A/N: I blame sand gnomes.
Beta Love: The Dragon and the Rose, Dutchgirl01, Flyby Commander Shepard
Summary: [HG/Loki] There's far more to Hermione Granger than anyone ever expected. Most of all, herself.
Blink of the Gods
One has to pay dearly for immortality; one has to die several times while one is still alive.
"My Lady," Loki purred, pressing his mouth to the back of her hand with a courtly bow.
"My Prince," the woman replied with an elegant curtsy and smile.
There was a flash of movement, and Loki had a dagger to her throat, a sort of smug smile on his face. "You put your guard down."
"Nay, Prince Loki, look down," she replied, not flinching at the dagger at her throat.
Loki looked down to see the point of her jeweled dagger poised directly over his family jewels.
"You would bleed out long before word of my death did ring out across Ásgarðr."
Loki's eyes widened and his dagger disappeared, his smile spread across his face. "And who would have thought one so infatuated with books would have the skill to emasculate me."
"Knowledge is power, my Prince," the woman replied. "The power of the mind and the weapons of war make little difference."
He touched her cheek tenderly, brushing her hair from her face. He growled softly, his half-lidded eyes glowing slightly red as he neared her, pressing his face into her neck. As he pulled away to looked down into her eyes, she smiled at him, yet it was not her mouth that betrayed her warmth; it was her eyes. Her face, trained from a young age to not betray her true thoughts, was like stone save for the slight upturn of her lips.
Loki, knowing that smile was for him, was drawn like the moth to flame, wanting nothing more than to bask in that fire, even if it should burn him up. Here, alone with Lady Gudrun, nothing else seemed to matter. It made the hours spent learning the art of war from so many tutors fade away. No other lady of Ásgarðr drew him in so easily, and he knew she did not do it purposefully. Her station, at least amongst the gods of Ásgarðr, was nothing special. She was no famous warrior or war hero. Her family, if anything, stayed away from the royal court. In fact, it was one of the few things Loki had no real idea what they did, save not fight the battles most of the well known did in Ásgarðr. Lady Gudrun was a mystery, and that made her more appealing. Everyone else was such an easy read— even when try tried so very hard not to be.
Thor stomped in, yelling some grand spiel of how he had slain a frost dragon, and how glorious it had been.
"Where is my brother?" Thor bellowed. "He must share in the glory of my most prodigious accomplishment!"
His brother tromped in like a rampaging bull elephant in musth and threw the large head of a decapitated wyrm in all its bloody, slime-coated glory onto the pristine, polished floor.
"Brother!" he bellowed in greeting, pulling him into a manly hug, thumping him on the back. "I have brought you a glorious head for you to emblazon upon your most naked wall."
"Why, thank you, brother," Loki said, looking rather weary. "My wall was most definitely wanting a fresh coating of slime and blood."
"Nonsense, it will be prepared perfectly and mounted most gloriously as befits a royal prince of Ásgarðr!"
"And where did you find such a— creature?" Loki asked. He had to admit the creature was huge and had fangs to spare. It was an impressive sort of beast.
"Stupid beast decided to pester a village under our protection," Thor sniffed. "Sif injured it, but broke her leg when it fell upon her. The Warriors Three did smite it off her, but it was my sword that did ram through its skull that ceased its rampage!"
There was an odd coldness to the beast that radiated off its head, even dead. Loki frowned. "I believe this beast is from Jötunheimr," he speculated. "There must be a portal or—"
"Who cares where it came from if it provides such sport," Thor said, waving him off. "All we care is that it left the protection of father's decree of peace when it left Jötunheimr and attacked that village in another Realm."
Loki pressed. "Brother, if there is a portal from Jötunheimr, then not just one Realm could be in danger. We should tell All Father before he sees fit to ask you about it and why you didn't tell him about it sooner."
"Fine, fine," Thor said. "But after we regale the table with the stories of great valour and heroism! All we need now is a great and most glorious war!"
"We are not at war, brother," Loki said.
"Soon, my brother," Thor said. "I can feel it in my bones."
"Would that be the ones you broke trying to wrestle a rock troll?" Loki commented archly.
"Bah!" Thor said. "War is glorious, brother. Even you can admit to that."
"True," Loki said, getting a mischievous glint in his eyes. "Especially when they so desperately deserve it."
Thor grinned and hoisted the head up and over his shoulder. "I'm going to get this properly mounted for you, my brother," he crowed. "Come and enjoy the stories around the tables."
Loki looked Gudrun. "You should come. The tales of war are most excellent."
Gudrun's face betrayed nothing, but her eyes cast down a moment. "There is very little of worth in warmongering, my Princes. Do not let me stop you from enjoying your evening. I must, however, decline."
"You do not believe the war with the Jötunn is a worthy pursuit," Loki rumbled.
"No, it is not," the woman replied, her dark brown locks shimmering with a gold glint as she brushed a strand from her face. "They are people, just like any other people. They have emotions, fears, loves, needs. What difference does it make that they live in a world of ice and frozen earth to the fires of one Realm and the Winds of another? What does it matter that their forms are taller and their faces fierce— would yours not be if living in a place that would swallow you up rather than spit at you? What use is being immortal if the very Realm tries and tests it, hoping that you step in the wrong place to become food for the great whale who lurks beneath the ice— while we sit in our temperate glory under the cover of marble and metal and whose windows open to the very skies for snow is never here."
Loki scoffed. "What drivel. Have you been reading in the library, Gudrun? They are animals. Barbarians."
The woman's eyes darkened, a glimmer of fire flickering across her eyes. For a moment, her hair seemed to move like living flame. "Pardon me, Prince Loki. I do not wish you to suffer my woeful inadequacies any longer." She turned, curtsied, and swept the room in a blur of her wispy robes.
Loki, stunned, made to pursue her, but Thor hooked his arm around his and yanked him along. "Let's go, brother. Do not worry about the likes of her. There are plenty of other lovely fish in the sea."
Loki did not understand exactly how Lady Gudrun managed to get past Heimdall. The elder god, watchful as always, simply nodded to her as she passed by, slamming his sword into the great portal mechanism and watching her go. Loki, concealed by a spell, quickly dashed in after her while Heimdall was distra—
Loki was pulled off his feet as the portal closed. Heimdall scowled at him as he set him down again.
"Prince Loki," the grim Asgardian stated. "You are wanted back at the royal palace.
Loki, unused to being seen so well, could only stare and work his mouth like the burbling of a fish. He stared into the darkened portal that no longer swirled.
"Where did she go?" Loki demanded.
"Where she must go," Heimdall answered calmly. "And where you cannot."
Loki scowled. "I am a prince of Ásgarðr. You will tell me where Lady Gudrun went!"
"No, he will not," Odin's voice said from the Bifröst.
Loki's eyes widened as his face paled. All-Father stood sternly, glowering at his son. "Go back to the palace. Now."
Loki could no nothing less than obey at once, scrambling to do as his father ordered.
"He will attempt to follow her," Heimdall said grimly.
Odin sighed. "See that he does not use the Bifröst."
"I shall, my King," Heimdall said, "but you know as well as I that there are ways to travel between the Realms that have nothing to do with the Bifröst."
Odin closed his one remaining eye and sighed deeply.
"There you go, little guy," Gudrun said with a smile, a strange feeling of relief at being able to express what she felt without having to hide under propriety and social status.
The frost beast pup slobbered on her, pouncing on her chest and licking her face, wriggling eagerly against her body.
A taller than average Jötunn plucked the pup up by the scruff and placed it in the basket with the other pups. "Judging by his slobber, you fixed his leg for him?"
"All better, Arvid," Gudrun said with smile. "He had a little break on his rear leg, but it mended easier than that frost yak you tried to get me to fix last week."
The Jötunn laughed heartily. "Frost yaks are a hundred times more stubborn with a extra helping of grump."
"Is that what you call it?" Gudrun mused.
"Your accent is gone," Arvid said, a small smug smile on his face.
"You sound like us," he said. "Your Asgardian lilt no longer peppers your Jötunn."
Gudrun sighed, shaking her head. "Finally, I will not longer be the brunt of so many frost seal jokes," she replied.
"No, I think those will never get old," Arvid said with a grin.
"Bah," Gudrun muttered.
"You even grunt like a male," Arvid teased.
"Can I really help it?! YOU are my most avid tutor!" Gudrun hissed.
Arvid grinned. "It is my secret plot to keep you to myself in the hopes one day you will butcher my frost seal and allow me to lay claim to you."
Gudrun groaned. "It's bad enough you tricked me into carrying your hunting knife not knowing what that meant!"
Arvid roared laughter.
"I'm just glad Solveg finally had enough of your flirting and threw down her sealskin in front of the elders and dragged you down on top of it," Gudrun retorted.
Arvid sighed. "She is a wonder."
"And your mate," Gudrun reminded him.
Arvid just shrugged. "It is still great fun to make you squirm," he confessed.
Gudrun shook her head just before the basket of frost beast pups toppled over and the entire litter tackled Gudrun and pinned her down, wriggling and slurping her into submission.
"Gah!" she gasped, falling backwards.
Pups to the Jötunn, they were all the size of small ponies to Gudrun, and she ended up flat on her back covered in enthusiastic, wriggling, and oh-so-happy pups.
Arvid tutted, pulling them off and setting them back in their basket. "They simply cannot help themselves," he said with a sigh.
Gudrun grunted, her body sunken deep into the snow so far that the ground was almost level with her face.
Arvid gave her a hand, and she pulled herself up using his finger as an assist. "Thanks," she said.
Arvid looked upon her kindly. "You should stay here," he said. "You do not belong in Ásgarðr."
Gudrun's expression saddened, her shoulders slumping slightly. "I would be a horrible ambassador if I did not live in both places."
"The Great Frost Mother accepts you, Gudrun," Arvid said sombrely. "As if you being here, dressed as we do, blessed by the snow and ice did not prove this. We accept you. Our people— of all of Ásgarðr— you and your parents have always kept the oaths and attempted to to learn our differences."
"And similarities, if Fiske is to be believed," Gudrun said, gesturing a flourish with her hand.
"Fiske is a braggart and an idiot," Arvid muttered.
"I know the type," Gudrun said, deadpan.
Arvid bellowed laughter, startling the pups in the basket. "Ah, I suppose we all have them, heart sister," he said. "For every few great examples of hunting prowess, there has to be one whose head is lodged most deeply in their own arse. Yet, the Great Frost Mother has not seen fit to swallow him whole, so there must be some reason he still manages to draw breath."
Gudrun found herself pounded into the earth again, a giant cat's saber-toothed head rubbing against her with a rumble. She used her hands to rub the great beast between the ears and eyes, and the frost sabre purred happily.
"You are a horrible thing, Halvor!" she laughed, pulling herself up to rub the cat's scruff and under the chin.
This gained her a rough tongued slurp upside the face.
"He wants to take you across the flows," Arvid said with a chuckle. "He knows the routine. He knows you."
Gudrun sighed, slumping over the great cat and rubbing his belly from across his back as she pulled herself up behind his head to straddle his back. "Spoilt is what he is," she said with a roll of her eyes. "He just wants to run like the wind and knows I'll let him."
Arvid put a loose collar around the great cat with a dangling bell on it. "There, so the poor hunters don't think Death is coming for them in the snows."
Gudrun chuckled. "It is not my fault the biggest sabre in Jötunheimr decided he wanted me as a hearth-mate!"
"Well you will have a rampaging pack of frost beasts at your beck and call soon enough," Arvid said, pointing to the wriggling basket of trouble. "Not even including every beast you've healed, and every Jötunn you have mended their ailments for that want to adopt you forever."
"Bah," Gudrun grunted, channeling her inner male. "Maybe if they put their spear where their mouth was, they'd have a shot, but you know they are all talk until they feel the pull."
Arvid snorted, putting her packs on the sabre's back and rubbing his ears. "There is enough supplies there to last you many days if the hunting is bad, more if hunt well. I hear the younger rut seals are goring each other early along the coast. If you feel generous, you can spear one and have the beast drag it to the next camp. I hear Kjeld broke his arm wrestling in a harpooned whale, so his whelps may need the extra food since the whale ran off both alive and with his spear."
"Poor guy," Gudrun said, sympathetic. "He can't even carve a new spear until his arm is better. He's probably a mess."
"He's probably feeling emasculated, I'm sure," Arvid said. "We do love our spears." He made eyebrows at Gudrun.
"Great Frost Mother, Arvid, will you stop," she laughed. "You're horrible.
"My mate seems to scream differently."
Gudrun rolled her eyes and used her seat to signal Halvor. The cat leapt up and away, leaving Arvid covered in snow the giant sabre had kicked up into his face.
Arvid wiped the snow from his face and chuckled, waving his spear at her in respect as she disappeared into the snow and ice.
Gudrun lit the fire in the hearth, her hand passing over the cold offerings to the Great Frost Mother— the caring but highly testing goddess of the frozen wastes of Jötunheimr. No creatures of Jötunheimr lived without her blessing, if one believed in her— yet dying happened often if her tests were ignored. The Jötunn, who came in a variety of species, were all her domain, but it was the frost giants that paid respect to her the strongest, for the largest tracts of Jötunheimr were the frozen wastes— the land no other Jötunn of the mountains and more temperate land would brave. It wasn't to say the other areas were less dangerous. Each had their own dangers fitting of the Jötunn that lived there, but the frost giants were notorious for their ferocity and strength of will, so much so that when Ásgarðr had once declared war upon Jötunheimr, it was the frost giant's' visage that haunted the stories to Asgardian children.
But, were the frost giants truly as powerful as the Asgardians believed? Perhaps, but the prejudices of their nature were far more warped. Asgardians believed all frost giants to be barbarians and heathens, refusing to believe in the power of the gods— the Asgardians, specifically.
And why should they?
Gudrun knew that the Jötunn put their unquestioning faith in the goddess that both tested and protected them from the unforgiving wastes. They put their love and respect into the being that had always been there for them while Ásgarðr did very little in the way of godliness.
But what of her?
Gudrun was Odin's best hope that peace would remain between the Jötunn and Ásgarðr. She— starting with her parents— had lived, breathed, and made their life on Jötunheimr, serving as ambassadors from Ásgarðr in service to the All-Father. Her parents had almost died many times to secure the trust of the strangely secretive people, and Gudrun had been a true miracle born amongst the frozen wastes— first, because she seemed surprisingly impervious to the cold just like the Jötunn and second, because her mother had supposedly been barren.
Now, she was torn between two so very different cultures. Despite all the glitter and glory of Ásgarðr, the cold winds of Jötunheimr called her back— a harsh land for a strong, resilient people.
But what was she?
Gudrun had no idea, but as she passed her hand over the offerings of the best pieces of her kill Halvor had helped her drag out of the ocean. Hunting was always intimate. It required focus— sensing the prey hiding under the ice. The best ones always were, the cunning or the shy. They were often fatter and more comfortable in the water than out, while the young stayed above.
Gudrun was one of the few who hunted in a team. She and Halvor had been a team since he was a young cub. She had always allowed him to hunt with her, and he always got a fair share of it. It was why he was the biggest frost sabre the floes had ever known— as fast as the shifting winds yet as agile as the fish-stealing frost mink. She knew because he'd bring her mink like the mother cat would bring food to her cubs. The mighty hunter showing off his skills…
Her relationship with most of the beasts of the snows was something very special. She could heal any creature of the snow and ice, and they seemed to instinctively know it. They would crawl to her bed and lay their heads upon her, patiently waiting for her to tend them. As long as they were with her, no Jötunn would hunt them, and they would never hunt them close to the camp, lest they be coming or going from her. Out on the wastes, however the rules were survival. Beast or giant, it made no difference. It wasn't to say that a known beast would give them a wide berth or vice versa, but there was dishonour in the hunt when the food went to the family and the best, choicest pieces to the Great Frost Mother. Those who failed in this, however, would often find themselves without prey to hunt, a spear broken just when they needed it most, or other misfortunes that no hunter wanted for themselves or their families.
But as fickle and dangerous as the wastes could be, they provided a good life for those who respected it and worshipped the Great Frost Mother. It gave the Jötunn's immortality new meaning because even as they were unaging once full-grown, they could still fall to laziness or stillness of the mind and body.
There were no fat cats sitting on the throne of Jötunheimr's wastes. The supposed reigning king of the Jötunn hid himself away in Útgarðr: Útgarða-Loki, known to the non-frost giants as Skrýmir. He was, quite literally, fat and happy, controlling the storms of Jötunheimr with his magic and pretending he was a god. Perhaps, to the other giants, he was, but the frost giants did not bow to him.
Rumour had it, the only reason the frost giants had agreed to peace with Ásgarðr was that Odin had taken something precious from them in exchange for peace. Gudrun had her own suspicions about that. Her annoying attraction to Prince Loki was more than a little irritating. He was arrogant, obnoxious— yet, he could also be surprisingly sweet and even engaging. His bond with his brother was just far too strong to survive any small amount of attraction he might have had to her.
Why was she even THINKING about Loki?
He and his brother were both fully aware of their sex appeal, and while Loki's reputation was not nearly as infamous as Thor's with regard to his bedding of women, Loki was no inexperienced virgin either. It seemed that Loki, unlike Thor, was searching for something more.
What a fool I am, she thought, digging her nails into her palm.
She cast her hand over the hearth, recentering herself. "Great Frost Mother, I give you the heart and liver of our hunt. Help me bless this camp and the families within while their wounded heal. Show them the light in the darkness of the frozen wastes."
Her hand was surrounded in flames, and it consumed the offering with a blue fire. The fire spread up her arm, across her body as fiery feathers sprouted across her skin. They were growing thicker, she thought. They covered her skin almost completely. She could feel the tug and pull of muscles she didn't know she had, stretching and contracting under her skin. Soon, she knew, it would be time to take her place as the formal ambassador, but that would require the formal coming of age ceremony— putting one's faith into the Great Frost Mother to seal the lifelong Covenant.
A Jötunn could go centuries upon centuries without ever having sealed that part of their lives, and many did not until they were mated and had children to provide for. Alone, there was only yourself, but family made the odds so much more intimidating. The coming of age was more an acceptance of the true nature of the wastes. Nothing lived or died unseen by the Great Frost Mother.
The flames in front of her blazed to life, spreading into a large bonfire with a more radiant warmth. Small flares spread out from it, moving to lanterns, torches, and other hearths throughout the encampment, and the ground thundered with the sound of spears being beaten against the ground— a sign of gratitude and respect for the gift of flames.
Fire was life— it thawed their food, made the drinks blissfully warming, and the sleeping lodges true homes protected from the harsh, biting winds outside. Before Gudrun, her parents had always brought the ever-burning coals from Ásgarðr to help the camps, but those were now treasured by the hunters on the floes to both light their way and set fires at their temporary hunting base camps.
The camps themselves, Gudrun tended— something in her natural magic, which Ásgarðr called sorcery— gave her the ability to call the flames. As long as they stayed in this area, the fires would burn, fading only when they had to leave for new places with the change of seasons. The fires provided succor for those Jötunn who suffered the aches and pains acquired through a great many years of accumulated injuries, whose bones ached as the winds shifted, and whose hearts were heavy with the loss of family and fellows who didn't survive along with them. They also provided wonder for the youngest generation, the children whose tolerance for the ice and snow was not as well-honed as their parents. Even with a natural tolerance to the bitter cold, warmth was a blessing.
She had become a blessing.
Fire-bringer. Mender. Beast-friend.
The tell-tale jingle of the giant bell Arvid had placed on Halvor's collar rang out to tell the camps who was coming long before she materialised in the snows. She often came with a fresh kill, supplies, and herself. She tended the wounded, the hearth-beasts, and the hearths themselves, bringing with her the news from other camps, new stories of survival, and even the more sorrowful news of those who had been taken by the snows. There was always a warm bed waiting for her wherever and whenever she came— a place to rest, a bowl of hot seal stew or a generous whale-steak.
In Ásgarðr, wealth and status followed fame and glory— reputation of great conquests and bravery against tremendous odds. It also tended to follow in the footsteps of war, and war was something she truly detested. She had seen exactly what war did to people and, sadly, the glory of one side all-too-frequently involved the slaughter of the other side's innocents rather than its villains. And who were the villains, really? More often than not, it was a game of opinions, yet she knew there were always exceptions to the rule.
The barbarian rogue who had taken over an entire village, killed their men, raped their women and children, and then forced them into slavery to feed his men—his head had deserved Odin's fury, and it was one of the few times Gudrun had agreed that punishment had been well and truly deserved.
Odin had been fighting hard to broker peace and keep it nurtured for centuries, even with or especially with the Jötunn. The mistake that had made had been his father's subjugation of a few different species of giants and his later warring with the frost giants. All that had come to an end when Odin had battled with Laufey, king of the frost giants, yet the tales were all hazy as to what hat actually brought about the end of the war and a tenuous peace between their peoples. He had also appointed her parents as his ambassadors to the frost giants, and it had worked, at least for the giants. They no longer spat at the mere thought of Ásgarðr.
Asgardians, however, were quite a different story. They still thought of Jötunn as nothing more than barbaric brutes or rabid animals that should be put down for the good of all.
Even Loki was caught up in the ever-growing battlelust and eager anticipation of war against the Jötunn.
Great Frost Mother, why did she keep thinking about that arrogant Prince? Why did she think, even for a moment that he might—
Idiot, she chided herself. You are a fool.
It was odd, she realised, supposedly being one of the gods and paying respects to another god that wasn't even of Ásgarðr. But, despite the gods of Ásgarðr saying they protected all the Realms like benevolents— none truly cared for Jötunheimr.
Unless they considered her, and well— that wasn't a thing.
She wasn't a goddess of anything. The skills she had, weapons or sorcery, simply fell to the wayside because she wasn't a battle-hardened hero. She was just an ambassador, the kind that would never get glory or accolades.
Not that she wanted it. Glory… accolades. They were just words and reasons for other people to resent having to bow to you with empty respect.
As the flames spread throughout the camp, lighting the shelters and heating them, Halvor pressed his head against her back and herded her towards one of the shelters— the only one big enough to shelter both her and her large feline friend. The small encampment didn't seem to mind putting up an extra place for her, having arranged the whale bones and hides in record time. Once she left, they would probably use it where the children could play together inside from the storms, and that pleased her. She would hate that the place remained empty and unused when she was gone.
Halvor yawned and flopped on the soft lichen that had been gathered for him, sprawling out to fill a good half of the shelter with his massive bulk.
"You're huge," Gudrun muttered, rubbing his chin and earning herself a rough tongue swipe across the face.
Large as he was, even from a Jötunn's perspective, she never feared Halvor. Arvid said he had imprinted on her like a frost goose gosling, but Gudrun just dismissed that. Halvor chose to be with her, for if he had truly wished to leave, he could have done so at any time. To be fair, however, many hearth-beasts were close to their chosen family— just not quite as close as she was. He would always be waiting for her to return from Ásgarðr, almost if he knew when she was coming.
A child slipped in with a large bowl of steaming stew, smiling at her as he pulled the sealskin off the bowl to expose the glorious odor of the spicy contents within. "Your dinner, Lady Gudrun," he said with a smile.
"Thank you, Joar," she said. "My thanks to you and your family."
"Mum says thank you for bringing us the seal," he answered with a brilliant smile. He dashed out the door, closing the thick hide door behind him.
Gudrun pulled the hide out from a bundle by the fire and dragged it over to Halvor. The big cat grabbed it by the shank and pulled it over, happily gnawing on it with noisy gusto. She leaned up against him and drew the stew up to her mouth, blowing on it and inhaling the rich scent.
Gudrun sputtered when Halvor's tongue lapped into the remains of her bowl, not even waiting for her to finish the bottom scraps. She shoved his head over with a playful swat, earning herself a paw to the head and a rough tongue bath that made her hair stand up like a snow hare's ears. Halvor purred loudly as she pulled the soft, warm sealskin over and cuddled up against the large feline.
"Jerk," Gudrun said with no less love.
Halvor rumbled, wrapping his huge paws around her in a protective curl.
As her mind drifted and her eyes closed, she realised that being curled up against Halvor was much more comfortable than all the feathered, posh mattresses of Ásgarðr.
Gudrun woke with the sound of a low, deep snarl and a short wheeze of breath. She patted around in the dark, lit only by the soft glow of the hearth fire, groggy and feeling like her head was packed full of pillow feathers. She felt around for Halvor's fur, using her hands to guide her to his front, accidentally going the wrong way and ending at his rump. She worked her way back, tracing her fingers around the great cat's elongated fangs and drawing her hand across his head. "Halvor, what is it?"
A short, rasping wheeze came from the floor. "Gu—" A low gurgling followed.
Gudrun froze. She recognised that voice.
"Halvor, cease," she asked the cat, and the large feline rumbled in displeasure but did what she asked. She hung a lantern on the hook and turned up the flame. Loki's startled blue eyes stared up to the roof of the shelter as the shape of Halvor's paw seemed crushed into his armor.
"Prince Loki," she said, her face wrinkling in confusion. "Why are you here?"
Loki rasped, his neck seemingly half-crushed by Halvor's well-meaning guardianship.
"Hold on," she said, hurriedly pulling some seal skins over to the real bed and patting it.
Halvor, understanding instantly, grabbed Loki by the scruff of his armour and dragged him onto the bed, locking his sabre teeth around Loki's head.
Loki, understandably, looked mighty uncomfortable.
"Don't speak," Gudrun said, placing her hand over his throat. A soft glowing fire spread across her hands and then soaked into his skin. The tissue melded and knit together, The blood seemed to seep back into his skin. Gudrun's eyes, glowing like twin suns, blinked slowly as she pulled her hand away. The ghost of fire and feathers faded with the light. She pulled a piece of cloth from a nearby basket and dipped it into a tin, using her fingers to squeeze the extra salve away from the bandage. She gently wrapped his neck with the cloth.
With slow movements, she undid his extensive armour, undoing the buckles, and pulling apart the crushed pieces of metal and mashed hardened leather. She dipped a cloth in warm water that had been heating by the fire. Wringing it, she cleaned the areas that had been crushed by the metal and then set her hand over his chest.
Gold and blue flames sank into his chest from her hand, spreading across his ribs and down his body. Loki took in a long, painless breath, his eyes wide with wonder.
Without a word, Gudrun carefully wrapped his chest with salve soaked bandages and hung his abused body armor on a nearby stand. She pulled out a basket from under a table, removing out a tunic and a soft, fur-lined garment. Helping him into it, she lay him back on the bed, propping his body up at an angle and pulling another sealskin over his reclining body. "Rest, Prince Loki," she said, her voice like the wind outside.
With that, she dimmed the lanterns once more, curling up against Halvor, and went to sleep.
Loki, his face wrinkled in conflict, saw the frost sabre's curled muzzle and distinctive warning that he was watching him closely. He laid back against the pillows and watched as Gudrun kneaded the frost sabre's fur with her hands and yawned, her breaths coming slower and deeper.
The light in the shelter dimmed until the darkness seemed in from outside, leaving only the soft glow from the fire in the hearth. Loki stared into the darkness for many minutes, listening to the sounds of speech in distant shelters, the rustles and sounds of animals, and the creak of ice and snow.
He heard the distinctive laughter and play of children and the telltale admonishment of parents bidding them to go to sleep— even without understanding the language, it was perfectly clear for what it was.
The warmth of her touch— her healing— lingered in his memory, an insistent forefront to his thoughts.
She lived here.
He had never suspected or even thought it possible.
As his weariness caught up with him, his last thought was that he had called her opinions drivel.
Loki woke to find the aches of his wounds faded. He sat up, stretching tentatively only to find that while there was some tension, it was mended. His ribs, that had cried out for mercy under the swat of the giant frost sabre, were no longer sending stabbing pain through every breath.
His attempt to go unnoticed, however, while it had worked against the barbarian Jötunn, had not gone without notice to the large— gargantuan— cat that had appeared out of the snows like a phantom and crushed him with a single blow before he could even realise he'd been hit.
The stories had been glorious, but none of them told the truth about the great beasts. They were huge, larger than the Jötunn themselves, and equipped with all the things predators tended to have. Somehow, while he managed to slip by the large guard beasts that constantly patrolled the camp, the cat had somehow sensed him.
They put the guard dragons of Ásgarðr to shame, for they were large and boisterous, strong and quick to defend, but they were also stubborn and hard to train. While they could be trained, they were never safe to have around children or even unwitting adults.
They lived and breathed with their Jötunn families, and somehow Lady Gudrun had one guarding her. How was even possible?
Why was she even here?
The door rustled, and Lady Gudrun walked in, holding open the door as that giant cat pushed in and took up the one half of the shelter. He dragged a bone with a large chunk of flesh still on it between his legs and flopped down, gnawing on it hungrily.
"Are you hungry, Prince Loki," Gudrun asked.
Loki wanted to deny it, but his stomach growled loudly in response to the question, and Gudrun's mouth turned upward in a small, strangely tight smile. She placed a bowl in front of him, pulling off the sealskin cover to expose a rich stew. She placed an ornately carved spoon next to the bowl and filled a mug with what looked like a rich, frothy drink. "Eat, my Prince," she said. Your wounds are healed, but your body remembers the pain, and it will take a few days to recover your full strength again. The very land here will sap your strength if you are not used to it, and even then there are those that have succumbed to storms during the spring break up."
Loki, touching his throat where the cat had made its protective nature clear, nodded and picked up the bowl and spoon and sipped. His eyes went side soon after, and the contents of the bowl was gone in a matter of minutes, paying no attention to the fact he was licking the bowl clean.
Gudrun raised an amused eyebrow and took the bowl from him, gesturing to the drink.
Loki sipped it and then practically inhaled it, getting froth on his upper lip. He looked forlornly at the mug as she took it away only to grin as she handed him a refill.
"It is akra," she said. "Good for the morning. You boil the pods from the deep sea pods, dry them, then grind them into powder that can be stored and added to hot water. I've been told it resembles cocoa from Miðgarðr, but I have yet to confirm it."
"It is most glorious, my Lady," Loki said, clearing his throat as he found his voice. He paused, his face rapidly shifting between emotions. "Thank you."
Gudrun's expression softened but then the emotion was gone, hidden behind the mask that the royal court demanded of those ranked "below" the level of Æsir.
Loki found his chest ached at the sight of it— seeing such warmth hidden from him, while those in the royal court most easily threw themselves at him with all sorts of lustful, power-hopeful emotions. It was hard to find someone that wasn't horribly inclined to marry into the royal family by any means possible.
There was a knock on the side of the shelter.
"My Lady, could you please tend to Aurothack? He went lame trying to protect the children from an ice buffalo. He took a horn to the leg," a voice said. Loki frowned, as the words almost made sense, but it seemed like a mishmash of sounds instead, almost as if he were listening to a conversation through many walls.
"Of course, Joar, please give me a moment," Gudrun replied.
Again— he could almost make out the words.
Gudrun turned to him. "Pardon me, Prince Loki. I have urgent matters to attend. Please, do not trouble yourself. Rest here."
To his surprise, Gudrun shrugged off the heavy shawl she had been wearing and put on a few strands of a necklace that seemed to be made of stars. "Halvor, please keep Prince Loki safe."
The big cat growled, staring at Loki, but set his head down on his paws.
Loki swallowed hard, eyeing the formidable fangs on the huge feline.
Gudrun exited swiftly, and Loki felt the deep chill coming in the door before she shut the flap. He frowned. Had she just walked out with less clothes on rather than more?
Yet, even as the savage cold bit into his skin, there was a strange… almost a numbness to it, almost as if the cold wore off. Loki eyed the watchful feline then looked at the door.
The curiosity rampaged in the silence. Loki swallowed hard and looked at the feline. "She said to keep me safe. Does that mean I can leave this place?"
Halvor wrinkled his muzzle but made no move to block the door. Loki slowly pulled on the thicker, warmer clothes nearby, boggling that Gudrun had apparently made, had, or at least somehow acquired something in his size for him to wear. It wasn't the finery of Ásgarðr, assuredly, but it was extremely comfortable and easy to move around in.
He slowly walked to the door, spreading his fingers and showing his palms as he walked by the watchful Halvor and stepped out of the door. The frigid wind attempted to freeze him to his bones, and it took a minute of pure numbness to recover himself to move.
As he shielded his eyes from the sun and the reflection of the snow, he realised Halvor had followed behind him, rumbling with a low vibration. He looked around and saw a crowd of Jötunn circled around something or someone. He realised they were crowded around a frost beast that looked large enough to take up the entire royal library. The beast's massive horns were covered in blood, and it bellowed in obvious pain.
A child was wailing, trying to go to the beast, but the adult was gently holding him back. Meanwhile, other adults were clearing the space as—
Gudrun walked up, placing her hands on the beast's muzzle. Her hands were glowing with a golden fire. Phantom feathers seemed to spread across her arms and down her back. Wings, almost tangible, folded around her body as the golden fire spread down the beast's body. The creature breathed into her hands, great nostrils flaring, tongue dangling as a it panted loudly. She walked away, running her hand down the beast's flank and then down to the leg that was bleeding and torn.
She whispered something—her voice like a song.
Emotion welled from his chest and he felt— everything.
He could feel the pain of the great beast.
He could feel the agony of the child that reached for his most treasured friend in all the Realms.
He could feel her— he could feel her compassion for the beast, the respect for his sacrifice to save the child, the love for this Realm and all of its beasts. The emotion was agony, so pure and unfiltered. He could feel the heartbeats of those around him in that moment, all their faith turned to Gudrun.
Their trust in her.
Their love for her.
And yet she—
Gudrun turned her gaze skyward, eyes closing as a burst of pure energy shot from her body like a beacon to the skies above and the frozen ocean below.
Her hands ran up and down the injured leg. Bones realigned; muscles regrew. Tendons knit, and skin meshed. Even the beast's long, straggly fur grew back together seamlessly. The beast let out a groan of unmistakable relief, his paw and leg flexing, moving, stretching.
"Ahgaki—" She soothed the beast. She turned to the parents of the boy and nodded, and they let him run back to the beast. He hugged his muzzle (about all he was sized for) and wept against the beast's furry neck.
The Jötunn sighed with true relief, patting Gudrun on the back and lifting her up into the air and cheering by stamping their spears against Nthe ground in a thunderous applause. One of the younger Jötunn hoisted up— was that a liver?!—into the air and sliced it with his hunting knife. He raised up the first piece to Gudrun, and she raised it up high with her bare hands.
Gudrun said something he couldn't quite make out, and the offering vanished from her hands, a small sliver of smoke reaching towards the skies. He handed her another piece, but this time she bowed to him and ate it. They cheered and stomped, patting her on the back as the rest of the food was shared amongst them all, both Jötunn and beast alike. One of the Jötunn children nudged Loki, offering a very fresh looking piece of meat.
Loki swallowed hard, discomfited. Halvor looked at him expectantly, and Loki offered it to him. The big cat took the tidbit, scraping off the top layer of his skin with his rough tongue, making the meat disappear. The child beamed chattering excitedly as he pointed to Loki and then Halvor.
A huge male Jötunn, whose skin was the colour of deep cobalt, grunted, offering Loki another piece from the tip of his spear with an expectant gaze.
Many, many eyes stared at him.
Loki cricked his neck and took the piece, looking a little green. He fidgeted, put it in his mouth and tried not to think of where it had come from. Yet, the moment it hit his tongue, he realised it was like a rich cream cake from his mother's favourite chef. Had he not known what he had just put in his mouth, he would never have been able to tell the difference.
His eyes must have betrayed his surprise because the Jötunn bellowed laughter and thumped their spears.
Gudrun was looking at him, her eyes still filled with fire, but just for a moment, her lips turned upwards— the broad Asgardian smile.
Yet, when she turned away from him, he saw a miraculous change in her. She smiled, really smiled, as the boy whose beast had been healed ran up and hugged her. She said something to him, her voice so strangely musical, almost ethereal. She had a halo of fiery feathers crowning her head like a plume of a great bird.
Loki's chest seized as he realised he had never seen anything so beautiful in his life.
"Why didn't you tell me?" Loki asked quietly, his voice just above a whisper.
Gudrun frowned. "My attempts to ascertain if you were ready for such a revelation had been met with ridicule, Prince Loki, and I was not permitted to speak of such things to those that did not know of my role here."
"Permitted? By whom?"
"All-Father," she said. "I thought you— you didn't, oh no. You weren't supposed to be here! You weren't supposed to—"
"Lady Gudrun, please!" Loki protested. "Please," he said again. "I came here on my own. I was worried for you. I— I had wanted to apologise for my words before. I was sorry, but you— you were so elusive. You disappeared into the Bifröst, and Heimdall would not allow me to follow. I found this place entirely on my own through the ancient paths."
Gudrun sat down, looking unsure. Her brows furrowed in conflict.
"My Lady—" he insisted. "I am sorry. Truly sorry. After seeing what I have today… I realise there is much I have not seen and only accepted. Hearsay, stories. Please, help me to understand. Help me see."
Gudrun looked conflicted.
Loki, putting out his hand to her and pulling on her f ingers to press his lips to the back of her hand, brushed her hair from her ear with one hand. "Please."
Gudrun closed her eyes and sighed. "Okay, but if you harm anyone here, Prince Loki, I will personally see that you bleed out on the floes long before Heimdall or Odin can find your corpse."
Loki perked at her fire— her fierce determination and protectiveness. "My Lady, I swear to you, I will not unless they are trying to kill me first."
Gudrun's eyes narrowed, but she nodded. "Very well, Prince Loki, I will teach you what I can."
Time passed, and Loki sneaked away through the ancient pathways, often taking different routes to ensure he wasn't seen. He spent most of his free time in Jötunheimr, learning the ways of the Jötunn in a way he had never even dreamed that he could.
He learned the shift in the winds and the creaks of the ice, the subtle shift in sound as a paw touched the snow as a predator came up behind him. Often, such lessons came in the form of Halvor "playing" with him, leaving Loki ending up face first in the snow with a gigantic purring feline laying on top of him. The large cat seemed surprisingly gentle despite his size and when he wasn't taking Loki as a potential threat to his hearth-mate. He'd bring back some sort of animal he had "killed" and then, as Loki went to fetch it, the animal would spring up and leap away, causing Loki to chase after with with a curse, a flurry of magic, or a makeshift weapon. He couldn't even be angry because Gudrun's smile and chuckle made everything just fade away.
He watched Gudrun on her healing rounds and how she and Halvor brought food back to the encampments for the injured and healing. She insisted they rest and recover even after she healed them, making sure they had enough to last them many weeks rather than a mere handful of days.
Halvor, he realised, was quite the mighty hunter, and he had no qualms about bringing back his kills back to his family. Gudrun, also, had no problems sharing her spoils fairly with the great cat, making sure he was kept well-fed and in top condition. He wondered if it because they tended to hunt together, or she had simply always shared with him. The dragons of Ásgarðr, he knew were not so agreeable and would eat both the trainer as well as their rider if they dropped their guard even for a moment.
It didn't take long for Loki to realise that many things came full circle. As he sat consoling a young boy about the loss of his first hearth-beast, he realised that said hearth-beast had been the very frost wyrm his brother had so proudly decapitated and dragged back to Ásgarðr. Pangs of guilt gnawed at his stomach as he remembered the fleeting look of absolute horror on Gudrun's face just before the mask had snapped back into place.
"He didn't mean to get out," the boy had wailed, sniffling. "I miss him so much! Mummy raised him since he was a hatchling. I thought— I wanted—" He made a wrinkled face. "I just wanted to see someplace outside Jötunheimr. I just wanted— I wanted to see if the stories were true! And— And—"
The boy wailed. "They saw me and tried to attack me, so he attacked them. He was just defending me! He died because I didn't believe that the worlds outside of Jötunheimr were really dangerous! I believed nothing could be as bad as Jötunheimr! He was mummy's best friend. I got my mummy's best friend killed. I can hear all the other kids whispering about how I killed a hearth-beast. I'll never live it down, ever! I'll be scorned forever. No one will ever trust me again. No one will want to be friends with me!"
Loki, who had only just started to pick up the fluidity of the language, found that it was like remembering a skill. His teachers had said that the gods could be understood by any mortal in their own language, but the Jötunn were not mortals. He wasn't sure how it worked or even if it did, but he was picking up the language well enough to know that Gudrun made the language sound like a song. The Jötunn child, filling his language with sobs and cries, was a hard study, yet by the end of the day, he found he wanted to help him.
"I want to help him," Loki said quietly to Gudrun one evening.
"Shouldn't you be back at the palace doing whatever it that princes of Ásgarðr do?"
Loki shrugged. "Thor is too busy regaling them with stories of his great prowess in many things. Unlike him, my duties are done early and my free time is rarely spent in the company of others."
Gudrun tilted her head. "As you say, my Prince, but I'm sure the court misses you."
"Loki," Loki said.
Gudrun frowned. "My Prince?"
"Just Loki. Please, unless you are in front of the All Father or my mother, ok— the court— just call me Loki. Please."
Gudrun looked uncomfortable.
Loki's hand wrapped around her wrist. "I beg you. The formalities that once amused and even were expected— I do not wish them with you." He brushed a strand of hair from her face, pulling her chin up with his fingers to look into her eyes. "What I want for you is powerful," he confessed. "More than the groveling sycophants who kiss my boots in the hopes for the crown."
Gudrun shook her head, looking down again. "I am well aware of your tricks, my Prince," she said. "The crown does not interest me."
Loki let out a low growl, his eyes growing crimson as he seemed to scent her like Halvor on the hunt.
Gudrun's eyes widened. "No, you cannot mean it."
"I want you," he said, his eyes wild, primal. "I need you. Please— I wish to touch every part of you, to feel you against me."
"I am no one," she replied, pushing him away weakly, but the moment her skin touched his, he shuddered, his skin turning a most distinctive shade of blue.
Loki, barely able to speak, looked at her with his intense gaze.
Gudrun slowly reached out to touch his face, tracing the ridges that had formed on his skin. Loki latched onto the soft skin of her wrist and stared at her, his breathing husky and his body tense like a spring. It was clear all he saw was her, oblivious to the changes going on in his own body— changes that blinded him to anything but her.
She knew it well, for every Jötunn of age was driven to find and connect with their mate.
Gudrun knew Loki had no idea of his true heritage. He spent his life looking so Asgardian that only those who saw the small things— the reddening of his eyes and the runic symbols forming over his skin. The larger things, such as the blue tinge to his skin, had obviously not happened before. Suddenly, the reason why Odin's need to preserve the peace between Jötunheimr and Ásgarðr became ultimately clear. His son, somehow, was Jötunn or at least partly so. His smaller stature for a Jötunn and taller stature for an Asgardian seemed to place him in a strange in-between place.
And that son wanted her.
She knew they were both doomed if this was what his soul— and she knew with Jötunn that was exactly what it was— ached for her.
But why her? She was nothing to the royal court. Sure they had bantered before, even getting along, perhaps even enjoyed each other's company before then, but Loki had a reputation of playing with people's minds and leaving them baffled. Her mind told her he would lay with her and cast her aside like all the others, but her heart said with the way he was acting here and now—he would be unable to see anyone but her. He would cross the floes during the spring breakup to find her and perhaps the very Realm of Helheim.
With great difficulty, she pushed him away. "This is no small thing, Prince Loki. What you want is forever. It cannot be undone. If this is what you want, truly, I will accept the fire and ice of your embrace, but if there is any doubt in you, I beg you fight the fever and remember yourself."
Loki's eyes burned crimson, but his face twisted in confusion. "Do you not want me?" His voice was a whisper, pained and oddly vulnerable.
"My Lord Prince," she replied. "Want of you is not the problem. Whether you would want of me tomorrow or a week from now— that is a problem."
"I would never—"
She put her finger to his lips. "I know you have left others broken for want of you, my Prince."
"Because they were not you," he answered. He seemed confused by his own words, but realisation dawned as the truth settled inside his mind. "It's you I want. More now than ever."
He breathed against her temple, his lips ghosting across her skin. "Will you trust me? Will you have me?"
Gudrun closed her eyes. "Yes."
Loki reached for her, and it was done. His arms wrapped around her, and she let out a ragged sigh of pleasure as his magic swirled around her— his power, his strength, and the power of his mind. His face pressed into her neck as his arms caged her completely, the tickle of his breath against her skin unmaking her as she was also remade.
"Gudrun," he whispered.
"Loki," she replied.
His mouth sought hers as he lay her on her back and moved over her. The flood of his need breached her mind and left her panting. Her eyes fluttered as his teeth found her neck and left their mark on her throat. Their bodies moved together, slowly exploring every contour and sensation, but it grew more heated and driven.
When he joined with her, her vision clouded as their bodies and magic merged together. She felt herself falling, falling into the depthless sea of Loki's passion as their souls touched like droplets of water—tiny, countless invisible filaments stretching outward to assimilate the other towards the inevitable merge.
The last thing she saw was the glow of his crimson eyes and the runic markings on his body.
Gudrun returned from relieving herself to find Loki up and looking a little discomfited. The moment he saw her, the frantic wildness in his eyes eased, and she came to him so he could enfold her. She had always teased Arvid how paranoid he had been until Solveg had been successfully impregnated and the bond between them sealed— he who had sworn he would never be so "pathetic" like other males. Solveg and Gudrun had a good chuckle over it. As another female, none of that testosterone-driven nonsense had affected his friendship with Gudrun. As much as he had teased her that she'd be his mate, Solveg had known for years that Arvid was the mate for her. It had taken a little convincing on her part to get Arvid's drive to realise it— and a blantant throwing down of a seal skin and pulling him down on top of her in front of the elders.
The elders had painted their bodies with the runic paint and blessed their union, as per the tradition and then shoved them into a shelter with a pile of food. Jötunn, at least the frost giants at least, were very blasé about sexuality. Straight to the point, more often than not, full of teasing amongst the others, and forever making bets on who would pair with who before the spring ice breakup. It wasn't to say that young pairs didn't experiment before they were well and truly mated via a bond, but the adult males seemed to have a sort of switch that flipped on that tunnel visioned them to one particular female. Younger couples tended to be safe from such responsibility until that chemical switch turned on for them, the male most of all. The female could, if she wished, turned a blind eye to the male's ardour and deny him, forcing him to prove himself further or in truly rare cases, deny him completely. That, however, was exceedingly rare. Such females tended to smother any other suitors by reputation alone, and a single Jötunn lived a harder life. That was just fact.
Loki, gaining a bit of sanity with the feel of her close, took in the blue of his skin and the glowing paint that had been traced on his runes. "What happened to me?"
Gudrun smiled. "Elders paint the new pairs with runic paste to bless the pair with a strong bond and—" Gudrun flushed. "Many healthy children."
Loki startled. "I am not Asgardian," he whispered, his face torn.
"Nonsense, you are the son of the All-Father," Gudrun said. "You are blessed amongst the gods. Do you think something as trivial as the colour of your skin matters?"
"I am a— enemy of Ásgarðr," he whispered.
"You are a son of Ásgarðr," Gudrun said. "Have you learned nothing while you were here? The value of all life? Is that not what All-Father has been working for these last long centuries?"
Loki jolted, his head head lifting. "He's wanted peace?"
Gudrun touched his cheek, tracing his markings with her fingers. "Of course he has. It was by his request my family has been working to bridge the chasm between Jötunheimr and Ásgarðr."
"Why wouldn't he tell me?" Loki asked, pained. "Why wouldn't mother—"
"Because you weren't ready to know the truth, Loki," Gudrun said. "You, like most of Ásgarðr, believed the Jötunn to be nothing short of heathens. Barbarians. Even now, knowing what you know. Seeing what you have seen, your first response is to think yourself less somehow. You mother— I've seen the way she looks at you. She loves you. You are her son, and she would never want you to think less of yourself."
Loki's expressions went from one to another, conflicted, but he turned to her, his gaze intense. "You still— desire me?"
Gudrun's face softened. "Don't be daft." She scowled at him, but when he looked up with such a vulnerable expression, she brushed her fingers across the runes of his face. "You're stuck with me, my Prince."
"Loki," he said. His hand traced gentle circles on the back of her hand. He pulled closer to her, his warm breath tickling her cheek.
"Loki," she replied, smiling. "I love the depth of your emotion— something I do not think you share with many others. I questioned your sincerity before, but I do not now."
Loki, distracted by nibbling on her neck, breathed against her skin. He practically crawled over her, sealing his mouth over hers with a primal growl, ending the conversation with the heat of his immediate need.
Gudrun, if she had any protests, didn't voice them.
Loki watched in wonder and safety, tucked snugly on Halvor's back as Gudrun walked up to the giant frost beast bitch. The beast's dorsal spines and horns were as intimidating as the stories of old. Her pups, frolicking around her legs, stopped to sniff the air as Gudrun approached.
Gudrun, seeming so small compared to the beast, held out her hands palm up, and the beast lowered its head to her hands in a dip.
All of the pups promptly bounced over to inspect her, curious now that their mum seemed to think it was okay. They snuffled and pawed at Gudrun, making curious wuffles and bays. A few tried to get rough and pounce her, but the great bitch clamped her jaws around the pup and thumped solidly it down on the ground again.
Loki watched as Gudrun waited, and the bitch lifted her front paw, giving a soft whine that rumbled the ground. Gudrun held her hands over the paw and then touched one of the giant pads. A golden glow erupted from her body, forming into fiery feathered wings. It spread over the great beast and then faded. She pulled her hands away, and the beast put its foot down, picked it up, and then put it down again. She nuzzled Gudrun in thanks, giving her an affectionate lick that sent her sprawling back into the snow with an oof and a laugh.
"Loki, come pick one," Gudrun said with a laugh. "Borghild says make the right choice, for she will be taking her pups back to the den while she hunts and will be gone for some time."
"You can understand her growls?"
"You can't?" Gudrun said, head tilted.
Loki came down off Halvor and walked up carefull. He extended his hands, palms up just as he had seen Gudrun do, and the beast lowered her head to his palms, smashing her frozen jaw icicles into his hands. The pups looked at him quizzically, tails half-wagging and ears swiveling much like he would see from Asgardian hunting hounds— only much, much bigger. Prepared with a sack of biscuits made from seal and fish, he held out the treats to the pups, and they eagerly came to investigate the tasty smells. As each pup took the treats, they played around and tumbled in the snow, snarled at each other, and generally did puppylike things.
Loki, knowing that the boy was a timid boy, knew what he was looking for. An alpha pup was not the thing for him. The boy needed a mellow beast that bonded tightly to its family and would protect it eagerly but not leap to aggression like some would do. It needed strength but more brains— less like his brother and more like Heimdall. No one ever doubted Heimdall's strength, and he didn't feel the need to drag home dragon heads to prove his worth.
There, being stepped on by the other beasts, was a roly-poly pup that eagerly tail-wagged at his brothers and sisters only to be snubbed and pounced on. Loki knew this pup was the one.
"What about this one?" Loki asked.
Gudrun placed her hand on the beast mother, closing her eyes. "That one is Vebjørn. Borghild says that he is very sensitive and would make a good hearthmate for an understanding family."
Loki nodded, rubbing the pup on the ears. The pup, overcome with appreciation, tried to lick off Loki's face. "I think we found our pup," Loki said, dripping frost beast drool.
"Bowrl!" the pup said, panting.
Gudrun closed her eyes again, and the great beast bitch lowered her head and gave Vebjørn a thorough tongue bath. She nosed the pup towards Loki and Gudrun and nuzzled Gudrun fondly as she made a chuffing bark to call her other pups to attend her.
Vebjørn made a sad sound, whimpering softly, but Loki put a gentle hand on his head. "Do not worry, little one. There is a young boy who is very much looking forward to meeting you."
Loki found that nothing healed relationships like a hearth-beast— and the little boy he had befriended was no exception.
Orvar, so ecstatic upon meeting "little" Vebjørn, had to show him off to all the other children once the bond was sealed between the beast and the entire family. Vebjørn seemed happy to be the center of attention at last, soaking up all the pets and the love he could get.
The other children, seeing that Orvar was accepted by a beast once more (no longer a beastless empty-hearther), seemed more than willing to give him the benefit of the doubt, deciding that he wasn't an animal abuser after all.
Loki, too, found himself showered in unexpected gifts for his part in it, even though he tried to tell them it was Gudrun who had made it all possible. They gave him an extra soft sealskin for his "mating bed" which caused him to blush a bright purple, his first Jötunn hunting knife, a spear head for his first spear, a hunter's pack for keeping things close when he would hunt out on the ice floes, and about a week's worth of "how to be a proper male" lessons from the male Jötunn.
Much to his embarrassment, Gudrun had to be with him during the lessons due to her calming presence— his need for her to be close and protected was overwhelming and difficult not to devolve into a growling male beast over his mate. Fortunately, all Jötunn understood about that. Even more fortunately, so did Gudrun.
The ceremony for their mating, even though they had not (yet) consummated to the point where Gudrun was laden with child, was going to happen with a few other new couples. It was a time to ask the Great Frost Mother for her blessings and accept her protection in their lives. As an Asgardian, he knew it seemed odd to give respect to another goddess outside of Ásgarðr, but— Jötunheimr was her domain. Only a fool would deny her influence over the Realm. No god or goddess of Ásgarðr swore to protect Jötunheimr, and even Odin said Ásgarðr had to protect all the Realms, not just one.
Loki knew that very few looked upon Jötunheimr with any fondness, save for one family. And Gudrun wasn't even a "true" goddess in the eyes of the societal elite. Yet—
When he thought about it, All-Father had appointed this family with a task that should it fail would mean war between Ásgarðr and Jötunheimr. If he truly believed they were less than the Æsir, would he have sent them on such a crucial task?
Loki frowned. There was more to his father than he had once believed. He used to think Odin was altogether too plain to read, but maybe, just maybe, there was a bit more to him than he had previously believed.
Just as there was more to Loki himself than he once believed.
Even though he had come to accept that his real, bluer self was just as much him as the Asgardian, he found himself glamouring himself to appear as he once was. It wasn't shame as much as he wasn't used to his new face— his real face. Gudrun accepted him regardless, and that had healed a part of him he hadn't even realised needed healing. The elders speculated that he would end up having some "larger" concerns once the bond was sealed to the Great Frost Mother— perhaps his stature was simply due to being parted from the Jötunheimr for an exceedingly long time.
Yes, glamour for now, he figured.
All-Father may know. Heimdall may know, but showing up to Ásgarðr about thirty-some feet taller and with a cobalt blue complexion was probably not going to go over well. And what would that mean for Gudrun?
The elders seemed to think that the Great Frost Mother provided for her faithful. What, he wondered, was unclear.
Watching the boy—Orvar—looking so happy and accepted again made Loki feel as though he had comforted his younger self. It felt good. He even used his tricks to amuse the children— all safely in sight of Gudrun, whose absence caused him to become uncomfortable.
That, too, they said would ease when the bond was well and truly sealed, something that could only happen if Gudrun carried their child. It was not for lack of trying—
He wondered, however, what his mother would think… sneaking off to Jötunheimr and coming back mated.
It was not exactly the Asgardian way.
He knew that Sigyn had her eyes on him, and once he had even had his eyes on her. All of that had disappeared like fog before the sun when Gudrun had fascinated him. All it had taken was realising that her head was neither vacant nor obsessed with ascending the Asgardian social structure. Sigyn did indeed possess talent and beauty, but she was an unapologetic social climber. Loki had no idea if she was even capable of caring for anyone other than herself.
He also knew with absolute certainty that if Sigyn knew he was Jötunn, she would far rather shank him with her dagger than look at him.
He wondered what their child would look like as he looked to Gudrun and saw her lift her head from petting Vebjørn's belly. She grinned at him with such genuine radiance that it filled him with warmth and made him content. Peaceful.
Yes, when it came time to give thanks to the Great Frost Mother, he would do it.
For the Great Frost Mother had brought him Gudrun, and she was his proof that there was more at work than the gods of Ásgarðr.
As Loki stood in front of the Elders, Gudrun's fingers brushed tenderly against his, and he smiled down at her. His hand curled around her wrist as they watched the Elders take different coloured paints and trace runes on the gathered attendee's faces.
The ceremony was on a frozen dias overlooking the wild, broken sea, and nearby the huge dorsal fin of the great frost whale poked above the water in an intimidating arc. An assortment of choice whale and seal parts lay piled high on a frozen altar, decorated with the rare and seemingly impossible blue flowers that grew under the snows. Despite the horrible storms that had blown in over the night, the weather was surprisingly clear and the waves as calm as any could remember.
The hearth-beasts were all sprawled out in a lazy arc, using the time to socialise with each other and catch up on the news. It was hard to say what the beasts said to each other or even if they did in the same way they communicated with Gudrun, but it was obvious that they knew each other well. Some of them sported fancy decorations, some had their faces painted, and some of them had bells dangling from their horns or around their neck. All of them had a lazy, content feel to them as if they knew this day was very special.
Gudrun was dressed, Jötunn-style, in pristine white seal fur and frost-pearls, all of which Loki had dove into the oyster fields to harvest. Each pearl had been carved with runes for both of their names and a wish for the future for their family. Gudrun had crafted him a sealskin sash embroidered with runes that matched his markings to go over his Asgardian armour, knowing that he couldn't cast aside over a thousand years of upbringing in a few months despite how far he had come.
Most of the Jötunn wore very little, blessed with the tolerance to the icy climate. It wasn't to say they didn't appreciate the hearth fires, for they did, but the hearths offered a kind of relaxing warmth that never became uncomfortably warm for such arctic beings as well as a place that could cook food, warm drinks, and provide light in some of the seasons' darkest times.
This day, however, even the weather seemed to sense it was special. The darkness of the arctic winter had eased. The sun had spread across the snows like it was spring, and the rarest of arctic blooms burst from the snow in a surge of colour. Loki couldn't help but have a surge of respect and admiration for how significant such "small" details made for these rugged people— something Ásgarðr did not truly have in their almost perfect climates and changes between the seasons.
The great frost whale, whose span was easily larger than the entire encampment had they lined the shelters up in a single row, floated on the surface, watching. Perhaps, the Great Frost Mother's most sacred beast was being her eyes and ears on the day's events. Offerings to Her tended to be left on the floes directly after a kill, and almost always were taken by the great whales. There was never any disrespect in allowing it to go to Her sacred animal or even a scavenging beast. All were Her domain, and the act of setting aside for Her taking, in whatever form that was, was the only concern most frost Jötunn had.
"My friends," Elder Jarl greeted. "Today is a most wonderful day. Today we not only acknowledge the greatness of the Great Frost Mother's gifts but also her love for us reflecting in our love for our mates, our families, and our hearth-beasts." He smiled as he looked over to where the gathered children were tucked in the ring of beasts, playing with each other under the beasts' watchful eyes— too young to appreciate the significance of the day, but not so young as to realise an opportunity to be social and play together.
"Because of Her," Elder Runa said, we find our hearth-mates and our lifemates, our family, and our most cherished allies and friends. Her fondness for us as well as Her favour can be found in a sound footfall in a place that breaks soon after to the spear that does not break when we need it most. She tests us always, but we rise to succeed, and she always rewards Her faithful."
"Today, we celebrate the coming of age of those who have found their lifemates, even when the darkness outweighs the sun and the ice spreads far across the frozen ocean," Elder Jarl said. "We celebrate not only our bonds to our Great Frost Mother, but the the most glorious forging of peace between us and that of Ásgarðr— thanks to love of one born to those of Ásgarðr but on the ice and snow of Jötunheimr and one once born of Jotunheimr and raised in Ásgarðr only to find his way back. Today, we celebrate unions. Unions between lifemates and that between our families or friends, or allies, and our most beloved Great Frost Mother, who both nurtures and tests us."
The elders wrapped soft gossamer strands around each of their hands and wrists. "Soft is the touch of our Great Frost Mother, but strong are the ties that bind us to her, just as the energy and love shall bind you as lifemates for as long as breath fills your lungs. You are two on a journey across the frozen land, but you shall not be alone. May your hearth ever be warm and waiting. May your caches always be full, and the bonds between you and the family you make remain as strong as our winters are fierce."
Elder Runa painted a shimmering blue-white marking on each of their foreheads as Elder Jarl lit a small fire on the small makeshift altar before pushing it out into the icy water. He used a knife to cut delicate strips from the seal and each of them opened their mouths to receive the offering.
"Our Great Frost Mother tests us that we hunt to find our food, but the food she gives us is rich and plentiful as long as we respect the wilds," Elder Jarl said.
Elder Runa took out a sealskin vessel and poured out a shimmering liquid into a frozen goblet. She brought it to their lips, and they all drank one by one. "The life of our Realm flows below us, captured under the ice. Drink and remember that life flows inside you as life flows around us. We are all a part of a vast and endless sea."
Elder Jarl gestured with his arms. "Stand before the great frost whale and be seen by the Great Frost Mother that she may bless your bonding both to each other and to Her."
The huge whale, having consumed the offering, drifted forward, its eyes glowing with a pale red light. It floated just off shore, its sleek body shimmering as steam rose off its skin. The couples walked up to the edge and knelt in front of the whale.
"Nnnnnngggggh," the whale rumbled.
The gathered bowed their heads. The great beasts lowered theirs too, placing their paws on the children to keep them from "escaping" to parts unknown. A reverent silence fell upon the gathered—
And the whale sang a beautiful thrum and mixture of notes, its voice ethereal as though it was being heard through the water. Their hearts filled with happiness as the Great Frost Mother's acceptance flowed through the musical voice of her chosen animal.
Tearing flesh, the crashing of water and the agonised bellow of a dying whale heralded chaos as the sacred creature thrashed wildly its death throes. Ice cracked and shattered into countless jagged pieces as it smashed into the edge and into the gathered attendees. Jötunn dove out of the way of the massive creature's body while others grabbed their screaming children, placed them on the backs of their beasts and sent them charging away to safety while they attempted to aid those who had fallen into the icy sea.
A muscular, blond-haired Asgardian wrenched a sword out of the whale's back, and skidded to a halt on the ice even as his cloaked companions leapt off the carcass with him, slammed into a stunned Loki, seized him in a headlock, and dragged him away.
"Foul Jötunn filth!" Thor bellowed angrily. "You will PAY for what you have done to my brother with your evil sorcery and brainwashing!
Loki choked, struggling fiercely as he tried to fight off the three seasoned warriors. He managed to get loose, lurching forward, his eyes blazing crimson as runes started to form across his skin.
Sif struck Loki sharply over the head with the pommel of her sword, and he crumpled to the frozen ground, face pale and expressionless. Snatching him up, they leapt up onto a previously-hidden hovercraft and zoomed away, pausing only briefly as Thor took a running leap to land on their escape craft. He slashed away at the pursuing beasts, slicing their snarling muzzle, chest, and legs as they tried to topple the craft.
Halvor's jaws clamped around the craft's side, crushing the metal in a shower of sparks. He began to shake the craft violently as smoke started to seep out of the bent joints. Thor poised his sword up to smash it down on Halvor's head, aiming between the eyes to sink it deep into the huge feline's brain.
The jaws of a monstrous whale opened wide to consume the craft, rows and rows of jagged teeth glistening as they poised to crush the craft into pieces.
The giant feline immediately released the craft and went bounding off through the icy drifts, his huge body bouncing like a ball as it skidded to a halt on the snow. The craft lurched, smoked, and sparked ominously as Volstagg slammed his fist over and over on the control panel before Sif punched him, shoved him aside, and hurriedly pressed a combination on the panel. The craft spurted and puttered before flying off across the floes, leaving a billowing trail of black smoke behind.
Back at the destroyed grounds, a sopping, one-eyed Asgardian god pushed the victims of the dunking up onto the ice. Frigga moved to pull heated blankets over them as she helped them ascend to more stable land. Sizes dwarfed by the Jötunn, the two Asgardians looked like children, and that had kept them unnoticed in their snow-white cloaks. Having made the choice to help the immediate victims of the dying whale over the chase of their errant son and his rule-breaking fellows. The unfortunate victims, having been battered and bruised by the whale's death throes, had been in no condition to save themselves, and even those that might have been had been shocked and rendered almost catatonic by the murder of the Great Frost Mother's sacred whale.
Odin, utterly furious, yet desperate to preserve what good will had been forged, focused on helping those who still could be helped. His errant son and his friends could be dealt with as soon as he returned home. Whatever portal they had used to skirt past Heimdall and the Bifröst could be dealt with as well.
A taller than average Jötunn stood on the edge of the broken ice, his hands clutching a torn piece of sealskin that had part of Loki's familiar runes and a few of the treasured, etched frost pearls. His face was twisted in anger and grief. His hand tightened around it as he stormed over, his expression well beyond fury.
"This is the second time in less than four turns of the cycle that Thor, son of Odin, has wrought havoc upon our people. First, he kills the lifelong hearth-mate of a beast merely trying to protect a child, then he slays a sacred whale on the very day we wished to cement peace between our peoples—"
Arvid's crimson eyes blazed with something deeper than hate. "My hearth-sister has been lost to me. Our healer has been lost to us. Our bringer of fire and the speaker for our Goddess has been list to us. Where is the justice in this? Where is the so-called benevolence of the mighty Asgardian gods? The first we had to forgive, for the child in question had left Jötunheimr and trespassed in a land with a well-known hatred for our people, but this is Jötunheimr! This, of all places, our beloved Goddess' most sacred whales, our sacred rites, and our holy celebrations should always be safe!"
A simmering anger was tangible among the gathered. The shock was replaced by anger. The blood of great whale still steamed on the ice, it's body warped and twisted where Thor had sliced it from head to tail in the middle of its song.
"I swear to you, he will be severely punished," Odin stated firmly, looking to Frigga. Frigga looked back, visibly pained.
"You will slap him on the wrist?" Arvid snarled. "We know he is your son. The son who has brought chaos and death to many more than our people, Thor Odinson has left his mark across the Nine Realms. All in the name of glory as he pitches for the ultimate war."
Odin straightened, jaw tightening. "I swear to you, he will be suitably punished for this most grievous wrong," he said. "I swear it on Yggdrasil and the Well of Urd. I do not wish war with Jötunheimr."
The Jötunn whispered amongst themselves in their own language.
Arvid looked up from speaking to those that Odin had saved from the frozen sea. "Your deeds today do not make right what your son hath done, Odin, son of Bör, but because of your actions, Jötunheimr will remain at peace with Ásgarðr— provided your son is punished and word of it reaches all Nine Realms." Arvid clutched the torn sealskin in his hand. "You will honour her as she deserves in Ásgarðr," he said with his voice dangerously low.
"I will," Odin said, the ice forming on his clothes as the fought not to shiver. The flames that had been plentiful around the camp struggled to remain— Gudrun's gift was quickly fading.
The weather, that had been so clear and mild, was dropping digits fast. Snow swirled and obscured the land. Ice formed over the sea, cutting off the access to the winter fish. The roars of the hearth-beasts fighting the more aggressive wilder beasts that roamed the ice shelves echoed in the encroaching snow-blind darkness.
Above them, a blood-red moon hung in the sky, casting the land in a disturbingly crimson light.
Arvid's face was as still as a statue. "Get out of our land, Asgardians. You may not have participated in the cruel deeds performed this day, but you are not welcome here with our grief and amongst our dead. Get out of my sight."
Odin's face was grim as he took his wife's hand. He bowed his head before looking up. "Heimdall, take us home."
The brightness of the Bifröst surrounded them, and they were gone within seconds.
Countless crimson eyes glowed in the growing dark of the icy Jötunheimr night as the last of the once-plentiful blue-white hearthfires snuffed out and disappeared.
Thor went crashing through about five lines of armour suits after Odin soundly decked him in front of the shocked royal court's dining area. He landed with an almighty crash at the far end of the longest table.
"Do you wish to bring war to Ásgarðr?!" Odin bellowed.
Thor, totally confused, rubbed his now-throbbing jaw. "Yes, father. Is that not what you said? The glory? The greatness!"
"Have you learned nothing from my lessons of what happened after the last war?!" Odin seethed, fury practically radiating off of his body.
"I may have only thought the glory worth staying for," Thor mumbled.
Odin seized Thor by the collar, yanking his son up and forcing him to look him squarely in the eye. "For the last three thousand years I have had my most trusted family serving to bridge the yawning chasm between Jötunheimr and Ásgarðr. So dutiful were they, that they had a child out on that frozen wasteland, one who was raised there and here to understand both worlds better. For the last thousand years, she has served, mending the wounds created by my arrogant father as the Goddess of Empathy. And you—"
Odin's hand tightened around his son's neck. "You broke into Jötunheimr against my direct orders. You stole a royal hovercraft. You murdered a sacred beast of the Jötunn people. You almost murdered a score of new couples during their Rite of Marriage. You hit your brother so hard on the head that he can't even remember the last year, and the healers don't know if he'll ever be right again, AND—"
Odin's face twisted with righteous wrath. "You lost us our Goddess of Empathy, your younger brother's beloved, his betrothed on their very wedding day!"
Gasps spread around the court dining tables as the news of Loki's condition, that he had a betrothed to begin with, and all the other offenses piled up.
Thor's face wrinkled in confusion. "I saved my brother from the embarrassment of a marriage to a lowly sorceress! One who would rather show off her womanly assets around heathen barbarians! Did you not see how she was in a state of undress like one of those heath—"
Odin's grip tightened on Thor's collar. "I had planned to present you with Mjolnir when you proved yourself both capable of battle and protecting our people, but I see now that the sound judgement and wisdom required of its wielder are sorely lacking within you."
Odin flung him bodily towards the Warriors Three and Sif, who had been attempting to quietly slink away unseen. They floundered together in an ungainly pile, their eyes very wide.
"For your crimes against your King, Jötunheimr, Prince Loki, and the Lady Gudrun, I sentence all of you to learn humility on Miðgarðr. Your powers shall be stripped from you. Your memories shall be forfeit. Your bodies will be fully mortal and your lives will be vulnerable to disease, injury, and death. When or if you learn true humility and feel genuine compassion for the plight of mortals and those less advantaged than yourselves, then you will be allowed to remember yourself. Then and only then will you start your quest for atonement to regain your true selves and be welcome again on Ásgarðr."
Odin slammed down his spear, and the ground beneath them cracked and fell away, sucking them down into the plasma void that powered the Bifröst. As the ground seamlessly mended itself, Odin closed his eye, a single tear rolling down one cheek.
A/N: Oops… another bunny was wriggling in our bunny bin. Dang you breeding bunnies. STAHHHPPP!