It was winter in Asgard and Thor's household sat around the fire. Roskva was mending clothes while Sif embroidered and Sigyn made socks. Thor was mending his goats' harness and Thialfi was fletching arrows. Roskva wasn't quite sure what Loki was doing, but it involved feathers stolen from Thialfi's pile and some yarn. The winter was cold enough that Thor had been worried about the goats and both of his, as well as the three nanny goats kept for milk, were sitting around the room just further back from the fire than the humans. It felt like home, like the little goat farm Roskva had grown up on, and she said what she'd always said then on nights like these.
'Someone should tell a story.'
Loki looked up from his mess of feathers and yarn. 'What would you like one about?'
Roskva hesitated. The answer before would have been 'about the gods' but that seemed an odd thing to say to Loki. 'One I haven't heard before,' she suggested.
The fire hissed and flared and a stick fell out onto the hearth. Loki picked it up in his bare hand and pushed it into the heart of the fire.
'You'll ruin that shirt,' said Sigyn.
Loki smiled at her a little absently, clearly thinking of a story to tell. 'Here's one you won't have heard before. It's about Odin, back before he was a god.'
'Was there a before?' asked Roskva.
'Oh, yes. Gods are only gods if they're being worshipped, and he wasn't always,' said Loki. 'Listen. In the beginning, before the beginning, there were only three worlds. Niflheim was a cold place of ice and ice-cold rivers and nothing lived there then. Muspellheim was a place of fire, and Jotnar lived there since before anything existed and will live there after the end. Hel lay in the middle and it wasn't a land of the dead in those days, it was the only land that was alive. Fire and ice mingled there and formed Ymir. I expect you know how the Jotnar formed between his legs and under his arms, and how the cow Audumla licked Buri free. Well, Buri married one of the new formed giantesses and his son was Bor and Bor married Bestla and his sons were Hoenir and Odin.
'The worlds were harsh in those days. The colder Jotnar had gone into Niflheim and lived there, while those less hardy lived in Hel as Odin and his family did. There were no plants and nothing to eat - I suppose you know that Odin doesn't need to eat, that he only drinks wine even now, and Hoenir can get by on water if he must, but it was a hard way to live. And the Jotnar made it harder, for they were larger than Odin and Hoenir, and when Odin's parents died he and Hoenir had to get by as best they could. Even the dead at that time had nowhere to go, they would simply stay inside mountains or ride shrieking on the storm winds, which wasn't much comfort to their descendants.
'Then, one day, while fetching water Odin found little shoots growing by the stream, and a tiny sapling tree. Next to it sat a girl who appeared his own age, with green blonde hair and green eyes.
'"Greetings," said Odin. "I am Odin, son of Bor, and I mean you no harm. May I ask who you are?"
'"I think I am Nál," she said. "For at present I am very small and thin. But in time perhaps I shall have another name."
'"In time I shall have many," said Odin. "Would you like to come home with me, and meet my brother?"
'"I should be delighted," said Nál. "I haven't met many people yet, and some of them were rough."
'"I'll protect you," said Odin, although he was hardly bigger than she was. But she was very pretty and had looked terribly sad when she said that.
'So Nál went back with Odin to his home, which was a little cave back then and scarcely warmer than it would have been outside. Hoenir took to her at once, for she was a very sweet girl, and they worked and played together for the rest of the day. She wouldn't stay the night, that night or any other, but every morning when Odin went to fetch water he would find her sitting by the stream and by the sapling, and normally when he asked she would come home with him.'
Loki paused in the story to pull one last string tight and then threw his contraption into the air. It unfolded into a rather scruffy pair of wings and flew around the room trailing feathers. It swooped at the goats, causing a chorus of indignant bleats, before suddenly seeming to tire and managing a limping flight back over to fall in Loki's lap. Roskva couldn't help a sort of wonder at seeing magic so close, even as she sighed at the knowledge Loki wasn't going to be the one picking up those feathers.
'Years passed,' Loki resumed. 'The sapling became a young tree, so tall that none could see the top of it even though it was not yet fully grown, and the shoots became plants and bushes which spread over more and more of Hel. Soon there were green fields and animals to hunt. Flowers grew and bees buzzed over the flowers. There was fruit and there was honey, there was meat and there was mead, and while most of these things belonged to the Jotnar life was better than it had been.
'Nál grew like the trees and bloomed like the flowers, more beautiful than either. She found her other name and became Laufey, the leafy isle. Women grow some small part faster than men, so that she was a woman while Odin was still a boy and, although she was the most precious thing in his life, he did not yet dare to say so.'
'It's hard to imagine Odin ever being shy,' said Thialfi.
'Even Odin was young once,' said Loki. He was fiddling with his contraption again, eyes cast down. 'Then one day Odin went to the river looking for Laufey and she wasn't there. There had been days when she had had other things to do and had not gone home with him, but never before had she failed to meet him. Odin sat by the river, with his back against the tree, and waited for her. All day he waited and she did not come.
'Then, as the sunset stained the sky so that its reflection made the water run red, she approached him. Limping and bruised, her dress torn and blood running down her legs.'
'Loki,' said Roskva. 'Are you…'
'Should you be telling us such a story about your mother?' asked Thor.
'Why not? It wasn't her fault,' said Loki.
'I didn't mean that,' said Thor.
Sigyn reached out and stroked Loki's hair. He shuffled back to lean against her. 'The rest of the story doesn't make sense without that part,' he said. 'But I won't dwell on it. Odin took her home and he and Hoenir cleaned her up and fed her. Odin begged to know who had hurt her, but she wouldn't say. She knew that he would try to kill that person, and that he would die in the attempt.
'Odin and Hoenir did all they could for her, but every day she grew weaker. There was a fever they could not bring down, no matter what they tried. At first they thought it was an infection, but even as she grew weaker her belly swelled. Laufey was with child, and the child was killing her. The day it was born was the day she died.'
Roskva looked at Loki, face hidden in shadow save for the orange crescent of firelight on his cheek, and wondered how much of this was true and why he was telling them. The painful parts were true, she decided, even if he was making the rest of it up.
'Odin left the babe with Hoenir and went back to the stream, to the place where he had met her. The flowers were gone and the leaves on the trees were red and gold. From the tree he had first seen her beside, the first tree in the world, pale gold leaves fell and fell like tears from its invisible branches. Autumn had come.
'Odin rested his hand on the smooth bark of the tree and looked out over the green fields of frost-touched grass and he thought, things cannot remain this way. This world, where the strong preyed on the weak, had killed Laufey and he wanted no part of it. There should be a better world, a place for him and his brother. For Laufey's son, too, for Odin intended to raise the child as if he were also a brother to him. And in that moment Odin made a decision; he would make that better world. If necessary he would die for it.
Odin and Hoenir came to the tree with rope and a stone spear. The babe they brought also, wrapped in a foxskin to keep him warm, and laid him in a hollow where they could see him. They built a scaffold by the tree, high enough to tie a rope around its lowest branch. They brought the babe up the scaffold with them, for they could no longer see the ground from there, and it watched with unblinking green eyes as Hoenir, with trembling hands, looped the rope around his brother's neck and kissed his brow. Odin took the spear, and his hands did not tremble at all.
'"I dedicate this death to Odin, myself to myself," he said, and the spear plunged home, ripping through his guts like fire, even as the noose strangled his scream.'
Roskva swallowed. This story she knew; the sacrifice, the death, the runes. But she had never imagined Odin doing it as a boy, Thialfi's age perhaps, seeking a way to protect his family.
Loki held his contraption up for a moment and then, in one violent motion, he cast it into the fire. It caught, fluttering in the flames, beating disintegrating wings as if it was frantically trying to escape. A moment later it was gone and the room filled with the smell of burning feathers.
'Must you?' said Thor, wrinking his nose.
'Ah, sorry,' said Loki. He made a gesture and all the smoke in the room came and coiled on his hand. The smell seemed to go with it. He got up, stretched, and then walked over and put it out the window. 'I forgot how bad burning feathers smell,' he said, sitting back down at Sigyn's feet.
'Well, if that was an attempt to heighten the drama then it wound up having the opposite effect,' said Sigyn. 'Why not just tell the story?'
'For nine nights and nine days Odin was hanging on the tree,' said Loki. 'The dead came to him, for he was one of them now, but he would not ride the wind with them. Instead he walked down the scaffold until he stood at the base of the tree, amidst the bone-dry leaves. Hoenir sat there, with the babe in his arms, holding vigil, but he did not see his brother.
'"Odin, son of Bor, I greet you and mean you no harm," said a voice behind him and Odin turned. If a shade's heart could beat hard enough to pain it then his did then.
'"Laufey," he said. She was brown and grey as the leaves at their feet, a gust of wind could blow her away, but it was her.
'"Come with me," she said, holding out one faded hand.
'They walked down, through the earth, following the roots of the tree. Odin felt the pain of his body still, the pain of the spear, but he would still have walked forever hand in hand with her. At last they came to a pool, its surface touched by the last of the roots, with a man sitting by it. A shade, as they were.
'"Greetings, sister's son," he said. "Look into the pool."
'Odin looked at Laufey and she nodded, letting go of his hand. "Once you know the secret that lies here you will wake," she said. "This is the knowledge you came for."
'"But I will not see you again," said Odin, and for all his determination he might have given up then. For if he remained a shade he could be by her side forever.
'Laufey sighed, like winter wind between bare branches. 'And what will become of my child if you do not go back?" she asked. "Perhaps otherwise I could be selfish enough to ask you to stay with me. But you should live, and do all you have dreamed of doing. One day you will fall in love again, for it is not something that happens only once, and I think, after all, that I should send you back even if it were not for my child."
'Odin embraced her, and they wept the waterless tears of the dead, and then he stepped over to the pool.
'The runes burnt there beneath the water. They were not carved, nor formed of any substance. Odin knelt at the water's edge and reached into the pool.
'If he had still felt the pain of his body before then what did he feel now? The pain of a deathwound in the moment it kills. The burning of a fever the instant before it breaks. The shock of icewater as the lungs fail. All these things, at once and without end. Odin howled, almost insensible with agony, but his hand clawed at the base of the pool even as he screamed.'
Loki stopped and stared into the fire pensively for a moment. 'I'm thirsty,' he said.
'I'll get us all some mead in a moment,' said Sif. 'But surely you're not stopping there?'
Loki looked at her, wide eyed. 'But Roskva wanted a story she hadn't heard before and everyone knows what happened next,' he said. 'Odin woke up. And after that he was a god, for he had received his first sacrifice even if it was a bit unorthodox. And in time, after all three of the brothers were adults, they fought Ymir and created not one new world but six.'
'You never fought Ymir,' said Thialfi.
'I did!' said Loki. 'It was terrifying. And after that I swore that I would never fight a Jotun on Odin's say so again.'
Thialfi laughed. 'Now that I can believe.'
'Impudent mortal,' said Loki, snatching at the arrow Thialfi was holding. Thialfi pulled it out of his reach and the two of them wound up tussling over it, upsetting Roskva's basket of clothes and bumping into Tanngrisnir. At which point Thor decided to put a stop to it before all the goats joined in.
Sigyn came over to help gather up the clothes before any interested goats could trample them, and by the time they were done Sif was back with the mead. Roskva curled up in her chair, sipping at the sweet brew, sleepy and content, while outside the winter wind howled.