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Mackie

Loki – Family Ties

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Ljómi had looked up from her work when the distant hum of the Great Gong had started; but she immediately returned her attention to hammer and anvil, and the metal between them. But when she resumed her work she realized that the stream of air from the bellows was getting fitful, resulting in an uneven flame of changing temperature. With a pair of small tongs she lifted the piece she was working on, and dropped it into a water basin to cool; then she addressed the burly man working the bellows (or not, as it was).

 

“Gnari, you have to keep going or we’ll spoil the piece,” she said sternly. “It’s only a brooch, but I can’t see a reason why it should not be done properly.”

 

Gnari, rather upset, gave back, “But it’s the Alarm! Certainly we’re supposed to find out at once what’s going on?”

 

Ljómi’s lips curled into an ironic smile.

 

“I’m sure we’ll find out soon enough. If it is something important, the Callers will be going around anyway. If everybody’d leave work to run to the Hall, the only thing to happen would be that every passage gets clogged. I bet it’s just another Gnawers alert, and there is nothing we can do about that, anyway. So please, let’s keep working.”

 

Gnari, a stocky individual with an amazing mass of grizzled hair and beard sprouting from the round head on top of the stiff long leather apron he was wearing, grumbled and muttered, but he returned to the bellows. The smith, after all, was boss in the forge – bellow hands could be exchanged in a trice; there were always enough of those waiting around the Hall of Smiths, waiting to be picked. And even though it irked Gnari to be working for the only female among Glámhal’s smiths – everybody knew that Mistress Ljómi’s work was second to none in her field, and working for her was much better for one’s reputation (and one’s wages) than working for a griddle maker, or one of the lowly blacksmiths. Mistress Ljómi did Magick – everybody knew that. And that was why Gnari took his orders of her, and returned to the bellows. Maybe he could even spy a bit of how to do that for himself some time … and until then, Mistress Ljómi was paying him well. And so, with a last doleful sigh, he put his large calloused hands back on the bellows, and started pumping. Ljómi took the snake-like coil of the brooch-to-be out of the water, and picked up the hammer again. She was smiling.

 

Both the front door of the forge, and the door into the back room were partly open, and they would remain so – today she was not leaving the forge. She didn’t want to keep any midges out …

 

***

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The Captain had been right, of course – Loki was taking the fastest route to the Lower Gate he could find. He had decided to run for all to see, because he didn’t want them to find out about mirrors – and about one in particular. He had to lead them to the Gate. His main worry, though, was to find it locked; he wouldn’t hesitate to take on what guards he found, but it would make time a bit of an issue …

 

But when the iron-studded gate finally came in sight, it was obvious from afar that a group of at least half a dozen Duáwafar were just coming in from the Stairway, and that they were taking their time manoeuvering their huge and somewhat cumbersome pack loads through the gate. They were talking to the guards, and together they were noisy enough for nobody to notice the uncommonly fast approach of one Loki Laufeyarsson.

 

But there was somebody else; somebody approaching the Gate from the other side of the passage; somebody who, as soon as the Great Gong had started to sound the alarm, had known right away what it had to be about, and that the Lower Gate would be the place to go. So after hobbling painfully to the Gate as fast as old age and infirmity allowed, making none of the detours that had cost Grun and his group so much time, Brokk was almost there now. All he could see at first was that that snooty trader seemed to have come back this moment; the one who was married to that impudent woman who had had the gall to become a smith, and in Eitri’s forge, to boot, which made it even worse. It looked like it took that trader and his cronies a lot of time to get all their rubble in the door, too – what did honest Duáwafar need all that foreign stuff for, anyway? Silks, and translucent glass … In his time one had been content with what the Mountain provided, under ground and above. The mines had yielded all the gems and the ore they needed, the hunters had brought home meat from the mountain meadows, Black Elves had sold them what other food had to come from Outside. But nowadays they had to get wine from Muspellheim, and pearls from Midgard …

 

Muttering and grumbling, Brokk arrived at the edge of the group milling before and in the Gate. There was some good-natured banter amongst guards and traders, but Brokk, feverishly looking forward to what would be the revenge of a lifetime, croaked, “Hurry up! No time for that nonsense! Don’t you hear the Alarm? He is loose in Glámhal, and this is where he must come through!”

 

The men didn’t heed him at all; it was as if he was thin air. They had heard Brokk’s story countless times, and had learned to drone him out long before they had grown up. Now they continued to exchange news and gossip, and the guards were gladly receiving small packages of tobacco from the traders to celebrate a successful trip, and assure future benevolence when it came to gates opening at all time of day or night. Nobody had the time or patience for an old man’s grievances.

 

Only when Brokk started to poke everybody within reach with his gnarly walking stick, making vicious use of its pointy end, did the good humour of guards and traders alike start to wear thin. But instead of listening to what he was trying to tell them (which, to their excuse, was not very coherent to begin with), they turned on him and started yelling.

 

So when Loki Laufeyarsson proved old man Brokk’s calculations right by appearing at the Lower Gate on his second flight from Glámhal, every single guard and trader at the Gate was turning his back on him, busy berating the old man. Arriving at the gate on his treacherous soles, Loki saw Brokk literally spitting with fury, beard and hair standing on end as he was delivering a blistering diatribe on the uselessness of the younger generations. Between him and Brokk there was a solid wall of Duáwafar backs, some with heavy packloads, some with the insignia of the Guard.

 

For a few heartbeats Loki stood watching, and what had started as a smile when he had seen the Gate standing open, was broadening into a delighted grin. Then Brokk’s eyes fell on the one face that was not overgrown with a beard, a face under a thatch of very un-Duáwafar fair hair, a face showing an impudent grin and pale eyes the colour of treachery – eyes that had followed him into his worst dreams for a long time. He tried to catch his already sadly spent breath, and wanted to roar with anger, to set the guards on the fiend and end it all right here, but all he managed was a rook’s cawk, and when he pointed a shaking finger at the face of his arch enemy, the guards standing between him and Laufeyarsson, mistaking it, took umbrage and threatened to have him bound and gagged – him! In the face of Evil Incarnate!

 

Evil Incarnate gave a shout of laughter at this, but not even that pierced the denseness of the group of guards and traders. Helpless before that wall of brawny, sturdy, and insolent Duáwafar, Brokk had to watch Loki Laufeyarsson turn with a wink, and simply walk out of the gate and onto the stairway. But having to witness this final horror helped Brokk to rally his last reserves: in the first clear sentences he had got out in the whole encounter, he screamed, “The fiend is fleeing! Laufeyarsson! Laufeyarsson! Don’t let him get away again!”

 

Only now a few of the men turned, and the guard who had been helping the last of the traders get his packs through the gate actually caught sight of a tall, fair stranger in foreign clothes running up the spiral stairs. At this point Grun and his group rounded the last bend in the passage and came pounding up to the gate, cursing and yelling, and making the guards realise that indeed somebody was fleeing from Glámhal, and the blame for letting him out the gate was going to be put at their door.

 

Pushing the traders, the guards, and Brokk aside, the stampede went rushing through the gate and surged up the stairs. First was the guard who had actually seen Loki run; but there was only one way to go, anyway, so it didn’t take any tracking skills to know which way to run. The whole group was storming up the steps as fast as they could, with the remaining guards from the gate making up the rear as the fever of the hunt infected them. When everybody was through, the last one to go, a guard with a solid paunch over his belt and flat feet in his heavy boots, felt himself being yanked back by his collar, and stared into the face of old man Brokk, purple with fury, his hands shaking with excitement.

 

“Somebody has to stay and guard the gate!” the geezer croaked. “He is clever! He might come back! Look out for flies!”

 

With that he pushed the guard into the recess next to the gate, and hobbled up the spiral stairs in wheezy pursuit of the hunt, hanging on to his stick for all he was worth.

 

The guard was fine with it. He wasn’t really one for running, especially not running up stairs. And of course the gate couldn’t be left unguarded … He realized that the group of traders was standing there open-mouthed, several of their packs looking a little trodden-on, and said importantly, “There has been an Alarm sounded by the Great Gong …”

 

The traders gave him blank looks, not sure what to make of these goings-on; they picked up their packs to make their way home, muttering among themselves about how this homecoming wasn’t what they had expected it to be. The guard, left to his own company, stood scratching his beard, wondering vaguely why old man Brokk had mentioned a fly …

 

***

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When the first of the pursuers, already badly out of breath, reached the landing a few dozen flights up from the Lower Gate, and saw that the door to the storage level was standing open, he was taken aback so much that he just stood where he was, panting, so that the following group ran straight into him. What did the fugitive think to go hiding in the storage? The only way out of Glámhal on this side of the mountains was the Upper Gate; the storage level was just that, and had only this one door. But all the better, they decided while more and more of the group were arriving, pressing onto the limited space of the landing. Nobody would complain if they didn’t have to run all the way to the Upper Gate – they would catch him right here in the storage, and spare themselves some pain.

 

They rushed through the open door, and the movement had sufficient momentum to carry even those like Grun, who were not sure it was wise, with the surge into the vast storage room before they were able to stop and voice their reservations.

 

When Brokk eventually came hobbling up to the door, everybody was already milling around the vast room, searching. He howled with fury when he learned why they had decided to enter the storage level, and that indeed they had all done so. Highly embarrassed to be caught remiss, the Captain of the Guard sent a handful of his men on to the Upper Gate to look for the fugitive on the way, and warn those standing guard there.

 

There was, of course, no Loki Laufeyarsson among the casks, sacks, and crates in the storage cave. Brokk was all but hopping with fury, saliva flecking his beard and tunic as he was berating everybody from Grun on down. The leader of Glámhal’s Council, pale with anger and embarrassment, eventually turned on his heel and ordered everybody back to Glámhal. He made sure the door was firmly closed, and then turned to trudge down to the lower Gate, when he realized that old man Brokk was still there, waiting for him.

 

“A fly!” the old pain whined. “He can turn into a fly! You didn’t search for flies, did you!”

 

Grun had to make a huge effort not to be rude and roll his eyes; he grabbed Brokk’s arm rather forcefully, and led him to the steps, saying soothingly, “There were no flies, Father Brokk. Now calm down, and let me help you down the stairs; you should not exhaust yourself like this.”

 

But there was no calming the old man. Punctuating his words with his stick, he kept croaking, “A fly! We didn’t look for a fly! He did it again, and it is your fault!”

 

At this moment, aside from the fact that the hunt had gone bad, Grun was feeling his own years much more than he cared to, and he was not happy to be poked with a stick; in grim silence he led the ranting old man down the stairs, doing his best to suppress all the irresistible images of an assisted tumble or some other quick accident that came to his mind unbidden. It would be such a relief to shut the old fart up – but he knew that the risk was too big. So when they finally reached the Lower Gate, he grabbed the first guard he could get hold of, pushed the still garrulous Brokk at him and said curtly, “See to it that Father Brokk is taken home; he will do himself some harm if he keeps up this agitation.”

 

With that he turned away from the gate himself – he needed time for quiet reflection. Things had’t gone well in Glámhal today, and with Rági badly wounded, and Laufeyarsson most probably escaped, he needed to see his way through the next days. There was nothing at all wrong with the sound of “Lord Grun”, but there was a lot to be done before he could get there, and to that end he didn’t need old man Brokk spreading the tale that the failure just now had been his fault …

 

***

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Meanwhile, the guard dutifully escorted Brokk to his home, and the old man, exhausted with the physical exertions, but even more with the aborted hope that he might be revenged on the bane of his existence after all, was falling increasingly quiet, until he was only muttering under his breath, his grip on the guard’s arm getting rather shaky.

 

“Here we are, Father Brokk,” the guard said in a kind voice when they had reached an intricately ornamented door set into the wall of the passage; he was a nice young man, and sorry to the the old man so feeble – he was one of the heroes of the old times, after all. He used the big iron boar head set into the door as a knocker, and almost immediately a sturdy woman opened. “See, Father Brokk,” the guard said as he handed the old man over the threshold, “your daughter-in-law will take good care of you now.”

 

The last he heard of the old man as the woman was leading him into the family dwelling was something he muttered about a fly, and the guard thought that getting old was not good when it meant you got all rusty in your upper works. Then he turned and strolled in the direction of the Crystal Hall – now he had officially been sent away from the gate, he could as well go and find out what all the uproar was about …

 

***

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The midge, of course, was delighted with the detour. Positioned safely on the back of the guard’s tunic shoulder, it was happy to be spared the exertion of having to fly halfway across Glámhal under its own power again. It already had immensely enjoyed to hitch a ride from the storage level to the Lower Gate on the grizzled nest of hair of old man Brook, of all people. It – or rather its passenger and pilot – thought it added a hilarity of poetic dimensions to the whole episode. A pity old man Brokk would never know it … It would probably be his end.

 

It was a good thing, though, that the old tale of Eitri, Brokk, and the fly, had lost its impact through countless repetitions, and had by now passed into legend – a thorough search for an insect might have become rather uncomfortable, with so many eyes and torches present …

 

But now the guard had reached the Crystal Hall; opposite to when Loki had last seen it, it was now packed with Glámhal citizens. The guard didn’t manage to press in far, and the midge abandoned him to buzz over the heads of the crowd and closer to the dais where some of Glámhal’s most powerful citizens stood huddled in replacement of Lord Rági.

 

Of Rági himself there was nothing to be seen, but as the chief healer was just now reporting to those of the Council present, the Lord would lose at least his right hand, if not the whole arm – a prospect that wasn’t boding well for there being a Lord Rági much longer. It made everybody assume the gravest expressions, but Loki suspected that at least half of them were already silently aiming for the empty High Chair.

 

The hunt for the Word-breaker, Thief, Assailant, Fugitive Laufeyarsson was reported to have been without result. He was supposed to have escaped – by precisely what means could at present not be discerned. There was some grumbling and muttering at that, but as Grun chose this moment to come in by a side door and came striding up directly to the group of notables, nothing came of it.

 

Each item of news passed down the Hall, creating new waves of noise as it made its way to the far side and into the passages beyond. But suddenly there seemed to be a reversed effect – something was happening in the passage behind the pillars, and under a lot of shouting and yelling more news reached the hall and eventually the dais. Like all news of today, it was not good, and totally unexpected: the Gnawers, all but forgotten over the day’s disasters, had by means unknown opened the greenwood cage, and had left the cavern by way of about two dozen tunnels roughly the diameter of one Gnawer – to say it in so many words, they had breakfasted their way out of their imprisonment, leaving behind four guards who hand’t noticed a thing, a cavern with walls looking like an imported cheese, a broken greenwood cage, and a bit of rubble on the floor.

 

Understandably, this development darkened the mood of those assembled in the Crystal Hall even more. It was unheard of that Gnawers could touch, let alone handle and destroy green wood, and speculation ran amok in the Hall; then the first shout rose out of the crowd: “Somebody broke them out!”, followed rather quickly by, “Laufeyarsson!”

 

Midges do not giggle, as a rule. That doesn’t keep any passengers from succumbing to unholy, if silent glee, of course.

 

There still was one thing for Glámhal to learn before the day was out, though; and Loki couldn’t resist temptation to stay around and be present when these news reached the Hall. The midge settled on a dim part of the wall behind the dais to wait for this to happen.

 

Time got a little long though, and Loki wasn’t precisely famed for his patience.

 

While in the Hall, both on the dais among Glámhal’s chosen few, and down among the hoi polloi, one plan for revenge was outdone by the next, the midge grew a little peckish. Anger, frustration, and the sheer press of bodies in the crowd resulted in the rising of a (for a midge) most heady aroma, and eventually it lifted off of the wall and buzzed right into the mêlée, to pick a lusty young guard to serve as a snack. Completely engrossed in argument, the guard absentmindedly slapped his neck, nearly ending a very long and mostly successful career in mischief, but the midge managed to escape, mainly by luck.

 

It returned to the wall, and none too soon: another messenger arrived at the hall, this time through one of the side doors right onto the dais. It was Nóri, Loki’s one time gambling buddy and long time Duáwafar Nemesis. He clearly had been running, and was sweating profusely, his face dark red. His eyes wild with the importance of the news he was bringing, he ran up to the group around Grun and grabbed the Council Elder’s arm hard enough for the old man to grimace with pain, yelling in his face, “The Black Lake! The Black Lake!”

 

Grun clearly didn’t know what to think, and those standing close were shouting confused questions at Nóri. When the big dwarf only continued to shake Grun, yelling, “The Black Lake!”, the Captain of the Guard finally used the handle of his axe with discretion, to give Nóri an incentive to explain himself.

 

When the solid hardwood handle connected with Nóri’s temple, it gave a resounding crack (and Loki was by no means sure it was the head that cracked). Nóri, looking baffled, sat down rather abruptly on the flagstones of the dais. But when the Captain explained politely that they would appreciate more details than just “The Black Lake!”, Nóri was not holding it against him, but got up a little unsteadily, and said, “It’s gone. The Black Lake. It is only black now, I mean. It’s the lake – the lake has been drained.”

 

When before the noise of the shouting had spread in concentric waves from the dais all the way down the Hall, there now was a hush growing under the high black ceiling – a whisper, followed by silence fraught with apprehension. But into this silence came a voice, again, shouting, “Laufeyarsson!”

 

Grun, stroking his beard with not quite steady hands, said, “We cannot well lay this at his door, I am afraid. How can a single man drain a lake so deep below this level, and at a time when we know he was here, cowardly running for his life?”

 

The silence trembled and shivered, and then shattered into a thousand words when from somewhere near the pillars, old man Brokk shouted, “When he sends the Gnawers to do it, that’s how!”

 

The midge had heard enough.

 

***

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Ljómi was holding the brooch up to eye level, critically examining every twist and turn of the silver strands. It was perfect; she meant to keep it for herself. It contained a lot of what had been going through her mind today, and she smiled when she turned to Gnari and said, “That will be all for today. You can let the fire go out now.”

 

She had sensed something a while ago – not quite a presence; just a hint of change in the atmosphere of the forge. Now everything was back to normal. Not in Glámhal, though – that much she knew, of course. There had been a string of boys with news from the Hall of Smiths: first about the assault on Lord Rági; then about the escape of Loki Laufeyarsson; then the flight of the Gnawers; and eventually about the disappearance of the Silent Water, the Black Lake.

 

Glámhal had a lot to recover from … and, thought Ljómi with a tiny smile, mermaid beads would lose a lot of their value now, because what good was a mermaid when you had nowhere to keep her? No … holding up the brooch, Mistress Ljómi was not at all disappointed with today’s work.

 

Her husband had returned from his latest trip, too, but she had decided to ignore that particular piece of news until tomorrow.

 

At least.

 

After paying Gnari a bonus – he clearly felt put upon because of missing out on all the excitement – Ljómi told him to go home, closed shop, and went to bed. Before she extinguished her lamp, her gaze was resting for a moment on the empty table where not so long ago the spell basket had been sitting, waiting for Loki Laufeyarsson to pick it up on his way out. She stretched out on the big bed, and lay in the darkness, smiling, wondering if she would bother with a grate for the mirror, ever.

 

***

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The house was locked up when he arrived at what from the look of the light outside the windows, was probably very early morning. It was feeling empty, too, but he didn’t bother to check; just let himself out of the kitchen door, leaving it on the latch behind him, and walked straight down into the ravine, picking up a small shovel from the garden shed on the way. The spell basket was heavy in his hand, and seemed to grow even heavier the deeper he climbed into the ravine. A few steps away from where he had taken those pictures of Nseri, he dug a hole, frowning a little over how deep he should make it. Then he put the small black iron container into it, and and, shovel in hand, stood staring down at it for a long time.

 

The pale blue morning sky had brightened into full daylight in the meantime, and now the light was cooling to a pearl grey as a low cloud cover was pushing across the sun; leaving dark splotches on the grey stone, the first cold drops of rain spattered the rock next to the brook, and broke the still surface of the water into overlapping rings, but Loki didn’t move, a far-away look in his seagreen eyes.

 

Only when the rain started in earnest, pelting him so that within moments his leather jacket was running with water, his jeans soaking wet, he seemed to wake up, shaking his streaming wet hair out of his eyes, and dropped the first shovel of dirt on the basket. After that, he soon had filled up the hole; he marked the place with a flat stone from the brook’s bed, and made his way back up to the house.

 

At the garden gate he stood quietly for a moment, trying to decide whether or not somebody was home. There was no sound or movement he could detect, so he went back in by the kitchen door, locked it behind him, and stood listening to the silence of the place. He took off his boots, pushed them out of sight under one of the worktops, and went upstairs, where a look into Anya’s office and at the calendar on her desk explained her absence: a fat red line was going through two weeks, with one word riding it, in capital letters: SANTORINI. Anya had gone away on a holiday.

 

Loki remembered that she had a security company keeping an eye on the house whenever she was away, but they wouldn’t turn up before nightfall. Peeling his damp clothes off, he entered the guest suite and took a shower. There simply was no world that could compete with Midgard when it came to decadent luxuries … He stood in the rush of steaming water, his head thrown back, his eyes closed, enjoying the heat on his body, sluicing away the turmoil and mayhem of the past days.

 

Then he went and slept in what had used to be his bedroom; and as the past days had clearly taken more out of him than he was aware of, and there was nothing and nobody in the house to disturb him, he slept a lot longer than he had meant to. He woke up to a dim room, with the daylight outside the window completely gone; and just when he realized where he was, he heard what had woken him.

 

There were voices in the house – people talking. Men talking. And at least one of the voices was coming up the stairs.

 

He hadn’t fully closed the door to the upstairs landing; now he could see a soft shine as if the lights in the downstairs livingroom were on; and then he heard a man’s loud voice, probably talking to somebody on the ground floor: “A bit over anxious, the lady, isn’t she … I mean, checking all rooms on every round? As if checking the doors and windows wouldn’t show if anyone got in …”

 

From the sound of it, the man was practically at the door.

 

From the moment he had opened his eyes until now only heartbeats had passed – but before he even started to think, Loki had rolled off the bed, pulled the cover as straight as he could in a hurry, and disappeared under the low bedframe. He was lucky that there was what Anya had called a ”flounce” – there was barely enough room for him to begin with, and none at all for him to work his way deeper under the bed. He lay in the darkness, trying to breath as quietly as possible, listening to the footsteps muffled by the deep, expensive carpet, his bare skin touching the fabric of the flounce. He really had to work hard at not laughing out loud, it was so ridiculous.

 

The second security guard seemed to be working the upstairs rooms now, too – his voice seemed to come from Anya’s office when he said, “Well, there actually was a weird incident the night before she left – some ex boyfriend or other turning up at a party uninvited. At least, somebody saw him, but nobody could tell how he had gotten in. Or out, for that matter …”

 

“Ah … I see. I guess she should get herself a burglar alarm, then, big expensive house like this …”

 

For a long moment Loki lay stunned as he realized that he had never even considered an alarm. He had only the haziest idea about how those were working – even coming in by a mirror, he might have tripped it. He managed to suppress a grateful sigh. Talk about dumb luck …

 

The security guy now seemed to have checked the bathroom without noticing the wet towel – Loki couldn’t even remember where he had left it. The pile of damp clothes was in the corner under the window – as long as he didn’t turn on the lights, he just might miss that one, too.

 

Then the feet were receding, and the door was firmly closed, leaving Loki in the darkness, one hand on his mouth to keep in the bubble of laughter he felt rising. He listened to them continuing their round of the house; and only when he heard their car on the driveway he finally rolled out from under the bed. With a rueful grin he thought that he should give Anya’s cleaning lady a letter of recommendation – it had been seriously clean under that bed, and he knew that any eventual dust bunnies might have made him sneeze at the most inopportune moment.

 

Now he was hungry, and with Anya gone for two weeks, the fridge was bound to be empty. In the closet he found what clothes he had left behind; picking jeans and t-shirt at random, he gathered up the leather jacket to wear later, and the damp pants and shirt to throw into the garbage bin behind the house.

 

He didn’t have any cash money, so eating out wasn’t an option, but the freezer turned out to be well-stocked. Within minutes he had a pizza in the oven, and had opened a bottle of good red wine; he also had spotted a tub of his favorite caramel-and-cream ice cream, too, so dinner was taken care of. He would keep to the back of the house, where all windows looked out at the backlot and the ravine, any light in them invisible from the street or the neighboring houses.

 

As he was sitting in the kitchen, his feet propped up on the table, eating his pizza, he realized that he would not come back here again.

 

***

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In spite of the late hour, it had been easy to hitch a ride into town – Loki hand’t realized it, but it was Friday night. The kids picking him up were obviously out for a party night; they offered him a bottle, and whatever it was, he found it to have quite some kick. They were two boys and a girl, probably still in their teens, and they were clearly thrilled to be picking up a stranger – probably something their parents had told them not to do, ever.

 

One of the boys, a freckled strawberry blonde, said, “I know you, right? You were at the skate park the other night.”

 

Loki didn’t remember the face, but suspected that he was the boy who had let him borrow a board. “Yes, I was,” he said; “it was fun.”

 

“You were pretty good for an old man who’d never tried it before,” the kid said; “and not too squeamish about crashing, either.” After a searching glance at Loki’s face, he added, “I thought you’d still have that bruise on your face; it looked pretty nasty.”

 

Touching his face where the big abrasion had been, Loki grinned; but now the kid was staring at his wrist, his eyes widening a little.

 

“Ouch!” he said. “I bet that was painful …”

 

The wrist was still a very angry red, the skin taut and shiny. Loki shrugged. The fact that the burns had not healed – certainly not over night – had not been lost on him; but there was nothing he could do about that – not before he wasn’t through with the Nseri business.

 

The girl at the wheel asked, “Where d’you want us to drop you?”

 

“Somewhere downtown,” Loki said with shrug. His prey was likely to be in a crowd – if she was around at all. She could be somewhere else altogether; she could be on a different continent; she could be in a different world, if he was out of luck.

 

The kids were headed for a club, and he just went along and then drifted in and out of bars and clubs for a couple of hours. There was always somebody offering a drink or a smoke, and the few times he spotted somebody he knew from Anya’s, he made sure they did not see him. It was easy to see them first - they were here to party, and he was here hunting.

 

The early hours found him on a sidewalk, leaning against the front wall of a bar, smoking. The crowds were thinning out, and he had almost resigned himself to the idea that he would not find her; at least not here, not tonight. He was idly wondering if he should go back to Anya’s empty house after all; lost in thought he dragged on his cigarette, closing his eyes – and started to cough violently because a familiar pair of hazel eyes was looking at him from behind his lids. As it had each time before, this startled him into opening his eyes, but he immediately closed them again. Hazel eyes, a luscious, smiling mouth, and a gold and green haze like sunshine through moving leaves.

 

“Hello Loki,” the island spirit said, her voice soft.

 

“Where is she?”, Loki asked Nseri’s mother, making do without the social niceties.

 

“Oh, she is around. She is looking for you, so maybe you should go somewhere else. Somewhere,” she added, her gaze growing in intensity, “where we can be alone …”

 

“She is here? I need to see her,” Loki said, rudely ignoring the invitation, and the hazel eyes narrowed in annoyance.

 

“Why would I help you find her?” the spirit woman snapped. “You are mine. She can go and find somebody else for herself.”

 

“I am not yours, just get rid of that idea, okay?” Loki said, irritated. “I need to see Nseri as soon as possible.”

 

“You are mine, and I will always find you when I want you,” she said on a thread of a voice honed down to a vicious whisper, “and I wonder if she would like to know about the evil little surprise you have been so busy preparing for her …?”

 

Then she was gone, and Loki opened his eyes, a deep line between them. How could she know? It was enough to give one a serious case of paranoia … He took a last drag and dropped the cigarette butt; then he looked up and down the street, wondering where his wild child was just now. She would not stand around waiting for him to turn up, that much was sure. Perhaps, if he simply stayed where he was, she would come floating by, carried on the ebb and surge of night time party goers …

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A group of young women came out of the bar; they were chattering and laughing, their dresses and make-up clearly fit for the war path. One of them was wearing a pair of white fluffy-feathered clip-on wings, and a neon yellow plastic halo, probably battery powered, was glowing over her head, held by wires and a barrette. They threw giggling looks in his direction, and one of them nudged Angel Wings, almost pushing her. The girl, a pretty blonde, rather tipsy judging by her flush and the slight weave of her steps, came up to Loki and said, “Hi! I am Nellie, and I am getting married tomorrow.”

 

“Today!” one of her friends called, and they all squealed and clapped.

 

“Okay, today then.” Nellie seemed to look a little stricken for a moment; but then she bravely pushed on. “This is my hen night, you know, and now I have to kiss the first man I see outside the bar. And that,” she concluded with a great beaming smile, “is you.”

 

One of the other girls cried, “Nellie, I can see a lot of other men!”, and another squealed, “… but they are not so hot!”

 

This brought on another gale of giggles, and Nellie was blushing a little in addition to the night’s alcoholic flush, but she was still looking up at him with a guileless, almost child-like smile. Loki laughed and pulled her close, one hand in the small of her back, the other in the nape of her neck. He said, “We can as well do it right, then,” lowered his head to her expectant face, and kissed her.

 

She had gasped when he had pulled her against himself, but now he could feel her whole body yielding. She tasted like the last drink she’d had – something lemony, with a lot of alcohol, and her halo shone on his closed eyes, making him see a yellowish light on the back of his lids. He could feel one of her hands in his hair, and one on his back, determinedly making its way down until she took hold of one of his buttocks.

 

The watching girlfriends were clapping and cheering, and Nellie clearly was in no hurry at all to end the dare. She was now hooking one leg around Loki’s legs, her whole body pressing against him. By the flicker of bright white light agaist his closed eyes Loki realized that the girlfriends were taking pictures, documenting Nellie’s faithful adherence to the rules, and Nellie was still not giving any signs of wanting to break the kiss; Loki was enjoying himself hugely.

 

Until a familiar voice said in a icy tone, “Very entertaining, indeed.”

 

He opened his eyes without letting go of Angel Wings; between him and the semicircle of now slightly uneasy girls stood Nseri, her arms akimbo, long legs apart in the stance of a commanding officer catching an insubordinate soldier red-handed at fraternizing with the enemy. Loki winked at her, and then, closing his eyes again, returned his attention to Nellie and the kiss.

 

He heard Nseri’s indignated gasp, and lifted Nellie off her feet, demonstrating how to further intensify a kiss that wasn’t too shallow to begin with, the bride-to-be a very willing partner in crime. The girlfriend chorus clapped, hollered, and cat called; Nseri was resoundingly silent.

 

Eventually Loki set Nellie back on her feet and let go of her, smiling into her slightly dazed face.

 

“Wow!” she said. “Can I have your phone number?”

 

“Nellie!” Her girlfriends, not really amused anymore with the way things were going, moved a step closer as one as if they meant to drag her away; but Nseri just gave her a cold look, “He doesn’t have a phone number,” she sad. “And he isn’t from around here, either – just passing through. And just so you know – he is taken.”

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She stood staring at the blonde girl, towering almost a head over her. In her heels, she was eye to eye with Loki, who had one shoulder against the wall again, crossing his arms, regarding his daughter with exasperated amusement. Doing her best not to let the tall girl frighten her, Nellie smiled up at Loki and said, “Well, thank you so much! That was quite a kiss …”

 

“Have fun on your wedding,” he said.

 

“Yes, and never tell Roger about this!” one of Nellie’s friend’s cried, and then the whole group surged forward, dragging Nellie with them as they were off in the direction of yet another bar.

 

Finding himself alone with his disapproving daughter, Loki smiled and said, “Hello, Child.”

 

Proving her own next words a lie, Nseri stomped her foot (Loki had to admit that she was doing it pretty well, considering her six inch heels), and said, “I am not a child!”

 

Loki laughed; he could see that it made her mad.

 

“You are. You are my child”

 

“But not a child!”

 

She came up to him in two long strides, and he had to admit that just looking at her had been worth the wait. She was wearing a slim black dress that barely reached down to her thighs, and didn’t leave much of her upper body to imagination, either, with a V-neck almost down to her waist. Had he been able to see the back of that dress, he would have noticed that the neckline was plunging way below waist line there, exposing the beautiful leaf tattoo (that , of course, wasn't a tattoo at all). The only thing to hold the little bit of fabric in place was the neckholder, and probably daily prayers and offerings to the Deity of Wardrobe Disasters … The dress was breathtaking, and the designer who had recently sent it out for a fashion shoot was still berating the stylist, the photographer, the commissioning magazine, and the messenger service involved, because nobody could quite explain why the dress had not been returned, and where exactly it was. There were serious lawsuits on the horizon, and hungry lawyers circling above.

 

Nseri had liked the dress on first sight. It also had been so small that it had easily fit into her purse when she left at the end of the shooting.

 

Loki liked the dress on her a lot, too – until a rather unfamiliar voice at the back of his mind suggested that perhaps he should not like it quite so much on his own daughter. It was a good thing the voice came up with that before Nseri had reached him; it helped him to hold onto what cool he could muster when she leaned into him and he found himself sandwiched between a rather unyielding brick wall, and her sweet body, firm where it should be, soft where it should be. She laid a hand on his hip, sneaking the other under his jacket, and then under his shirt, her fingers ending up splayed on the bare skin of his back. She leaned so close that he was feeling her firm breasts under the thin black silk pressing against his chest, and one of her long slender thighs was pushing between his legs.

 

Her eyes were very close to his own; even in the uncertain light of the multicoloured neon signs of the bar, he could see every nuance of hazel and gold in her irises. The velvet perfection of her skin, the burnished auburn of the tumble of hair she was wearing piled up tonight, the inviting smile of her voluptuous mouth, and most of all the scent of her – very much a woman scent, with the expensive perfume she used playing only a very minor role in it – the girl was laying siege to all his senses, and he was not too used to battling back an assault like that; actually, swift surrender would have been much more in his line.

 

She would never know what it cost him to say with a grin, “It‘s late. Shouldn’t you be at home and in bed at this time?”

 

Her voice sultry, she whispered in his ear, “Yes, I should be in bed – in your bed.”

 

“Don’t be ridiculous, Nseri,” he said coolly, noticing how her body immediately stiffened with anger. “I never share my bed with children.”

 

Incensed, she pushed away from him and screamed, “I am not ridiculous!”

 

She had no idea how close it had been. Deeply grateful for the distance she had put between them, Loki fished for his last cigarette, lit it with a snap of his fingers, and said calmly, “You are. And you are loud; didn’t your mother teach you that men hate it when women make a scene?”

 

She stood with her hands clenched into fists, staring at him with her eyes blazing.

 

“You are mean!”

 

“Yes, I am mean; and I am too old for you; and I am also your father. See? You should be glad to be rid of me.”

 

She was breathing hard, her eyes fixed on his face.

 

“You only say that to make me angry,” she hissed.

 

Loki laughed.

 

“You know,” he said, smoke curling up his face, backlit with a stark cobalt blue from the neon sign right above him so that she could not see his eyes, “for a change I say that because it is true.”

 

He watched her eyes filling up, and wanted to run. Instead he asked quickly, “Are you on your own tonight? Do you live somewhere around here? You really should go home. It is late.”

 

“Is that what you came here for?” she cried, “To tell me it is late and I should go home?”

 

“Yes,” Loki said, his eyes on her with an unreadable expression. “I guess that is about what I came here for.”

 

He turned away and walked into the bar. He had made sure that Nseri was where he needed her to be for the spell to work; now he was free to go back. He found the restroom, and a mirror.

 

By the time Nseri had wiped the tears off her face and followed him, he was gone.

 

***

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