The three of them head north immediately, heading straight along the wide and broken streets of the city. Loki makes sure his pack is settled comfortably on his shoulders and sets his gaze on what little he can see of the far horizon. There are tall buildings blocking part of the view, some near as tall as Asgard's towers, but most shattered in some way, their windows showing nothing but darkness, their walls gaping wide. Far off are mountains, their snowy slopes shining in the sun. There is a deep cleft or gap between them, a valley pointing north and slightly east. That is where they are heading.
"So," Hrönn says, walking beside him and matching his much larger steps to Loki's own. "I suppose we ought to get to know one another, if we're going to be spending some time in each other's company."
Loki looks up at him, faintly suspicious. But there's nothing about the Jotun's face that says he's poking fun, merely an open and honest curiosity. "I suppose so," he replies cautiously.
"Our Father said it might be rude to ask your name; I guess maybe that's a custom in your tribe. But I was just wondering what we ought to call you."
It's an obvious problem, and one that Loki should have thought about before. And now that it's been brought up, it occurs to him that it isn't the only issue this trip is likely to raise. It wouldn't take much conversation to establish that Loki knows very little of Jotunheim; far too little for him to have grown up here, to merely be one of the iviðjur returning home. But should he tell them the truth? Tell them that he was taken away as a babe by the enemies of their race?
It is something he will have to think about. At least he doesn't have to make any kind of decision quite yet. And in the meantime... "You can call me Lopt," he replies. It is a name one of his tutors had used half in jest and half in irritation, after being fooled once again by one of his illusions. It means 'like air', or 'capricious'. It is far from the worst name he has ever been called, and indeed, he quite likes it.
"Lopt," Hrönn says, nodding. "That's a nice name. Obviously you already know my brother and me. I'm the youngest of us, and he's third eldest, after Uðn and Blóðughadda. He only stays at home because at first he was looking after us little ones, and I guess now he hasn't found anyone he wants to set up house with."
It's no surprise to hear that Hrönn isn't very old, but Loki is pleased to have his assumptions confirmed. Although from what Rán has told him, Hrönn must have at least been born around the same time as Loki was, near the end of the war. And yet he seems much less mature. Do iviðjur grow faster? Or is it some kind of side-effect of whatever spell Odin must have placed on him to make him look Aesir? Aging to match the people who surrounded him.
"When were you born," he ventures, "if you don't mind my asking?"
"Oh, it was actually a bit of a surprise to our dam." There's a slight purple tinge to his cheeks that Loki suddenly realises must be blushing. Well, at least he knows now what it looks like, for future reference. "I was, uh... conceived just before our sire was killed." He ducks his head, though from Loki's much shorter perspective it doesn't hide much.
"I never knew him," Hrönn continues softly. "I've only heard about him from stories. I know he died doing what was right, protecting us from the Aesir invaders, but I still wish... well. That I'd had a chance to meet him. Everyone says he was a good person. Brave and strong and generous... But wishes aren't worth anything!" He kicks out suddenly at a nearby piece of ice, sending it skipping across the street. A few paces ahead, Bylgja looks back at them with a disapproving expression.
"I'm sorry," Loki says, conflicted. Every lesson he's ever had, all of Odin's tales, told of the Jotnar invading Midgard, intent on conquering it. It had always seemed obvious that his fath- that Odin had been doing the right thing by leading Asgard's armies to repel them and drive them back to Jotunheim. And he has always been told that it wouldn't have been enough to stop there. That once they'd had a taste of power the Jotnar would grow ever thirstier for it, would try and conquer the other realms again and again. That they were a threat too big to be allowed to remain as they were. The Jotnar had to be crushed so that they would never rise again.
But Odin has been lying to him for years. About his birth, about his blood. And whatever the evils of Jotnar nature, had everything really been necessary? Perhaps it has. Loki has no way of knowing. But of all the many and varied stories Asgard has about the Jotnar, not one of them mentions children, or civilians. Are Jotnar born monsters, that even the young will rise up and attack the innocent and unwary? Are they so naturally suited for violence that the concept of a civilian holds no meaning?
Hrönn's behaviour might indicate not, but he is of Rán's family, and they are not indicative of Jotnar as a whole. How could they be? If all Jotnar were like them, so normal, so decent, there might never have been a war, or if there had, surely the stories about it would be different. Surely the Aesir would sing instead of worthy and honourable opponents, not fierce monsters.
"It's alright," Hrönn says, breaking the awkward silence. "It isn't fair, but nothing's been fair since the war. That's just what we have to live with, I guess. I mean, I'm sure it's the same for your tribe, although Angrboða is probably a better lord than Laufey."
"I couldn't say," Loki says, deflecting. "I don't know enough of Laufey's rule to make a comparison."
"So you didn't live down here before Fárbauti died?" Hrönn asks. "I thought maybe you were visiting distant family or something. Or... maybe you were too young then to remember. I'm sorry, I'm not very good at guessing age when you're so small." He pauses. "Oh wait, was that offensive? Um, I apologise. I never know what to say, my tongue is as rough as a glacier sometimes."
"It's alright. I was born during the war," Loki replies, a little amused despite himself. With his own unfamiliarity, it can be hard enough for him to distinguish the bergrisar despite their greater size, so he can hardly take offense at the reverse.
"That makes sense," Hrönn says, smiling. "So you're not that much older than me at all! That's nice – there aren't very many people my age in the city. It's a bit depressing here at times, which is really Laufey's fault. Nearly everyone here is in the King's Guard or the Army. Laufey is obsessed with gathering enough strength to take on the Aesir again and get the Casket back. There's no place for people like me or Bylgja, who don't want to be soldiers."
He sighs. "Of course I want the Casket back, just like everyone else. But we'll never be strong enough to take on them. They scare me; the thought of what they did to us, and what they could do to us again if they wanted. I mean, just look at what that Aesir prince did a few days ago! He killed hundreds of people! They say he was banished, but we only have their word for it! And Laufey wants us to fight that? It's impossible."
Again Loki feels a stab of guilt. For all he proclaimed that Thor was not fit to be a king, it was clear that Loki himself was hardly fit to be his advisor either. In all his planning, to not have considered the inevitable consequences of baiting Thor to go to Jotunheim... But the Jotnar had been naught but faceless monsters then. They had not been kin. And even if many of them were slaves to their own base natures, he now knows that not all Jotnar are irredeemable. Not all Jotnar are beasts to be put down, as Asgard thinks of them. Some deserve life, like Rán's family, but he had been blind to that. Maybe his own malevolent nature had blinded him to it.
"But surely Laufey has no way to take the fight to them," he says, trying to be reassuring. He holds his voice steady through sheer force of will. "No matter how great his army grows, he cannot do anything with it."
"I've heard rumours," Hrönn says. "That there's a traitor in Asgard who might be willing to help us. A mage or sorcerer of some kind who can open Yggdrasil's ways without the use of the Bifrost. If that's true... It's my own brothers' lives I'm afraid for. They would seek revenge on the Golden Ones, and I'm not sure they would ever come back."
Loki feels worse than ever. But at least he can make a promise to himself that if, no, when he returns to Asgard, he will put aside all thoughts of such things. Never again will he pass such information to Laufey or Laufey's servants. He will not endanger more lives. Let Jotunheim remain as it is, separate. Who knows, perhaps in time all Jotnar can learn to better themselves, as Loki intends to. Maybe then they will be fit to rejoin the other realms.
"Anyway," Hrönn says, "I didn't mean to get so serious. Our problems here are our problems, and I'm sure you have enough of your own. If we want this trip to go swiftly, we should talk of lighter things."
"I am... honoured that you would confide in me," Loki says quietly. "And I wish things were better for you."
"For all Jotunheim," Hrönn agrees. "But let's forget all that for now. We've a long way to go before we make camp for the night. I've been told I have a good singing voice, and my tongue gets less clumsy when I'm not trying to think up my own words. Perhaps you'd like to hear one of our older tales, from before the war, if you haven't much experience of them in your tribe?"
"That seems a fine idea."
Hrönn considers for a moment. "Hmmm. There's one I know about old King Mimir, also called the wise, who was Laufey's grandsire. It's all about his quest to the foot of Yggdrasil to forge the Gjallarhorn."
Loki nods. "That sounds appropriate." It will be interesting to see how the Jotnar tell their own stories and legends.
Hrönn smiles and clears his throat. Loki looks back towards the mountains and the horizon as the Jotun begins to sing, his voice pleasingly mellow.
"Many moons of mighty Mimir's rule passed by in peace and plenty,
Yet wise Mimir worried, wondered; he knew his kennings could be keener,
He put aside his pomp, his power, and went down to the worlds' waters,
Yggdrasil, immense, beyond imagining, whence comes wisdom at the world's roots.
Tough would be his tiring travels, filled with trials before he came to truth,
Many monsters did Mimir master, and of such feats shall this skald sing."
Loki lets the words wash over him, the structure familiar enough even though the story is not. Though he has much to think about, for now at least he is content to relax. One thing he has plenty of is time.
Hrönn recites his tale: how Mimir found ways to travel without the Bifrost, now lost; how he riddled with Ratatosk; how he wrestled the Sky-Bear; how he slew bands of roving Ljósálfar slavers; how he traversed the dark paths for many days with neither food nor drink. How he tricked Niðoggr, the guardian at Yggdrasil's roots. How he spun himself a forge from the stuff of the universe – for Mimir was one of the very few bergrisar with a gift for magic. The long and painful process of creating the Gjallerhorn, and then at last, to drink deep of true knowledge, the water that pools, nourishes the World Tree and mixes with its sap.
It is a tale that Loki enjoys both in the content and in the telling, for despite whatever leadenness of tongue Hrónn might have claimed, in this at least he has skill, reciting the saga without hesitation. How much of it is truth and how much the expected exaggeration of legends grown in the telling he knows not, but either way it seems Mimir was a fairly worthy specimen for a Jotun, though too underhand and cunning in method to be truly honourable.
Perhaps, as with Loki, that was where his strengths lay. Though Loki had tried at first to meet Asgard's expectations of their royalty, all his efforts were insufficient to make him even half Thor's equal. But perhaps if he had been the heir, knowing he was to be King, he might somehow have been able to do better. For all know that diplomacy – pretty words that are the resort of those not strong enough to enforce their will – ought to be the Queen's domain, woman's work much as is sorcery. Mimir must surely have been aware of this.
Yet as he has but recently learned, Jotunheim has no division between male and female. They are both, and neither. So perhaps for Jotnar, there is no difference between what is suitable for men and what is suitable for women?
If that is so, then perhaps Loki is not wrong, or cowardly, or unmanly, to pursue the arts of magic.
Of course, even if that is so, there are many other ways in which Loki does not meet Asgard's standards, so it is not as if he should allow this sudden realisation to lull him into a false sense of confidence. Nor will it be easy to explain the matter to Asgard's people when he returns there. He has barely thought on the implications of that particular piece of information himself – he has been too concerned with the more immediate horrors of discovery.
He does not feel any more womanly now than he ever has before. But then, compared to Thor, or Hogun, or Volstagg or even Fandral, or to so many other of Asgard's finest warriors, he never has been able to match up their male ideal. And there is the shapeshifting...
He doesn't know what to think. The Jotnar appear so outwardly male that he has not had to think on it over much. It seems this is another thing he will have to work out before this journey is over.
They travel on in this fashion for a few hours more, making their way ever northwards through the rubble-strewn streets of the city. Even this far from Laufey's palace, his stronghold, still the evidence of the war remains despite the many long centuries that have passed. Some effort has clearly been made to clear the pathways, with the great blocks of dark ice textured almost like stone either dragged to one side or almost melted away at parts. For all the ice-craft Loki is sure the Jotnar possess however, it seems that they have been unable to repair their dwellings completely.
Perhaps it is simply that so many were killed during the war that there are no longer occupants to fill the buildings. Or perhaps this too is due to the absence of the Casket of Winters. It seems the artefact was so central to the Jotnar way of life its loss has broken them. But then, wasn't that what Odin intended in taking it?
Loki wishes he had taken more of an interest in the Casket. Of all the magical items in the Allfather's most prized vault, despite its position of prominence, he had never been much interested in studying its properties. That was clearly an oversight. And yet if he had started to inquire about it, what might Odin have done? For surely, knowing his true heritage, his false-father would have worried taking that path might uncover the lies he had spun, uncover the truth of Loki.
It is meaningless to wonder about that now. Just as it is meaningless to wonder too much about the state of Laufey's city. He cannot ask the brothers any questions that might reveal his lack of knowledge, not before he has made a decision on whether or not he will reveal his story to them. He is not sure how they would react. More sympathy, verging on pity? Anger at those who took him? Would they shy away from one who was raised as one of their enemies? How to explain that he knows they are not like most of their kin, that even having been shown the truths of Jotnar nature – as they surely would not have – Loki would not wish them ill. Not ones who have done what he as yet cannot.
Such thoughts begin to occupy his mind as Hrönn finishes his saga, and they begin to reach the edges of the city. Ahead of them stretches the long road north, a wide and flat-packed expanse broad enough for ten of the bergrisar to walk abreast, cutting through rough land of rock and ice brushed with snow. The view stretches uninterrupted until it reaches foothills, lifting upwards to the mountains themselves. There is only emptiness, no trees, no buildings, nothing to be seen but barren wasteland.
Naught to be heard but the wind, rushing swift out of the shelter of the buildings. Were Loki still wearing his Aesir shape, he has no doubt that he would find the wind biting indeed, sharp as his own knifes. As it is, it is nothing more than a pleasant breeze, enough to tousle his already tangled hair and brush invigoratingly across his exposed skin.
By his side, Hrönn sighs happily. "I do enjoy the view from here," he says. "Though I don't come out here much. Mostly I have lessons, and chores to do at home. Or spending time with friends. I do have a few!"
Loki looks up at him. Personally he finds the landscape desolate and lonely. Stark. Perhaps something to admire from a distance, and for short periods, but he does not like to think of having nothing else to look upon. He will stay on Jotunheim for as long as it takes to do what must be done, but even now he aches for Asgard. It may not be where he belongs, not until he proves himself worthy of it, but it is all he has ever known, and he misses it desperately.
Even though it has never really felt like home, even though its people have never loved him, still its loss proves its value. Besides, if he was despised there, has he not discovered it was with good reason? He has been prey to a monster's instincts, so no wonder he did not belong. One such as him needs to work to be worthy of the sun and shining cities that are Asgard.
"Tell me a little of your lessons," he says to Hrönn, putting aside his train of thought. Better not to deal with the subject of Jotunheim's scenery. Besides, his curiosity has been roused.
"Oh yes, we should compare how each of our tribes do it," Hrönn suggests with a wide and eager smile. Loki's heart sinks. Foolish of him, not to have realised the obvious reply. Yet in this subject at least neither Hrönn nor Bylgja know anything. It will be safe to bluff. "I'll go first," the Jotun continues. "I'm told it was done very differently before the war, but everything is done in the skaldic tradition these days. Rhyme and repetition, to get the lessons across, to help us remember them. To be honest, I quite enjoy it. We all learn Jotunheim's history, of kings and great deeds, which is best because they already had songs about them. Some of the others they had to make up on the spot, and not all the experts were very good at poetry. Some are terribly clunky, you wouldn't believe... Or I suppose maybe you would; I suppose some of your tribe's lessons might have the same problem.
"There was a little of the basics of seidr-craft when we were younger – we all go to the same tutor, everyone near my age. Some of us had a little talent for the simple little bits of magic, but mostly they just taught us some of the concepts behind it." He sighs. "Not that it's much use. There's nothing to power it. We'd have more luck if the iviðjur hadn't all left, but I know you had good reasons to. Anyway, aside from that, we've also got art, and music, and of course the warrior arts if we've got any taste or talent for it. That's not for me though. Art I can do; ice-sculpting mostly. And I can play the flute a little."
"I don't know about art, or playing any kind of instrument," Loki says, smiling. "Butsorcery I can certainly talk about. Many of my lessons were on that subject."
"Well that doesn't surprise me," Hrönn replies with a laugh. "Considering that's the talent iviðjur are known for after all."
"Indeed," Loki replies. "Aside from that, which took up a great deal of my time, I had a warrior's training also. Mostly with the spear and staff, because I am not terribly suited to long blades, but also with knives and daggers. For throwing, mostly."
Hrönn nods enthusiastically. "That makes sense if you're good at magic," he says. "I've never tried, but my brothers say knives are terribly tricky to make without a little bit of a spell – they tend to lose their edge when you get them too far from your body. Sculpture is easier, because ice knows how to make flowing shapes. You can do icicles, of course, but they're too brittle to be useful."
Loki stores that piece of information in the back of his mind. It's interesting, and could prove useful at some point.
"Will you tell me more about learning magic?" Hrönn asks. "It sounds really interesting, and we've still got a long way to go before we have to stop for the night." Up ahead, Loki notices Bylgjr's interest seems to have been raised by this particular topic of conversation too. At least, there's a certain intensity about his posture, something that tells Loki he has started paying attention. But that makes sense; he's already been told that the Jotun has an interest in the iviðjur, in meditation and logically more mystical pursuits.
"Certainly," he replies. It is a subject upon which he can talk in detail and at length, and he doubts the iviðjur's schools of magic are that much different to those of the Aesir. The underlying rules of the universe remain the same wherever you go, that hidden warp and weft, and the ways that exist to twist and bend and pull at them must be similar at heart.
And if he talks on this, it will hide how little he knows of other subjects.
Despite the weight of his pack, this is not the first time Loki has been a-questing, and he does not easily tire. By the time the sun is starting to sink beneath the horizon in the east, they have reached the foothills of the mountains. The road has so far been nearly empty, though they did pass a few solitary travellers coming in the opposite direction. There has been no sign of wildlife, and still naught in the way of flora. No trees, no shrubs, no plants, not even growths of lichen upon the sometimes exposed rocks.
Their path has just begun to turn upwards, snaking past the rough edges of a snow and scree slope to their left when Bylgja calls a halt. Loki and Hrönn are still discussing some of the finer points behind transmutation, which in practise is mostly Loki explaining and Hrönn either nodding or asking for clarification, when the older Jotun holds up a hand for them to stop, and unslings his pack from his back.
"We make camp here," he says, pointing to a sheltered nook between two walls of rock.
"Good plan," Hrönn replies. "I'm starting to get hungry."
A faint smile is Bylgja's only answer, but he leads the way off the flat road through old snow to his chosen campsite. Though the snow comes only ankle deep on the two taller Jotun, for Loki that is enough to brush mid-way up his calves. At least he can't feel its chill. He does fall a little behind his companions however, and when he catches up, he sees them begin to fashion rough beds for themselves by creating shallow dips in the snow and ice.
Even had he no knowledge of his two companions, their mere actions here would be enough to tell them apart. Bylgja shapes the ice with careful motions of his hands, without wasted movement. His manipulation of the natural Jotnar magic is clearly practised, elegant and skilful. Hrönn on the other hand approaches his craft with showy, expansive gestures. The ice jumps to his command, but much of the power it takes is wasted.
Loki watches them for a few moments before he realises that he is going to have to do the same. This is clearly a normal part of how the Jotnar make camp, and to be unable or unwilling to do it is sure to give him away. But he has no practise working with ice. There is little use for the element in Asgard. Fire and light have always been his chosen tools. They will be expecting him to be good at this though. Better than good, for he is a mage.
A sudden stab of irrational panic shocks through him. He doesn't want them to know. He doesn't even fully understand why not. Would telling the truth really be such a hardship? Does he really think he can keep up a falsehood for the entirety of their trip? Why does he even want to? Wouldn't it be easier for all of them if they knew?
And yet. He does not want to risk their reactions.
Calming himself, he centres himself around his magic. That at least is comforting and familiar. Perhaps he does not know how to shape ice. But he knows his craft. He has shaped many kinds of material in the past, and what is this but more of the same? If he merely thinks of it like that, he will surely have no problem.
He reaches out with his will and commands the world to shape itself to his desires.
Ice shudders and melts away, like water under wind. Ripples shape the edges of the dip he makes, but it is smooth enough inside. It did not feel particularly easier or harder than moulding any other material with his magic. He expected something... more.
"That's quite pretty," Hrónn says, admiring the frozen lip of ice. Loki thanks him, but his attention is on the other member of their party. Bylgja is watching him with an unreadable expression. They lock eyes for a moment, and Loki has the feeling that he is being assessed in some way, but after a few moments the Jotun looks away and returns to the business of making camp.
Loki has no idea what to make of it.
Something wakes Loki early the next morning. The sun has not yet risen, but the sky is beginning to lighten with the first stirrings of dawn. Stars speckle the sky far above, but they are starting to fade into the deep paling blue. He pushes his furs aside and sits up; looking about for whatever it was that roused him. Hrónn still sleeps, a large shape concealed amongst his own coverings emitting soft snuffling noises at intervals. Bylgja however is nowhere to be seen.
Loki gets to his feet warily. It seems unlikely that the Jotun's absence is anything to be concerned about, but it is strange, and strange things often have the potential to prove dangerous.
He will have to go looking for his companion, he decides. It's the only way to be sure that nothing untoward has occurred, though it wouldn't be wise to venture too far away from their campsite. He doesn't know the area, and Rán warned him of the dangers that could be lurking. Probably nothing he couldn't handle, but he – unlike certain Aesir he could mention – has never been one to rush into things.
Leaving Hrónn to his slumber, Loki makes his way through the snow back towards the road, following the trail of large footsteps leading that way. He does not have to go far to find his quarry.
Sitting with his legs folded beneath him, facing in the direction of the rising sun, Bylgja might easily be a statue, so still is he. His eyes are closed Loki sees as he approaches, and his chest moves in slow, deep breaths. He is meditating.
Loki wonders whether he should go back. He doesn't wish to disturb the Jotun's repose. Meditation has never been a part of his own practise of magic, but he knows it often proves beneficial to others. He had tried it, in the early days of his training, but had not personally found it of use. It's clear enough that Bylgja gets something out of it though.
The decision is taken out of his hands when Bylgja speaks.
"I thought you would come and find me."
"I was... worried," Loki admits.
"I wanted to speak to you alone," the Jotun says, not moving, or even opening his eyes. "You are not who you say you are."
Loki stiffens. What has given him away? Or perhaps he is only digging. "I never claimed to be anything," he replies.
"Even iviðjur shape simple ice as we do," Bylgja says. "Not with foreign-feeling magic like yours."
Loki takes a careful step backwards. Perhaps it is only right that the truth come to light, yet something about this conversation is making him nervous.
Before he can do more than shift that small pace ice rises around him, sharp-edged and pointed at his throat, a perfect prison of knives. Loki stills and tries not to panic. Bylgja gets to his feet.
"Who are you really," he asks, "one who feels like Asgard?"
Hrónn may have told him that making the edges of knives is hard, but the same clearly does not hold true for the icy spears that now surround him. Loki is very careful not to move in the slightest, but he still has to breathe, and the nervous motion of swallowing round his dry mouth brushes his skin into one of the needle-sharp tips that press against his throat. He feels the quick prick of pain as it pierces him, but there is no blood.
He should have anticipated that. He killed enough of them in that most recent battle to know that Jotnar do not bleed.
He has his own guilt to bear for that, but better not to think of it right now.
"I am a Jotun," he says carefully, keeping his eyes on the suddenly much more menacing bulk of Bylgja. "I am one of the iviðjur. But I admit I have not been entirely honest with you, though I told your dam everything. We... did not speak about revealing such things to you."
"You look the part," Bylgja says, his voice a low rumble. He stands far enough away that they can lock eyes without either of them straining their necks, but close enough that he could easily move to strike, should Loki's answers not satisfy him. "But Asgard has sorcerers too. I recognise the touch of Aesir magic."
So he has enough sensitivity to spell-craft to see that much. Loki is beginning to wish he'd spoken the truth before, for he knows enough to see that it sounds an unlikely story, and it's hard to convince a suspicious mind of anything. He ought to know, he has experience in this area. But he is not called Silver-tongue for nothing, and his skill at word-craft and manipulation is still his own, no matter his other changed circumstances.
"You believe me to be some Aesir enchanter is disguise then?" he asks. "A shape-shifter? Have you not already seen Rán touch my bare flesh without causing it to burn? And for what purpose would I be here? What need has Asgard for spies, and what could I say to your own dam that would make him believe in whatever story you would have me spin? Why make such a long journey to Angrboða's kingdom when the Bifrost could have taken me there directly?"
"Our touch only burns others when we will it to," Bylgja says, pointedly. "If you were what you claim, you would know that. And I do not say you are Aesir, only Aesir-trained. Other realms may want to take advantage of our weakness."
A possibility Loki in his panic had not considered. It is clear Bylgja is smart; he has thought of many possibilities. This is not a sudden, reactionary act, but a careful and thought-out interrogation.
"Then I'll tell you the truth," Loki says, unable to come up with any better options as things lay. "All of it, as I told your dam. I know it will sound strange, maybe too strange, but I swear that I won't lie." Though he may leave certain things out, such as his true name. He's not about to put himself even deeper into danger; he has no illusions. After what Thor did, to reveal himself as brother to a –in their minds – murderer would be as good as signing his own death warrant.
Bylgja nods for him to go ahead. He seems willing to listen, but other than that his expression is unreadable.
"I was born here on Jotunheim," Loki begins, "at the very end of the war with Asgard. I do not know the circumstances of how it happened, but I was taken by one of the Aesir soldiers, who by some spell or perhaps as a result of my innate magic trying to protect me – I know not which – disguised me as his own child. I was brought up on Asgard, as one of them. It was only very recently that I discovered my true heritage, and because I did not trust the one who took me to tell the truth, I used my sorcery to come here to Jotunheim. That is all I desire here; to know the truth of who and what I am."
He does not waste words or breath with fancy embellishments; Bylgja does not strike him as the type to be swayed by them. He hopes his honesty somehow makes it into his voice. It is not often that he opens himself bare like this, but he has little choice. He did not come so far to be killed in the wastes of Jotunheim, with no-one to know his fate or sing the saga of his death.
There is a long wait while Bylgja regards him with cool, orange-red eyes, making some kind of decision. It is getting harder for Loki to avoid moving, for while he feels no cold, he is trapped in an awkward position, and his muscles are already beginning to burn with the ache of holding there. He does not know how much damage this form can take, compared to his Aesir one. Blood-loss may not be an issue, but a chunk of Jotun-crafted ice piercing through him will be worrying enough.
"My dam trusted you," Bylgja says at last. "I cannot ask him personally, but..." He moves his arm across in a swift sweep and the ice crumbles back into the ground it came from. Loki sags, his hand coming up automatically to brush across his cuts. A swift application of a little magic and they seal up. At least now he knows that will still work.
"Thank you for believing me," he says.
"Perhaps." Bylgja narrows his eyes. "If true, then..." He sighs, but does not elaborate.
"I..." Thinks are very... awkward. Loki does not know quite what to say or do, an unfamiliar feeling. It's strange to find someone so hard to read. A quiet and contemplative individual, one of few words, that's the impression he's got in the past few days, but it doesn't help him any in making sure he's convinced of Loki's story. "How do you know what Aesir magic is like anyway?" he asks, for lack of anything else. And he is curious.
It takes a little while for the Jotun to decide to answer, but eventually he does. "I saw them when Odin took the city."
"But you weren't a soldier." This much Loki is already confident of. And he has been wondering, and worrying... "Did they... kill those that weren't soldiers?" He hates how tremulous his own voice sounds.
"If it pleased them, as it often seemed to." There is little emotion in Bylgja's voice, but Loki feels ill anyway. Perhaps there's a reasonable explanation, when seen from the Aesir side, but more likely he thinks it was simply easier for the Aesir not to be too picky. He has some experience of the chaos of battle. Easy to make mistakes. Easy not to care about making them, or avoid thinking about making them. Easy to slay monsters indiscriminately.
Which was not to say the war had not been necessary. But not that. Never that.
How much dishonour had Asgard brought on itself in those bloody days?
He remembers the tales he was told. Laufey's army fought for many weeks, retreating slowly back over the plains from the portal to Midgard back to his stronghold. Their numbers ever whittling down until they drew into the protection of the citadel and the temple, where Odin and Laufey fought and the war was won. The way they described it, it was a clean fight, albeit savage. No mention made of sorcerers – who must have been female, for he knows of no other male mage in Asgard's recent history save himself. No mention of touching the city outside of that one spear-strike of Odin's forces.
But if that had been true, there would have been no great destruction through the city, as Loki has seen with his own eyes. It would have been confined to one area, near what are now the ruins of the palace. And it is possible that Odin knew of the iviðjur's existence and feared the presence of their powers without a counter. He may have brought sorcerers along. Loki has had few dealings with female sorcerers other than his tutors, and he rarely asked them questions unrelated to magic. He would not have known, and whatever their deeds, they would not have been fit for the sagas.
He does not want to consider that the actions of Asgard's warriors may have been so dishonourable. Even if civilians hadn't been slain, by accident or by intent, Asgard's own laws say that taking women to war is forbidden, for magic is for the home and for peacetime, for women's' protection from men who might want to do them harm. Its use in battle is trickery, dishonourable. Sif is exempt from that law because she does not use magic. Loki is exempt because he is not female.
His mind seems to tangle over itself in confusion. He does not want to know these things. He does not want to think about these things.
"Of course, the Aesir would not sing tales of that," Bylgja says, with a snort of contemptuous laughter. "How could you bear hearing their hate for us for all those years?"
Loki looks away. He does not want to face this. "I thought I was Aesir," he says quietly.
"So you agreed with it." He does not sound surprised, merely tired. "And it seems unlikely that at most a few weeks have changed that."
"I don't hate any of you," Loki says.
"But you think us lesser. I need not know details of what they say about us to know that much. The Aesir think us little more than animals."
"But... I know you and your family aren't like that," Loki protests. "And I'm sure there must be many others."
"But in general?" Bylgja asks.
All Loki's clever words seem to have deserted him. He knows what Jotnar are, but he cannot think of a way to put it to the other that will not sound in some way... insulting. But even if Jotnar culture as a whole deems their malevolent qualities good and right, surely Rán's family at least must know otherwise, or why would they act as they do? "We can only hope to rise above our natures," he says finally, softly. "You should know; you have. And Rán, and your kin. I am... trying. I didn't realise before why I was... wrong. But I'm here to fix it."
Silence. He looks up to see Bylgja looking somehow... pained, though Loki can't think why. For a moment the Jotun's eyes close and he rubs a tired hand over his face, muttering something under his breath to himself too quiet for Loki to hear.
"Then I suppose you think I meditate to help me control my monstrous urges," he says. He sounds very weary. Loki can sympathise, he doesn't want this conversation to go on any longer either.
"Perhaps," he says, meekly. It makes sense, now he's brought it up. "And I suppose because it helps you with whatever magic you can do."
Bylgja sighs. "It's too early for this," he mutters. Then louder, "We should return to camp."
Loki nods; relieved the questions are over, at least for now. He's not sure how to categorise Bylgja's reaction to his story, though at least he thinks by the end he believed it. It's not Rán's open sympathy, and although he seemed angry, it wasn't directed at him. Still, there were enough uncomfortable truths in what they spoke of that Loki wishes he could have kept the whole thing quiet for a little longer.
He was not expecting the truth to have so much pain in it.
"I suppose you will want me to tell Hrónn all this as well," he asks.
He thinks Bylgja winces. "Not yet," he replies, but does not explain further. Well, if he will not insist, Loki certainly will not press. He doesn't want to have to do this all over again before he absolutely has to.
At least, he thinks, trying to be positive, this will make asking Bylgja questions easier.
It's not much consolation for so many uncomfortable thoughts, but he'll take what he can get. And if meditation truly helps with resisting Jotnar instincts for cruelty, perhaps he will take it up again. The sooner he can master himself, fix himself, the sooner he can go home. And he is suddenly desperate to do that.
He misses when his life was simple.
Hrónn is still sleeping when they return to camp, but he wakes quickly enough when Bylgja shakes him, flailing for a moment as he gets caught in the folds of his furs. "I'm up brother, I'm up," he says, laughing. He stretches once he's on his feet, open and relaxed. Loki envies him. The young Jotun has few if any worries to burden his mind as Loki's is burdened.
"What have the two of you been up to?" Hrónn asks. "It's barely dawn and you're awake already."
"Meditating," Bylgja answers simply.
Loki shrugs. "I am accustomed to waking early," he says, which is somewhat true. It may be something to do with the natural currents of magic which change at each daybreak, but he has always found himself rising with the sun. Thor had done much the same, but that had more to do with his general boundless energy and the habits formed by his training schedule.
"And I suppose I'm just going to have to get used to doing the same on this quest," Hrónn replies with a certain amount of humour. "I should have known there were bound to be some downsides."
After the previous events, Loki finds it hard to appreciate the younger Jotun's good mood. Despite his instinctive horror at the thought to going over the whole story of his heritage again, he cannot help but feel a little guilty for not telling Hrónn the truth. It seems unfair for Bylgja to know and not his brother. But if the older Jotun wants Loki to keep his mouth shut for now, so be it.
They break camp quickly after that, breaking their fast with the same curious porridge they'd eaten the day before, clearly a staple morning fare. Despite his normal chatty self, in this at least Hrónn is quiet, too busy shovelling food into his mouth to talk. Not that that lasts long. As they roll up their furs and sweep the ice flat again with careful motions, Loki resorting to his more familiar magic once more, he starts up conversation again.
"There's caravans that come along this road a few times every week," he says. "So we'll probably run into one of them sooner or later. Even though most of their goods are bound for the city there are always a few little things they're willing to sell to travellers along the way." He seems pleased by the idea of being able to spend a little coin. Loki presumes he's thinking of trinkets, for it's far too early to be replenishing their provisions. "And maybe they'll be able to tell us some gossip from Þrymheimr."
"I can see how that would come in useful," Loki says, slinging his pack over his shoulder. The sun is up above the horizon now and is casting its pale light over the icy landscape, casting long shadows. The temperature does not seem to have changed much, but then he isn't entirely sure he would be able to tell if it did.
They make their way back to the road and continue north, with Bylgja in the lead once more. Loki wants to ask him a great many things, but for that he will require privacy if Hrónn is not to grow suspicious. Not that he minds talking to the younger Jotun at all. It is easy to let the words wash over him, a conversation that does not make much in the way of demands on his mind. Hrónn carries the bulk of it, and that is... soothing, somehow. Restful, considering all else that he has to think about.
Perhaps he could ask Bylgja for advice on how to control his own unsavoury Jotun behaviours. It may not be entirely applicable to his tribe, but surely there are a few things he can share that might help. Loki might feel more settled in himself if he could at least make a start at self-control. If Hrónn's hopes come to pass and they do encounter a caravan today, that might be the opportunity he seeks to pull Bylgja aside while his brother is distracted.
Yes, he decides. That is certainly the beginnings of a plan.
Sometime after a mid-day meal consisting of dried meat and a starchy stuff that looked like bread but certainly didn't taste like it, as luck would have it they see signs of movement in the distance. Hrónn perks up at the sight, and Loki casts a spell of far-seeing on himself so as to get a better look at the approaching forms.
There are indeed a large number of Jotnar coming their way, accompanied by massive covered wagons each pulled by a large, long haired and many horned beast with pelts the colour of new-fallen snow. They have something of the shape of kine, but even from here he can make out great tusks jutting from their mouths and vicious spurs protruding from their ankles, half-concealed by their tousled coats. Parts of their harnesses are made of ice, but the ropes that hitch them to their burdens are too pliable for that. Loki will need to wait for a closer look to be able to work out their construction.
"That's certainly a caravan," he announces, dispelling the enchantment with a wave of his hand.
"Excellent," Hrónn exclaims. "But how did you make it out...?"
"Magecraft," Bylgja tells his brother, speaking for nearly the first time since they set off. Hrónn's eyes go wide with surprise and pleasure.
"That's amazing! I guess that should have been obvious though, huh?"
Loki has to admit that he's a little surprised by how enthusiastic the Jotun is being. Of course they had spoken much on the matter the day before, but that had been an academic discussion, mere curiosity than anything. There hadn't been this... praise. Loki is not used to it. Although it is true that Thor is often quietly appreciative of the magic he offers in assistance on their quests, for propriety's sake he does not commend Loki for it. Aside from his tutors – whom he only got in the first place because the only thing worse than a trained male mage is an untrained one – he cannot think of anyone who had such complimentary things to say about his craft. It's rather... pleasant.
And anyway, he is amongst the Jotun now, so he doesn't have to be ashamed of it, not with it being expected of his tribe. He thinks.
He's less sure Asgard would see it that way, but once the rest of his character is reformed, surely they will see that this is not really dishonourable for him. Or perhaps... perhaps even now he is applying evil Jotun values where good Asgardian ones ought to be. But it's coming from Hrónn so how could that be so? And Jotun have no gender anyway so how can it be womanly without women? And... oh, he's so confused. Such an innocently meant comment has sent his thoughts into a whirl again.
It seems though that Hrónn has taken his silence for embarrassment at his kind words, and so says no more on the matter, though he's still smiling wide as a half-moon. He is fairly buzzing with enthusiasm, and it seems that only the length of the distance that still separates them from the caravan prevents him from running forward to meet it.
For Loki's part, he keeps his gaze fixed on Bylgja's back. Now that he knows the truth of Loki, the urge to talk to him is nearly irresistible. He needs some way of making sense of all these tangled thoughts, and Bylgja, much like Rán, seems wise enough to be able to help him get them into some kind of order. It only firms his resolution to speak to him when Hrónn is distracted by the traders.
It takes perhaps a further half an hour of walking to reach the caravan. The lead Jotun is clad not only in the typical kilt, but also a kind of cloak that is draped and wound about his upper body as well as falling from his shoulders, all dyed in a subtle arrangement of pale yellow and cream. A golden torc nestles around his throat, and instead of the usual headdresses that cling to the skull is a narrow band of plain silver. He halts the beast of burden behind him with a gentle hand on a shoulder that is at least a head higher than him and looks over their trio. His eyes, Loki notes, are the closest to orange he has yet seen.
"An interesting travelling party you have here," he says, smiling. Loki is wary of him, despite the apparent friendliness. Though Hrónn isn't acting like there is anything to fear, these are still strange Jotnar. Though in merchants malevolence is more likely to show itself in inequitable prices than violence.
"We're just escorting our friend Lopt home," Hrónn replies. "Although right now our current aim is to see what you have for sale."
The other Jotun's smile widens, though this is hardly surprising given his profession. "We always welcome valued custom," he says. "And we are in no great hurry, so please feel free to walk among us and peruse our wares. We are happy to wait."
"Thank you," Hrónn says, and is immediately off round the side of the wagon, disappearing out of sight. Bylgja and Loki follow rather more slowly, allowing Loki to see that instead of wheels the transport is mounted on runners formed from ice. It is a sleigh, not that he has ever seen one before outside of pictures in books. Asgard has no winter, and hence no need for such a vehicle.
"You aren't worried about him running off alone like that?" Loki asks, as they make their way along the line of the caravan. Copying the action of their leader, the other Jotnar have stopped their sleighs and are relaxing, talking amongst themselves and regarding the newcomers with interest. It sets Loki on edge.
"There is no danger here," Bylgja replies. "Except perhaps the danger of spending all his coin."
Loki feels less than confident, but he is willing to take the Jotun's word for it. "I wanted to talk to you anyway," he says, continuing at Bylgja's patient nod. "It's just... well, I was hoping you could give me some advice. Concerning what we discussed this morning."
For a moment there is no reply. Then Bylgja motions for them to move away off the road, heading away from the caravan so that they can't be overheard. Once they are a far enough distance away he speaks.
"You came here to learn the truth of who and what you are. Of course I will answer your questions. Merely ask."
"In Asgard..." Loki hesitates, but these are things he must know. No point in holding back, even if it is awkward. "Magic is for women. But Jotnar have no women, no men, only yourselves."
"Ourselves," Bylgja corrects gently. Loki can't quite keep from wincing, even though it's the truth.
"So where do you hold magic's place to be?" he finishes.
The Jotun – the other Jotun, Loki forces himself to think, knowing he is being foolish in his avoidance – considers the question. "Male, female... understand these are strange concepts to us. We act as our personalities dictate. Magic is for anyone who can wield it, and they may turn it to what use they desire. The iviðjur have warriors, healers, craftsfolk... each as their talents lie."
"I look male to the Aesir, and that's how I was brought up," Loki explains. "That's how they think of me. I know much of my character is wrong by any standard, and I'm going to fix that, but I can't not use magic. It's part of me, it's like breathing. And I don't... I don't know how to reconcile the two."
Bylgja breathes out, a long, slow sigh. "What makes you so certain Asgard's standards are all standards?" he asks. Loki frowns, confused. "What makes you think you are 'wrong'?"
"Honour is not subjective," he replies, angry for reasons he can quite put into words. "Right actions are right. Magic is only different because I don't fit into a... a category! It doesn't change the fact that I don't act as a warrior should! That I am a coward, and a liar, and untrustworthy!"
"Some things are not subjective. Murder, rape, other crimes that all the Nine Worlds condemn. But honour?" Bylgja shakes his head. "Asgard's honour is straightforward battle, glorious death. It is that by a quirk of birth some must be this thing and some must be that thing. It is brash, it is arrogant. But there are other ways to be that are just as honourable. All the realms hold honour differently."
What? This makes no sense at all. Honour is honour, it isn't this... this malleable thing that can change depending which of Yggdrasil's branches you stand on! If that was so how could anyone be sure of anything? How could anyone know the right way of acting? Surely Bylgja is wrong. Mistaken. Oh, Loki is sure he means well by his words, but no doubt he is shaped by Jotun ideals, and even if he claims that honour is meaningless it's plain he and his family still abide by most of what Asgard holds right. Well, how could they not, right is right is right, and that's the end of it. Other cultures may have strange, wrong-headed ideas – for though he has read widely he confined himself to magic rather than politics and ideals and so cannot say if this is true or not – there is a reason that Asgard rules the Nine. It is only the memories of the war that make Bylgja says such things, and that is understandable, and forgivable.
It is not helpful though. It is nothing he wanted to get out of this conversation.
"You are wrong," he says firmly. "And even if you were not, I am sure all the realms hold the evils that plague Jotnar nature to be evils. Laufey's war is testament enough to that, not to mention what he did to Fárbauti. That is why it's so important I learn how to control myself. You know that, you must!"
"Laufey's actions do not reflect the rest of us," Bylgja says sharply. "Thankfully very few of us are like him."
"He is King, how can he not reflect you?" Loki asks, confused. "To be King is to embody the people."
There is silence. Bylgja seems lost for words. Finally he says, "I am sorry. I was wrong to bring this up so soon. There is enough that plagues your mind without any new concepts that I might introduce."
It is an apology that Loki is welcome to accept. It clears the air, and so means that he may sweep away Bylgja's confusing ideas to where their wrongness will not bother him. He nods and, thinking their conversation over, turns back towards the line of sleighs.
"Lopt, wait," Bylgja says, stopping him. "May I at least ask one thing of you?"
"I suppose." Provided it is reasonable, he is willing enough to do it. Rán's family have done much for him since coming to Jotunheim, and he is grateful.
"We will meet many Jotnar on our journey. Judge their actions with an impartial eye. See for yourself whether Asgard's tales of monsters are unvarnished truth."
What he will find seems to Loki to be self evident. Thus there is no harm in agreeing to what Bylgja wants. "I will do as you ask," he replies.
They head to find Hrónn in silence. Loki's heart is heavy, and his thoughts as disordered as ever. Is the truth really worth this price? This pain? Yet it is a truth of Yggdrasil that anything of great worth cannot be won but by sacrifice. This is his, and he can bear it, for he has been raised a prince even if his blood eventually proves to be less noble.
There is a long way still to go.