Chapter 1: Prologue
They say that the mighty son of Odin slew Jormungandr as the serpent opened its jaws to the heavens. They say that Midgard’s Warden took nine steps before he fell; the monster’s venom burning through his veins. Flames engulfed the earth, swallowing the remains of both. The earth was remade and the nine realms cannot remain empty.
From Asgard come anew, a question is raised: Where is the Thunderer? For the power of a god is no small thing to be destroyed by simple fire. They say the one responsible was sent to find him. They say many things. Yet tales of heroes and monsters only make up part of their repertoire, and this is not Thor’s story.
She should have stayed home.
Under any other circumstances, it was three days ride to the temple. This was now the fourth night that they were making camp. The sickness still caught her at all times of day, and so it was slow going. Jord should have left her behind, not that the Jarl’s wife would even consider it.
When Uldra had approached to ask, Jord had been making final arrangements for their journey with Gala, their other partner on this pilgrimage. She stopped working and closed her eyes for a long moment before she answered sharply, “You know why we travel to the Thorrhof.”
Jord had not given Uldra a moment to respond, which was fine. The only thing keeping the heaving under control was her tongue pressed to the roof of her mouth. Besides, both Uldra and Gala were very familiar with their purpose. Repeatedly, Jord had told them, “My son will need solid friends, those who can stand with him when it’s difficult. He must have an inner circle who can watch his back in danger and counter him when necessary.” Her current intensity was digging at the layers of their purpose.
“We could journey elsewhere for the festival, work with a different Gothi, the Allfather’s perhaps. But that is not why I am here; I came here to stop the carnage. My son will not be a warlord.” Jord bit off this statement with a finality that brooked no discussion.
Uldra had been there when the tall woman had treated for peace. Both sides had counted their losses dear in the fighting. Jord had crossed the battlefield with the knowledge that Jarl Ingvar would not be swayed lightly. Her challenge was risky, yet she prevailed. Their marriage joined both regions and halted the chaos. When Jord spoke, people listened because she had a way of bringing the future into being.
When Jord said her name again, Uldra struggled to meet her gaze and forget the bile at the back of her throat. Jord’s presence demanded her attention. Jord was a warrior who people followed to battle because that was the last thing she would ask of them. Today, thank the gods, their future did not include axes and swords.
“Today, we go to ask blessing on our homes and on our crops. We ask for strength to protect what is ours. We ask that our babies will be healthy when we meet them this summer. This is why all three of us must ride to the Sky Lord’s Oak.” She paused and reiterated her point. “No one will be left behind.”
They mounted in silence and Uldra had been drawing from Jord’s strength since. They had come with ample mint leaves packed with their hard tack and cheese. Chewing the mint helped, but she still kept very little down. When they rose the third day, the sweats would not stop. Jord rode beside her for hours. With the sun at its peak, Uldra could no longer keep herself in the saddle and they stopped early to set up camp. From there, the fever made her memory unreliable.
This night, the fourth night, she finally felt coherent. The mint was little more than pulp in her cheek, but the slight sharpness on the back of her tongue kept the nausea in check. Jord moved about the camp without slowing. One would never guess that she would be giving birth mid-summer. It was those same purposeful steps that Uldra had watched walk away last night. Jord set the pot to heat water for tea. They had some willow bark left.
That was where things went sideways though, was it not? Yesterday, while Jord went out to fetch a second willow branch, Uldra had been left in the care of Gala. Gala’s pregnancy was proceeding well, as was proper, since this was her second. She kept telling Uldra that the sickness would eventually pass and to keep a cool cloth on her neck. They sat and each worried at a bit of hard tack in silence. When Gala took another bite, it took little convincing for her to believe that Uldra would be fine just beyond the bushes to relieve herself.
Braced on a tree, mid-stream, Uldra heard bits of conversation. “Please...” The wind blew leaves across the words that followed before calming once more. “Fix this.” There was a pause. “...cannot lose him now.”
Curiosity is a powerful motivator, so Uldra straightened and peered through the branches. Jord was talking to someone—pleading, actually. Her head was bowed and when she raised it in the red light of the setting sun, there may have been tears upon her cheek. “I have nothing left to give, Mistress. The child is promised to another and my weaving has always been yours.” Uldra could see no one nearby. The light shimmered and Jord’s outstretched hand glistened, red and wet. The blood moved and three spiders fell through now dry fingers to grass painted in shadow.
Uldra froze. Jord turned her back towards the leafy spot and stepped away. The forest swallowed her much as it now hid the spiders’ movements. When she thought it was safe to move, Uldra returned to the fireside in disbelief. She watched flames shifting around the logs and in that focus did not see Jord return. Uldra wordlessly accepted the teacup the woman handed her. Willow bark tea tasted of green growing things, but left a bitterness behind. That first swallow broke her focus away from the flames that were dancing figures making cursed bargains. There was an ache under her belly, a pressure reminding her she had to relieve herself. When she stood, Jord came with her to help her find her way in the dark. And it was dark, the sky was overcast. No moon nor stars lit their path.
Fever dreams, they were just fever dreams—fueled by this pregnancy that had her insides tied up in knots. Jord was not the kind to go begging in the shadows. That woman and the child she carried were as healthy as could be; she was not bleeding out. Fever dreams were the only possible explanation.
So, they prepared for a fourth night of camp and Uldra laid out her bedroll. Jord threw the remaining bark into the pot, slivers sinking and rising with the bubbles. They would arrive at the Thorrhof tomorrow. The following day would be the feast to mark Spring’s beginning and all the pregnant women would gather for the hallowing under the great oak. They would align their households and their endeavors with Thor, the Protector.
That last night under the stars, Uldra spent hours chasing sleep, rejecting the image that burned fever-bright in her memory. Again and again, she saw spiders rising from a blood offering in the fading light of day. Only the desperate made such bargains, for payment always came due. There was only one who responded to calls made in the shadows; only one who spun their web in such uncertain moments; only one who might listen to those who had nowhere else to turn.
Chapter 2: Torin's Tale
Life at the temple was not bad. What it was, however, was boring. There was a system—a schedule that metered every day, week, and season. The Gothi said it kept things perfect and perfection was the goal. “We do not give less than perfection to the Mighty Thor.” When he was a boy full of questions, that answer was given often. Now, as a young man, he had managed logistics at the Thorrhof for the two required seasons and understood the why of the schedule. He knew how to arrange training to prompt optimal sleep patterns for the dedicated Kin and the other staff. He knew how many pigs and chickens were slaughtered each week. He knew how many kegs of mead they went through each month.
He was bored of it.
Torin had heard the histories, even the less than official ones. The Mighty Thor would laugh at this regementation. The god was as capricious as the storm and lightning ran through his veins. With this in mind, Torin elected to put all his efforts into training. That, he thought the Storm Lord might appreciate. There, he might get closest to perfect. At least it kept the Gothi off his back, for the old man did not argue much with his most well-known Kin.
The first year of his dedication, Torin had garnered some attention. Fourteen-year-olds were usually not successful at the challenges placed the Thor-kin. But he was large for his age and had the luck of being stormborn to add to his story. And he was not just stormborn, but the only baby born during the largest storm in known memory. The flooding had lasted for weeks. It had taken longer than that for the damage to be repaired. However, the following year’s harvest was richer than it had ever been. People gave thanks to the Sky Lord for their bounty.
Now, Torin was in his seventh year of dedication, his final year, and he was rarely referred to as The Stormborn. People knew his name. They came from the surrounding regions at feast time to witness his work in the challenges. Sure, the other Kin had their feats to show, but if they stood opposite Torin, the outcome was inevitable. He had mastered multiple weapons and fighting styles and excelled in the challenges of strength. The Gothi had to bring in the stonemasons after Torin moved the final boulder last year. No one in the history of the Thorrhof had been able to move that boulder. Torin had carried it from one end of the field to the other. He almost had the new one off the ground.
Midwinter’s Jol had come and gone. Torin planned to hold his final feast as Thor-kin on that boulder, under the oak on the far side. The old man wanted him to stay, to become the new Gothi. His father wanted him to return, spend some time learning the current order of the region, and then he would step down and submit Torin Stormborn as the new Jarl. That sounded about as interesting as becoming Gothi. Torin remained unsure what the best choice would be. What would Thor want him to do?
He went to the Mead Hall.
He was hailed as soon as he opened the door. Hand-raised, he bellowed back greetings. He stopped only to fill a mug and joined Brandt at the table.
“Did you get it up?” Brandt grinned at his own thin wit. The comment had sparked laughter once, now Torin just rolled his eyes.
There were watchers, there always were. Torin grinned. He did not mind that they followed him and told his tales. Oh, the stories they told! Today, he shifted, back straightening. He sat up tall, filling his space, for the eyes on him were hers and he had begun his own appraisal.
His reply to Brandt was his standard, “It is neither cat nor world serpent. It will rise.” The corner of her lip lifted as his voice carried across the room. Braggadocio was what she wanted? Easy. He went on to describe how he planned to rock the boulder to leverage it up, keeping them both centered. “Truly,” he said, watching her response, “It will be in the air before the month is gone.”
She rolled her eyes, finished her mug and stood to leave.
Apparently, that was the wrong play. She did not look back, so she did not see Torin watching her departure. Burnished red curls held back by braids bounced to settle on her shoulders. Hips swayed dangerously with each step. Her cheekbones threatened to cut out his eyes as she angled out the door. If he had not been tempted earlier, he certainly would have been now.
Dawn had not yet lit the sky when Torin broke his fast with honeyed bread and cheese. It was just enough to settle his stomach before he began his practice. He accepted the cock’s crow as the call to the field. This was outside the regimented Kin day, but he did not care. The sharp woman from the hall was likely to be in the temple today or tomorrow. Most new arrivals in town made their way to the Oak or to the Gothi.
Today’s plan was to work. No more boasting without visible results. If she came in today, she would see him at his finest. Torin Stormborn was a man of action.
The sun gilded the clouds and the top leaves of the sacred oak. From across the field, Torin just glimpsed her skirts as she stepped around the massive trunk. He did not question how he knew it was her. He watched her fingers trail across the rough bark. When she appeared on the other side, she seemed to glide along the misty ground. She was dressed for travel, her hair tied back and cloak settled easily on her shoulders. She stopped walking when she spotted him.
He raised his hand in greeting. She did not respond. Rather, she turned to the oak and set both palms to the tree.
New plans arose and dissipated much as the water lifted from the grass with his every step. He stopped, halfway to the oak, halfway to her. She did not hail him. She was on the field at dawn. If she came to honor the Sky Lord or seek his intervention, interruption would not be welcome.
Torin changed direction and found himself at a weapon stand. With a simple polearm, he began a warm-up sequence. His first plan was off to a shaky start, but it seemed to be the only option remaining. Initially, he watched her, her stillness mirroring that of the oak. From the practice field, he traced the line of wide shoulders and the hint of an arch to her back. Curls he knew to be red appeared brunette under the tree's long shadow.
Minutes passed and Torin worked more options into each sequence. The interesting part about handling a pole was tracking its extended reach. And when it could be tracked, it could be used for balance. A pole could make your steps wider or a jump extend. A spinning pole could carry a turn farther, to a bored-looking woman facing the sharp end of your spear as you dropped into your lunge.
“Uh, pardon!” Torin’s barked apology was followed by a stumbling attempt to stand.
The corner of her lip raised in that same smile as yesterday.
The butt of the pole jammed into the ground braced his sway to stillness. The length of the weapon between them was now a distance too far for hushed conversation at dawn. He picked up his foot to step closer and set it down again. Her eyes laughed in greens and golds at his indecision. She said nothing, but that gaze told him that he was done before he started.
Torin leaned against the pole and asked, “Would you like me to fetch the Gothi?”
“No.” Her voice was deeper than he would have guessed. “The old man would not be happy to find me in this grove so early.”
“Then it is good he is not here.”
Torin did not see her response so much as sense the pause that followed was unplanned. She looked over his shoulder and asked, “You are the Stormborn they call Torin, Warrior of Thor?”
The boulders were lined up behind him. He stood taller as she named him. He had not heard it phrased so, but responded anyway. “Yes, m’lady. I am Torin.”
“How good are you?” Her gaze had left the boulders and again held him captive.
He returned the focus and accepted her challenge. “Better than the rest.”
She stalked forward, keeping her gaze on his as she closed. He was a few marks taller than her and easily three times her size. She managed to fill more space than he with her point. “That is not what I asked, Thor-kin.”
She knew his name and still she addressed him by his station. Surely, the slight was intentional and he felt smaller for it. That was not how this was supposed to go. He was Torin Stormborn, he never backed down. He forced the corners of his lips up in a wide smile.
“M’lady, we don’t give less than perfection to the Mighty Thor.” His bulky shadow covered her and he knew the sun had completely risen behind him. “And I am that perfection.”
In the narrow space between them, she looked him up and down. “Then, perhaps I will stay a while.”
With a contrary flare that seemed to be exactly her way, she walked to the gate. Before she reached it, she turned. “Tor,” she called. “Perfection is a lie.”
Her perfect hips had the final say as they sashayed out to his failure to respond.
It was a week before Torin saw her again. He was mid-training with one of the younger Thor-kin and there she was, seated at the base of the oak. He twisted and just narrowly avoided the bruise of a blunted tip jammed into his side. She grinned her little grin. The upstart who thought he could jab Torin Stormborn was in the dirt before he knew what hit him.
Torin turned and she was gone, nowhere to be seen. He shook his head and with a grimace, gave his student a hand up. The boy was not responsible for Torin’s distraction and should not have paid for it. Torin congratulated him on the almost hit and explained how he put him down.
She would come and go from the Thorrhof as if she knew paths that none else did. Sometimes she would come and speak with him. However, Torin had to wait on her to seek out his company; if he approached her, she left. At times, she even seemed to disappear into thin air. A month passed before she was there long enough for him to ask her name—Luka.
Only once did Torin see her with the Gothi. That was not surprising as Luka had implied there was bad blood between them. Yet, Torin watched the old man escort her to the library. The Gothi was very particular about who was allowed in that section of the temple and he took her there after exchanging only a few words. One of the staff had mentioned that the old man stayed with her for hours, fetching her things from the shelves.
Contrary was exactly the right phrase to describe her. Not only would she say one thing and do something completely different, she asked questions. She challenged him to consider his assumptions. In spite of how annoying that could be, Torin had to admit that he looked forward to her visits.
Luka was on the field the day Torin took the first step with the boulder. One step was all he made. When he resettled the rock in its new location, he bellowed in triumph. A chill grazed his arm and he could feel her roll her eyes. When he looked around, she was leaning on the wall near the gate and he just grinned harder. He had hoped she would see that moment.
Somehow in the last several weeks, he had started to sense her. It was much like many of the Thor-kin, Torin included, could predict the weather. He could feel it. It was different, though. Torin felt the weather in his blood, in his pulse. But Luka, he sensed with his skin. A chill would brush his hand, his neck or other exposed flesh when she came to the Thorrhof. But to know her facial expression before he saw it, he must have been projecting. Torin had begun to draw many parallels between his childhood friend Lopt, and Luka. And Lopt would definitely have rolled his eyes.
A chill made him look up, and a flash of color caught his attention. Torin set aside the dual maces with which he had been practicing and went deep into the grove. Luka was in a tree when he found her, braiding a daisy crown. Not that there were flowers about, but things like that never bothered her.
“Oh good, you finished,” she said as she swung her hanging leg. “Let’s go for a ride.”
It was such a Lopt-thing to say that Torin felt like that eight-year-old once more. He knew if he ran off, he would have to answer for such a choice at the end of the day. “But I’m not finished! I’m supposed to continue that practice and then inventory the weapons for the Gothi.”
Luka pushed from her perch and landed soundlessly on the forest floor two meters below. When she turned, her lips were pursed. “The Gothi’s inventory does not really matter. You deliberately handle every weapon in the yard each week. You have done inventory from memory before. Perhaps you should recite it now?” Her words hinted at a flippancy that was not borne out in her calm and measured phrase. “Stormborn, what have I told you about lying to me?”
The eight-year-old ghost vanished when faced with adult embarrassment. Several weeks ago, he had set a staff member to watch her and alert him when she left the grove. She confronted him and he gave excuses. Today, under the partial shade of budding oaks, heat colored his cheeks and he gave the expected response, “That I’m very bad at it.”
She nodded and set the daisy crown upon his head. Her auburn curls had fallen forward when she landed. The waves tried to soften the sharp angles of her face and failed.
“Why, when you say it, does it seem like I should be able to lie better? That I am poorer for this failing?” Torin was not sure he wanted to know the answer to that question, but he could not stop the words—the accusation—from tumbling out.
“Because you are.” She said this plainly as she tucked his hair behind his ears to settle it under the flowers. “Who is Lopt?”
Her questions rarely surprised him anymore. She knew things she had no right to know. But this was a question that did not have an easy answer. It was a childish thing and right now, Torin did not want Luka to see him as a child. He looked away from her searching gaze.
In silence, Luka took his hand and led him through the grove to a side path. Past the trees, Torin could see two saddled horses, their reins thrown over a branch. He had better start talking immediately, otherwise he would have to face her while he explained this.
“I was a child of the Jarl. Often times, my parents and the other adults would be occupied. And even though our home was full, there were not always children my age about. Lopt was a friend I thought up. Lopt had great ideas that often got me in trouble. Sometimes, you remind me of him.”
“In that I have great ideas or that I am bound to get you in trouble?” She asked the question while grabbing the saddle and mounting swiftly. From the horse, she turned to look down at Torin. “Or that you wonder if I am a figment of your imagination?”
“All of that, of course,” he mumbled to his saddle. Her warm laughter surrounded him as he hauled himself onto the horse. An echoing grin started to form as he asked, “Where are we going?”
She winked at him and kicked her horse to a gallop before Torin could respond.
Luka rode as if she had been born in the saddle, and perhaps she had been. She had given only vague answers about her history, leaving Torin just her mannerisms from which to guess. She was learned in numbers and in letters; her choice of phrasing often left Torin stretching to figure what she meant; she seemed just as comfortable among the highborn and the low. She treated all with a calm, quiet manner that left most wondering if she was that serene or if she was just laughing at them all behind her little smile. The more Torin got to know her, the more often he suspected the latter.
Though, he had moved beyond describing her simply as contrary. She was also composed at all times and completely unpredictable. The other night outside the mead hall, Luka had gone off to the far side of the building. She crouched and Torin could not make out words, but her tone was soft and inquiring. When he stepped around her, there was an old woman sitting with her back to the wall.
Luka said, “Mother, you need not remain here. Come with me to the boarding house.”
The old woman lifted her face at an angle towards Luka, the hunch of her shoulders prevented anything else. “Ol’ Thokk thinks you have forgotten that end times come to us all, Master.” She blinked milky yellow eyes that Torin would have sworn were blind, except they tracked Luka’s hand as she settled it on the woman’s shoulder.
Fondly, Luka replied, “I am sure that is not the case, you old hag.”
Torin whipped his head to glare at Luka. The woman who called herself Thokk barked laughter that became a violent fit of coughing. Still crouched, Luka patted one rag-covered shoulder until Thokk drew a shaky breath.
Luka kept the soft lilt in her voice, “I remember just fine, old mother. I just choose to do the gods’ work rather than celebrate the misery of others.”
Thokk collapsed forward in laughter again. Luka turned her chin and winked at Torin while she waited for the fit to stop.
“Is that,” Thokk was interrupted by another cough. “what you’re doing now, m’lord?” She turned her cloudy gaze on Torin. “Don’t you worry for ol’ Thokk. Ain’t no tears to be shed at one’s passing, ‘specially not mine.”
Luka interrupted her, “And I will not have you spend your final hours out here talking to the likes of this one.” Luka’s chin ticked up towards Torin. She bent closer to the old woman and then had her on her feet. “You are coming with me.”
Luka could not stand straight with one arm under Thokk’s shoulders. “Tor,” Luka said. “Give me your purse.”
Torin hesitated for only a second, long enough that Luka’s eyes started to scrunch before he moved to untie the small pouch. The old woman whispered something that caused Luka to nod in agreement and mumble, “Twins, just about.”
Torin extended his purse and Luka accepted it with her free hand. She stood hunched over, looking from him to Thokk and back again.
Torin finally guessed her purpose and scooped Thokk up. Luka led the way to the boarding house where she used Torin’s coin to pay.
Stepping sideways down the hall, Torin carried the old woman to the door Luka pointed at. There was no way he was going to make through the doorway with her. When he set her on her feet, she reached her hands up to his beard. With a surprising grip, she pulled his face down to hers.
“You don’t know yet, boy. It’s there, though.” Her lids hung heavy over those deceptively blank eyes. A string of spittle connected her lips, top to bottom, on the left side. Torin’s eyes roamed over her face, seeking something that was not yellowed. He tried not to breathe. Whether illness or old age, Thokk was straddling the edge between this world and the next.
She continued babbling, “The orb weaver’s steps ain’t easy. But if you goin’ through the realms, you're better off playing nice.”
“Hush, old woman,” Luka said joining them. “Don’t give away all my secrets.”
She helped Thokk into the room and closed the door behind them. The next day, Torin asked for an update. True to her foretelling, Thokk had died in her sleep. When Torin gave his condolences to Luka that her friend had passed, she claimed they only just met.
Luka's horse had slowed to a walk and Torin’s had followed suit without other direction from him. Luka said nothing, leaving Torin to ride with just his thoughts for company. Luka was a mess of contradictions. She said the Gothi would not have her, but then the man served her whims. Torin had seen her walk by beggars one day and care for Thokk another. She seemed to have no qualms about her life. She did as she pleased, when she pleased. Torin wanted her ease as he considered his future.
They stopped in a meadow with a river running through it. Luka dismounted and stretched. She was lean, yet her motions spoke of a muscle control that Torin tried to create when training the Kin. Every movement was accounted for and she was stronger than that lean form implied.
She lead her horse to the water. Torin mimicked her motions as she tossed the reins over the horse’s neck. They both sat nearby in the grass, sun warming them. Luka had a skin of wine that she shared. Time passed with the calm of water running by the banks, bees going about their business, and the horses wandering in the grass.
“Tor, what has you so occupied?” Luka had turned to watch him, her sparkling eyes scrunched playfully. She must have been watching him for a while.
He had fallen back into the grass, lying with his hands behind his head and elbows splayed, his knees pointed to the sky. He glanced at her with his lids mostly closed against the sun. She was luminous. Her pale skin glowed in the light, red curls lit gold against the brown of her traveler’s garb. This beautiful woman brought him to a private glade and he lay there lost in thought. Even so, he could not get around what was eating him.
“How do we know what the Norns have planned?”
Luka laughed. The sound ran through the meadow, chasing the bees.
Torin drew his lips together in a tight line, “I’m being serious.”
“As am I, Tor. We can no more know the will of fate than the fish in that stream. And you did not ask what you actually wanted to know.” Torin had become very familiar with Luka’s grin. “You want to know what fate has planned for you, little fish.”
Torin nodded. Of course that was what he wanted to know. He was not a little fish, but that was what he was asking.
“I am going to tell you a secret, Stormborn.” Luka laid back in the grass, mirroring him. “In the eyes of the Norns, we are all little fish. Individual destiny is a myth. Our names do not factor into the stories until the deed is done, and even then, the tale is likely to credit the wrong person. I am sure those three find it hilarious that men and gods continue to believe that destiny cares who fulfills it.”
Torin raised an eyebrow. The back of his tongue tasted sour. He asked, “And how do you know what the Norns find funny?”
“Valas know these things, of course.” Luka rolled towards him and laid her head on his arm. She was waiting. Those bright green eyes looked through him, gold flecks dancing. Was she searching for a fight? For denouncement? She would get neither.
“Am I supposed to be surprised that you’re a witch?” When she did not answer, he continued, “Truly, a lot things make more sense now. And if you’re expecting me to run screaming, you’ve forgotten that my mother carries that title. More importantly, I run from no one.”
“Your mother is many things, but you asked about your fate. And you, little fish,” She kissed her index finger and touched it to the tip of his nose. “You are the stormborn child of the Valkyrie and the Jarl. You were born to greatness. You were raised to lead. Those are two very different things.” From the side, her toothy smile looked predatory. “And what you decide to do with that information is another thing altogether.”
His pulse finally caught up with his situation: her body pressed up against his side, her hand settled upon his chest, her breath upon his skin. Blood rushed in his ears. He lifted his head from his hands to better see her laid out next to him.
“And what if I’ve decided, Lady, that I would like to kiss you?”
“Why do you think we came here?” She rose up over his mountain of a chest, set one hand down on the grass next to his head and leaned to his lips. Softly, slowly, she kissed him. This was not at all the predator he expected.
She raised up slightly and met his questioning look with that half-grin. Then, she devoured him. Her tongue claimed his mouth. Her hand ran down his side to the edge of the padded jerkin in which he had been practicing. Electricity flowed up his skin where her fingers touched flesh.
For his part, Torin had two hands free and was finally able to trace the curves and firm muscle he had been eyeing for so long. Both hands settled into the curve of her ass and he lifted her on top of him.
Her knees settled to the grass on either side of his hips and she pushed herself up with hands on his shoulders. She rocked into his trapped length and he groaned, his own fingers sliding over her thighs.
In flashes of clothes and flesh, Luka sat on her tunic as he kissed her. He slid his lips over her cheek to her neck, breathing her in. Her touch traced his shoulders as he kissed his way down her body. She was made of slight curves and lithe muscle with nipples tensed to his tongue. Torin knelt before her and she pulled her nails up his back.
She settled her hand on his head as his path continued. Her light pushes encouraged as did each twist of her body. She leaned back and her body opened for his kiss. Her skin was warmth. She tasted of sunlight and nectar and his eyes closed when he drew his tongue over her folds.
“Tor,” she called. “Look at me.” Two fingers tapped his cheek. “Look at me, Tor and do that again.”
How could he but comply? Her eyes fluttered as he dipped his tongue further, chasing her sweetness. She continued to talk, telling him what she wanted: his tongue, his touch and he was rewarded for it. He wet his own fingers before filling her. She stopped speaking. Her lips were moving, but there was no direction to accompany short, quick thrusts while he sucked. Her fists pulled tight in his hair and she arched in silence where not even breath existed.
Then softly, “Oh.”
Her words were accompanied with a burst of sweetness on his tongue. He took several slow licks before he lifted his head.
The back of her fingers brushed his cheek. “You should grin, Stormborn. Because now I expect you to fuck me before you call the rain.”
He sat up, slowly dragging his fingers from her body, her folds colored a dusky red. Though, with attention drawn to it, he could now feel the rain that was coming. He had not expected a storm today and he would not be dissuaded. He licked the tips of his fingers before running his slick hand over his cock. “And what if I like you wet?”
She laughed, but took to her knees when Torin suggested she roll over. With one hand on her hip, he began to draw them together slowly. Seemingly out of patience, she pushed back. Her body answered his every move. She met his strokes. With each shift of her hips she brought him closer to the edge. They were joined together with fierce intent. It was a punishing pace and he could not last. As he sunk deep a final time, he called her name.
She pulsed around him, yet her breath did not slow with his. He looped an arm under her middle and pulled her torso up to his as he rocked back towards his heels. Torin kept them connected as he ran one hand up to a breast and another to her clit.
She gasped and grabbed his wrist. He followed her shifts and leaned into her curves. He held her steady while he attacked with a singular purpose. When she came again, he rested his touch against her tender flesh and again let her direct his movement. She pushed his hand to where his softening cock entered her body. She dragged their fingers through the dripping mess. This time she brought his fingers to her lips and sucked them in.
Electricity ran from her tongue down his body. His cock jumped and she ground down on him in response. “Luka, fuck, yes. Perfect, just perfect.” He kissed the back of her head and set his cheek against the spot. It did not register that she froze to stillness until his arms were empty and he had to catch himself from falling forward.
“Do not use that word with me.” Her demand hung in the air between them. She stood proud, the sky roiling with storm clouds behind her. Even naked and unarmed, she was a vicious warrior. Her pale cheeks were tinted red with her anger; her body dotted red with his finger prints. “I am not a fucking challenge to be offered up, Thor-kin. Perfection is a lie and I do not belong to him.”
Torin remained kneeling before her, sputtering, “How? What?” He stared at her. “No. No offering,” he said, shaking his head. “I would not give you away. Forgive my words." Wind whipped her hair across her forehead and another strand under her chin. "But how can you be you, in that body, having done what we just did, and believe that perfection is a lie?”
Luka looked down her nose at him. He could see the storm clouds in her eyes. Lightning flashed and she was gone; a young man with her long hair stood in her place.
“What about this body, Tor?” The man’s lips were moving and it was her voice.
Torin blinked. “Luka?” He blinked again, hard. The man looked similar to her. Torin’s fingerprints marked his pale skin.
Luka’s little smile rose on the man’s face. “Yes, Tor?” Lightning flashed again and Luka was back, almost. Luka’s cheekbones, Luka’s arms crossed over Luka’s breasts, yet the man’s cock still hung flaccid between her legs. Behind it, Torin could see the wet shine of their coupling on her thighs.
“Wow. Luka.” He sat back in the grass and continued staring. After a moment he repeated, “Wow. I don’t know what else to say.”
Her eyes flashed, but lightning did not strike again. “How about that you, stormborn child, do not know everything? And that perfection is a lie.”
“Just so. Though, there is much I do know. I know you to be intelligent, powerful, beautiful and completely unpredictable. And I still believe you to be perfect.”
Luka rolled her eyes. “Are you calling me a liar?”
There was no accusation remaining in her tone, so Torin laughed. “OK, vala, I give up. I no longer know what the rules are. Come back to me. Please?” He extended his hand.
She accepted his offer and his hand. His eyes followed her every move as she sat next to him.
“What?” she asked to his searching gaze.
Torin felt the heat rise in his cheeks. “um...I um...thought you’d go back to being you.”
“Do you remember the part where you do not know everything?” She did not continue until he nodded. “They are all me.”
“But,” Torin kept talking in spite of the narrowing in her eyes. “Which one is really you?”
“Boy,” her voice dropped low and hushed with every word clearly enunciated. “I will answer this once.”
Torin closed his lips on the interruption that was rolling off his tongue.
“They are all me. It is quite different when I become someone else. Not one is more ‘real’ than the others.” She leaned in and kissed his cheek. “I have seen the way you sometimes look at men when you are not trying to show them up. Does it really matter which of me is sitting next to you?”
Tor looked away from her question. The horses had wandered some from the river. The menace had left the storm clouds now that she was sitting and not calling down lightning with her magic.
“As you’ve been very clear that it does me no good to lie, the truth is...I don’t know.” Not far from where they sat, a stick spun lazily as he watched the currents carry it away. “I thought it was impossible for valas to change form. I mean, you hear things, but they’re ridiculous.”
Luka squeezed the hand she was still holding. “Ridiculous is a good word for it. I do not need to steal a man’s penis to become one. Most cannot do it at all. A bit of illusion is the more common route.” She raised her hand. In the palm balanced a flame that shifted to a spider, then to a knife balanced on point, to water that ran between her fingers, droplets disappearing before they hit the ground. “The other side of that is that Yggridsil exists between, so people who live between worlds, between genders, whatever, these people have an innate route to her magic.”
When the rain finally began to fall, they had dressed and mounted for the return trip. Even though it was rougher earlier, there was no wind or lightning now. Luka had credited him with calling the rain; Torin knew he had no such power. As the light drops fell from the burgeoning growth in the spring canopy, he wondered if this storm was her doing.
Torin’s dreams that night confirmed that he was happy to lie with her in any form. When he awoke, hard, it was not her cunt he felt squeezing tight around him. He did not take himself in hand to thoughts of her feminine curves. He wondered how different she would taste as a man, not that he had to wait long.
The feast was at the end of the month and he still intended to be under the oak with the giant stone. He finally had made several steps with the boulder. When he returned it to its resting place, he saw her across the way. She did not come to him, but after he got water and a cloth, she remained in the same location. Tentatively, he walked over and she did not disappear. Rather, she accepted his invitation to his room.
After several days of such assignations, she took her leave. She did not say when she would return. Though Torin had asked, repeatedly.
“Leave it be Tor. I will be back when I choose.” She rolled her eyes at his jutted lip and dipped chin. “Besides, Stormborn, you have plans to make.” She left without kisses or good-byes or so much as a backward glance.
Torin followed the structure of the days with a fidelity he had not shown in months. He looked for Luka at all hours. It was two weeks before he felt her presence. She was seated on the bench next to the ring. He was in charge of training again and had two opponents. He sharpened his focus as he jabbed one in the side of their padded armor and used the rebounding energy to swipe the other’s foot. Torin was not about to be distracted by her like the last time. The swiped combatant went down, the other brought a swing around to Torin’s guarding arm. It was a good move and Torin was a bit surprised when he was able to slide out of the way, until he realized that Kari was off-balance. That should not have happened. Kari was better than that. Torin brought him down with a back handed swing and then helped him stand. Setting Kari to practice forms, Torin looked up and was surprised to see Luka still on the bench. He made his way to her.
“The boy did well.” she commented.
Torin scoffed. Kari was in his sixth year of dedication and no longer a boy and he did not do well.
Luka raised an eyebrow at his derision. “The sand did him in.”
Torin turned to look behind him and there, in the spot Kari had fallen was a difference, a soft spot in the hardened floor of the ring. His eyes went wide, but he said nothing.
Her light touch settled on his waist and she lay her body against his back. She spoke only loud enough that he could hear. “You can use it. In a week and a half, when you have your championship, all you have to do is push your opponent towards it. The ground…”
Torin did not let her finish. He whipped around with eyes flashing white. “I’ll do no such thing. Torin Stormborn does not cheat to…”
She was laughing. It was too loud and too brash for the breath of distance between them. She stopped laughing when his words stumbled to a halt. “But my dear, you already have.”
And he had, in his fourteenth summer, at the All Thing.
His father had spent most of the preceding year telling Torin that he expected a dedication from his son, that there was no way the boy could lose. Yet, in the middle of the melee, Torin was losing. Raynor had been his best friend before the choosing. And still Torin pushed him towards the soft spot in the ring. He took his friend out with sneakiness, not with skill or strength. He did it just to win the top spot. And it did not even matter, both boys were offered dedication after the event. They never talked about it, but Torin knew what he had done.
He glared at Luka, denial cutting sharply through the memory. He did not raise his voice, though refusing that urge took effort. “I am not that boy any longer. I will be named Champion again, but truly and fairly. I will craft perfection here that day.” He held his fists hard against his legs, each tendon vibrating. He was prepared should he hurl himself into this fight. Every corner of his awareness was lit through with righteousness. He tasted ozone as if a storm was brewing in the clear blue sky.
Luka stood against his posturing, against his tantrum, and yawned. She kept her voice low, “Boy. Do not direct your fury at me. I have told you already, perfection is a lie and truth does not exist. Yet still, you cleave it tightly to your breast. You used to question and you refused to accept perfection as the answer. If you now just blindly follow, the performance is all you have."
She leaned into his space, claiming it as her own. A bit closer and she could have kissed him, yet she held herself separate. With precision, she sliced into his outrage with her questions. "Do you know what they call you when you refuse to perform? When you refuse to polish their shit and make it shine? When you call them on their assumed roles and their costumes and their self-importance?” She giggled. "They call you a liar."
He parted his lips to reenter this dispute. There was nothing funny here, no reason to laugh. She was a vicious witch. She was the liar.
The accusation died on his tongue; he would not be baited into making her point.
She opened her arms and looked around as she stepped back. "So here you stand, Thor-kin. Your performance is beautiful make-believe, perfection incarnate. You surround yourself with the lies you tell, you dress in the falsehoods that drip from the lips of others, and you polish the mess until it shines. You call it 'true' and 'fair' when none of those concepts apply.” She patted his cheek twice. “So wallow in the truth, boy. May your happy ass drown in it. Perhaps the Bloody Bride can find me when you tire of the truth that never was.”
Torin blinked and his retort died in the empty air. Luka was gone, as if she had not just been right there. He could not even catch her scent in the space in front of him. Torin's tongue sat heavy against his jaw. Anger and frustration and shame sank to settle in his gut, uneasy in the emptiness. That ache stayed with him for the remainder of the day.
As night spread through the Thorrhof, Torin tried to wipe the afternoon’s argument from his mind so he could sleep. He did not want to hear Luka chastising his refusal of guilt or that condescending tone that accompanied her clear disappointment. Examining that moment brought him only anger and sorrow. He pushed his thoughts instead to her red gold hair spread upon his pillow, her long legs wrapped around his shoulders. There was no scent of her left within his room, but that was unneeded. He could feel her smooth skin, taste her cockhead on his tongue as his fingers curled within her. Her shortened breath echoed in his memory.
Torin wrapped his hand around his own hardness and chased the moments with his pleasure. The tension that had made him nauseous all day began to fade as warmth spread through his body. Laid back on the bed, he could watch where Luka had been riding him, slow strokes of his fist mimicking what she had done. Her passion coated them both, dripping between his thighs.
He was wet.
No. Here and now, he was wet.
His legs felt damp, just like they had then. There was a chill where moisture touched his skin. Torin rolled out of the bed. There was no mess, just a small damp spot on the mattress cover. He did not feel sick. It smelt like sex in his room, nothing else. Had Luka managed to conjure a physical ghost from his thoughts of her?
With a cloth, he wiped at the dampness between his legs. He sucked a breath in through his teeth as his cock jumped. That was not normal. Since when was he so sensitive? What had she done to him? Torin set the cloth to the side and slowly ran two fingers on his right hand behind his balls.
Sensitive was not the right word for it, but whatever word would fit, it must be a good one. His skin had folded over itself and as his fingers slid through the wetness he felt more of his body respond. A heartbeat skipped, his nipples hardened, and his cock—his cock very much liked whatever this was. It pulsed and jumped as if there were a string connected to his fingers. Just like when Luka had both sexes, Torin could lick her lips and her cock would…
Was that it?
Was that what she had done to him? She gave him a cunt?
He pressed into his skin and the slippery folds gave way to his fingertip. Though he had almost expected it, when his surprise tightened deep in his belly, his cunt closed around him and he wanted more. He pushed deeper and stopped. He raised his hand, the shine on his fingertips was confirmation.
Did he want this?
Luka was angry at him today, and he returned it. She wanted so much. She wanted him to betray what he knew was real. She dug at the core of him and tore it to pieces. What was the point of this?
Perfection is a lie and truth does not exist.
What does exist? What is real? Is this body real? Why did she do this? How could she have? This was impossible.
Was he dreaming?
Torin supposed it must be morning when the rooster crowed its adoration to the sun. Shards of nightmares and dreams scattered with the light diffused in his room: Luka’s sneer; a vast battle; he was fighting Luka, no he was fucking her; no, the woman had long blonde hair and more curves than Luka had in any form; lightning struck the head of a large hammer; he was bitten by a snake; no, he was stabbed; and there was more. He remembered other pieces. He just was unsure if they were histories or stories or dreams.
In the dreams, he was different, he was changed. But, was it real? Torin forced his palms to slide down his body. He felt normal, better than normal, really, but he had to check. With deliberate pacing that seemed to echo his dreaming, he ran two fingers along the edge of his groin, behind his balls.
His skin folded in on itself, dry fingertips dragging in his hair, sensing that pull from both sides. He could still be asleep. He dug his nails into the tender flesh of his inner thigh and drew a sharp breath as pain ran up his spine.
This was either real, or he was stuck in this chaotic witch dream.
He should want to wake up.
Chapter 3: Jord's Tale
“Ow! What was that?” Jord picked up her foot to examine what she had stepped on. She pulled out a rather large sliver of wood. How did that get in her room? Probably on her boots the other…
Her thoughts crashed to a halt as her heart fell through the floor. On the carpet before her bare feet were more pieces of this particular shade of oak. The color came from the oils and infusions that she had carefully rubbed into the carving. It was an act of love and fear that subsumed the better part of a week. The working required steady concentration for days, during which she could neither sleep nor eat. Only her personal handmaid had been with her, and that was mostly to care for the baby.
Jord was still not breathing when she finally focused on the bare spot of shelf that once held the carving. With that confirmation, her legs gave way and she crumbled. Shards of wood bit into her shins and her knees. She grabbed for a bottom shelf to keep herself upright. When her lungs filled, she could think once more. She needed a plan.
As the years passed, Jord’s obsession with the spellform had lessened. It had been a long time since she had picked it up to trace the runes. Her baby was a man grown, well on his way to becoming the strong and compassionate leader that she had raised him to be. The threat that brought about the casting had faded. Her complacency meant he did not know.
And that, that was her fault.
She should have told him. She could have explained. Perhaps avoided...she did not want to think about what power would have been needed to break this spell.
With the feast just over a week away, the household was preparing for the journey. They would leave in two days time. Jord rode out immediately. She had no idea what she would find when she arrived.
Under any other circumstances, it was three days ride to the temple. Jord had made the journey fairly regularly these last seven years. This time, driven by an anxious parade of probabilities, she arrived the second night as the moon was setting behind the great oak. The Thorrhof and the surrounding areas were calm; all appeared as it usually did. Whatever was happening may just have a singular focus.
She cared for her horse and thanked him for two long days with an extra scoop of oats. Now that she knew that the people were safe, she was hesitant to continue her headlong run into this mess. What would she say? “I’m sorry, I lied”? That seemed such a poor place to start. She went to the grove. It would be several hours yet before any awoke, so she wandered and gathered. Though the moon had left the sky, the stars guided her to mints, sumac, mistletoe and moon flowers. Frogs and owls welcomed her. As she calmed, she came round to the Sky Lord’s Oak once more.
Two decades had gone, but she pictured the hallowing like it was yesterday. She stood with Uldra and Gala here. She stopped where she had that day. In the pale light, she looked up through the branches and spoke, “It’s been a good run, Thunderer. My goals remain the same: for hearth and home and peace, we stand aligned.”
Jord had never been one to stand on ceremony. Performances were for others to see. When she actually worked with the gods, she spoke as she did to anyone. She worried at the strings of a pouch. Plucking out a bit of wood from the blasted carving, she brought it to her lips and felt the fading energy one last time. She planted the wood beneath her feet, willing the remaining magic to find the tree’s roots. She brushed dirt from her hands and stood, speaking, “He is yours and together we raised him up, but I can no longer see his path. He will need guidance and I know not if he’ll take it from me.”
She approached the tree and sat with her back to the rough bark. In silence, she waited for light to fill the sky. A rooster crowed and mist was rising from the green of the field. As the saying goes, Loki was sowing his oats this spring morn, but it was Thor she saw cut across the yard with long, sure strides. As the big man closed, she blinked. Now she saw only Torin, though how he knew she was here was a mystery.
He was rubbing the back of his neck, heading straight towards her. As Jord stood from her seat, she removed her hood. Torin stumbled on a step cut short and his head swung left and right. When his eyes returned to her, a large smile came to his lips. “Mother! I didn’t expect you yet!” he called. A heartbeat or two and he was at her side, wrapping her in a large hug that lifted her from the ground. “Have you seen anyone else around?”
Her son rarely expressed interest in her visions, so she skipped over her sighting of the Storm Lord and simply shook her head. He glanced about again, so she asked, “Were you expecting someone?”
“Not exactly.” His searching gaze said otherwise and he scrubbed at his neck absentmindedly. She watched this curiosity for the seconds it took him to gather himself and meet her eyes. “Why are you here so early? You must have ridden through the night to be here at dawn. Are you alright? Is it father?”
“Your father is fine, as am I.” Even this chill morning, Jord felt the heat rise in her face. She set her fingertips on his cheeks. “And you, my child? I was worried for you.” She watched his eyes widen. Then, he smiled and the doubt she had seen went into hiding. She allowed the half-truth to stand and let her touch fall. Coarse beard hair grasped at her fingers.
“All is well, mother. We’ve been preparing for the feast and organizing the challenges.” He continued to talk about his plans to dine on the boulder.
She loosed the small pouch and handed it to him, interrupting his deflection. As his natterings quieted, she motioned for him to upend the bag. With tendrils of fog fading from the ground at their feet, he poured the contents into his palm. Small bits of wood settled in this makeshift bowl and Jord watched the hair on his arm stand up. The wood began to crumble until only dust remained. Torin lifted his eyes in question to find a single tear running down her cheek.
“I’m sorry,” she said, turning towards the oak.
Torin grabbed her hand. The trail of dust falling from his fingers vanished into nothingness. “Mother? What is going on?”
Her entire hand disappeared into his grasp and she drew a deep breath. “I should not have kept this from you.” She searched his face. She found neither reassurance nor accusation, only confusion. She went forward. “I found those pieces on the floor of my room two days ago. They were all that remained of the carving I told you protected us.”
Jord watched his thoughts spin. “But how was it destroyed? And by who? What danger do we face?” He had more questions than she had answers.
She drew a deep breath and pulled her hand from his hold. “Truth be told, you probably needed little protection. You had the gods’ marks upon you, my Stormborn babe. But in the chaos that brought you to me, I had a vision—your path was unclear, there were twists and turns a child should not have to face. Well before the storm named you, before your dedication as Kin, you had been promised to Thor, in name and in home. The Jarl was with me in this. Yet, you are not just a child of warriors, not just the Jarl’s first born. You are the child of a vala. My clan is of the north and claims that the blood of the Jotnar runs in our veins. You have Yggrisil’s blessing, as do I.”
She turned to face him fully; she needed to be done with the vagaries. “The spellform was to hide this. Your father wanted a son, yet you were born both son and daughter. I set you on the clearer path. And I should have told you sooner, but…” Her voice trailed off and her hands would not settle, each clasping and pulling at the other. She forced herself to watch him picking through more questions.
“So, Luka...but if that’s so...am I some kind of witch?”
Jord felt the corners of her lips rise sightly. There was pride in watching him decide what was important. “You have power, though it always seemed more attuned to Thor’s purview than that of the vala or other seid-worker. However, if you put effort into learning, I suspect you can master more than challenges of strength and weather prediction.” This felt familiar, this parental answering of questions.
"But vala are not men." Even as his words tumbled in confused protest, he made the connection and his eyes grew wide.
“Vala are not men because they choose not to be.” Jord took his hand in both of hers. "You, my child, are more than a man, as you have always been. It is just more apparent now to those you allow to see."
He glanced to the ground, holding still for the answer to his quiet question, "This is the way I am to stay?"
“That is up to you. I can remake the spellform. Keep in mind, however, that even though the spell was intended only to mask your physical nature, castings that exist for years take on a life of their own. With it gone, you may find bits of many things are different. So were I to try a second time, everything may not return to the way it was. And we should know first why this one broke so violently.” She reached up to touch his cheek. “Are you alright, Torin? In truth?”
Torin’s breaths were measured, as if he were counting the seconds to fill and empty his lungs. “Truth doesn’t exist.” The mumbled words were barely audible as he raised his gaze. “Yes, I’m fine.” He noted her raised eyebrow and opted not to answer the question a second time. He turned to a noise behind them in the yard. People were beginning their day: training, planning, laughing.
“Walk with me, mother?” He gestured beyond the ancient oak.
She turned with him and they stepped through the trees. Jord followed quietly and watched her child think. She had spent two days running through possibilities. Torin had only the space of their conversation.
“I mean it. I will be fine. Two days of this and only small things seem different." He sounded like he was trying to convince himself more than her. "As strange as it sounds, for two days I’ve seen more. I have a broader sense of things and people around me. I thought I was just trying to determine if she had...if more had changed than just the obvious. Perhaps that is still true. Though, perhaps this clarity is one of the possible differences.” They returned to walking in contemplation, shadows from the trees breaking over their expressions so that one could not read the other easily.
It was Torin who broke the silence again. “As there appears to be no immediate danger, what could have undone your work? It sounds like you expected this to last forever.”
Though they were walking slowly, Jord kept her eyes on the ground. “It could have. I had thought to give you the option of keeping the casting or not when you were old enough, but it never seemed like the right time. And now, now it doesn’t matter until we know more.” She drew a deep breath and stopped walking.
“I have been over and over events in the town, things I was involved in or that involved the Jarl. I reviewed who we had in our home and in our lives these last few months. None had the power to break a spell like this—a casting that had the backing of years—else they kept that strength hidden. But, I can also find no purpose. Things have been calm at home. I do not know why any would come after me or your father this way.” She had been looking to the sky, still seeking answers that remained hidden, but now she brought her gaze to Torin. “As much as I don’t want it to be so, perhaps you are the catalyst. This could have been an accident, the spell could have been fading and perhaps you encountered enough unfocused energy that the spell was shrugged off. However, the carving was shattered. This suggests something more deliberate. Do you know what might have caused this?”
“One person could have broken the spell? Another vala?” There is a look that children give their parents, a look that asks the parent to take away the discomfort, to tell the child all will be fine. Torin gave her that look now, as he begged her not to confirm his fear.
“Technically, yes. Another vala who identified the casting could have taken the time to reverse it. But why?” She watched his hope crumble away. His mother would not be fixing things today. “Torin, what is going on?”
“Perfection, and pride.” Torin shook his head. “She told me 'perfection is a lie and truth doesn’t exist.' She told me repeatedly. I refused to acknowledge the truth that was. So, now I have the truth that wasn’t.” He was looking over her shoulder, past her.
Jord turned to see what had caught his focus, though she saw only trees. “Torin, that makes no sense. What are you talking about?”
“I am a fool.” When he met her concern directly, he was wide-eyed and his energy was spinning. “And it makes perfect sense, now. I am a fool and a liar and she always knew. She knew everything.” He turned and began quickly walking back to the Thorrhof.
Jord followed, stumbling as she went. “Who?” she demanded to know. “Dammit Tor, I can only help if you tell me what is happening.” She hoped she would not twist her ankle chasing him.
“Luka. I need to find Luka.” He turned his head with the explanation and then increased his pace. “I have to find the Bloody Bride.”
Jord stood still. “Torin.” She breathed his name, but he did not hear her in his rush through the forest. She was unsteady on her feet, her head was spinning. The tree next to her looked young, but she might have to grab it to keep from falling. This was a knife’s edge and she was no stranger to such a precarious perch, but she wavered, unsteady. It took a moment, and then she found her center, her balance. She did not need to lean on the young sapling.
“Torin, stop.” She called again, louder, more assured that he would hear her now over his muttering.
He looked back over his shoulder and turned, “Mother?” He came back to her side. “What is it?”
“Where did you hear that, Torin? Who told you to find the Bloody Bride?” Though she tried for calm, it was Jord’s turn to beg with her eyes, her turn to hope for denial. Not that she expected it, but perhaps she might get it anyway.
Torin had been glancing back to the trail, towards the temple, but he whipped back at the question. “Luka did. Do you know who or what the Bloody Bride is?”
“I do. But first, who is Luka?” She had a flash and saw little 8-year-old Torin with his head bandaged up, standing in front of her trying to explain that Lopt had insisted he tie the goats to the small cart so that the boys could go hunting. All those years ago caring for her son who had just been thrown from a goat cart, she had asked, “Who is Lopt?” She knew the shared namesake. She knew only one who called her the Bloody Bride. She knew whose hands were all over this, but she did not know why.
Torin blinked twice. He drew his hand over his brow, running fingers through his loose hair. This kind of demand had played out through his childhood, he knew he would have to answer before he got any other information. “Luka is...this fiery, playful, red fox of a woman. She makes me think, makes me question. And I refused. I refused to step outside of my carefully built box for her question three nights past. That’s when I believe she undid your spell.” Torin was looking to the blue sky, smiling as he spoke of this woman. “And Norns spin me for a fool, she was right all along.” A spring breeze shifted his hair and promised a light rain.
Even with the distraction, a mother knows things. Jord knew that Torin was infatuated with this woman. Though that timeline was off, it had to be. “You argued with this Luka three days ago? Making it the following morning that I found the carving in pieces?”
Torin nodded. “It was three nights ago that I first realized I was different.”
Jord’s forehead scrunched, it should not be. “Tor, it took me four days to complete the casting. It should take a similar amount of time to undo. It should not be a matter of hours nor a single argument.”
He shrugged, “I don’t think that normal applies to Luka when it comes to the magic of being a man or a woman. She changes her own form with a thought.”
“Oh…” Jord would not bring the questions to her lips. She knew the answers. There was really only one way her child would know that about a person. He was grown and there were things that an adult could not be protected from, nor, perhaps, should they. Jord examined Torin with a more critical eye. He looked happy and healthy. He talked about the challenges for the spring feast. He was taken by this vala even though she had cost him a comfortable body. A little voice in the back of her head wondered how comfortable he had actually been. That same little voice asked who was responsible for that confusion ?
Shaking her head, Jord banished the self-doubt. Now was not the time to be concerned with previous lapses. None of this explained why her mistress was involved. And for the spell to break so quickly and with such drama, she was involved.
“Mother?” Torin’s voice rose with the question. He prompted, “The Bloody Bride?”
“You have seen me work, child. You know I talk to the gods as I do.” She waited for Torin to nod. “Only one ever spoke back and that one named me the Bloody Bride.” She breathed into her balance, the knife’s edge tilting, because this secret none knew. “Your vala must also speak with Loki.”
Torin had begun to interrupt her, but now he smacked his lips shut and stared. She did not have to guess which part left him speechless.
“You know me as your mother, or the Lady Jord, the Jarl’s wife. Think of what else you know of me, and it won’t be such a surprise who I sought out.” She grinned. “I had big dreams. I took risks. I danced between: warrior or witch, conquerer or conquered. I chose both.”
“Both Valkyrie and Vala.” Torin confirmed. Luka had called his mother both. He searched her face. “But at what cost?”
She reached up and brushed a loose strand of hair behind his ear. “Torin, I exchanged war for peace and got to have you along the way. The price I paid has been worthwhile.”
“But mother...” He stopped speaking when she shook her head. He had seen that gesture a thousand times before.
The corner of Jord’s lips turned up slightly. It was the sort of smile that gets tacked on as an apology. “I thought that the Bloody Bride title was due to the deal I struck with the Jarl. If I could draw first blood, he would end the war. But it was more than that. I had to prove myself over and over again—to your father and to the people. More blood was shed than is accounted for by the scar the Jarl wears.” She picked a dried leaf off her cloak before she continued. “Some of it could have been done differently. But I stand by the decisions I made and I have come to terms with the price.”
She stood tall in her declaration, until her shoulders curled in slightly. “However, it is not your obligation, Torin. We should find this Luka of yours and find out why she has invoked it.”
“But,” Torin’s forehead creased as he pieced together the implication. “You don’t know her? She said you could find her.”
Jord shook her head.
Chapter 4: Loki's Tale
The Seer had not told Odin about this. Or, perhaps she had. It would be just like the old man to try and exercise control by keeping the information to himself. Truly, it was better that none were aware.
Midgard had gone to pieces and Thor with it. The rubble now carried a sheen of life and to all appearances, the realm existed as it once was. Except, Thor's seidr ran through it, scattering like lightning in a field. One could taste it in the air, feel the tingle as the small hairs on the neck raised.
Finding Thor reborn had been the task. They did not know how easy it was. Thor was everywhere. Not only did Loki get to find him, he got to pick. And Loki was very picky.
This could have been fun. What it was, however, was boring. Thor the fighter, Thor the protector, the Storm Lord, these incarnations were only portions of what he wanted. Where was Thor who embodied both the spring rain and the storm? Where was Thor who could do more than just bash his way out of a wet sack? Not that the previous embodiment of the Thunderer was known for reasoned and creative thinking. But if Loki was going to find an avatar for all that power, none could fault him for seeking out better stock. The problem was that these Midgardians struggled to see Thor as more than one of these things, so bits of that seidr ended up accessible to fighters or farmers or forgers. If they were not goats’ asses, Loki let these simple men keep their connection. If others found they could no longer reach that well of strength, then they had been the architects of their own demise. Someone had to shepherd the humans while the search continued for one worthy of the mantle of Thor. Loki knew how to occupy his time, and if there was a surge in Lokean practice, it was unlikely that any would be able to prove he was actually involved.
He was bored of it.
No, that really was not the problem either. He was not bored, well, not just bored. Disillusioned. Disappointed. Displeased. There, those words were a better fit. He had held high hopes for Jord’s child, but the boy clung to ridiculous ideals. “We don’t give less than perfection...blah, blah, blah.” If Thor-who-was had heard that, he would have laughed all the Gothi and the Kin out of their own halls. Perfection was never a factor in his actions. Winning? Yes. Overpowering and out-threatening any comers? Absolutely. Assembling a pretty lie called perfection that accepted the limitations of someone else’s code and did not use every shortcut and advantage available—meaning every advantage the oaf recognized? Nope, not Thor.
The boy was not ready. And that was it, was it not? He was young and innocent, well, not so innocent anymore. The arrogant Aesir would definitely have an opinion if they knew that 'a good lay' was one of his requirements for Thor. Though, that it would surprise anyone baffled Loki. After all, most of them had been through that series of tests and only some were worth revisiting. So if Thor was going to be walking around again, looking like he did, he should be worth repeat visits. The golden-haired Sif would do well to thank Loki for it. He already had thought upon multiple ways in which they could share their appreciation.
Patience was what this moment needed. Fine. Loki had shoved Torin to the edge and forced him to look over the cliff. The boy was capable of reason. When he would actually use it was the answer on which Loki waited.
Torin could have taken five years or five decades. Yet, it was five days from when Loki left him sputtering in the practice field that Torin called out, asking for help. Perhaps, it could even have been described as imploring. And it was not Luka’s help he sought.
There was only one way to proceed. Torin would have to wait. It would not do for him to think he could call on a god and get an immediate response, and definitely not from one named Loki. Torin had gone to that open meadow with the stream running through it. Perhaps, distance from the Thorrhof made the asking more palatable. Perhaps, he thought the location was important. Perhaps, he thought sentiment would help his case and really, he was not wrong.
Torin paced by the stream and eventually sat in the grass. He waited well, without begging or lots of undisciplined fidgeting. He watched the currents eddy and swirl. His spine stayed straight; he did not melt into the cradle of the soft ground. The blue sky filled with clouds as the hours passed.
While Loki arrived without trumpets or explosions, he found a break in the clouds and ensured that the sun was behind him. The brilliance of fire would light his hair and shadow would catch the angles of his face. It would not be said that the Trickster missed an opportunity to make an entrance. "It is not often that one of the Kin directly seeks my assistance, little fish.”
Torin spun at the first word and squinted into the brightness. “Luka?”
“If you like.” The clouds continued to part and Loki preened in the sun, curls and braids entwined in the light and angles sharpening. “Though you invited me here with one of my other names.”
“One of your…?” Torin had been rising from his twisted seat and he stopped with one knee and one palm in the dirt. He turned his chin and his gaze to the figure lost in the light. “But...?”
In two steps, Loki stood in front of him and ran his hand over blonde hair. It was a light caress, a hint of familiarity before the moment was lost to this revelation. With closed eyes, Torin turned his cheek to the palm. The proximity blocked the brightness so when Torin blinked his eyes open, he looked up. He searched.
“There are no horns, Stormborn.” Loki said, a grin pulling at his lips. “They did not match what I wanted to wear today.”
Torin shook his head. He moved away from the touch and finished pushing himself to his feet. The light dimmed as the sun was overtaken once more. His brows scrunched together as the wind blew through the meadow. “How?”
Loki shrugged. “I need a different cloak with the horns.”
“I’m not talking about horns.” The clouds behind the big man steadily grew pregnant and heavy. “And how is the wrong question.” Torin squinted at the ground as if he would find the words he wanted there. When he looked up, his eyes were the grey of the sky behind him. He asked, “Why…?”
“That is still hardly a question, Tor.” Loki tasted the approaching storm. The hair raised on his arms as he stepped closer. “Which why do you want to know? Do you want to know why I gave you an unknown name?” He set a hand to Torin’s chest, long fingers splayed upon the tunic. “Do you want to know why I broke your mother’s spellwork?” He leaned in and breathed the next question along Torin’s neck, just below his ear. “Do you want to know why I came to you?”
Torin nodded. He may actually have stopped breathing. Certainly, everything in the meadow went still. Not even the breeze dared to interrupt.
Loki brought his cheek up against the slight scratch of Torin’s beard, until their noses practically touched. “Because. I wanted to.” He stepped away as the first rain drop fell through the space between them.
Loki made no move to raise the hood on his carefully selected cloak. When he turned back to Torin, it was with new questions. “Why did you come here? What desperation drove you to my nets? Why did a champion of Thor call the Lord of Air and Fire to stand in the rain? What did you hope to get from me that you could not secure from your own patron?”
Torin blinked. “I...I am a fool.” He was staring at Loki as though he had never seen him before.
“Noted.” Loki was unaffected by the rain. The falling water seemed to miss him. No droplets gathered on his skin; no weight pulled the wave from his hair.
“There is much I do not know.” Torin started again, as if that answered the questions. “Perfection is a lie and truth doesn’t exist.” Water dripped from his nose. Several strands of hair made a wiggled line on his forehead.
“You know, Stormborn, you might be right about that.” Loki stalked back to him. “And still, you called me for answers. You. Called. Me.” Loki began to circle him. “Were you expecting truths? Have you not had enough of that nonsense?"
Torin hung his head. “I didn’t know,” he mumbled. “That you were you, I didn’t know.” He breathed deep and looked up through wet lashes as Loki came back around. He stood under Loki's glare as the rain slowed and came to a stop. “I came to ask that my mother’s debt be considered paid.”
“But?” Loki’s gaze captured Torin with bright eyes boring into his soul. Loki asked the question as if he knew the answer, as if he was just waiting on Torin to work it out.
“But.” Torin agreed. “You keep telling me that there is more to the truth than I know. So, can her debt be discharged?”
“Jord does the work of a lifetime. She has no debt with me, little fish.” Once more, Loki stood in a shaft of sunlight. He was not backlit as before, rather, gold kissed his face. “And Tor? Why else did you call me?”
Torin pushed his wet hair from his face. Even partially covered by beard and water drops, the blush was clear across his cheeks. “I wanted to ask after Luka. She...you had told me to find the Bloody Bride, but the only thing that connected Luka to my mother was… You.” Torin’s shoulders collapsed further as Loki began to quietly laugh.
When he spoke, it was harsh and hushed. “Torin Stormborn, fate-tempted child, upon the eve of the final challenge of your dedication, you have the audacity to call on me. Me, He-who-is-the-last-resort, the Trickster, the Harbinger of Ragnarok.” His smile appeared almost as fangs around his words as he continued. “You call on me to ask about some vala you fucked?”
Torin stood against the question and swallowed. His chin dipped a fraction.
“Were I not that vala, I would be extremely offended.” Loki grinned, leaning in quickly he kissed Torin’s cheek. As he straightened, he looked from Torin’s hand to his face and once more to his hand, stopped after being half-raised. “A week ago, Stormborn, you would have drawn me in. Now, you wonder if you are allowed. Now, you wonder if you should. For all you speak of truth, do you really want it?”
“Yes.” And with that, the stalled hand snaked around Loki’s waist and brought them together. The other slid lightly down his cheek. “Yes.” That last word breathed over lips so close they could not help but connect.
Loki ran his fingers over Torin’s neck to bury them in his hair, pulling him closer as his tongue parted the lips before him. This little dance was one they knew well, a familiar plundering and plundered, trading roles back and forth, held until Loki could feel the pulse racing under his palm. When they separated, Loki set his forehead on Torin’s and looked down between them just to watch him squirm.
“There is a difference with this body, the way the ache of desire settles.” Loki had moved enough release his grip in Torin’s tresses and slide his hand down the front of his chest. “The way a pulse of your thighs pulls at your sensitive lips.” The hand continued its journey down, brushing the outline of Torin’s cock, and causing him to press into the touch
Torin sighed as he continued to rock against that hand. “It’s intense,” he closed his eyes and kissed him again. “Luka, please,...”
“Please what, Tor?” Loki leaned back, “Open your eyes, lover. You cannot hide from me, nor should you hide from yourself. Say what you want.”
Torin peeled his eyes open, “Everything, I want to feel everything. Luka, please. L...Loki,” Torin closed his eyes, lowered his chin, and drew a deep breath. “I don’t even know what to ask for.”
“That, we can do something about.”
Torin was laid out on his back with the fist around his cock forced to stillness that he might not spill. His hips chased the strokes of Loki’s tongue. The first time he came, he shouted and Loki lifted his head wearing a broad grin. It was then that Torin asked for more. The second time he came, Loki had curled two fingers into his cunt and swallowed down his cock, creating a slow rhythm with echoed sensations. There was no shouting this time, everything went tight and Torin held his breath as his body shook.
Licking his lips, Loki climbed over Torin to kiss him. He should know this sweet mix. He accepted it carefully, licking into Loki’s mouth. What began slowly, became hungrier and more demanding. Torin rolled his hips up and sucked in Loki’s tongue. When he was able, Loki lifted his head, one eyebrow raised in question.
“Fuck me.” Torin emphasised his point with another hip roll. “Let me try that next.”
Loki tapped two glossy fingers on his lips and made a show of thinking. “Hmmm, I would be more inclined to agree if you said please.” He drew his tongue up those fingers and sucked them into his mouth.
Torin gave him a smile that was half laughter and half admonishment. His next words were tinged with an amusement that barely dressed his desire. “Fine. Please, fuck me. Please, fill my cunt and pound me into the ground.” He wrapped his hand around Loki’s wrist and pulled the fingers from his mouth. With his eyes glued on Loki’s, he echoed that earlier lick. “Please.” The laughter had gone, leaving only need. Torin sucked in Loki’s fingers.
Loki lazily fucked between the willing lips, watching Torin’s cheeks pucker and enjoying the play of his tongue. “I am tempted, you know, just to use this pretty face of yours. To watch your eyes water as you struggle to breathe. To have you kneeling before me with your chin up, your ass poking out behind you.” Loki laughed as Torin begged with his eyes while he continued to suck. Loki rolled off, taking his hand with him. “On your knees, Tor.”
Torin got to his knees, assuming the position that had just been described to him. To this point, Loki had remained dressed and now his clothes faded away. His skin lit gold in the sun. With cock heavy in his hand, he brushed the head over Torin’s lips and pressed in as they parted. It was Loki’s turn to moan as short strokes brought more of his length in range of Torin’s tongue.
Loki wrapped both of his hands in blonde hair and held Torin’s head still, tilted up. “This, Tor? This cock is what you want?” Loki did not let him answer, rather he pushed in, bumping the back of his throat with short thrusts. “Can you feel your cunt throb while you take me like this? Can you imagine how full you will be?”
The mumbled attempt at words became a hum as Torin closed his eyes, chasing each sensation.
“You will not have to wait long.” Slowly, Loki extracted himself and leaned over to kiss Torin’s lips, still holding his head captive. Once released, Torin kept eyes on him as Loki stepped behind and took to his knees as well. Slippery lips gave easy access to his fingers. Torin arched to this touch, pushing back these few strokes.
Loki held one hip to steady Torin and dragged his cock head through the slick. It was a slow advance. Each push and withdrawal bringing them closer together, though Torin was not allowed to move. Loki stopped about halfway. He ran one set of fingers down Torin’s spine and watched him shiver, trying to press back.
Upon being set free, Torin slammed them together. His breath blew out through his teeth as he now held himself still, shallow breaths the only movement of which he seemed capable. Sliding a soft caress up his side, Loki laid himself down the tense back and whispered past a shoulder locked tight, “Delight in every sensation, Tor: how stretched you are impaled upon my cock, the heft pressing from within, my balls brushing yours, the way your dick throbs in time with your cunt. Are you even sure if you are being fucked or doing the fucking?”
Loki had risen up and said the last with a new thrust that made Torin gasp out, “Yes.” With this answer, he began to shift with small movements, some of which brought more bits of exclamation or biting his lip. When Loki moved with him, he got louder and more animated.
Loki smoothed his hands down Torin’s back and settled on either hip. Torin calmed almost to stillness and then nodded. Loki snapped his hips forward. When Torin ground back, he did it again. Torin’s breath caught and then he forced it out in what might have been words. The second request was more comprehensible, “Please, more.”
Loki began to truly fuck him. Torin held on to the ground and leaned into the curve that brought them closer together. He picked up a hand, and by the time he had it wrapped around his cock he was coming, cock jumping and cunt clamped down tight. Loki fucked him through this ecstasy and then followed with his own.
Torin had exited the river first. He sat in the grass and watched Loki in the water. The clouds had left the sky and the river reflected the bright blue from above. Loki glittered as he walked up the bank. When he got nearer, Torin closed his eyes against the glare, his grin already wide. “Tell me we can do that again.”
Regardless of the decision that would have to be made, the Stormborn had earned this moment, so Loki waited. Tor made such a production of the challenges. After the other Kin lifted the boulders that they could, Torin pointed to each of the three remaining and asked the crowd which they wanted to see in the air. He got some cheers and encouragement on the second largest—the one he had carried across the yard last spring. But as a child could have predicted, the throng lost its collective mind when he pointed to the new monstrosity. Almost as predictably, they got louder when he hoisted it up and took that first step.
Thor-who-was would have approved of this show. Looking around, Loki searched for those sensitive, those who were getting the more complete picture, those who could sense the power that Torin drew from the earth. He wondered if any could see that a great portion of that energy came from Torin himself. For not only could Tor access the power of the Thunderer, he could hold it.
Torin dropped the boulder near the Great Oak with a thud that echoed in the bones of all present. This was the moment Loki had planned for his entrance, though he was interrupted as Torin called Jord from the crowd. This was not a predicted part of the challenge. The crowd loved Torin and so they cheered this bit of unexpected showmanship. With a glamour still covering his voice and his form, Loki laughed out loud as both the Gothi and Jarl Ingvar had an identical scrunch in their eyes at whatever this was.
This was pure Torin. None but Loki could hear the exchange between the boy and his mother. Though, they would have applauded it too. All they saw was her approach and disappearance as his arms enveloped her. When he released her, she took one step back and nodded. He held his hand at an odd angle on his thigh. Then with that single step of preparation, Jord scaled him to stand atop the boulder.
“Let the Blot begin!” Torin’s voice echoed across the yard. “Who will fetch us some mead?”
There grew a crowd under the oak. Many brought over multiple mugs, some they kept, others were shared. They were congratulating Torin and his mother. Others were arguing about whether the Valkyrie had reached the boulder of her own accord, or whether her son had lifted her. The few who said something in range of Jord’s hearing were gifted with an icy glare over her mead. The arguments ceased quickly.
As another well-wisher stepped to the side, Loki called out his question, "Can you walk away?"
Torin’s eyes grew wide as Loki weaved through people now frozen still. "What, here? Now?" None moved but Loki; there was silence all around.
"Yes, but more than that. Can you leave all of this?” He raised his arms and should have knocked over the statued people, but the gesture swiped through them. “You are Thor-Kin no more. You are being offered a future a golden platter: you could be Gothi, you could be Jarl. Can you walk away from these options and leave these people who expect you to be the man they raised you to become?"
“I am a man grown. I must don a man’s life.” Torin glanced from person to person, surrounded by those who had demanded his perfection. They celebrated his success as if it was theirs. He looked to the ground. The follow-up question did not leave his lips, yet Loki heard it all the same. It was filled with the hopes of a little boy whose imaginary best friend told tales of heroes and gods and monsters. "What would I be instead?"
"Complete." The single word promised answers to why it rained when he was sad; why the flowers seemed to want to tell him things, if he could only understand; why he dreamed of dying, or was it that he dreamed of living?
Torin raised his eyes and breathed a heartbeat into that dream, “Yes.”
“It is a mistake to trust me, you know.”
“So I've been told.” A million dreams and more stories than can be counted flashed between them. Torin continued, “Still, my answer is yes.”
Loki laughed, “This is how we go? Feet first? No details?” He extended his hand. "So we shall!”
Hand hovering over Loki's, Torin stopped before completing the grasp. He glanced over his shoulder at the boulder, “Will you tell her?”
“Of course.” Loki connected their palms and pulled him into a quick kiss to seal the casting and drop the enchantment of the crowd. There were stumbles as people tried to rush away from the lightning that flashed around the two. Torin shone, the light from the strike absorbed by his skin.
“Good people,” Loki did not raise his voice, yet even those on the opposite end of the field could hear clearly. “This is a day of days. For today, Loki has come to collect a son of Asgard. Midgard’s Warden has had his time here among you, but he is needed in other realms.” Loki reached into his cloak and drew out an ornate hammer with a giant head. He tossed it up in the air and caught it upside down. He offered up the handle.
Torin’s fingers flexed, yet he made no move to accept the weapon. “Is that…”
He was not allowed to finish the question, as the hammer was thrown at him. He caught it with the handle half in his hand, half out. The heavy head pulled it sideways, though most missed that detail as another round of lightning struck the hammer and poured through the body holding it.
“Watch the handle. Remember, it was made short.” Loki noted quietly.
Torin’s eyes went wide as he remembered. He remembered lifetimes before. He remembered loves and wars. He remembered the half-dozen times he had grappled with Jormungandr. He remembered the last time—bashing the beast’s head repeatedly and finally hearing the skull break. He remembered how much his side burned where the serpent had gotten through his armor. He remembered falling into the grass and wondering why it smelt like blood and smoke.
Jord landed near the two when she jumped off the boulder. She straightened haltingly, watching bright sparks fade up his arm to the hammer. “My Lords, it is kind of you to join our feast.” She bowed, tears glittering, unshed.
“Mother.” Gently, Thor pushed her to standing and pulled her into a hug much like earlier. “I have memories I have only seen in dreaming, half-aware—of lives and loves and deaths that belong to him. They are mine, now, I suppose. But, I have not forgotten who you are to me.” He kissed her forehead. “You may always call and I will answer.”
Loki rolled his eyes but made no attempt to hide his grin.