"Beware the Jötunn-King's sons; hard of counsel are they, and strong their thirst for vengeance. The Rime Giants forget not wrongs quickly, nor does their cruelty lessen with the passing of man."
(Partially effaced inscription, 9th century Tønsberg grave marker)
As far as I can tell from my research (Thank you, Wikipedia!) The title translates as a rather neat little couplet from the Poetic Eddadescribing Ragnarök, when "Earth shall be riven, and the upper heavens." It's also been used to describe extreme grief at losing a son - I thought that oddly appropriate, considering... Scandinavian readers out there, feel free to help with translation! I'm using what the bountiful internet provides...
There is a different kind of cold in the air of Jötunnheim. Few men have experienced that peculiar, biting chill; it has a concentrated malevolence that is rarely found in weather, even in the most inhospitable regions dotted throughout the Nine Realms. The snow-spray of Jötunnheim is stinging, spiteful, and ominously unhurried. What haste does it need, after all? It has an iron-clad sky where sunlight never walks. No – if you were to tread upon the surface of Jötunnheim, there would not even be the faint, reassuring feel of packed frozen earth beneath your feet. Just blue-grey ice and cracked black obsidian stone, as far as the eye can see. The relentless drive of endless winter twists the rock into tortured, angular spires, echoing the grim symmetry of its inhabitants.
It is rumoured that to the south, there are gentler climes; where what passes for the farmer-stock among frost-giants herd their strange flocks on the glacial ice-fields to the west. But that is only a dim tale – and it was not a tale many were likely to encounter, in the dark days of the present. Such things belonged to a time when peace was possible.
There seemed little enough likelihood of that now.
Jötunnheim inspires few sentiments in any case, save for a sense of bleak melancholy.
But something- the sharp crackle of frozen snow, trodden underfoot - broke the ominous spell of silence that seemed to lie over Jötunnheim's barren plains.
Two hooded figures, small as blots of ink on a sheet of paper, were resolutely inching forwards, boldly stepping across the cracked glacial paths of the Jötunn-folk as though they were their own. At first glance, the elder of the two seemed somewhat infirm, for he leant heavily against the wind, head bowed over the neck of his mount. But the sharp lines of a helmet flickered beneath the folds of his hood, thrown so hastily over his shoulders.
After all, these could be no ordinary travellers, who walked so blithely amongst the wastes of the frost-giants.
His companion braved the malicious ice-flecks on foot, red cloak crackling in the cold wind as though taunting the icy weather. But he seemed somewhat wary. He shifted defensively from foot to foot as he walked, occasionally throwing uneasy glances behind him – at the bleak crumbling cliffs, the endless snow.
He let out a puff of impatient breath.
'I do not like this.' He murmured. Under his breath, but still, a faint audible complaint. 'It is too quiet. We should have encountered them before now, surely?If the Jötunns should surprise us...'
'They will not.'
'But if they should-'
'I say again, they will not.' The rider threw back the hood from his face, revealing a lined, weary face. 'They have lost heavily in this last throw of theirs, my son. More than they reckoned on losing. Besides, we meet them on neutral ground.' He added, patting his horse's neck with an abstract air. 'Sleipneir knows it almost as well as I from the past...' His voice trailed away, as though following an unpleasant line of thought.
It was, perhaps, a better moment to observe the All-Father in a moment of trouble, than when surrounded by the pomp and majesty of his court in Asgard. There he was, in truth, more grave master than man; troubled by the uneasy buzz of discord that rose, jarringly, when he gazed out from the high seat of Hliðskjálf at the shimmering, seething patterns of life far below. Yet there he was still lord.
Here, for just a moment, the King of Asgard became a sad old man, one faded blue eye staring across the years at old ghosts. Before he dragged his thoughts, painfully, to the task at hand.
'What do you know of Laufey's brood, Thor?' he said, thoughtfully. 'I confess I have lost sight of their number. My dealings with them have been - few...'
This was an old game; one which carried Thor back to boyhood. His father knew as well as any the answer. It was a childhood lesson in memory and mettle. A truly wise man learned readily, and a true king knew all the names and lineage of the Nine Realms well. It was an old adage of his father's - but it sat awkwardly on the frozen air of the Frost-Giants. It recalled old shades, painfully disturbed.
As a boy, Thor had always been somewhat impatient, inclined to wild guesses. He had never been as prompt as L–
The one who had always learned swiftly.
He strove valiantly to answer well now.
'Two,' he said promptly. 'Laufey has two trueborn sons, although he also has three daughters by –'
'We need not concern ourselves with the daughters today. Sadly, we do not hold parley with them.' Odin paused. 'Good. And?'
Thor threw back his shoulders, brow furrowing a little. 'The elder... the eldest son is Byleistr. He is counted a warrior amongst the Jötunns, and is renowned for the ferocity of his wars against the mountain-giants – although I wonder how great his reputation can be,' he added, a faint touch of scorn edging his voice, 'When I have never encountered him...'
'You should not despise him for that.' Odin said sharply. 'Don't underestimate the Jötunn-Princes, my son. I have seen Byleistr's handiwork on the battlefield. He is patterned much like his sire; ruthless, powerful. If you have yet to meet him, it will not be for his lack of courage. Besides...Byleistr is not the Prince which concerns me.'
Thor repressed the disbelieving snort rising in his gorge at the sound of anxiety in his father's voice. 'The younger?' He turned a wide, blue-eyed gaze of alarm upwards towards Odin's distant face that looked oddly young, despite his blonde warrior's thatch of beard. 'Faith, father, what troubles you of this other?'
'That that is all I know of him.' Odin murmured, in a voice so quiet he could scarcely be heard above the howl of Jötunnheim's venomous north wind. 'That there is little to know, beside his name.'
'Helblindi?' Thor laughed – a little too forcedly. His father's unease was contagious. 'Maybe he's a lackwit and there is nothing to know, father.'
Odin paused a moment to regard his firstborn's face. For one of the Aesir, there was something touchingly honest about Thor. Every emotion skittered plain as daylight across his face. Oh, there was still a hint of that impudent boy's swagger that both amused and exasperated the All-Father by turns, but it was tempered with less confidence than of old. A faint hint of uncertainty – and not a little distress at his father's mood.
Odin took pity on him . It was hardly right to colour Thor's temper with his own, here.
'Perhaps it may be so.' he said, before easing himself (somewhat wincingly, it must be confessed) from the saddle. 'We must be close now. Mark me, and stay close. And do not speak,' he added, warningly, 'without my leave. Answer no provocation or insult. We are here to make peace, as indeed, I fear...'
He halted, mid-speech, one arm frozen in mid-air.
'Father?' Thor, alarmed, turned savagely, fingers already instinctively clenching about Mjöllnir lest some giant's curse should have set a trap, after all -
Before his eyes followed his father's gaze towards the horizon.
Instead of snow-laden wasteland before them, the face of the Frost-folk's homeland had been rent apart, seemingly from end to end. It was as though a knife had hacked savagely and unevenly through a bolt of white velvet, forcing the land of the Frost-Giants to spill its innards. Thick black smoke belched sullenly from the chasm below, sparks still glimmering through the choking, sulphurous stench.
Thor stood appalled, lost for words. Until something pricked sharply, white-hot, on the back of his exposed neck. He slapped at it with a muffled exclamation. It was a still-glowing flake of ash. Even the snow of Jötunnheim had turned black.
If only that had been the worst. It might have been easier to bear.
Towards the edges of the pit, near where the very rock had melted clean away, something reached out, with desperate, charred fragments of bone instead of fingers, as though imploring the sky to be kind.
More than one... thing.
They had died screaming.
The land had not been the only casualty of the Bifrost.
Thor shuddered, turning away his face. Battle was one thing; he fought on equal terms there. But this grim total of destruction and devastation bewildered and pained him – sharply, as though someone was twisting a knife slowly in his entrails.
'Look,' his father said gratingly, voice hoarse. 'You should look well at it, Thor. This is what we come to...make amends for.' Odin's one remaining eye stared, pupil dilated as though soaking up as much of the destruction as possible.
'I –I...' Thor's voice almost cracked with horror. Some of the charred corpses seemed dreadfully small, for frost-giants. 'I cannot believe...to do this, unknowingly...'
'This was not done unknowingly.' His father replied heavily. 'As you well know.'
'But...'The thunder god's shoulders sagged. 'This... You can't believe he meant this when he released the Bifrost, Father. No-one – surely no-one could...'
There was an undisguised note of pleading in Thor's voice now.
'What was meant hardly matters. This is what was...what was done.' The All-Father's set face collapsed, for a moment, into sharp grief. 'What we did. And what we must seek to mend with Byleistr, if he now lives to rule - Wait.'
He held up a hand. Somewhere in the distance, behind the black ash-clouds, came the tramp of heavy footfalls on snow. 'We are expected.'
It would have been bearable if the silent huddle of warrior-Jötunns had been the same threatening brood from the first time Thor had entered Jötunnheim; both sides shuffling insults like a pack of cards, spoiling for a fight. There was something simple about that.
This party of Frost-Folk simply watched from behind the smoke, their peculiar burning eyes blank.
This was something no undignified tussle in the snow could settle.
Odin took a few steps forward, one hand outstretched.
'We come in peace,' he said quietly. Something in the air of his empty palm shifted, and a small spray of slender, spear-like green leaves slid into existence. 'We bring ash to root our words in friendship, as is our custom.'
No-one answered. For one awful moment Thor feared the frost-giants would never answer – that they would simply melt into the smoke, that some deadly, quicksilver cold blade from behind would cut them down...
But after a silence, one of them lumbered forward, stretching out one huge blue hand. The sprig of ash slowly turned silver with hoarfrost.
'We are accepted.' The All-Father spoke with evident relief. 'Byleistr will, at least, hear us. That is something. Little enough, but...'
He stopped, the folds of his cloak tangling as he turned sharply. 'You must remember, Thor. No matter what is said – answer nothing. No matter what is said here.'
'Oh, the Jötunns will not make me break my promise to you, Father-' Thor said stubbornly.
'Never mind them!' Odin broke off. 'Promise me –whatever they – or I - say... Answer nothing.'
Even if he says it? Thor puzzled over those last words, turning them over in his mind with a dim sense of foreboding as he followed in his father's tracks. What could Father possibly say that would make him break his word?
The court of the new Jötunn-King – if you could call it a court - was a circle of felled rock. There was nothing left of the stone citadel that had once been the halls of Laufey –it had vanished into the chasm, like much else.
It was a savage place for a parley - and certainly well-calculated to sting his guests' conscience. The new king had chosen an outcrop of rock overlooking the worst of the damage, displaying his wrongs as though it was some obscure triumph.
He still had pride, this new king. Certainly enough left in his kingship, for there was a raised pile of stones above the rest, built into a crude seat cemented with snaking tendrils of ice. Perhaps they were the soulless creatures of fireside tales after all, Thor thought with a shudder. Had Asgard been levelled to the ground, he would hardly have chosen to sit in its ruins and hold talk with its enemies –
But the throne was empty, the rock circle abandoned. Were they hiding in ambush? Thor wondered. Preparing some trap? Or were they simply too craven to approach -
He stopped, choking back an oath in his throat. What Thor had thought was an empty camp was in fact encircled by a ring of those strange flame-coloured eyes, eyes that had coloured a thousand Asgardian childhood terrors.
One of the remarkable things about the Frost-Folk - and it is that which makes them so terrible - is that they can choose when and where you see them, when on their own ground. They can slide in and out of sight against their rock and snow like ghostly grey-blue chameleons, a shadow with burning eyes. Seen in the mists of Jötunnheim, they looked more like malevolent ghosts than living beings.
The All-Father turned, calmly examining the circle of looming Frost-Folk. 'I have come.' He said simply. 'Under the auspices of ash and ice. Pray, which of you is Byleistr? I would speak with your king in friendship?'
A sullen muttering came from the giants. A few of the taller warriors shifted from foot to foot, as though speculating on the dwarfish stature of their guests - although that subsided when Thor deliberately twitched aside his cloak to show his weapon. Even righteously angered frost-giants weren't hasty enough to begin another quarrel with Mjöllnir.
'I wonder, All-Father, how the Aesir dare to speak of friendship here?' A rough voice called from behind them. 'And, once here, how they dare to stand before my throne with heads unbowed?'
A shadow with surly orange eyes had unfolded from behind the throne, shambling forward with huge ungainly strides.
At first, Thor (and briefly, his father) had difficulty believing that a second Laufey didn't stand there before them. The same broad build, the same stance...even the same tribal markings crawling about his brow and cheekbones. Byleistr had taken much after his father in looks and height.
But...there had been a subtle intelligence, with Laufey, that was markedly... lacking in Byleistr. That faintly disquieting air of watchfulness had been dispelled in his offspring. Odin surveyed him with growing distaste. That brutal face bore all the marks of a warrior, yes – but there was only brutish cunning in Byleistr's face, heavily tainted with an air of preening self-satisfaction that jarred horribly with the grisly backdrop behind his throne.
Odin bowed his head – but only briefly – and it was only a warning glance from the All-Father that directed Thor to bow at all. And that through gritted teeth.
'Truly, perhaps I should thank you, Spear-Shaker,' Byleistr seated himself, chin in one spade-like blue hand. 'For all your petty attempts to destroy Jötunnheim by killing my people, you have worked me more good than evil. I am free of my father, and I inherit a throne. No bad work for a day.'
Thor had never seen his father lost for words before, but the callous way in which Byleistr dispensed with Laufey seemed to rob the All-Father of speech.
'Your –your father?' Odin almost stammered. 'But - he was your sire, of your blood...'
'He was old.' Byleistr grinned, baring tombstone teeth as he gazed down at Odin. 'I could have wrested the throne from him – in time. Old dogs are crafty, yes, but old kings are weak.' He sniffed, looking down at Odin's silver beard. 'I should imagine you know something of that, All-Father.'
Thor made an angry leap forward – only to check the raging words on his lips with an effort as his father's glance flicked towards him. He had sworn. He choked his ire back, and attempted to look indifferent, dragging his concentration back to the parley.
'I see.' Odin spoke calmly. 'Then let us speak plainly, Byleistr Laufeyson. What was done to your people and your lands was not done by my hand.'
'No? Who else but you wields the Bifrost?' There was a threatening growl in the Frost-King's voice now. 'Who else but you holds the Nine Realms under your thumb with your magics and artifices, with your scavenged treasures? Do not try to hoodwink me, King of Asgard. I know better.'
'It was not I, as you well know,' Odin's voice had dropped to a whisper. 'One of my own house, yes – I...' he sagged, slightly, shoulders hunched beneath his cloak.
Thor stood appalled. 'Father-'
'Be silent, Thor!' Odin raised his head, his voice stronger. 'I would give you the blood-price, Byleistr Laufeyson, as is customary. But the one – the...the son who raised hand against you is – dead.'
Byleistr's eyes narrowed. 'Dead, you say? And what surety do I have that he is dead? If this is a trick...'
He stared hard at their faces. Thor's lips were pressed together in a thin line, eyes blinking over-fast, whilst Odin - Odin's face was blank, but his fingers were trembling slightly as he held his spear.
Byleistr laughed, assured of the truth. 'No trick, then? You act swiftly against your own, All-Father. I congratulate you on your judgement – truly worthy of a king.'
'Loki Odinsson is dead. And beyond all judgement of ours,' Odin continued doggedly, as though that last barb of Byleistr's had missed its mark. 'I come now to ask what you would have instead of your vengeance.'
Byleistr's eyes lit up, the banked fires of avarice glowing bright.
' A different blood-price for my father's death must, of course, be paid.' He said nonchalantly. 'In gold and iron, from the smithies of Svartalfheim, I think. Enough to arm a hundred warriors will content me.'
Thor blinked, surprised. For blood-gold, the price that Byleistr demanded was almost ridiculously low. Granted, Jötunnheim seemed scarce in many things, but...
He was up to something, Thor realized, grimly. No one demanded so low a price for the death of a king. Byleistr wanted something else. Something more than the other demands he could have made.
Odin eyed the new Frost King warily. 'It shall be paid. Willingly. And perhaps a new peace may-'
'Peace? Who speaks of peace yet? We have yet to talk of the blood-price for Jötunnheim itself, All-Father.' Byleistr's saffron-coloured eyes narrowed. 'You have yet to answer for that.'
The throaty roar of agreement that came from the threatening circle of warriors was a fearful sound. Something akin to a pack of hungry dogs baying for blood. But Odin simply stood his ground silently until the noise died down, tracing idle shapes in the snow with the butt of his spear. 'And what would the son of Laufey ask for in payment?'
'Little more than what is mine by right. The Casket-'
'Was taken from your father as punishment for the war he wrought in the Nine Realms.' The All-Father said coldly. 'Any claim of Jötunnheim to the Casket of Ancient Winters has long since been forfeit-'
'And you would keep us weak so you may destroy us at will, at the whim of your pampered princelings! I warn you, All-Father, Jötunnheim is not weak as you think.' The Frost-King's voice was a brutal growl, ice closing about his fist in wicked-looking spikes as he pounded the arm of his throne. 'We will not stand by-'
Thor shifted warily, expecting perhaps some attack – for Byleistr's temper was wearing thin, and the court of Jötunn-warriors had closed in ominously about their guests. But Byleistr, oddly enough, simply glanced behind his throne and smiled, his temper suddenly deceptively smooth.
'Come, what I ask is not much, All-Father. Compared to what I could... demand. You know this.'
'Meaning?' Odin looked taken aback.
'Meaning that your Bifrost, Greybeard, destroyed many lives. Our population is...depleted. Now, I would be content to simply rebuild with our Casket of Ancient Winters, if you would give it to me, and nary a thought of vengeance or reprisal would cross my mind,' Byleistr spoke almost airily. 'But since you say you will not give me what is mine, I must ask for something else that was once... ours.'
This was more than Thor could bear. His father - more than his father, his sworn king - was being baited by this brutish swine of a frost-giant as 'Greybeard' and 'Spear-Shaker' - and he almost accepted it as his due!
He could not help himself. At this last braggart's jibe he strode forward, blue eyes blazing, beard almost bristling with rage. 'Oh yes? What else have we of yours, giant? What else are we keeping from you? '
The Jötunn-King laughed.
'You do not know? The All-Father truly is a man to admire for his candour! Why, Midgard, boy.' He stared directly towards his horrified guests. 'Give us Midgard for our own, and you shall have peace.'
'Midgard? Give Midgard to you?' Thor seemed at first rooted to the spot with shock. Until his voice began to rise into a full-chested roar of anger. 'Ay, after we first give it to the wolves and the crows, and the maggots besides! What creeping spawn of Ymir's stink dares raise its eyes to Midgard? After your attempts to steal from Asgard and murder my father, you dare to demand Earth of him? When has Earth ever been yours?'
It was only in the deadly silence that followed this outburst that Thor, panting for breath, caught sight of his father's countenance. The expression there was pure steel.
Thor suddenly felt a twinge of misgiving. No, not quite misgiving -it was a rare moment where anyone could accuse the son of Odin of doubt - but the cold feeling that gripped his vitals made Thor feel desperately afraid for Midgard.
'Be silent, Thor.'
'But surely you do not mean to give in to this-'
'I say be silent!' The All-Father rounded fiercely on his son, before turning to Byleistr, hands spread wide in a gesture of goodwill. 'You and I understand each other very well as men, I think.' He said deliberately. 'Forgive my son. He is, as yet, a child in the face of such weighty matters as would accept Midgard as blood-price, then?' He added, mildly.
Byleistr must have sensed that now was the time to press home his advantage, for in his excitement he rose from his throne, pacing like a wolf scenting blood.
'Earth would do well enough. Land for land is but fair…'
'Fair indeed.' Odin's tone was deceptively benign. 'And its people...?'
Byleistr bared his teeth again. 'As I said, we have much to rebuild. The mortals would prove...useful to us, I am sure.'
'I ...see.' The All-Father shifted his stance slightly, leaning more heavily upon his spear as though he were an old man in pain. 'Your price is a heavy one, son of Laufey, yet,' he closed his eyes wearily, 'I will pay it gladly if it is the price of peace.'
The god of thunder had dug his fingernails so sharply into his own fists that tiny drops of blood marked the snow. This last, terrible concession of his father's was hard to endure - indeed, he had half-raised Mjöllnir, with a hazy intent of smashing Byleistr's demands into an eternal silence -
'You will control your temper, boy!' The butt of Odin's staff struck Thor's clenched fist sharply, striking his weapon down.
Byleistr's shoulders sprang back slightly, a gesture of barely disguised triumph. He had not expected to win so easily. The gaze he flicked back and forth between Thor and his father was one of pure insolence. Dissension? A weakened Asgard making concessions? His nostrils flared, scenting victory.
'Then we are agreed!'
'If,' Odin continued, elbowing his son aside, 'You grant us time enough. I must hold parley with Asgard's council, first. It is no little matter, making the gift of a realm as blood-price.'
Byleistr sniffed. 'The oaths of the Aesir are weak...'
'Not here. That I promise you. And you will work no harm against Asgard or its people?' Odin said sharply. 'You will uphold the terms of the peace I wrought with your father?'
'For the present. Until Midgard is ours.'
Odin bowed his assent. 'It is well. I will take my leave of you and your court, Byleistr Laufeyson, in the hopes of meeting under brighter auspices…'
He darted an expressive glance at Thor, who followed silently in his father's wake as he bowed towards the brooding Jötunn-King upon his throne of ice. Blood still flecked the snow at his feet as he turned.
'Hold a moment, Grey One.' Byleistr's voice was almost lazy. 'I think it well that this boy of yours should understand me better, lest he should fall into the same…error as his broodling.' He raised his voice a little. 'Come forward, my brother! Let the great lords of the Aesir see you plain.'
Something shifted in the shadows, emerging from the blue-grey shadows about the icy canopy of Byleistr's throne to resolve itself into another Jötunn. He was tall, although slighter than the bulky warriors gathered about Byleistr's throne, and built on sparser lines. Unlike the others, who seemed to disdain covering, his shoulders were cloaked in some strange pelt from one of their stinking frost-beasts, but…
But why were his movements so slow? – and oddly groping, as though hardly sure of his footing. Something about that cowled head, moving as though scenting the way like a bloodhound – it was uncanny.
Odin made a strangled noise in the back of his throat.
'Come,' he said, one hand laid hastily on his son's arm. 'You have no need to see this, Thor-'
'Why so quick to leave, All-Father? Are the Aesir afraid?'
Byleistr rose from his seat, and in one quick motion, threw back the hood from the Jötunn's face.
And then – Thor saw.
Helblindi's name had not sprung from any lack of wit. The glowing amber eyes that should have looked out from his face had been cruelly gouged out – and viciously too, for great scars marked the empty eyesockets, raking from brow to cheekbone. The Jötunn-Prince was 'all-blind' in truth, more a ruin of a frost-giant than a whole one. Although a muscle in one cheek quivered, despite his impassive face. Clearly he knew well this particular brand of humiliation, being displayed as a trophy of his brother's vengeance.
Thor stared in horror, eyes wide. To do that to his own kin? He had thought Byleistr's callousness towards his father simply assumed - a warrior's bravado, intended to cow them into submission. The cold proof of it was jolting . It brought ugly, painful thoughts of - other days, other... brothers, to the surface. Thor looked away, deliberately fixing his eyes on the stone hills rather than on the multilated form of the younger Frost Prince.
Had Thor glanced at his father, he might have been surprised.
For Odin did not look away, or let his gaze snag on the horizon. He instead stared, almost hungrily, at the ruined face, as though trying to learn the pattern of the Jötunn-Prince Helblindi by heart, his one faded blue eye unaccountably moist. It must have been the bitter wind, blowing in his face.
Byleistr watched their looks of horror narrowly, with every evidence of grim satisfaction.
'My brother chanced to kill a quarry once that should have been mine, on a hunt we undertook together as boys,' he declared. 'He had sharp eyes then. Which he used - against me.' He settled himself in his throne once more. 'I spare no man who crosses my path or cheats me of mine, Asgardians. Think on that when you are safe in your citadel once more.'
He waved a hand. 'You may go.'
It had been a day of horrors - but the last must have grievously afflicted Thor's imagination, for they were scarce out of sight of Jötunnheim when he shook off his father's hand. As though the mere touch scalded him beyond bearing.
'How - how could you agree to such a bargain as that?' He shook his head, as though trying to clear the grim spectre of Helblindi from his mind.A man who could do that to his own kin for a moment's chagrin was capable of anything – proof of the real danger lying before them. Why, he could have crushed the Frost-King's skull like splintered eggshell when he had so smirkingly asked for Earth. As though Earth were some child's toy to be given on demand!
'To such a -a creature?'
'And what bargain have I made, that so displeases you?' Odin seemed nothing but a forbidding shadow within his helm. He had not spoken since they had withdrawn from Bylesitr's court. 'You, who break oaths so lightly to your king!'
Thor blanched - but he stood his ground.
'I uphold no oath made to buy my agreement so – so meanly, whilst you sell Earth into slavery for the peace of Asgard!'
'Peace!' The All-Father said sharply. He slapped Sleipneir's neck absently 'I have bought us time to barter for a better peace, my son – time we dearly need. I like not this new king of Jötunnheim. He reeks of greedy ambition. He will not make war whilst he thinks he has something to gain from parley.'
'Or he will prove a brute, and take it anyway, whilst we hesitate,' Thor said darkly, wrapping his cloak more closely about himself. 'He would wreak horror and desolation on Earth-'
He stopped short.
Thor recalled with a pang the way her soft brown eyes crinkled up when she smiled, head tilted slightly to one side like a small bright-eyed bird. Jane, of the soft flyaway hair – who looked strikingly lovely when bemused, or thoughtful. Try as he might, Thor found it harder to keep her face before him for long these days. She was a smudged memory, fading away like melted snow.
Strangely, the ruined face of Helblindi floated more substantially before his eyes the more he tried to hold Jane in his mind. There had been something disturbing about that face – something unconnected with the blinded eyes. Perhaps it had been the Jötunn's sparse build, compared to the hulking warriors of his tribe, or that sharp curve of jawline - but he had seemed painfully familiar, somehow. As though Thor had caught a brief glimpse of ...
No. Thor tried to shake the moment's disquieting reflection away. That was impossible. But...
It alarmed him, that uneasy ghost of a thought.
Alarmed him enough to harden his resolve, as Sleipneir's many hooves landed upon the shattered remains of the Bifrost. He cast anxious eyes heavenwards, towards the cold reaches where Midgard hung tantalisingly out of reach. The time to act was now. They were restricted to the old ways whilst the Bifrost remained in ruins, for few steeds of Asgard could travel between the Nine Realms with ease. Indeed, none could travel without the blessing of the All-Father himself, and for good reason. Meddling in the affairs of other realms was no light matter. But surely - in light of this new danger for both Asgard and Earth, his father could not refusehim?
Odin stared for a few moments out at the stars, unblinking, before turning back towards the city – away from his son, who lingered a little longer, looking at the swirl of lights speckling the firmament. 'Come,' he said over his shoulder, urging Sleipneir forward a few paces. 'There is much to do. I must think on how to act in this-'
Thor seized his moment. 'Father-'
'I...' Thor threw a desperate glance behind him, towards the tiny pinpoint of light nearest Earth. 'I would – I would ask your permission to leave Asgard, for a time.'
'Leave Asgard?' Odin's brows drew together. 'And go where, may I ask?'
Thor stared at the shifting colours trapped in the bridge beneath his feet, but made no answer.
'I see.' Odin's voice hardened. 'You would journey to Earth. Now. When Jötunnheim threatens your home with war-'
'It is because Jötunnheim threatens worse to Midgard that I must go, Father.'
Odin made an impatient noise in his throat. 'This is idle talk-'
'Not so idle!' Thor stared hard at his father. 'What if you cannot make peace with this new king on any other terms? What if he still demands Earth, or worse yet, simply takes it? Someone should at least warn them of the danger in which they stand-'
'And your mortals would thank you for that?' There was a rising edge in the All-Father's voice. A more critical judge of character than Thor might have perhaps detected a note of jealousy – a suggestion of frustration that his loyal first-born was not listening obediently and solemnly to his fatherly words. And worse, had plans of his own.
'They would scatter in fear and die in misery, and you could do nothing to save them-'
'I would fight for them.' Thor said determinedly, face set. 'I swore, Father. I gave my word to protect Earth.'
'And all for your mortal's sake?'
The pointed question took Thor almost unawares, and for one brief moment he flushed, pink as a maid on her wedding day. But he stood his ground, nonetheless.
'Not just for her sake. Midgard deserves our protection. But – yes. So Jane is safe.'
'Then save her – by staying here.' Odin took a step towards his son, his gaze suddenly openly appealing. 'Save Earth, by all means – but prove your worth by guarding it from harm from afar. It has only been a short time since you returned to us. Would you – would leave us so soon after...'
He faltered, and turned confusedly away for a moment, shoulders heaving.
Not all of the All-Father's frailty before Byleistr had been feigned. But reluctant as he was to reveal his tender point to an enemy, he dropped all pretence before Thor.
'We have already lost a well-beloved son,' he said, chokingly. 'I beg you – do not make us truly childless.'
Odin had not spoken of his brother's death since today. It was still too raw, too painful a wound, for both father and son. But his words made something shift, suddenly in Thor's head - back to that last fateful day. Something hurled, spitefully, between gritted teeth.
'He told me I...I was not his brother,' He said, swiftly, the words tumbling out before he could hold them back. 'Here. On the bridge.'
Odin's shoulders suddenly stiffened beneath his cloak, standing still as stone.
'Foolishness,' he said, in a voice that sounded oddly strangled in his throat. 'What brought that to your mind? He did not know what he said. Pay it no heed.'
'I don't.' Thor still stared as the prismatic colours moving sluggishly in the Bifrost. 'But... father...did you see his face? The younger Jötunn, he -' Thor shivered. 'I could have sworn I saw, in his face...he looked like...' He trailed off, face cast down.
'Stay.' Odin said hoarsely. 'Stay with us, here, for now. Please.'
And what refusal could be made to that? None. No man could have refused. Thor felt his father's overwhelming grief too keenly. Had he still been a small boy, he would have in all probability thrown his arms about his father and promised never to leave, ever.
As a man who knew his duty, he nodded assent, not trusting his voice to words, and followed behind his father as they began the long journey back into the heart of the citadel.
But Thor was also a man who, where he loved, loved in grave earnest. And it was not without twinges of grave misgiving that he followed his father back through the golden gates of Asgard. Byleistr was not a creature to make idle threats for nothing. There was a storm coming. Midgard - no, Jane was in grave danger, and knew nothing of it.
Alas, if only Jötunnheim had been all that threatened Earth! Thor little knew how deep the shadow stood over Midgard. Or how close he had come to grasping a truth that his father still pushed away...