Loki flexed his fingers, trying to get rid of the pins and needles that rushed through them. The skin felt tight, swollen red and too warm. It mattered not. They would soon enough vanish, the last traces of a complex spell woven, the tingling and sting, not unlike an electric shock.
The portal would be stable enough to allow two Frost Giants passage, right into the weapons vault. A return trip, in the unlikely event that they survived the Destroyer's wrath, would be another matter entirely.
Loki smiled, pleased that he had managed the feat over such a physical distance. To any observer it must have seemed that he was taken with the exotic birds Queen Frigg had recently received as a gift. They fluttered and warbled about in their aviary, and indeed they were worthy of admiration, with their long tail feathers, that gleamed in a cascade of colors.
None would think to question his time spent here as he was known to be fond of animals. - Not even Heimdallr, who looked hardest for those that tried to avoid his gaze. Deception, lies, misdirection, they all worked best when served with a sweet morsel of truth. A plan, and the precautions going hand in hand with it, need not be overly complicated to succeed.
Still, as he was committing high treason - albeit for the greater good and fully prepared to pay the price, should he be discovered - Loki was loath to take any chances. And he was also fond of plausible deniability, all the more when he could secure it so cheaply.
Loki stilled his smarting hands, hearing the echo of steps that came closer from the adjacent corridor. He recognized the revered Master of Coin by his gait, steps uneven, thanks to an old injury and age. The years had bent his back, but the smell of oiled leather and metal preceded him, a sure sign that Hallvarðr wore no finery but armor.
"Your Royal Highness."
Loki turned with a smile on his lips that was more genuine than simply polite. "Master Hallvarðr."
They had known each other for years, met over lessons in math and accounting that Loki, unlike Thor, had never felt the need to escape from in favor of swordplay. Hallvarðr had proven to be kind, and pragmatic to the point of being unflappable. To him, that the younger prince could fight was enough, no matter that throwing knives, a sharp tongue, and magic were his weapons of choice. Being punctual to council meetings, dedicated to his duties, and developing political acumen under his tutelage had earned Loki Hallvarðr's lasting respect.
A small miracle, considering that the whispers and accusations of Loki being argr and a seiðmaðr had grown and only gotten louder over time, even more so since Hallvarðr had been a renowned warrior centuries before the whim of fate had turned him into a council member.
"May I have a moment of your time? I find myself hesitant to bring this matter to Prince Thor's attention." Hallvarðr's lips twitched, or rather, his bushy gray beard did. "It is the day of his coronation, after all."
Loki kept his own face blank, but it was an open secret that Thor attended the lesser and greater council meetings only when Óðinn would preside over them and thus note his absence. If not for the danger of raising the Alföðr's ire, Ásgarðr's heir apparent would have been perfectly content to make himself scarce and go on adventures with Sif and the Warriors Three, roaming the Nine Realms, and leaving these matters of state in somebody else's hands.
Once, he had argued that Loki had been groomed to take a seat on the council, taken a fancy to all that 'paper-pushing and plotting'. - He had not been wrong. Still, while Loki could no more openly criticize the future king than Hallvarðr, behind closed doors, he had never had qualms to voice his opinions freely.
"Of course. We would not want to ruin his day of glory," Loki agreed easily. "What would you like to discuss?"
"A crime has come to my attention and I carry proof," Hallvarðr announced with a deep scowl, all signs of levity gone, offering a leather-bound ledger. "It's shameful."
Loki took the book and flipped through the pages, comparing the numbers inside with those on a loose piece of vellum, scrawled top to bottom in Hallvarðr's bold handwriting. The other, sloping and curved, was that of his assistant, Leifr. Needless to say, they did not match. It was a bloodletting, slow and in small coin, but embezzlement nonetheless.
"I see." Loki gave up to try and calculate the loss. It would do no good without a close inspection of all other books that might have been forged. However, keeping the bad harvest and dwindling export figures in mind, the damage was sure to be significant. "When did this start?"
"To my disgrace and utmost regret, I cannot yet say," Hallvarðr admitted, face flushed from anger that rose afresh at the thought that a man he had trusted and known for years had fooled him. His veined hands clenched into tight fists. "But I am confident that a formal investigation will bring all details to light."
"As it must," Loki agreed, returning the damning documents. He also removed his signet ring and placed it on top of the tome. Perhaps, where his own worries for Ásgarðr's future kept on raging, he could put those of Hallvarðr to rest, who must now fear for his position as Master of Coin. "I'll leave this matter in your capable hands."
"I -- but, Your Royal Highness -- !"
"I trust you," Loki interrupted, touching Hallvarðr's stooped shoulder lightly. "The thought of you being involved in this crime is preposterous and I will not believe for a second that you neglected your duties in any way."
"My Prince." Hallvarðr paused to swallow thickly and bowed low, ignoring his aching joints. He held the golden band so tightly its emerald bit into his palm. "Thank you."
"You're welcome." Loki turned in the direction from which the mild breeze carried the sounds of pans and pots; a kitchen and its staff in a frenzy of activity. "Now come. We have a coronation and feast to attend."
A golden cup clattered its way past Loki's feet, if only because he had sidestepped it just in time. Droplets of spilled wine gleamed like blood on the antechamber's white marble floor. Thor, paler than usual and radiating tension, yet still a most impressive sight in his full armor and regalia, already bellowed for the next to empty.
"I take it you're not nervous in the least, Brother?"
Thor threw his head back in a good-natured laugh that rang rather hollow, but his blue eyes lit up to have company. "Have you ever known me to be nervous?"
"Only every single time either our dear mother or Sif gets angry," Loki answered. "Or should I have rather reminded you of that mess in Nornheimr?"
Predictably, Thor chose to ignore the first part, except for a slight frown. "That was not nerves, Brother. That was the rage of battle taking hold of me."
"I see," Loki said, refraining from any further comment.
Thor, reduced to a senseless animal with nothing but slaughter on its mind, thanks to his falling into a berserkr rage, was a nightmare and not something he liked to think about in too much detail. He had not yet found a method to reliably snap him back out of it. Frankly, Loki feared the day when a higher price needed to be paid than cracked bones and bruises.
A þræll in a plain tunic appeared, with a silver platter and the called for wine, but knew to keep a polite distance, to wait until he was waved closer. The haggard man reacted as most people of Ásgarðr did when faced with its two princes: hero worship and admiration warred with thinly veiled disdain and trepidation. - Loki had his own network of supporters and acquaintances, as well as friends across the realms and beyond, among the Kree of Hala, and Xandarians, yet Thor was the one born with a gift for capturing hearts, inspiring loyalty with natural ease.
Thor shrugged, adjusting one of his vambraces. "How else could I have fought my way through a hundred warriors and pulled us out alive?"
Loki had heard that story. With each telling, it got more distorted, embellished with lavish details of glory and heroic deeds. To his ever growing annoyance, not much of the actual truth remained.
"As I recall it, there would have been no need for fighting, had you not insisted on charging straight into their midst, ruining a perfect spell of invisibility that would have allowed us to sneak away unseen."
Of course Thor only laughed, patting Mjǫllnir at his side with the fondness most men reserved for their favorite hunting dog. "Yes. Some rejoice in battle, others in tricks."
That the latter were worthless was implied. And while Loki could take such thoughtless slander from Thor, whom he loved, knowing the feeling to be mutual, despite all their differences and arguments, he would not abide the same treatment by a mere þræll, who shook from the force of his badly suppressed chuckle.
It did not take much: a focused thought and sharp gesture, and the slave shrieked in fright as snakes poured out of the goblet he held. Blue, with a veined pattern of red diamond-squares on their scaled bodies, they hissed at the man, poison dripping from their fangs. Driven by instinct, the þræll jumped, his back colliding with a pillar, and dropped the platter.
Loki laughed and it sounded cruel, his voice distorted by the clank and clatter of gilded silver coming to rest, and the echo in the vaulted chamber.
"Loki," Thor chided, though without heat. "That was a waste of good wine."
"My apologies." Loki snapped his fingers and the illusion of snakes disappeared, dissolving in a dark cloud to reveal a puddle of wine. "It was just a bit of fun."
The slave scampered away after a hasty bow. They both chuckled, watching him leave, nearly tripping over his own feet, but Loki felt uncomfortable. His little trick had earned him a stare that would have been fitting aimed at any manner of horrible monster.
"Don't mind him," Thor muttered quietly, as he turned to accept his helmet from the nearest guard. "He should have known better than to laugh."
Ah, his dear brother. So kind, loving and protective, yet also brash, arrogant, and short-sighted in his actions.
"Hm," Loki hummed non-committally, unwilling to linger on the subject. Far better to return to well-trodden pathways. "Nice feathers."
"Do not start this again."
Loki not only feigned innocence, he also pretended to preen under the sideways stare Thor leveled at his own horned helmet. "I was being sincere."
"You are incapable of sincerity."
So accused, Loki decided to voice aloud a measure of truth. The part that would always hold true, no matter what happened between them, even if it was also the reason that had motivated him to act, after all his words of warning had fallen on deaf ears. Both Thor's and the Alföðr's. One day, Thor would be a king worthy of Ásgarðr, would realize that to rule meant to serve his people, and the Nine Realms.
"I've looked forward to this day for as long as you have. You are my brother and my friend. I cannot claim that I never felt envy, but do not doubt that I love you."
Thor beamed and Loki found himself in a short-lived but crushing hug. "Thank you."
"You're welcome, My King. - And now stop hiding and get out there."
Loki watched him leave, content to have sent him straight into their mother's arms, who would know better than anyone how to calm Thor's sudden and unexpected bout of nerves.
The swordsman whirled around with the speed of those caught in the act, his dark cloak fanning out behind him rather dramatically. He stood beside a small hidden alcove, shirt unbuttoned and loose, one hand still cupping his cheek that was flaming red. Looking past his shoulder, Loki spotted a young woman on the run, heading for the inner gardens in a flutter of gathered up skirts, ribbons, and golden curls.
"Loki." Fandral inclined his head in greeting, a cheerful smile firmly back in place. He lifted his hands as if to fend off a hail of sympathetic inquiries. "Nothing to worry about. That was just a minor misunderstanding."
"Not that I asked, but let me guess - it had something to do with your enjoyment of eternal bachelorhood and general aversion to marriage," Loki said dryly.
He had lost count of how often he had witnessed a similar scene in the past. At least this one lacked the usual addition of furious husbands or men with aspirations thereof, who demanded to defend their chosen's honor by hólmganga. - Or the need to evade thrown flower plots or daring escapes through the next window.
Still, he supposed that was part of the charm of 'Fandral the Dashing', and in all fairness, there was more to him than his constant flirting. Like the fact that he had always gone out of his way to make Loki feel less like an unwelcome tag-along, who was tolerated only for Thor's sake, and more of an actual part of their group, ever since they had been introduced as children.
Fandral chuckled, already busy trying to make himself presentable, starting with his mussed blond hair, that lacked its usual roguish flair. "You know me too well."
"I do indeed."
The first bell tolled in the distance, to be heard well beyond the palace, all the way in the lower city. The gates would be opened soon; time was running short.
"Here, let me."
Fandral did not hesitate to bare his throat and thus collar. "Thank you."
Loki made quick work of a great number more golden and engraved buttons than were strictly necessary, even for such an expensive and fashionable silken shirt and doublet. "There. - We best hurry."
"Of course. We would not want to miss Thor's big day."
They fell into step, following the sun-drenched corridor that was mostly deserted, thanks to it being part of the royal quarters that few had open access to. It led directly to the public throne room, allowing them to avoid the masses, not to forget the honor guards, servants, and delegations sent to attend by the other realms. In preparation of the festivities, Ásgarðr had been turned into a veritable explosion of banners, flags, garlands and drifting flower petals.
Fandral inhaled deeply, smelling roasted boar and fowl. "Oh dear. I fear Volstagg will burst, if he hasn't already."
"I'm sure Hogun will stop him in the nick of time."
"Or the fair Lady Sif," Fandral agreed, but his easy smile was soon replaced by a mild frown. "Do not take this the wrong way, Loki. You know I would follow Thor on a quest to bring the doom of Ragnarøkkr over all of us, if he were to ask. But... I am glad that you will be there, at his side, when his reign begins."
Loki felt torn between amusement and shame born of guilt. The point was reached where his plan could do nothing other but run its course. Thor would rise to the challenge or falter, and Óðinn's hand be forced. For better or worse. And here Fandral stood, expressing his belief that Loki would be able to save his brother from himself.
"Do you truly think that I will curb Thor's less desirable character traits for the good of Ásgarðr?" Loki's smile gained an edge, showing too many teeth. "Most would instead accuse me of bending him to my will. That I want the throne for myself."
"Sif surely will," Fandral agreed with a shrug. He had always admired her strong will and prowess in battle, but her love for Thor had resulted in an equal hatred for Loki, that he found both irrational and aggravating. "But I dare say I know you better than that."
"Perhaps you do," Loki allowed. Ah, Hel! Why not be honest twice in a day? "Fandral - thank you. I think I needed to hear that."
"You're most welcome, My Prince."
Fandral bowed with an elegant flourish and gallantly opened the discreet side door to let Loki pass through before him, revealing the back of the Alföðr's throne and the steps leading to its platform, where they were expected to take their respective places.
Thor paraded up and down the aisle, Mjǫllnir raised above his head, while both the nobility and peasants cheered and clapped and shouted, looking less like a prince ready for the burden of his father's crown than a returning conqueror. - Or a World Cup winner.
Loki, standing opposite them, was rather gratified to see both the Lady Sif and his mother sorely tempted to roll their eyes at this childish and inappropriate display. Óðinn, however, said nothing for a long time, only sat and watched, as regal, inscrutable, and distant as ever.
What was it he saw, while Huginn and Muninn drifted in wide circles above his head and Geri and Freki lay panting at his feet? What was it that made Thor worthy in his eyes despite his flaws and the Alföðr's fabled wisdom and foresight?
After Thor had finally stopped riling up the crowd and come to kneel before him, golden head bowed, Óðinn used Gungnir to call everyone to order. The sound of the spear's impact reverberated between columns and statues, and up towards the crystal roof. Hushed silence settled like a cloak over all gathered, as more than one person held their breath in anticipation as Óðinn rose from his throne.
"Thor Óðinsson, my heir, my firstborn. Through your skill in battle you've earned the right to wield the mighty hammer Mjǫllnir. Forged in the heart of a dying star, its power has no equal, as a weapon to destroy or as a tool to build. 'Tis a fit companion for a king. - I have defended Ásgarðr, and the lives of the innocent across the Nine Realms, from the time of the great beginning. This honor and duty now falls to you."
Óðinn paused, his eye fixed on his eldest son with an intensity that would have others quake and quiver, but Thor only smiled up at him, confident and winning.
It was then that Loki felt the first stirrings of magic. The words of the sacred oath were ancient, demanding no less than a sacrifice of self from whosoever spoke them. Many were wise enough to never desire that kind of power, too aware of the responsibility that came with it.
"Do you swear to guard the Nine Realms?"
"And do you swear to preserve the peace?"
"Do you swear," Óðinn spoke, harsh and forceful, "to cast aside all selfish ambition and to pledge yourself only to the good of the Realms?"
Raising both his head and Mjǫllnir, Thor answered for a third time, without hesitation, "I swear!"
Only empty words, spoken full of pride and excitement. As if on cue, Loki felt the portal open in the vault below, the passage of two tall bodies that carried the sting of ice. The white frost covered them and soon parts of the walls and ceiling, as they moved quickly, undisturbed by guards, drawn to the Casket of Ancient Winters.
Loki kept his face a carefully arranged mask and withdrew his senses. The Destroyer would soon activate all on its own, to protect Ásgarðr's many treasures and terrifying weapons, eradicating the intruders without fail.
"Then, on this day, I, Óðinn Alföðr, proclaim you --"
The strong beam of energy had left charred black scorch marks and scattered atoms that drifted to the floor like motes of dust, and nothing more. The Destroyer had long since returned to its sealed chamber when Óðinn arrived, with Thor and Loki following in his wake.
There was no more to be done than inspect the pedestal of the Casket, the ornate box-shaped container that housed the Fimbulvetr that the most ancient legends spoke of in hushed terror. It glowed a steady blue, had not even been touched.
Loki watched as his father scrutinized everything while walking past, sure that no detail escaped him. Thor, on the other hand, was silently fuming, glaring at the sparse remnants of the intruders with more anger than Loki had anticipated.
If Thor kept calm, acted in accordance with the oath he had just sworn, no more would come of this unfortunate incident than an envoy send to Jötunheimr to remind the Frost Giants of the terms of their surrender - and Ásgarðr's might. Loki had chosen to act now, neither sooner nor later, because the coronation interrupted would be a blow to Thor's ego and incite his unpredictable temper, yes, but also counting on the fact that Óðinn would do everything in his power to avoid another war with King Laufey.
All that was left for him to do was to fade into the background, to watch and listen. Which would be no hardship - in all honesty, he preferred to witness the fireworks from a safe distance.
"The Jǫtunn must pay for what they've done!" Thor demanded, his grip on Mjǫllnir so punishing his knuckles stood out white.
"They have paid," Óðinn pointed out reasonably, "with no less than their lives. The Destroyer did its work, the Casket of Ancient Winters is safe, and all is well."
"All is well?" Thor repeated, as if not sure that he had heard right. "They broke into the weapons vault! If they had stolen even one of these relics --"
"They have not."
"Well, I want to know why, and how. They must answer for what they have done!"
"I have a truce with King Laufey --"
"He just broke your truce!" Thor interrupted, all the more furious that Óðinn was so calm, standing there, content to do nothing. "They know you are vulnerable!"
Óðinn finally turned to look at him, brow creased by a mild frown, attention shifting away from the Casket. "What actions would you take?"
"March into Jötunheimr," Thor answered, thrilled at the prospect of reminding those mindless beasts of their place, to follow in Óðinn's footsteps. "Teach them a lesson they will not soon forget. Break their fighting spirit, so they'll never again dare try and cross our borders."
Óðinn did not answer immediately, watching instead Freki as the wolf came trotting in, did a quick circuit of the chamber, nose to the ground, and then sat at his feet, looking up at him with soulful eyes.
Óðinn's frown deepened. "You're thinking only as a warrior."
"Aye, because this was an act of war!"
"It was the act of but a few and doomed to fail."
Thor flung out his arm in a sweeping gesture that included the whole room and all its dangerous relics, as well as the stairs that led to the heart of Ásgarðr. "Look how far they got!"
"We will find the breach in our defenses and it will be sealed."
"As King of Ásgarðr --"
"But you are not king!" Óðinn shouted, for the first time running out of patience and raising his voice. More softly he added, "Not yet. And now leave me."
Thor knocked the food-laden table over with a roar and enough force that its trestles broke. The impact sent servants and slaves into hiding and vibrated through the dining room like a minor earthquake. Crystal flutes and decanters shattered, sending rays of rainbow-colored light towards the ceiling. Loaves of cheese and bread and honey cakes were reduced to crumbs or rolled away until an obstacle stopped them.
Pickles squishing underneath his boots, Thor marched to the stairs that led to the outside terrace and sat down, breathing heavily and wringing his hands to try and keep his temper in check.
"It's unwise to seek my company right now, Brother."
"On the contrary," Loki replied. Smoothly vanishing the gravy Thor's outburst had spattered all over his attire, he ignored the well-meant warning and settled close enough that their shoulders brushed. "I've found you need constant supervision."
"Aye, that he does," Volstagg agreed, having just stepped into the room with the others at his heels, and observing the chaos with a mournful look. He picked up the leg of a chicken destined to make the mouth water: marinated with herbs and roasted to perfection. Except it sparkled, larded with shards of glass. "All ruined! What has the food ever done to you?"
"Frost Giants in Ásgarðr," Fandral said, enunciating the words with exaggerated care. "I think we have matters of greater import to discuss."
"It is worrisome, to think that they have made it past Heimdallr," Hogun added in his hoarse whisper, discreetly hiding the dagger he had drawn when hearing the commotion.
"Indeed, my friends." Thor stood and started to pace, arms crossed before his broad chest. "Yet it seems the Alföðr is in no hurry to find out how Ásgarðr's defenses were breached. For all we know, the Frost Giants could be rallying their forces for an invasion while we stand here, doing nothing."
"What else would you have us do?" Sif asked, stepping over the spreading heap of a pudding.
"Nothing at all, since our hands are tied," Loki replied and rose as well. "Anything else would violate the express orders of our king."
"We have to ensure the safety of our borders."
Looking at Thor, Loki knew that his words in favor of caution and patience would be brushed aside, or worse, incite his brother further. And with the Warriors Three and especially Sif present, his chances to talk Thor out of his ill-conceived plan was nil. They might protest at first, but would come around to support him easily enough. As they always did. - Hel, it was a wonder no one had saddled the horses yet!
That narrowed his options to damage control while pretending to go along with this madness or sabotage, which was out of the question, considering that they would need to travel by use of the Bifröst. - A power strong enough to annihilate whole worlds was nothing Loki dared meddling with.
"We're going to Jötunheimr," Thor declared, knuckles cracking and with far more smug excitement written all over his face than a suicide mission should warrant.
Volstagg dropped his third handful of dusted off grapes and olives. "What?!"
Loki returned Fandral's telling look steadily, flexing his muscles in barely a shrug. His meaning was understood, that he considered the fight lost, but that did not stop the swordsman from speaking his mind.
"What we're talking about here, it's Jötunheimr," Fandral pointed out, without trying to hide his unease. "It's not the same as a jaunt to Miðgarðr, where you summon a little lightning and thunder, and the mortals worship you as a god. And the last time was - what? Five centuries ago? Even there things are bound to have changed."
"My father fought his way into Jötunheimr, defeated their armies and took their Casket. While we would just be looking for answers."
"I'm not sure that the former has any bearing on the latter," Fandral muttered under his breath, forcing Loki to hide a smile, just as Sif exclaimed, "It is forbidden!"
Thor was obviously not discouraged, and instead working up to his usual speeches that boiled down to the ominous 'power of friendship.' Loki felt a headache begin to build behind his temples.
"My friends - " Yes, there it was. - "have you forgotten all that we have done together? Fandral, Hogun. Who led you into the most glorious battles?"
In the face of Thor's winning smile Hogun's own lips twitched as he admitted almost shyly, "You did."
"And Volstagg, to delicacies so succulent, you thought you had died and gone to Valhöll?"
"You did," Volstagg answered, popping another grape into his mouth.
"Yes! And who proved wrong all who scoffed at the very idea that a young maiden could be one of the fiercest warriors this realm has ever known?"
Sif, hands on her hips and in full armor, despite both tradition and court protocol demanding that women - even shield maiden, as long as they were off-duty - wear a dress at formal palace receptions, looked amused. She had certainly never needed a man to defend her honor.
"True." It spoke in Thor's favor, that he, other than most men, had no problem admitting the truth of her words. "But I supported you, Sif."
"And what about me?" Loki raised an eyebrow. "No sweet words to coax me into going along with your mad scheme?"
"You would never allow me to walk into the lion's den without you."
"Of course not. I demand my share of the glory." It came out a little more caustic than Loki had intended, enough so to wipe the grin from Thor's face. It made him feel as if he had kicked a puppy. "Fine, I will admit defeat. I will not let you march into Jötunheimr alone."
"And I." It echoed thrice, but Fandral looked unconvinced, and Volstagg's enthusiasm was somewhat diminished by the bits and pieces of sweet grapes stuck in his auburn beard. "The Warriors Three fight together," Hogun added.
"I fear we'll live to regret this," Sif said, but her nod made the decision a final one.
They reached the rainbow bridge after only a short ride and left the horses at the guardhouse. Loki and Thor being exceptions, they had dressed for battle and cold weather, wearing fur-trimmed and hooded cloaks over their armor, that also conveniently hid their weapons.
Beyond the veil of Ásgarðr's atmosphere, stars shone, filling the vacuum of deep space, while the crystal underneath their feet sparkled to rival them, in all the colors of fractured light. Predictably, Heimdallr was already waiting, standing in front of the golden, sphere-shaped building of the Bifröst that was nothing other than a wormhole, caught by magic and bound to Yggdrasill's boughs.
Instead of trying to take the lead, to ensnare the Guardian with his famed silver tongue, Loki hung back, leaving that task to Thor, who seemed eager enough. For once he was content to watch, as that would serve his purpose here better.
They were usually reserved for battle, and not quite suited for the situation, but the hand signals they had learned were a discreet means to enlist Fandral's help: stall; distract. Loki very much appreciated that his friend reacted with nothing more than a tiny finger-twitch of acknowledgment in return, that neither the habitually suspicious Sif, nor ever alert Hogun, noticed.
"Prince Thor." Heimdallr inclined his head in greeting, hands resting on the pommel of his ornate sword. "Prince Loki. Lady Sif. And the Warriors Three."
"You make it sound so ominous," Fandral complained. "Shouldn't you be used to it by now, finding us on your doorstep?"
Thor, well short on patience, raised his hand to demand silence. "Heimdallr, may we pass? We wish to go to Jötunheimr."
"As of this moment, no order has reached me that would confine you to this realm, Your Royal Highness," Heimdallr answered, golden eyes narrowed. "I too am curious to learn how the enemy slipped my watch. However, I would strongly advise against investigating."
"But you will not stop us."
Though his face remained blank, Heimdallr radiated disapproval. "I cannot."
"Good. Then tell no one where we have gone until we've returned. Understood?"
"As you command."
Heimdallr moved aside to allow their group entrance, his knowing gaze resting on Loki. Of course he had seen the quick exchange, and knew well its meaning. True to form, Fandral had the others distracted in no time, drawing them into a heated discussion by musing aloud whether or not some ladies worth pursuing might be found hiding amongst the Jǫtunn.
"And here I was under the impression that only the Alföðr may give you orders," Loki commented, with a teasing edge.
Once upon a time, the mere sight of the towering Guardian with his ebony black skin, golden armor, and all-seeing eyes had sent him into a wailing fit of childish terror. To this day, his dear mother never tired of reminding him of how he had hidden in the folds of her skirts, or the comical expression on Heimdallr's face. - Nowadays, they played chess or cards together, and Loki had to defend himself against the Guardian's mock attempts to saddle him with one of his many daughters. All great beauties, to be sure, but as they both knew, Loki's interests lay elsewhere.
Heimdallr inclined his head, the faintest smile on his lips. "That is indeed the case."
"Then I would have you disregard Thor's order. Please send a guard to inform the Alföðr of our whereabouts immediately after we have left."
"I will," Heimdallr promised, then added casually, "Could you not have prevented him from coming here?"
"Well, had you been there, you could have sat on him," Loki replied in kind.
He followed Heimdallr into the Bifröst. As always, the rippling waves of power were near overwhelming inside. The sword the Guardian carried, acting as a key to activate the teleportation process, hummed in faint resonance as they came to a halt near the center podium.
"What took you so long?" Sif asked, understandably less interested than the men in potential... exotic attributes of Jǫtunn women.
Used to her keeping tabs on him, and fully expecting her disdainful sniff, Loki patted the money pouch at his belt, making coins chink together. "We just settled a debt of honor."
Energy crackled. The rotation of the inner sphere, as Heimdallr used his sword, drew sparks into the air that raised the fine hairs on arms and necks. For just a moment, light arched to ignite the mechanism, branching to form the come and gone image of a great tree that stretched to connect the Nine Realms. The ornate blade grated in its lock, was turned with a snap, while Heimdallr's eyes closed to conjure an image of their destination in his mind.
"All taken care of?" Fandral whispered conspiratorially, taking advantage of the fact that the others were distracted by the spectacle.
"Yes." Loki shifted away, hiding the shiver that ran down his spine as warm breath tickled his ear. "Thank you."
Just then, the stable portal opened, the shutters circling aside to reveal what looked like a tunnel of light. "Be warned --"
"Truly, Heimdallr?" Thor sighed. "We know that speech by heart."
"Be warned," Heimdallr repeated, not to be deterred in his duty. "I will honor my sworn oath to protect this realm as its Gatekeeper. If your return threatens the safety of Ásgarðr, the Bifröst will remain closed to you and you'll be left to die in the cold waste of Jötunheimr."
"What a charming thought," Fandral declared with false cheer.
"I have no plans to die today."
Heimdallr leveled a steady gaze at Thor. "None do."
Thor simply shook his head and walked towards the tunnel's mouth with a determined stride. He was pulled inside, seemed to dissolve into streaks of light not unlike shooting stars crossing the night sky.
"After you, my Lady."
Ignoring Fandral's gallant bow, as if his antics were no longer worth even her usual moue of distaste, Sif followed Thor. Loki was the last to pass through, felt the great force sweeping him off his feet and the rush of free falling.
Jötunheimr, the Realm of Eternal Ice and Darkness. Beyond the jarring impact of a rough landing, Loki had not been sure what to expect.
Most files with hard facts pertaining to the Frost Giant's world - their history, culture, and language, as well as records from the Great War - had been sealed around the time of his birth, by the Alföðr's decree, for reasons unknown. How curious, that Loki had never thought to question that gap in the library's shelf, the missing files in the Great Archive, even though he agreed with the philosophers that knowledge was power. As for his own dealings with the Jǫtunn, they had happened by proxy, through a golem that carried encrypted messages back and forth, but could not convey any additional information.
He was left with tales of crude and brutish monsters, that knew no honor and held nothing sacred, told to scare Ásgarðr's children into good behavior. The concept of an enemy, held in contempt, that as such needed to be taken with a grain of salt. Thus, when the steam cleared, the Bifröst's runes edged into the surface layer of snow, Loki was as overwhelmed as the others by the harsh and yet majestic landscape that greeted them.
It was indeed a wasteland. One of ice, bereft of animal or plant life for as far as the eye could see, where nothing moved beyond eddies of snow. They had appeared at the edge of a great chasm that gaped with no bottom in sight, in a valley, surrounded by walls of compressed ice that shone azure. Seracs rose up high, forming bizarre structures that resembled blocks and spires, or bridges that spanned deep fractures, that would swallow a grown man whole if he missteped.
Something wild and untamed lingered here, that grated against Loki's senses until it gave way to another feeling, an unexpected rush of peace and calm that seemed to seep into him, straight into the marrow of his bones. Being a shapeshifter, Loki was accustomed to his body adapting to his environment, and thus deemed Jötunheimr's inherent magic harmless. In fact it warmed him, while the others had to wrap themselves more tightly into their cloaks.
Everything sparkled in shades of white and blue, while an aurora twisted across the starry sky like a fluttering banner of silk. There was no sound, except for the battering howl of the wind - and Fandral's teeth, that had begun to chatter almost immediately.
"Will you be all right?" Loki asked, not yet truly concerned.
"Oh yes, I'll be fine," Fandral said, biting the words off in between the twitching of his jaw muscles. "As soon as you tell me that the tip of my nose is still there."
"Not to worry, my friend," Volstagg instead answered, marching in place and stamping his feet, while ice crystals gathered in his bushy eyebrows and beard. Even the silver blade of his battleaxe was glazed with frost patterns. "It is."
"Well, good." Fandral rubbed his hands together, making his leather gloves creak. "Wouldn't want to face certain death with pieces of me missing. If I have to die here, I insist on being a beautiful corpse for the ladies to weep and faint over."
"Stop your whining," Sif cut in, hand resting on her sword.
Breath fogging the air, Hogun chose that exact moment to ominously announce, "We shouldn't be here."
Loki knew that, having encountered no immediate threat, Thor would want to press forward, further into unknown territory. He would not leave without having found someone to demand answers from. - Hopefully, the guard send by Heimdallr had already reached and informed Óðinn.
Thor's jaw was set. "Let's move."
It took perhaps half an hour before they reached the first structure not shaped by wind and ablation: the ruins of a great city, reduced to spires poking out of drifts of snow and the crumbling outlines of buildings.
A material as black and glassy as obsidian had been used to erect them. Every single stone was adorned with what seemed, at first glance, to be ornamental carvings. Except in these lines and glyphs, trace amounts of a familiar power lingered, and Loki got the distinct impression that they had once functioned not unlike the network the mortals of Miðgarðr used for the distribution of electricity. That allowed for only one conclusion, that the Casket of Ancient Winters had indeed been the city's power source, which was in accordance with the old legends. And judging by the current state of things, the Jǫtunn had been unable to find a way to alleviate its loss. - In other words, by its removal, Óðinn Alföðr had condemned Jötunheimr to a slow death.
As a culture of warrior's, Æsir were not above reveling in bloodshed. During the long rule of Borr it had been common practice to humiliate a conquered foe by such vile means as to rape him, while forcing his men, spouse or children to bear witness. Still, even considering that and the importance of Miðgarðr - as the gateway between the physical and metaphysical realm that shaped together the whole of Yggdrasill - this seemed excessive. And also foolhardy beyond reason.
"This is worse than I expected," Loki said into the monotone silence of marching in file, his words empathized as a boulder of ice broke away and smashed to pieces on impact, showering them with tiny needles of ice.
"Do not tell me you feel sympathy for these monsters." Thor spat the words out like something foul. "They have brought this fate upon themselves."
"The Alföðr is not known to take action without cause," Sif added, cunningly walking behind Volstagg, who acted as a shield against the cutting wind. Thor, of course, had taken point, while Hogun brought up the rear. "Or to deny mercy where it was earned."
"I wouldn't go that far," Loki answered, ignoring Sif with the ease of practice. "But this world, it is dying. Do you have any notion what Jötunheimr's demise would do to the balance of the Nine Realms? I do not understand why father would take such a risk. What does he stand to gain?"
It was Fandral, with his keen sense for imminent arguments, who inserted himself between them and clapped Loki on the shoulder, pointing towards the horizon. "Look, there - that must have been the palace."
"Good a place as any to search," Volstagg agreed, peering at the vast structure rising to the north. Breaking off yet another icicle from his nose that would not stop running, he glumly added, "Before the lot of us freeze to death."
The remains of the royal dwellings reminded Loki of the amphitheaters of Ancient Rome, built in a semicircle with seating tiers that surrounded a central area. The high-backed throne was roughly hewn, lacking all ornaments, or perhaps time and wind had eroded them. The structure as a whole was covered in thick layers of ice that shone in shades of blue.
"We've walked quite a distance," Sif said, leaving Volstagg's cover, now that the crumbling walls provided some shelter. "Where are they?"
"Hiding," Thor answered, eyes fixed on a point behind the throne. "As cowards always do."
Loki paid no heed to King Laufey, who stepped out of the shadows to take his rightful place as if to mock the insult thrown at him. Instead, his senses were focused on those Frost Giants that remained hidden beneath the ice - no less than three dozen, most likely more. Their heartbeats were glacial, yet they breathed, listened, watched.
Something cloying lay thick in the air, an emotion too layered for Loki to analyze right then. It may have been their thirst for revenge, their hatred, or darker still, their raging over what they had lost, against death, and the inevitability of time. - Or perhaps he was projecting, sympathetic to their plight, as Thor had accused him mere minutes ago.
"You've come a long way to die, Æsir," Laufey said, his voice deep and grating, as he studied his unwelcome visitors.
When that calculating gaze fell on him, Loki's attention shifted. They needed to tread with utmost caution or blood would be spilled. - Their own first and then that of billions, should they become the spark that ignited a new war between their realms. Yet Thor was already in a foul mood, his pride injured that his enemy would ignore him, that the respect he felt his due was denied him.
Loki himself was impressed with what he saw - King Laufey was a giant even amongst his own kin, with runes carved into his blue skin that were only broken by the gruesome scars of past battles. His eyes gleamed vermillion, revealing the kind of shrewd intelligence that often came with great age, a quality one hardly expected to find in a 'mindless beast'.
"I am Thor Óðinsson!"
It was an enraged bellow, that elicited no reaction at all. If anything, Laufey looked bored. And why should he not? Time may have passed, but the fact remained that his daring surprise attack had almost won him rule over Miðgarðr, while his prowess and courage in battle had been such that they had threatened the Alföðr's life.
"We know who you are."
Again dismissed, Thor spared no time for subtleties. "How did your people get into Ásgarðr?"
"The House of Óðinn is full of traitors."
Only one, Loki thought, distracted by the movement of ice he could not see but feel. It arranged itself around bodies that somehow met no resistance, as if they walked not through solid matter but instead water, allowing them to close in on their position.
"Do not dishonor my father's name with your lies!"
"Your father is a murderer and a thief!" Laufey rose from his throne, to his full imposing height. "Why have you come here? To make peace? You long for battle. You crave it. You're nothing but a boy, trying to prove himself a man."
"This 'boy' has grown tired of your mockery."
Thor's anger, resonating within Mjǫllnir and amplified by the hammer, was bearing down on the palace ruins like a physical weight. Far away there was the high sound of silver bells as the frozen clouds of Jötunheimr first shattered, then melted. They began to gather, drawn close and tinted black. A thunderstorm was brewing, whipped into a frenzy by magical force, in a world that was too cold to even know rain.
The challenge was answered, by a dozen warriors, that seemed to melt out of the ice all around. They had no need for armor beyond their own skin, and carried no weapons - they formed in their hands, grown in the desired shape compelled by nothing else but their will and need to meet a foe.
Sif and the Warriors Three, even though startled, stood their ground with outward calm. Being seasoned fighters, they closed ranks, tested their footing in anticipation of an attack, cloaks thrown back and hands resting on their weapons.
"Stop and think." Loki moved out of Thor's shadow to take a firm hold of his arm. "Look around you, we're outnumbered."
"Know your place, Brother," Thor growled and tried to free himself.
It was uttered so casually, as if Loki's silent obedience were his due. By right it was, yet that did not mean it should be taken for granted. Thor had used the same hated words against him on countless occasions, ever since Óðinn had explained to them as children that they both had been born to be kings, yet only one of them would rule. In that moment, Loki longed to throw them right back into Thor's face. His dear brother, standing here, every inch the spoiled and pampered brat who refused all responsibility that came with his station in life. Who had come to Jötunheimr, thinking himself not only untouchable, but also King Laufey's better. Demanding respect on no other basis than his name, resting upon their father's laurels. - But that would have been childish, a petty outburst that would have rivaled Thor's own in the worst possible way.
So instead, Loki dug his nails into the tender flesh of Thor's arm, felt muscles twitch and tense. "Please, show reason, Brother."
"At least one of you is aware of what your actions here might unleash. As am I." Laufey held Loki's gaze for a moment, then gestured south, from where they had come. "Go. Now, while I still allow it."
Loki inclined his head, only his grip on Thor preventing him from a proper bow as court etiquette demanded. "We thank you, King Laufey, and accept your most gracious offer. - Come, Brother."
Despite his anger, Thor went, allowed himself to be turned around and pulled away. At least for a few steps. Because then a Frost Giant muttered: "Run back home, little princess." - And all Hel broke loose.
Thor acted first, all pretense at controlling his temper giving way to a fierce delight that the battle he had wished for had finally begun. He wielded Mjǫllnir with abandon, calling down a blinding streak of lightning with such force that its impact cleared a wide circle around him, pushing back the first wave of attacking Frost Giants and thus creating a temporary no-man's-land of sparkling snow.
"At least make it a challenge for me!" Thor roared with a laugh and charged ahead.
The Warriors Three and Sif knew that tactic by heart. They knew to follow, to secure the flanks, yet also to keep far enough back to not be caught in his next attack, that Thor then promptly unleashed. He became a whirlwind of battering swings and blows that felled many a Jǫtunn. At King Laufey's call, more sprang forth from the ice as if it were water. Their war cries filled the freezing air, their gaping mouths showing rows of sharp and pointed teeth.
Despite her formidable form, Sif was soon surrounded by three foes, all taller and stronger than her. But Hogun was at her side instantly, reaching her with a daring flip over the back of a Frost Giant that had fallen to his knees after taking a deadly blow. They began to work in tandem, were soon spattered with blue and molasses-thick blood.
Ranged support attacks, as ever, were left to Loki. Calling a knife into his hand from a dimensional pocket, charging it with destructive energy, and throwing it required no conscious thought on his part. His aim true, the first embedded itself into the eye of a Jǫtunn; the next went clean through socket and skull in a bloody spray.
He picked off Jǫtunn one by one, those that made it past Thor or threatened to overwhelm the others. - It could not last.
Loki heard Volstagg's bellowed warning only a moment before he too was forced to back away from the third wave of attackers. The Jǫtunn had begun to use the ice and snow itself to attack - hails of transparent needles and spear-like shards rained down upon them. In answer, Loki created an army of his own, one made of illusions that scattered all around him to distract, and lure some of the Frost Giants close enough to the next crevasse to make them fall to their doom. - And many did.
Yet for every warrior cut down, five more emerged from the ice and they were pushed farther south. Loki lost sight of the others, but heard Thor well enough to know he fared better, barreling through dozens of foes, Mjǫllnir smashing them aside left and right with the crunch of bones.
"Yes! That's more like it!"
The howling wind nearly swallowed the sound, but Loki, twisting a blade in the chest of a Jǫtunn who had managed to venture too close for comfort, recognized Volstagg's pained shout. "Don't let them touch you!"
Perhaps it was that very warning that prompted the dying Jǫtunn to make one last effort to wound him: his hand closed tightly around Loki's wrist with a foreboding expression of dark glee. Loki tried to break free through force, was braced for pain - but not at all for what he then saw with his own two eyes.
Despite all the magical charms that protected it, his silverite vambrace broke apart. Its metal scales littered the snow within seconds, and where he was held, his hand turned blue. It did not hurt, felt as natural as shifting to another form. Like blotches of ink spilled on vellum, the color spread across his skin, wandered up his wrist and arm while Loki could not think to do anything but stare. - That his foe was doing the same with dawning horror, and no strength left for another attack, might well have been the only thing to save his life.
The Frost Giant's grip loosened and he toppled to the side, dragging Loki to his knees by the force of his dead weight. Their connection breaking, the change was reversed, his familiar Ǫ́ss form restored - but it was too late to deny the truth of what had happened.
Loki would have remained there, dazed, stupidly allowing a cascade of puzzle pieces to fall into place with no regard for the still raging battle - except then he saw a wave of icicles rushing towards Fandral. The swordsman had made use of the ice to slide through between the legs of a Jǫtunn and twisted around to deliver the finishing blow, leaving himself open.
He could not prevent the ice from impaling him, but Loki managed to cross the distance between them in time to kill the Frost Giant who had raised the tide of razor sharp spears, and to catch and support Fandral.
"My hero," Fandral ground out between clenched teeth. One hand clutched his rapier, the other was busy putting pressure on his shoulder. "Could we now please sound the retreat?!"
"Thor!" Sif shouted. "Thor! Come back!"
She was burdened with Volstagg, who had lost the use of his right arm to what looked like frostbite, the kind that ate itself bone-deep until the affected area was black as soot and blistered. Hogun tried valiantly to hold the attackers at bay, but he too seemed injured, limping slightly.
The coppery stench of spilled blood fresh in his nose, Loki called, "Thor! We must go! Now!"
Not Thor but Mjǫllnir appeared, a projectile that cleared a path for them that would lead them back to the Bifröst site. The hammer's passing also whirled up the snow, lowering the visibility to a degree that provided them with at least some cover.
They ran, Sif dragging Volstagg along and Loki Fandral, chased by a sudden bestial roar and the grating sound of King Laufey's laughter as he unleashed a behemoth on their trail.
Free of its cage, the creature's massive, gray-scaled body broke into a loping run that shook the ground. Its spiked tail lashed out as it gained speed, swishing left and right, claws digging deep into the ice for purchase. A small army of Frost Giants followed in its wake, armed with a never ending supply of spears that grew from their hands. Hurled by the dozen, they whistled through the air, but fell short.
Having borrowed the sight of an eagle, eyes golden brown before changing back to his own vivid green, Loki saw that King Laufey himself had taken the lead, flanked by two of his warriors. - His heirs, judging by the way their runes mirrored his. Unhindered as the Jǫtunn were by the treacherous terrain, they were bound to catch up.
"It's too far!" Sif shouted, echoing his thought, her voice thin with strain. Volstagg was staggering along at her side, threatening to make her and Hogun fall. "We won't make it!"
Loki did not dare look over his shoulder a second time, well aware that doing so slowed him down, and with Fandral leaning heavily on him for support, he could not risk tripping them up.
"Brother!" Loki called, using a simple spell that would carry his voice to Thor despite the growing distance between them. "We need your help!"
In answer, light flashed behind them, a stark white glow in their peripheral vision. This time, the shock wave of the impact was directed, raced straight after them to get rid of as many pursuers as possible. It sounded like the eruption of a volcano, like stepping onto a frozen lake and breaking in, like endless panes of glass that shattered into a million pieces - all accompanied by a hail of shards and boulders that gleamed azure.
Screams and curses rang hollow in Loki's ears as the ground gave way underneath the Frost Giants, a sudden yawning abyss that swallowed those that lagged behind. The damage spread. Within seconds, fault lines turned into gaping cracks that crossed each other, and great floes of ice turned over and shifted, crushing anything caught in their movement, before gravity pulled them too into the depths.
The creature that closed in on them fell prey as well: its loping gait faltered. Its claws scrabbled over the ice in desperation, and then the sound of its angry roar stretched thin and was gone in the chaos.
"Yes!" Fandral shouted in triumph.
His laugh was short-lived, ended in a groan and hiss of pain. Loki was quick enough to catch him as Fandral slipped. The rich fabric rucked up in his grip was damp with warm blood.
Only a few hundred meters further, the circle of runes left by the Bifröst's landfall gleamed golden, pinpricks of hope against the dark horizon of Jötunheimr. But the chain reaction Thor had started did not stop, continued to destroy any supporting structure that might have kept them aloft.
"Jump!" Loki shouted, as the world began to tilt in slow motion. "Now!"
For once obeying him without question, Sif leaped, with Volstagg and Hogun following her lead. They landed safely on the other side, yet the two floes were already drifting further apart with the crunch and grinding of catching edges.
Loki felt the outer rim underneath his toes at the same moment that Fandral gave him a shove, hard enough to dislodge his hold on him. The ice shattered with the high ringing noise of sudden panic that existed only in his own mind as he half-turned to see his friend fall.
The black cloak spread like clipped wings. The air around him glittered like a diamond dust of snow flakes as time seemed to stop. There was nothing below but darkness. And Fandral, the damned heroic fool, was smiling, relieved that Loki would not share his fate, and resigned to his own.
Someone – Thor? – screamed in terror, but Loki felt calm as he dove after him.
Free falling meant that the world was turned upside down and head over heels with no point of reference. It meant to twist and turn like a boneless puppet cut loose from its strings. It meant that feet stretched into miles in the blink of an eye. It meant shock: to first stop thinking, then breathing, then being conscious at all - at least for Fandral.
For Loki it meant that his heart started beating at a glacial pace, a sudden clarity of mind as he felt the ground beyond the darkness, the ice that he somehow knew would cushion his landing.
It meant reaching for and curling around Fandral, supporting his neck, sheltering him within the confines of a Jǫtunn's - his - body. It meant that the truth was painful, but also hid an asset that, right now, would save both their lives.
Loki woke to the knowledge that the Bifröst had opened and closed, its energies a degrading haze fading far above, and to the sight of Fandral, deadly pale and still, a boneless weight in his lap and loose embrace. He felt for a pulse with shaking fingers - and found it beating steadily.
Loki sighed, the relief so strong it left him light-headed. Only then did he notice the mark of a Jǫtunn's cold-burning touch, etched not only into Fandral's neck but also along the side of his throat and just below his cheekbone. If this kind of frostbite came anywhere near in its effect to that which occurred naturally, then it would leave behind a discoloration of skin at best, a starkly visible scar and permanent damage at worst.
It was too much to deal with right then, all the more so since he was also glad beyond belief that Thor and the others had gotten away to safety - except the threat of war still loomed, rendering the feeling hollow.
For a moment, Loki simply breathed, tried to regain his composure, inhaling air that smelled sweet and rich and crystal clear, rising from the endless plain of ice and snow he lay upon as comfortably as if it were a bed filled with eiderdown. Then he rose to his feet with great care to not move Fandral over much. After checking his wound, that had stopped to bleed, more thanks due to the freezing cold than an Æsir's accelerated healing, Loki wrapped him more securely in the soft folds of his cloak and set to work.
A storm was coming, he could feel it in the wind that whipped his hair, and pursuers might as well, though it seemed unlikely. To weather either or both, and to apply at least rudimentary first aid, they required shelter. Since there was none in sight, Loki would need to make his own. - Being Jǫtunn, it should be an easy enough task for him.
Everything else must wait. There was no time to indulge in vain drama or wallow in self-pity.
With no guidance other than what he had observed, Loki tried to shape the ice as the other Jǫtunn had done, with nothing but focus, intent and gestures, opening himself to what his senses told him. Even without direct contact, the ice was pliant to his will, as clay must be under a potter's touch.
Slowly, the ground shook and then shifted in a ripple and Loki sank deeper. He only stopped when he stood at the bottom of a well, that reached about a hundred meters below the surface. Here, the ice was truly ocean blue, compressed to a point that had erased the white of enclosed air pockets. Satisfied, Loki moved in a circle, opening the space towards its middle with sweeping gestures that created a domed cave big enough for two grown man.
Careful this time, now very much conscious and wary of the damage he might inflict without meaning to, Loki cradled Fandral to his chest and carried him down stairs that formed and vanished with each step he took.
On the surface, nothing was left behind but an untouched expanse of snow and ice, torn into by the building fury of a blizzard.
Loki had ripped his sleeves into long strips of cloth and used them to dress and bind Fandral's shoulder wound as best he could while being forced to hurry. - In an interesting turn of events, one he fully intended to study at a later time, the structural integrity of the cave had begun to deteriorate, with cracks appearing and the air growing stale, as soon as he had reverted back to his Ǫ́ss form.
The injury tended to, Loki made Fandral as comfortable as was possible in a cavern warmed to a few degrees below zero by a floating fire that had no fuel other than the magic he fed it.
Fandral had been impaled clean through, yet the crude weapon had missed both bone and vital organs, and thus his wound was gruesome to look at but more painful than life-threatening. - Or it should have been, but the torn tissue and spilled blood had frozen solid. The skin was covered in blisters and black, felt hard and waxen. Loki knew better than to try and thaw the affected areas, as they would need to move as soon as the storm outside had passed, and refreezing was bound to exacerbate the damage. Yet that was where his medical expertise ended.
There was nothing for it but wait that Fandral regained consciousness, to watch the slow rise and fall of his chest and listen to him breathe. - And to think, to reevaluate his past, in light of the truth that Óðinn had chosen to hide from him.
His mysterious illness came to mind, that had haunted his summers for three centuries. Loki remembered well the fevers, the agony of sunlight, the heat, his childish fear to melt and burst into vapors. Evidently, there was a limit to what changes in climate and temperature young Jǫtunn could adapt to without suffering adverse health effects.
Yet that seemed a minor detail, like feeling different, staring into the mirror after being cruelly mocked, and wondering why his features and build, but also talents and interests, were not in accordance with that of most Æsir. These experiences had shaped him, for better or worse, and yet, even knowing now their cause, Loki could not claim that he had ever been treated in a manner that would suggest that anyone even suspected the truth. In other words, it had been his own bearing and actions that had marked him as an outsider within the warrior culture of Ásgarðr; nothing more or less.
Knowing the truth of his heritage then would have changed little. That thought was almost amusing, in its way, and yet... Why had they not told him, not even as he had grown enough to understand?
The answer came to him with ease: because the Alföðr never acted without purpose. Standing knee-deep in Jǫtunn blood and having secured the Casket of Ancient Winters, it would not have been simple kindness that had prompted him to rescue one war orphan out of thousands.
What was it that had marked him as different, worth saving, even as a babe?
Nothing came to mind except for his strong magical gift. However, that alone seemed insufficient for a reason. Óðinn could call upon the services of many mages and sorceresses across the Nine Realms, should ever the need arise. One more hardly mattered. - But Loki was also a shapeshifter, must have betrayed that talent as soon as an Æsir had touched him... and according to the old legends...
Loki looked over his shoulder at the gleaming wall. His reflection was distorted, a vague shape of blue and the glow of his crimson eyes, but it took no more than a gesture to smooth its surface and turn it into a mirror.
"So that is why you took me." Loki sighed, impressed against his will with Óðinn's political wiles, and tipped his head back to rest against the ice. "It seems we will need to have words... Father."
Until then, he ought to keep his true heritage a secret. Not only for the sake of Ásgarðr, the realm he had sworn to faithfully serve, but also for the man who had chosen to raise him – not as a hostage of war, but a prince, Loki Óðinsson, no less the Alföðr's rightful heir than Thor.
Óðinn's plan to secure a true and lasting peace, either through marriage or by installing him as Jötunheimr's puppet ruler - it was long overdue to be set in motion. Instead, Loki had been groomed to become the King's Hand...
"Patience," Loki reminded himself. "'Haste makes waste'."
Waking to the sight of a Jǫtunn - albeit one whose features must have seemed curiously familiar - Fandral reacted as Loki had predicted: ignoring his wound he rolled to his feet and reached for his weapon, only to find the rapier gone. Defenseless and cornered, he backed away, chin raised in a show of bravery and defiance.
"Fandral," Loki said, glad that his voice had remained unchanged. "Relax. It is only me."
"Loki?" Fandral sounded skeptical, squinting ahead in the dim light. "May the Fates show mercy. Loki!"
"Oh?" Loki lifted one eyebrow. "Did I scare you?"
"No! No! Not at all! Perish the thought! As if I wouldn't recognize my oldest friend," Fandral denied with bluster, acting all offended. "In fact, I'm very glad to see you safe and sound. - If a little blue."
For a moment, Loki found himself questioning whether or not Fandral had truly grasped the gravity of the situation and its implications, if he had perhaps mistaken it for a jest, and a cruel one at that. But no, Fandral had surely noticed the tell-tale signs - the unnatural shape of the cave itself, the crude weapons Loki had created to experiment and keep his hands busy - and of course he knew better than anyone the limitations of his particular brand of shapeshifting, had in fact helped Loki to test them.
Beyond that, with just the two of them, Loki also did not care to guard his feelings as he would have otherwise. Thus he sat, hugging his drawn close knees, a rather tense and defensive posture. He trusted that Fandral would not view or treat him any differently for being Jǫtunn, but...
Where Thor in response would have pushed and smothered him, concerned and meaning well, to be sure, but with all the grace of a blunt instrument, Fandral did - had always done - the exact opposite. His oldest friend, indeed.
"I never assumed you might care."
It was the bastard child of an outright lie, and they both knew it, heard the unspoken fear, apology, and gratitude that Loki could not find it in himself to voice right then.
"And a good thing, too. Otherwise I would have felt terribly insulted," Fandral quipped, with one of his slow and charming smiles. "So - will you tell me? Or is this another secret you wish for me to keep?"
"In a moment," Loki promised. "How is your wound?"
Fandral pulled his cloak and collar out of the way and fingered the fraying rim of the improvised bandage, then rotated his shoulder with great care to assess the damage. "Far better off than your sleeves, My Prince."
Rooted to the spot by the blood-red glow of a warning stare, Fandral was quick to amend, "It hurts like a bitch, but I'll live."
"Better." Loki gestured to indicate his own face. "My apologies, but I touched you, and more than once."
"Hm," Fandral hummed, tracing a fingertip along his throat. "To check my pulse and keep me from breaking my neck, I dare say."
"I certainly didn't do it just for shits and giggles."
Fandral huffed an amused snort. "Next time you visit Miðgarðr, take me with you."
"It's a promise, then." Fandral grimaced at how waxen and hard his own skin felt. "It's numb to the touch, nothing more. I'm sure the Healer's will know how to treat it."
"What has become of the others?"
"They are safe," Loki assured him. Seeing Fandral shiver, he stoked the fire with a wave of his hand. "I asked Heimdallr to send a guard to Óðinn. I had hoped he would intervene before things spiraled out of control, but..."
"A minor miscalculation," Fandral said, "albeit one that is, sadly, entirely in keeping with our track record."
"Indeed." Loki shrugged. The damage was done, the past not theirs to change. "While we were unconscious after our long fall, the Bifröst was activated, and sealed soon after."
"Rather callous of them, to leave us behind," Fandral mock-complained. "Well, I will admit, they had hardly time to search for us, what with a whole Jǫtunn army hot on their heels."
"I dare say they know we've survived worse."
"You know they'll worry regardless," Fandral pointed out, then paled. "Oh."
"Nothing at all. It just occurred to me that we best enjoy our stay here for as long as it lasts. Because this time, Óðinn is guaranteed to have us exiled."
"Do not fret. You can leave the Alföðr to me."
"Your silver tongue has saved us many times," Fandral allowed, graciously omitting how often it had gotten them into hot water instead, "but I fear when it comes to high treason, it will reach its limit."
Loki's mood sobered. "I suspect greater concerns will demand his attention."
Fandral's face darkened, revealing lines of exhaustion and pain that pulled tight around his eyes. "Like being at war with Jötunheimr."
Loki nodded, absently rubbing the raised line that now ran along the bridge of his nose. "I fear we lost any realistic hope of a peaceful solution the moment the first Jǫtunn fell in battle. King Laufey not retaliating would mean to lose the support and respect of his warriors."
"But perhaps Óðinn --"
"No," Loki interrupted, too tired himself to curb his impatience. "You forget: without the Casket, their world is dying. They have nothing to lose and everything to gain."
"Well, in that case, my sword is yours, My Prince."
An old memory surfaced, making Loki smile: Fandral, then a head taller, kneeling before him, offering his wooden sword with all the gravitas a child could hope to muster. "Yes, I have not forgotten. You pledged it to me quite some time ago."
"As long as Óðinn leads us - and Thor can be convinced to follow whatever plan you will have devised by then - I have no doubt that we will win."
"I will work hard to prove myself worthy of your trust," Loki answered in kind, dry as dust.
After a moment of silent, pensive pondering, Fandral moved to sit beside him, his gait awkward due to the ice that threatened to trip him. Shifting around to make himself comfortable, he left enough space between them so that they would not touch skin to skin. Despite his care, Loki felt the brush of his cloak and the warmth his body radiated. It was not unpleasant, but being physically Jǫtunn now, it was a sensation that felt almost alien, as if his nerves could not parse the signals they received.
"Go ahead. Ask."
"Is this - are you cursed?"
A valid question, considering the trouble they had had with cursed artifacts in the past, especially while roaming the worlds beyond the Nine in search of adventures.
"I am Jǫtunn," Loki simply said. "A thousand years ago, the Alföðr took more from King Laufey than the Casket of Ancient Winters."
Fandral thought he had taken the news quite well so far, but now he needed to take a moment to digest this particular tidbit. "You are Laufey's son."
"And that is... why the Alföðr took you. Which would make perfect sense, all things considered. Except - how can you be so sure?"
Loki gestured to indicate the lines etched into his skin, that started just below his hairline and extended from there all the way to his fingertips and the soles of his feet. "These runes are the same as Laufey's. And according to the old legends, only those born with magic can harness the Casket's powers."
"I see...," Fandral muttered, scratching his beard. "I take it you will confront the Alföðr as soon as we return?"
"That depends on the overall situation back home, but yes."
"I realize this is hardly a joking matter, but damn, to be a fly on the wall!" Fandral stopped all of a sudden, head tilted to one side. "What is that?"
Loki listened as well, heard the faint whistling and howling of the raging storm far above, and relaxed. "A blizzard. We'll leave as soon as the weather has calmed."
"Not that I am complaining, but this seems rather an anticlimactic end to all the excitement."
"Fandral, please don't tempt the Fates."
Loki stepped off the floe of ice he had turned into an elevator of sorts, a rising pillar, that had lifted them up from the abyss' ground all the way to the site of the Bifröst's landfall.
He moved towards the blackened runes slowly, eyes searching the horizon. When they had left the cave they had come across the mangled corpses of a few Jǫtunn warriors, but there had not been any sign of life, no matter how far out he had cast his senses. What had seemed majestic upon their arrival had lost its luster, the beauty dulled, as if the realm were holding its breath in anticipation.
He shook his head, not sure that he could have explained, and all the more convinced that they needed to make haste in reaching Ásgarðr. Loki knelt down to touch the runes, tracing a selected few that held the key to their return - the seal shattered, a come and gone glow in midair that dissolved into a fine, golden mist.
"Heimdallr! Open the gate!"
His call was immediately answered. Loki motioned for Fandral to go through first, then he too stepped into the circle, that now teemed and sparked with the unleashed power of the Bifröst.
The point of a sword greeted Loki on the other side.