“He could not do this," I said, then corrected myself. “He would not.”
|“He could not do this," I said through numb lips, then corrected myself. “He would not.”
Nevermind that, for once, Loki was probably telling the truth (though certainly not all of the truth). Had I not noticed the absence of my brother’s roars from Asgaard, of late?
Fenrir . . . braggart, bane, bully. Defender, supporter, brother. He's never been a nice person, and I have my doubts as to whether he's anyone's definition of good. In my life, the only other person I've loved and hated in such a confused mix was my mother, and Odyn.
My brother and I never got along. Sweet Hel was more than sister, she was peacemaker and go-between. He doted on her, as did I, and through love of her, we managed to stay civil with each other even after our mother died.
Would the AllFather bind me and my siblings forever because of his fear of Ragnarok . . . no. No, he would not.
Not if he truly loved me.
I didn’t realize I’d said this aloud until Loki laughed; but his eyes were solemn, rueful and met mine squarely. “You more than anyone knows that Odyn destroys what he loves. It's one of the reasons he and I once got on so well,” Loki adds absently. “And your brother is a boaster and a fool. He claimed that there was no chain, no fetter, no prison that could hold him, and that you were weak for letting Odyn imprison you. He further claimed he could leave Niflheim any time he wished and loose a crimson tide of death over the whole of Midgaard, and Odyn would do—could do nothing to stop him.“
I could not deny that this was something Fenrir would say. I could even hear his rasping, rough voice barking it in the back of my mind, if I tried. He'd never made a secret of despising Yg. Did nothing but belittle and slander him from the moment he and Loki arrived in Fensalir, till the very morning the Nine set out on our Quest.
“You'll live to rue letting this clanless bastard into your bed,” he'd said to me with resigned contempt. His parting gift along with the daggers that accompanied me to Asgaard, and saved my life on more than one occasion. “Or maybe you won't. Good journey to you,” he'd added, stalking out of the stable, leaving Hel to hug me, and weep, and beg me not to go. And Yg—and Loki, who never strayed far from his oathbrother—to watch and make of our family what they would. . . .
It's been ages since I felt regret so keenly as I did, staring beyond Loki, into my lonely fire.
“And Odyn paid credence to this nonsense? My brother is a boaster and a fool—he makes threats and enemies more frequently than Odyn sires bastards." I jumped up, blood thrumming through my veins, eager to effect something, to act. To take matters into my own hands, though I most definitely could not. "They should both know better!” I was pacing, my voice rising with my anger. It's an emotion I've grown unused to. My chest seemed to itch and burn.
Too much mead and too much upsetting news, I supposed.
“Odyn is paranoid; all he can see is the Fimbulwinter. That’s all either of us sees, anymore. . . ." Loki admitted wearily, his shoulders sagging like those of an old man. "I do not think my Aeslirlingas would survive the final winter.“
"You speak of them as if they were your children,” I said, pausing my pacing to gaze upon Loki. His face was grim, drawn in guilt and concern; a phantom chill set me to shuddering. “Loki—”
"I placed them far south of Odyn’s sphere of concentration, afraid he would destroy them if he thought they were a threat, or a sign of Ragnarok, as is his wont. But it is useless to hide things from one who is constantly after the Norns. He has always known. And until recently he regarded them my pets, and nothing more.”
Loki's bright, pale gaze was like winter sunlight. My shudders didn't know whether to abate or intensify, and I was surely beyond informing them. “Though it would not stop him from slaughtering my children, saw he the need, Odyn is . . . fond of them, himself.”
“Fond . . . yes.” I was forced to look away from what I saw in his face. The Aeslirlingas became real to me, in that moment: small, helpless things, buffeted and beset by the twin curses of Odyn’s lust and Loki’s love. “From the stories he tells, one would think Midgaard is populated with nothing so much as his half-breed bastards.” I shuddered again, and tried to shrug it off.
The silence Loki let fall was heavy, weighted with offense and disapproval, only some of which was directed at Odyn.
“But why have you come here to my Tower, Loki?" I demanded, remembering the years of laughing under my window; his cold, avid eyes as he asked what Ran’s life was worth to me. With these memories, I forced my shivering and unease away. I had not feared this creature when Ran's life lay in his palm; I would not fear him while he was at the mercy of my hospitality. "What gain is there for you in this Tower?”
Loki’s smile was thin, unreadable—a smile I remembered from one hundred nights around one hundred desperate campfires. “My gain is not seeing everything I’ve created—my children be destroyed because Odyn is fulfilling the very prophecies he so fears, and eons ahead of schedule. When—not if, as Odyn would have us all believe, but when—the Fimbulwinter is upon us, there is a place, one of the Nine World, called Vanirheim. Vanirheim, he believes, will be safe from the last winter and the ravages of Ragnarok. Of course Odyn will choose who survives. Most of the Aeslir, minus a very specific few—“
“You?” I interrupted, thinking I had ferreted out his gain.
Loki nodded, “And you, child. Plus your siblings and nearly all of the Aeslirlingas.”
“Nearly?” I choked out, though Loki’s words filled my heart with despair. I was afraid to ask why Odyn might leave me behind . . . afraid that the reason would make perfect sense.
“Well, excepting his children, a few other half-Aeslir, and two Aeslirlingas to rebuild the whole of that race . . . incidentally, the two he has in mind were born ten and six years ago, respectively.” Loki’s tone was light, unconcerned and at war with the glittering of his eyes.
“Are you actually telling me," I began around a sudden, only slightly hysterical burst of laughter. "Are you telling me the AllFather seeks to purposely bring on the Fimbulwinter and Ragnarok to restructure the Nine as he sees fit?”
Loki cocked his head in a familiar, considering angle. “For one who scoffs at the idea, you jumped to it rather quickly, and with little prodding.”
“I do not have to be a farmer to know a cowpat when I step in it.”
“Just so,” was Loki’s response; he sipped his mead thoughtfully, no longer wincing at the taste. The urge to laugh had deserted me, dried up and blown away. After a few quiet minutes, I found his seeming complacence and silence unbearable.
“Ragnarok is not like rearranging the furniture in a room! It is ruin and devastation on such a massive scale—it’s—“ I groped for words that could describe the horror of the Fimbulwinter; brother against brother, earthquakes, wars, and fires that would rage until the death of all that was light was total. It would be utter chaos, it would be—
“Apocalypse,” Loki sighed, watching me from beneath the brush of his pale lashes. I shook my head slowly.
“I don’t know that word.” But the sound of it set me to shuddering again; if I'd cared to, I could have guessed its meaning.
“It’s an Aeslirlinga word, and the only word in any language that I can speak that truly conveys all that Ragnarok will mean for the Worlds.” He leaned forward, the firelight washing him orange and red: a devil who was, at turns, capering and sincere. “Odyn believes that the rebirth prophesied to follow Ragnarok is as sure as Ragnarok itself, but it’s not. The Nine may never recover. Never.” Loki snorted, swirling his finger in his mead. "Yet Odyn will risk all to have his way."
I attempted to absorb this, to turn it over in my mind like a stone in my palm, only to find it already settled into the very marrow of me. Such credulity had always been my besetting sin, and that night was no different.
“How long have you known of this plan?”
Loki’s eyes skittered away from mine, then back, narrowed in speculation. “Would it surprise you to know that I am now the oldest Aeslir alive, older, even, than Freyir and Friyya.”
“Nothing about you would surprise me, Loki. Nothing at all.” Truth in that, as well as rue, and I did not try to hide either.
“My,” he tsked, his eyes warming almost wistfully. “How jaded you’ve become, child!”
“That, and I know with whom I am dealing. I’ve come to expect anything of you, therefore nothing you do surprises me.”
The grin Loki granted me was as merry and predatory as the rest of him. “It would not surprise you, then, that I was already mourning my many-times great-grandchildren, when Yg came squalling into Midgaard. Long had I been set to watch for his coming, and on the day of his birth, the Norns bore this message to Odyn's mother, before she died in childbed:
“’From him will spring the Nine Worlds and through him, they will wither and die. Through him an age of great deeds, followed by an age of death. On the heels of his death, the Great Rebirth. Skoal, Yg Bolverk, Grimnir One-eye! Hail, Odyn AllFather!'”
Despite my skepticism, he had me, and he knew it.
"How do you know this?"
“I have my ways. . . .” again, his eyes slid away from mine.
“Of that, I am certain.”
He wasn’t lying—not this time—but leaving out bits of the truth . . . likely crucial bits. Doubtless he was casting himself in a less unfavorable light—I could easily picture him, a pale and prurient owl, perching above a dying woman’s bed . . . the better to hear the whispered the fate of her newborn—but there was more to his omissions than that.
“Yg’s coming was prophesied long before his birth, as was mine—and your own, it may, or may not interest you to know. Yours was particularly . . . noteworthy.” Loki toasted me with his mead. “But then the Norns have always been fond of dramatic prophecy, but that does not call into doubt their validity.”
“It is not the Norns that I doubt,” I pointedly reminded him. Loki snorted and set aside his goblet with vague distaste.
“I don’t know how Odyn convinced you this was anything other than boar-swill, but then he’s always been a persuasive man.” Loki glanced at the rumpled sheets on my bed. To my dismay I blushed, and my next words came out more sharply than I would have liked.
“Keep your observations and judgments to yourself, Prankster.” I didn’t like Loki to know when I was upset—those sharp eyes catalog every weakness, and the mind behind them never forgets. “Get out.”
“Far be it from me to overstay my welcome.” He stood up, oozing charm like rancid honey. My head was aching from both him and Odyn—not to mention all the mead I'd consumed—in such short order.
And still, Loki watched me with glittering, pale eyes.
“You cannot, as yet, conceive how much has been taken from you, Godhood aside . . . but you will.” His voice seemed to ring throughout the room like a bell and for a moment, the room began to revolve; slowly, sickeningly. I could summon neither voice nor breath to silence him. The fire, always the same, perfect temperature was suddenly too hot for me, consuming every bit of air around me.
“One day you’ll understand, child . . . the Nine help Odyn and I when you do. The Nine help us all.”
Sick unto death of his nonsense, I stood, meaning to open the door for air and usher out my unwanted guest, but my body sank to the floor two steps from the chair.
For the third time in three thousand years, I fainted.
The next thing I knew, my tingly-numb body being turned over. When I was able to open my eyes, I was looking into Loki’s. They were neither mad nor merry, but determined . . . and empty.
He’d poisoned the mead.
The buzzing in my head calmed; slowed and resolved into thoughts, quicksilver-bright in contrast to my own sluggish, darker thoughts.
Enchanted, not poisoned.
It was Loki’s thought—his voice, though his lips did not move.
What magic is this? I wondered, terrified, hot and cold all over, but still unable to do more than twitch and blink.
Not magic. A talent, really. One you might have made use of, if you’d but known you possessed it, and bothered to hone it. He stroked my hair tenderly, brushing tendrils of it off my damp face. So many things have needed my attention since Odyn’s birth. Since the Aeslirlingas—
What are have you done to me?! I was screaming inside my own head, angry, scared, too furious to make sense of the nightmare I found myself in.
Loki closed his eyes for a moment and quicksilver-thoughts buzzed through me. When he finally calmed them, I could feel his voice throughout my being.
Of the three of you, you were the best. Strong, brave, sane . . . and that’s quite an accomplishment, considering your pitiful parentage, Jormengandr.
The heat of the room seemed to fade under the assault of icy chills that name sent through me; a name I had never said, never thought for fear that which I had seen on the tapestries lining my room might come to pass.
How—? My mind whispered, paralyzed and frightened of what such knowledge might mean in Loki’s scheming hands.
Your prize for besting Heimdal was to know the name your true-mother had never told you, or anyone. And you feel the truth of who you are in your bones, do you not? Loki was gazing down into my eyes again, emptiness replaced by rue as bitter as any I’d ever known.
You and your siblings were abandoned in the woods just outside of Fensalir, shortly after your birth. Hel and Fenris’s names were stitched on their blankets while your blanket was left bare. The Aeslir who found you took you home, kept you and raised you as his own children, but he was afraid to name the one who hadn’t been named. . . .
I tried to sneer but could not.
This is all common knowledge among my clan and our people. I have made no secret of my beginning, I thought viciously. If intent could kill, Loki would have been lying next to me, cold.
And his wife, Angreboda, what thought she of you? She loved and hated you all at once, did she not? he answered for me when I was silent.
Loki leaned closer to me, till I could feel his breath on my face, and spoke aloud.
“Know, then, that Angreboda was your true-mother, the one who bore you within her. You were not the children of her husband. When you were born, she knew that her . . . indiscretion would be discovered the moment he saw you. So she abandoned you in the woods, at the foot of an oak tree, to be found or perish, and told her husband that their babe had been stillborn. Three days later, he returned from hunting with three foundling babes, and hope of healing his wife’s broken heart over the loss of their child. . . .”
A wave of melancholy washed through me, bitter-sweet and breath-taking, and I could have sworn there were tears in Loki's eyes.
“Your father, the one who raised you, was a good man, and Angreboda thought her troubles solved. But she couldn’t erase the stigma attached to you. Bad enough that you were foundlings, but Fenrir’s unquenchable rages and Hel’s . . . strangeness did nothing to ease matters.”
You take joy in torturing one already at your mercy, this I know. But slandering my dead parents to my face is lower than I thought it possible for even you to sink!
I tried desperately to keep the faded memories of my kind, quiet father and fierce, sometimes cold mother from the front of my mind. Loki had no right to these memories. I would give him no more yarn with which to spin his lies.
And how could it be anything but lies, when he could not possibly know these things?
Loki searched my eyes, his own shining and pained. Then he leaned down and kissed my forehead. I felt a tear drop onto my brow.
"My poor, dear child," he murmured, sitting back to brush my temples with gentle, cool fingers, something Angreboda used to do whenever I lay unwell or fevered. One of the few signs of affection she allowed herself to show, and—I didn’t know if he was prying into my memories, but I suddenly thought of a snippet of conversation from earlier in the evening:
“Though it would not stop him from slaughtering my children if he saw the need, Odyn is fond of them now. . . “
Horrified, I looked deep into Loki’s damp, grey eyes, no greyer than my own. Platinum hair lengthened, became raven-dark tresses that brushed my face. Loki's own face became squarer, sparer, sharper. Became Angreboda's regal, icy beauty.
“Odyn is, indeed, fond of you. Quite fond, but he does feel the need. He will kill you. And he will grieve for you in his own, selfish way, but only after he has stilled your life,” Loki whispered in my mother's voice. “And I . . . I will do whatever I must to save my children. As I have always done.”
Denial swelled in my being, like a poisonous bubble. Even as her long-missed fingers brushed away tears and cupped my face. Even as he leaned down and kissed my forehead once more. He smelled of pine and cool water. Of earth and wind. Of wild places that I would now never again see.
He smelled like my mother, and the bubble in me burst, spilling white hot hurt every where, till not even Loki's fast fingers could catch all my tears. All those years of wondering who I was—if I looked anything like my true-mother and father. Whose eyes and hair I had—had I inherited my strength from him, and my nature from her?
And how I would laugh at myself when sneaking gazes at my reflection! Laugh at myself for imagining my wide, up-slanted eyes and strong jaw somewhat resembled hers. That my coarse, uncared for hair could be compared, in passing, with hers. The Nine knows Fenrir inherited her sneers and temper, just as Hel inherited our foster-father's sweet nature and kind heart. Could I not have grown to resemble either of them in some small way, too?
I closed my eyes, too broken to feel as foolish as I surely should have. My life has been nothing but deceptions. Even the people I'd loved most were lies. The only ones who'd proven honest—thus far—were my poor siblings, banished and imprisoned, and my foster-father, who passed from this world due to age and poor health, the healers said.
Due to a heart that'd never mended or grown strong after his beloved wife drowned, says everyone who loved him. . . .
But there was another now, wasn't there? One who, if he'd survived the journey to Asgaard, was now immortal. Or near to, thanks to proximity to the Laerad and my Tower.
Loki . . . mother, I thought, the word imbued with more heartache and bitterness than any I've ever uttered. The fingers that rested on my cheek seemed to burn icy-cold, sear my heated skin with frost. Who . . . who was my true-father?
She smiled at me, at once reluctantly fond and coolly disappointed. This woman, who it is unlikely Loki would ever have seen otherwise, let alone long enough to memorize the way she moved and smiled, was—in blood and in manner—my mother.
Dearest child . . . can you not guess? Her voice rang out silently, mocking me and pitying me in a way that has made me cringe since I was very small. Then the room around me winked out, taking her with it. I was still conscious, but the darkness that surrounded me was utter and impenetrable. And I was very, very afraid.
What are you doing to me? Mother, what have you done?!
I heard her voice as if from Worlds away:
For what it’s worth, I’m sorry, Jormengand. For being an awful mother, a contemptible companion and a piss-poor guardian. I’ve known what must happen since the Norns attended your birth . . . but I didn’t realize it would be so hard to do what I must do.
I realized her voice seemed to be drawing further away, though distance was a moot point in my current state. I panicked, nonetheless for that realization. What do you have to do, mother? Please—I cannot leave the Tower!
Or was I already without, and the first flakes of the Fimbulwinter dusting my limp and bespelled form?
Impossible for me to tell in that disorienting dark of the mind.
I have made it so that's no longer possible . . . the Tower will now always be with you and you will be with the Aeslirlingas. You will be their gauge, their watcher, that they can prepare as best they may for what lies ahead. When you at last begin to wake, the Worlds will quake with that wakefulness, they will know the Fimbulwinter is upon them, bringing Ragnarok. I have given them you. I can give no more. I wish only that I. . . .
I strained to hear her voice. It was less than the breath of a breeze, and still dwindling.
It was gone.
Loki? Mother! I called once, into that darkness. Then, where there had been numbness was feeling. Itching, burning feelings starting from my chest, engulfing my entire body. I felt as if I were growing, expanding to fill some vast space. When I heard the creaking of wood being bent and snapped, felt a searing burn on my left side and the cool chill of stone on my left, I realized I was still in the Tower. I was growing within it.
My bones were liquid fire, tearing my burning muscles as they grew. My arms lost all feeling, as did my legs. My head hit more wood—the rafters—and broke them, too.
I grew until I was sure I would smother or pop inside the confining walls of the Tower. Then a strange thing happened—the walls of the Tower began to give. Not break, but to conform to the shape of my grossly flourishing body. It stretched like a tendon, easily accommodating me, its clamminess adhering to me like a second skin. Repulsed, I began to writhe, in an effort to shake it off of me, Fimbulwinter bedamned.
It was stuck fast.
I kept growing, the Tower now growing with me. I could see out the Tower window—feel the cold of Asgaard on the Tower walls like it was my own skin the snow swirled against. I shivered, trying to cry out for help to anyone: Odyn, Frigg, my old friend Freyir. . . .
Ran! Aurya! Anyone! Please!
My Tower-enclosed body fell to the battlements with a great crash that jarred loose my sense. Witless, I began to crawl off, needing to get away, afraid of something, though I didn’t know what. I crawled through the storm, more cold than I had ever been in my life, inching along on my stony belly.
From behind me, distant, I could hear a wild galloping sound. Though I had never heard the sound before, I knew it was Odyn, on Sleipnir, the fastest horse in All the Worlds.
I crawled faster, quickly getting the trick of moving that way . . . it wasn’t difficult, once I found the rhythm of it. I must have been moving quickly, for with my bleary, foggy vision I could see the Bifrost burning ahead of me in mere minutes.
All my instinct was telling me to hide; somewhere treacherous Yg Bolverk, Evil-Doer, could not find me. Somewhere Loki, Form-changer, Trickster-Mother could never spin his lies, truths and half-truths around me again. Deep in the warm earth of Midgaard, hopefully below the sphere of their influence.
But how? What hill could hide me? I was still growing, and the Tower was growing with me, and—
I was so tired and cold.
Nevertheless, I crawled across the Bifrost so fast I could only marvel at my speed. But Odyn and Sleipnir were gaining on me. I had to move faster. Ahead, lay the Kjellgar. I knew I would die if I set one scant inch of me in that freezing sea, but there was no other recourse.
But suddenly, the waves parted in front of me, until only dry—if cold—ground was left. I could hear a voice drifting to me from the twin walls of water to either side of me, the voice of my sister, Hel. . . .
Cross here, Jormengand. I will never let him catch you. . . .
I wasted no time and began my crossing. As I passed, the waters closed behind me silently, so quickly I could feel the cold wind of it on my back. Shivering, I crawled on. I could no longer hear Odyn and Sleipnir.
In an age or an hour I was across, and slithering over flat land. I passed forest and mere and eventually the mountains, which I could only crawl around.
Crawl, I did—forever, it seemed, sometimes drawing away from my pursuer, sometimes feeling his intent on my back like hot sunlight. All that night I fled, it seemed, across the length of Midgaard. I finally tired some many miles south of the lands I had known before I joined the Nine. Lands that I should have found strangely, disgustingly hot, but somehow felt just right. The musky scent of wolf pervaded the area for miles, and the sense of sleepiness was returning, more strongly than ever.
At last I approached a nameless tarn, deep, dark and still. Behind me, I could once again hear horse and rider.
Suddenly, an eery, deafening howl broke the night sky:
Hurry, Jormengand, it meant. Go to ground, and I will seal the way. He will never catch you. . . .
Ahead of me, not many miles hence, I saw a cave opening . . . huge it was, large enough to accommodate even me. I crawled to it, needing to hide, needing to sleep. Perhaps rest would see me feeling warmer, stronger, and clearer of mind. The night was too cold, even in these southern lands.
I crawled into the cave, tasting and scenting, moving carefully but quickly ahead. I encountered nothing and kept moving, even when the cave took a downward angle. My descent continued and continued, taking me west for a long while. Here, now, I began to grow again, until I had to keep moving just so I wasn’t smothered by all my extra yardage.
Not long into my descent another earsplitting howl, miles above my head, grew till it filled the earth and no doubt the sky. Until it seemed the very foundations of the world should crumble around me. And shake they did, so much that I could hear cave-ins above me. But I was not frightened. I kept moving deeper into the warmth and safety of Midgaard.
The howl continued at that volume, shaking the whole world. I kept moving.
There came a time, an eternal span during which the tunnel ascended, descended and plateaued dozens of times, when I bumped into something with a crash that resounded all around me. I felt a sharp pain in two places: the top-front of me and the top-back of me. . . .
I flicked my tongue out and tasted—myself. Or the dry, reptilian, earthstonedust smell I now recognized as myself.
Unless my instinct was deceived by some spell, it seemed I was . . . long enough to encircle Midgaard—the whole of Midgaard—to gird it, like an ugly belt.
No . . . that is impossible! I thought, shuddering. Above me, the seas churned; islands cracked apart and sank into the ocean.
Slowly, the howl faded, until it was no more than faint reverberations passing through otherwise silent earth.
I was free at last. Free of Odyn and his scheming, his planning, his Tower, thanks to Fen and Hel . . . protecting me when they could have slowed me enough to let Odyn catch me, thus gaining his favor, and maybe an end to their banishment.
The cost of hindering Odyn's pursuit of me would be terrible, and I feared for them both. Though I wondered what more Odyn—or Loki could possibly do to us. Our very lives were all that hadn't been sacrificed to their vision.
I am warm and quite comfortable. And safe from them both.
Had Odyn been chasing me to aid me? Or to end me? I had called for his help; the AllFather wasn’t completely without heart, though his finer sentiments made his ruthless streak all the more potent for the contrast.
Was Loki a tool of destiny, as he—she claimed? A wrongly-maligned AllMother just trying to hold the Worlds together for a little while longer? Or was she an insane schemer with pride matched only by Odyn's? Was it a combination of both those things, or some other unfathomable reason?
I know nothing. I know just enough to be tantalized and coerced and manipulated—just enough to make freedom of choice not seem a fool's dream.
I will never know the answers. Not on this side of Ragnarok, anyway. Both of them used me for their own ends, no matter how noble. Despite their claims of adoration and caring, they had wasted and frittered away my life. They all did, every near-immortal Aeslir godling, every Aeslirlinga that tilled his field while I rotted in a prison of stone, and now a prison of earth.
Rage kindles within me: small, a barely-there spark. It will grow while I sleep, and on a distant day . . . I will emerge from this prison, and my wrath will consume Midgaard.
Such is my destiny. I know better, now, than to try and avert it.
The time has come to allow long-denied weariness to overwhelm me. I feel as if I could sleep for eons and Fimbulwinter itself wouldn’t wake me. . . .
I shrug once, twice, then twice more, till the earth settles around me just right. Someday, I will awaken, Fimbulwinter will blanket the Worlds, the battle at Vigrid will rage unchecked, and
I will have my vengeance, though I take All with me into doom and perdition.
I will have my vengeance.
Down below the lands, the islands, the seas, and the mists, the Midgaard Serpent sleeps, waiting to usher in Ragnarok—the Twilight of the Gods, and the end of the Worlds.