Merry Christmas :)
Ilk 13: Frenemy territory
Short or long to Goblin City?
The straight way's short, but the long way's pretty.
Terry Jones, Faerie Tales.
Earlier that week...
"Right, so it was something like... Find a scholar or a weapons manufacturer-"
"Smith. She said a weaponsmith."
"Okay, Sir Fourteen eighty-five, weaponsmith, then." Tony frowned at the glowing virtual screen in front of him. "One of those, or a... thing. Scholar. Librarian. Then it was something about circles?"
"She said-" Steve made a face. "- well, she called them 'fairy rings'. What she was referring to, I can only gather would be circles made up of something natural or mystical - like Stonehenge, maybe? I don't know how perfect or circle-ish it has to be, though..."
"I'm no expert," Bruce pushed his glasses up the bridge of his nose, then took a swig of orange juice. "But I'd imagine that the more symmetrical and perfect the circle, the more... I don't know... "magical" it is. I mean, you've got circular shapes appearing all throughout history in both science and religion - they're often seen as an example of the ideal, symbols for birth and rebirth; it's a shape of power. So I've read, anyway."
"And entering one of these things is what," Steve tapped his fingernail against the side of his glass. "Some kind of transport or, I don't know, door to another world? Another dimension? And they work just like that? No key, no... password? It can't be that simple."
"That and we'd look like a bunch of idiots jumping in and out of every ring of weeds we find in central park," Tony added, poking his finger idly through the display. He glanced at Thor, who was swirling the beer in his glass, painting the meager froth around the sides. His expression was taut. "Any thoughts? You're more familiar with all this stuff, right?"
"Sadly no. Not the processes or specifics to any notable extent." Thor answered in a tired voice. "Magic is my brother's speciality, not mine. Nor could I begin to imagine the language of Midgardian sorcery - unlike Asgard, it appears to be shrouded in mystery. The Mortals of this realm seem to have forgotten about magic - or see it as something otherworldly; that which they could never attain."
"Right. Great. So we're all on the same level at least," Tony sighed. "Except Loki. Probably. So what else do we have?"
"She sort of threw information at us as we were leaving, um... What else did was there?" Bruce said to Steve, who scrubbed at his chin with the heel of his hand, blue eyes narrowing in thought. "Something about not eating the food?"
"They don't cater for gluten intolerance?" Tony snorted. "Macrobiotic? Pescatarians?"
"I think it was more to lessen the chance or being cursed or hexed," Bruce ignored him. "Like there's something in the food that would bind you to that world. I've heard about that kind of thing in stories before."
"Yes. Don't eat the food. She stressed that," Steve agreed. "Also she specified that wooded areas, or areas with a strong growth of European trees were better places to start. Start, um, magic searching? Why, I have no idea, but that's what she said."
"The food thing is plausible, the trees, not so much," Bruce mused. "But you could say that for all of this... this... stuff, really. All of it is pretty much a not so much."
"And that's all you got from her?" Tony cut in over Bruce, making notes as he went. The list was still far too small and simple for him, but it wasn't as if he couldn't flesh it out with some research. Jarvis was already cross-referencing against common threads of belief - he would turf up something eventually. Then, there was always Loki. Tony drew the nib of his stylus through his hair, worriedly. If he could persuade Loki to speak to him again.
"That was all," Steve said, breaking through Tony's clouded concentration. "That and this Clench book. Nell said it was light reading for "our guest", but I'm almost tempted to assume there's more to it than that."
"She knew who I was," Thor added, quietly as Steve pushed the thin volume toward Tony. "Doubtless, she is aware that she is treating Loki, or at least another Asgardian God. This is all too coincidental. Bor's Blood, it does remind me of the stories of the Norns."
"Norns?" Bruce glanced up, Thor just gestured listlessly toward the window .
"I believe you call them the "fates". Three disir who are said to court destiny - even control it. They tend the mighty roots of Yggdrasil, keeping the nine from rotting." He shrugged with a metallic clank of his armor. "But while I am sure they exist, I do not think that Loki's injury and punishment is their doing. We would know if it was."
"If you ask me, this Nell lady just sounds like she's trying to get on Loki's good side." Bruce said, with a nod. "If she had anything to do with... what was her name? The Warlord?"
"Navaar," Tony answered, flicking through another set of notes. "Big, ugly sword chick."
"Yeah, well if those two were in cahoots, Loki would probably be dead by now. Or, at least... not teamed up with you know... the Avengers. It just seems fishy that Navaar would trap Loki to a mortal form, but allow him to come to us for help. She couldn't have thought that Thor would turn his brother away, not under the circumstances. And she must have known he was here too."
"No, not turn him away," Steve narrowed his eyes. "More like spark his interest. His attention. If all this is true, if-" Steve repeated, punctuating the fact that he still wasn't entirely on par with the situation. "Then wouldn't it be viable that Navaar might be trying to manipulate Loki for her own needs?"
"To what end exactly?" Tony said, downing his scotch in one as he reached for the bottle. "He's human - he can't do anything. There's no tesseract, no mind-controlly shit. No Loki doppelgangers popping up all over the place like gremlins. He's just... him. Right?"
The last question was directed toward Thor, who sucked in his lower lip and chewed on it a little before he scratched at his beard.
"Yes. There is little Loki can do as a human. The Allfather has stripped him of his magics and he longer has the strength of a God. But he is still a Prince of Asgard. He is still my father's son, still my brother."
"Still worth something, huh?" Tony added. Thor narrowed his eyes, but nodded minutely.
"I do not know what fate my father had intended for Loki. But he has not disowned him, nor banished him. Not as he had done to me."
"You mean when you invaded... What was it? Jotunheim?" Steve asked and Thor nodded. "When you ended up in New Mexico?"
"Yes," Thor replied, shortly.
"So you lay siege and get kicked out of home, but when Loki pisses off three worlds at once and rips Manhattan apart, he gets solitary?"
"I can only imagine that Odin thought him safer incarcerated," Thor said, as Bruce took off his glasses and began to polish them. "I am heir to the throne of Asgard. An example needed to be made of me. Loki is... not. And he has more reason to be contemptuous. He wishes for vengeance against me, and his reasons gather with every passing day, regardless of their legitimacy. He is at risk of himself and of those he betrayed - especially those he has betrayed."
"I thought the Chitauri were destroyed," Steve said. "Nuked by America's finest."
"Better believe it," Tony muttered.
"That was one army, it is unlikely they would have exhausted their forces on one planet alone. Besides," Thor shook his head. "I do not believe they were the only ones supporting Loki's cause. From our fragmented conversations, I am convinced that there are others. Perhaps another instigator who took advantage of Loki's state when he fell from Asgard."
"Don't be too generous," Steve warned him. "He was still perfectly happy to shoot down bystanders. It certainly didn't seem like someone was twisting his arm. You know him better than us, sure, but from what I saw-" Steve picked at the cork of his coaster with a ragged fingernail. "-he was enjoying every minute of it."
"Maybe not the last ten minutes," Bruce supplied, casually, and Tony cracked a grin. Thor only shook his head again, worriedly.
"Perhaps. But it is an option I cannot dismiss. Not yet. Perhaps for my sake more than his."
"And exactly why I've called us together before we go any further into this-" Steve sighed. "-whatever it is. Magic. Sorcery. More Gods and witches and enchanted swords. It's no one's area of expertise here, except Loki's, and he's the one we need to watch the most. I mean, what's to say that Navaar wouldn't return his abilities if she has successfully-" he motioned toward Bruce. "-gained his interest. He might be angry with her, but Loki isn't stupid enough to seek revenge without finding out exactly what schemes he was meant to be part of."
"And what about protecting Asgard. Protecting you from this woman?" Bruce asked Thor, leaning forward a little in his seat. "Do you think he was being genuine when he said that?"
"With Loki, it is difficult to tell, he is so practiced in his lies," Thor considered, slowly. "But I believe, now that I have had some practice, I am able to tell when there is truth in his words. I am certain I saw such honesty that day. After all, he has not asked me to do anything, nor greased my interest toward any goal. If he wants anything from me, it is merely protection for the moment, and he knows that I would not turn him away."
"It's just like you said, Tony," Bruce agreed. "He really doesn't know what to do with himself."
"Which brings me to another point, Tony, you seem to be pretty good at translating all those dark looks and snappy comments into something useful," Steve said, glancing at his comrade. "In fact, I'd go as far to say that you understand him pretty well. Call me crazy but I think he actually enjoys talking to you."
"Well," Tony shrugged, mildly. "Who wouldn't?"
"Most people," Steve answered, bluntly - which caused Thor to chuckle lightly. "Which is why I'm starting to think you could make use of this accord. He doesn't really talk much to Bruce, nor Jarvis - unless he wants something. He has a history with Thor which includes too much manipulation and tricks to trust that relationship at this point. No offense, Thor."
The chuckles ceased and Thor stared solemnly at the table.
"It is true, he knows me too well. It would be too tempting for him to rely on his old tricks. That being said, he is also not particularly pleased with me right now. I am not, as you say, in his good books." He paused, raising a straw-coloured brow at Steve. "I do not think he likes you much either, my friend."
"Y'know, Cap, that's probably a lot to do with your overwhelming aroma of leather polish and righteous indignation," Tony snickered as he picked up the bottle again. "Kinda like a cross between a dominatrix and a sunday school teacher - people don't know what to think of you."
"Nor you," Steve countered, casually. "But it's clear that Loki's okay with your recklessness, your spiky attitude and selfishness-"
"Well gee, don't make me blush."
"- and your cleverness," Steve finished. "You're a puzzle to him. You keep him occupied - focussed. You're more of a help to him than all of us, right now. Even Thor."
"What're you saying exactly?" Tony said, freezing in mid-pour. Golden drops of scotch lingered tantalisingly on the lip of the bottle."You want me to buddy up with Senior Psychopath? Make nice with Problem Child? What good'll that do?"
"Enough to help us discern which way he's playing his cards," Steve reasoned. "He's stuck here for now, but he won't always be - he's healing up pretty well."
"You mean, you think he'll escape? Why? What would be the point?" Tony looked incredulous. "He can't do anything..."
"That's what we think," Steve said. "But when you really look at it, he's got everyone he needs in one place and I can't help feeling like a duck lined up for shooting. I want you to ghost him."
"Jarv could do that."
"But Jarvis isn't as unpredictable as a human. You'd keep him on his toes."
Tony blanched suddenly, remembering just how on his toes Loki had been in the swimming pool. Steve was right, Loki couldn't read him at all and for their sakes, that was definitely a plus. Still didn't mean that it was the best idea.
"I... don't think he's in the best mood with me right now, either," Tony admitted, grudgingly, trying to ignore Steve as he rolled his eyes. "Probably won't be for a while..."
"Tony, no one is ever in the "best" mood with you, that's kind of a given," Steve said, and when Tony made to glare at him, added: "leather polish and... what was it?"
"Righteous Indignation," Tony grumbled.
"Righteous Indignation. Well then, if that's me, then you're stand-offish, snarky and difficult-"
"That's three, I only gave you two!"
"Then add "pulling rank" in some creative way," Steve finished, pushing his glass into the middle of the table. "I want you to stay with him, Tony. If Fury gets involved, then we'll take pains to cover your back, but I want to know what he's up to. I want you on him."
"You want me on him," Tony echoed, weakly.
"Yeah. Like a... A-" Steve forehead crumpled in thought.
"Rash?" Bruce suggested.
"A viper-leech?" Thor added, happily.
"Stalker," Tony muttered under his breath.
"A virus. One of those computer ones you were telling me about," Steve said, triumphantly. "Insidious, hard to shake and always that little bit smarter. That I know you can do."
"Flattery will get you everywhere," Tony surrendered, upending the bottle to fill his glass. He'd need something to occupy him and his thoughts tonight and he doubted Loki would be it. "But okay, I'll do it. I don't like it, but I'll do it."
"Good," Steve stood up. "Well, if we're done here, then I suppose I'll let him have his book and see what comes of it. Thor, perhaps you'd like to take a quick glance over it first?"
"If you think it would be beneficial," Thor said, nodding at Tony as he followed Steve out of the room. Bruce lingered for a moment, silently finishing his juice before he got to his feet, patting Tony on the shoulder. It seemed as though there was nothing left to say, but before the Doctor had left the room, he simply turned to Tony and smiled his little, knowing smile.:
There were woods beyond the door. Thick, wild woods - nothing like Tony had ever seen before. The trees were tall, barrel-chested and rough. Sparse lower branches made room for a rambling of ferns and brush that filtered out a lot of light - almost more than the towering canopy above. The air was dense and damp and smelled of leaf rot and pine needles. A light mist sauntered lazily around them, dripping off the snaking creepers like syrup from a spoon. It wasn't quite warm enough to lose a layer, and the chill in the air did well to remind Tony that he was still dripping wet from the waist down. He tugged at his sodden khakis, irritably.
"You going to talk to me now?" He asked of Loki's retreating back. The ex-God had not harbored much good favor for Tony, not since he'd shoved him through the gate, and the most that Stark had managed to wheedle out of his ornery charge was a brief grunt of acknowledgement every now and again. But only when he really, really needed a response. "C'mon, Loki. Lighten up."
Silence answered him. Loki's pace had not slowed since Stark had emerged on the other side of the portal and found his travelling companion striding fiercely away from the sheer granite mountainside the subway tunnel had become; disappearing into the surrounding bush. Tony hadn't even allowed himself a moment of mild surprise as the door fell closed behind him with a muted shuuush; he had jogged after Loki, a string of sarcasm-tipped apologies flying from his tongue.
"Ok, I shouldn't have pulled that. I get it. Sorry," Tony said, almost to himself, as he vaulted over a fallen tree, wet sneakers skidding a little on the crumbling bark. "Next time, I'll go first. You can push me, even, if you like. As long as it's not over a cliff, shove away, feel free." He ducked a low-hanging creeper, only to find the close-knit branches of a young seedling suddenly filling his vision, whipping him in the face. Loki was flicking branches at him. Well, wasn't that mature. "Actually, it could be over a cliff, just let me have the bag open for the MK7, that's all I ask. Fair challenge and all."
Loki didn't bite. Tony felt that he almost should have expected it. The ex-God dropped whatever trace amount of humor he'd stored up the moment he and Tony had hit the rail tunnels, and hadn't lightened his tone since. Brushing the foliage out of his way, Tony sighed and quickened his pace in order to catch up. He felt that it was probably far better to remain at a close distance, even if his companion was being pissier than Pepper at a classic car auction. The air was cooling even further and the ground was becoming muddier as it began to slope, driving them deeper into the forest. Tony didn't like it. Especially as Frank had saidthey were supposed to be ending up outside a settlement of some kind, not lost in the Rockies, or the Disneyland equivalent of. All the bushwalking was starting to bother him: maybe the giant hadn't been altogether true to his word. That, and Loki's silence was really starting to bother him.
"Thought were were the God of Mischief or something?" Tony tried, grimacing as he felt the earth beneath his chucks squelch ominously. "Can't handle a little joke? Sheesh!"
It was then that Loki stopped and turned around and Tony almost wished that he'd held his tongue. The light in the forest was growing dim, the deeper they pushed inward, though it still did not hide the bone-white pallor of Loki's face, not the deep shadows that bruised his eyes with thick rounds of purplish-blue. Sweat sheened his forehead, his eyes were bright and feverish and his breath came in short, open-mouthed pants as he made to speak.
"Mischief is one thing, idiocy is another. You had no idea what was on the other side of that portal."
Tony just gaped, ignoring the fact that Loki had suggested he go first. He did not look well, in fact, he looked ready to keel over in a heartbeat.
"You... Loki... Shit. You need to sit down."
"There isn't time." Loki shook his head, unsteadily. "We must find Nuada. We cannot dither. If there is anything one must understand about the world of magic, it is that one cannot forget their intent. There is much that will take advantage of the unwary traveller, whether its purpose is harmless or otherwise."
"Yeah, but-" Tony began, then sucked in a breath. "So that's why you were plowing on ahead. You could have mentioned it."
"Thor would have known," Loki said, matter of fact, before crossing his arms over his chest.
"Well, I'm not Thor. And I kinda hoped you appreciated that," Tony told him. "How's your bandage?"
"It is fine," Loki dismissed him, weakly, then let out a an impatient huff as Tony glared at him, unimpressed. "I confess, I have not given it a thought." His admittance trailed off as Tony reached out, unzipping the front of his jacket to lift the shirt beneath. The plastic bandage was worn and ragged, stained pink by washed out blood. It had shifted a little, thanks to Loki's vigorous exercise and dark residue from the dirty tape spotted the pasty skin around it. An iris of deep red had begun to gather in the centre again, however, and beads of blood were gathering at the corner of the soaked center gauze. Catching Tony's eye, he shook his head again. "We must continue."
"Fine," Tony consented, gruffly. "But not for much longer. You need to rest and I'll be damned if I have you collapsing on me."
"Stark," Loki groaned, with a roll of his eyes. "I am not a child. I have traversed worlds with much graver injuries."
"Yeah, when you were a God," Tony was unrelenting. "And those were, I dunno, dragon bites or something. It's not the same, ok? You take breaks, or I carry you. I've got cable ties in my kit, you know."
Loki didn't have the energy to argue further and merely sighed again in resignation, turning on his heel. Stark followed him as he trudged steadily down into what could only be described as marsh - the mud turning slick and oily, marbled here and there by threads of brackish slime.
"Watch where you tread - do not to set foot in any pools of water," Loki informed him, breathlessly, as they slid down another embankment, gripping vines and creepers for support as they went. "And avoid stepping in any circles of mushrooms or stones-"
"Fairy rings," Tony interrupted him, somewhat indignantly. "I know about those. They're supposed to be another kind of portal, right?"
"To my knowledge, they pull you into the midst of a fairy reverie," Loki nodded, hopping from one large root to another. "From which it is very difficult to remove yourself. Keep your knees soft as you descend, it will lessen any chance of sprains if you happen to trip."
"I've been hiking before," Tony protested. "Okay, so I haven't gone like... battle hiking, or whatever it is you've done, but I'm not exactly a virgin to the outdoors."
"Battle hiking?" Loki snorted, rounding a large tree trunk. "One would wonder." His sentence petered off as he slowed a little, pivoting carefully on his heel to gaze around him. The tall, lofty canopy of the forest was gone now, replaced by thinner, squatter, crooked trees - leafless and barren, they bent towards the travellers like a cluster of dismembered hands. Loki frowned. "No, I have lost the path..."
"We were following a path?"
"Yes," Loki glanced about, scanning the marsh floor for any sign of the trail he'd been following - whatever that looked like. Tony was sure as hell he'd never seen it. "It was scant, but it was there. Then we stopped and I lost it. I told you things get lost here!"
Though the words were bitter, Loki sounded more worried than anything, and Tony wisely swallowed any comeback that might have been brewing behind his guilty grimace. Without offering his companion a chance to speak, Loki held up a hand in silence and pushed on, veering to the left this time. It wasn't long before he halted again, this time breathing roughly - pushing his damp hair behind his ears.
"No, this isn't right either," he said, absently smearing a little mud over the corner of his jaw. "It is not this way."
"Can we retrace our steps?" Tony suggested, canvassing the marsh floor for evidence of their footprints. Given the softness of the mud and the loose scum covering the roots of the trees they were standing on, he would have thought that their tracks would have been easy to spot. However, any marks they might have made have vanished and the marsh appears untouched. Tony licked his lips slowly. "Do you hear that?"
"What?" Loki said, his expression troubled. "I hear nothing."
"Exactly," Tony replied, nodding into the bracken. "Nothing. No birds, no wind. Not even the gurgle of the mud, or anything remotely swampy. It's dead quiet - no noise at all."
Loki stopped in mid-step and rocked backwards to lean his weight against a tree, blinking rapidly as he tried to make out any sound within the thick fog surrounding them.
"You are right, there's nothing," he murmured after a moment. "No sound at all - not even the echo of our voices." Shivering, Loki drew his arms around himself, rubbing his thin shoulders. "This does not bode well at all."
Tony couldn't help but notice the sheepish and slightly disappointed tone in Loki's voice, nor the chatter of his teeth, and swung his bag off his shoulder, searching inside for the spare parka. No doubt Loki thought the search was going to be a lot easier - he'd probably thought they'd appear outside some kind of settlement, just like Tony had assumed, and not have to take some sort of weird, holiday hike.
"You don't know that," he said, feeling absolutely no confidence whatsoever in his words. It was far too quiet - the same kind of silence a predator creates when it is hunting its prey - he'd seen it on discovery channel. He tugged out the parka from the backpack, dislodging a couple of Twinkies, which he shoved into his pocket. "Put this on. You're starting to shiver."
"I am fine," Loki protested feebly - stiffening as Tony grabbed at the zipper on his wet jacket. "Let me be."
"Lost is one thing. Lost in a weird magic world is another. Lost in a weird magic world with developing hypothermia is something we probably should try and avoid," Tony grumbled as he fussed with Loki's clothing, peeling off his wet jacket to swap it out with the second, which he zipped up tightly. "And you're damn cold. There."
"You oaf," Loki sneered through chattering teeth, fingers shakily brushing over the exposed stitching of the seams. "You have put it on inside-"
He stopped and stared as the fog suddenly began to lift - sucking back into the trees as though someone had pulled the plug on it. Birdsong and curious chittering began to filter back in through the trees and the light brightened from dirty gray to a warm ochre, bathing the pair in a gentle, gold glow.
"Dunno," Tony admitted, gazing back up through the brush toward the sky - which he could now see peeking through gaps in the tightly woven branches above. "Something changed. Time of day, maybe? Like, some sort of weather pattern?"
"T'weren't the weather."
It was a small voice that answered him. Small and shaking, warbling, really - almost like falsetto. If it hadn't been for the seriousness of the situation, Tony might have laughed at it. Instead he from himself squinting down at the thicket by his feet, hardly surprised to find a man sitting there. He was about the size of a small child, with small, sharp eyes and a thin mouth that was curled around a slender willow pipe. "T'weren't the weather," he repeated, casually. "You'd better get used to watching your feet a little closer around these parts. The Annis almost had you there."
"Annis?" Loki said, peering down at the man, who got up slowly, from his seat at the base of the tree and nodded as he approached them. Tony found himself vaguely unsurprised that the man was naked - his papery skin hung like a loose tent over his bones - sun-dappled and liver-spotted to the waist and wrinkled as the shell of a walnut. At the join of his hips, however, his humanoid body suddenly became that of a deer or a goat and an abundance of wiry fur matted closely over his legs. The way he stood upright reminded Tony of a satryr or Puck - something he'd likely seen in a fantasy movie as a kid, only this guy would have never made the cut for Fantasia. Not with that long, gaunt face, prominent nose and mangey beard that seemed to have given up on his chin and started squatting in every other orifice it could.
Tony said nothing, however, and watched with guarded interest as the little man twirled his pipe in his long fingers and sucked on it again - his watery eyes passing over the pair.
"Aye, Annis the Black. Dead Alice. Black Annie," He motioned to the swamp surrounding them. "A dark lass who lives for the taste of human blood. You bin' watching your feet, but not close enough. She's bribed the wisps and the sods about these parts - gives 'em fingers and ears for leading the lost further astray to her swamp. Lucky you knows how to break the glamor, or she'd have had you both."
"We broke a spell?" Tony asked, curiously. At the same time Loki let out a quiet "ah" of realization and raised his chin a little, knowingly.
"Yes, well," he said, brushing down his khakis to squat beside the little man, linking his fingers together, conversationally. "It took a few moments for us to realize - we're not familiar with this area."
"Aye, it don't take a smart feller to see that," the man replied, with a chuckle. "You'd better watch it, friends. Yer likely to end up attractin' far more trouble than you brought with yer."
"We didn't bring trouble," Loki amended, quickly. "Not at all. In fact, all we search for is one man - Nuada of the Tuatha de. Do you know of him?"
"Aye, I do," the man made a gesture with his pipe, sending thin smoke trailing around his head in a grey ribbon. "But I'd watch who you ask about him. Folks don't talk much of the Danaan these days, 'specially not 'im. They'd be mighty suspicious of those who come askin' 'bout 'em - especially if them askin' is mortals."
"Is it that strange for mortals to visit these lands?" Loki asked and the strange little man shrugged.
"Mortals is mortals, they come and go from time to time. A little elf-shot, a few pinches here and there and they're gone. Their souls don't belong here; they find it hard to remain."
"Except those who cannot follow the rules," Loki added, carefully, noting the fall of the man's rumpled features as he sighed in consignment. "I have read of your folk - what little I could find in the mortal world that seemed... correctly educated. I am aware of at least the basic fundamentals regarding one's behaviour while traversing the land of the fae, though I fear my friend and I were possibly a little too confident that we missed-" Loki bit his lip, glancing about at the swamp. "-something... I lost the path."
"Path? " The little man frowned - his shaggy eyebrows nearly resting on the apples of his cheeks. "You saw a path?"
"Well... yes," Loki blinked. "A small one - just a line of white stones, really. But they'd become sparser and sparser as we travelled into the swamp and then they just weren't there anymore."
The little man scrutinized his guests with one long, narrow-eyed look, letting his pipe rest in the corner of his mouth, before he gave a small grunt and sniffed loudly.
"Dunno about a path, lad, but if I were you, I'd watch my feet more closely. The piskies and goblins of Annie's swamp have become blighted little creatures an' they're a sight more cunning than they used to be." The little man stretched and stowed his pipe behind his ear - hopping up from the roots of the tree to a small, flat rock. He straightened, sniffing at the air, then aimed one long, gnarled finger into the trees. "That way... If you walk straight, you'll find your way back to the woods, then beyond that, the road. That'll lead you to Flume. That should get yer started. There's a fool's chance you'll even find your King there. Just let him know that the Urisk sent you."
"Urisk," Loki repeated, eyes scanning the trees in the direction the creature was pointing. "Yes. Certainly."
"Thanks, Urkel," Tony added, feeling the tension melt out from between his shoulderblades as they left the marsh and began to climb again, higher and higher through the trees. The mud soon became a dry carpet of leaves and pine needles, scattered here and there with ragged patches of small wildflowers. Sun filtered through the canopy and the air became lighter, fresher - decorated by birdsong and the steady drone of insects. Loki slowed his pace a little as the forest opened out, giving Tony a little time to tug his StarkPhone from his pocket and send Jarvis a few pings. He doubted he'd get a response - he'd no idea where or even when they were - but he figured there was no harm in trying.
"Any news on that path?" He said to the screen of his phone as they waded through a clearing packed with drooping blue flowers. Loki shook his head.
"No, it seems to have disappeared completely. Perhaps it was part of the spell I had broken."
"What spell?" Tony frowned as Loki came to a halt and turned slowly on his heel, his eyes scanning the canopy. "That's what the little guy was saying too - that you'd broken some magic that had made us get lost and waltz into the swamp. What spell was that?"
"It appears there are several different types of fairy who delight in leading others astray," Loki said, still glancing through the trees into the distance. "We probably trod on one and annoyed it, hence activating its spell. It mustn't have been particularly strong as simple precautionary measures against fairy trickery broke the hex."
"It did?" Tony looked confused.
"Turning clothes inside out - that's one way to reverse a low-level spell," Loki told him, matter of fact. "It was written in the very start of one of the books Nell had gifted me. That and wearing anything iron, stones with holes, red ribbon or thread." He cleared his throat, turning up the collar of his parka against his neck. He still looked incredibly pale and Tony wasn't liking the way his teeth were still chattering slightly when he paused. "There are notes Christian paraphernalia as well - crosses and suchlike. But I suppose that depends on the belief of the person. As you could imagine, that sort of faith has no bearing with me."
"You and me both," Tony said, slowly, frowning. "So... we're clear of spells now?"
"I believe so," Loki replied, wetting his lips. "As far as I know."
"So that ringing sound is normal?"
"What ringing sound?" Loki glanced at Tony, who bounced his shoulders, nonchalantly.
"Just a ringing in my ears. You don't have it?"
"No," Loki just stared at him before shrugging the comment away. "You appear to hear many things that I do not. I am starting to believe that it is more of a case of your ears malfunctioning, than mine missing things."
"I'm gonna take that as an educated observation, rather than an insult, 'cause it's most likely true," Tony said, breezily. "I've developed a bit of a sensitivity to changes in pressure - probably to do with flying around a lot at subsonic speeds." He itched the nape of his neck and strode forward, heading for a gap in the trees. "Change in altitude probably tripped it. Doesn't matter. C'mon, this place is giving me the creeps."
Loki followed him, giving the area a final, suspicious glare. They passed through the sea of bluebells, eventuating at a tall, thick hedgerow that seemed to indicate the end of the forest. From there, a well-worn dirt road crossed their path, wide and well-travelled by the depth of some of the tracks ground into it. One end reached back into the forested mountains, the other wedged itself into a set of low-lying foothills - the further of which sprouted streams of woodsmoke into the air. Streams of smoke meant chimneys. Chimneys meant houses, and houses meant civilization of some description.
"Guessing we're going that way?" Tony said, a grin tingling at the corner of his mouth. Not only was he glad to have a definite direction to head in, but most importantly, they were possibly one step closer to finding Nuada. And that meant Tony's fist was one step closer to its heartfelt reunion with the pasty bastard's face. Loki swallowed heavily and nodded, pressing his fingers into his injured side. Tony could tell he was starting to tire and that wasn't good - not with both of them out in the open like this. "You want to stop for a second?"
"Not at all," Loki replied, airily, though his voice was hushed and about as tight as his expression. He pushed past Stark with his head held high and began making his way up the road, in the direction of the smoke plumes. Tony sighed and fell into step behind him, grateful for the warm beat of the sun on his back that was effectively drying out his clothes. Granted he smelled like both a sewer and a swamp now, but at least he was getting dry. In the back of his mind something small and domestic thanked Pepper for her insistence on his taking a couple of changes of clothes wherever he went, for whether it was debris, champagne or women, Tony always seemed to end up covered in something.
Though the hills themselves were not terribly challenging, they tended to swoop downward quite suddenly, creating a deep hollow at the base and a blind spot that had Tony insisting that they slow their pace with each and every hill crest, just to ensure that they didn't suddenly stumble across something they weren't expecting. He also didn't like the fact that Jarvis hadn't been able to connect, meaning that his armor was pretty much inoperable. He could use the gauntlets to a degree, given the fact that they could be affixed manually, but the entire suit needed to be online to work and that just wasn't happening out here. It was just his luck that he'd decided to deactivate and upgrade the remote access right when he needed the damn thing.
Cursing himself under his breath, Tony skipped a step and grabbed Loki's arm, halting them just before the road began to curve away underfoot. Shoving his StarkPhone back into his pocket once again - having checked it for the millionth time with the hope that Jarv had managed to connect successfully with him - and held a finger to his lips. He wasn't sure why, they weren't exactly talking to each other. But people did it in movies, so he decided it was probably relevant enough.
"What is it this time?" Loki asked, and rolled his eyes as Tony tugged him closer, whispering conspiratorially:
"Do you smell that?"
"We are smelling things now, are we?"
"How have you missed it?" Tony retorted. "That reek of... of..." He sniffed again and made a face. "Dead in the air. Dead animal or something."
"And that is most likely exactly what it is, Stark," Loki told him, drolly. "A dead animal. This is not the city, there is not an overwhelming array of equally putrid aromas amalgamating to perfume the air. You'll find that scents which are not grass and dirt tend to stand out."
"Yeah, no duh," Tony shot back, lamely, lowering his voice. "But seriously, it's not just deadness, it's blood. Blood and sweat. That's not just an animal smell, dead or alive."
Loki frowned and tested the air himself. Surprisingly enough, he did notice the tang of heavy perspiration and the coppery odor of blood tainting the wind. Being used to travelling with regiments of densely armored Norse warriors, Loki had simply thought that the smell was coming from either himself or Stark - considering that they'd both been wallowing about in stagnant mud for no less that three hours and he himself was still bleeding from his side. But he had to admit, as much as they both probably reeked fairly charmingly, the scent that Stark had picked up was far stronger than that of a couple of muddied civillians. There was musk in it. Unwashed hair. Grime and urine. Rotting blood and flesh. Loki wrinkled his nose and backed away from the hill crest, slowly.
"Perhaps it is time to consider some degree of contingency plan," he breathed, his eyes fixed on the road as another figure slowly began to emerge from behind the hill. Another figure that certainly wasn't a little goat-hoofed man, or any variant thereof. This creature was furred, tusked and huge - its head alone measured almost a third of the width of the road itself. It must have been sitting down - even lying down - before Tony and Loki bothered it, for Tony was sure they would have seen this thing miles away if he'd been walking in their direction. By the time he'd reached the top of the rise, Tony was pretty sure they ought to be getting ready to sprint. The goliath confronting them was at least ten or twelve feet high and almost as wide as he was tall, and while that wasn't too daunting, considering the Hulk was actually bigger are probably far more volatile given his colourful past, the fact that Tony's armor was down and Loki was injured and powerless made the scenario that little bit less of a party.
The creature glared at them through small, unintelligent eyes, nostrils flaring as it caught their scent. It was partially naked - as seemed to be the fashion in these parts - his gender covered by a loincloth of fabric scraps and leather tied in a macrame about his hips and finished off with a thick leather belt from which hung a horror movie assortment of weapons. Or utensils. Tony couldn't easily differentiate, given the fact that the other decorations "Tusky" had embellished his outfit with was at least six human heads dangling like baubles from the links of his belt. No wonder he stank, not only had he probably skipped a bath for about fifty years, he had Hannibal Lecter's taste in accoutrements.
"So, I don't know who this Annis chick was," Tony began, in a voice low enough that only Loki could hear. "The one that Mr Tumnus was talking about. But I think I'm liking the sound of her better than the sight of this guy."
"I must admit, I thoroughly agree," Loki rasped back, looking about as worried as Stark had ever seen him. "As little as I know of giants - which I am assuming this creature is - I am readily aware that one should not become engaged with them lest there is reasonable security in their defense."
"Meaning that if your armor does not activate soon, Stark, then I would suggest your feet do so instead."
"Unfortunately, an ill-timed overhaul kind of put a spanner in the works there - not that I actually use spanners," Tony replied, gloomily. "Haven't you and Thor fought giants before? Ice Giants or something?"
"Frost Giants, Jotuns," Loki hissed. "Yes, of course. But not without my magic, nor my daggers. I only have that blade of Navaar's."
"Well, he's not saying much," Tony said, inclining his chin toward the giant. "Guessing he doesn't speak English. Probably a boon when you're that ugly. So... fleeing blindly it is?"
"Fleeing. Yes. I would move now, Stark, I- Tony!"
Loki gaped as the creature, who seemed to be observing them with little to no interest, save for the odd porcine grunt every now and then, suddenly jerked into action - his hand gripping a stout, lumpy club hanging from his side and swung it directly at Tony's head. Tony didn't have time to duck, but Loki's exclamation did give him the sense to throw himself down to one side - the blow glancing painfully off his shoulder.
"TONY!" Loki cried again, stumbling backwards as the creature brought his weapon up above his head and brought it down heavily - directly over Tony's hunched form. Tony was ready for him, however, and used the opening to dash between the giant's legs, hurriedly slipping the bag off his shoulders. His left side throbbed angrily and he could feel the burning heat of torn muscles singing beneath his skin, but he pushed on, throwing himself clear of Tusky's reach while he pulled out a gauntlet.
"Shit, shit, shit, shit-"
With only just enough time to shove his hand into the metal glove before the bludgeon was coming down upon him again, Tony twisted and let off a blast of pure white energy at whichever part of the giant was closest. A roar of surprise and, hopefully, pain struck the air and Tony used the pause in attack to right himself to a crouch, aiming another rally from his repulsors directly at the giant's head. He'd lost sight of Loki for now, but he figured that the ex-God and seasoned warrior would have the sense to run for cover. Tony coughed as clouds of dust and debris caused the air around him to turn to a thick swill of smoke and giant bits, rolling himself clear to the side of the road in case any dazed or possibly dead behemoths came toppling down on him.
"Fuck fuck fuck-"
The air above his head shook, and Tony narrowly missed having Tusky's club smash into his skull as the giant - now howling with rage - brought it down a third time. Seemed his repulsors had little to no effect on the guy, apart from giving him a particularly messy bloody nose.
"Shit, fuck, shit, fuck-"
Eloquence was a thing of the past as Tony scrubbed his sleeve over his eyes in effort to clear his vision and pushed himself to his feet, desperate to keep his attention sited on both the lumbering, caterwauling giant and the position of his injured partner. He skittered across the surface of the road like sodium on water, dodging barrage after barrage of heavy blows as the creature roared in frustration; stomping its tree-trunk feet and clawing the ground. A wrong turn brought the jack-hammering club down far too close to Tony's head, knocking his senses offline momentarily as shock waves danced down his spine. Tony reeled, feeling as though every single vertebrae in his back was standing on end, and very nearly had the giant's foot kick his face off, when the mammoth yelped again and fell to one knee.
For a second, Tony just stared in utter confusion, then he saw Loki twist out of reach from behind the creature's back, jerking Navaar's dagger from the hollow of its bare ankle. When the giant moaned and contorted - trying to grab at the small annoyance that was causing it such pain, Loki vaulted up its back to cling to its shoulder - a flash from his blade catching the sun as it appeared at the giant's throat. Allowing himself a second or two to regroup - counting the breaths as he rolled to his feet again, feeling the gauntlet's solar charge activating over his knuckles, Tony watched as Loki brought the dagger down repeatedly on the giant's neck in strong, hammering strokes as he tried to chip away the thick, protective cords muscle. A typical strategy for the wiley, devious predator when challenged with prey over twice its own size: go for the Achilles tendon, go for the jugular.
"You nasty bastard," Tony grinned, aiming his repulsors at the giant's solar plexus. All right, so his blasts didn't seem to hurt the creature much in any way, shape or form they did send it reeling a little at least. If Loki could get the damned thing to start bleeding out, then he could push it back down the road while they made their escape. It may have been a hoggish, tusked, hairy thing, but it bled, which meant it had veins and which Tony felt secure enough to assume that it would have something of a main line that led down from the brain. He expected Loki to hit and sever that particular vein at any moment. He expected yell at Loki to move, as he fired - shooting the damned thing as far away as he possibly could before his repulsors charge ran low again, forcing them to start running.
What he didn't expect was the giant to throw itself to one side, driving its shoulder into the road, throwing up a cloud of dry dirt as it crushed Loki beneath it. Before Tony could even cry out, a fist the size of a mutton hock had shot out from the muck and snapped around Tony's shoulders and ribcage, raising him into the air. Tony wheezed violently as his breath was punched from his lungs, his sternum creaking under the pressure of the giant's grip. He writhed as well as he could, trying to reposition his hand so that his repulsors weren't currently aimed as his balls and he could do something generally helpful with them, but froze when he caught sight of Loki sprawled in the dirt below. Prone. Unmoving. Possibly not breathing.
"Oh hell," Tony whispered with breath he couldn't afford, yelping soundlessly as the fingers clenched tighter, his ribs cracking, collarbone groaning, his lungs straining, straining. And just when he thought it would all be over; a sharp snap and a collection of horrible gurgles and sucking noises as his chest cavity filled with blood and his heart exploded-
"Talbot. Drop him."
- along came the deus ex machina. Not quite soon enough, but certainly not a moment too late. One hundred and eighty pounds of smug on a horse glared down at the kneeling giant, oozing disdain like a oil from a grilled cheese sandwich. Tony blinked, rather unimpressed by the arbitrary nature of the similes his mind was drawing together, but he decided that was probably due to lack of oxygen and the fact that his spine seemed to be having a swell time making small talk with his sternum. He cast a disparaging look at their savior, completely unsurprised that it was Nuada's face regarding him stormily from atop his mount. That was just Murphy on his best day. At least it made finding the bastard much less of a chore.
"Drop him," Nuada repeated, his tone about as grey as his shirt. "Now, Talbot."
"GMUH?" said Talbot. Clearly there was more meaning in his expression than in his words, because while Tony didn't really get anything out of his bi-syllabic grunt, Nuada just nodded with grave understanding as though he'd outlined some well-rounded argument.
"I'm well aware you're worried, my friend, but not all humans who visit here are giant hunters. You left them behind in the overworld long ago, if you recall."
"Seven-hundred years, Talbot."
"Time does fly, doesn't it? Put him down now, please," Nuada motioned to Tony with a handful of reigns, his inflection and expression both as mild as each other. There was an edge in them, however - something of an unsheathed dagger in between his words and the chill of it danced on the edge of Tony's nerves. "Talbot" seemed to notice as well, for he only held Tony for a single moment longer before he opened his fingers and let his catch tumble to the ground. Tony let out an explosive gasp as he hit the dirt, and breathed heavily, his eyes fixed on the two creatures above him.
"Well-timed," he managed to rasp, wrapping an arm about his ribs. They were sore as hell, probably blackening to a loud paisley of bruises no thanks to the giant, but nothing seemed broken. "Almost... thought you... did that on purpose..."
"To what end, Mr Stark? It is you who came to seek me, after all."
"Presumptuous, much?" Tony snorted, painfully. "We mighta just... come to find someone else to... help find swords and stuff..."
"And yet, here we are." Nuada replied, airily. "It seems that fate is determined to have us collaborate."
"D-don't believe in fate-"
"You don't appear to believe in much apart from yourself," Nuada concluded. "And even then, I'm not sure you're entirely assured of your own facts and convictions. A gradgrind who still wonders at stars, despite knowing exactly what they are." Letting this sink in for a moment, Nuada turned back to Talbot, who was loitering uncertainly on the rough and cocked his head toward the disappearing stretch of road. "Quick smart, sirrah, we no longer require your favor. Please try not to damage anyone else on your way back home, or I shall have to think about returning you to the highlands for a spell."
This seemed to give Talbot something of a jump start and he turned quickly, huffing like a trapped boar as he ambled his way down the road. Nuada slid gracefully from his horse's back and stepped over to Tony, his long fingers sliding beneath the collar of his shirt. Tony shot him a fierce look, but the King merely ignored him and ran his fingers over the span of his clavicle - his brow puckering with a slight frown.
"Save your contempt, Mr Stark," he murmured, drawing back to rock on his heels. "I have little reason to help you and almost less desire to do so."
"And yet, here you are," Tony shot back, bluntly. Nuada simply grunted and pulled away from him. Loose stones and gravel, disturbed by their ruckus with the giant crunched under his feet as he moved over to Loki, dropping to a crouch as he examined him.
"How unfortunate it is that you met with that particular Jack in Irons," he said, his voice slightly muffled by the distance and the ringing in Tony's ears. "Any other would have let you be, most likely. Perhaps given you a warning, but ultimately left you alone."
"Jack in Irons?" Tony winced, easing slowly to his feet. "How come his name's Talbot?"
"It's a common epithet for the old Yorkshire giants who were born in the countryside," Nuada explained. "Rather like calling someone a 'John Doe'. Giants rarely bother with names, being prone to a solitary lifestyle as they are. Only once the knights and huntsmen of the land began slaughtering them did they start bearing names. Usually of the last man they killed. In defense, of course."
"So Talbot is-"
"The freshest head hanging on the Giant's belt? Oh yes. French knight, I believe. Probably one of William's." Nuada didn't look up as Tony stumbled over, collapsing in the dirt by Loki's head. Loki wasn't moving - he almost didn't appear to be breathing - and Tony swallowed hard, reaching out to touch the blood splattered about his temple. His hand was slapped away quickly by Nuada. "Don't. You'll interrupt the magic."
Tony frowned, unsure of what to think of that.
"Is he dead?"
"If he were, I would not be applying such charms to heal him, would I?" Nuada snapped, irritably.
"He suffers from fractures, blood loss and exhaustion, these ailments I can do something about. Death is a little harder, and not my area of expertise."
"You can heal stuff?" Tony raised his brows in surprise. "Magically heal stuff?"
"Yes. Now go and sit on my horse."
"I thought you were more of a..." Tony pursed his lips, looking the errant King over for a second. "Fighter kind of guy. Swords and battle and things."
"And what good would a soldier be without the knowledge to heal himself, were he injured?" Nuada replied, boredly. "Really, you humans and your love for compartmentalizing things. And I suppose you thought my company constituted wizards, barbarians, dwarves, clerics and the odd woman wearing less cloth than a handkerchief and wielding a sword, to top things off?"
"No..." Tony replied, weakly - trying to wash away the contrived image that several boxes worth of Heavy Metal magazines and a lifetime of Frazetta-inspired album covers had managed to cement in his mind. "Just didn't think that was the King's job, you know?"
"There you would be correct," Nuada muttered, under his breath, before he slid his hands beneath Loki's shoulders, pulling him up in one swift movement. Loki's head lolled bonelessly against Nuada's shoulder, but Tony could see by the tautness darting between his brows that he was still very much alive. "Get on my horse please, Mr Stark."
"You're actually going to help us?" Tony watched, feeling the sun burn a little too warm on his neck as Nuada slung Loki over the broad back of his gargantuan horse and turned, motioning toward the stirrups. "I thought you hated Loki."
"Great dislike and hatred are two very different things. Loki is a misguided fool, too young to know any better, yet powerful enough to cause ripples that catch the interest of all the wrong people. You have both put me in quite a position, and I am not so keen on having your friends come rushing into my realm, bothering my people as they search for your meddling hides."
"Your people, huh? So you admit it, you want to play the King again, don't you?"
"I- what?" Nuada's narrow eyes widened, showing white around the slate of his irises. "What are you talking about?"
"Well," Tony began, casually, pushing his hands into his pockets as he got to his feet and sauntered slowly across the dry divots in the road. "You complain that you're disqualified and all - that what's his face came along and chucked you off the throne because your heroic injury there makes it hard for you to punch a ditty on the harpsichord or whatever you do in your spare time."
"You speak of Bres and my dethroning. Two subjects I am not particularly keen to converse upon," Nuada replied, tautly.
"Exactly. You don't want to talk about it. Fine. I'd be pretty cut up on the whole thing too, 'scuse the pun. You were a King - probably a damn good one too - and you fought the good fight, only to have the carpet pulled out from under you. I get it. That sucks."
"Very astute," Nuada tugged absently on his horse's girdle. "However I have little need for your sympathies."
"No, you don't. What you need is a good hard kick up the ass," Tony shot back, ignoring the glare that had begun frosting Nuada's expression at a frightening pace. He looked mad. Good. Mad was better than snide. "'Cos you're all "woe is me, I got benched for being an amputee", but there's still a fight in you."
"Do not even begin to assume you understand-"
"Oh, I won't. Trust me, I don't even need to assume," Tony said, coolley. "You say won't take up arms against this Balor guy - you don't even want to know about the guys who swear their allegiance to you - but you're still worried about "your" people and "your" realm. You don't want Loki and I to come here and stir up the silt as much as you don't want the Foamboards, uh, Fomorians, to go and start hacking up Broadway. Cut the bullshit, man, you miss being the leader. You miss the fight."
Nuada stared at him for a long, solemn moment before he sniffed and looked away, scratching at the shaggy tufts of his horse's mane.
"That may be, Mr Stark. But I am no King. I cannot, the Tuatha de shall not take an imperfect man as their King - it would be the ruin of them."
"Well, if you ask me, it sounds as though this Bres-with-both-thumbs is pretty much ruining shit left right and center anyway," Tony shrugged. "Besides, you don't have to call yourself a King. What if you overthrew Bres and just took the whole lot under military rule? You're not a King then, but you still call the shots. Everybody wins."
"That is not our tradition."
"And why stick to tradition if everything around you has changed?" Tony challenged. "After all, the people you used to protect, the people who believe in the stories about you guys, they're all different. You know we read your myths on iPads now - it's been a long time since anyone heaved out a scroll to peruse by candlelight. You are allowed to upgrade a bit, aren't you? Move with the times?"
"I mean, you can still keep the armor and leather and things," Tony continued, blithely. "But your system of government kinda sucks - that should really be the first to get a facelift. Maybe get rid of the monarchy or whatever-"
"What?" Tony looked up, his expression nothing short of complete innocence. Nuada sighed, rubbing his temples.
"Just get on the damn horse."
"Yes, your highness."
Stark grinned as well as he could with his bruised, swelling jaw and hauled himself on the back of the over-sized my little pony. He could feel his muscles throbbing into a numb haze; his head a sea of fuzz among an archipelago of aches. Although he knew he should really be staying awake, concussion and all, the temptation to sleep was growing impossible to ignore. Perhaps if he shut his eyes for a moment, while Nuada strapped Loki to the horse or whatever he was doing…
By the time the other man had taken the reigns and had begun to lead the mare away, Stark was slumped over her neck, fingers twisted in her long mane. Behind them, Talbot's footsteps resounded on the gravel road, fading into the milieu as he trudged back toward the forest.
A/n: While I'm certain many have given up on Ilk, understandably, I hope this latest chapter is somewhat appeasing for my lengthy hiatus. By March I should at least be in a better position to post a little more regularly as I have always intended to finish this story, there are just many, many factors that tend to get in the way, unfortunately. As always, my thanks and my apologies (for my tardiness and probably the amount of spelling mistakes - my Beta is on holiday and I didn't want to wait), and I shall see you all next chapter :)
Which will be... later...