Written for this prompt on Norsekink (Livejournal): Instead of confronting Odin about his blueness -he expects to be cut off or his concerns swept under the rug, as usual- Loki pops back over to Jotunhiem, kidnaps a random frost giant (or not so random, author can decide) for interrogation.
Cue revelations and awkward silences. Even better if Loki doesn'tfigure out he's Laufey's runt, because the first thing you think of when meeting a smaller-than-expected long-lost giant is more along the lines of "Where did you come from, you poor, poor, kidnapped thing." and not "*Gasp* You must be the king's sacrificial baby!"
And then Odin finally succumbs to Odinsleep leaving an empty throne, because Loki's freaking out in Jotunhiem being fed ice chips by his strangely sympathetic captive.
Bonus if pygmy frost giants aren't actually all that rare, just a minority that is usually too small to be considered part of the warrior caste- unless they have major magic skills to make up for lack of size.
Double Bonus if Sif+W3 are all, Oh Noes! Throne's empty, gotta get Thor! and Frigga is all,
Excuse me, before you go behind Asgard's back getting Thor back, consider finding the one prince that ISN'T exiled.
Thor has been banished. That had never been in the plan. His big, well-meaning idiot of a brother is gone for who knows how long and yet all Loki can think about is a moment on Jotunheim where he saw something out of a nightmare. It preys on his mind, that moment. The strong grasp around his forearm, a shuddering cold that broke the metal and leathers clean off, yet became naught but slightly chill skin when it touched his own. And then the spreading blue that he might, might have been able to blame on his magic if it weren't for the raised lines of Jotnar lineage-markings that came with it.
He fears what it might mean. Loki would like to blame a curse, but somehow that seems too neat, too easy, and besides who has the skill and the motive to place such a powerful thing on him? Certainly not the Jotun who touched him. Nor any of the other warriors so boldly attacking their party; if they'd had that level of skill they would not be rushing in with the same lack of subtlety as Thor and the others.
But the alternative... the alternative is too terrible to contemplate. Yet he still has to know, to find out the truth of the matter, wherever that path leads. At first he considered asking his father, but Odin has been in an ill mood ever since he sent Thor to Midgard and his time of Odinsleep is already well overdue. Loki does not want to burden him with further cares, not to mention that the last time he had tried to speak to him Father had cut him off with that awful growl of anger. Loki hates it when he does that. Loki's problems are his own, and he should deal with them by himself, as he always has done in the past.
There is only one course of action available that he can see. Jotunheim may be off limits via the Bifrost, but he has not needed to rely on that for a long time. He will have to be very careful, for if he's caught after what Thor has done, he is sure to make hostilities even worse. He wouldn't even risk it if he wasn't entirely confident of his own abilities. He can cloak himself in his magic and make himself invisible to even the keenest of eyes. Heimdall shall not see him, and nor shall any Jotun. Then he will be able to get close enough to capture one of them, bind them with his powers and transport them somewhere safe and secluded where he can question them about what he saw.
It is far from the most subtle of his plans, but it will have to do. He simply can't stand the fear clawing at his stomach for much longer, else he might very well go mad. Everyone on Asgard is far too busy gossiping about Thor; they will not notice his absence. That will give him enough time to find the truth and then... Well, that will depend on the truth.
Passage through the dark paths and less known ways of Yggdrasil can be tiring for one who has not the practise and skill to navigate them. Loki however is not such a one. He arrives on Jotunheim in the midst of wasteland, far on the outskirts of the ruined city that one was Laufey's stronghold. From the slight hill where he stands he can see the shattered expanse of ice broken by Mjolnir's great blow being re-grown, foot by painful foot. A chasm gapes beneath it, deep and wide, shadowed dark such that it appears bottomless. Loki shivers. For the first time it occurs to him to wonder how many of the Jotnar fell into that pit.
He makes sure the woven spells that hide him are bound tight fast before he sets off. Before, they came during the night, but now the weak light of a far-off sun shines off ice and drifts of snow. This is a world of white, grey and pale blues. There is, he supposes, a stark kind of beauty in it, but he cannot imagine living here for any length of time. Compared to Asgard's finery, its golden buildings and eternal summer, this is a miserable place indeed.
To his right, a canyon of ice gapes wide. Loki takes care not to go too near it, for fear the shelf of ice may turn thin and treacherous. However there are other dangers; the landscape is rough and broken, jagged, sharp-edged. He must pick his way around the worst of it, and it slows his progress. Perhaps he ought to have brought himself through somewhere closer... But the fear of being caught terrifies him despite his assurance in his magic. He's not even sure who would be angrier, Laufey or his father. It's far too late to turn back now though.
After perhaps a half-hours walking he has reached the plateau. The broken spires of the city loom perhaps half a mile to his left, and dotted along the rim of the crevasse are a number of Jotnar, intent on their work. Loki watches them, trying to decide which he should pick. How can he tell what a knowledgeable monster looks like? They all look the same. Similar heights, similar brutish features, similar styles of dress with their short layered kilts, scrappy odds and ends of bronzed metal armour seeming almost frozen onto their skin, the harsh spikes and short curves of their headgear. The only things telling them apart are the raised lines on their skin.
The Jotnar nearest him has been joined by one of its fellows. The newcomer looks older, its face lined, skin sagging a little in places. They exchange greetings, friendly seeming. There is an affectionate slap on the back with the kind of force Loki is used to seeing amongst Asgard's warriors. The elder passes something to the other – food, it soon appears, as the Jotun raises it to its mouth. They seem to be talking about the repair work, if the expansive gestures are anything to go by.
Perhaps this is some kind of overseer, Loki thinks. It would make sense, to have an older, more experienced Jotun co-ordinating the others. If any of them are able to answer his questions, this is the most likely candidate.
Decision made, he waits for his target to continue on his route, ready to set his plan in action. Fixing the shape of his illusion in his mind, he stalks the Jotun's steps until he judges they are out of sight of any of the monsters nearby. Then he wraps the spell around him, layer on top of layer, and walks out into the open, taking care to make noise enough to attract attention.
The Jotun turns to look at him, sees the false-form of the one it has just left. "Is there something the matter Dröfn?" it asks, seeming concerned.
"No... well, perhaps," Loki lies. "I think it's best if you come and see."
"Very well. Though quite what trouble you've managed to get into in the past few minutes I don't know," the Jotun says with a smile. It follows Loki off between hillocks of rough ice.
His magic is ready. A spell to bind one of the Jotnar is no mean thing, and it will be draining, but it is a price Loki is well willing to pay. Soon he will have all the answers he seeks, luck willing. He prepares to strike.
Loki tries to keep calm while he waits for the Jotun to awaken, but he finds himself pacing up and down despite his best efforts. He has transported himself and his prisoner back to the wastelands using magic, out to a sheltered spot he had passed on his way in, bound on three sides by crags of ice twice the height of even the largest Jotun. It is isolated enough that there's little risk of them being found, and with his powers and a full complement of viciously sharp throwing knives hidden about his person he has no doubt he can stop his captive if it tries to escape.
A small change in the Jotun's breathing alerts him to the fact that it is no longer unconscious. Loki waits for a moment to see what it will do; keeping his back turned and pretending he is unaware of its waking. Even though his conjured ropes hold it fast, he is expecting it to react badly, an explosion of rage much like something his brother would do in a similar situation. But there is nothing. In confusion, he looks round.
The Jotun is watching him, blood-red eyes calm. It sits quietly, not even straining to test the strength of its bonds.
"Are you going to kill me, little Aesir?" it asks.
"That is not my plan," Loki replies, feeling somehow uneasy. In his few dealings with the Jotnar – inviting them into the weapons vault and the tense moments before the fight in Laufey's throne-room – his impressions have been that the soldiers are naught but more monstrous versions of Asgard's warriors, with Laufey as the only exception, the only real threat. But this one is not reacting like a brute.
Well, you said you wanted a clever one, he tells himself.
"Is that not the way an Aesir must prove themselves warriors?" the Jotun says. "By slaying some great foe on a quest. Though it is true that killing me this way would not make a very good saga to sing around the table."
"So perhaps I should untie you and fight you honourably, is that it?" Loki asks with a smile.
"Or perhaps you will tell me why you are really here. You are not a typical Aesir, I can see." It is said mildly enough, but Loki still feels the sting of it, echo of oft-quoted words from Asgard's court and his brother's companions, not to mention it pricks at his most recent fears. "Why have you come such a long way from home, little Aesir?"
Pale-faced, Loki pulls his glove from his hand. "To find out the truth," he says, approaching his prisoner. He would like to blame his trembling on the cold, but he knows that would be a lie. The Jotun tries to jerk back, eyes going wide in astonishment as he touches its broad chest, palm over its heart. "About this."
The change creeps slowly up his arm, Aesir ivory transforming to dusky blue. He can feel it under his clothes by the sudden loss of Jotunheim's chill, knows when it reaches his face by the way contrasts suddenly wash out, shadows becoming clearer, glare reduced. His breath no longer frosts the air. It comes out as cold as when it went in.
"Is this a curse?" he asks, unable to look away from the place where they touch, blue skin to blue skin. He barely recognises the sound of his own voice.
"I do not believe so, no," the Jotun says slowly. Loki cannot bring himself to look at its face, see... whatever its reaction might be.
"Then it really is as I feared," he says, feeling like he wants to cry. "I really am a monster."
"You are not," his captive says sharply. "I am sure that is what they told you, what they raised you believing, but we are no more monsters than they are."
"We?" Loki's laugh is breathy and broken, torn out of him. "We? How can this be? How can I be..." He cannot force himself to say 'a Jotun', but nor does he want to again acknowledge that he is a monster.
"Yes, I suppose you would be of an age for it..." the Jotun says, mostly to itself. Then; "They must have stolen you after the last battle. When the city was lost, and the Casket taken. What were they thinking?" it says with sudden anger. "To take you away from your home? From your family?"
"A... a trophy," Loki says. Everything is making a terrible, horrible kind of sense. Why he has never belonged, why Odin has always favoured Thor over the younger, lesser son. The Jotun son. "Just another stolen relic." He pulls his hand back, banishing his binding spell as he does so. He has the answers he was seeking, so what matters it now if his prisoner decided to take revenge for the kidnapping. What matters it if a monster kills another monster?
To his surprise, instead of violence what he receives instead are long arms wrapping around him, bringing him into a strong embrace. Loki stills, shocked. To his Jotnar form the other is almost warm, comforting.
"Oh little one, what have they done to you?"
Loki lets out a sob, but though his eyes and throat burn with bitter emotion, no tears fall. He is not entirely sure Jotnar are capable of crying.
"What do I do now?" he asks helplessly. "I can't go back, not like this. If the rest of Asgard find out I'm a monster..."
"Not a monster," the Jotun says, drawing back enough to look him in the eyes. "But after so long in Asgard's hands, I can understand how you might think so. Do you think I am a monster?"
Loki is not about to admit that he does. He doesn't understand this strange, overly-affectionate Jotun. Nothing about any of this makes sense.
The Jotun makes a thoughtful sort of noise. "Of course you cannot see us as people. You have never known us, you see a horde, not individuals. Perhaps it will help you if I tell you that my name is Rán and that the warrior whose form you took to trick me was Dröfn, child of my body, one of nine I bore with my bed-mate Ægir before the war took him."
"That you bore?" Loki asks. "Do you mean to say that you're female?" He thinks not much will be able to surprise him after everything that he has found out. Rán laughs.
"Jotnar have only one gender. Any of us may bear a child, if we wish it."
Loki thinks back to a certain horse a century past and the rather unexpected events that had followed.
"You know, that explains a lot."
"So you see," Rán says, settling back to sit cross-legged. "You are Jotnar, yes, but it is up to you what that means. You are not a monster." Even like this – his? His, Loki decides, if only for simplicity, and because he can't really think of himself any other way – head is higher than Loki's own. Bad enough to be a Jotun, but apparently he is a runt of one as well.
"So what do I do now?" he asks. He feels completely drained, wrung out and exhausted. Rán may have done his best to assure him that being Jotnar is not so terrible a thing, but Loki is not so sure he can just accept it so easily. He can't even think rationally just now. Odin is not his real father. Odin has been lying to him for centuries. Bad enough that he's a mon... that he's a Jotun, he's not even a prince.
"After such a shock you need something to eat and a place to rest," Rán says, patting him lightly on the shoulder. "If you do not object, I would be pleased to offer you my hospitality. I may not have much that would suit someone used to Aesir food, but I am sure I can manage something."
Loki feels pathetically relieved. He just wants to curl up in a corner somewhere warm and ignore the world.
"Thank you," he says, meaning it. "I would be glad to accept."
Rán's dwelling is at the edge of the city, where the buildings are smaller but the damage is less. Loki is able to bring them part of the way through the shadow-paths, but he does not know the area well enough to risk a complete journey. Those particular methods of travel are not without their dangers.
"My children and I spend the summers here where we can be close to court, the palace guard and the army," Rán tells him, as they walk through the lonely streets between shattered pillars and houses partly smashed open, missing walls or roofs. "Our winter home is many miles from here, by the frozen seas. Ægir and I came both from fishing domains you see – indeed, our families were quite pleased when we decided to unite out lines."
Loki frowns. "But how can you fish? Did you not just say that the oceans are frozen?"
Rán smiles. It is strange, seeing such an expression on a Jotun's face. Loki admits that he has never really believed Jotnar capable of any kind of positive emotion prior to this. But surely his own existence proves that not the case, even without Rán's example. He'd like to think he'd have been wise enough to see that even if they'd never met. "Delve deep enough, and there is water. Of course, one must get used to climbing stairs."
Loki tries to imagine it; the ice here must be perhaps three hundred fathoms thick, maybe more. They would have to live down there the majority of the time; no easy trek to ascend to the surface. Months without seeing the sun. He can hardly conceive of someone willingly adopting that kind of lifestyle.
"Ah," Rán says, interrupting his semi-horrified musings. "Here we are."
A tall opening is set in a wall of ice to their right. Behind it there is a courtyard of fair size, even allowing for Jotnar scale, and on the far side, a tall building with many windows, rough and cragged as so much of this realm's architecture appears to be. Loki cannot tell whether it is particularly fine by Jotunheim's standards. Certainly it is far more intact than Laufey's palace.
"Hrönn, Dúfa and Bylgja are likely to be at home by this hour," Rán says. "Dröfn, Kólga, Hefring and Himinglæva are working on repairing the ice the Aesir's fool-hardy warrior prince destroyed. They will not return for another hour or so." Loki smiles at hearing this rather accurate description of Thor. But though it is something he has long known, he isn't quite sure if he likes that it's a Jotun speaking ill of Asgard's prince. Yet was that not what he was doing, whenever he criticized the one he thought was his brother? Were his own words really cruelties spurred on by his own nature? It is a sudden fear not easily dispelled.
"Uðn and Blóðughadda are old enough to have households of their own," Rán continues, distracting him from the dark turn his thoughts have suddenly taken. "and so I see them only on festival days. But such are the perils of family life." The Jotun sighs, and looks down at Loki. "I do not know how those who took you from us treated you," he says quietly. "But I hope that you had occasion to know a family's love. It is a blessing, but I know it's one not all are lucky enough to possess."
Loki has to close his eyes against the sudden flood of emotion, a tidal surge in the stormy sea of his mind. "I thought I did," he says, "or, or at least I thought that if my F...Father treated me as second best, at least my brother would always love me. But now? He hates Jotnar, when he finds out what I am..." If he ever returns from Midgard, that is. But even if he never does, Loki knows how he would react. If he ever saw Loki's true face, his true – hah – colours Loki's fate would be a swift blow from Mjolnir spelling his doom. He could not bear to see Thor look at him with disgust.
"I am sorry," Rán says, putting a comforting hand on Loki's shoulder, even though their size difference means that it does not quite fit. "It is not fair that such upsetting circumstances have come upon you. I suppose there is no good way to find out you are not what you thought. I will not give you false hope, but perhaps your brother may yet surprise you."
"But he's not my brother is he? That's the whole problem!" Loki says, a little hysterically. He breathes deeply, trying to master himself. It would hardly do to run into Rán's children an emotional mess.
"Family can be more than blood. From what you have said, you were very close to this Aesir, and are not the closest of friends said to be like brothers?"
"Shouldn't you be trying to get me to forget Asgard and trying to persuade me to stay with my own kind?" Loki asks, swallowing around the lump in his throat.
"That choice is yours to make," Rán tells him. "You must go where you think you will be happiest. I might prefer it if you could make Jotunheim your own, but only because I think you might find that here. But I may as easily be wrong. Now," – a heavy pat from that over-large hand – "I promised you something to eat."
"Hello Father," the Jotun sitting at the wide, high table says. His fingers are moulding a large chunk of ice into strange shapes, soft curls, ovals and circles. Loki can't make out any kind of purpose in it. "Oh, who's your friend?" He sounds surprised, but not as surprised as Loki would have expected a runt of a Jotun to elicit.
"That is a complicated story," Rán says, "and not mine to tell. But he is a guest, and I have offered him our hospitality. Please Hrönn, make him feel welcome."
"It's been a while since I've seen one of the iviðjur south of Þrymheimr," Hrönn says, leaning over the table. Loki cannot help but feel uncomfortable under the regard of those red eyes, still alien and monstrous-seeming. There is confusion too; for iviðjur seems to be one of those rare words that the All-tongue does not translate. "Not that I mean to pry into your business," the Jotun adds quickly.
"Where are Dúfa and Bylgja?" Rán asks.
"Dúfa went to the marketplace," Hrönn replies. "Bylgja is in his room again. I think he's meditating. You know how he gets – 'you must become one with the ice'." He looks down, and though Loki isn't sure, he thinks he might be biting his lip. It's an oddly vulnerable look. "I don't know why he bothers. All the 'Oneness' in the world won't do us any good with the Casket lost. Sorry," he adds, speaking to Loki, and for one completely bewildered moment he thinks he's apologising because he knows that Loki's false-father is the one who stole it. "I know Angrboða thinks differently, I didn't mean to give insult to your liege-lord."
"I took no offence," Loki says, finding refuge in bluffing. He is beginning to get the idea that there is a lot more going on here than he anticipated.
"Come," Rán says, "I will show you the larder. I do not know what foods you favour, so you will have to pick them out." And allow me to ask you some more questions without your child hearing them, Loki realises. He must remember not to underestimate the Jotun's cunning. But in truth he hardly has the strength for questions. He just wants a few morsels of food, and then the promised bed.
Time for questions later.
Loki eats sparsely of a few pieces of unidentifiable dried meat, assures Rán that he has no more questions for that night, and finally, finally gets to a bed. He is so emotionally exhausted by this point that he takes very little notice of the room his host escorts him to, other than to note that the bed is made of ice, laid over with thick massive pelts of soft luxurious fur. The moment he flops down, curling up into a ball, unbothered in this form by the feel of ice against his skin, he is asleep.
Loki wakes the next morning feeling much refreshed, but he only has to open his eyes and see the unfamiliar blue skin of his hand resting atop the furs near his head before it all comes flooding back. He burrows back into the dark beneath the pelts, half hoping that he'll find himself waking up back in Asgard to discover that all this was nothing more than a terrible dream. But he knows it's real. This is the truth. He is a little stolen Jotnar runt, half of one world, half of another and truly belonging to neither.
Eventually though hunger gets the better of shame, and he is forced to rise. From the quality of the light streaking in through the massive open window, he judges it must be early morning. The room he is in is constructed from the same dark ice as the rest of Jotunheim's buildings, including the furnishings. Everything is scaled too large for him; it is a room designed for Jotnar with all their height. The wall facing him has been carved or shaped into a writhing mass of interlocking shapes. He can make out animals and the suggestion of a landscape, but it has the same abstract sensibilities as the pattern-language used to direct magic on Asgard. It is a strange feeling to see something so familiar and yet so alien.
Loki makes his way off the too-tall bed, realising that he has been sleeping in his clothes. Well, it isn't as though he brought any others with him, and he can't imagine himself wearing the simple, basic kilts and armour the Jotnar seem to favour, assuming they even had something in his size. He casts a quick refreshing spell upon himself, and heads to find his host.
Rán proves to be in the dining hall, surrounded by his brood. Loki hesitates at the entrance. Meeting Hrönn the day before was a challenge enough; he's not sure he wants to be the target of another six Jotuns' attention. He watches the scene for a moment, half-hidden behind one of the pillars at the edges of the opening. The morning meal appears to be a kind of soup or stew with the consistency of porridge, sticky and pale in colour, almost seeming to glow with luminescence. He hasn't the faintest idea what it is.
It isn't long before he is spotted. One of the Jotnar he doesn't know looks up and catches sight of him, then immediately turns to Rán, who is sitting at the head of the table, and says in a voice loud enough to carry, "Father, your guest is awake."
"Our guest, Bylgja," Rán corrects him. Apparently this is the meditative one, which Loki would not have expected from the sheer mass of him. Rán gets to his feet, grabbing a stray smaller bowl as he leaves and heads towards Loki, patting several of his children on the back or shoulders casually as he passes by. Loki isn't sure if all Jotnar are so affectionate or whether it is simply a characteristic of Rán in particular, but it somehow makes him feel a little better that it hasn't just been something the Jotun is doing for him out of pity.
"I don't imagine you will want to breakfast with all of us," Rán says to him once he reaches the doorway, smiling. "Don't worry. I do not wish to make you uncomfortable. Besides, you will no doubt want to ask your questions now that you are rested and your head is a little clearer."
"True enough," Loki says, running a hand through his hair. It is tangled with sleep, and he has no comb but his fingers. If he had something of a suitable material to transfigure... Oh, he is an idiot. Here he is surrounded by ice, the most natural element for a Jotun to shape... His thought runs into the tangle of loathing he thought he had been adequately suppressing and he jerks his mind away from it with a wince. No. He doesn't want to do anything else that will remind him of his curséd heritage. A little wildness about his appearance is nothing compared to... that.
"I know it is not what you are used to," Rán says as they walk, offering him the bowl, "but I thought you might like to try it. If it is not to your taste..."
"No, I'll see what it's like," Loki says, accepting it. The bowl is another thing shaped from ice, and while it seems designed for someone of about his size, it is still massive and heavy in his hands. The spoon is more of a ladle. Cautiously he takes a bite.
He is not sure what he was expecting, but the flavour is both surprisingly delicate and pleasant, with enough body to be satisfying. He digs in more boldly, trying to analyse the taste. It doesn't seem to match anything he's ever had on Asgard.
"This is good," he says. Rán seems pleased.
"Here," the Jotun says, leading him into another massive room. Several large benches are scattered around a central area where a strange crystal structure seems to have almost grown from the floor. It catches scattered light in its facets, but there is something undeniably... dead... about it. Rán catches him looking at it and sighs. "Just another thing lost without the Casket to power it."
Loki looks down. What can he say? He cannot be sorry that Odin took the Casket, for the war would surely have started again if Laufey had been allowed to keep it. The Jotnar – creatures like himself – cannot be trusted with power. That is what he has always been told. They will by their very nature misuse it. He now understands much of Odin's treatment of him.
Rán settles down not on one of the benches but by the window, where there are seats padded with a different kind of pelt. His host sits down on the floor next to it with his legs crossed, leaving the seat for Loki – a large-ish jump up, but hardly unmanageable. It serves to put their heads somewhat nearer the same height.
"So," Rán says, "questions."
Loki nods, putting down the now-empty bowl and marshalling his thoughts. "You have never asked me for my name," he begins. "Why?"
"I did not wish to press you to tell me something you did not feel comfortable revealing. Besides, the name of whatever Aesir took you from us, whether it were a common soldier or an officer or even one of their court, might be remembered even now. Your full name would reveal theirs. It might put you in an awkward position."
That is something of an understatement, Loki reflects. It is probably for the best, yes. Even if he did not name himself by the lie Odinsson, the name of Loki might indeed by known, the name of a Prince. Not that he would have given either of those names if pressed, yet there is a part of him that is grateful not to have had to lie.
"Do you want to know it?" he asks.
"I do not mind you keeping your secrets," Rán says, and though he does not laugh, mirth is clear in his eyes. "And besides, in Laufey's city I only need say 'little one' or 'iviðjur' and it will be clear who I am talking to."
"About that," Loki says, feeling his cheeks flush with embarrassment and having no idea what it looks like against his changed skin. "Your child Hrönn called me by that name. What did he mean by it? Or is that just what you call a runt?" The last word comes out with surprising bitterness. He looks away.
Rán looks a little surprised, and then apologetic. "I am sorry," he says. "I have hurt you. Please accept my apologies. I did not think, and so I did not realise that you would not know about your heritage – your specific heritage, I mean. The iviðjur are the sorcerer-folk, the tribes of tundra and forest, and the people at least one of your parents must have come from, judging from your size and the skill with magic you have already demonstrated."
Loki isn't sure what surprises him more; that his stature is natural, expected, or that his knack for sorcery is also a Jotnar trait. Magic is certainly not something he has ever associated with the Jotnar, aside from that inherent in the Casket of Ancient Winters. Magic has always set him apart from the majority of Asgard though, so in many ways this too makes sense, is just another part of the slowly emerging puzzle that is his true self.
"So that's what I am," he says, wonderingly. "Iviðjur." There is something about it that seems somehow... right. "But if my... uh, tribe lives to the far north, what was I doing here? If Laufey was mustering a levy from them, why bring a babe? Surely if someone was with child they would have been exempted?"
Rán lifts his hands in an expansive gesture of helplessness. "That I cannot know," he says. "But there were a few who still remained in these lands at that time, mostly those who had married one of the bergrisar, that is, one of us mountainous folk – for you see the iviðjur often have the power of changing shapes, and thus can grow to our size for a time if they wish it. But you must understand the recent history between our tribes to understand why they were leaving, and why none now remain. It began when Laufey took the sorcerer-prince Fárbauti for his bed-mate. There were rumours that Laufey treated him ill, and certainly Fárbauti was rarely permitted to see his people. Slowly, in protest and in fear, the iviðjur began to leave, refusing to serve Laufey.
"In the very final days of the war, Fárbauti suddenly and mysteriously died. Angrboða, who by virtue of his strength in sorcery was the next in line for the throne at Jarnviðr, in outrage declared himself King, no longer subject to Laufey, and the last of the iviðjur left the city. With the Casket lost and his army battered and broken, Laufey could do nothing."
Loki takes this all in, his eyes wide. "Then... surely you could get in trouble for having me here! If as you said, my people have defied Laufey..."
"Though my children may work at court, may serve in Laufey's guard, do not believe that is out of any love for him," Rán says seriously. "Rather it is due to the strengths of the oaths this family has taken, and because – though it pains me to admit it, especially considering your own circumstances and upbringing – many of my children desire revenge for Ægir's death at Aesir hands. If Dröfn and the others were not in the Day Watch rather than the Night, I cannot help but think they would surely have lost their lives rushing in when the arrogant young Aesir prince and his war band came here."
Loki's fingers twist and tighten in the fur that covers his seat. Guilt, sudden, unfamiliar and heavy as Mjolnir itself settles in his stomach. A trip he himself provoked. Where he himself killed many Jotnar, not thinking of them as anything more than monsters.
"I'm sorry," he says, the words tearing out of him. "I'm sorry my... that the people who raised me... that the Aesir did this to you."
"You have no reason to apologise," Rán tells him, reaching out to pat his knee comfortingly. "You are not responsible for their actions, either in the war or now. I have come to terms with my lover's death long ago, and I can forgive that which happens in battle, and that which Odin has apparently appropriately punished."
Loki feels that if he still wore the lie of Aesir flesh, he might be crying. But no tears can fall from Jotun eyes. He wants to blurt out everything, to tell Rán the horrible, terrible truth, but he cannot, his fear and shame are too great.
How many did Thor kill because of you? You were a fool to think you could master your nature, be the kind of Jotun Rán is, he tells himself. You're no better than Laufey, killing your own kind.
He really is a monster.
Loki has learned much since coming to Jotunheim, which was after all his aim. They are truths bitter and hard to bear, and they sit heavy within him, but they are real. And he wonders, what would have happened if he had gone to Odin with this? Would he have kept up the lie he has been spinning for centuries? Would he have finally given Loki the truth? Would there have been excuses, reasons, some way of making his kidnap make sense. Loki still does not truly know why the Allfather took him. An experiment? A weapon; child of sorcerers' kind? Something else? And why take him in particular? Are his birth parents even still alive, or were they slain? Did they try to protect him, before he was taken, or was it too late?
So much lost to the past. Only Odin could reveal the answers, but Loki is not yet ready to return to Asgard and face him. Not with things as they are, so precarious. Not with the pain of discovered knowledge so fresh. Not with the dusky hue of his true skin writ large upon him, for he is not entirely sure how he may return it to Aesir pink.
No, Asgard and those questions, those puzzles, are for some future time. Loki does not doubt he must return eventually, for his disappearance will be noted in time, if only because even a second son has duties at court, but there is much he would still learn here. What does Asgard truly know of Jotunheim, for all that they were at war?
Loki has made a study of books, tomes, scrolls, tablets, all the varied knowledge of Asgard's great libraries, but thought there is much of history and magic and the mysteries of the universe, there was little enough concerning Asgard's ancient foes. All this that Rán has been explaining is entirely new to him. That Jotnar had only one gender, that all could bear or sire young, that they were not all of the same type but had different tribes, even that there existed within their race a talent for sorcery... How is it that Asgard knows nothing of this?
Or perhaps, the sneaking thought occurs to him, Asgard does not know because Odin Allfather does not wish it to know. What frightening sense that makes. To keep these secrets from anyone who might realise that Loki was not what he seemed, to help hide his little Jotnar changeling. Let none have clues to the monster in their midst.
Odin is as much a liar as Loki has ever been, in fact or in boast or in hate-born rumour. Loki will get no truth from him that he does not trick into the open, does not pry out through intellect and will. That is why Loki cannot return to Asgard, not yet.
He is Jotun. He is iviðjur. His nature has been revealed – he is trickster, sorcerer, vicious, bitter, monstrous. Those are his instincts and not knowing, unawares, he has allowed them to master him all his life. No wonder Asgard hated him. Jotnar behaviour is not so easily concealed. But now he knows. Now he can be prepared to fight it. Rán has managed, so it is not impossible, and no doubt he has taught his children likewise. Loki must learn to do the same.
So that is what it must mean for him to be Jotnar. But what of the specifics? What of the tribe he comes from, what of being iviðjur? What does that mean? A people native to regions north of here, which is to say closer to the planet's equator, for Laufey's stronghold is on the southern continent. What other poison secrets is his body hiding, waiting to spring on him unawares? He has to know so that he can be prepared for them. He will fix himself, and then perhaps things will be better for him in Asgard.
"What else can you tell me about my kind?" he asks Rán, breaking long silence. A comfortable silence though. His host had not seemed to mind waiting for him to work through his troubled thoughts, sitting patient and still as stone. Perhaps patience might be one of the few positive traits the Jotnar possess, though brash young warriors like Thor would probably not see it that way. Loki has always been capable of patience. That is something.
"Less than I would like," Rán admits. "The iviðjur have always been prone to secrecy, which is perhaps natural from a people talented in mage-craft. And even before Fárbauti, there were never all that many of them in these lands. In my younger years I admit I never had much occasion to make myself familiar with your kin."
"But there must be some sort of lore, something written down?"
Rán shakes his head. "Paper and stone are hard to come by on Jotunheim. Words written in ice are as easily erased as they are created. Before the war, when Jotunheim was great, we inscribed our knowledge within crystals, which might hold much before they were full. These still exist, but the ability to read them depended on structures like this," he indicates the strange formation that had caught Loki's interest earlier, "but as I said before, without the Casket's power they are dead. No more than pretty sculptures."
Loki feels a wave of bitter disappointment. "Then... there is no way I can find out more?"
"It is natural to want to know who you are," Rán says. "And you have discovered much already. There is a way, but it is not without its dangers, and it will take time. Do not be afraid to put it off until later if you wish. All this is a lot to take in."
"I would still know what it is," Loki says. Danger he does not mind – he has faced it many times before, questing with Thor and his friends. As to time, it will depend. If he knew how to change back, he might revisit Asgard briefly so his presence might stave off questions for a while, but he does not. And he is not willing to return in Jotun form and let the secrets become apparent until he can be sure of himself. He would hardly blame the court an... unpleasant... reaction, but he would like to at least be able to reassure them that now he knows why he is the way he is, he will be working to become less inadequate. Provided they do not kill him on sight.
But Odin knew, the little voice in the back of his head says. Odin knew what you are, and surely he would have tried to raise you to counter your monstrous nature. And yet you are still wrong. Still evil.
He does his best not to listen to that voice.
"If you were willing to undertake the journey," Rán says, "you could go north and see them for yourself. I am sure the iviðjur would be happy to see a lost child return to them, even for the shortest of times."
"I think... I think I have to," Loki says. "I have to know. You understand?"
"Of course," Rán replies. "If this is what you want, I will do everything in my power to help you on your way."
"Thank you," Loki says. "You have been very kind to me, and I don't deserve it."
"Everyone deserves help," Rán tells him seriously.
No, Loki thinks. Not everyone. But I shall try to be worthy of it, in the end.
Now that the decision has been made, Loki begins to appreciate the scale of the task he has set before himself. Jotunheim is a large realm, and the distance he will have to travel is not slight. Nor will he be able to rely on travel via the secret ways, for such requires at least some familiarity with the destination, familiarity Loki does not have. Lacking horses or other types of steed, for to his knowledge the Jotnar have none, the only way will be on foot.
"You will not have to go by yourself, of course," Rán says to him, perhaps seeing his worries on his face. "There are too many dangers along the way for one who does not know Jotunheim."
"Do you mean to say you intend to come with me?" Loki asks, hardly daring to hope. Rán has done so much for him already, if seems unfair to ask yet more of him, but he cannot help but admit that it would be nice to have a friendly, familiar face by his side.
"Unfortunately I do not think I can," the Jotun replies, sounding genuinely regretful. "Much as I would like to, I would be missed at court if I were gone so long. I have my duties, and Laufey is not much given to accepting excuses." Loki's face falls. He should have known, shouldn't have allowed himself to assume too much. He saw himself when he first came to Jotunheim that Rán had his work, overseeing the repairs to the damage Loki himself is in part responsible for through Thor's hands.
"One or two of my children would be able to go with you," Rán says, "Though I know you do not know them, I can assure you that they are good at heart, though it is true some have more wisdom than others. If you would permit it, I will ask Hrönn and Bylgja. They certainly would not begrudge the journey, and of all of them have least responsibilities here in the city. Bylgja in particular has always wanted to travel."
Loki hesitates, thinking the matter over. It is true that he will need guides of one kind or another if he wants to have any chance of reaching iviðjur lands. And of all the possibilities, surely it is better that it be someone at least associated with Rán. After all, was he not just thinking to himself that the Jotun would have raised his own family to be masters of their own natures, of whatever instinctual evils they might otherwise be prey to? If it were just any Jotun he would not be able to trust them, but Rán has shown himself to be a good person. He can trust Rán's judgement in this, surely.
"I suppose it would be wise," he says slowly. It's a hesitant agreement, but he thinks it is the right choice.
"I do believe it would be dangerous to go alone," Rán says. "They should be able to take you through Laufey's lands and then most of the way through Þrymheimr, at least to the border of Angrboða's kingdom. After that..."
"You think the border will be guarded," Loki realises. "And given what you've told me of Jotunheim's politics..."
"I am sure whatever guards they have would let you through," Rán replies, "but the same might not hold true of my children."
Loki nods. That makes sense. If Laufey is anything to go by... and it isn't as though there is any way of telling the occasional good Jotun from the rest. Any wandering stranger might be a murderer, a kin-slayer. He wonders how difficult it must be to do the right thing when all around you cleave to monstrous behaviour, when even your king, who ought to show the people an example of noble action, is no paragon but instead the very opposite. Has it not been hard enough for Loki to do the right thing when surrounded by good people? Or is he just that much weaker?
Rán spreads his hand out on the floor. Around where he touches, the ice ripples upwards, into shapes, spikes, ridges. Loki studies it for a moment and then realises that it is terrain. This is a map, as the Jotnar create them. He leans forward from his seat to take a closer look, impressed despite himself.
"Here is the city," Rán says, pointing to a cluster of rough building-shapes by a deep ravine. His finger inscribes a pathway away from the crevasse, arcing round tall sharp hills. "There is a road here – the King's-road – though it has fallen into disrepair since the war. Travellers and traders still use it though, and their traffic is enough to keep Jotunheim's native predators well away. The King's-road passes through many small towns on its way north, so you will be able to find provisions enough."
"Ah... I have no money," Loki admits, embarrassed. He hadn't even thought of it until now. Not that he had ever needed gold in Asgard. He was a Prince; his face was well known everywhere he went. But they would not know you now, a part of him thinks. Instead of a begrudged sort of respect and ever-present mistrust you would instead get a mob howling for your blood.
"I will provide you with enough to see you through the journey," Rán promises. Loki feels his face burn with shame.
"I am already in your debt enough..." he begins to say, but Rán interrupts him.
"I am not poor my friend," he says, smiling. "Though perhaps one more used to the obvious signs of Aesir rank might not think so. It will not hurt me to help you further. I understand the culture that raised you puts great stock in debts, but things are a little looser in Jotunheim. It is my belief that helping others has its own rewards, though if you ever find yourself in a position to pay me back, I will not object."
Loki fidgets uncomfortably. What can he say? Even after all this, he does not want to admit just who it was that took him. In Asgard, they still think him Odinsson. He could pay back any debt a hundredfold. But here he is nothing. He has nothing. He could be the child of nobles or of peasants, he does not know which.
But that is what this journey is going to be all about. Finding answers. He has the marks on his skin at least, and he knows at least some of them must tell of who his parents were, though he has no doubt that only the iviðjur would be able to read them. If Rán knew what they meant he would have mentioned it already. So he will accept this charity, and he will just have to hope that he is able to pay it off, one way or another.
"Eventually the King's-road will lead you to Þrymheimr," Rán continues, turning his attention back to the map. "These lands are held under Lord Þrym, who although he has sworn an oath to Laufey, is known to keep his own counsel. I do not think you have anything to fear from him or his folk." The expanse he points out is mountainous, rugged terrain, with what appear to be many small villages marked out in its valleys. On the bank of what by its smoothness appears to be a great frozen lake is another city.
"I assume that is where this Þrym keeps his court," Loki says, gesturing to it.
Rán nods. "From there, there are no great roads north. Only smaller paths and tracks. The going will be tougher, and the land wilder. Soon you will start to come upon warmer climes, see trees and tundra. My advice would be to get more information in the city as you pass, for I do not know precisely where the border lies, nor the way to any of the towns in Angrdoða's kingdom."
Loki nods, looking carefully over the map and doing his best to commit it to memory. Unlike paper, this cannot be taken with him. "Do you know how long it should take us?" he asks.
"Perhaps a month, all told." Rán sighs. "Before the war you might have made it there in days, but no-one has enough magic to keep an ice-construct functional for that long by themselves. Still, it can't be helped."
A month. Loki feels a stab of uncertainty. Even he is likely to be missed at court if he's gone that long. And with Odin so near the Odinsleep... but surely Thor will have managed to prove himself worthy to return by that point. Or if not, Frigga is always there to step into the post, as she has done in the past when he and Thor were both children. Though he does not like to shirk his responsibilities, he must find out the truth about himself, about his own kind. He has a worthiness of his own to prove.
"Better to leave as soon as possible then," he says, rising. "Perhaps I ought to meet Hrönn and... um... Bylgja. If I'm going to be travelling with them for so long..."
Rán nods, getting to his feet as well. "They should be finished their morning meal by now. Come, I will take you to them."
Loki steels himself. If he is to survive a whole month of Jotunheim, he must at least be able to look at Jotnar strangers without flinching. Showing weakness is never a good plan. He must keep his mind focused on his goal and then... And then everything will depend on what he finds at journey's end.
Loki waits much as he did the last time at the doorway of the dining room as Rán calls his two chosen children over. There does seem to be less food on the table now, and there is a finished sort of atmosphere to the room, as found when a group is ready to go its separate ways yet is reluctant to do so. However Rán's reappearance seems to act as some kind of signal even before he speaks, and one of the Jotun begins to clear the table while the others leave the room by other doors, casting curious glances back their way. The two summoned, Hrönn and Bylgja, make their way over.
"Hello again," says the one Loki was tentatively recalling as Hrönn, proving his guess correct. "Did you sleep well?"
"Um... yes, I did," Loki replies, taken by surprise at the courtesy. "Thank you."
"Do either of you have any plans for the coming few months?" Rán asks them, getting right down to business.
Hrönn looks thoughtful, but after what appears to be a quick bit of mental calculation, says, "No, nothing in particular, or at least nothing that couldn't wait. There's really not much for me to do around here." His brother merely shakes his head in a negative.
"You see," Rán explains, "our guest wishes to travel north to Angrboða's kingdom, and has no-one to accompany him."
"You want us to go with him?" Hrönn says, his eyes going wide in excitement. "Oh yes, that sounds much more exciting than hanging around here. Of course I'll go."
"I agree," Bylgja says. "I have been wanting to make this trip for many years. I would be a fool not to take the opportunity."
Rán smiles, and claps them both on the shoulders. "Ah, you are good boys, the both of you." Though Bylgja bears the parental affection stoically, Hrönn wriggles in embarrassment. It is fairly clear to Loki that he is the younger of the two. "How long do you think it will take you to pack?"
"Food, bed rolls, coin," Bylgja mutters under his breath, then louder; "perhaps an hour. But we will have to tell people that we'll be leaving. Given that, we should be able to make a start of it by late afternoon."
Rán looks down at Loki. "That... that seems perfectly fine to me," he stammers, unsure of himself. Asgard's court was a small enough place, and he became familiar with all of its inhabitants centuries ago. It has been a long time indeed since he last had to meet someone new, unless it were on a quest, and then he had Thor and his company to do most of the work for him. His social skills outside of the elegant forms of diplomacy and noble manners are rusty indeed.
"Then it is settled," Rán says. "Anyway, I shall let the two of you get on with your own preparations. I will find provisions for our guest myself."
Hrönn and Bylgja nod and depart. Loki watches them leave with a certain amount of trepidation. They seem... amiable enough. There is something about Bylgja that reminds him a little of Hogun, or Heimdall, naturally taciturn and speaking only as necessary, and while he cannot say he is exactly fast friends with either of those two, nor does he mind their company. Hrönn on the other hand... he doesn't know. He certainly didn't come here with the intention of making friends, but is he really going to turn down the opportunity?
There is the potential for a great deal of awkwardness on this trip. But it is necessary, otherwise Loki would not be going. He will simply have to make the best of it. And who knows? Perhaps some good will come of it as well.
Loki is provided with a satchel made from thin, robust leather. They make another trip to the pantry, and after some deliberation Rán hands him wrapped packages of dried meat and fish, sealed ice containers holding more of the morning's strange porridge, a variety of unfamiliar vegetables (at least he thinks that's what they are), some small loaves of something bread-like, and finally two small canteens of a clear liquid that smells of liquor and herbs.
"For strength and stamina," Rán says in reply to his raised eyebrow, winking. Loki stows them away in the pack somewhat sceptically. Of course, that's not to say that Asgard doesn't have something similar, but those drafts have a tendency to smell rather more foul than these. From his experience, this looks too much like a feasting-table drink to have any positive values – aside from taste.
All in all, packing does indeed take about an hour, which leaves Loki with quite some time to wait before they are due to set off. His pack is full to the brim, with a stout, thick, comfortable-looking fur folded up on top of it, and he's a little at a loss for what to do with himself. Were he back in Asgard, he would be spending time in the palace library, reading and re-reading books of magic, or in his rooms working on his latest spell or making sure old ones hadn't gotten rusty. Other times he would be at court, at Odin or Frigga's side, or accompanying Thor and his friends on their latest adventure. Here... he has no idea what the Jotnar might do for fun.
He's about to ask Rán his opinion when his host turns to him with an apologetic smile. "I am afraid I have duties of my own to attend to now," he says. "Much as you saw me doing yesterday. I hope you do not mind being left here – you may of course explore the house at your leisure."
Loki does not wish to be ungrateful – Rán has given him much of his time already – but he still feels a little dismayed. But of course this is the whole reason his host couldn't come with him on his quest in the first place. "Will I at least see you before we leave?" he asks, trying not to sound overly needy.
"I will return to see you off," Rán says comfortingly.
"Then I suppose... I will see you then," Loki says, biting his lip. He will just have to make his own amusement in the meantime.
In lieu of having anything better to do, Loki returns to the large space of the room with the crystal to practise his sorcery. Illusions are simple as breathing at this point, but all those he is used to casting of himself have his pale false Aesir skin. Clearly if he needs to use them at any point during the trip, that is going to have to change. But being forced to look at his Jotun form closely enough to mimic it is not an idea that sits comfortably.
He stands in the centre of the room, breathing deeply to calm himself. He needs to do this. He has never exactly been handsome by the standards of Asgard – too slight, too dark of hair, never really able to grow a beard – but now he cannot imagine anyone finding him desirable. He is ugly, inside and out.
He closes his eyes tightly before he calls up a mirror. He can feel it hovering in the air in front of him, waiting, menacing. He's only caught glimpses up until now; the skin of his hands, his arms. Never his face. But he has to, has to see it, has to know just how horrific this new skin is. He gathers his resolve and looks.
A stranger is staring back at him. Paler blue than most of the Jotnar he's seen, but the same murderous eyes of red tinged with a hint of orange. He remembers tales passed round their group as children, claiming the colour was because the Jotnar drank the blood of their enemies, that the darker the colour, the more ferocious the monster. His have barely any orange at all. Pale raised lines like scars inscribe an arc across his forehead, cut down from his eyes along his cheeks. Only his hair is the same, though tangled from sleep and wind.
He may not have the height of the bergrisar, as Rán called them, but he is no less a creature out of nightmares.
He dismisses the mirror with a sweep of his hand. He can't. He can't. He can't bear to study that face. If he needs an illusion, he will just have to rely on that brief glimpse and luck. It will have to do, because the alternative is beyond him.
He turns to more familiar, more comforting spells to fill the next few hours, and tries to forget the shame and disgust that burns in his stomach at the memory of his own reflection.
The whole family is waiting to see them off. Loki joins Hrönn and Bylgja, each burdened with their own proportionally sized pack, and tries not to look too intimidated by the other Jotnar. There are many hugs, and back-slappings, and long farewells, and Loki stands a little to one side and tries not to get underfoot. This is all somewhat unfamiliar to him – Odin and Frigga have never been demonstrative, though at least that is one area where he and Thor were treated equally, and though Thor himself had been known to tug him into an embrace at any moment when they were young, he had seemed to grow out of it in later years.
"Do you have everything you need?" Rán asks him, disentangling himself from the group.
Loki nods, not quite trusting himself to speak. It's foolish really, how quickly he has become attached to someone who was a stranger only a few days ago. Someone who, before this trip, Loki would have been afraid of. But there is something about Rán, his kindness to him, that has latched itself into his heart. Silly of him, he knows, but outwith his control.
"Here, take this." Rán holds out a palm-sized piece of beaten metal – or at least it is palm sized in Loki's hand when he takes it, more like a large coin between the Jotun's fingers. "It bears the sigil of my house – it may come in handy."
"Thank you," Loki says, touched. He has the experience to know the value of such a gift. "I shall keep it safe, and use it only as necessary."
"I hope you find what you're looking for," Rán tells him. "And whether you do or not, you are always welcome here, whenever you may choose to visit." He bends to one knee and once more Loki finds himself enveloped in an unexpected but surprisingly welcome embrace. He returns it as best he's able.
"I will come back and see you once all this is over," he promises. "Thank you again for the kindness you have shown me."
"Think nothing of it," Rán replies. "Now you should be on your way, before the day grows too short."
Following Hrönn and Bylgja, Loki leaves the courtyard, heading out into the streets of Laufey's city, turning and waving his farewell as he does so. This is the first step of his journey. The quest has begun.