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Mackie

Loki – Family Ties

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Well, and why would bad luck stop at the gate? His problems with Nóri were small peanuts, compared to the history he had with the owner of that voice. If he had thought about it at all – and he was not too keen on thinking about that episode if he could help it – he had hoped that time and old age would have cleared that particular obstacle away. But obviously time had not been so inclined – or perhaps the old bastard was clinging to life so stubbornly that old age had a hard time doing him in. Well, whatever the reason, he would have to deal with his old nemesis now, on top of everything else …

 

But throughout all this, Loki kept smiling, looking for all concerned as if he was just a friendly neighbour stopping by to ask a small favour.

 

The greybeards around the table muttered and grumbled, but other than before, when the young woman in their midst who wanted to do more than just serve the mead, had united them in indignation, their reaction to the new arrival was a mixed one, ranging from “doesn’t know his station” to “a dangerous guest indeed!”

 

The young woman, though, was not impressed.

 

“If you need to be grey and stooped to remember whatever crimes you are accusing this man of,” she said sceptically, “then I say that is a lot of water down the Iving. Why don’t we hear what he has come here for before we start hurling accusations?”

 

Again indignation rose like a wave raking over pebbles, and the old man who now had reached the circle of light, growled, “Woman, don’t you remember the tales from the winter nights? This is Loki Laufeyarsson, and he still owes us his head!”

 

Still not turning, his smile brilliant, his eyes glittering like the emeralds in Ljómi’s necklace, Loki replied, “My head, yes – but as you remember, not my neck. Take one without touching the other – with an excellent memory like yours at your disposal, you will certainly remember that that was the verdict.”

 

“Odin’s verdict! An Aesir verdict!” the gravelly voice interrupted, now very close. “If you had not been Odin’s blood brother, and pet jötun, things would have had a very different outcome. As it was, we were robbed, and ridiculed; and now you have the effrontery to show up here, right at Glàmhal, as if you were an ally, and not an enemy!”

 

“Are you at war with Asgard, then?”, Loki asked silkily, and in direction of the Head of Council, “or with Jötunheim? How strange! You’d think I would be aware of that.”

 

“No, no, no such thing,” the Head of Council hastened to say, highly annoyed that his hand was forced by the old man now stepping into full light. He was a very old man; his once powerful frame was stooped low, a still huge hand, gnarled and crooked with age, gripped a sturdy walking stick he was leaning heavily on. His hair and beard were like grizzled bushes, not plaited like on the men around the table, and his face was so deeply lined that it resembled the relief map of a mountain range. But in all this wreckage of a once strong man his eyes were still clear, shining like quartz pebbles deep in the shadows under his unruly brows, and his voice had none of the weakness or shakiness of infirmity.

 

He, too, was wearing an abundance of gems and precious metal work – with one curious exception: around his neck was a slender gold chain, and on it, incongruous among all the finiery, something that was looking like a very old, very rusty, very common awl.

 

Now that the old man had entered the circle of light, Loki had turned his head to give him a politely bored look; at the sight of the unusual pendant, though, his eyes widened a little. But nothing else betrayed that he had to fight a strong urge to rub his hand over his mouth, or at least run his tongue over his lips. For a moment the old scars seemed to be burning, and all he wanted to do was turn and make a run for the spiral stairs, or grab somebody’s sword and run the old man through, for old times’ sake.

 

Instead of any of the above, he smiled indulgently, like you smile to honour old age even though you think they do not deserve it, and said with a glitter of steel behind his bland words, “Hello, Brokk. Still heavy at the bellows?”

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A hastily suppressed sound suspiciously close to a giggle showed him that the redhead, at least, was still on his side. She certainly wasn’t to be underestimated, neither as friend nor foe – a woman who managed to fight her way into the Council of Glàmhal and lived to actually take her place at the table, had to be hard as nails, ruthless, inventive, and rich – in short, a very promising acquaintance. Sadly, for the time being he would have to focus on the problem at hand …

 

Brokk, the problem at hand, was actually shoving his beard right into Loki’s face now, making it hard to focus on anything else. His deepset dark eyes were bloodshot and full of anger as he gripped the old awl, waving it dangerously close before Loki’s eyes.

 

“Have you come to get some more of my stitchery in your face, pretty boy?” he rasped, saliva flecking his beard as his anger literally shook him.

 

“Not really, no,” Loki repled in conversational tone; “I have lately moved on to tattoos, actually. So much more convenient, more stylish, and all the rage in Midgard. The ladies are very fond of them, too, you know?”

 

An unarticulated howl rose from the old man’s chest, but before he could do anything drastic, the leader of the Council barked, “Brokk, that is enough now! Those are old tales indeed! The Council will now hear what brings Loki Laufeyarsson to Glàmhal, and in an orderly fashion. I will not have it said that the dwarves of Glàmhal insulted a guest, and a messenger from Asgard.”

 

Loki let this little misunderstanding pass without blinking an eye; he still stood smiling and apparently at his ease, until one of the men from the table came and led Brokk aside. It took some insistence, as the old man seemed unable to calm down, but his insults and accusations were getting increasingly garbled; he also seemed to include the Council as a whole, and the Chair in particular, so Loki had a hard time not to start grinning.

 

When at last Brokk had been respectfully escorted home by two sturdy dwarves from the Guard, Ljómi’s grandfather cleared his throat and said, “I hope you understand, Laufeyarsson, that Brokk is a very old man.”

 

“Of course,” Loki replied courteously; “don’t mention it. Nothing to get upset about.”

 

There was a bit of muttering down the table, but the Chair pretended not to hear it. He cursed his luck, having to act for the Lord in a tricky situation like this, but he was not going to let the Council undermine his authority. They all were quick with the bickering and griping, but who was coming up with a better solution? Nobody.

 

And so, still sitting, he bowed slightly to the guest, and said, “I am Grùg, son of Griga, Leader of the Council of Glàmhal; acting in our Lord’s place while he is away. Please state your business, Loki from Asgard.”

 

Under the stare of more than twenty pairs of eyes, ranging from sceptical to openly hostile, with one notable and delightful exception, Loki, blue-eyed, frank, courteous, began: “I apologise for interrupting what must have been an important meeting, but there was no time to send word ahead, and my request is as secret as it is urgent.”

 

Pushing his chest out, Grùg sat up straighter with the pleasant idea of having Odin (well, almost) apologise to him for interrupting what so far had been a very tedious meeting about another skirmish with the thieving black elves.

 

“There was no harm done,” he said gravely. “Let us now hear the request you came to present, Loki Laufeyarsson.”

 

And keeping a straight and adequately somber face (if only they had known what it cost him), Loki put his request before the Council: That help was needed in binding somebody – somebody from far away – to a certain place – a place in another world. Pre-empting their questions, he added, “It is in this case not advisable to use seid, or to openly involve the Allfather at all, if you understand what I mean.”

 

The two rows of grey beards nodded solemnly, and Grùg said, “Ah … one of those cases, is it?” Stroking his beard, he added, “Nothing about this will go beyond the gates of Glàmhal, Laufeyarsson. – So, it is a binding spell Asgard requires, strong enough to work in a far world. Yes, you have come to the right place … we know how to work a spell like that. But we will be needing certain items to complete it – and most importantly, we will have to agree on a suitable price. The smith most skilful with things like this will explain to you what is needed – and the price … We will tell you the price in the morning.”

 

***

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“You?”, Loki said, clearly amused, looking at the woman walking next to him; “You are the smith specialising in … in …”

 

“I am the one with the most experience and the most success in binding spells”, Ljómi interrupted him, a pensive frown on her face, looking straight ahead to where the guard ordered to escort them was walking.

 

“Well”, Loki said with a grin, “I must admit I am … surprised. I thought all dwarf smiths are …”

 

“Men. Yes, of course you’d think that,” Ljómi gave back, rolling her eyes at him. “But, you know – it takes more brain than brawn. It’s not like I am making the heavy stuff, weightwise, like gate wings, or dragon cages. What I do is intricate, and I think women can do intricate a lot better than men. But you were actually right – most dwarf smiths are men. Or rather,” she added with an impish grin, “all of them, with one exception.”

 

Loki laughed.

 

“A noteworthy exception”, he said, “and a very pleasant surprise.”

 

She smiled, but didn’t say anything else. They were on their way to the forge to make the arrangements concerning the spell; afterwards the guard was supposed to escort Loki to a room where he was to spend the night. Loki suspected it would be either a straight-forward jail cell, or something to the same effect but dressed up as a guest room, and he was not looking forward to that. Well, at least he was spared dealing with a grouchy, greedy, greybearded dwarf and had pleasant company, as long as it lasted.

 

They passed through yet another archway, quartz glittering darkly in the torchlight, and before them opened a huge cavern, lined with big doors or open passages leading to a row of forges, barely discernible in the light of the single torch. Suddenly Loki’s eyes widened, and his skalp was tingling. Putting a hand on Ljómi’s arm he stood in the archway and said, “Whoa, wait. Where are we going? I know this place.” She shot him a mocking look, and kept walking.

 

“You should, too,” she said over her shoulder, “as you have been here before. At least that is what the stories tell …”

 

Then she turned, her arms folded, and asked, “Are you coming, or not?”, because Loki was still standing in the archway, looking from her to the soot-darkened, iron-banded doors, and back.

 

“Where are we going?” he repeated, a deep line beetween his brows.

 

“We are going to my forge,” she replied patiently. “We are going to talk about the spell, remember?”

 

“Which one is yours?” he asked, ignoring her irony.

 

“The big one – the last one to the east.”

 

He shot her an irritated look, but came closer.

 

“Which way is east?”, he asked, cursing the rockwall, and the lack of open skies with sun or stars to go by.

 

She laughed good-naturedly, and pointed.

 

“That”, said Loki grimly,”is Eitri’s forge.”

 

“That was Eitri’s forge”, Ljómi corrected him. “Now it is mine. Can we go in now?”

 

The guard, who had been listening to this exchange with growing interest, strode up to them and grabbed Loki’s elbow to urge him on – only to suddenly feel his own back landing with forceful impact on the stone floor, with one of the jötun’s outlandish boots on his windpipe. The torch he had been carrying had fallen down and lay sputtering, the light dancing wildly over the walls of the cavern.

 

Before he could get enough air back to get up and take care of that dangerous foreigner, Ljómi said calmly, “It is not at all necessary to get excited,” and bending down she pushed Loki’s boot aside. Then she continued, “Loki Laufeyarsson is a guest. We are going to treat him like that – and he is going to behave like that. – Are we all agreed?”

 

The jötun sniffed, but stood back; the guard got to his feet and coughed, shooting the guest a dirty look.

 

Ljómi had picked up the torch – for her this little incident was clearly over, and she walked away in direction of the last door to the east without looking back. After a short, tense pause, both men followed her, markedly ignoring each other.

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Ljómi had picked up the torch – for her this little incident was clearly over, and she walked away in direction of the last door to the east without looking back. After a short, tense pause, both men followed her, markedly ignoring each other.

 

In the meantime Ljómi had reached the door, and had pulled a fresh torch from a bundle waiting next to it. She lit it, pulled one wing of the heavy door open and held it for Loki to pass through; then she handed the guard his torch back and said, “Fáinn, we are now going to discuss the spell, and nobody is allowed within earshot. You can, of course, wait out here – or you can go back, and I will take our guest to his lodging later.”

 

She watched for a moment as he stood frowning, and shuffling his feet; finally she helped his decision along by adding, “It will take quite some time. Why don’t you go and have your night meal?”

 

He muttered something, shooting Loki another dark look, and Ljómi laughed and put a hand on his arm, saying something in a low voice Loki couldn’t understand. As Fáinn turned away and trudged back to the archway they had come through, Ljómi pulled the huge door close, and said with a satisfied sigh, “Well! That’s that.” She went and lit several sconces, and then turned to look at her guest.

 

Loki was still standing near the door, taking in the soot darkened workshop; the huge fireplace, and the blackened chimney rising from it through the high ceiling; the rows of hammers, pliers, pincers, and other tools he had no names for, a dull black on black gleam in the soft flickering of the flames. The air was cool and fresh now, testimony to Glàmhal’s masterfully handled ventilation, but he remembered the searing heat of the fire in the forge as the air pressed through it had forced it into a white-hot roar; it was quiet now, but he could recall the earsplitting clanging of hammer on metal, and the hiss and wheeze of the huge bellows; and where now the torchlight was barely reaching into the dark corners and high vaulted ceilings, he remembered the eyeball-drying light of the hot metal, so bright that it hurt to look into it.

 

He heard a soft laugh, and returned to the present. In the center of the huge, almost completely dark room stood the woman Ljómi, red tunic glowing softly, red hair a flame before the darkness, her white skin a pale shimmer, with the jewels on her chest and arms flashing pinpricks of coloured light, and she smiled at him with curiosity in her eyes, and asked, “You say you really remember this place?”

 

He laughed; a gasp for air as well as a laugh. He shook his head as if to rid himself of cobwebs, and came further into the room. “Yes,” he said lightly, “I really remember this place. How come it is yours now?”

 

“Eitri died some time ago, a revered master of our craft,” she said, a question lurking deep in her eyes like a shy animal. “He was very old. He was my father’s greatuncle.”

 

“Oh.” Loki blinked, looking a little startled. “But his brother Brokk is still around, obviously.”

 

“Yes, Brokk … The old ones say Brokk is still alive because he is so busy hating Loki Laufeyarsson he does not find the time to die.”

 

A smile passed over Loki’s face like a spot of sunshine moving across the sea, but he didn’t comment. He went over to the huge slab of a worktable, pockmarked, blackened, gnawed on by time and countless hours of work, and half leaning against, half sitting on it, he asked, “So – how are we going to do this?”

 

“This?”, Ljómi asked, her head tilted to one side, a glint in her dark eyes.

 

“Aren’t we supposed to discuss the spell?”

 

“Oh,” she shrugged, “that … yes, we should do that.”

 

An appreciative grin was tugging on the corners of Loki’s mouth, but he just sat there in silence.

 

Ljómi was looking at him in antecipation, and when he remained silent, she said, “Well …?”

 

Loki sighed, rubbed the back of his neck and said eventually, “Well … what do you need to know?”

 

She laughed. “I need to know as much as possible – the more I know, the better I can make the spell.”

 

“Oh.” He looked across the room, into the darkness beyond the forge. “Erm … There is a person we need to … confine to a certain place. No, not really a place … We just need for her to stay in Midgard, or a part of Midgard.”

 

“So it is a woman,” Ljómi stated.

 

“Yes.” Loki didn’t mean to tell more than he had to.

 

“And you want her in Midgard, or a particular part of Midgard.”

 

“Well … she is not supposed to stay in one place, but she shouldn’t be able to go everywhere, either.”

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“Let me tell you”, said Ljómi, “how this spell is going to work. I am going to make a lidded iron basket, and we are going to put something from this woman into it, and close it. Then you, or somebody else, goes and buries that basket, and the place it I buried will be the center of the circle inside which she will be able to move. The closer I make the weave of the basket, and the deeper it is buried in the ground, the smaller the circle will be.

Then you will have to get the woman to enter that circle if she isn’t there to begin with. When she is inside of it, and the basket is buried, the area is going to be enclosed in a thin circle of light only the woman caught in it, and the person who buried the basket can see. Then the spell is complete, and it can only be reversed if the same person who put it into the ground, digs up the basket, and destroys it. – Understood?”

 

Loki nodded his head once in agreement, his face unreadable, but a shadow in his eyes.

 

“So if you tell me you want her within a circle three dayrides wide, I know how to make the basket – but if you bury it too close to the surface, the circle will be bigger, and if you put in too deep, it will get narrower than that.”

 

Loki sighed. “She should be able to move within something like …” – he scratched his head – “like twenty dayrides? If you mean the distance a horse can run in one day …”

 

Ljómi regarded him impassively, and gave just the smallest nod. Then she asked, “Do you have something of her to put into the basket?”

 

Pulling his brows into a frown, Loki ran his hands over his pockets even though he knew perfectly well he didn’t have anything. With an impatient sigh he asked, “What kind of thing would you need? Would a picture of her be enough?”

 

“Enough?” Ljómi’s brows arched high in consternation. “Isn’t in Asgard, too, a likeness of a person considered a most powerful item? A picture would be very good. Do you have one?”

 

“No,” Loki said gruffly, “I will have to go and get one.”

 

“That is no problem,” the woman said with equanimity, “I can start making the basket in the meantime. And of course you will need to go and get whatever the Council decides upon for the payment anyway.”

 

She noticed the inquiring look Loki shot her, and added, “No, I do not know what it is going to be …”

 

“And you?” Loki asked. “Will what the Council asks in payment cover your fee as well?”

 

“That”, said Ljómi with a wide smile, “is part of what we are here to discuss.”

 

“Oh.” Loki shot her a speculative look. “And what are your ideas about that?”

 

“Hmmm …” She solemnly let her eyes wander over him, and said, “I’ll decide that later, I think.”

 

Loki got a feeling he might be getting himself into rather more debt than he had meant to, but before he could say aything, the woman went away from the table, into one of the dark corners of the room. When she returned, she was carrying two horns, finely enclosed in silver mesh, and sitting in graceful silver stands. She put them on the table and took a well-filled skin from a hook on the wall, asking, “Would you like some wine?”

 

“Wine?” Loki’s eyes widened with surprise.

 

“I hate mead,” she said with a smile, “and I am not really fond of beer. I get wine from a place in Muspellsheim we are trading with.”

 

Loki eyed the skin with some fascination. If that really was wine from Muspellsheim, it was a rare drink, and one he wouldn’t refuse. So he said, “I’d be delighted …”, holding out the horn for her to fill. “But I haven’t eaten much for some days … you wouldn’t be keeping any food here, by chance?”

 

She laughed, and went back to the corner where she had gotten the horns from. When she returned, she was carrying a box made of woodchip. She set it on the table, and removed the lid, saying, “I am afraid there are only a few slightly dry honey cakes … Food doesn’t keep well close to a forge.”

 

But he said, “Perfect!”, one hand already in the box.

 

Ljómi eyed the dark, sticky cakes with some hesitation and asked, “Do you really think they go with red wine?”

 

“Absolutely,” Loki said around a big bite, making her laugh.

 

When she had filled the horns, she put one before him and they drank, and only then she sat down on the bench running along one side of the table, put her elbows on the tabletop, rested her chin in one hand, and scrutinized her visitor as he sat on the table, munching honey cakes, returning her gaze with a wink.

 

“These are weird clothes,” she said eventually. “Where did you get them?”

 

“Midgard,” he replied, busy picking another piece of cake out fo the box. Ljómi raised her brows and said, “You know, there is always food in the Hall of the Smiths, if you want, so you do not have to stuff yourself with that sweet and sticky mess …”

 

“But I am very fond of honey cakes,” he beamed at her. “Which is not meant to say that I won’t have something else later, if Glàmhal’s hospitality will extend that far.”

 

Ljómi shot him an irritated look and snapped, “Of course it will.”

 

Then she saw his grin, and her frown softened into half a smile.

 

“I guess I shouldn’t let you goad me,” she added, rolling her eyes at herself, and Loki slid off the table and onto the bench next to her, and said, “… and I shouldn’t try to goad you.” His grin didn’t show too any remorse, though.

 

“Not if you want to stay on my good side,” his hostess agreed. “Remember – I can get you more food – real food. And even more important – I am holding in my hands the spell you seem to need rather desperately. Because …” – she kept her eyes on his face – “it is you who needs it, isn’t it? This hasn’t got anything at all to do with Asgard, or Odin.”

 

His eyes a little wary, Loki asked, “What makes you say that? I am coming straight from Asgard.”

 

“Oh yes,” she waved that way, “you probably do. But you come on an errand of your own. And you have to be in a real bind, or you of all people would not come to Glàmhal, particularly not alone, and unarmed.”

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Loki remained silent, and she added, “You were very clever. You did not lie – you never actually said anyone had sent you; you just let that misunderstanding pass, and let them believe their first impression was correct.”

 

He snorted a laugh. “Well, obviously I wasn’t quite clever enough.”

 

“No, but then you couldn’t know anyone would be awake, and alert enough to notice. They are all so fond of their seats in the Council, they are lulling themselves into actually believing they are … wise, and sharp. But considering how they went on and on about how dangerous you are, they swallowed your tale rather eagerly, didn’t they.”

 

Now Loki laughed out loud.

 

“If you are so sure things are not quite as the Council believes them to be, why didn’t you say so right away?”

 

She waved a hand again, dismissing the Council as a whole. “They are always trying to silence me, to tell me I need to wait, and watch, and learn – I guess this time I thought they should go ahead and stick their own thumbs between hammer and anvil if they are so keen on it. And anyway – if I had made them suspicious of your request right away, I probably would not be sitting here with you now.”

 

His brows arching high, he tilted his head a little and asked, “And you wanted to sit here with me?”

 

“Yes, that too,” she grinned; but before he could pick up on this promising ouverture, she asked, “So – Midgard? That’s where your clothes are from? They are very … foreign. I’ve never seen this kind of stitching, or cut.”

 

“You’ve never been to Midgard?”

 

Her gasp at this question told him what her answer would be, and indeed she said, “I? Oh no, never; and I wouldn’t want to go, either. I do not really like to leave Glàmhal, you know. I have been in the valley a few times, under the trees; but I do not really like it. And once my husband pursuaded me to go out the Upper Gate with him, to see the view all across the plains, but I got sick as soon as we were a few steps out of the Gate. That huge sky … It was terrifying.”

 

“Your husband.” Loki searched her face, and when she did not elaborate, he asked, “A fellow smith?”

 

“Oh no,” she said off-handedly, “a trader. Right now he is away to Muspellheim or thereabouts. He spends very little time at Glàmhal.”

 

“You must be heartbroken.”

 

“Oh, I don’t know,” she said, twirling one of her glossy red braids around a finger. “I think ‘relieved’ would be more accurate.”

 

“Oh really.” Loki’s gaze had grown rather amused by now. “An unhappy marriage?”

 

“A boring one.” She giggled. “I realised that if I married somebody, they would stop pestering me; and really – there was nobody interesting around, so boring and away seemed a good option.”

 

“Ah …” Loki smiled. “And is he a … tolerant husband?”

 

“Not at all.” Ljómi laughed. “But then he isn’t around often enough to be a pain – and my work has made me strong enough to hold my own in any argument he tries to foist on me.”

 

Leaning back, Loki let his eyes run over her; she was almost his height, with a firm and supple body, with unmistakably female curves, but judging by the muscles of her bare arms, she was quite strong indeed. A trader might not be a match for her in hand-to-hand combat … particularly not when she meant to prove that she had a will of her own.

 

“I am not” added Ljómi, “expecting him back any time soon.”

 

Loki picked up another piece of cake, his attention seemingly on the food while he was well aware of the woman’s eyes on him. This was definitely not your usual business appointment, and he was curious to see how she would proceed to get it to where she clearly wanted it to go. He was in no hurry – he had a whole night before him, and the less time he had to spend on his own, the better … And he had never imagined that being seduced by a Glàmhal smith would be so entertaining.

 

“So,” he picked up their earlier topic, “you don’t like leaving Glàmhal.”

 

She shook her head emphatically, making all those tresses and braids fly. “No, not at all. I find all that light, that limitless sky, that … vast emptiness very scary, very oppressing.”

 

Loki chuckled. “Others might say that of Glàmhal, you know? Living under a mountain, without any daylight …”

 

“But don’t you think firelight is so much more beautiful than the harsh light of the sun?” Ljómi asked.

 

“I love firelight,” Loki agreed, “but I do not even want to contemplate life without daylight.” Not, he added silently, before I have to.

 

Ljómi saw a shadow flitting across the seagreen eyes, and wondered what that was about. She suspected he would not tell her if she asked, so she looked down on her hands holding the wine, turning that other question over in her head again – the question that had been foremost in her mind since Brokk had first said the name ‘Loki Laufeyarsson’.

 

“What?” Loki’s voice broke into her thoughts, and her eyes flew up to meet his gaze. The shadow had left his eyes, and he was looking quite at his ease now. “You look” he said, “as if there is something you want to ask, but don’t know how to go about it.”

 

An involuntary giggle escaped her, and she said, “You are a keen observer. Yes, there is something I would like to ask. I have been wondering …” Her brow creased with the same frown he had seen on her earlier, when they had been making their way to the forge.

 

Finally she plucked up her courage and asked, “Who was he? Your ancestor? A great-grandfather, perhaps?”

 

Rather startled, and without a clue, Loki said, “What? Who?”

 

Ljómi giggled again, nervously, but ploughed on. “That Loki Laufeyarsson”, she said.

 

Things were getting less clear by the minute. With a deep vertical line of confusion between his brows, Loki said, “But did you not understand that? I am Loki Laufeyarsson.”

 

“Yes, yes I know that,” Ljómi said. “That is why I guess he is one of your ancestors, because you are sharing a name.”

 

“No, you don’t understand.” Loki was shaking his head at her. “I am not sharing my name with anyone. There is nobody else with that name, and never was. What makes you think so?”

 

Irritation crept into the woman’s voice as she replied, “But that is impossible. You cannot be the same man they are telling about in the Great Tale of Asgard’s Deceit and Loki’s Punishment.”

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Loki laughed. “Is that how they call it? But it is really I, you know. Why is that so hard to believe?”

 

She was staring ahrd at him now, her eyes narrowing in suspicion, her easy mood vanishing fast. “impossible! It cannot be you!” she blurted out. “Didn’t you see Brokk? Didn’t you hear that I told you that Eitri died as a very old man? You can’t even have been born back when that story happened!”

 

“Ah …” Loki said slowly as realisation hit. “Yes, well … but I was. I was a grown man then. I think time is passing differently for us, that is all. – No, wait …” he held up a hand as she was about to angrily interrupt him. “Wait. Let me try and explain, alright?”

 

He held out the empty horn, and after a moment of hesitation she filled it, and then she folded her arms over her chest and sat staring at him, daring him to explain what she clearly thought inexplicable, and hence a lie. He pulled one leg up, and wrapped one arm around it, his boot on the bench, his chin on his knee.

 

“Time, and life spans …”, he said slowly, “they are different from one world and one people to the next. Asgard’s time, I think, is passing slower than any other, and the Aesir stay in the prime of their life for a very very long time. Nothing to do with Idun’s apples, either, I think …”

 

He saw the confusion in her eyes and said hastily, “Never mind. I think it is just how they are, and how their world is. Now jötuns …– I think they do age a little faster than Aesir, but still rather slowly. And from what you are telling me, the people of Glàmhal seem to have a much shorter lifespan than Aesir or jötun, which would explain why I never seem to meet the same dwarves when I come here …”

 

He looked into mid-distance, his face darkening a little. Slowly, he ran a hand through his hair, and sighed.

 

“The shortest lifespan of all,” he continued eventually, “is that of the humans of Midgard. I guess that is what makes them so impatient, and so wild for information, and change, and experiences. If you have only a few dozen summers to live, life probably needs to be packed with everything you can cram into it.”

 

Suddenly he smiled at Ljómi, and she thought that he looked even younger with that flash of laughter in his eyes. “I think”, he said, “that is why I love to be in Midgard. It is never boring; always changing, always moving. There are always new toys, and everything seems to be happening at the same time. Very refreshing when you come from Asgard, freshly fossilised.”

 

Then he noticed a change in Ljómi’s expression, and said, “What?”

 

She swallowed, and then asked in a hushed voice, as if she did not really want to because she was sure she wouldn’t like the answer, “How … how old are you, then? I thought … I thought you were about my age …”

 

He smiled widely. “Really, I haven’t the faintest,” he said. “I wouldn’t even know how to gauge my age. Which world’s time should I take as measure? There are so many seasons in so many worlds, and I have been to so many places … It is a blur.”

 

He realised that her face had fallen a little, and he grinned, leaning a little closer to her, and said in a very soft voice, “Trust me – I am not too old.”

 

This gave her a start, and she blushed a little, and giggled, and then she asked, “So – you really can turn into a fly?”

 

For a few heartbeats Loki sat staring at her in bewilderment; then he threw his head back and roared with laughter.

 

“I can,” he said, “if I want to. But honestly – this is neither the place nor the time to turn into an insect.”

 

His eyes flitted to a big leather fly swatter hanging from a hook right next to the huge bellows.

 

“That wasn’t here the last time I saw this place.”

 

Ljómi’s gaze had followed his, and she laughed, too, and said, “Oh, Eitri got that right after you left. Nowadays every forge has one. And we hardly have any flying insects in Glàmhal … I think tehre are more fly swatters than flies. They are called ‘Loki’s End’, actually.”

 

This resulted in another bark of delighted laughter; when he had calmed down, he said, “See? No place for flies. And it wasn’t a fly anyway. Is that how they tell it? I think you should give me the official version so I know what everybody is thinking they are looking at …”

 

“Oh!” her eyes wide with eagerness, she took a sip of her wine and said, “The whole tale is several nights in telling. In short, the story goes like this: Asgard had ordered magical things to be made in Glàmhal: golden hair for Thor’s wife, weapons for Odin and Thor, and a magic boat. You were sent to get them, but when Eitri was busy making the hammer for Thor, you came into the forge as a fly, and stung Brokk between the eyes as he was working the bellows. That was why the hammer’s handle ended up being a little bit too short. The Aesir complained about that and refused to pay the agreed price. Grun, Glàmhal’s High Lord, decreed that you should lose your head to pay for the damage you had inflicted upon us. But you did not surrender, but fled back to Asgard, and appealed to Odin; but when Brokk and Eitri came to Asgard, Odin agreed that you had wronged the dwarves, and that your head was forfeit. Then you stood up and said that if that was your lord’s decision, you would give up your head – but only your head. The dwarves should be permitted to take it, but if they did so much as scratch your neck, you would consider that an attack, and would fight them.

 

At that your High Lord and the assembled Aesir laughed, and Odin decreed that even though your head was rightfully Glàmhal’s, your neck could not be harmed in the taking.

 

And so Eitri and Brokk had to leave Asgard without your head, and in ridicule. But when they appealed to the Lord Odin that now a liar and trickster was going free, he agreed to force you and let Brokk sew your mouth shut, and that he did, with the awl he is still wearing around his neck. And, so goes the story, even though you shold have died, you were at least silend´ced for a while. – Not”, she concluded, “that I do believe the ending. I always suspected they told it to make themselves look not quite so bad. Your Lord would not permit for you to be so humiliated in his Hall.”

 

This time, Loki’s laughter was only a scornful snort.

 

“Well,” he said, “it so happens that some of your story is quite accurate – the end in particular.” He rubbed the heel of his hand across his lips, and then drained the horn, holding it out to Ljómi immediately for more.

 

She didn’t notice, though. She was staring at him, her mouth open in shock. “he really did that?” she asked. “Brokk sewed your mouth shut?”

 

“He did,” said Loki and rapped the horn on the table to get her attention; he wasn’t too keen on dwelling on that particular part of the tale.

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Ljómi filled the horn with wine, but her mind clearly was still on the story.

 

“Didn’t it hurt?”

 

Loki laughed, easier now. “Well, as far as I remember, that was the least of it,” he said. “And it really was a long time ago. There are a few small details in that story, though, where I’d say Brokk and Eitri tried to give themselves and Glàmhal a prettier face than they actually had at that time.”

 

Ljómi looked at him expectantly, settling down more comfortably on the simple wooden bench, clearly ready to hear his version of the old tale.

 

“Well,” Loki began, “it is true I came to Glàmhal for the golden hair for Sif –”

 

“Why did she need it?”, interrupted Ljómi him. “Nobody could explain that to me, ever.”

 

“She needed it,” said Loki with a malicious glint in his green eyes, “because I had cut her own hair off, shorn her like a sheep at springtime, and she looked like a very silly kind of ball, and was hysterical over it, and Thor was threatening to kill me.”

 

Ljómi stared at him, perplexed, but he just grinned, and picked up the tale again.

 

“Ivaldi’s sons had a reputation for making powerful magic things, so it was them I came to see. They agreed readily enough, which was a bit of a surprise – but I was really taken aback they went and pressed even more upon me – for Odin Gungnir, a mighty spear that returns after it has found its mark. Then for Frey a ship, big enough to hold all the Aesir, fully armed, at once. It is called Skídbladnir, brings its own fair wind, and folds into a package small enough to carry in your pocket. All very powerful magic things, and Glàmhal was freely offering them as gifts to the Aesir. For some reason or another, the dwarves seemed to be very keen on getting on Odin’s good side – luckily for me, as I hadn’t had too many hopes of getting the hair for Sif at all. Now I was offered the hair for free, from Glàmhal’s most renowned forge, and a couple of powerful treasures on top of it, and I certainly was not going to refuse any of it.

 

When all three gifts were finished, Brokk came to me with a bet. He had been green with envy when Grun had ordered Ivaldi’s sons to make the prestigious gifts for Asgard, and he wanted to prove that his brother’s forge was as good as Ivaldi’s. He offered that Eitri would make three equally precious and powerful items, and should he succeed in making them to perfection, he demanded my head in payment.

 

I thought the price a little stiff for my taste – none of those gifts were supposed to be for me, after all. But I had a lot of trouble in Asgard at that time, what with Sif not being her usual blonde self, and Thor making everybody miserable with his thunderous anger … So I thought it would be a good idea to bring back not three, but six gifts with magic powers, and I asked Brokk if there were any rules coming with his bet. Sneering openly, he told me that a dwarf in Glàmhal didn’t need any rules – all he needed was his craft and his magic. I was fine with that, as it is all I need, too, and I told him so.”

 

Loki reached for his horn and drank; then he picked up his story again.

 

“Eitri started to work the same day, his forge guarded by a dozen cousins, big and well-armed, to make sure there was no disturbance. While Brokk was working the bellows, Eitri made a boar with golden bristles supposedly shedding enough light to brighten the darkest night.

 

I had to get into the forge, of course, but a battle with the cousins wouldn’t have gotten me very far, and so I turned into – no, not a fly, that would have been stupid, right? A fly is only good for getting swatted and going splat. I turned into a midge, passed the guard of cousins unnoticed, and immediately saw Eitri. For his work he was clad in heavy leather, so that barely any skin was visible – he was no target for a midge, even if that midge was Loki Laufeyarsson. Brokk was the one I had at least a small chance to get to, so I homed in on him and stung him as he was working the bellows, hoping to disturb him enough to spoil the work of the smith.

 

But Brokk’s skin was too thick, and he barely noticed the sting, and the boar with the golden bristles came out perfect.

 

Then Eitri started to make a golden ring for Odin, and I tried again to disrupt Brokk’s rhythm at the bellows, stinging him twice as hard as before. All I got for my pains was a nasty noseful, as he was sweating rather hard by then. The ring, when it was finished, was without blemish, and I knew that my head was in serious danger to be parted from the rest of me …

 

Then Eitri took some iron and worked a powerful spell, and began forging Mjölnir, a hammer intended as a gift for Thor. My time was running out – even in my insect mind I realised that I would return to Asgard with many gifts, but in a box, if I didn’t get Brokk to make a mistake very soon, and I landed on his eyelid and stung him again, twice, and a little blood dripped intp his eye so he had to wipe it off. That upset the rhythm of the bellows, and the air didn’t reach the forge in quite the necessary force; and when Eitri was finished, the handle fo the new-forged hammer was not quite perfect.

 

But by then the brothers had realised that there was something strange about that pesky midge, and they closed all doors and other openings, and so forced me to change back into my own body right there before their eyes. They were, as you might imagine, not very happy. Well, it got rather nasty for a bit, with all the cousins joining in the fray, but eventually I could persuade them to bring the case before Grun.

 

The High Lord was of the opinion that my head was Brokk’s – not that he wanted to admit to anything less than perfection when the hammer was concerned, but he thought turning into an insect was against the rules. And even though I had half a mind to tell him where to stick them … my position wasn’t the best at that moment. So all I did was reminding him that somebody would have to explain to Odin why I was not returning to Asgard the way I had left, but one head shorter. That gave him pause – and he was not too happy about it; but then he had the clever idea to send Brokk to Asgard with me and all those gifts, to ask my head of Odin.

 

There must have been some really heavyweight politics going on for Glàmhal to offer all this to the Aesir; and if anything ever was asked in return, i haven’t heard about it. I’ve never found out what dirty secret it was they were all so busy burying in mighty gifts and flattery.”

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For a moment Loki sat, staring into mid-distance with a deep frown; then he remembered his audience, smiled faintly, and continued.

 

“Anyway, we arrived in Asgard, my head still where I like for it to be. Everybody was there when the gifts were presented, and in Odin’s Great Hall the High and Mighty were very fond of all things Glàmhal that day. Sif put on the head of golden hair, and it took root immediately, and grew into long and beautiful tresses, so that she stopped trying to harrass that poor fool her husband into killing me.

 

Odin’s new ring was able to multiply into eight more ring each new moon, which pleased the greedy old man to no end; the boar’s golden bristles shone as bright as a hundred torches; the ship was much admired; and Thor’s new hammer proved unfailing when thrown, and it returned faithfully to his hand, and could shrink into a pendant small enough to be worn on a thong, for transport, and in times of peace.

 

All these wonders were duly admired – only the slightly stumped proportions of the hammer was dimming the light of Glàmhal’s art a little, and everybody was full of very polite regret about that.

 

Then Brokk stepped before them all and stated his case, demanding my head in payment for the bet he had allegedly won, and explained to One Eye –”

 

Loki noticed Ljómi’s puzzled expression, and explained, “Odin, Asgard’s Lord and Master.” He snorted, but did not add any further comment, and resumed his tale.

 

“Brokk explained that if it had not been for my wicked ways, Thor would now possess in the hammer Mjölnir a work af absolute perfection, and that I had not only insulted the craftsmen of Glàmhal, and Grun, their High Lord, but also all of Asgard, especially Thor, and Odin himself, by wilfully spoiling that gift, a piece of magic and art, only because I wanted to keep my head. And of course, One Eye, bastard that he is, lovingly turned his new golden ring on his finger, and said gravely that indeed I had wronged them all out of sheer selfishness, as usual.

 

I could see that any moment now he would go and seal the brand-new, everlasting lovey-dovey friendship between Asgard and Glàmhal over my severed skull, and after playing the errand boy, bringing them six gifts of great value and magic, I suddenly was standing there holding the short straw, and the dwarves, beside of basking in the goodwill of Odin and all of Asgard, would get to walk away with my head. Which, I might add, I have always been quite attached to as it is the only one I have; I could not let that happen.

 

So I got up and explained politely that the bet had been that all three gifts had to be absolutely perfect, and as Mjölnir was not quite that, my head should stay right where it was. Brokk almost started yelling, but Odin asked him for the words of the bet, and he had to admit that I had spoken true.

 

But he appealed to the Great Hall, asking if a guest, and one who had received so many great gifts for his lords, not to mention the golden hair, should betray his hosts in so underhanded a way, and of course One Eye agreed with him and said he was permitted to take my head right away. – May his only eye go dead and rot into his head …”, Loki added, not changing his inflection at all; the words still made Ljómi blink with shock.

 

“So I found myself surrounded by Aesir happily ready to hold me down,” Loki continued as if he hadn’t interrupted the tale at all, “and Odin called for a sword. I knew I couldn’t run, so I said that if that was his will I would suffer for the dwarves to take my head – but if they did so much as scratch my neck, I would fight them all, as my neck never had been part of the deal to begin with.

 

If anything appeals to the old bastard, it is a handful of gold, a willing or not so willing girl, or a good joke. He laughed so hard he must almost have wet himself; and then he told Brokk to go ahead, but if my neck was hurt, Brokk himself would die immediately.

 

I thought Brokk would fall down dead without anyone helping him along, he was turning purple and was almost choking on his fury. It took him three horns of mead to get his tongue back, while the whole hall was roaring with laughter. Then he raised his voice again, and asked of the assembled Aesir if he was to return to his own lord’s hall to say that Asgard laughed about Glàmhal’s shame.

 

That didn’t make much impression on most of them, but those with new toys from Glàmhal clearly had second thoughts. Brokk saw it and pressed on, and eventually One Eye said that for me as a guest in Glàmhal, using the trick with the midge had been rude and was against all rules, and even tough I would be allowed to keep my head, Brokk would get to punish me …”

 

With a sharp intake of his breath, he stopped, and drained his horn. Then he smiled crookedly, and went on.

 

“So yes, I talked my way out of losing my head, but had to stop talking for a while instead. I do prefer my head on my shoulders and stitches in my lips, to an unblemished mouth in a hacked-off head, but it was not really funny at the time. And neither Eitri’s awl nor Brokk’s sewing are something I want to experience ever again. –

 

“So,” he smiled at Ljómi, “now you’ve heard the other side.”

 

Ljómi was looking rather shaken, and her eyes on his lips she asked, “Couldn’t you take the stitches out when Brokk was gone?”

 

“Oh no,” Loki replied with a thin-lipped sneer, “Odin insisted they had to stay in place for the span of one moon cycle …” His smile grew a little more natural, and he added, “Don’t look so worried – I took off a few days later and cut them as soon as I was out of sight. It looked rather nasty for a while, and I had a hard time trying to drink, but as you see, they healed nicely.”

 

He saw that her eyes were still troubled, and said, “It really was a long time ago; if it had not been for the sight of that rusty awl today, I would hardly remember any of it.”

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She sighed, and shook her head.

 

“I find it quite disgusting how they treated you,” she said, and reached out a hand to softly run a finger over his lips. “You know,” she added very earnestly, casting down her eyes, and blushing a little, “you always were our hero, because of that story.”

 

That surprised him into a laugh.

 

“Your hero? Whose hero?”

 

“Oh, all the children’s. We always suspected that you had been treated abominably, and we admired that you stood up to all the greybeards, and the great lords.”

 

Loki grinned. “I am not really the hero type,” he said. “I was not really the lamb to the slaughter, either …”

 

“No,” she said with relish, “you tricked them in return!”

 

He laughed and said, “Yes, well … it comes naturally, you know.”

 

He snapped his fingers, and a small flame blossomed into the air, hanging over his open palm. Ljómi stared at it in wonder, and when the flame gained size and grew into a small ball of fire, she gasped in delight and sighed, “Oh …”

 

Loki blew softly on the flame, and it rose until it was hovering over the table, growing to the size of a fist, and bigger, until it was the size of a well-grown pumpkin. A flick of his wrist, and the ball of fire crossed the room, and sank into the cold fireplace, to burn there like a normal fire.

 

Ljómi beamed at Loki, her eyes still wide with wonder. “You can call fire!” she laughed. “That is wonderful! We always work with fire, but nobody here can do that. I have heard tales of fire callers, and never believed them.”

 

Loki grinned, very pleased with himself.

 

Ljómi, her skin flushed with excitement, and also with the heat the fire brought into the chilly room, opened her eyes wide at Loki and coaxed, “Won’t you show me how you turn into a fly? Oh please, do!”

 

“No,” said Loki, leaning closer to her; then he whispered into her ear, “There are many animals, and most of them are much more interesting than a fly …” He sat up again, his arm still wrapped around his knee, and looked at her intently. “You will keep in mind that it is me, right? Don’t be afraid. We do not want anyone to come running, axe at the ready, because you start screaming …”

 

Ljómi giggled, clearly hoping for something spectacular. And she got it … one moment it was the visitor from Asgard, the hero of her childhood, himself no pain for the eyes, sitting on the bench with her, and then she blinked, and gasped because next to her on the scrubbed wood crouched a huge, dusty blonde mountain lion, one big paw on the table, the round head turned to look into her face, his powerful body long enough to occupy the whole bench, the tail twitching on the flag stones of the floor. His fur was short and so thick she wanted to touch it and see if it was soft; the face under the round ears subtly marked in black and white.

 

Her lips parted in excitement, her breath held with a fear she could not fully suppress, Ljómi watched the big cat come closer until his head was right before her face, the black-rimmed, clear greenish eyes looking into hers with an unreadable expression. Then they closed, and the animal rubbed his head against her chest, purring loudly.

 

Ljómi was startled into a giggle, and the head came back up, long white whiskers twitching. He came even closer, so she had to bend back, and ended up almost on her back, the cat over her. Then, before she realised what he was up to, the mountain lion licked her shoulder, the big tongue firm and rough and wet on her bare skin, and she squealed – not altogether with fear or disgust, though, as it was weirdly exciting.

 

The big cat pressed closer, and Ljómi could feel the heat of his body through her clothes. Again his tongue flicked over her shoulder, proceding down her body, over her necklace and her tunic, leaving the fabric damp, and clinging to her breasts. She squealed again, but didn’t make any attempts to push the big head away.

 

Suddenly a thunderous pounding on the door broke the mood. The mountain lion, not too impressed, lifted his head in a lazy movement, but Ljómi slid out from under the cat’s body, and whispered, “Wait … Whoever it is, I am going to get rid of them.”

 

Her knees rather weak, she went to open the door, while the pounding continued. It was, of course, Fáinn. He stood staring at Ljómi, who managed to stay far enough inside the room for the light of his torch not to reach her, and he was not rude enough to thrust it right into the doorway. So all he could do was blink, and try to see more than her silhouette against the firelit interior of the forge.

 

He had heard something, and thought that something weird was going on – surely he had never heard a girlish squeal from inside a Glàmhal forge before. But the light indicated that the fire was lit, so she probably was working on the spell already. He also thought he noticed a trail of sweat on her tunic, and so he was not too suspicious when Ljómi told him that he was back way too soon. She really was working, then – and who could say which kind of sounds a female would make, working in a forge? It was not natural, it wasn’t, a girl working a forge – not if he had a say in it.

 

“I will take care of our guest from Asgard,” Ljómi told him firmly, already beginning to pull the heavy door shut again.

 

Fáinn turned away, and then spent his long walk back to the guard’s housing wondering what the long shadow had been he thought he had glimpsed slinking across the floor behind Ljómi, just before the door had fallen shut …

 

***

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Closing the door all the way, Ljómi slid the heavy deadbolt home, which resulted in a sequence of well-oiled metallic clicks as several secondary locks fell into place, securing the massive front door of the forge. Now it could only be opened from the inside; a way to make sure that nobody could interrupt a work in progress, which had been put into many forges in Glàmhal after the events that had ended with Loki’s mouth being stitched shut. Almost every smith in the Guild had his forge protected in this manner now, even though, as Ljómi had thought many times, it wouldn’t be much protection against a fly … There had been a few accidents, too – and one forge on the level below hers had been locked and inaccessible for more than a generation now. Something had happened, and the smith working behind those heavy doors had never managed to unlock them. It had remained like that as there was no way to open it without severe damage to the rock itself, and that was out of the question.

 

For Ljómi and her friends the locked doors had been a source of delightful shudders, a fright to be stared at from a distance, and a long row of scary stories told in a whisper before an almost extinguished fire, when there were no adults around.

 

The memory brought a smile to her face as she turned back to the room and the big cat in it – but instead of the soft-pawed mountain lion, only a few steps behind her Loki Laufeyarsson was standing, his eyes on the locked door, his brows drawn together.

 

“It was only Fáinn,” said Ljómi, “but he is not going to come back tonight.”

 

The strangely tense stance of her guest didn’t relax; he was not even looking at her. His eyes fixed on the door, he said, “I do not like locked doors.”

 

Puzzled with his changed mood, she explained, “But nobody can walk in on us now …”

 

“I hate to be locked in,” Loki said as if he hadn’t heard her.

 

Tilting her head, trying to gauge his reaction, she asked tentatively, “Do you want to leave? You only have to say so …”

 

“No!” Loki replied, irritated and uneasy, but at least returning her gaze now. “No, I don’t want to leave.”

 

He turned and walked back into the room, picked up one of the horns from the table, splashed wine into it, and then stood before the fire, drinking, watching the dancing flames, the set of his shoulders proclaiming how tense he was.

 

Ljómi went to stand close to him, and as if he still were the big cat that had so fascinated and excited her, she ran a hand up his back, and started to rub his neck, slowly. For a long moment he didn’t move; then, just like a cat, he pressed his head back, into her hand, closing his eyes; exhaling deeply as if he had been holding his breath.

 

In the semi-darkness, warmed by the fire, only the murmur of the flames breaking the silence, they stood like that for a while, and Ljómi could feel how Loki’s muscles were slowly relaxing under her fingers. Eventually she grabbed his hand, and whispering, “Come …”, she pulled him into the darkness at the back of the room, where hidden in the shadows, a smaller, rather inconspicuous door was leading into a back room. Ljómi took a torch from its place on the wall, and pushed the door open, and when the flickering light revealed the room before him, Loki’s breath caught in surprise. Then he laughed, and said, “I guess this is just your average back room of a Glàmhal forge, then …”

 

Ljómi giggled, let go of his hand, and went around the room to touch the torch to several delicately wrought iron wall sconces. Then she said, “I’ll get the wine …”, and went back into the forge.

 

Loki stood looking about him in amused wonder. Before him was a comfortable, inviting, and undeniably female room. Like in all Glàmhal, the walls were polished black rock, with streaks of quartz adding glittering milky ways pulsing with the firelight. Before this backdrop, the lamps were making small golden islands of light.

 

The stone floor was covered with several huge furs, size and depth suggesting bear. Loki immeditaly kicked his boots off, enjoying the thick warm fur under his bare feet as he walked deeper into the room. Behind a shimmering curtain made of countless small silk squares in jewel colours, he could see the corner of a big, low bed, with cream sheets and quilts. There were pillows and blankets, and in addition to the lamps on the wall, another one on a bedside table.

 

Closer to the door there was a low stone bench, made comfortable with more pillows, another table, and set into the rockwall under a chimney rising up to the dark ceiling, a fireplace with a grate of finest ironwork. There were logs in it, ready laid, and next to it a box of coal. Loki snapped his fingers at the wood to get the fire going, and went to look behind the curtain. He lifted one hand to push the heavy silk aside, and then froze as the first thing he saw behind it was a tall man in black pants and a pale shirt standing motionless in the shadows beside the bed.

 

And then Loki laughed out loud, and the oppressive feeling of being caged in evaporated – he was looking at himself, reflected in the biggest mirror he had ever seen outside Midgard. It was considerably taller than he was himself, and so wide that he would have to stretch out his arms sideways for his fingertips to reach the frame on both sides at once.

 

He let the curtain fall back behind him and stepped closer to the wall-mounted mirror to touch it. It wasn’t the perfectly plane, glass-covered kind he had seen all over Midgard – this one was made of metal, probably silver, and highly polished; still it retained a slight haziness, lending to the reflection a dreamlike quality, like a soft-focus photograph.

 

Loki’s fingertips met their reflection on the metal surface, and the mirror shivered in a series of swift, shallow concentric waves as his hand disappeared in it. He felt the familiar coolness as if he was reaching through a sheet of water; then he pulled his hand back, and stood smiling at his reflection once the surface had stilled into its normal state again. He was breathing easier now. Glàmhal had a back door after all … He had found a way out, and there was a chance to get through this adventure and live to tell the tale …

 

***

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Ljómi had put the wine on the small table, and came behind the curtain to find her guest smiling at his own image. She didn’t grudge him his vanity – he was certainly not painful to look at. Then his eyes shifted away from his own reflection and found hers in the mirror, and without turning, he reached out to her and said softly, “Come here.”

 

She let him draw her close until she was standing between him and the mirror, with him looking over her shoulder, their eyes still held in reflection. He wrapped his arms around her, rubbing his jaw against her cheek, the uneasy moment over the locked front door seemingly forgotten.

 

“That is one naughty mirror,” Loki whispered in her ear, with a smiling glance at the bed. The mirror was indeed strategically positioned to reflect the bed and whoever was on it; it even was tilted at a slight angle, the foot against the rock wall, the top a few inches into the room, giving a good view of the whole bed.

 

Ljómi laughed. “Do you like it? My husband gave it to me as a bridal gift.”

 

“And does he come here often to enjoy its reflections?”

 

This came out a little muffled as Loki, his eyes leaving their mirror image, bent his head to nuzzle Ljómi’s neck between shiny red tresses and heavy gold chain.

 

“He never enters the forge; he does not like it that I am master here,” Ljómi said with a deep sigh; this, though, was due less to her absent husband’s reluctance to come to her forge, but rather to the interesting sensations Loki’s lips and teeth were evoking in a very distracting way …

 

“Ah …”, said he, pausing; “so he thinks you keep the mirror to admire your work in it?”

 

“Oh, but I do …” Ljómi’s voice was almost drifting away as Loki pushed the heavy mass of her hair aside to explore the nape of her neck. “That is what he gave it to me for – there are spells you can only do in front of a mirror.”

 

Loki’s head came up, his interest piqued. “There are?”

 

“Yes, there are,” said Ljómi, reaching up to pull his head down again. “I am going to tell you about it later. Tomorrow.”

 

“Hmmm …”

 

Clearly in agreement with that plan, her guest returned his attention to the luscious white skin and the tiny beauty mark he had found high on her neck. Ljómi closed her eyes, very conscious of the man standing behind her, his lips, his hands …

 

Hands that were wandering down, undoing the lacing of her tunic, while his lips were still caressing her neck and shoulder. She reached up to unclasp the heavy necklace, but Loki caught her hands , saying softly, “No, leave it on …”

 

Her eyes flew up to the mirror, but the blonde head was bending over her, intent on disentangling her tunic from the necklace, and Ljómi stood motionless, watching the long clever fingers working with practised ease. She felt the cool gold on her bare skin as Loki was pulling her tunic off her shoulders; she felt the fabric sliding out from under the heavy belt, and the stiff leather of the belt settle against her waist. She watched the jewel encrusted belt buckle being opened, and heard its muffled clunk as it hit the fur covered floor; she felt the warmth of the longfingered hands as they pushed her pants and undergarments down, and only then she moved, to step out of clothes and boots, only to stand still again, leaning back against Loki, her eyes still on their reflection in the tall mirror. Now his head came up, his gaze meeting hers. He ran his fingers through her long, flaming hair, spreading the waist-long braids and strands over her shoulders.

 

Loki’s eyes took in the image of the woman in the mirror before him; a firm, muscled body, hips and breasts well-rounded, the distinct dip of her waist emphasizing her curves. The definition of her shoulders and arms proved that she wasn’t leading an idle life, and her hands, square and capable and slightly calloused, were working hands, the short nails with a hint of sootiness under them. Her dark eyes were a startling contrast to the flaming red hair and the perfectly white skin, though as excitement made her blood rise, the soft rose colour of her lips was accompanied by a delicate blush rising in her cheeks. The only other colour was the pink of her nipples, and the red triangle between her legs – and, of course, the barbaric gold necklace with its array of colourful gemstones covering her upper body almost down to her navel.

 

Ljómi gasped when Loki suddenly bit her shoulder; then she reached back and said, “You are wearing far too many clothes …” She turned round to undress him, but he had already pulled the pale shirt over his head; it was made of a surprising flexible fabric and didn’t have any lacings. Nor had the black pants, but Ljómi couldn’t focus much on the technicalities of his swift undressing – he was out of his pant before she could take her eyes off his bare torso, the soft gold of his tan, the ripple of muscle with a dusting of tawny hair.

 

Taking her by the shoulders, he turned her so they were both facing the mirror again, and wrapped his arms around her, dark on her white skin. His hands reached up to cup her breasts in their gem-studded golden armour, and with a soft moan she pressed herself against him, skin to skin, feeling the proof of his desire hard against her buttocks.

 

Then he was walking backwards, towards the bed, pulling her with him. When they reached the low frame Loki let himself fall on the welcoming softness of silk quilts and pillows, and Ljómi turned to crawl over him, her long hair brushing his body until her lips met his. She closed her eyes, and his hands framed her face as they kissed. Finally she pulled back a little to look at him. There was the hint of a smile in his eyes as he pushed her hair away from her face, following the contours of her jaw and neck with his thumbs. She threw her red mane back, sitting up to kneel over Loki. He reached up, and his hands followed the curves and lines of her body, not quite touching, but so close that Ljómi could feel the heat of his palms on her skin; shaping her out of the air, clothing her in his desire.

 

He turned his head, and Ljómi’s eyes followed his gaze to their reflection in the mirror; his golden skin, the pale cream of sheets and quilt, her white body, and above it all her red hair cascading in fiery colour, lit in dancing light before a wavering background of black walls and shadows. The mirror added a hazy golden shimmer to the image, and Ljómi smiled, her pleasure growing, feeding on its own reflection.

 

Then one of Loki’s hands was trailing across jewels and gold, Ljómi’s eyes following his movements in the mirror. She watched his long fingers tracing the interlocking chains, plates, and tubes of gold covering half of her upper body, the gleam of the metal and the many colours of the stones enhanced by the white velvet of her bare skin. His hand closed lightly around one breast, the thumb rubbing slowly and gently over the pink nipple peeping out between emeralds and moonstones. Ljómi gasped, closing her eyes. Loki’s other hand spread out between her shoulder blades, urging her down until his lips found the nipple.

 

The mirror was forgotten.

 

***

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He found himself in complete darkness, and hadn’t it been for the camomile fragrance of her hair, he hadn’t known she was there. But it was drifting through the dense blackness like a delicate memory of summer, and he called her name, trying to find her, to look into her eyes the colour of spring flowers, to touch her; to hold her.

 

But his searching hands found nothing but air; and when he stood and listened, trying to decide which way to go, all he could hear was a soft, swishing sound, like wind in tall grass – or bare feet moving through it; and the sound was receding, just when he thought that he might still reach her when he was quick enough. He turned his head this way and that, but he might as well be blind, because there was nothing but opaque, depthless darkenss, and now even her scent was gone. His outstretched hands fell to his side, unseen, and he whispered her name into the empty, lightless world of his dream.

 

***

 

Loki woke up, blinking at a black rock ceiling almost hidden in shadows. After a breathless moment of disorientation, he remembered where he was; it was not fully dark, but the torches and wall sconces had been extinguished, and what little light there was, was coming from the bed of red coals covered in powdery white ashes, a dark, pulsing light like a slow heartbeat. He rolled on his side and realised that he was alone in the bed. Ljómi was nowhere to be seen, and he couldn’t hear anything from the forge, either.

 

Drifting back into a semi-sleeping state, he thougt dreamily that they had forgotten to get food – the honey cakes hadn’t lasted long, and he was really hungry. But he had no clue where to find food in Glàmhal, so all he could do was wait patiently for his hostess to return …

 

He was on the brink of sleep, again, when he heard the clink and clatter of the locks on the heavy front door, and the wavering light of a torch came through the not fully closed door to the forge. Loki watched the light grow brighter as the bearer of the torch approached the back room; if it was anybody else than Ljómi, things might get a little difficult …

 

But when the door was pushed wide, he saw the red mane glinting in the torch light, framing her smiling face, and when she came in, he could see that she was carrying a large wicker basket, with tell-tale steam coming up through the closed lid. He pushed himself up into a sitting position, beaming at Ljómi in happy expectation of a meal. She returned his smile, saying, “I thought food would be welcome, so I went to the Hall of Smiths.”

 

“There is a public kitchen working as late as this?”

 

Ljómi laughed.

 

“What makes you think it is late? Or early, for that matter?”

 

Loki blinked, and realised that in a world without daylight, the time of day probably had a different meaning and measure.

 

“True,” he grinned, his eyes alight with the prospect of a meal, “but never mind the time – food is indeed very welcome. I am absolutely starving.”

 

The basket, once opened, revealed two good-sized bowls of stew, steaming hot, spreading a mouth-watering flavour of meat, herbs, and spices; fresh bread, fruit, cheese, and something looking very much like a dessert heavy with cream. Loki sighed in delight, and sitting cross-legged on the bed, they started to eat. Ljómi had brought beakers, too, and after an inquiring look, filled them with the same dark red wine they had had earlier.

 

“I met Fáinn,” she said between bites. “I told him we were working on the details of the spell, and I’d take you to your lodgings once we are finished. He is supposed to stand guard there tonight, you know.”

 

“And? Are you going to?”

 

She smiled.

 

“I was nice and had them serve him a double pitcher of the strongest beer. He is going to fall asleep half an hour into his watch, and who’s to say, then, that you were never there? We’ll just say he slept when you arrived, and still did when you left.”

 

“Oh, we are going to do better than that,” Loki grinned, but when she tilted her head in question, her mouth busy with the feast, he just smiled.

 

Both of them dedicated eaters, their conversation remained sketchy until they arrived at the dessert; then Ljómi reached out to touch Loki’s arm and asked, “Is it painful?”

 

“What?” Loki, startled, had no idea what she was talking about. “Painful? What is painful?”

 

“To be under the sun long enough to darken your skin like that,” she explained.

 

He laughed; but looking down on her hand on his forearm, he realised that even his rather mild tan was a stark contrast to her white fingers. Fleetingly he remembered sleepy afternoons in the dappled shade next to Anya’s pool, and the heat of the morning sun on his shoulders as he was swimming against the artificial current in the turquoise water. There could hardly be a greater contrast to his current location, deep under ground, within the black walls of Glàmhal, with fire its only light.

 

 

“No,” he said; “no, it doesn’t hurt. I don’t burn easily, you know. Some people are more sensitive, but sunlight is not usually that intense to begin with.” He ran a finger along her bare arm and continued, “I guess you would burn, though – you have very fair skin, and you’re not used to the sun, either.”

 

He noticed how she was shuddering at the mere thought, and asked, “What about your husband? He probably is used to it, isn’t he?”

 

“Oh no, he is always bundling up against the light,” Ljómi said earnestly. “Very few of the Duáwafar like to go out into it unprotected.”

 

Loki blinked at her use of the formal name for her people; he had so gotten used to both the Asgard and the Midgard words, both trunkated versions of the original – to hear her say the real name made him realise how much condescension went with the simplification. And in Midgard, he remembered with a hastily hidden grin, it actually meant people of extremely short stature – he had no clue where that particular misunderstanding came from, but it had always afforded him considerable amusement.

 

He came out of his reverie and looked at the Duáwafar currently sharing a meal and her bed with him, but she seemed to be off on a tangent of her own, her eyes out of focus, staring at a point over his shoulder. He let her pursue her own thoughts, and reached for his beaker, drinking of the dark red wine from Muspellsheim, savouring the rich and mild flavour, and the pleasant buzz it gave him.

 

Suddenly Ljómi returned from wherever she had gone, looking him straight in the eyes, asking, “So – is she your wife?”

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Loki almost dropped the beaker. Damn that girl, he thought, and her uncanny knack for throwing me off balance. It was like trying to find safe footing on a seesaw …

 

“What? Is who my wife? What are you talking about now?”

 

“The woman you want to bind with my spell,” she said, unfazed by his reaction.

 

“No!” Loki gave back, more forceful than necessary, and then, a little less loud, “No, she is not my wife.”

 

Ljómi was watching him with a detached interest; his harshness didn’t seem to bother her at all.

 

“Oh, good,” she said, her gaze unwavering. “But you do have a wife.”

 

“Yes,” Loki gave back, calming down, but not happy with the turn the conversation was taking.

 

Ljómi nodded her head as if he had confirmed something she had already been sure of. “And her name,” she added, “is Sigyn.”

 

Loki sat staring at his hostess, his mind in turmoil. Where was that coming from now? Could his wife’s name be common knowledge in Glàmhal, of all places? Or had Ljómi been talking to somebody who …

 

He couldn’t get to the end of the thought because Ljómi said, “You were dreaming. You kept repeating that name.”

 

“Oh.”

 

In the following silence Ljómi refilled both their beakers, comfortably at home in her role, and then she continued, “Forget-me-not blue … what was that about? The colour of her dress?”

 

It was so absurd that he laughed.

 

“No,” he replied, easier now. “Her eyes. She has the bluest eyes …”

 

“What kind of blue is that?”, Ljómi asked, and Loki realised that she probably did not know flowers, never having seen any. Glàmhal’s decorations ran to crystals, metal work and gems, not bouquets …

 

“They are small springtime flowers,” he explained. “The woods in Asgard are full of them.” He saw the question in her eyes and tried to find something she could relate to. “Blue like a sapphire,” he said eventually.

 

Her eyes lit up, and one hand reached up to touch her necklace. When she realised that she was wearing her tunic over it, she giggled. Opening the lacing with one swift glance at Loki, she pulled the tunic over her head. The heavy, wide necklace lay on her bare skin, with several sapphires flashing blue, one in particular that was in the group of big square-cut stones making up the central part of the piece, surrounded by clusters of numerous smaller ones. Loki touched the big blue stone and said, “Almost like that, but not so dark. If you’d look through this stone at a blue sky – that would be about the right colour.”

 

Ljómi looked down on his fingertip, and the big sapphire, her hair falling around her face; then she lifted her head and looked searchingly into Loki’s eyes. Eventually she said, “Your eyes keep changing colour … But there is one very rare stone looking like that. I do not have one of those, but I know the stone eaters are mining a lode of them somewhere … They are keeping it a secret, of course. The stones are blue and green, changing colour depending on how the light strikes them.”

 

The stone eaters?, Loki wondered silently, but he didn’t want to interrupt Ljómi with a question.

 

Her eyes still on his, she continued, “Nobody here has eyes like that – or like your wife’s. We all have dark eyes. Perhaps it is all that light – maybe looking at it all the time, you take the sky into your eyes.”

 

Then her gaze wandered down to his neck, and she reached out to touch the pendant he always wore on a leather thong.

 

“Nobody here would wear something like this,” she said slowly, almost a little puzzled, “but I can sense its power. What is it?”

 

Closing his fingers around the amulet for a moment, Loki said, “That is Mjölnir, Thor’s hammer.”

 

Her wide eyes made him realise that she was mistaking his words, and he added with a laugh, “No, no, it is not really the hammer Eitri made – it is only looking like it; like the small version of it. As you said, it is holding some power … Odin made me wear it in the first place, but now it is a bit more powerful than he meant for it to be, I think.”

 

She listened without comment, but touched the small silver hammer again, her fingertip lingering as if she was reading the amulet. If she had hoped for Loki to elaborate on its powers, she was disappointed, though; he had returned to his wine, his eyes over the rim of the beaker watching her.

 

She looked at the only other ornaments he was wearing; unlike the Duáwafar, the Jötun didn’t seem to wear much jewelry. All he had on him apart from the hammer amulet, were two slender bead bracelets on his right wrist, one white, one dark.

 

Loki noticed the direction of her look, and it made him look at the bracelets for the first time in a long while. He had been wearing them for quite some time now, and like the rune tattoo on his left wrist, and the Mjölnir amulet, they were a part of him, not so much an ornament, and certainly not what a dwarf – a Duáwafar – would call jewelry. He grinned.

 

But Ljómi seemed a little troubled about those bracelets. She had touched them lightly, and now was staring down on them with a frown on her face, but she remained silent until Loki asked, “What? Anything wrong, apart from the fact that they are just wood, pebbless and shells?”

 

Ljómi’s dark eyes flew up to his face, her expression startlingly grave.

 

“You are certainly funning,” she said, considerable reproof in her voice.

 

Loki raised his brows.

 

“No, weirdly enough, I am not,” he replied. “Why? What’s it about those bracelets that makes you go so serious all of a sudden?”

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She did not answer right away; she seemed strangely hesitant, looking away into the mirror for a moment, even though she did not at all seem to see the picture of the two of them among the wreckage of their meal, Loki naked except for the sheet he had wrapped around his hips, and she herself bare to the waist except for her necklace. It was quite an intriguing sight, softly lit by a few calm flames, but Ljómi’s eyes looked at something else, and what she saw was not so pretty.

 

“I noticed,” she began eventually, “that you seem to know Nóri.”

 

Loki nodded yes, not sure where she was going, but taking this new turn in his stride.

 

“Do you owe him a debt of any kind?”

 

“Well … he might think so,” he said cautiously.

 

“Yes, I thought so,” said Ljómi slowly. “Well – he might ask you for that white bracelet in payment. Do not let him have it. Do not, in fact, “ she added with some emphasis, “let anyone have it, even if they offer you a lot in return.”

 

Loki looked into her solemn face, and then for a few heartbeats at the white bracelet.

 

“Why would anyone offer anything for a string of snail shells and mother-of-pearl beads?”, he asked perplexed. “You’re not trying to tell me that they are worth anything down here, are you?”

 

“You got this from a mermaid, didn’t you?”, Ljómi asked in return.

 

He shot her a quick glance, and then looked away at the mirror, now equally blind to its reflection as she had been before. How did the girl know where the bracelet came from? What new tripwire was coming up here? But he dicided to trust her a little further – so far she had proven herself quite an ally.

 

“From three mermaids, to be precise,” he said with a reminiscent grin. “A … souvenir of good times.”

 

“Three mermaids …” Again Ljómi’s fingers ran over the white beads lightly, almost reverently. “You know what it does, don’t you?”

 

When she saw the baffled question in his face, she explained, “It calls out to them, to all of her kind, so when you come to a shore, mermaids can hear you, and will come to you.”

 

“It does that?” Loki laughed, delighted. “No, I didn’t know that.” Then he realised that her frown wasn’t lifting, and asked, “But what is so bad about that?”

 

Ljómi folded her hands in her lap and sat looking down on them. She said in a small voice, as if she had to force the words through clenched teeth, “The call of the spell is very strong. The mermaids must trust you – a single one of these beads is probably powerful enough to call a mermaid all the way to the shore – and into a trap.”

 

She hesitated again, and didn’t look up into Loki’s eyes, but perhaps she could feel the intensity of his stare as he was willing her to continue.

 

“Some of my people …”, she said eventually, her voice even less audible than before, “some men of the Duáwafar, like to catch mermaids to keep them in the Silent Water deep down under Glàmhal. The easiest way to catch a mermaid is with beads like these.”

 

Loki grabbed her arm, hard, and asked roughly, “Keep them? For what?”

 

Ljome made a helpless little gesture, indicating the tangled sheets of her bed; then she pulled her arm out of Loki’s grasp, rubbing the red marks his fingers had left on her pale skin.

 

“But they cannot live in a lake, without the open sea – without light!” Loki said, his face troubled, his eyes stormy.

 

“No,” said Ljómi quietly, “no, they can’t.”

 

Silence fell, and for a long time they sat, each wrapped in their own thoughts. Eventually Loki lifted his head; the anger was gone from his face, but his eyes were still turbulent.

 

“Are there any mermaids down there right now?”, he asked, still with an edge to his voice.

 

Ljómi returned his look, shaking her head. “No,” she replied, sadness even in that one syllable. “There haven’t been any in a while. But that would only make those beads more valuable. Nóri probably will ask for them, but you can easily refuse him. It might be more complicated if the Council asks for them in payment, or, if he returns in time, the Lord Rági himself.”

 

“The Lord? Your Council? They would use those beads?”, Loki asked sharply.

 

“No, but they would trade them, and that is just as bad,” Ljómi said. “And if you refuse to hand them over, I will probably be forbidden to work the spell for you. Do you think you could bring yourself to destroy them?”

 

“Yes, of course,” Loki said, looking down on his wrist and the unexpected nuisance of a slim white bead bracelet. Considering the things he had been wearing it through, it was amazing he hadn’t lost it a long time ago …

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