Odin shivered for the first time since the battle had begun. The heat and adrenaline of the fight had worn off, and his sweat was freezing on his skin, beneath his armor. Time to go home — almost. Just one last thing left to find.
The jotun city was in ruins. There was no telling how long it would take to find the temple where the Casket had been stored. But oh, was it cold. Odin wondered bitterly if Laufey had left the thing open before he’d slipped it away from the battle.
He could leave this task to the einherjar. What was left of the jotun army had fled or surrendered, and the soldiers were more than capable of taking care of any stragglers. Odin wanted desperately to be home. He wanted it so desperately he could see his wife before him, a shining golden beacon in this dark place. Serene smile, soft golden curls, belly round with child…
“Odin,” she said, and he blinked. Oh.
“Should you be exerting yourself so?” he asked, trudging through the snow toward the illusion. “When I left, the healers were certain the time of birth was nearly upon you.” He kept his voice light, but he wanted to feel her touch, her warmth, so badly that it hurt.
“It was upon me. I ordered them to tell you so. You would never have left otherwise. The baby is born. A healthy son.” Her smile lacked its usual sharp edge, and Odin felt the weight that had lifted from his chest when he’d seen her come sliding back onto it.
“The baby? A son?”
Frigga sighed. “The signs were always strange,” she said. “I should have known something was wrong.”
The weight sharpened to an icicle point. “The other child…” he said gently, “Stillborn?”
“Oh!” Frigga shook her head, “Oh no, no. There was only one. Unless the other one is still hiding in here somewhere.” She patted her stomach and gave a little laugh, but her heart wasn’t in it.
Thank the Norns for that, at least.
“Come home, Odin. Come home and hold your son. And me.” The illusion faded, the magic rolling off the air like sunlight through trees, leaving nothing but snow and darkness in its wake.
What a strange grief, to mourn a child that had never been. Frigga’s first scrying had shown a son, clear as a flash of lightning, but subsequent attempts had shown a second child as well. The signs were nebulous — one moment a boy, the next a girl, sometimes a king, sometimes a witch, sometimes there and sometimes not. A trickster, they’d thought. Frigga was delighted by the mystery. They had named them both. The thunder god — for that was what he was, doubtless — would be Thor. The trickster, Loki.
A name without an owner, now. A strange grief.
Odin looked down across the city to the army’s encampment, where a bonfire blazed. Home, he thought. Enough of this cold place.
He had made a few strides back down the winding street when his own magic plucked at his senses. A raven croaked overhead, circled back toward a collapsed building at the broken city’s edge.
Fine. If it had been found, all the better. He could rest easy on his journey home. Odin spied a group of soldiers picking their way toward the temple — yes, it could be a temple. He turned to leave. Toward fire, warmth, home. Hesitated.
The raven called again, a harsh metallic creak.
The soldiers were coming out of the temple as Odin ascended the steps. One of them held it — the Casket of Ancient Winters.
“Take it home,” he ordered, “Make it safe, as quickly as possible.”
Overhead, the raven drifted through the open roof of the building. Odin glanced inside, and saw him join his brother, perched on what was left of the temple door. The two birds gazed back at him with his own eyes. Eye.
They were constructs of his own magic, and they felt the call of some magic here. The Casket was safe, already well on its way to Asgard — so why did they stay?
Odin stepped into the dark temple, and swept his one-eyed gaze around it.
It was mostly rubble. In the center was an altar, nearly untouched — where the Casket had sat, Odin thought.
It could not have been left unguarded, surely. His eye fell upon a fallen pillar — ah, there.
She was dressed finely — what of her he could see, anyway — a priestess, perhaps. Odin picked his way through the rubble toward the giantess’s body and the fallen pillar that blocked his view of the back half of the temple. He could move it, he thought.
From the door, the ravens watched.
Odin could see nothing of interest here. His eye flicked back to the dead giantess as he turned away, and he stopped. He edged slowly around her — yes, he saw exactly what he’d thought he’d seen. The distinct curve of a pregnant belly.
Odin hefted the pillar. Heavy enough to crush a giantess, and yet nothing to Asgardian strength. His eyes traveled up the body, confirming his suspicion with every inch of her he uncovered. He knew her face.
Farbauti. Laufey’s fierce queen. You deserved a better death than this, Odin thought — and a better funeral. The frost giants were not ignoble creatures — bold warriors, cunning sorcerers, worthy opponents — but their king… Laufey was a dog. A coward, who had gathered up his army and struck at Midgard the moment word of Odin’s loss had reached Jotunheim.
He dumped the pillar to the temple floor, disgusted.
And then he saw it, just out of reach of Farbauti’s outstretched hand.
Norns, let me mourn no more children this day.
The ravens had taken to circling, and one of them swooped to the snow now. It stalked forward, dipped its knife-like beak toward the little body.
Odin hissed, lurched forward toward it. It croaked and flapped away, and a cry came up from out of the snow. A weak little wail of fear. The little hands moved, tiny fingers groped.
He was so small. Too small. He’d come too soon, Odin thought, and yet it was the only thing that had saved him. She must have given birth to him here, during the battle, only hours ago. Only hours, Odin thought, after the birth of his own son, safe and warm in Asgard.
Odin knew then, or would have, if he let himself.
He was cold when Odin picked him up. Of course he was cold, Odin thought. He was a frost giant. But Odin felt the whisper of magic against his palms. It shivered through him, rippled straight through his bones, snagged like a fishhook on the raw edges of his grief. Rough, blue flesh grew soft and pale in Odin’s fingers. Red eyes gave way to green. As green as Frigga’s eyes. Or Hela’s.
The skin crept toward blue again, and the little grasping hands shook. Fear struck Odin like a knife in the heart. He was freezing. His son was freezing.
Odin pulled the fur cloak from his shoulders, wrapped the boy in it, held him to his chest. Don’t, he thought.
If you give this boy your child’s name, that is what he will be, Odin thought. He has a father, he has a place, here. Don’t forget that. Odin was wise.
Odin was weak. You will feel differently once you’ve held your own son, he thought. I am holding my own son, Odin’s traitorous heart told him.
“Heimdall,” Odin called, moving to the center of the temple where there was more room. “Open the Bifrost. Now.”
Opalescent light cut through the cold night air, and Odin stumbled, snowy and shivering, into the warm golden glow of Heimdall’s observatory.
The watchman let him come and go with barely more than a greeting. Odin didn’t ask how much he knew — just kept his precious cargo bundled warmly against his chest and walked.
He had the length of the Bifrost bridge to begin spinning a plan. Odin imagined two sons raised as brothers, two heirs, and two thrones on which they would sit. Odin imagined the Casket of Ancient Winters back on Jotunheim where it belonged, safely in the hands of a king that would call him father. Odin imagined a Jotunheim free from Laufey’s cruelty, a Jotunheim under the rule of a benevolent king — a proud warrior of Asgard, raised by his own hand.
Odin imagined another proud warrior of Asgard, raised by his own hand.
Odin imagined what Asgard would do to a little boy they knew to be a frost giant with a face stolen straight from Odin’s memories of his beloved daughter.
Beloved daughter. Proud warrior. Butcher. Traitor.
Odin heard the soft music of Frigga’s voice before he saw her. Murmuring sweetly to the squirming boy in her arms. Little Thor. Beloved son. Bright, beautiful boy.
“My son,” she sighed, “But where is your twin?”
Here, Odin didn’t say. A moment passed in silence before Frigga looked up and saw him in the doorway. She winced only slightly at his battered appearance before smiling. The snow had long since melted off of Odin’s shoulders but only in the warmth of that smile did he feel the ice in his heart begin to thaw.
“Frigga,” her name was honey on his tongue. How long had he loved her? “Do not fear —” (he regretted the words the moment they’d passed his lips; Frigga had never been one for fear) “— but do not be deceived.” He laid his burden on the bed beside her, pulling the furs aside to uncover the baby within. “He is a jotun, a shape-changer. Laufey’s blood, his heir.” Laufey’s son, Odin didn’t say, couldn’t say.
He told her everything — how he’d found the boy, the scheme that he’d begun to hatch. As he spoke, Frigga passed him Thor to hold and picked up the little stranger he’d brought her. She regarded the child with benevolent curiosity, and smiled slowly, like the dawning sun.
She knew. She knew, just as Odin did.
“What a little thing you are,” she whispered. “One day I will tell you of the first prank you ever pulled — and what a wicked prank it was!” Her smile was as sharp as the edge of a knife. “What mischief I’ll teach you, my trickster. My Loki.”
When she said the words, it seemed simple. The most natural thing in the universe. That a god of mischief should be delivered to Asgard through a trick of fate — of course.
The brothers had been allowed — even encouraged — to watch the einherjar train for years before the first time Thor had asked their father to begin teaching them. How old had they been? Eight?
They would be fine warriors, Odin thought, thrilled.
At the sight of Loki trying to heft a training sword — much to his brother’s amusement — Odin felt a thrill of a different kind. He brushed dark hair back from his son’s face.
“Not yet,” he said. “When you’re a little bigger.”
It was absurdity to think that if only he had pushed Hela towards more womanly pursuits, pushed her away from the path of a warrior, that things would have turned out differently. And yet.
Loki was happy enough to study his mother’s magic, and he excelled at it. In a few years, when he was big enough to comfortably wield a sword, Odin began his training, as promised.
Two days later, Thor disarmed him in a sparring match and with a word of power and a flick of his wrist, Loki pulled a knife from the air to replace it.
A promising talent for magic, Frigga said. Loki had seen her perform the trick a handful of times, though she hadn’t taken the time to teach it to him yet.
Odin did not see a sorcerer. He saw Hela, manifesting weapons of war from her very body. He saw innocents slaughtered by a rain of blades.
The second time Loki did it, Odin passed his martial training to Frigga in earnest.
“Tell us about the valkyries, Father!” Thor begged.
Odin recalled their prowess in battle, their shining armor and their winged steeds.
“When I grow up,” Thor said reverently, “I want to be a valkyrie.”
Loki giggled. “You can’t be a valkyrie! You’re a boy.”
“So are you,” Thor grumbled.
Loki, who had been a raven on his father’s shoulder only that morning, just laughed. Magic washed over him like sunlight. “I’m whatever I want to be,” she taunted.
“Father!” howled Thor, punching his sister’s arm, “Tell Loki she can’t be a valkyrie if I can’t be one!”
“Father!” laughed Loki, ducking a second blow, “Tell Thor he’s not allowed to hit girls!”
“Neither of you can be valkyrie,” said Odin, a palpable rage simmering beneath his quiet words as he spoke, “Because the valkyries are all dead.”
He tried not to look at his daughter’s face as he said it. He failed.
Word reached Odin’s ears of Thor’s strength in battle, words of glory and honor, of bravery and battle strategy. If Loki’s victories were more subtle by comparison, perhaps that was for the best.
“Silver tongues do not win wars,” scoffed Thor.
“No,” said Odin, “But sometimes they prevent them.”
“Or start them,” Sif mumbled grimly, glancing askance at Loki. The Warriors Three had a chuckle at that. Odin did not.
Loki’s eyes flicked to Thor and the brothers shared a grin.
Odin wondered if bloodlust would be the birthright of all his children. Wondered, and feared.
The vault held dozens of items — hammers and swords, shields and bows, magical artifacts of unspeakable power and heirlooms of indisputable value. All had a place within the vault, all for different reasons.
Loki liked the vault. He found it reassuring. The shape of a weapon didn’t matter — only its worth.
He did covet the vault’s contents, as well — particularly since Thor had been gifted Mjolnir from its depths — but he’d never stolen anything from it, and Odin didn’t fear he’d try. Loki had used his talents for aquisition to fill the vault, not to empty it — a feat Odin knew he was quietly proud of.
One day, Odin thought. One day, when you’re ready for it, I will give you such a weapon that your envy will be forgotten. He knew the one already — twice-forged, anvil-cleaver, dragon-slayer… a gleaming golden sword with an edge as sharp as Loki’s tongue.
Odin often found him there when he was troubled, pondering some relic or other. Given the brothers’ trip to Jotunheim, Odin was unsurprised to find him at the Casket of Ancient Winters.
He should have known better than to touch it. He did know better. And yet Odin could see clearly that he’d lifted it in his hands. Could hear the hum of its power, below Loki’s labored breathing.
Odin told himself to go to him, to snatch the Casket from his hands. He couldn’t. He couldn’t move. There was a feeling like ice in his heart — heavy and sharp and cold.
“Am I cursed?” Loki asked.
“No,” Odin lied.
In the space of a breath, with far fewer pieces than another would need, Loki had put it all together. What he was, where he’d come from. Odin could do nothing but admit it. He fought the exhaustion of the Odinsleep as he watched his son’s life fall in shards around them like shattered glass. Fought, and failed.
I will make for us a silent universe, Hela had said. A silent universe over which to rule, unchallenged, forever.
Mjolnir was a judge’s gavel in her hands. Unworthy, her verdict. Unworthy. In Hela’s eyes, none but her beloved Asgard could ever be worthy.
“I could have done it, father,” Hela screamed at him. “I could have done it. For you.” Her rage was a hail of blades and a tide of blood.
“— for all of us!” Loki cried to him. The blades were turned against himself, and the tides of blood were his own.
Odin watched them fall into darkness, helpless.
“Do you not truly feel the gravity of your crimes?” Odin roared at Hela, desperate. “Wherever you go there is war, ruin, and death.”
Tell me only that you understand, he wanted to beg. Tell me that my pleas for peace have been heard. Tell me you know that it’s wrong, what you’ve done is wrong, what we’ve done is wrong.
“I really don’t understand what all the fuss is about,” Loki said.
One day, Odin thought. One day when their anger had ebbed, when their hearts were healing. One day he would do for Loki what he could never do for Hela. He would pull him back out of the dungeons, back into the light of the world. One day when his love felt less like ice on his heart, he would begin to mend things.
“He is still angry,” Frigga said. For all his talk that Loki would never see his mother again, Odin could never have forbidden her visits.
“So am I.”
Their anger was a broken bridge only Frigga could traverse. Piece by piece, she would put it back together, like she always did.
One day, Odin thought. They had time.
He was wrong.
On the edge of the sea, at the edge of his life, Odin told his sons he loved them and hoped that they heard him.
And then he was gone.