O, this is the poison of deep grief!
When sorrows come, they come not single spies,
But in battalions...your son gone, and he most violent author
Of his own just remove; the people muddied,
Thick and unwholesome in their thoughts and whispers...
It is perhaps a remarkable thing that, of all the Nine Realms and their many varied beasts of burden, the great realm of Asgard houses only twelve horses. Twelve stamping, magnificent creatures with rolling eyes and proud flaring nostrils; each with a powerful name of their own.
Glad, Gyllir, Falhofnir and Skeidbrimir, Silfrtopp, Sinir and Lettfeti... Even their names suggested their grandeur. They were, it was true, few in number; but then they were truly horses for gods.
This is because the horses of Asgard are not truly horses at all. Oh, they are real enough where it matters to a rider. They have all the varied (and often foul) tempers a mortal horse has, and are much the same in matter of mane and teeth and trampling hooves. But there is a strange glitter about the steeds of the Aesir, when the sunlight strikes them. It reveals the strange, shadowy golden sheen of rune marks amongst their glossy coats and solid flesh.
Magical constructs. All of them. No more real than the Destroyer; each a vessel of blood magic and bone magic - but each with a peculiar life-force of their own that hovered halfway between magic and a peculiar half-life of their own.
Each and every one of them had their stables in the vast echoing halls of Odin. It was a tremendous place, built out of stamped bronze that seemed to reflect the glossy sheen of the horses' coats.
Thor had always distrusted them, as a rule. Firstly, because they were of a different province to his own powers, and they had a disturbing, crackling tension to them that made him uncomfortable because it was so alien, so different. But he had avoided the stables more than usual since his return. At least until now.
It was because he knew the temptation. It was a terrible thing, to stand in the doorway, staring at all those arching necks and stamping feet – and knowing that one – just one – would be enough to carry him to Earth. It wouldn't even have to be a long journey, or a protracted stay on Midgard. Earth seemed to have warriors enough of its own – of a peculiar sort. He could simply warn them of Jötunnheim, carry Jane off in triumph, and...
No, Thor realized, kicking gloomily at the scattered straw on the floor. No, he couldn't.
Earth had no defences at all against the sort of power Jötunnheim and Byleistr seemed so eager to inflict. It was the action of a selfish boor, and he briefly hated himself for thinking it. Especially since it was not only Jane who was in danger. Her kindly handmaid Darcy, the scholar Selvig... to leave them to their fate on Midgard in exchange for personal happiness was not something Thor could easily square with his conscience.
Midgard was a better world, in so many ways. None of the troubles that afflicted Asgard had yet come to light there; the mortals followed their own path, blissfully ignorant of the other realms that circled them - and there were a few, like Jane, who looked up at the stars and wondered. And they were free to wonder. No duties by birthright, or weighty destinies. It was something Thor found hard to admit to himself, but his exile had, in many ways, been a weight lifted from his shoulders. Perhaps his father was right. Perhaps his desire to return to Earth was not entirely chivalrous, after all.
But it was wrong to leave them ignorant. It was worse to know they, along with all of Earth, had been bartered away, false promise or no.
Thor's fingers twitched, looking along the wall of tethered horses in their stalls, his mind half-made up. It was clearly his duty to Jane (and to Midgard, yes) to go. He would have to take one.
But which one?
Sleipneir was out of the question. He was powerful enough to cross the Nine Realms without pausing for breath, yes, but he only bore the All-Father willingly. Besides, it would be outright insult to take (Thor's thoughts skirted guiltily around the word steal) his father's horse. Glad, despite his name, was ill-tempered and bit far more of his riders than any sorcerous construct had a right to. And many of the newer constructs were not built to withstand a journey to such a distant realm as Earth. The only possible choice was a grave-eyed piebald mare of his mother's who Thor knew of old– and indeed, Thor had a fondness for her, having fallen many times from her back as a child learning to ride. She was somewhat erroneously named Hofvarpnir - Hoof-Kicker, although for her speed rather than for her placid temper. But she was old, and at least as powerful as Sleipneir. His mother used her to bear messages to other realms...
Thor had unconsciously stepped forward, one hand outstretched to Hofvarpnir in a calming gesture – perhaps more for himself than the horse. Deceit did not sit well upon Thor. But it was not wrong, Thor told himself sharply. It was right. And it was only himself he was endangering this time, after all. He had not embroiled his friends, though Volstagg and the others would probably have Hel for him had he suggested it. But he'd only risk himself. What fault could anyone find with that?
Hofvarpnir's bridle and saddle lay carelessly slung over the wall of her stall. So close to hand! It would only be the work of a moment to saddle her and ride hard for the stars...
Thor patted the mare's muzzle distractedly, eyes still flickering longingly towards the discarded saddle. Hofvarpnir whinnied softly, large dark eyes fixed enquiringly on his face. It was far too intelligent a gaze for a simple horse.
'Na, na, girl,' Thor said soothingly, 'There. Hush.' He groped blindly for the saddle on the wooden wall.
'Good girl –'
Thor started angrily, jumping away from Hofvarpnir as though stung. 'What?' he snapped. 'What, are we under attack? Are the Jötunns scaling our walls? What is so urgent?'
The saffron cloaked figure of a guard stood outlined in the doorway, looking horrified at his blunder. 'N-no, my lord,' he stammered, abashed. 'I meant no offence, only - '
'Only what?' Thor's temper was still simmering.
'Heimdall, my lord. The watchman. He... he-' the guard swallowed, 'Asks for your presence at the Bifrost.'
'Is that all? He has no business-' Thor turned his fair head away, staring broodingly at the horses again. 'He interrupts me. I was about to ride... north. Yes, north. To patrol our borders.'
He was tempted to ignore the summons. But Heimdall... He had not thought of Heimdall! He would have seen! He would know...
Thor sighed, despondently. 'Very well.' He said, reluctantly. 'If Heimdall wishes it.'
The shattered remains of the Bifrost jutted out, precariously looming over the edge of the world. It looked almost as frail as spun-sugar outlined against the darkness, the glowing colours of the rainbow bridge oddly faded now there was no gate, and no power.
It had been left as it was. Once, his father would have at once commanded the builders of Asgard to start work at once – but Odin had rather tiredly remarked that perhaps it was better as it was, and so left it, and his gatekeeper, without a gate to guard.
Heimdall still kept constant watch at the broken edge of the Bifrost. He was not hard to find – unfortunately for Thor's guilty conscience. He was too painfully aware of what Heimdall had no doubt seen; a contemplated theft by the All-Father's heir. Treachery.
'I was about to ride north,' he said defensively. 'Our walls to the north must be gauged, and there is much work-'
'Indeed?' Heimdall said politely, without turning from his post. He was simply a gilded back to Thor, staring thoughtfully out at the skies. 'It was Asgard you sought to protect, then?'
'I...' Thor's shoulders sagged. It was pointless to attempt concealment with Heimdall.
'You saw me,'he said. 'You know. Yes, I thought of leaving Asgard for Earth, with the All-Father's permission or without it. I cannot stand idly by while he delays so long! I have a duty – I...' he trailed off, defeated. 'I want to help them. I am not content to simply keep Asgard safe.'
'I know.' Heimdall turned his golden eyes away from the stars. 'And were it any other time, and the power in my hands, I would have opened the passage to Midgard for you myself.'
Thor looked visibly startled. Heimdall had always been his father's sworn bondsman. A less forbidding figure of authority than his father, granted, but still master of a thousand scoldings; a slighter figure of paternal disapproval, as it were. To hear Heimdall express even the slightest disagreement with the commands of the All-Father was like watching a man box with his own shadow – faintly unnerving.
'Yes.' Heimdall looked faintly amused at Thor's obvious astonishment. 'But not today. I understand your fears,' he added kindly, holding up a hand as Thor opened his mouth to argue anew. 'You are right about Earth. There are clouds coming; black clouds. And I fear it will engulf all the Nine Realms in the storm of war. '
'And Earth will be the first to suffer!' Thor burst out angrily.
'I do not pretend to understand my king's plans. But I do not think the All-Father would let that happen. And you would be wrong to flee to Earth unbidden now. You would wound both your father and the kingdom too deeply.'
Thor breathed hard, the bitter disappointment showing plain upon his face. 'But...'
'Wait a little longer.' Heimdall turned his gaze sharply towards the distant golden outline of Asgard, those faraway pupils widening. 'For now. Asgard needs you, Thor Odinsson. All is not well here.'
Thor looked back towards his father's halls. 'What do you see?'
Heimdall shook his helmeted head. 'I do not speak the secrets of the All-Father.' He said firmly, although his expression was distinctly uneasy. 'But... all is not well. And the All-Father will tell you soon enough, I am sure...'
'You do not mean to tell him!'
There are few men in the world who have ever witnessed the anger of a queen of Asgard – and it was very rare to see the Lady Frigga in anything but a kindly mood. But when she grew angry, her rage was not a hot-tempered one; it was a cold blast of withering contempt. And she aimed it towards her husband with all the acid derision she could summon.
'So,' she said, turning upon her chair, 'He asked you at last – as it is natural he would -and what do you, great lord of the Aesir, do? You shy away from it like a tongue-tied fool! You say it is nothing, foolishness – and you still withhold the truth from him, when you should be holding counsel with him, helping him to understand-' She broke off. 'Why do I even argue? What use is it? You take your own advice, and no-one else's.'
'No!' The All-Father's wife rose, the dark gold of her hair blazing. 'I prided myself once on being able to keep your secrets in silence, my husband. No more.'
Odin stood, shoulders hunched, in the flickering firelight from his wife's hearth, looking almost as old as he had before the Odinsleep. There was a time when you would often have found the All-Father in his wife's chambers, holding joint counsel as beloved husband and wife – an aging king and his gracious queen holding a dignified, measured court. But not of late. Frigga had been inconsolable for a long while, taking comfort only in her warrior son's presence and her own duties. And a strained distance had grown, in that little time, between the All-Father and his wife. She no longer shared his rooms, preferring her own hall of Fensalir - a place she had not occupied since she was a maiden scarcely betrothed. What she did there none had the courage to ask, not even her brave-browed son or her sad-eyed husband. Lady Frigga had become... distant. And Odin, master of a thousand powers, could do nothing to change that.
'What would you have me do?' he asked tiredly, cradling his shaggy head upon one hand. 'Frigga-'
'Do not use that begging voice with me,' his lady-wife snapped, with sudden violence. 'I will not be cozened by – by words! Thor must know. He should have known from the beginning, but I was weak, and...' she looked down at her hands, convulsively twisting a loose thread in her kirtle over and over – and, for the first time since the breaking of the Bifrost, Odin saw the glimmer of tears in her eyes.
'We had such hopes, didn't we?' she said, in a subdued voice. 'Once. It all looked so bright, so promising...Do you remember? War with Jötunnheim was something we would have laughed at, back when -'
'We could not have foreseen things would have turned out so,' Odin said gently. For one moment Frigga swayed, made as though to lean her head against his shoulder – but as he moved towards her she suddenly tensed, leaning back as though he disgusted her.
'Don't touch me!' she said in a savage whisper. 'Don't!'
The dismay and open hurt on her husband's face seemed to simply make her withdraw back into her stony shell.
'Tell Thor,' she said coldly. 'Go and tell him, else I renounce my place as your wife. And when you have done that, go and make or break your plans for war as you like. That seems to be work - for men.'
She fixed her gaze on the fire, until only the gentle noise of her chamber door closing told her that she was alone. It was only then that she allowed herself a few tears. Frigga could not afford to relent in front of her husband – or her son, though she loved him with a fond ache only a mother could know. But if she weakened now –
She wouldn't have the strength for what she planned to do.
'Fulla?' she called.
A grave-eyed woman with her hair bound in a veil hurried forward across the echoing hall. 'My lady?'
'Bring my casket of ash. And my scrying glass.'
Fulla stopped dead, her eyes fixed on her mistress' face. 'Again? My lady – you know what the sight cost you last time. Gazing so far without the aid of the Bifrost– it will take its toll. You know it will.'
Frigga rocked back and forth intently as she stared into the fire, not hearing a word. 'I must know, Fulla.' She said, fiercely. 'I will find Loki out, if I have to scry every inch of the universe to find him...'
Fulla stared at her mistress, pity and a wary concern mingling in her face. She had grown old in the Lady Frigga's service; and she knew a dangerous mood when she saw one.
'What if you cannot find him?' she said, very softly. 'My lady – the All-Father searched long and hard. He gave up the search as useless. All of Asgard has mourned his passing as befits the – the son of a king...'
There was a faint edge in Fulla's voice that suggested much grief was somewhat uncalled for, in this particular prince's case. 'Would it not be better – no, perhaps...kinder to-'
'To what? Give up, as my husband has done? No!' Frigga's voice was steely. 'I don't ask your advice, Fulla.' She snatched the rough-hewn ash box from Fulla's hands. It was a small thing, but it was heavy, and it rattled as she took it. 'Besides,' she continued distractedly, toying with a strand of greying gold hair. 'I do not think him dead.'
He would be better dead, Fulla thought silently to herself. Dead, one could have a little charity for Loki, But Frigga had always had a strange, fearful idolatry for her foundling. Fulla had never quite understood it. Still. Alive was another problem altogether.
'Why?' she persisted, staring her mistress in the face. 'Lady – even the abyss would kill a frost-giant outright before he could even touch a realm...'
Frigga bent over the polished reflection of the glass in her lap. 'Oh, he may be Laufey's son, to be sure,' she said, strangely. 'But he is also his - his mother's son. He is resourceful. There will be a way...'
Fulla gave up the struggle against Frigga's feverish insistence. But as she withdrew, leaving her mistress the tools of her scrying magic, she could not help but bite her lip worriedly.
Heimdall was right. All was far from well in Asgard.
'This wasn't how this was supposed to go,' Jane said forlornly, jingling her car keys in her pocket as she leant against the wall. 'Your first day. It shouldn't have been like this.'
'No-one's first day should be like this,' Darcy said hollowly. 'Jeez...'
When the medical team – four strong, burly men - had arrived, Doctor Selvig had certainly not gone quietly, or calmly. They'd had to sedate him before they could even carry him up to the ward. And even then he'd lain trussed on his stretcher still tossing and turning, muttering about 'Him.'
Jane and Darcy hadn't left Anneka's side since. She couldn't help but be grateful. If it had just been her, on her own...
Anneka stared down at her styrofoam cup of juice. She'd been given it by a kindly receptionist in the medical bay. It was a horrible , chemical sort of orange squash, the industrial strength- stuff so beloved of hospitals and official institutions. It tasted rather how she felt.
And she didn't want to think about how she'd have coped on her own. With Pappa.
She sipped her drink mechanically, staring down at her battered sneakers. It was something to do, after all. Rather than think.
'I had no idea it was this bad...'Jane breathed. She looked horribly guilt-stricken. 'Look, Anneka – you have every right to hold me responsible for not checking up on your dad, and I'll understand if you never speak to me again – but I honestly didn't...' she trailed off.
Anneka blinked slightly. 'I don't blame you,' she said numbly, looking across the hall towards father's door. It seemed stupid, thinking about that now. Anneka was his daughter, after all, and she hadn't known.
Tears suddenly prickled in Anneka's eyes. In her haste to put the cup down she spilt chemical orange over her shoes. Mamma. She'd forgotten her mother. And Birtta, hiccupping tearfully down the phone, waiting for a call that would never come because Pappa had been –
'Anneka? What's wrong?'
'My mother-' Anneka blurted out. 'I should call-' she shook her head. 'Gud, I don't know what to say to her...'
'Don't worry about it,' Jane said gently, squeezing her shoulder. 'I'll call her.'
'You're in no condition to explain anything to anyone – let alone telling your mom about something like this. Come on. I'll call.' Jane said, with an unexpected firmness that made Anneka see the physics professor in her. 'She'd rather know you're with him, I'm sure. I'll just tell her-'
'We don't even know what's wrong with him, yet. He just-' Anneka shivered. 'He wasn't Pappa. It was like he was drugged, or...' Something tugged at her memory. Something Agent Samson had said.
'What happened to Jim Towser?' she asked, suddenly.
Jane started. 'What?'
'Jim Towser.' Anneka repeated patiently. '"It's like Jim Towser all over again." That's was the security man said. What's like Jim Towser?'
'Oh.' Darcy, in the corner, shook her head, 'That's nothing like what happened here. Jim Towser – well, he was another security guy, y'know? The guy had been all over the place with SHIELD. Hot-spots you didn't want to know about. Apparently it was some delayed mental break-down...'
Jane stared at her protégé incredulously. 'Darcy, how do you even know all this?'
'Hey, I share pizza delivery with the duty guard! He tells me stuff!'
'Mental breakdown?' Anneka said sharply. 'Like...'she swallowed. 'Pappa?'
'No way! Apparently he shot up a window or something! Went totally off-the-wall crazy, talking about weird eyes...'
'Watching him all the time? "Him"? '
'Well, yeah –wait, no!' Darcy looked agonised as Jane threw her a furious look. 'I didn't mean it to sound like that...'
'I think you've done enough, Darcy,' Jane said pointedly.
Anneka was staring uneasily into the surface of her chemical orange drink. The odd shadow on the drinks machine was still preying on her mind. It had appeared just when Pappa had been so frightened...Coincidence?
She shrugged, huddling defensively into her jacket
'I'll bet Jim Towser didn't mention anything about svarthofdi, though,' she said, trying to keep the shake out of her voice. 'I mean – it's funny that Pappa should say that, really. It's not Swedish.'
'Wait, what? I thought that was-' Jane sounded confused.
'Nah.' Anneka drained her squash, crumpling the plastic cup up in one hand. 'It's Old Norse. I didn't even know he knew that word...'
Once again, there was another strange silence between Jane and Darcy. They exchanged furtive glances, over Anneka's tousled head.
'What does it mean?' Jane asked.
'Svarthofdi? It means sorcerer. Magic-maker, runeweaver... ' Anneka swallowed, inwardly a little surprised at how calm her voice sounded. 'There's a few translations. Vilmeid's another one – although that's wizards, they're not quite as powerful-'
She stopped. Why? Why would Pappa say it so often? As though it was important...
'He must have been delirious,' Darcy said comfortingly. 'He's been doing some pretty heavy research at the site, you know? I think maybe he's just hit the books too hard and come down with um- a fever, or something... I mean, they fixed Jim Towser just fine, once they gave him the anti-psychotic meds...'
'I'll go and call your mom,' Jane said firmly, darting another thin-lipped glance of annoyance at Darcy. 'Tell her not to worry – you shouldn't, either. The doctors here will call if there's any change. They will!' Anneka had opened her mouth to protest. 'They're a decent team here.'
'I've known a lot of doctors, believe me.' Jane said grimly. 'The guys here are good. Now you - you should go find your rooms and get some rest. It'll look better in the morning...'
It was something Anneka's mother might have said. It'll look better in the morning. It was one of those comforting sayings that didn't really mean anything, Anneka thought dizzily, as Darcy helped her manhandle her suitcase down a well-carpeted passage towards her living quarters. She had to give SHIELD credit – they were certainly well-organised. In a vaguely corporate way, almost sympathetic. Someone had deposited a research folder, together with a plastic keycard on a string, on her bed in her room. It was a nice gesture, at least. It meant someone had thought things out after - after Pappa.
Darcy stared round at Anneka's room. 'Hey, this is pretty nice! I'm still stuck out at the radio shack in a caravan-' She poked her head through a door into an odd moulded plastic cube. 'Cool, you get an ensuite – and soap! It's like a hotel, you get little bottles-' she caught Anneka's expression, out of the corner of her eye, and stopped. 'Um, I'll go and help Jane...'
She patted the Swedish girl gingerly on one shoulder. 'I hope your dad gets better.'
It was almost worse when she closed the door and went away. Anneka was left alone with herself. And sometimes the mind is the worst company of all.
She hadn't cried in front of Jane and Darcy. But here, with nothing but a muted lamp and anonymous furniture, with everything she owned in one shabby little suitcase?
Anneka began to cry in earnest.