; “can you hear me? Can you see me?”

 

There was the hiss, bubble and crackle of the lava, and the incessant sigh of the hot air over the rock. There was nothing else.

 

With as much patience as he could muster, Loki stood staring into the ever-changing surface of the lava stream, and eventally closed his eyes again, trying to look into the space behind his lids where he had seen Nseri’s mother. The after images of fire were swimming in green patterns on the inside of his closed lids, and when they paled, red dots were swarming in their place.

 

He was hungry, and tired, and he wanted a bath; so eventually he opened his eyes. And in that very last moment, something flitted across his field of vision – somethng like a golden blaze out of tawny eyes.

 

Startled and disoriented, he stood blinking at the black and red mountain, and then shut his eyes again, but there was nothing but the inversed image of the lava stream. With a growl of frustration he opened his eyes, stared unseeingly at the rocks, and then threw his head back to scream his fury into the red-hot air in a wordless roar.

 

It seemed to him as if there was a faint giggle in reply.

 

He threw up his hands in a helpless gesture, and then stood, his arms at his sides, breathing, silent. Slowly, slowly he let go of his anger. He let the fire and the heat sooth him as they had done so many times before, burning away the nagging questions, let anger and frustration shrivel to weightless ashes, carried away on the rush of hot air.

 

For the first time in a while, he felt light and free again. What did it matter anyway? Wasn’t it enough to know, finally, that Farbauti was not his father? It wasn’t like he needed a father in his life now, was it?

 

He laughed.

 

And it would probably be rather frightening if Laufey would suddenly begin to display motherly feelings for him.

 

He giggled, seagreen eyes dancing.

 

Then he stretched, and yawned, pulled on his boots, picked up his tunic, and turned to go down to where his horse was waiting. There was a hot spring down there, too, and that was precisely what he wanted now. That, and …

 

He smiled.

 

***

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A couple of hours later, his body warm and relaxed after a spell of soaking lazily in the slightly sulphurous water of the hot spring, Loki had rolled out his blanket in the shelter of the lava wall, his clothes in a pile next to his saddle bag, and lay eating from the food Grìd had so thoughtfully provided. He left some of the bread, cheese, and cured meat for the morning, but there were two small cakes he intended to eat right away – as soon as he had taken care of the content of a small linen pouch he had dug out of his bundle.

 

He undid the strings holding it together, and shook a small pile of shrivelled black things into his palm. His lips curling into a slow smile, he dropped most of them back into the bag; half a dozen of them he popped into his mouth, though, and washed them down with some of the beer Grìd had put with the food. He knotted the string around the small bag again, and returned it to the saddle bag. Then he lay back, looking up into the darkening sky, wondering idly if Angrboda would notice that her stash of mushrooms had been seriously diminished, and his smile deepened.

 

He picked up one of the small cakes, and munched it, enjoying the tartness of the dried fruit, and the sticky sweetness of honey. Then he eyed the second one in silent contemplation, wondering if he should leave it for breakfast; but, muttering “Damn breakfast …”, he ate it, too, with relish, almost humming with delight.

 

Stretching his arms over his head he yawned, a content and lazy cat, and his hands folded under his head, his mind drifting, he lay waiting for the dreams to come. The sweetness of the cakes still on his tongue, his thoughts drifted sleepily to Grìd, and the night they had spent in her bed – and when mushrooms and sleep entwined, and pulled him into a colourful spiral of sensuous dreams, that was where they were taking him. For the next hours, he was not always fully asleep, but very far from being awake.

 

At first, it was Grìd, her soft curves, her lively curiosity and joyful unflagging energy; but as the grip of the mushrooms on his mind grew stronger, reality faded even further, and Grìd’s giggly girlishness was replaced by another’s smiles, another’s hands, a different skin, softer hair, a famiiar scent. A body he had known for so long now, only to find again and again that it held more surprises and secrets than he’d ever get a chance to understand. Just like his trip up the mountain, this was home, but a home he was less certain of each time he returned to it.

 

In this night’s mushroom-fuelled dreams, though, he found himself welcome in her arms, and he was revelling in her, her slender body, the legs she was wrapping around him, her hands and lips giving back twofold every titillating caress he offered.

 

The dreams were red and hot like the fires streaming down the mountain, and golden like the long hair he burrowed his face in, breathing the soft camomille scent, and forget-me-not blue like her eyes. He wanted to hear her voice, but in this dream she only smiled, and her smile was enough to fill his world with light.

 

But then, slowly, the dreams, like dreams do, shifted and changed, and when the first pale fingers of a grey winter dawn came creeping across the sky, poking at the smoky haze lying over the sooty mountain cone, the feeling of comfort and home had gone. As the mushrooms were losing their grip on Loki, the dream was coming apart, fraying on the edges like banners in a constant wind; but still he was caught up in it …

 

There was an urgency about the dream now, though; a wild hunger in the hands on his body, a ruthlessness in the way she was pressing herself against him, and the tangle of long locks was almost suffocating him as it was spilling over his face. He could feel the pressure of breasts against his chest, long legs curling around his hips, and there was her scent again … apple and bergamot …

 

Something was wrong.

 

Almost choking under the weight of her hair, he tried to come up to the surface, to free himself of the dream’s tentacles, but it was clinging to him with desperate strength. The last tendrils of mushroom haze were still drifting through his mind, and he had to fight his way through it, but finally he was almost awake. He still didn’t seem to be able to get out of that dream, though … long-fingered hands were still moving over his body, and his body, with damning predictability, was responding. He did not want it to – not now, anyway, not when he didn’t have a clue what was going on.

 

He wanted to wake up before the mushrooms, as they sometimes did, could take him down the winding, dark and unpleasant tunnels of nightmare …

 

He gasped when he was finally awake, and realisation came crashing down: this was not a dream at all; his face was really smothered under a tumbling mass of locks, and there was a body on top of his, skin to skin, and hands coaxing him into arousal.

 

It was enough to wake him up all the way immediately.

 

“No!”

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The furious roar clearly was unexpected – she gasped, and lifted her head, sufficiently distracted for Loki to push her off and roll away from under her. Confused and naked, he was kneeling on the bare rock, staring at the girl who was lying on his blanket, rubbing her head where it had connected rather violently with the lava wall.

 

“Nseri …”, Loki said, shaking his head as if denial would make her go away. “What are you doing here?”, and then, because the answer was quite obvious, “How the the fuck did you get here?”

 

Still rubbing her head, she shot him a furious glance.

 

“Why did you do that? First you are glad to see me, everything is nice, and we have fun, and then, Wham! You go and slam my head into the wall!”

 

She looked at her fingertips and extended her hand in Loki’s direction, accusingly.

 

“Look at that! I am bleeding!”

 

Loki didn’t spare a glance for the small smear of red, though; his voice sharp, his face a thundercloud, he asked, “What was nice, and fun …?”

 

Waving a hand at the blanket, Nseri said sullenly, “This! Us! Until all of a sudden you decided to go back to playing monk, or whatever it is you think you’re doing.”

 

“What?”, asked Loki, his voice roughening with suspicion; “What did we do?”

 

“Well, what did it look like?” the girl snapped. “We were making love!”

 

“No!” Loki rammed a fist into the rocky ground and did not even notice the pain. “I don’t believe you!”

 

“What is it with you!” Her face flushed, her voice shaky, Nseri was yelling now, too. “You seemed happy to see me! You were nice, and tender, and you kissed me, and pulled me down, and just when we finally were about to …”

 

She stopped, realising that without meaning to, she had answered Loki’s question.

 

Letting go of his breath in a relieved sigh, he said a little less agitated, “So we did not really … do anything.”

 

“We really were about to!”, Nseri cried defiantly.

 

Loki rubbed his face with both hands; then he eyed the naked girl, a deep line between his brows.

 

“So,” he said, trying to be calm and sensible, “how did you get here? And how did you find me to begin with?”

 

She stared back, her full lower lip jutting out a little in the pout of a child denied her favourite toy.

 

“It’s easy for me to find you,” she said, sulking, “no matter where you go.”

 

“How?”, Loki insisted as he stood up and pulled on his pants.

 

“What is wrong with you?”, Nseri asked testily. “Why is it you are always putting your clothes on when I am around?”

 

“How,” repeated Loki with forced patience, “did you find me?”

 

She sighed.

 

“When I am in Mother’s world I can find you at will,” she replied with a shrug. “The spirit world … is different. It is layered over all other worlds, in a way, and distances do not matter in it. Mother can go wherever she wants to; but then she cannot be in any other world than her own. That’s why you can only see her with your eyes closed.”

 

“But you can see her when she is around.”

 

“Yes,” the girl said, “I can see her.”

 

Intrigued, and forgetting his anger for a moment, Loki asked, “And you can go from this world into hers, and back?”

 

Nseri’s frown darkened.

 

“No, I can’t. She has to … take me in. She can open her world for me, and she can relese me into any other world, but I need her help to cross the barrier.”

 

“And that’s how you got here,” Loki concluded.

 

She folded her arms across her chest and eyed him darkly.

 

“Don’t make it sound like she dropped a turd on your blanket,” she said angrily.

 

“A very pretty turd,” Loki said with a quick grin.

 

Her eyes blazing with fury, Nseri grabbed a fist-sized chunk of lava off the ground and hurled it at him, but he ducked, laughing.

 

“Don’t laugh at me!” she yelled, and suddenly her green eyes were swimming, and there was a catch in her voice.

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There was a small pause, and then, “Where are your clothes?”, asked Loki, eyeing her with suspicion. The last thing he needed now was for the girl to start crying. She did not reply, but a single big tear was running down her cheek. Feeling very much trapped, Loki sighed, exasperated.

 

“Look,” he said, a little softer, “I am not going to change my mind, okay? You are my daughter, and for precisely that reason I am not going to touch you–”

 

“Ha!” she interjected, rather watery. “you did touch me, too, and you liked it!”

 

“I was stoned, Nseri;” he said grumpily, “I thought I was still dreaming.”

 

He pulled his boots on, and when he was looking at her again, her face was wet with tears.

 

“Couldn’t you get stoned again?”, she asked with a tiny hiccup of a sob in her voice.

 

He smiled, a little helplessly, and shook his head. Then, to get away from these pleading eyes and his own less than fatherly reaction to her gloriously naked body, he looked around and found her clothes a few steps away behind a fold in the black lava ground. He picked them up, and keeping a safe distance, he threw them to her, saying, “Get dressed, okay?”

 

With that he turned away and disappeared in direction of where the horse was giving the small patch of grass his undevided attention, cropping determinedly.

 

When Loki returned a little later, Nseri was dressed in red jeans and bright pink silk blouse, with black ankle boots on her feet, and an angry pout on her face. She was sitting on a boulder, rummaging in her purse, and watched Loki in resentful silence as he rolled up his blanket, and took food out of his saddle bag.

 

Then he started to eat bread and cheese, not bothering to sit down as he clearly did not mean to linger, and she asked testily, “Aren’t you going to offer me anything?”

 

His brows raised in the pretense of surprise; he hesitated, but eventually he broke off a piece of both bread and cheese, holding them out to her. Nseri received them gingerly, and nibbled on the bread. Wrinkling her nose, she said, “It isn’t fresh.”

 

He shrugged. “Didn’t make it to the bakery this morning,” he said with a green spark in his eyes. Then he watched her taking a bite of the slightly crumbly cheese, a grin lurking; and when she looked at him accusingly, asking, “What kind of cheese is that?”, he laughed out loud. “Goat cheese,” he said. “Rather ripe jötun goat cheese, actually.”

 

She was not amused.

 

“Don’t you have anything else?”, she asked, eyeing her share of his breakfast with patent disgust; “I am hungry.”

 

“Not very hungry, when you don’t eat what you’ve got,” he said with hateful cheerfulness. “Give it back if you don’t want it.”

 

The look she shot him was near lethal; but she ate bread and cheese in a few determined bites, and folded her arms in a belligerent gesture.

 

“Very good, child,” Loki said, and watched in patent amusement as she was seething with fury.

 

“I have some beer left if you want to drink”, he offered helpfully.

 

Deep suspicion in her voice, she asked, “Beer? What kind of beer?”

 

“Jötun beer,” he replied blandly. “Winter beer.”

 

She pulled a face. “Sounds nasty.”

 

He laughed, and shrugged.

 

“There is water behind the rocks over there,” he pointed, “but it is tasting rather peculiar. It’s okay, though, you won’t get sick from drinking it.”

 

Nseri eyed him suspiciously, clearly expecting mischief. But thirst winning over dignity, she asked, “Where’s the beer?”, and Loki held up the rather depleted skin. She got up to take it, and noticing how he was holding it with his arm extended all the way, keeping her at a distance, she flicked her hair back and rolled her eyes. Then she sniffed the beer, and wrinkled her nose; but after a first cautious sip, she tilted her head back and drank deeply, until Loki said, “Hey! Leave some for me!”

 

With two strides he was next to her and pulled the skin out of her hands.

 

“If you want more, drink water,” he said curtly into her indignant face, and lifted the skin to drink.

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“You are so rude!” Nseri cried.

 

Still drinking, he shrugged, the corners of his eyes creasing suspiciously, though, as if he was laughing at her.

 

Nseri sniffed, and returned to her purse.

 

“The water”, she decreed, “smells nasty.”

 

“Sulphur”, Loki said as he rolled up the empty beer skin. “But you really can drink it.”

 

“I don’t intend to,” Nseri informed him haughtily, and he shrugged again.

 

“Suit yourself,” he said, picking up his saddle bag. As he went over to the horse, Nseri came tripping after him, and when he put saddle and bridle on the stallion, she stood watching. Then he mounted, and she was looking up at him dubiously, and asked, “So, am I supposed to sit before or behind you?”

 

Raising his brows, Loki said, “Neither one. You are not invited along on this ride, my dear.”

 

“What? What do you mean?”

 

She was staring at him, clearly unable to believe her ears.

 

“How am I supposed to get away from here, then?”

 

“I haven’t the faintest,” Loki smiled coolly. “You managed to get here without my assistance – I’m quite sure you’ll get out of here, too.”

 

“But … but …” Her eyes were widening in alarm. “You cannot just leave me here!”

 

Red splotches appeared on her cheekbones as she stood staring at Loki, aghast.

 

“Of course I can – watch me”, he gave back, not at all impressed with her plea. “You could call your spirit world taxi service, if necessary.”

 

A deep flush was rising into her face.

 

“But she doesn’t always come when I call her! She sometimes … just ignores me, when she is busy doing … things!”

 

“Tough cookie,” Loki grinned. “I am sure she’ll notice, eventually.”

 

“But I want to ride with you!”

 

She took a few hasty steps in his direction, but under his rider’s hand the stallion was sidling away from her. Nseri, a little frightened of the big horse, and very exasperated with Loki’s behaviour, stayed where she was, but stomped one of her stylish and rather high-heeled boots.

 

Loki, hatefully, laughed. He turned his horse’s head west and said, “Goodbye, Nseri.”

 

“No!” There was, for the first time, something like panic in her voice. “Where are you going? You cannot just leave me! Please, take me with you! I promise I won’t …”

 

She watched the horse picking his way across the lava and cried, “Wait! How am I supposed to get out of here …?”

 

Loki reined in, and looking over his shoulder, he said with a smile, “I am going to Asgard. And you … you just will have to walk, won’t you, daughter of mine?”

 

With that he urged the stallion forward, and with a clatter of hooves on lava they were gone, leaving a speechless Nseri behind them. For a moment she stood forlorn in the black lava landscape, a rather colourgful exclamation mark on very unpractical heels; then she took a deep breath and yelled, “Mother …!”

 

***

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Long before Loki reached the open plain leading up to Asgard, darkness had fallen. Under its cover he had taken the horse back to one of the stables outside the walls, leaving him precisely where he had found him, if a little bit worse for wear and considerably disgruntled. Then, unnoticed by the guards, he had proceeded into Asgard by ways he had used many times before: conveniently slanted roofs, a few inconspicuous footholds picked into rock walls, half forgotten doorways into and out of buildings where everybody was asleep …

 

Asgard had lived in the peace of its power for so long that her warriors were lulled into sleepiness, muscles slackened by rich food and lack of exercise, the blade of Aesir warfare barely more than a polished ornamental sword hanging over a fireplace, the taste of blood forgotten. In its peaceful slumber the Aesir fastness was an easy nut to crack for Odin’s blood brother, Sigyn’s husband, even without the aid of mirros, or shape shifting.

 

That was a good thing, because shape shifting would stir Odin’s dimming sight to attention, while somebody climbing a wall was just one shadow among many, and Loki did not mean for Odin to notice him tonight.

 

Now, standing in a storage room where his wife kept boxes with less frequently used household items, he was staring at a solitary boot sitting in an otherwise empty chest. The wavering light of the torch he was holding was still steady enough to show without a doubt that where he had left his Midgard boots, leather jacket, and stash of weed, there was only this one boot now, neatly aligned to stand precisely in the center of the chest.

 

He swore under his breath.

 

This meant, of course, that instead of pretending to have just arrived from Midgard, he would have to explain why, before he went to Jötunheim, he had found the time to change clothes, get his sword, and borrow a horse, but not for a visit with his wife. Sometimes life really was unnecessarily complicated. He just hoped she had not noticed the missing loaf of bread …

 

With a resigned sigh, he picked up the boot, and went to find the lady of the house.

 

***

 

She was, of course, sleeping.

 

Or rather, Loki thought as he was standing in the darkness in front of his wife’s bedroom door, listening – she was dreaming. There was a soft moan, a gasp, the slow release of breath.

 

Another moan, soft, but deliciously drawn out. A gasp. The soft exhaling.

 

A moan.

 

There was, he realised, a rhythm.

 

The hand holding the boot suddenly gripped it rather harder than necessary as he stood in total darkness, grappling with this unexpected discovery.

 

A rhythm?

 

Listening, barely breathing himself.

 

A moan. A gasp. Exhale.

 

Definitely a rhythm. A very particular rhythm, even.

 

Unceremoniously he dropped the boot and was in Sigyn’s bedroom in a few long strides. A snap of his fingers, and there was a bright blaze in the fireplace, replacing the soft velvet blackness with white hot light.

 

She was there, his lover, his wife: Sigyn, spreadeagled on the luxurious furs of her bed, her thin shift crumpled into a pile on the floor, her soft, pale hair tangled around her shoulders, her skin flushed, a sheen of sweat giving it a mother-of-pearl shimmer in the firelight. Her eyes were closed. She was alseep.

 

There was nobody else.

 

Then she arched her body, and there it was again, that soft, ecstatic moan. Then, her lips parting, the gasp, and as her body relaxed, the long exhale.

 

Loki’s eyes, green with suspicion, narrowed as he stood staring down on the love of his life. Then, before she could moan again – because he would not, could not, stand there and listen to her doing it again – he leaned over the bed, supporting one hand on the furs next to her head, and kissed her, hard.

 

She responded to his kiss, her lips parting, and he could feel the heat pulsing under her creamy skin. Then her body arched, her thighs opening, and she moaned again. With a sharp intake of his breath, his lips still almost touching hers, he said, “Sigyn!”

 

Under the harsh tone of his voice the fire flared up even brighter, but Sigyn’s eyes opened with a languid flutter, as if she had been kissed awake tenderly, and the smile that came to her lips was without guile or guilt. She looked up at Loki and lifted her arms as if she had been waiting for him, but his eyes still narrow with distrust, he said flatly, “Who, Sigyn? Who is it?”

 

Only now her blue eyes were clouding with confusion, and her smile faded a little as she said, “Loki …?”

 

Taking in the furious green of his eyes, the hard set of his jaw, the dark frowning line of his brows, she gave him a puzzled look: still she locked her hands behind his head, and tried to pull him down into another kiss; but he resisted, staring down into her face, unmoving.

 

She smiled sleepily, the tip of her tongue moistening her lower lip before she purred, “Come, Kjæreste … I have been dreaming, and I want us to go on from where the dream ended …”

 

Loki ran his eyes around the room to make sure that Sigyn really was alone – no closets in Asgard bedrooms for secret lovers to hide in, as he knew well enough from experience. But her words did nothing to make him feel easy; grabbing her wrists, he pulled her hands off his neck and pinned them down on both sides of her face; his voice rough with suspicion he asked, “The dream? Which dream?”

 

From under half-closed lids she looked up into his face without resisting his hard grip, and her body was arching up against him, fair skin grinding against black jeans, and with a chuckle that was half moan, she whispered, “Come on, Loki …”

 

It was so easy to be distracted; to be tempted; to just give in.

 

But there was the nagging echo of another voice, the tales of another’s dreams …

 

“Sigyn,” he began, his voice softer now; but: “Sigyn!”, he repeated with some exasperation as her bare legs suddenly wrapped around his hips, and she laughed, and teased, “Since when are you so … reluctant, husband of mine?”

 

Without meaning to, he laughed. Without meaning to, he let go of her wrists and, supported on his elbows, held his face between his hands and kissed her. With a hum of delight she responded, pulling with urgent fingers on his clothes, trying to undress him. They got lost in their kiss until Sigyn, suddenly impatient, hissed, “Oh can’t you lose these clothes?”, as if, after a long foreplay, she finally wanted to go on.

 

A long foreplay, Loki realised, the last of which he had witnessed from the doorway.

 

He pulled away and asked again, “The dream, Sigyn? Tell me …”

 

“No,” she purred, “I’ll show you.”

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He had never been good at resisting this kind of a lure, and coming from her, it was completely irresistible. The scent of her hair, the touch of her bare skin, her hands on his body, were driving everything else out of his mind. The fire in the hearth sank into a soft dance of red and orange flames as the bodies on the bed moved into a dance of their own, as clothes were shed together with suspicions, anger, plans, excuses. This was what they did best, this was where they were truly together, where nothing could separate them, body or mind – they filled each other’s senses to the exclusion of everything and everybody else. When they were holding each other, nothing could touch them.

 

Loki forgot the dream he had witnessed because he did not have a thought to spare. Everything he had had on his mind only moments ago was forgotten; the nine worlds had shrunk to the size of a bed, and there was only she. Sigyn.

 

***

 

The night is black velvet, with just a hint of red lace where a few embers are still alive in the fireplace, pulsing with the movement of the air, and she wakes up, warm and safe in the circle of his arms. She can barely see his face; it is just a blur in the darker blackness of the room, outside the windows not even starlight now, but the ominous voice of wind stirring into a storm.

 

With a contented sigh she rubs her cheek against her lover’s chest. It has been perfect to surface from one of these dreams and find that her very much flesh-and-blood husband had come to take the place of the half-glimpsed man who has shared her nights so often lately – in her dreams.

 

She smiles into the darkness. She had been so startled when she found his sword gone, and then so angry when she had realised that he himself had come to get it, together with boots, and clothes, and probably a loaf of bread from her kitchen, without even bothering to see her.

 

When the tale of the horse stolen from Odin’s stables had reached her, she never had a doubt about who had taken it, and she did not care, but how could he come into her house, and leave again without a word? She had made sure he would have to come and see her on his return from wherever he had gone if he wanted his Midgard clothes back, and she had been determined to be difficult. Very difficult.

 

But how can you be difficult when not just your body, but your whole being is yearning for the one who so suddenly is standing before your bed? There probably was a way – but she does not know it; never has. Running her fingertips softly through the curls on his chest, she smiles in the darkness. Maybe she does not want to know …

 

Then the light from the fire grows stronger, just bright enough to see a little more than just shadows, and she looks up to see his eyes open, watching her. His arm around her tightens a little, gathering her even closer, and he leans over to kiss the crown of her head. Then, with a contented sigh of his own, he uses his free hand to separate one strand of her pale hair, and pulls it across his face like a blindfold. She can hear the long intake of his breath as he takes in the scent, and reaches up to lay a hand against his cheek; she can feel his stubble pricking through the pale silk of her own hair. Then she reaches further up and runs her fingers through the unruly mane of his hair, thicker than hers and darker, with a will of its own. There is a faint smell of sulphur coming from it, and she says softly, “You’ve been at the Fire Mountain.”

 

A sleepy sound from deep in his throat answers her, just sufficiently modulated to make it an affirmative. He is barely awake … She knows how he can come out of the deepest sleep in the blink of an eye if he has to – but never in her bed. Here he can drift through the warm waves of sleep and dreams as if there is no outside world. She loves to watch his sleeping face, when he looks as she remembers him from the first glance so long ago.

 

His grip on the bare skin of her shoulder relaxes, and the fire darkens as he is drifting back into sleep, and with a smile on her lips she closes her eyes, and follows him.

 

***

 

Morning was reaching into the windows with dove grey fingers when Loki woke up, opening his eyes to find his wife’s forget-me-not blue ones gazing at him from where she lay propped up on her elbow, wearing a loose linen robe. She had been up already – there was a fire of logs in the fireplace, and a steaming kettle, and a plate with bread and honey cakes next to the bed. Smiling sleepily, he reached out and ran a fingertip over her lips, along her jaw and neckline, before his hand came to rest in the back of her neck, on the downy skin under the tumbling mass of her hair. He pulled her closer, and with a smile creasing the corners of her eyes, she allowed herself to be pulled, and when their lips touched, her hair enveloped them both.

 

“Hungry?”, she asked softly when their kiss ended, and he smiled, his eyes under thick lashes unguarded as he said, “Only when I can eat the cakes off your skin.”

 

“No you cannot,” she replied, mock-stern. “Much too sticky. You’d leave a mess.”

 

“Don’t I always,” he replied, a shadow of wariness drifting across the seagreen of his eyes as he was laying himself open to her attack. Mercifully, she only laughed and broke off a piece of cake to feed it to him. He took it, nipping her finger as he did so, and she tried to slap him, playfully. He ducked, laughing, trying to grab her in turn.

 

It ended with both of them breathless with laughter as they rolled over the furs, grappling with each other. When Loki had her trapped, pinning her down with his body, he laughed, chanting, “Sticky, sticky …”

 

Her robe had opened, and he was rubbing his lips over her bare belly. They were indeed sticky, and Sigyn squealed, trying to get away. Effortlessly holding her down, he offered helpfully, “Wait, I’ll lick it off …”, which he proceeded to do, resulting in even more squeals. Sigyn, tickled to within an inch of her life, managed to break free. Leaving her robe in Loki’s hands, she trapped him under her, his hands caught pressed against his sides as she was kneeling over him.

 

He grinned up at her in delight, and Sigyn reached out and ran a hand through the riot of his hair, saying breathlessly, “In my dreams your hair is alive, like fire …”

 

She did not understand why all the laughter went out of his eyes at this. He lay staring up at her, completely still all of a sudden, searching her face; then he said abruptly, “Tell me about those dreams.”

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She was startled; she was also embarrassed. She did not know shyness when it came to their being together; it was part of their magic that there were no taboos. But those dreams – how could she talk about them under the unflinching gaze of eyes gone almost slate grey? Suddenly it felt like an interrogation.

 

“They are just dreams,” she said, but he did not relent.

 

“Who is with you in these dreams, Sigyn?”

 

“You are,” she said quickly; because he was, wasn’t he?

 

“What is happening in them?”, he continued to pry, and Sigyn wanted to roll away from him, but he didn’t let her; his hands, free now, kept her in place. She could feel a wave of hot blood rushing to her face, from anger as well as embarrassment.

 

“What is it with you?”, she asked, incredulous, but trying to make it into a joke. “Are you jealous of a dream? That is a little strange, don’t you think, when it is about you, and only a dream anyway?”

 

“Is it?”, he asked back, unsmiling.

 

“Is it what? You? Yes, it is, a dream reflection of you, sure, but your face, your body …”

 

“So you are saying it is just a dream.”

 

She stared down at the frowning line between his brows, the shadow in his eyes.

 

“Loki, what is wrong with you? You come here to secretly pick up your Midgard clothes, after you took a loaf of bread from my kitchen on your way to the Fire Mountain and did not even bother to ask, or perhaps say hello – and now you have the nerve to be jealous of my dreams? What are you saying? That I am not supposed to have dreams? Or at least not … pleasant ones? While you, of course, keep slaking your lust in every bed and every haystack in all the nine worlds, I am supposed to stay, what? Pure, faithful, and lonely?”

 

He opened his mouth, but this time she did not let him get a word in.

 

“What do you think it is like, to lie in the darkness every night, dreaming of warmth and tenderness, and having only myself for company? Let me tell you, Loki, it makes a bitter bed.”

 

Their eyes were locked into each other, and she could see that now he was the one who wanted out of this, but also that there was something else, an unknown shadow in the seagreen depths. His face had gone white under the lashes of her words, and he made as if to reach up to her, but her eyes were flashing ice, and his hand dropped down again, gripping the furs hard instead.

 

“And now,” Sigyn continued cuttingly, “I cannot even dream without having you look at me with suspicion? What can be threatening you in a simple dream?”

 

He put his hand on her bare thigh, trying to establish a connection, and on a thread of a voice, clearly desperate to reach her through the ice storm of her rightful anger, he whispered, “Sigyn …”

 

She threw her pale mane back, her lips a straight line of hurt and bewilderment.

 

“Sigyn, it wasn’t a dream.”

 

She laughed mirthlessly.

 

“Oh, this is ridiculous! Of course it was a dream! I’ve had them for a while now, on and off, and …” – she blushed again, but kept her eyes resolutely on him – “… and they are making it easier to get through the times when I am alone. The times without you.”

 

His hands were shaking slightly when he reached up and took hold of her shoulders; under his fingers he could feel the heat still beating under her skin, and when she tried to shrug off his grip, he held on. He wanted to shake her to make her understand how serious he was, but he knew it would make matters only worse, so he tried to keep his temper on a leash.

 

“It is not a dream,” he repeated, and the black trace of despair in his voice finally pierced her armour. Bemused, she stared down into his eyes, her own face still rigid with hurt.

 

“Not a dream? What else should it be? I do not go to bed drunk, Loki, nor am I eating any of those mushrooms you are so fond of, and I am not smoking the stuff from the bag you left with your clothes, either.”

 

He didn’t even blink at that. There was a lot more at stake for him now than some petty little secrets.

 

“It is not a dream,” he insisted. “It is … a spirit.”

 

Sigyn laughed out loud, but when he did not smile, did not even move, she eyed him, still caught in his hard grip, confusion blurring her face.

 

“A spirit? But …” She seemed lost, unsure if this was a joke.

 

“A fire spirit,” Loki continued.

 

Neither of them took notice of the fireplace where the flames were rising with a sudden whoosh and crackle like laughter; forget-me-not eyes were staring into seagreen ones, and inspite of dawning understanding, Sigyn asked, “What are you saying?”, trying to buy time; trying to sidle away from yet another secret she did not want to share, because like all the others it would mean only trouble and hearbreak.

 

“A fire spirit?”, she repeated. “But … even if it was not you, even if it was … a spirit – it was only a dream. Why are we fighting over a dream?”

 

“Are we fighting?” Loki kept staring straight into her eyes, and when she blinked, he said again, “A fire spirit. And he is my father.”

 

The flames in the hearth suddenly whispered out with a giggle, leaving the logs burst and blackened on a bed of grey ashes, with a tendril of colourless smoke trailing listlessly in the dim light from the window. The room instantly grew chilly.

 

Her skin under Loki’s hands grew stone cold as Sigyn blanched. Then, tears of rage drowning the blue eyes, she wrenched her shoulders out of Loki’s slackened grip, and threw herself forward; her fists blindly pummeling his head and chest, she cried, “No! I don’t believe you! Say it isn’t true!”

 

He did not make a single move to defend himself. Instead, he was watching her, a curiously helpless expression in his eyes.

 

“Why are you doing this? To torture me?”

 

Her voice broke with the strain. He lay looking up at her in silence. She was strong enough for her punches to hurt, but he just lay quiet, and it drained all the fury out of her, leaving only the dread. Still kneeling over him, she hugged herself as if she could hide in her own embrace. Her lips white in her tear-drenched face, she whispered, “how can you say it is not a dream? How can you say he is your … father?”

 

Tentatively Loki reached up, to try and pull her into his arms, but Sigyn moved out of his reach; crawled away from him across the bed until she sat with her back against the white washed wall, hugging her knees to her chest, her big blue eyes on Loki.

 

“Explain,” she said, all her defenses back up.

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Loki sighed, and sat up, crosslegged, wrapped into the furs, his elbows on his knees, his eyes on his hands as he snapped a small flame into life, watching it as it danced from finger to finger.

 

“As you already have guessed,” he began, slowly, “I have been in Jötunheim. Not only at the Fire Mountain, though – I also went to see Laufey.”

 

A fleeting glance at his wife showed him that he had her attention, but even though her brows were raised in surprise, she did not comment.

 

“I went there to talk to her about the day I was conceived,” he said, his eyes returning to the small flame, “and she told me that in the months before that day, she had dreams … well, a dream lover, who came to her again and again. And then he also came to her when she was lying stunned, after lightning had hit her. He fathered me.”

 

The small flame stood still, hovering trembling over Loki’s flat palm.

 

In a surprisingly calm voice, Sigyn said, “But, Loki – Farbauti is your father. He says so. Laufey says so. Everybody knows that. There never has been a question.”

 

“Farbauti,” Loki gave back, his voice a low growl, “seized the moment, and forced himself on my mother, but he is not my father.”

 

Sigyn’s eyes did not move from his face when she said softly, “Where is all this coming from, all of a sudden?”

 

Her voice was calm, and warm, and Loki’s eyes snapped away from the small flame, up to his wife’s face.

 

“Don’t look at me like that!” he hissed savagely. “Don’t you dare pity me!”

 

The flame on his hand suddenly flared up a foot high.

 

“I do not pity you,” Sigyn snapped, “I love you.”

 

This did give him pause, and the fire on his hand and in his eyes cooled a little. Looking away from Sigyn’s face, he said grumpily, “I am rather sick of having to go through this again and again.”

 

“Indulge me,” Sigyn gave back, her tone back to her usual level cool. “You started this, remember? I just had a dream.”

 

Loki sighed.

 

“Well. I know that everybody says Farbauti is my father. But so far nobody can explain why I would be such a flaming freak, if you’ll pardon the pun. I am not sure how familiar you are with the standard breed of jötuns, my dear, as you haven’t been around them much, but in general they need flint and tinder to start a fire. Why, if both my parents are jötun, can I call fire?”

 

To illustrate his point, and to get away from his wife’s sceptical blue gaze, he let the small flame bloom into an orange ball, suspended over his relaxed hand and slowly turning in the air. Then it shrank back into a single flame, and Loki looked across it.

 

Sigyn’s eyes had mellowed a little, but she remained silent.

 

Loki took a deep breath, and continued.

 

“Jötuns do not call fire,” he repeated wearily. “They don’t walk throgh mirrors, they do not shift their shape. They are passable hunters, and love to fight without being too subtle about it – much more fists than brains, on the whole. They are also about my size and a half, at least the men. In the whole tribe – actually in all of Jötunheim, I’ve always stuck out like a sore thumb – and now I know why.”

 

Sigyn sat looking at him, her eyes running over him in cool appraisal as if she saw him for the first time and didn’t know what to think of him. Finally, taking the argument around a very sudden corner, she said, “I do not believe that spirits can make children with … more substantial beings.”

 

Taken by surprise, Loki said with authority, “Of course they can,” and then he wanted very much to make the words unsaid. He watched suspicion shading Sigyn’s gaze, and she asked sharply, “Oh? How would you know?”

 

Recovering quickly, “Well, I am proof enough, am I not?”, he asked back with asperity.

 

Sigyn frowned, thinking.

 

“So Laufey told you that a fire spirit is your father?”

 

His silence told her enough; her head tipped back, she looked at him from under her lashes and concluded, “She said no such thing at all, did she?”

 

“She told me about the dreams,” he snapped. “You know my mother. She is not going to accept that so much in her life, so many of her decisions, were based on a wrong assumption.”

 

“So she still says that Farbauti is your father.”

 

Loki stared straight ahead under a dark frown. Finally:

 

“She says she doesn’t care one way or another.”

 

“Ah …” Sigyn was watching the emotions playing over Loki’s face; then she said, “I still do not understand where this idea of a spirit as your father suddenly came from.”

 

A fleeting green glance.

 

“Something somebody said a while ago got me thinking.”

 

“Oh.” She nodded as if this explained anything. “Somebody I know?”

 

“Never mind who,” Loki brushed the question aside; “they were right.”

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“But I do mind!”

 

Sigyn was sudddenly yelling.

 

“You go on a wild goose chase for a fire spirit who might or might not be your father, and who, it seems, is sharing my bed, at least in my dreams, three days out of four –” – a flash of furious green jealousy, but she did not let him interrupt her – “not to mention that he might get the idea to get me with child –” Loki was by now looking as if he would spontaneously combust any second –“and you do not even tell me who gave you this idea to begin with?”

 

Green eyes, blue eyes, and a world of suspicion that made the width of the bed suddenly an ice field too wide to cross.

 

“I am waiting,” Loki’s wife said, the cool beam of her gaze trying to freeze him to the spot.

 

“Just somebody I met a while ago,” Sigyn’s husband said with a shrug. There were far too many unknown quantities in this equation to hand over information rashly.

 

“A girl you met,” she said.

 

“A girl I met,” he admitted.

 

“One of your girls,” she specified.

 

“No, not one of ‘my girls’,” he said in a rush, and the raising of her brows only added to the uncomfortable realisation that in this case he better not stressed the difference between the neverending string of girls in his life, and the one daughter that had turned up so recently and unexpectedly. Sigyn was – grudgingly – used to the existence of non-specified girls – if she would tolerate the existence of a daughter was another matter altogether, and one he did not want to put to the test just now.

 

He sighed, spreading his hands palms upward in a gesture of surrender.

 

“Why are you so stuck on who gave me the idea?” he asked, his voice soothing, rational, calm. “Isn’t the important thing what I found out in Jötunheim? That is what I came here to tell you about.”

 

“Would you have come at all”, inquired Sigyn, remembering that she had meant to be difficult about this, “if I hadn’t taken your things out of that chest? I suspect you would have changed into your Midgard clothes, and probably raided my kitchen, only to disappear without showing your face, once again. – But –” she went on, raising a hand to stop Loki from defending himself against this fresh attack, “what really bugs me is that there seems to be somebody in your life – a female somebody – who knows you, and also Jötunheim, well enough to realise that you might not be as much jötun as your mother claims for you to be. That, husband of mine, cannot be just one of your girls – or she has to be from Jötunheim. But you only went to Jötunheim after she – whoever she is” – ice blue dart of a gaze – “gave you the idea to go there. So I wonder – who is she?”

 

There was a long moment of silence, steel cold on Sigyn’s part. Loki, railroaded by her flawless chain of deduction, found himself in the uncomfortable situation of having to re-think all his positions on the run. He would have to give her something.

 

He sighed.

 

“Her name is Nseri.”

 

“Aha.”

 

It clearly was not enough.

 

“And I met her by coincidence.”

 

Silent shower of blue arrows.

 

Loki knew that if looks could kill, he would be bleeding badly by now.

 

“Sigyn, what else can I say?”

 

I don’t know. The truth, for a change?”

 

Loki, stubborn and hard-headed as a rule without even trying, knew that his wife, despite all her fair blue-eyed beauty, could be iron-hard if she meant to. He always had known that for one of her strengths – how else could she bear being the Trickster’s wife, dealing with Asgard’s disapproval and the Allfather’s hatred through all the long times she was left to fend for herself? But still, he could not tell her the truth just now. Not this truth.

 

Silence.

 

The moment stretched until Sigyn’s sigh told him that he was lucky, once again. For now Sigyn gave up, and gave in. Deflecting the inconvenience like a cat, Loki reached out for another of the honey cakes, and when he heard his wife say softly, “I am not going to forget,” he avoided her eyes, thus leaving the situation in limbo. A place where many of their arguments went – it probably pretty crowded there already.

 

Without touching him, Sigyn got out of the bed, and left the room.

 

***

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It was the laughter that woke him. He did not know how much time had passed, and the light from the window was a pearly grey and could be anything from late morning to early evening; the storm clearly had found its stride in the meantime, and was blowing hard, its howling voice sharpened by beam and wall.

 

The laughter, though, came from inside the house. Sigyn’s voice, clear, and piercingly familiar, and two others. Young voices; male voices.

 

Her sons. Their sons.

 

Loki sighed, and unwilling to get up and be sociable, he was about to roll over and go back to sleep, when the smell of roasting meat suddenly reached him, tickling awake his nose, his palate, his stomach. On cue, the latter growled.

 

Loki yawned, and stretched, and rolled out of bed.

 

***

 

Vali gave his brother’s shoulder a playful but still quite forceful slap, saying, “Wild girls with tattoos aren’t good for you, little brother.”

Rather unimpressed with his elder’s advice, Nari picked a piece of crust from the plate Sigyn was carving the roast on, got his fingers slapped, grinned, and said, “But it is not a very wild tattoo – it is rather tame. It is just a leaf. By far not wild enough for you, Vali.”

 

“A leaf?” Loki’s voice came from the doorway, and all three turned to look in his direction. His tousled hair was still dripping from the waterfall out back where he had showered, and he was wearing his black jeans and a t-shirt, his bare feet leaving damp prints on the flagstone floor.

 

With studious deliberation Sigyn returned her attention to the food; her sons stood smiling at their father, happy to see him, but also a little wary. He had never been the kind of father who demanded respect, discipline, and decorum, like most other Aesir parents – but you never really knew what mood he was in, either. Sometimes he was like one of their peers, easy going and a lot of fun; at times he was absentminded and aloof to the point of being rude; and sometimes he made it very clear that it was their mother he came to Asgard for, and that he found their presence rather unnecessary.

 

At the moment he was frowning darkly, and asked without anything in the way of greeting, “Who got a leaf tattoo?”

 

Slightly guarded, Vali replied, “A girl we met.”

 

“Where?” Loki’s voice was whipping across the quiet room.

 

The young men exchanged puzzled glances; then Nari said, “In the woods, near Bifröst.”

 

“When?”

 

Before anybody had a chance to reply, the carving knife was put down on the table with a clatter; but when Sigyn said, “Let’s eat!”, there was nothing but sweetness in her voice – perhaps just a tad too much of it, though.

 

Nari saw that his father was wearing his most stubborn expression; he also realised that his mother, under her outward calm, was seething with anger. Heaving a deep sigh, he realised that something was wrong – again. He had no clue at all what the strange and exciting girl had to do with it, but the combination of a pretty girl and his father was always good for a few complications. He also realised that Loki was expecting an answer right away, despite the storm brewing in Sigyn’s eyes.

 

So he tried his best to appease both his parents; turning to the table to sit down for the meal as requested, he said quietly, “We met her two days ago, on our way back from the hunt.”

 

“To which”, Sigyn inserted with a wide smile, “we owe this wonderful roast. Have a seat, Loki, unless you have other plans for dinner.”

 

This invitation was so casual it was an affront; the pause following it was short but chilly. Then Loki came into the room, strode up to where the meal was served, and sat down, leaving the big carved chair at the head of the table to his wife. With him, Nari thought, you never knew – was he oblivious to the meaning of this gesture? Or was it a planned move, calculated to give him an air of meekness and humility, a guest in his wife’s house?

 

Nari had seen his father play all of Asgard like a master puppeteer – and he had seen him going down because he had walked into a situation with his guard down, guileless to an extent that made him look naïve. That he was not, though – Nari was very sure of that. Loki was sometimes bored, always quick, often reckless. Sometimes, Nari suspected, Loki let a situation blow sky-high just for the fun of the fireworks. If he happened to find himself in a bind afterwards … well, it seemed that getting himself out of a fix was part of the fun for Loki Laufeyarsson. Nari was sure of one thing only when it came to his father – he would never really understand him.

Now, for instance, it was obvious to all present that Loki knew the girl with the leaf tattoo, and that he had a lot more questions about her sitting on the tip of his tongue. It was equally clear that Sigyn was deeply suspicious of the nature of her husband’s interest in the girl – and the big question was if Loki, fully aware of his wife’s eyes on him, would pursue the issue, or not.

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