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The Hidden Fortress

Loki - FIRE AND ICE


Mackie
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He was standing in one of the soot-darkened recesses of the cavernous room, watching the woman’s every move with icy eyes.

 

When he had entered from the much brighter lit hall more than an hour ago, well aware that she wasn’t home yet, her huge cats had been looking at him for a moment out of half a dozen pairs of yellow eyes, and then had returned to grooming, or dozing, unperturbed by his presence. He was no stranger to them – he had been here before.

 

Taking a quick tour of the room, he had found himself an alcove deep enough to be almost perfectly dark, but close enough to the open hearth, where there was likely to be some action as soon as the mistress of the house returned. He knew that this was her favourite room, with the bundles of herbs, and bags with nondescrpt content hanging from pegs on the wall, and a board with squares of bone with runes cut into them standing close to the fire.

 

The silent visitor hadn’t touched anything; he had disappeared into the lightless alcove, and the room had lapsed back into somnolence, only now and then a languid movement from one of the big cats or the soft sound of a white rimmed glowing log falling apart punctuating the drowsy silence.

 

Then the mistress of Folkvang arrived, and the big cats streaked up to her to receive some attention, and rub their round heads against her legs and hips. The woman shed her heavy cloak – Asgard afternoons could be chilly in fall. She bent down to stoke the fire, throwing a few sprigs from one of the herb bundles on it as soon as it was burning brightly.

 

The rising heat was carrying a slightly cloying sweetness with it in thin tendrils of smoke, tickling the unseen guest’s nose. Still he didn’t move, his eyes steady on the woman. She picked up the runes now, holding them in the hollow of her hands for the span of a heartbeat – then she threw them down on the board, and examined keenly the pattern they had fallen into. Finally she swept them aside with a low curse, moved her head as if she was trying to work a crick out of her neck, and yawned.

 

A mocking voice from out of the darkness said, “Bored, Freya?”

 

She whirled round, her responding laugh a bit brittle, but almost covering that first frightened gasp. “Well, what a surprise …”, she murmured, “The Allfather’s pet Jötun. Does your blood brother by any chance know you are in Asgard?” – “If he is as all-seeing as he claims to be, he should know,” Loki said, stepping out of the shadows, and into the red and golden glow of the fire. “If he doesn’t, I frankly see no reason to alert him to the fact.” He was standing right in front of her now, looking down into her face, his own cool and expressionless except for the fiery reflection in his seagreen eyes.

 

Freya shook the red waves of her hair back, and smiled into these eyes. Her lashes came down coquettishly, and she reached out to slowly run a hand up his arm and rest it on his shoulder, her fingers digging slightly into the tanned skin over the sloping muscle.

 

His voice bare all inflection, Loki said, “What is it, Freya, no customers tonight? Nobody willing to pay a fortune to have an hour’s use of your tricks, or your body?”

 

Pulling away her hand as if she had been bitten, Freya recoiled, taking a hasty step back. Pale with shock and anger she hissed, “How dare you …!” – “What’s there to dare? Isn’t it common knowledge that it only takes a nice bauble like the Brisingamen necklace to buy this cream and ivory treasure for a foursome of dwarves for a whole night?” He grabbed her shoulders roughly, digging his strong fingers into her fair skin. Her hands came up to try and loosen his grip, and she hissed, “Let go of me!” She was clearly not prepared for his instant obedience – not only did he let go of her, he even pushed her away, making her stumble against the hearth, and the board with the runes, spilling the pieces all over the floor.

 

The bluegreen eyes stayed on her face, still cool and watchful, while she was shaking with fury. Barely able to controll her voice, she yelled, “How dare you suggest I am selling my favours!” The brows over the cool eyes rose, and Loki said in mock contrition, “I beg your pardon – were you offering me a free ride? Still I must regretfully decline – I made it a habit not to use common property.”

 

With a shrill cry of utmost fury Freya rushed at him, her hands like claws, aiming at those glacier eyes, but Loki got hold of her wrists without much effort, and forcing her hands behind her back, he was holding her close, smiling blandly into her face as if he didn’t see that it was contorted with rage. “Don’t get yourself all fired up, Freya,” he said, “even if I am not really interested in your royal person, there still is business you can do with me. Tell me, Princess of Vanaheim – how much is a tattoo? One like … this?”

 

Before she realised what he was up to, he had gathered both her wrists in his left hand, and turned her roughly to face the wall, and using a fingertip, he started to draw into the soot-darkened whitewash. Freya gasped when she recognised the grid and the runes, and when he was about to enclose it all into the last outline, she jerked violently away from the wall, crying, “No, don’t!”

 

“Ah …”, Loki said, “so it isn’t all nice and pretty, is it?” – “How can you know?” whispered Freya, twisting around in his merciless grip to look at him. He returned her look and said curtly, “My wife told me.” – “But Sigyn cannot …” Freya bit her lips, clearly not sure just how much Loki really knew. He laughed at her, but his eyes remained cold. “No, Sigyn cannot see it – as long as she is in Asgard. But your seid magic does’n’t reach far enough to veil your dirty work in Midgard, bitch.”

 

He shook her that her hair was flying around her face, then he let go of her and wiped his hands on his black pants as if he had touched something repugnant. Freya hastened to wipe the drawing off the wall, rubbing frantically until only an indistinct smear remained. Then she turned to face Loki and hissed, “Out! Go, before I call for help, Jötun. The Allfather will not think this a particularly good joke.”

 

“No …”, Loki said, shooting her a searing green look, “he wouldn’t be too pleased to learn that I know of the little trick the two of you played on me. Odin and Freya, blissfully united in practising seid. However it was meant to work, though – it can’t have been much of a spell. I am still alive.”

 

Freya bent down to pick up the runes, and put them back on the board. Her face hidden by her hair, she said scornfully, “You were not supposed to die. The Allfather wouldn’t have bothered with using seid had he wanted you dead – one stroke of his sword would have taken care of that. Who would have stood by a stray Jötun?” – “His wife, perhaps?” – “You didn’t have a wife yet – if you are talking about Sigyn.” – “I have no wife beside Sigyn.” – “No? How amazing, really. Wasn’t there a Jötun wife, or two?”

 

Loki bent down and grabbed Freya’s arm, dragging her up with almost casual brutality. His eyes only inches from hers he said, “I didn’t say Sigyn is my first wife – but she is my only wife. Do not sully her name by talking about her as if she were one of many.” – “Oh, the loving husband, all of a sudden? Just what is it anyway, that makes blue-eyed Sigyn so special that she is keeping you on her leash for so long?” ¬– “Shut up. You ar not even worth to say her name, Vanir witch.”

 

Freya struggled to free herself, trying to kick him, and digging the nails of her strong fingers into his hands to pry them off her arms, but he held on. Frenzied with fury, she hissed, “Your ice princess! Your picture of a faithful wife and loving mother! Who could know that a little mouse like Sigyn would capture your fancy – and hold it? Odin was furious when you claimed Sigyn, and she accepted you. He blamed me for having messed up –“

 

Suddenly Freya’s mouth snapped shut.

 

With a derisive snort Loki let go of her. Pushing the rune carved bones around on the board, he said in conversational tone, “So that was it. Neat, really. How absolutely hilarious that it didn’t work.”

 

Freya was beside herself with fury, too far gone to care anymore what she was saying. “There was nothing wrong with the grid, or the runes. And the spell worked – you were meant to remain a wanderer, and everything was perfect until llittle Sigyn came traipsing along, and you suddenly wanted to marry her.” – “Maybe your Vanir magic doesn’t touch Jötuns.” – “But Sigyn isn’t a Jötun!” – “Perhaps her heart is stronger than your seid, Freya.”

 

She hissed scornfully. “I will never understand why Odin had to make you his brother – and why you had to be so bloody stupid and spit on it. Why do you always have to flaunt it that you are an outsider? You don’t show enough fear, Loki of Jötunheim. You never give your enemies the satisfaction to see you on your knees, and that makes them want to hurt you even more.” – “The satisaction of seeing me scared? The last time you wanted me down on my knees before you, it was for a different kind of satisfaction, wasn’t it?”

 

In one snake-fast movement Loki had wound her long red tresses around his fist, dragging her face close to his. His voice grating with disgust, he said, ”I’m out of here. Your incense is giving me a headache, and your royal self is making me sick. Maybe you’re lucky, and there’ll be a late customer with a few beads to spend on your … hospitality.”

 

With this he shoved her aside and left, clearly unperturbed by the string of invectives she was screaming after him.

 

With shaking hands Freya sorted through the runes, only to find one missing.

 

Purisaz.

 

 

***

 

Odin was enjoying the moment away from Asgard, the wind on his face, the easy canter of his horse, the dimming pastel light of a sky right after sunset. The walls of the city were a dark mass in the distance – on his return, the torches would be burning, lighting the way for the Lord of Asgard, and he would feel the heavy cloak of his position settle around his shoulders again – but for now, he was free.

 

He sighed.

 

The one big sacrifice he had made – freedom. There was infinite power in being the Allfather, the All-Seeing One – but no freedom. And he had realised a long time ago that what you cannot have, you covet all the more, just like what you have sent away, is staying on your mind all the more insistently.

 

Like Loki.

 

Ever since he had banned the Trickster to Midgard, Loki had been invading Odin’s thoughts with memories, and worries, even more so than when he still had been in Asgard.

 

Loki …

 

Odin’s face was darkening under a frown. He knew that after all these ages gone by, Asgard was still puzzling – and whispering – over the reason why he had made the Jötun his blood brother. Aside from very few close relatives, nobody had ever ventured to ask – and even Frigg, and Thor, had not gotten an answer beyond a shrug, a non-commital jest, or silence.

 

With another deep sigh, his eyes blind to the dusk-veiled plain now, Odin remembered his long ago and prudently short-termed stay as a guest with Laufey’s clan.

 

A guest who was well aware he was being suffered, at best. As soon as Laufey as the chief of the tribe had made it clear that she wasn’t looking for allies, and that if ever she would, it wouldn’t be in Asgard she’d go looking for them, Odin and his small group of companions had left the Jötun settlement and its dubious hospitality, to trek back across harsh plains and harsher mountains for friendlier places.

 

But all through their short stay, they had listened to tales of Loki Laufeyarsson. The women all had called him a stray, and a disgrace, and they all had had a wistful smile, their tongues flicking over lips moist with imagined or remembered kisses.

 

The men all had sworn to kill Loki as soon as they’d get their hands on him – and then had regaled the guests with tales of his pranks and tricks, roaring with laughter.

 

So Laufey’s elusive firstborn had made an intriguing topic for their conversation when they were riding exhausting hours across the wind blown and ice crusted land. They had found themselves unable to agree on a picture of the man – his way with women suggested quite a different image than the tales the men had been spinning.

 

Then they had approached the flanks of a mountain, falling silent at the sight of blood red fire streaming down from a top wreathed in smoke. In the middle of this icy desert, the fire was not only melting the snow, but the heat even had dried the rocks to a barren darkness, changing the monotonous whites and greys they had been trudging across to a stark black and red.

 

One of the heat-shimmering rivulets of fire reached all the way down to the foot of the mountain, ending in an evergrowing field of black stone tongues licking at the scarred rock, and then swallowing it. Further up where the lava was still a fiery red and orange, the air over it dancing with heat, a man was standing as close to the stream of live fire as possible, his body starkly silhouetted against the burning river. His hair was whipping around his head in the rushing heat, and it seemed as if the fire was rising lovingly to greet him. Odin and his companions halted, silently staring up at the lonely figure. He seemed like a part of the mountain, and the fire – a spirit of this place.

 

Then a horse was neighing nearby, and the man turned to look down the steep slope. He left the lava stream and came down the rockside, his steps swift and sure on the treacherous ground. They saw his horse only when he had reached it – there was a rock formation hiding it from their eyes, and it was of the same dark colour, blending in perfectly. Standing next to it, with his weapons within easy reach, the man was now calmly waiting for them to prove themselves friend or foe. Odin rode up to him. When he gave their names, the stranger laughed, saying, “Laufey’s illustrous guests. I see my mother can’t have bothered much with being too gracious, when you are already on your way home.”

 

“Loki Laufeyarsson,” Odin said. It wasn’t a question.

 

Loki laughed, throwing his head back. His hair was the darkened blond of winter, but with strands playing through it as if the fire had sent out pale flames. Inspite of being surrounded by half a dozen strangers, warriors with ready weapons, he didn’t seem to be bothered – he seemed rather amused.

 

Fettered by his rank, his power, and his ambitions, Odin looked at the Jötun, and he saw freedom. The longer he was looking, the more he felt the stirring of feelings he was not familiar with when looking at a man – envy, and lust. He wanted to bind that spirit because he couldn’t have that freedom for himself – and he wanted to possess that man in every possible way.

 

Then Odin realised that the bluegreen eyes looking up at him were dancing with laughter – he had been staring at the Jötun far too long, and far too obviously.

 

Trying to regain his composure, he looked around and asked, “You must be familiar with this place – is it advisable to make camp here?” Flashing him a smile, Loki enclosed the barren rock and glowing lava in an open-handed gesture, and said, “Well, at least it does have a furnace. I am planning to stay here tonight myself.” – “On your way home?”, Odin asked, and got a swift green gaze in return. “No …”, the Jötun said, scanning the horizon with narrowed eyes, “I think not.”

 

He had not explained himself any further, and that night the Aesir had shared camp with Loki Laufeyarsson. He had been a pleasant and amusing companion, and they had found themselves sharing their last mead with him, receiving a much more potent drink from a small stone flask in return. When they finally had fallen asleep in a circle on the fire warmed rock, the Jötun had volunteered for the first watch. Between shallow sleep and drowsy wakefulness, Odin had been watching him, staring hungrily at the profile dimly lit by the banked fire.

 

In the morning he couldn’t tell if it had been a dream, but he seemed to remember that for a while not a man, but a big grey wolf had been sitting on the rock above the camp site.

 

Lafey’s son had been charming during breakfast, entertaining the Aesir with cutting edge tales of life among the Jötun – and then he had saddled up and bid them farewell, clearly intending to procede on his own.

 

Odin, taken by surprise by this development, had heard himself asking Loki to accompany them to Asgard as a guest. He was aware of the incredulous stares of his fellow Aesir, and the Jötun had clearly picked up the quickfire glances as well. With a sarcastic grin he said, “My mother is not going to change her mind, only because of her son being a hostage in Asgard, you know.” Odin had coloured with irritation, but when Loki had mounted and was about to turn his horse and head out into the bleak morning, he had raised his voice, saying, “Not as a hostage I want you to join us in Asgard, but as a brother.”

 

With some satisfaction he had seen surprise and excitement lighting up the seagreen eyes, and Loki had guided his horse closer to look into Odin’s face. “As a brother?” – “As my brother, if it so pleases you, Loki of Jötunheim.”

 

Over the low surge of surprised and disgruntled murmurs from Odin’s companions, the Jötun laughed. Odin drew his dagger and cut his own wrist, and the campsite was very quiet all of a sudden. His eyes fixed on Odin’s face, Loki unsheathed his own blade, drawing it carelessly across his arm. Then he leaned down over his horse’s shoulder, and held out his hand, with the blood already dripping from his fingers.

 

Odin clasped the arm in a warrior’s grip, and their blood mingled and ran over the horse’s dark skin, spattering the black rock with red. When the lord of Asgard finally let go, his blood was loud in his ears, and his fingers were tingling with the touch of the Jötun’s warm skin, and lean musles. He said, “From now on my lips shall not taste from a cup, unless one is offered to you, too, brother.”

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His horse suddenly tossed back his head, whinnying, and Odin was startled out of his reminiscences. For a heartbeat’s time his mind reeled with the knowledge of all that had passed since that vow of blood brotherhood. Then he realised that Sleipnir was not just being playful – the grey stallion was shaking his head, snorting, his mane streaming like strands of dusk, his ears pointing forwards. His steps had slowed down to a nervously prancing trot. Something in the velvet blue evening alarmed or excited him.

 

His eye piercing the soft waning light, Odin still couldn’t see anything to warrant his horse’s sudden change of mood. He leaned down to pat the powerful neck, and speak soothingly to the stallion, when suddenly all across the plain a wall of fire was rising with a soft whooshing sound, cutting off his way back to the city. Before Odin knew what was happening, Sleipnir had reared with a scream, and then, instead of fleeing from the red blaze, he was racing right at it.

 

His eye watering with the air rushing by, Odin stared ahead. It didn’t take him long to realise where his horse was carrying him.

 

There was a man standing right in front of the wall of flames, a black silhouette before the live heat. His easy, self-assured stance was a challenge, the relaxed limbs and straight back a deliberate impudence. Even though he couldn’t yet see it against the red glare, Odin knew that the hair whipping around that face was blond, and that the eyes were seagreen, and staring unflinchingly into his.

 

Sleipnir’s mad race ended only when he was almost upon Loki; dancing skittishly, he reared again, his hooves milling only inches away from the Jötun’s upturned face. A face wearing a curious smile, the seagreen eyes softening as they looked upon the grey stallion without fear. When the horse came down, Loki’s hand came up and rested on the black velvet of Sleipnir’s nose, and then reached further to grasp the mane, pulling the big head down to rest his forehead against it. His voice barely above a whisper, Loki said, “Greetings to you, most beautiful one. You truly deserve that they call you eight-legged for your lightning speed.”

 

His own voice raspy with irritation, Odin barked, “How dare you? You have been banned to Midgard, and still you think you can enter Asgard as it pleases you. Let go of my horse, and quench the fire before I have to bother and do it myself.”

 

It was as if Loki didn’t hear him. He still stood head to head with the horse, and his hands were running over the grey fur with exquisite tenderness. Odin pulled on the reins, but the stallion stood unmoving, except for his heaving flanks. About to repeat his order to release the horse, Odin heard Loki’s voice, quiet, but with an unmistakeable edge to it. “Your horse is free to go wherever he wants, One Eye.” A wave of cold anger rushed through Odin, hardening into ice that was chilling his voice and his eye when he said, “You are holding him back – if not with your hands, then with our magic.”

 

His hands still stroking the big horse’s head, Loki looked up. “Do you feel safe with your trusted steed, One Eye? Or does it occur to you now and then, that one day he may put his allegiance with the one who gave birth to him? His blood carries the memories of more than one race, and his mind is not just that of a horse.”

 

In an unconscious gesture, Odin’s hand went to the hilt of his dagger, and he said in a flat voice, “Are you threatening me, Loki of Jötunheim?” – “Threatening you? No, I am not threatening you. I just thought that without Munin her to refresh your memory, you needed perhaps a reminder of your beautiful horse’s pedigree.” – “A real man …”, hissed Odin, pale with fury, “a good man … would not flaunt his shame for all the world to see.”

 

“A good man – like you? A good man would not ask something of his brother, and then shame him for it. You didn’t have any qualms about it when it gave Asgard the walls you craved, and when what you now call my shame, resulted in one who is a king among horses, you did not hesitate to demand him as a gift – brother.”

 

“Curb your impudence, Jötun,” it came in a voice like a shaft of ice. Loki threw Odin a searing look. “Ah, yes, Jötun. Always so convenient to remind me of my place, isn’t it? Tell me – brother – how soon did you regret that blood vow we exchanged in Jötunheim? It must have become a bad itch, once you were back in Asgard. You know – I still wonder why you didn’t see it would go haywire. Did you think I’d be content playing the jester to your king? Did you believe I’d leave my brain – and my lust – outside those walls, once I had ensured they’d be built?”

 

But Odin didn’t reply. His eye was on Loki’s hand, and he said, “You have a tattoo on your wrist.” Loki flashed him a brilliant and blatantly fake smile, and said in conversational tone, “Yes, I have quite a lot of them, actually. People seem to make it their favourite pastime to brand me.”

 

Sleipnir snorted, dancing in place, troubled when he sensed his rider’s sudden tension. Stepping back from the horse, Loki started to draw something into the dirt, using his toe. Odin didn’t have to watch for long to recognise the grid and the runes. Cold with fury to be reminded of that well-nigh forgotten tattoo, he silently cursed himself for having changed the spell without Freya’s knowledge. What else could be to blame for making it powerless?

 

Still seemingly intent on his drawing, but now flipping a small object between his fingers, Loki said, “This is one of Freya’s designs … but then you probably know, usually being the partner in crime for her seid.”

 

“Stop it!”, Odin roared, and Loki’s head came up. “Ah, you don’t like it either … I have to agree, it is not a very powerful design.” Odin tried to regain some composure, but his eye was irresistibly drawn to the rune on Loki’s wrist – and the object he was playing with. It was a square piece of bone, and Loki let it wander across the outside of his long fingers until it slipped into his palm, only to reappear on the other side and start all over again.

 

His voice almost toneless, Odin said, “That is one of Freya’s rune bones.” Looking down on it as if he were surprised to see it, Loki grinned. ‘”Indeed it is! Doesn’t it go nicely with my tattoo?”

 

Odin was shaking his head, pulling his eye away from the mesmerizing movement of the Purisaz rune. “You have seen Freya?”, he asked sharply. “Yes … just for a little chat – old times’ sake and all that. It’s a pity you weren’t there … we would have made a lovely threesome, like we must have when the two of you gave me a little ornament I hadn’t asked for. More the pity that I cannot remember that particular occasion at all …” Suddenly Loki’s voice lost the pretense of mockery. His gaze blue fire, he hissed, “Damn you, Odin. What made you do it? Was I getting too comfortable? Did you want Sigyn for yourself?”

 

Odin’s eye was cool and grey, and nothing betrayed his infinite relief. Loki didn’t know. He did not have a clue. Even if Freya, the treacherous bitch, had revealed all she knew – Odin’s secret was still safe. His voice strong and authoritative again, Odin said, “I had my reasons. And when the prophecy of Ragnarök came over us, I knew that my reasons were sound.”

 

Loki was pale now, but it was hard to tell whether with anger, or fear. “The prophecy … It might even have been different if you hadn’t branded me an outsider already. And what for? I was restless, and a wanderer, long before I ever laid eyes on you, or Asgard.” Suddenly he laughed, but it was a hard laugh, and he said in a voice brittle with tension, “You know, I never expected anyone could make me feel naïve, a dolt, ever. However awry your seid has gone – that much you managed brilliantly.”

 

Odin felt safe enough to smile, thin-lipped and patronising – still he tried to walk his horse back and away from Loki, but Sleipnir didn’t budge, resting his soft lips on Loki’s head, blowing into the blond strands. Taking a deep breath, Loki lifted a hand to scratch behind the grey ears in a soothing repetitive movement. Leaning his face against the horse’s head, his eyes going past Odin to stare unseeingly into the mid-distance, he said slowly, “Ragnarök … If you really believe it is more than just another prophecy, then why the stalling? Why not just murder my son – who has grown up among your tribe, brother, his mother’s tribe – why not go through with it, bind me in a cave with his entrails, and be done with it? And then just wait for the ages to pass until that final battle …”

 

An irrepressible shudder went through him, communicating itself to Sleipnir, who tossed his head again, pawing the dirt nervously. Loki’s eyes came back to Odin, and running his gaze in a calculated insult over the face and body of Asgard’s master, he said, “Look at you, One Eye. Inspite of Idun’s apples and their promise of eternal youth, you are getting old, and Asgard is petrifying around you like a sarcophagus. Ragnarök might have to be cancelled in the end because the Aesir have turned to dust long before it comes to pass.”

 

Not heeding the furious stare of the one grey eye, Loki continued. “Does it never occur to you that there are no young in Asgard anymore? Nobody is conceiving, and nobody is giving birth. Nari is among the youngest, and he has been a grown man for a long time now, even if his mother doesn’t think so.” The shadow of a smile softened his face for the span of a heartbeat, then it was replaced by that hard stare again. “No children,” he said. “Not that we are not trying …” And with a coolly appraising look at his blood brother, “Well, maybe some of us are trying harder than others.”

 

“Shut up!”, Odin roared, making Sleipnir snort and dance sideways, the horse’s eyes showing white-ringed panic until Loki extended a hand and laid it lightly on the grey forehead. The Jötun smiled up at the irate Aesir and said silkily, “It’s not a nice picture, is it? The Aesir rotting away within the strong walls of Asgard, while all other worlds thrive and propagate. Your world is shrinking, One Eye. Midgard has forgotten you and your clan – you are a comic book hero, at best. That’s what you have come to, with all your scheming, your conspiracies, and carnage.” Stepping away from Sleipnir’s head, Loki looked up into Odin’s eye, and asked, “Was it worth it – brother?”

 

Odin felt the tension in his horse shifting, and knew that Loki had released Sleipnir from his hold – and he resented it. It was as closed to being dismissed as he ever remembered. Jerking the reins with much more force than necessary, Odin let Sleipnir take a few steps back. But just when he opened his mouth to command the wall of flames to collapse, Loki turned away from him, and waved carelessly at the fire. With another soft whoosing noise it was gone, and Loki was walking away into the darkness without a glance back.

 

Odin was furious, but he knew that going after the Jötun now would make it even worse. Digging his heels viciously into Sleipnir’s flanks, he drove the grey stallion to breakneck speed, racing across the plain to where Asgard’s torches were beckoning.

 

***

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He was standing in the darkness of her bedroom, listening to the soft sound of breathing. He still knew the place well enough to get in without making noise, and now he was just standing here, within arm’s reach of her bed.

 

The room was completely dark, the fire in the hearth burned down so low that only the faintest red glow was indicating that there were still live embers in the ash. A slow movement of his hand, invisible in the velvet blackness, and the feathery remains of the logs lit up in a dim glow again.

 

Her sleeping face partly hidden by the pale wealth of her hair, she was lying on her side, covered with furs, only her head and a hand visible in the softly pulsing orange light. A faint hint of camomille was hanging in the air, and for a moment he was breathless with painful longing. On silent feet he stepped closer to the bed, and slowly sat down on it, extending a hand to wake the sleeping woman – but then his hand sank down on the furs before it had touched her.

 

He wondered how it might feel – to be content to stay in one place. He tried to imagine it, and smiled with self-contempt, shaking his head a little as if he were trying to dislodge an annoying insect. The woman sighed in her sleep, and moved her hand a little – then she was quiet again.

 

Loki realised that he didn’t want to wake her. He didn’t want to leave just yet, either … He crawled on the bed, and curled up behind her, keeping a distance, careful not to disturb her sleep. He pulled one of the furs over himself, buried his face in his wife’s long hair, and waved at the glowing embers to return them to their former state of near extinction. Then he lay in the darkness, listening to Sigyn’s breathing. The warmth from the fur covers made him drowsy, and the turmoil in his mind abated, leaving him with a lingering sadness. He would leave in a moment … he just wanted to lie here for a little longer, spying on her silence, drinking in the athmosphere saturated with her scent, her warmth, her presence …

 

Without meaning to, he slowly drifted into sleep.

 

***

 

Loki was used to sharing a bed. As long as he was awake, he was keeping his distance, meaning to leave without being noticed. But once sleep had claimed him, the warmth and the comfort of a body nearby was pulling him like a magnet – inspite of heaps of furs, he burrowed until his head was resting in the curve of her shoulder, nestling into the soft wealth of her hair, and his body was echoing hers, pressing close to her back, one of his hands resting on the familiar curve of her hip, his thighs behind hers so that her feet lay curled against his shins.

 

Sigtyn was not used to having company in her bedroom anymore. Only the deeply rooted familiarity of his body, and their position, kept her from being startled out of sleep the moment he first touched her. But her dreams took her back to a time when this was how she slept most of her nights, safe in the embrace of her lover. But when the warm hand on her hip tightened its grip possessively, she woke up with a gasp.

 

It was quiet, and dark, and somebody was in bed with her – sleeping. Her heart was racing, and she was wide awake with shock. But before her whirring nerves could trigger a reaction, she realised that the way the intruder was curling around her back, with his head buried in her hear, was intimately familiar. Before she could question the wisdom of the move, her hand reached back to settle on his hip – and again fear chased a rush of goosebumps across her skin. It wasn’t Loki after all – this man was dressed. But again she didn’t have time to react – the head behind hers snuggled closer, burying itself deep into her hair, and a dream-softened voice murmured, “Sigyn …”

 

She relaxed. Whatever reason had brought him to her bed tonight – it was Loki. She didn’t understand why he was dressed, but to have him to herself, in her own bedroom, was too rare and too good to spoil it with worries. She enjoyed the simple fact of his presence, pushing back everything she wanted to confront him with. There would still be time for it in the morning. She put her hand over his, and allowed herself to slip back into sleep.

 

***

 

It was still pitchblack night; there was not even a hint of light left in the hearth. Sigyn woke from a hoarse voice whispering, “… the serpents …”, and something moving against her shoulder. Loki was moving his head frantically from side to side, and it took her only one heartbeat’s time to recognise the nightmare that was shattering his sleep. She turned round to face him, took him into her arms, pulling his face into her shoulder, and said softly, “I am here. Don’t be afraid, I am here with you.”

 

She knew he was in the cave.

 

He didn’t wake up, but his arms went around her, far too tight for comfort. She felt his pulse racing where her hand was lying on the warm skin of his neck, and the tremor of the nighmare was shivering through his tense muscles. She stroked his hair, whispering again, “I am here …”

 

Minutes later, when his grip finally relaxed, she fell asleep again.

 

***

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Her sleep was shallow, each movement of the man in her arms bringing her close to wakefulness. When the first pale grey of the morning was outlining the windows, she opened her eyes and pushed herself up on her elbows, extracting herself from Loki’s embrace. In a prone position, she was looking down at him – with his face relaxing in sleep, only the dark shadow of his stubble was keeping him from looking like a boy.

 

Sigyn saw the pulse beating under the vulnerable skin of his neck, and bent her head to touch it with a kiss, closing her eyes to focus on the blood rushing under her lips. It was a strong and steady beat, driving, purposeful. When she finally lifted her head, Loki was watching her, his seagreen eyes sleep-softened and vague.

 

She whispered, “Good morning …”, and bent her head again, this time to touch her lips to his, her hair falling around them like a veil. With a barely audible purr, he wrapped his arms around her, deepening the kiss, changing it from a tender greeting into an unmistakeably physical suggestion. Raking her fingers through his hair, Sigyn enjoyed the kiss, and when Loki rolled over to pin her down, she wrapped her legs around him, feeling the fabric of his Midgard pants against her skin. He clearly became aware of this, too, since his head came up abruptly, and he said with a bewildered frown, “Why am I dressed?”

 

Sigyn laughed softly. “Yes, it is quite confusing, isn’t it? I guess you weren’t really planning to stay the night.” She watched realisation dawning on his face, and when he said, “I think I just fell asleep …”, she smiled, and pulled his head down again.

 

Finally she asked, “Why did you come, when you didn’t want to wake me?” His eyes darkened, and he said, “I’ll tell you – later.” Before she could insist, he kissed her again, demanding now, and she pushed his t-shirt up to run her hands from his shoulder blades down along the twin pillars of the muscles both sides of his spine, until she met with frustration in form of a waistband.

 

Tugging on it, she pulled her head back and asked teasingly, “Are you planning on staying so modest?” Loki laughed, and pulled the t-shirt over his head. He rolled away from her to take off his jeans, and Sigyn watched him, wondering why he had crawled into her bed stealthily. She was about to ask again, when Loki put a finger on her lips, his eyes on hers in a silent plea for time.

 

Sigyn returned his look for a moment, and then reached up to grasp his hand. She kissed the finger lying on her lips, and then laid his hand along her cheek, closing her eyes against the warm palm in wordless agreement of a time-out.

 

Kneeling on the bed, Loki pulled her up until she was sitting in the circle of his arms. In one skilful movement he pulled her shift over her head, and dropped in on the floor there to join his shirt and jeans. Then he pushed her hair away from her face, and wrapped his arms around her again, holding her close. Sigyn wriggled to draw her legs under her, and got on her knees, too, pressing herself against him, her hands running up his thighs. She rested one hand on his hip, and let the other move on, slowly.

 

When she heard the sharp intake of his breath in a hiss against her hair, she said softly and with a smile, “You scared me, with all these clothes on. I thought there was a stranger in my bed.” He snorted a laugh. “Is this better then?” – “Yes …”, she said, running the nail of her thumb along the proof of his desire for her, “this is much better.” She could feel the muscles of his thighs and stomach tighten against her in a reaction to her touch, and smiled again. “Don’t you think so?” – “Yes,” Loki said, his voice husky, his hands moving down to spread greedy fingers over her buttocks, “… much better.”

 

***

 

Without really seeing it, Loki had his eyes on the soft pink light the rising sun was sending through the windows. He was lying with his right arm wrapped around the sleeping Sigyn, and the fingers of his left hand were playing with a pale golden strand of her hair, brushing it over his lips again and again in a mesmerisingly repetitive movement.

 

Should he really tell her what he had found out about the tattoo? Or should he just leave her be? Perhaps it was best to be gone when she woke up …

 

But he didn’t make a move to get up – instead he just lay there, his eyes on his sleeping wife now – on the curve of her lips, the soft shadow of her lashes, the delicate flush of her creamy skin. He couldn’t see the forget-me-not blue of her eyes, but then he didn’t have to – he knew it by heart. Her hand moved on his chest, her fingers brushing the Thor’s hammer amulet, and a smile softened Loki’s expression.

 

He wouldn’t leave just yet. If she asked again, he would tell her. Curling the strand of pale hair around his fingers, Loki closed his eyes – and found himself under scrutiny from a pair of hazel eyes, staring at him from up close. With a gasp he jerked upright, dislodging Sigyn from her comfortable sleeping position.

 

“What!”, she cried, her eyes wide with sleepy incomprehension. “What is it? What happened?” – “Nothing,” he said, putting a hand on her arm to calm her, but Sigyn heard the tone of his voice, and it woke her up even more. He sounded shaken, and she could see how hard he was trying to seem unperturbed. Other than with the eternally cool and composed Aesir, Loki’s emotions were always close to the surface, but normally he had a good enough grip on them not to be too transparent. Now she could see how he was fighting confusion, perplexity, and something that looked a lot like fear.

 

“Loki?” Putting a hand on his arm, she tried to ground him with physical contact, but his pupils were huge, and he seemed to be floundering. This scared her more than she cared to admit to herself, and she repeated, “Loki?”, her voice conveying her growing panic.

 

He gave his head a small shake, and looked down at her with a wry smile. “Don’t look so worried”, he said, “I am fine. I must have been dreaming.” She didn’t believe him. Even if it had been a dream, he was hiding something. A long time ago she had learned to live with Loki’s secrets, but she still didn’t like it. With a sigh she pulled him down next to her and said, “Now that we are awake … you wanted to tell me why you are here.”

 

And he told her. Weirdly relieved to get his mind away from the startling appearance of the hazel eyes, he talked about the tattoo, about Odin’s and Freya’s spells to keep him restless, and that by the simple fact of being together, he and Sigyn had defied the magic of Asgard’s seid masters.

 

Sigyn listenend, watching his face while he was talking, wondering how much of his encounters with Freya and the Allfather Loki was keeping a secret. When he was talking about Odin, his voice held a tension that told her about the hurt he didn’t mention, and when he was trying to find a reason for Odin’s age-old betrayal, suspecting him of jealousy because he had wanted Sigyn for himself, she sighed inwardly with relief.

 

He didn’t know. After all these years, Loki didn’t know. Well, she wouldn’t explain to her lord and master that she wasn’t the one whose body the Allfather was lusting after. Ever since she had for a split second seen naked jealousy in Odin’s one-eyed stare the day Loki had publicly claimed her, Sigyn knew that Odin hated her, because Loki loved her.

 

She had not spoken about it to anyone, ever. She had locked it away in her heart, because nothing but terror would come from it if anyone knew. Things were complicated enough without having the Allfather strike out like a vicious snake because he felt cornered by the threat of exposure.

 

And Loki? How would he react? With laughter at first, of course. She was quite sure he would be surprised, but neither shocked nor disgusted. He would probably take it in his stride, being used to physical attraction of all kind.

 

But once he knew, he would be tempted to use this knowledge. Even though he would be well aware that this blade would cut both ways, he would lash out with it as soon as anger or frustration were overriding cool calculation – and given his temper, that would happen soon. No, he could neer know about this.

 

Instinctively Sigyn wrapped her arms around Loki, and he looked down at her quizzically, asking, “What?” – “Nothing,” she lied, and wanted him to be safe. “I had been hoping you would not anger Odin over this. You promised to be careful.” – “I was careful.” – “You were?” Loki shot her an irritated look.

 

“For quite some time now Odin hasn’t been the all-seeing, all-knowing one he is pretending to be, you know?”, he said testily. “His power is waning. Most of the time he doesn’t even see I am in Asgard.” Sigyn shook her head, and thinking, ‘maybe he is just glad for a chance to watch you’, she said out loud, “Maybe he just doesn’t care one way or the other,” trying desperately to talk him away from danger.

 

She could see the next argument coming, and used his own means to avoid it – she pulled Loki’s head down for a kissslowly grinding her hips against his. His body reacted with reliable promptness, and Sigyn knew that she had successfully shifted his attention away from Odin. Then her own focus shifted, too, when Loki rubbed his stubbled chin tantalisingly slow over her neck and shoulders. His hands were cupping her breasts, and when the sandpaper touch reached their tender skin, Sigyn moaned softly. Then Loki’s lips found the exquisite sensitivity of her nipples, and all thoughts of Odin and danger evaporated in the rising heat.

 

***

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Asgard’s sun was prying into the bedroom, surprised to find its usually chaste inhabitant wrapped into the arms of one who was officially banished. One ray of light found its way through strands of tousled hair and rested insistingly on a closed lid, tickling the dream-lost sleeper until he opened his eyes.

 

Loki blinked, and turned his head away from the spot of bright sunshine, which in turn woke Sigyn. She looked up into his eyes, her smile dimming when he said softly, “I have to go.” – “Yes,” she replied with a sigh, “I know.” He kissed her softly, but when his kiss deepened, she gently pushed him away, returning his slightly stormy look with a calm blue one of her own until it was Loki’s turn to sigh.

 

He rolled out of the bed and pulled on shirt and jeans, and Sigyn got up to put on her shift. Then they stood facing each other, and Loki reached out to lay a hand along her jaw, his thumb gently stroking her slightly swollen lips.

 

In the face of his leaving, without having thought about it, let alone planned it, Sigyn blurted out, “Why, Loki? Why that … spirit woman?” She could see in the momentary vacancy of his eyes that he didn’t have a clue what she was talking about; then realisation hit, and his hand sank down as his face darkened with a frown.

 

“What?”, he asked, clearly playing for time. “What are you talking about?” – “You know what I am talking about. The day I came home from Midgard, you were … making love to a woman, a … wood spirit, or something like that. I saw you.” She had lowered her head, looking down on the rug with the two pairs of bare feet on it, but now she raised her eyes to meet his gaze squarely. “How could you?” It came out with more hurt and vehemence than she had intended.

 

Loki was staring at her in patent bewilderment. “How can you know?” he asked, not repentance, but only confusion colouring his voice. “I don’t know how,” Sigyn said, her own voice brittle. “She made me see, I guess, and in sufficient detail. She even made sure for me to see that you did not mean to look at me.”

 

A darkness was flitting over the seagreen of his eyes, and a slight tinge of red flushed his cheekbones. He said, “But … but even I couldn’t see her!” – “Maybe not, but you sure enough could do other things to her.” The flush deepened, and he replied with asperity, “I didn’t do anything ‘to’ her! She …” He bit his lips, his gaze avoiding hers for the split second he needed to regain his countenance. “You mean she did things to you? That may well be – but you certainly did not look like you would mind.”

 

He turned away, running a hand through his hair. His eyes on the sun-lit window, he asked, “Why are you …” His words slowed and halted, and his long fingers were rubbing the back of his neck. “Why are you so upset about it? I mean …” Again he fell silent, crossing his arms over his chest defensively.

 

Sigyn took a few swift steps until she was beside him, and putting a hand on his forearm she said in a soft but urgent voice, “Don’t you understand? This is different from all your usual … affairs. She is old, ancient. Older than you, or Odin – older than Asgard, even.” – “She certainly doesn’t look it,” Loki said flippantly, and got a searing blue lance of a look for it. “This isn’t a joke, Loki! If she wants you, she will come after you, and nobody will be able to stop her.”

 

For a moment his gaze flickered with something like apprehension, then he said defiantly, “Bullshit. She’s had herself a bit of fun, and that’s that. She’ll stay on that island of hers, busy changing seasons and growing trees and breathing moonlight. Don’t think about her anymore.”

 

Rubbing her hand slowly and insistingly over his arm, she said, “Loki, don’t you want to understand? Nobody has the power to stop her if she wants you.” – “Well, why would she want me?” Sigyn looked at him with some exasperation and said, “Sometimes, Loki Laufeyarsson, you are amazingly idiotic.”

 

After a heartbeat’s span of baffled silence, Loki laughed out loud. Reaching out in a snake-fast movement, he pulled her into his arms and said, “Well, if you say so …” Sigyn, still intent on conveying the serious nature of a spirit woman’s rampant libido, tried to wriggle free, but Loki held on and started to nibble on her neck. She gave up on the finer points, but said, “You really have to go.” – “Yes,” he said, his mouth wandering down to her collarbone, “I know.” Sigyn put her hands flat on his chest, trying to push him away. “You have to go now!” – “Yes …”, he replied in absentminded obedience, his voice muffled because he was pulling the strap of her shift down, using his teeth.

 

Sigyn felt how he lifted her up, and grabbed his hair with both hands to make him look at her. Her back was being pushed against the wall, and Loki laughed, the sun outlining his lashes with light, his eyes like the sea under a bright sky. “We don’t have time for this!”, Sigyn said without conviction, her voice, aiming for severity, turning to a sigh on her lips instead. “We do have a minute,” Loki said, sounding increasingly distracted.

 

“What do you mean,” Sigyn gasped when his warm hand pushed up her shift, “a minute …?” – “What,” Loki said softly when she wrapped her legs around his hips, a smile warming his voice, “do you think it will take us longer?” – “Loki!”, Sigyn scolded, but it sounded like a moan.

 

Loki laughed.

 

***

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His eyes were slowly scanning the horizon, passing over green and golden fields, the wide cloud-chased plains, shadow-clogged woodlands, and the glittering waters of the river Iving, until they came to rest on the sharp teeth of the snow-capped mountain range in the east.

 

Before One Eye had taken his powers away, he had been able to see beyond these peaks when he was sitting on Hlidskalf, but it did not really bother him that he could not now. The only place he ever had felt homesick for was where he had just left – within sight of a pair of forget-me-not blue eyes. He had seen many more worlds than this one, and Jötunheim was only a distant memory, tarnished with the heat of old rage and the harsh ice of old hatred. Sigyn was the only family tie he had ever wanted or acknowledged, having grown up in the uncomfortable position as the firstborn son of Laufey. Inspite of being he tribe’s chief, she had been forced into submission and pregnancy by Farbauti when he had successfully used a flash of lightning to stun her. The son she bore as a result of this rape had been on the receiving end of a lot of her anger.

 

He had been clever and ruthless enough to stay alive in the less than welcoming environment of Jötunheim, where matriarchy and a harsh land had sharpened his survivor skills. It didn’t hurt that the women liked him as soon as he grew up into what among jötuns was uncommon and quite exotic beauty. Still it had made him even more of a freak. It also became apparent that he had a strong affinity to fire. Aside from that being cause for a lot of ribald jokes about the long term effects of Farbauti’s flash of lightning, this talent could have been put to good use – Laufey was ambitious, and wouldn’t have minded to increase her wealth and her power with the help of the cunning and crafty use of her firstborn’s gifts.

 

But that firebrand of a firstborn had refused to be put to any use at all, unless it happened to be something he meant to do anyway – but that did rarely qualify as helpful to increase his mother’s status, property, or reputation. Not only was he denying her the benefit of his gift – he had been very generous since an early age with a different kind of talent, bestowing this gift on too many women of the tribe. His sexual appetite was causing trouble, spreading jealousy and quarrel. His ongoing recalcitrance had eventually caused Laufey to call the Council of Women, relying on them to bring her mutinous son to heel.

 

The Council of Women was the tribe’s court of law, and their word was accepted unequivocally by everybody. When Laufey presented her cause, asking for a verdict that would force her son into obedience by threat of banishment, she wasn’t expecting anything else but swift deliberations, and a verdict after her heart. But then she had to watch almost every single one of the women in the council evading her eyes, saying that Loki was so different from the rest of the tribe, and still a young man – maybe his case should be viewed with forebearance …

 

Except for the small group of old women, everyone spoke up in favour of Loki Laufeyarsson – a few of them had at least the grace to blush when they did so. When Laufey realised precisley how Loki had thwarted her plan, she was even more furious than before. She did not intend to let him do as he pleased, but he didn’t wait for her next action. He became a wolf.

 

As soon as his shape-shifting abilities became apparent, the tribe was getting uneasy. Even his ways of calling fire were demonstrating more magic powers than anyone could remember in a jötun, ever. But uneasiness turned into fear when he proved to be a shapeshifter, and showed a clear preference to turn into a wolf. Traditionally wolves were the most hated and hunted of the mountain wildlife.

 

Becoming a wolf set him free. He knew that everybody was watching him with fear, and he was always aware that murderous hatred was never far beyond that fear, but there was a nerve tingling thrill in the tightrope walk of his existence, and it seemed like the longer he survived it, the more he was tempted to test its limits. Only ages later in Midgard he found that humans had a word for that, and it amused him to realise that he had been an adrenaline junkie ever since his early youth.

 

Loki didn’t have a contemplative disposition, but sometimes he wondered what would have happened if he had not agreed to go to Asgard. Things between Laufey and him had been at an all-time low when he had met Odin – after all, the last time he had faced his mother alone, her eyes had been sighting along the length of an arrow already quivering on the string of her longbow, and his own eyes had been the slanted eyes of a wolf.

 

Sitting on the High Seat, Loki still could smell the snow of that long ago night.

 

The seconds had stretched to infinity while they had been staring at each other across the expanse of a snow covered clearing, the dense blackness of the woods flanking the river Iving making a perfect backdrop for a lethal encounter in this moon blue winter night.

 

Laufey’s bow didn’t waver, and the arrow was aiming with deadly perfection at the grey wolf’s chest. The wolf in turn stood unmoving, his eyes steady on the hunter, one paw frozen an inch above the snow in the beginning of a step he was still not taking. Both the woman and the wolf were breathing hard, not from exertion, but with nerves, their breath an icy white mist settling as rime on her clothes, and his fur, while the strong link of their unblinking gaze was holding them frozen each in their own position.

 

Then a branch shed its heavy load of snow with a muffled sound, and the wolf blinked, instinctively looking in direction of the noise, breaking the connection. The hunter‘s fingers let go of the string, and the arrow hissed across the glittering ground, and buried itself deep in fur and muscle, sending white hot pain through the body already whirling around to flee.

 

Laufey knew that she had missed her target – had she not, the wolf would be lying in the snow, dyeing it red with his waning life’s blood. Now he ran, blood marking his way in drops and splatters, enough to enable her to follow him through the woodland under the stark white moon.

 

She trekked for what seemed hours, and still the wolf was running. She could see where he had stumbled, where he had eaten snow to quench the thirst the race and the bloodloss were inflicting on him, but he still was ahead of her. When she finally stood still for a moment, silencing her own hard breathing, she cold hear the painful rasping of the beast’s breath in the distance, and it made her rush after him with fresh determination. Her face was white under her snow-encrusted cap, the cold and her murderous anger freezing it into a stark mask. She meant to finish what she had started, and each time she stopped to listen, the wolf’s labouring panting was closer than the time before.

 

Then she found the imprint of his body where he had fallen only to struggle up again, finally weakening from the arrow that was still embedded in his shoulder. But just when Laufey felt the heady rush of the impending kill, the first white flakes started to fall from a sky where the moon had kept treacherously to the last clear patch, allowing for the rest to cover itself with low snow-laden clouds.

 

Laufey did not slow down at first, but within minutes the flakes had become huge and heavy, dropping down as if they were shreds of soggy cloth, layering the crusty snow with a thick duvet, erasing bloodstains and pawprints, and slowing down the hunter with ankle-deep slippery slush. It took several skidding falls to make Laufey admit to being defeated, and when she finally did, it was with the frustrated roar of a predator denied her prey. She was standing in the pale glow of falling snow, throwing her head back with the inarticulate fury of her scream.

 

The wolf, weakened and stumbling, his mind now almost completely that of an animal, heard the scream, and stood panting and trembling, front legs wide apart to keep from falling. His head was hanging low, with bloody foam seeping from his muzzle, the arrow in his shoulder quivering with every ragged breath he drew.

 

When the scream had ended, and the woods returned to their winter night silence, the wolf slowly trudged on, the last remnants of his intelligence clinging desperately to the knowledge that he had to shift back into his own form soon, or he would die as a beast in the wilderness. But the task of moving forward, away from the arrows and the eyes guiding them, took all his remaining energy, and had not his animal nose come across the scent of a trail under the snow, and the hint of woodsmoke, Laufey’s arrow would have killed him after all.

 

But once the smell of a fire had pierced the haze of his exhaustion, he dragged himself on until he reached a clearing where the squatting dark shape of a cabin was the source of the scent. The wolf stood still, swaying slightly, his head lowered so deep his muzzle was almost touching the snow, blood painting the white ground with delicate roses where it dripped from his mouth and the wound.

 

Fighting for the wolf to retreat to be able to return to his own form, Loki was for a long and frightening moment sure that it was too late. He wouldn’t be able to shift anymore, and going anywhere near a settlement in his present form and condition, would mean certain death, even if the arrow wound did not kill him. His body suddenly shifted, perhaps fuelled by despair, and he was lying in the snow, the arrow still in his shoulder.

 

Dragging himself upright, he lurched on until he reached the cabin door, extended a hand, and crashed face down into the snow, bumping heavily against the door jamb. Thus it happened that Loki Laufeyarsson was lying unconscious on the threshold when the cabin door was unbolted from within.

 

***

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When Loki opened his eyes, slowly and with an effort coming up into consciousness, the stark simplicity of the cabin’s interior presented a puzzle his swirling mind was unable to solve. So he just lay there, looking at his surroundings, taking in the one low-ceioinged room with the hearth, a simple table and bench, a few shelves. Everything was clean and tidy, as far as the dim winter light coming in through small and deep set windows could tell him, and nothing of it was familiar. It was very quiet – he was alone. On the floor next to the bed was a jug of water, and he got up on his elbows inspite of the pain in his shoulder, and drank deeply. The water was cold and fresh, and when he had finished it, he went back to sleep.

 

He slept dreamlessly, and a few hours later it needed a hand gently but firmly shaking his good shoulder to wake him. When he blinked at the dimly lit room where only the hearth fire and two rush lamps provided a little lighting, it took him a moment to realise that the dark form next to the bdd was that of a woman. She was looking down on him with wide-set grey eyes, her face with the high cheekbones and proud nose lined with years and rough life. In a calm voice she said, “You must be hungry, Laufeyarsson.”

 

Hearing his name from her lips, the wounded animal in him recoiled, his eyes scanning the room for an escape route, his exhausted body trembling with the adrenaline shock. But the woman only laughed, and said, “No, have no fear. There isn’t much love lost between your mother and me. I do admit she has the right to kill you, but she waited much too long.” – “The right to kill me?” Loki’s head was swimming with confusion, but he managed to hold on to theat one outrageous phrase. The grey eyes looked at him dispassionately, and she replied, “She gave you your life – she can take it away, too. But not after she let you grow up.”

 

Loki blinked again, considerably disturbed by this concept. He saw that the woman held out a bowl with something in it that was sending out tendrils of aromatic steam, and suddenly he felt weak with hunger. With some painful maneuvering he managed to sit up, and to accept the stew with mumbled thanks. While he was eating with the single-minded focus of a starving wolf, the woman stood watching with just a hint of a smile, and when he finally looked up from the empty bowl, she said, “You do not much look like a jötun, but you sure can eat like one.”

 

Loki laughed out loud, and then winced with the stab of pain from his shoulder. Instinctively he reached up with his right hand, and found the wrappings of a bandage. The woman had turned to the table to pick up something that had been lying there, and holding it out for Loki to see, she said, “This looks like one of Laufey’s arrows.”

 

His eyes growing wary, Loki shrugged, taking good care to do so with his right shoulder only. The woman dropped the arrow onto the bed, and continued, “There were wolf tracks leading up to the clearing, and then you seem to have dropped right out of the trees, while the wolf must have grown wings, and flew away.” Loki didn’t move, his eyes on the woman, trying to see where this was going.

 

She laughed.

 

“I have to hand it to you, boy, you seem to have a talent for making worst choices. First choosing Laufey for a mother, and then becoming a wolf, of all creatures.” Relieved to find himself at least not in enemy territory, Loki reoplied with a wry grin, “I did not precisely choose my mother, you know.” The woman waved that aside, and took the empty bowl from him. Loki looked up into the stern face and said, “I thank you, for your help, and your kindness …” Then he halted, as if searching for a word, and continued a little sheepishly, “I don’t even know your name. What do they call you?”

 

Standing with her arms folded over her chest, she replied, “They call me any number of names, depending on what they want from me, and whether I am willing or able to give it to them. Laufey called me a wise woman when she came to ask me for help to get rid of you – and when you were holding on to her womb in a grip so tight that my potion couldn’t help her, she called me an evil witch. She got sick as a dog, but when it was over, she was still with child. That is why I think you chose your mother. You certainly were not willing to let go of her.”

 

She stared intently into his face and asked, “Does it hurt? To learn that your mother didn’t want you, even then?” Loki laughed, a little more forced than before. “It isn’t much of a surprise.” – “No,” the woman said quietly, “I guess it isn’t.” – “You still haven’t told me your name,” Loki said, clearly meaning to change the subject. “My name …”, she said, her eyes resting on him with an amused spark behind the calm grey. “My name is Angrboda.”

 

His reaction was no more than the merest flicker of an eyelid, but she caught it, and laughed. “Ah, they warned you!” She was undoubtedly delighted with her notoriety. “What did they tell you – to beware of me? That I am dangerous? That I am a man-eater?” A green arrow of a glance came out from under his lashes and he said, “They didn’t precisely say that you eat them whole.”

 

For a moment she was baffled into silence – then her laughter was bouncing from the walls of the cabin, and when she finally had recovered from it, she said, still breathless, “Ah – Laufey is truly sending me a gift, even though she does so unknowingly. Do you think you can have some mead, or are you going to be sick all over my bed then?” Seing his insulted and disgusted look, she laughed again.

 

She rummaged on the shelves, and returned with a skin of mead, and two wooden cups. Settling down on a low stool next to the bed, she offered Loki a cup, and he took it, raised it in salute, and downed the content. With a twinkle in her eye, Angrboda said, “You don’t have to prove anything.” – “No,” he replied, holding out his cup for more, “but I am thirsty.”

 

She chuckled, and filled the cup, and her own, too. Then she flicked a finger against the arrow where the tip was darkened with dry blood, and said, “You should have let her know that the wolf was you.” – “She knew,” Loki sadi calmly. “She watched me changing.” Their eyes met for a moment, then Angrboda said, “Sleep. You were more than half dead when I found you, and I don’t want Laufey to get what she wants.”

 

First Loki was inclined to protest, but he realised that he was indeed very tired, and so he rolled himself into the furs, and closed his eyes, sinking into dreams before he had taken half a dozen breaths. Angrboda stood looking down at her sleeping guest, her grey eyes unreadable. Then she made her own a bed in a corner of the room, with straw and a few furs, covered herself with her cloak, and went to sleep, warmed by the knowledge that Laufey, without meaning to, had sent her a royal gift in her own son.

 

***

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Loki spent most of the following days asleep, while Angrboda was going out during the day, doing whatever it was she did. She didn’t tell, and Loki didn’t ask. He was healing only slowly, and once while she was cleaning the wound, his hostess said, “I don’t have any healing powers, so you will need to be patient.”

 

Patience was easy to come by as long as he was sleeping the hours away, but finally he was starting to mend, and one night Angrboda returned to find him sitting at the table, sorting through a pile of small bags and jars he had taken from their place on the shelves. He was not particularly flustered when she caught him at it, but asked blithely, “What is all this stuff?”

 

“Nothing for curious fingers,” she said sharply, picking a jar out of his hand, and sweeping everything out of his reach. He looked up at her in exasperation, and said, “But I am bored.” – “Then you can help with the chores.” His exasperation became even more pronounced, and he said with a deep frown, “I am not that bored.” Angrboda laughed. “Sometimes I can understand that arrow, you know?”, she said, peeling herself out of layers of fur and cloth.

 

She was looking even more ravaged than usually, her lips and skin chipped from the feezing wind. She groaned and rotated her head to loosen her shoulders, and said, “I think I want a sweat bath tonight. How about you? You still move as if your shoulder is stiff and painful.”

 

Loki gave her a blank look. “A what?” Angrboda sighed with impatience. “Didn’t that woman teach you anything at all? When you’ve never had one, you should most definitely join me. Come on, help me with the preparations.”

 

Ignoring the accusing look with the unmistakeable undertone of pitiful infirmity, Angrboda directed Loki to put up several wooden frames with canvas stretched over them, thus creating a separate space out of the niche next to the hearth. Then he had to drag a big stone dish into it, and the bench, and she started to seal the whole structure with layers of more canvs, and furs. Finally she made him drop more than a dozen big round stones into the hearth fire, and said, “It will take a while for them to get hot enough.” She gave Loki a long calculating look, and continued, “This is the longest night of the winter, do you know that? I usually do try for a vision on a night like this. Would you care to join me in that, too?”

 

His eyes bright with curiosity, he said, “So you really are a witch.” She laughed. “You can change your form and become a wolf – does that make you a wizard?” He was slowly shaking his head no, his eyes still on her face, waiting eagerly to hear more. “So … these visions. How … how do you bring them about?”

 

She was sorting through the bags on the shelves, and replied, “Sometimes they come by themselves, unbidden even, but there are ways to make it easier …” She shook something out of a bag into the palm of her hand, and held it out for Loki to see. There were a few dark pellets lying on the calloused skin, looking like small dried fruit. Raising his eyes to her face, Loki asked, “What are they?” – “Mushrooms.” – “Mushrooms? What kind of mushrooms?”

 

Angrboda laughed, closing her fingers over them before Loki could touch them. “Would it mean anything to you if I would tell you a name?” Loki grinned. “No, I guess not.” He was staring at her closed fist as if he could will her fingers to open, and asked, “Do you eat them? What do they do?” – “I eat one of them – they are very potent. They make you feel nauseous for a while – and then something happens. It is different for everybody, so don’t ask more.”

 

She watched the intent frown on his face, and smiled. She had him where she wanted him.

 

***

 

Sweat was running over Loki’s face, dripping from his hair, clinging to his lashes, pooling in the hollow at the base of his neck. His head tipped back against the wall, he was sitting on the wooden bench in the confined space they had created earlier, and the hot stones on the flat dish were sending out waves of heat. Angrboda was sitting next to him, and she ladled water over the stones ever so often, sending up hissing clouds of steam.

 

They both had eaten a dried mushroom before undressing for the steam bath, and for a while Loki had been feeling so nauseous that he suspected she had tricked him, and had poisoned him after all. But now he was losing the sick feeling, and slowly his body relaxed in the steamy heat. Being naked didn’t bother him, and even though he had noticed how much younger Angrboda’s body was looking compared to her lined face, the person next to him on the bench could have been a man, for all he cared. The painful and slow reconvalescence had drained him so much that his body had been quiet ever since he had woken up in Angrboda’s bed the first day.

 

He slowly rolled his shoulders, feeling how the heat was loosening the tenseness where the arrow had been embedded in his flesh, both wolf’s and man’s. It was almost completely dark in the confined space – only one small rush lamp was sitting in the corner on the floor, its wavering sooty flame giving off a soft orange light.

 

Loki blinked, and suddenly the flame was rimmed with rainbow colours, the pattern changing while he was watching. Floating bands of colour were weaving across his vision, with small bursts of brilliance where they met with a discernible shape, like the stones, or his own hands. Without realising he did, Loki was holding his breath, his eyes on the mesmerising dance. Never before had he seen colours like these. He followed them up the wall and across the low ceiling, gazing in awe at how they made the steam dance with magical iridiscence, and then watched the waterfall of colour spill over his arms and legs. Then he looked at Angrboda, and his breathing kickstarted with a gasp.

 

The damp strands of her upswept ashblonde hair were highlighted with stars, and golden droplets were clinging to her lashes. Her skin was glowing as if a flame was burning inside her, and her rounded and firm body was the most alluring sight Loki had ever seen. Suddenly he had the overwhelming need to touch her, and he extended a hand, and ran the back of his fingers up her arm. She turned her head and looked at him, and the brilliant light in her grey eyes, and the shock of the feeling of her warm and slick skin under his hand, jarred Loki out of his meditative state – she looked like the most desirable woman he had ever seen, and he wanted her – now.

 

Her smile was an invitation, her lips a vibrant ruby, with tiny droplets of moisture on them. Swinging one leg over the bench to face her, Loki gripped her waist, and pulled her closer. His hands moved up, cupping her sweat slickened breasts. Her nipples hardened under his demanding fingers, and Loki lowered his head to lick the musky salt off her skin.

 

There was a sound like an age-old song coming from her, humming in the air, making the rainbow colours shiver and glow. Loki was feeling like a starving man facing a voluptuos feast – his greedy hands were all over her, his hunger so sudden and so imperative that he was quite rough when he dragged her leg across the bench so she was straddling it, too.

 

She gasped when the tender flesh of her inner thighs was bruising against the wood, but she didn’t seem to mind. She arched her back, and her strong fingers were digging into his shoulders, holding on hard when his blond head was alternating between her breasts, sucking and biting. But finally she forced his head up, searching his mouth with hers, and they devoured each other in a long and ravenous kiss.

 

Loki had one arm around her shoulders, his fingers splayed in her hair, holding her head, the other hand in the small of her back, pulling her all the way to him. His eyes were closed, and still he saw a firework of colours, even more brilliant now that they were playing over the inside of his lids. Angrboda’s eyes were wide open. The light grey of the iris almost swallowed by the dark pupils, her gaze was unfocused, and still eerily aware.

 

Loki lost all feeling for the passing of time. There was no way to know for how long their kiss lasted, for how long his hands were on her, and her hand were on him, exploring and conquering slick skin, softness and hardness, rough and tender – always driven by desire, rushed by need. They were pulsing with a racing red heartbeat, all sensations locked into each other.

 

When finally Angrboda rose to her feet, only to slowly slither down again with her body against his, impaling herself on him, Loki didn’t have the patience and restraint to let her dictate their rhythm – holding on to her with both hands under her buttocks, he got up from the bench himself, and kicked it away from under them, sending it crashing against the wall. Then they were on the floor, their bodies slamming into each other without knowing scrapes and bruises. Angrboda was clawing and biting, but not to get away from Loki’s assault, but to urge him on, to draw him even deeper, harder, into herself.

 

Loki’s eyes were open now, but he barely saw the woman under him. His vision was shrinking to a pulsing red pinprick of light, all his senses concentrating on the driving rhythm nature was imposing on him. Through this fiery, rainbow rimmed haze, only glimpses of unnamed images came to him – grey eyes like snow light, the song of an unknown predator bird, the body of a serpent writhing under him. For a blink of time his body shifted into that of a wolf, and the woman screamed when the fangs of the beast pieced the tender skin of her breast. Then the red wave of their bodies’ rage washed over them again, obliterating all conscious thought.

 

***

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The pale grey winter day had come and gone before Loki opened his eyes. A viscious stab of light pierced his brain, and he groaned and squeezed his eyes shut, rolling away and burying his face in the furs on the bed.

 

An amused chuckle from somewhere close by made him squint over his shoulder with a suspicious frown. Angrboda was sitting at the table in the light of two rush lamps, smiling at him. His frown deepened, and he asked gruffly, “What’s so funny?” – “Nothing,” she replied, “it’s just nice to see you ‘re alive.”

 

Loki lay staring at her for a moment – then his eyes hastily scanned the room, as if he was looking for something. The cabin was as sparse and as tidy as it had been when he had seen it first, and Loki’s gaze wandered back to the woman at the table.

 

She had plaited her hair into a thick braid, and was busy with a bowl of dried fruit. Dark bruises were shading her eyes, and her lips looked swollen and bitten. She asked, “How is your shoulder?”, and Loki let himself fall back on the bed, and looked as if he was trying to locate the body part in question. Then he said, “I have no idea – I hurt all over, as if I’ve been beaten up by half a dozen snow giants.”

 

Angrboda laughed out loud. “Poor boy. Would a bite of food restore you a little, do you think?” Loki groaned. Getting up to step closer, she asked, “Are you feeling sick? Sometimes people need a while to get over the effect of the mushrooms, especially the first time.”

 

At her metioning the mushrooms, Loki’s eyes flew up to her face. “So I didn’t dream it,” he said, his voice raspy as if his throat was dry and raw. “The mushrooms? No, you didn’t dream that.” – “The mushrooms, the steam bath, and …” His frown became even more pronounced. “I barely remember … Did we … I mean, did I …”

 

She took mercy on him and said with a smile, “Yes, you did.” Wqith a groan he rolled over and buried his face in the furs. He brows rising, Angrboda asked, “That bad? Didn’t you like it?” – “As long as it lasted, I liked it fine – I think,” Loki said, a little muffled since he was still facedown on the furs, “but it feels quite bad now.” Angrboda laughed again. “Have some food,” she said, “you’ll feel better for it.”

 

He stayed silent, until she said teasingly, “You are not sulking, are you?” Then he had the grace to lift his head, and blushing slightly he asked, “Did I hurt you?” – “Yes, you did,” she replied with equanimity. “But there is no reason to look so stricken – I think I hurt you, too. Come on, Loki. Get up and eat. You’ll feel much better.”

 

He got up in a silent attempt to preserve his dignity, wrapped himself into a fur because the room was quite chilly, and shuffled over to the table. Sinking down on the bench, he winced when his sore body came in touch with the unyielding wood, and with a testy look at his clearly amused hostess, he said, “Whatever is for dinner – I hope you made do without mushrooms of any kind.”

 

***

 

A cloud shadow drifted across the mountain range, and Loki blinked, and returned to the presence. He passed one hand over his face, raked it through his hair, and rubbed the back of his neck.

 

Angrboda … That had been a long time ago. He had spent the rest of the winter in her cabin, sharing her bed, learning about mushrooms, and women, and the powerful will of the body, both male and female. It was the winter when he had sired his firstborn son, but that he had learned only a long time after he had left.

 

He had been watching the moon, counting the days, and one morning he had risen from the table after they had shared the simple breakfast, and looking Angrboda straight in the eyes, he had said, “I am leaving now.”

 

She did not seem surprised in the least, but nodded her head slowly, looking at him with clear eyes. When she saw him take Laufey’s arrow from where it had been lying on the shelf all winter, she said calmly, “You are going back.”

 

He shrugged, ran a finger along her cheek, and left.

 

***

 

He backtracked the way the fleeing wolf had come, but since he was hiking instead of running, it took him longer than expected, making him almost late. He arrived at the edge of Laufey’s village at dusk of the day he had planned to arrive.

 

There was fresh spring green sprouting everywhere, and the festival fires were just being lit. From out of the cover of the woods he could see the tribe gathering around them. The girls were wearing the first flowers of spring in their hair, and there was a big keg of brew, and a table burdened with a feast, positioned next to the seats of the elders, and the chief.

 

Loki’s eyes narrowed when he watched his mother make the traditional sacrifices for spring equinox – a cockerel, and a cup of the potent brew. When both the blood and the drink had been thrown into the fire, resulting in a flare from the strong alcohol, the tribe cheered, and the few musicians started to play. The tribe filed into a long row of dancers, meandering between the fires, whirling, and singing, everybody making frequent stops at the keg while the elders and the chief remained in their seats around the central fire, watching benevolently, and enjoying the food. Soon the line would start to break up, with more and more dancers leaving for the edge of the clearing and the darkness, to celebrate spring with the most basic fertility ritual imaginable.

 

There was one girl standing out in the line of dancers – quite young, she had the graceful plumpness of a young pheasant, the white ribbons in her hair proclaiming that this was her first time at the fires. They also were supposed to mean that she was a virgin – which made the men jostle for a position next to her, because lying with a virgin at the spring festival was considered proof of a man’s virility, and added a lot of status – something not easy to come by for a man in a matriarchic community.

 

Loki had his eyes on this girl. He could see her throwing nervous glances in direction of her mother, and of Laufey. Everybody would take these glances for a virgin’s bashfulness at a time where she was about to lie with a man for the first time – but Loki knew better. He knew that she was afraid of the moment when a man would lead her away from the fires, because then it would become obvious that she was not a virgin anymore. Loki knew because he was the one she had lost her virginity to. For several weeks in autumn, they had been meeting in the woods, until it had gotten too cold out to be fun anymore – and until Laufey had gone wolf hunting.

 

Without any haste Loki left the safety of the woods and crossed the clearing in the gathering darkness. When he walked among the dancers, they came to a halt, and when he reached the central fire, the last note of music had died away, leaving only the crackling of the fire as a background for the unfolding scene.

 

Nobody could be denied to join in the spring festival. Until sunrise he was safe – harming anyone who was a guest at the fires, be it friend or foe, was a strong taboo – even Laufey could not go against that.

 

And she knew that perfectly well when she sat watching her son sauntering into the circle of light. Her lips were a thin line, and red blotches high up on her cheekbones were a clear sign of her fury. But she had a firm grip on herself, and merely said, “Well, look what the woods spat out tonight.”

 

“Mother,” Loki said with an impudent grin, bowing his head in mock deference, “I brought you something – you lost it when last we met.” With that he held out the arrow, the darkened tip pointing straight between Laufey’s eyes. When she didn’t make a move to take it, Loki held it long enough for everybody to have a good look, and then dropped it into the fire.

 

There was a tide of murmurs rising from the tribe surrounding them, and Laufey went pale with anger. Everybody had recognised the arrow. Everybody knew what Loki had meant to say.

 

But before the chief could make a move, Loki picked up the cup from the rim of the keg, dipped it into the brew, and raised it in salute to the elders. “Greetings to you, mothers,” he said with a smile, failing deliberately to mention the chief. Then he drained the cup, put it down, and turned to the girl with the white ribbons.

 

She welcomed him with a brilliant smile, and then everybody stood staring after them when Loki led her away from the fire – taking good care to stay close enough so that nobody would fail to notice just how much fun the “virgin” was having being deflowered.

 

***

 

Hours later, but well before dawn, tired and sore from a night spent in the arms of half a dozen women, Loki was crossing the clearing, heading back into the woods. He was carrying his sword, and he did not leave the way he had come, but was astride his black stallion, with saddlebags holding the small amount of his possessions.

 

He was passing the smouldering remains of the fires, when from among the snoring of the sleeping elders a wide awake voice said, “You are not doing me the favour of falling asleep tonight, are you.”

 

He reined in, and peered into the darkness. When he cold dimly make out the lone figure upright in her seat, he said, “No, mother – you taught me never to fall asleep among enemies.” – “You won’t find much sleep in future, then.” Her voice was expressionless, and Loki tried to see her eyes, but her face was only a blurry oval of pale darkness, and without saying anything else, he turned his horse away, and left the village to disappear into the still night black woods.

 

***

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This was not the first night Odin has spent sleepless on Hlidskjalf, tormenting himself in grim frustration with watching Loki making love to a woman. It had not always been Sigyn – not by far. But when it was Sigyn, Odin’s mood was even darker than usual on these occasions, because Sigyn was the only one the Jötun always returned to.

 

Each time the two on the fur covered bed started their sensual dance anew, Odin’s fingers had been gripping the intricately carved armrests of the High Seat harder, and his eye, blood-shot and shaded by a black frown, had rested steadily on a point in mid-distance, while his Spirit Eye, Hlidskjalf’s gift and curse, was trained unwaveringly on what he hated to see, and still longed to watch.

 

Seeing their lust and their love for each other, Odin wanted to tear the woman apart limb by limb, and then rape the man on her bloody remains. His jealousy had him shaking with hatred and horniness. Only when the sun was finally flooding the land with her first golden light, and Loki and Sigyn were leaning against the wall of her bedroom, panting in each other’s arms, Odin was finally driven away, both exhausted and aroused by hours of watching.

 

He went to wake his wife with hard hands and used her to quench his raging need, but as soon as he was done he pushed Frigg away, because the yielding softness of her body did not match his fantasies.

 

Sleep was far from him, so Odin left Frigg’s rooms and called for the ravens. They came to settle on his shoulders where he was sitting in the Great Hall, lonely in the dimness of unlit fires and gathering shadows from the past. Before Odin could ask, Munin croaked, “The trickster’s memories are crowding the High Seat of Hlidskjalf …”

 

“What memories?”, Odin asked, unable to keep the eagerness out of his voice he scorned himself for. “Wolf memories …”, Munin gave back, “Long ago and far away.” Odin’s eye narrowed as he sat pondering his options. When Loki was on Hlidskjalf, he could go and confront him – alone. Nobody would come anywhere near the High Seat when he had the ravens guarding it.

 

But what good would come of a confrontation? It would be on his own terms this time, but Loki had never been one to cower before the Allfather – he would do his best to give back as he received.

 

Odin wondered what it might be Loki was looking back at. Had the Jötun chosen to see into his past, or had Hlidskjalf forced this upon him? Like all places of magic and power, the High Seat was never really controlled by whoever used it, but had its own way of dispensing its gift.

 

Wolf memories … Odin still remembered when on one occasion during their early travels close to Jötunheim they had met the savage woman, Angrboda. He still could see the confusion and panic in the seagreen eyes when she presented Loki with Fenrir, his firstborn son. He clearly had not been prepared for a wolf cub, and especially not one of those dimensions.

 

But Loki was no coward – he had left the party of Aesir to stay with the woman and Fenrir for a while, and for a long time after that he had been known to visit with her on his travels. Well, Odin thought grimly, at least he did so frequently enough to sire the Midgard serpent, and Hel … Perhaps he himself had to be grateful to Sigyn – at least her sons were not the kind of monstrous offspring Angrboda had borne.

 

Odin still remembered the violent argument when he had tried to make the Jötun see reason. Loki had adamantly refused to allow anyone to kill Fenrir, Jörmungand, or Hel, for reasons Odin could only see as foolish and sentimental. But he had been stubborn as a rock, and finally Odin had given in, and had then dealt with each of them as he thought necessary.

 

They all carried the dark burden of the prophecies linking them to the downfall of the Aesir, and Odin was not going to sit by and watch, whether or not their father liked it.

 

Was this the past Loki was visiting from Hlidskjalf? Abruptly Odin got up from his seat. He wanted to see for himself.

 

***

 

Leaving the ravens to keep watch, Odin approached the High Seat quietly from the side. The Jötun was still there, his head lying against the high back, his hands relaxed on the armrests. As it was his habit lately, he was dressed in Midgard clothes, and on his wrist Odin saw two slender bracelets, one made from dark, the other from white beads. Loki’s eyes were almost closed, and he was deeply lost in thoughts – he didn’t realise he wasn’t alone anymore.

 

Odin opened his mouth, and then closed it again, because he had somehow lost all the words he had come to say. Taking a step deeper into the shadow, but closer to the High Seat, he stood staring at the man sitting there. The morning sun was outlining the same profile he had been staring at that first night ages ago, but now the light was accentuating the long lashes, the tousled blond hair and the light fuzz on the tanned arms.

 

Odin’s eye passed over the soft white shirt that was hugging the body, hinting at the ripple of muscle under it, over long legs in faded black pants, down to the pair of bare feet, crossed at the ankles. Then his gaze crept back up again, taking notice of the lean muscles under the fabric of the pants, and then slowly crawled over crotch, stomach, and down one arm to a long fingered hand. He knew how those hands looked on the hilt of a sword, on a horn of mead, on the white breast of a woman.

 

For the span of a heartbeat he imagined them cruelly bound, the slender but strong wrists straining against coarse rope. Odin felt the heat rising powerfully in his body, and he forced his eye away from the hand, to travel up to that face. The lashes were hiding the eyes now – it looked as if the Jötun had fallen asleep.

 

Odin took a few tentative steps in direction of the High Seat.

 

Loki didn’t move.

 

Hesitatingly, one of Odin’s hands reached out, pausing for a long moment before it slowly came close enough to feel the warmth rising from the Jötun’s skin. Odin’s throat and mouth suddenly felt parched, but he didn’t swallow for fear the sound would alert the other man.

 

The warm sunlight, dancing with tiny particles like fairy dust, was moulding the Jötun’s body to seductive perfection, and Odin could smell a hint of the salty muskiness of the night spent in Sigyn’s bed. His hand was hovering over Loki’s chest, his eye watching it rise and fall with each breath, when suddenly long fingers gripped his wrist, and a cold voice hissed, “Just what do you think you are doing, One Eye?”

 

Odin gasped, a red wave of anger and embarrassment flooding his features. Wrenching his arm free he stepped back and roared, “How dare you talk to me like this?”

 

But Loki being Loki, he was not particularly impressed. Leaning back in the High Seat again, he said coolly, “Spare me the theatricals, Odin. We know each other too well for me to fall for that.” With calculated arrogance his eyes slowly ran down over the Aesir’s body, but then suddenly they flew back up to the still flushed face. His gaze flickered down to Odin’s crotch, and up to his face again, and Loki said softly, “What …?”

 

Then a slow and ironc smile tugged on the corners of his mouth, and he said wonderingly, “You got to be kidding me … but then I think you’ve never been much of a humorous person, and I suspect your cock is the least humorous part of you.” Odin stood silent, rooted to the spot by his body’s betrayal.

 

A line deepened between Loki's brows, and he said, "So that is why you’ve been fucking me up for ages? Because you wanted to fuck me? That's really pathetic. I guess if this were Midgard, the next question would be, your place or my place, but I do not really have a place, right?" Odin's face had now taken on an unhealthy purple hue, and his hand had settled on the hilt of his dagger.

 

Loki didnt pay any attention to this, but said in a voice where bafflement was giving way to anger, "Damn you, Odin, why didn’t you just say so? It might actually have been fun – then. It is a bit too late now – frankly, you are way past your best-before date."

 

Slowly Odin came closer, breathing hard, sweat running over his face, but Loki did not pay it any heed. “So – what kept you from just coming on to me? Were you afraid of what everybody would say? Of how it would reflect on your position? Don’t you know they are all far too scared of you to say or do anything? – Ah … maybe it would have been too much of a tightrope act for someone who had to balance quite a lot already … Maybe being a jötun by birth yourself, and having built all this glory on the flesh, bones, and blood of your own father, you thought it a bit over the edge to present a Jötun lover – and a male one, to boot. Yes, I guess that would have set the whole dovecote aflutter. – Ah, you are such a coward – brother.”

 

This came out with so much lazy contempt that Odin growled with fury, the dagger already halfway out of the scabbard. Loki giggled. “I am not quite sure what to do – I recognise my clue, but am I supposed to faint with fear, or should I plead tearfully for my life?”

 

The dagger was in the air in a vicious arc, accompanied by an angry roar, but Loki was out of the High Seat in one fluid motion, flanking over the armrest. Then he sauntered in direction of the corridor leading to the Great Hall. When Odin’s voice thundered, “Where are you going?”, he looked back over his shoulder with an insouciant grin, and said, “Looking for something to eat. After all these revelations, I am really hungry.”

 

***

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Even though a pleasant drowsiness was luring Sigyn into daydreaming, something was nagging her, a small sharp bite of fear under the thick honey coated warmth of her sated senses. She stood looking out on a day grown soft and grey with low clouds and drizzle, when suddenly a memory pierced her wandering thoughts.

 

Hlidskjalf. She had been half asleep when Loki had left, but hadn’t he told her he was going to sit on Hlidskjalf?

 

There was no drowsiness left now – fear was rising, casting black shadows. If he had really gone to sit on Hlidskjalf, he might meet Odin – and Sigyn didn’t believe that anything good could come from that. Without even taking the time to grab a cloak, she rushed out of her rooms, making her way through barely frequented corridors, courtyards, and gardens, keeping away from the more crowded places – a soft-footed and silent shadow in the pastel greys of the day.

 

She arrived at the entrace to Hlidskjalf without meeting anyone, but when she slowly and silently pushed the heavy door open, the room and the High Seat were standing empty. She crossed the room, and standing next to the Seat, looking out over the world, Sigyn suddenly realised that the two dark specks growing smaller in the distance were the Allfather’s ravens. They were fading into the mist, but it looked as if they had been on Hlidskjalf only moments ago.

 

If indeed they had been here, it was very probably that Odin had been, too. But where was Loki? Had he noticed the Allfather’s presence in time to avoid him? Sigyn sighed. If he had seen Odin, he probably had done precisely the least wise thing he could come up with.

 

Her fears even sharper now, she turned away from the watercolour view, and made her way back into the heart of Asgard. She was looking for Loki. She was looking for a little peace of mind.

 

Passing the gardens cocooning Folkvang, Sigyn suddenly stopped in her tracks, and stood in silence. Beyond the wall, somewhere under the trees, she could hear voices – hushed voices, but still speaking with sufficient force to let her understand part of what they were saying. Freya’s voice – and Odin’s.

 

Unable to leave, but still aware of the trouble she would be in if she got caught eavesdropping on the Allfather conferring with the leader of the valkyries, Sigyn stood straining her ears, hushing her very breath – not for fear of discovery, but afraid to miss a word. It was something Freya had said that had stopped her. “I didn’t tell him about the tattoo – he already knew.” They were talking about Loki.

 

Sigyn couldn’t make out Odin’s hissed reply, nor anything from the following exchange, except for the anger in both voices. But then Freya said emphatically, “We could make him forget.”

 

It was quiet for a long moment, and Sigyn didn’t dare to move for fear they would hear her – then Odin asked slowly, tentatively, “Forget what?” – “Everything,” it came back, Freya’s voice clear and cold, like an icicle. When Odin didn’t reply, she added insistently, “If we send him back to Midgard without a memory of who he is, and where he comes from, you’d be safe. We all would be safe.”

 

The icicle settled in Sigyn’s heart, and shattered it. If Loki were adrift in Midgard, without any memories of his past, of her, she would never see him again. Eventually he would die, and she would be lost, without an anchor, facing an eternity of grey loneliness.

 

Her breath came in shuddering gasps, and she covered her mouth with both hands, afraid to betray her presence. When she could finally focus on the words from behind the wall again, she heard Odin say, “… but his powers are growing – as if something is feeding them. He shouldn’t be able to command fire the way he was last night. We would have to be very careful.”

 

As if this had reminded them of the clandestine nature of their conversation, they hushed their voices again, and as much as she tried, Sigyn couldn’t understand anything anymore. Then their voices grew more distant, as they seemed to be walking away, and finally they were gone.

 

Sigyn stood leaning against the wall, her heart beating a frantic tattoo of fear and despair. Slowly she lowered her hands, and gulping air as if she had escaped a drowning, she tried to decide what to do. She was feeling chilled to the bone, with her racing heart the only living thing in her frozen body.

 

Then suddenly she pushed away from the wall, and hastened in direction of the Great Hall. She had to find Loki.

 

But he was not in the Great Hall, nor in her own place, where in hope beyond hope, she checked, too. Heartbeats added up to moments, moments lengthened into time, and she could not find him. She felt as if she were standing still while she was frantically scouring the corridors, looking for her love.

 

Twice she passed unknowingly by the kitchen where Loki was enjoying a meal he had sweet-talked out of a reluctant cook. She heard the murmur of voices, and not even dreaming he could be eating at a time like this, she never realised how close she was.

 

She went on, in loops and circles, growing more frantic by the minute. Finally she came back into the Great Hall, and her heart missed a beat, because there he was, standing next to the Mirror of Seasons, arms crossed over his chest. But she was too late – Freya was standing between him and the mirror, so close to him that their bodies seemed to be touching. She was talking, one hand on Loki’s forearm, her eyes holding his with an intent gaze.

 

Sigyn stood back in the dim shadows of a corridor, staring at Freya, trying to read her lips. Was the Vanir princess powerful enough to weave a seid spell on her own, and destroy Loki’s memories? Or was Odin somewhere nearby, adding his powers to hers, performing the necessary actions this spell required?

 

Sigyn’s eyes flew around the Great Hall, trying to invade the darkest shadows, scanning every nook and cranny, but flitting back to Loki and Freya ever so often. Loki’s stance was illustrating his suspicions, his crossed arms, the slight backward tilt of his head, the narrowed eyes – and his silence. Freya was doing all the talking, and he looked like he’d rather shake off her hand, and leave. It puzzled Sigyn that he didn’t – when it came to courtesy, he was not really a natural …

 

Suddenly there was a movement right in front of her, and her startled gaze focused on a recess next to where the corridor she was hiding in led out into the hall. With a shock Sigyn realised that Odin was standing only a few steps away from her, a silhouette against the brighter lit hall, now that he had moved out of the niche. Quiet as a startled deer Sigyn watched the Allfather drawing runes into the skin of his arm. He was carving them with his dagger into the scar that was a memory of the blood vow he had exchanged with the very man he was aiming to destroy now.

 

Sigyn’s blue eyes flew back to Loki, and suddenly she realised why Freya was touching him – her hand was lying still, but her thumb was drawing runes on Loki’s skin, across the place where Sigyn knew the pale thin line of an ancient scar was running across the inside of his arm.

 

They were weaving their spell right before her eyes, cutting Loki’s memories as if they were scything flowers.

 

***

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Loki stood staring into Freya’s eyes, and even though he still knew that he did not really want to listen to her, there was a mesmerising hum filling his ears, droning out her voice, and his own thoughts. He could not remember just now where he had meant to go – only that it was high time to leave …

 

In growing confusion he was watching the woman’s mouth move, unable to make sense of what she was saying. A slow, sluggish wave seemed to carry him away from his own thoughts, dulling all sensations like cotton wool. He blinked, and looked down on the hand resting on his arm. The thumb was dancing over his skin in swift movements, and a vicious pain stabbed his head when he tried to understand what she was doing.

 

Then suddenly the humming noise was shattered by another voice, clear and loud, echoing around him. He knew this voice, and it pierced the haze he was drifting in like a startling flash of lightning. She called, “No! Run! Loki, run!”

 

There was one moment of clarity when Sigyn’s voice shattered the steady flow of the seid spell, and Loki pulled his arm out of Freya’s grasp. He stared down into the mask of anger and disappointment her face turned into, then his eyes flew across the hall. He saw Odin standing in dim shadows, blood streaming down over his left arm, and behind him a pale face with blazing forget-me-not blue eyes.

 

Then Odin lifted his blood-gloved hand, pointing at Loki, and the voice yelled again, “Run, Loki, now!”

 

He turned to the mirror before Freya could hold him back, and was gone.

 

***

 

In the Great Hall, Odin turned round and stared at Sigyn with fury burning in his eye. But she didn’t recoil, or avoid her eyes. Her cool voice now so low that only Odin could hear her, she said, “He found out, didn’t he? He finally found out what it is you feel for him. Is that reason enough to kill him? Is your love so murderous that he cannot live knowing of it? And I wonder who is going to die next. My sons? I? Do you really know of everybody who knows?”

 

Odin stood frozen to the ground, his eye on the woman before him as if he could not really believe what he was hearing. A shiver made Sigyn hug herself, and with a voice now devoid of everything but courtesy, she said, “Grant me leave to go, Allfather, I am cold.” She didn’t wait for his reply, but turned and disappeared into the dark corrridor.

 

Behind him Odin heard Freya’s approaching steps, and said viciously, “Your advice was as bad as your performance. Leave me alone.” He pushed past a white-faced Freya, and left the hall.

 

***

 

The mirror maze whirled in shades of grey all around him as he stood in confusion. Pain was hammering behind his eyes, clamping his head in a vicious vise, and his ears were still ringing with the woman’s voice, “Run, Loki, now!” More stumbling than running, he turned to the nearest smoke sheet, and passed through it without really knowing what he was doing, or where he was going.

 

Suddenly the air was clammy with low shreds of mist, and there was grass and gravel under his bare feet. His momentum carried him onto a grainy surface he could not see in the surrounding darkness, and when the oncoming headlights blinded him, his instincts couldn’t get past the numbing pain and confusion. The last thing he heard was the screaming of tyres, and a horn.

 

Then the world went black.

 

***

 

continued in Three Ring Circus … coming soon to a Fortress near you. :p

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