Author's Note: This is the first of three chapters in my little Halloween-inspired fic. It's all already written, and I'll get the other chapters up over the next couple of days! One note-the word "Ugga" in Old Norse is the verb form of the word "fear". Do what this information what you will! Other than that, I hope you enjoy, and please review! It's the only paycheck we as fanfiction writers get, and it makes me feel all warm inside (even warmer if reviews are left on each chapter!) Without further ado, I proudly present "There Are More Things in Valhalla and Asgard..." (kudos to you if you get the reference!) And a HUGE thank you to my beta, mskaityw! -Traveller
Cold evenings, Thor had always thought, were best spent around a roaring fire with people you cared about, making merry and unwinding from the labors of the day. He was glad to be able to do so this night-he and his five closest friends had spent a busy day training. Most of their work that day had focused on horsemanship, and though Thor would never admit to it aloud, he was grateful for the opportunity to lounge about in the fireside room and rest this aching thigh muscles. Some king of Asgard he would make if he let himself ever again forget for that long that any muscle of his existed. He had been focusing so much on his battle training lately that he had been neglecting his riding. He ought to ride more.
He took a swig from the mug of ale in his hand and then leaned back against the cushions, just content to feel the warmth of the flames on his face for a moment before glancing around the fireside room to see what pursuits his friends were up to. Next to him on the large sofa, Volstagg had dozed off and was snoring softly, a plate of crumbs settled on his lap. On his other side, Fandral was speaking animatedly with Sif, who sat cross-legged on a cushioned chair with a duvet wrapped around her shoulders. She nodded and smiled, but did not contribute much to the conversation. Thor felt a twinge of empathy. Even with a booming voice and the status of first prince, it was often difficult for him to get a word in edgewise when Fandral got really wound up about something. And Sif was more often on the receiving end of such monologues than any of the rest of them-Thor knew that Fandral had a special eye for the warrior lady. He figured this was something Sif did not realize, because her scorn for anything feminine in nature, including romance, would surely have caused her to push him away if she knew. Wouldn't it?
Sif caught Thor's gaze momentarily and flashed him a little grin. He smiled back and tried not to laugh, thankful that Fandral's back was turned to him. Not wanting the talkative blonde to perceive that they were having a silent joke at his expense, however affectionate in nature, Thor turned away to check on Loki and Hogun, who were having a rather intense game of chess in the corner. Or at least, rather intense on one end. Thor had rarely seen Hogun that concentrated in battle training. The grim warrior was hunched over the elaborate mahogany chess table, staring at the players as though any minute one of them might come to life and poke him in the eye with its tiny sword-which, given his opponent, was entirely a possibility. Loki merely looked bored and somewhat amused. It was not difficult to tell who was winning.
With soft chuckle, Thor turned back around and adjusted his position on the couch, feeling the action more than he should have. Thinking no one was watching, he allowed himself the smallest of winces.
"If you're sore, then I definitely don't feel so bad about not being able to move without my muscles screaming." Volstagg must have woken while Thor had been observing the rest of their friends. Thankfully, he kept the comment soft and, glancing quickly about, Thor was certain no one else had heard him.
He laughed slightly. "I suppose I've got quite a bit of a way to go before becoming a cavalryman."
Volstagg laughed, a warm and rumbling sound that never failed to make Thor smile. "The god of thunder, a cavalryman? I should hope that's not what they have in mind for you!"
His attention caught by the large man's mirth, Fandral turned with a grin. "What, were you thinking of taking up horsemanship as a career after today's lesson, Thor? Can you imagine trying to strike down enemies with Mjolnir from the back of a steed? I should think the weight of the thing should cause you to topple right off!"
Thor was about to come back with a tease of his own when Sif's giggle interrupted him. "If you're so keen on riding, Thor, we should race our mounts down the Bifrost causeway someday soon. Then we shall see who the real horseman-or woman-is."
"Don't be ridiculous. My brother doesn't know the tail of a horse from its head." Loki's words were acerbic and his tone sarcastic, but Thor caught the smallest hint of jest in his voice. Then he saw a smirk curve on his lips as he turned his attention back to the chessboard. "By the way, checkmate."
Hogun's eyes widened as he studied the game board. When he saw that he was indeed beaten, he glared at his opponent, almond-shaped eyes narrowed.
"I see how it is, then. You win again."
Loki was getting more gleeful by the second. "Yes, you're quite right. I do win again. Thank you as always for the most excellent of games, dear Hogun. Would anyone else like to have a go?" His gaze swept the room, a mischievous gleam dancing in his eyes. "Fandral?"
Thor needed to find a distraction for his little brother, and quickly. Loki was, as usual, looking for trouble. He and Fandral had never been close friends, to put it lightly. Now that Thor thought of it, there was rarely an interaction between the god of mischief and the romantic warrior that did not end some form of disagreement. And Fandral's recently developed attraction for Sif did not help. For though Fandral's special affinity for the warrior woman was plain to see (apparently to everyone but Sif herself), Thor suspected that Loki harbored a bit of a flame for her, as well. The suspicion was based merely on observation and guesswork-of course Loki would never confide such feelings to anyone, not even him. But it gave him yet another excuse to dig at Fandral.
Thor cast about desperately for alternative form of entertainment, but was mercifully saved by Sif.
"I have a better idea." She turned to smile meaningfully at Volstagg. "Volstagg, why don't you tell us a story?"
An excellent idea. Something to keep Loki's and Fandral's minds engaged and their mouths shut.
"That sounds excellent! Something exciting, Volstagg!" Thor encouraged. Volstagg, the eldest member of their little group, was an excellent storyteller. When Thor and the others were young children they had many an evening sat cross-legged, eyes wide with wonder and delight, while the teenaged Volstagg, large and hairy even then, had spun tales of magical creatures, enchanted ships, and faraway, exotic lands. It was one thing Thor had never outgrown, and judging by the level of enthusiasm in the room, neither had any of the others.
Before Volstagg had even had the chance to acquiesce, they had begun to gather around. With a chuckle that signified he gave in-without much of a fight, given-Volstagg rose and moved to a large cushioned chair so his back mainly faced the fire, giving him an optimum view of his audience, and vice versa. Coming over from corner, Hogun positioned the chair he had been sitting in at the chess table on the side of Sif that was not facing the couch, and Loki took the spot on the sofa that Volstagg had vacated. Thor teasingly tried to snuggle close to him, which resulted in Loki promptly elbowing him in the ribs and nestling as close to the far corner of the sofa as possible. Thor chuckled. Loki glared. Sif rolled her eyes.
"Are the princes done acting like children, or must we make poor Volstagg wait to begin his tale while we put you both in time-out?"
"My apologies, friends. I was the cause of the disturbance." Thor smiled playfully.
"Disturbance? You tried to crush me, you enormous oaf!" Loki's accusation held none of his brother's gamesome manner.
"Must you always be so melodramatic, Loki?" Sif laughed as she spoke, indicating that the comment was to only be taken in jest, but Loki silenced immediately, a wounded look on his face.
"All right, all right," interrupted Volstagg before the bickering could go any further. "Now, do we have any requests, or is this to be a tale of my own choosing?"
"Surprise us, Volstagg." The tips of Fandral's mustache twitched upward as he smiled expectantly, folding his hands in his lap.
"Yes, do," agreed Thor, and the other three nodded their agreement-even Loki, who appeared to have forgotten his offense, seemed to eagerly anticipate the story.
"Very well." Volstagg paused for a moment, deep in thought, and then smiled the smile of one who has just formulated an ingenious idea. It reminded Thor of an expression which very often played upon his brother's face.
"I have the perfect tale for a dark and cold evening, for it will chill you to the bone, even more so than the weather!" Volstagg's brown eyes swept across his little audience, feeding off of their reactions. The five listeners sat with a mostly patient sort of excitement, waiting. The corner of the storyteller's mouth twitched upward, and his eyes met Thor's with a meaningful look.
"You know, it is a pity we haven't the proper setting for such a tale."
It took Thor half a beat to realize what he was getting at. My pleasure.
He felt the familiar thrill of electricity as it coursed through him, and a fraction of a second later, lightning turned the sky purple through the windows. The sensation was followed almost immediately by a crash of thunder so loud that it rattled the chess pieces, abandoned on the table in the corner.
The effect was just what he had been hoping for. Hogun sat up straight, eyes wide, but Thor barely noticed the grim warrior's reaction for the fact that Fandral yelped and nearly leapt out of his seat in shock. Thor and Volstagg chortled hysterically, and Loki, whose trickster mind had obviously had no trouble guessing the meaning behind Volstagg's comment from the start, laughed heartily along with them. While Thor guessed that Loki's mirth was probably caused less by the humor of the situation and more by the fact that he had been provided with something to laugh at Fandral about, he was at least glad that his little party trick seemed to have gotten him back into his brother's good graces after the snuggling incident.
Sif, who also had not been at all startled by Thor's conjuration, chose not to join in the laughter, and merely rolled her eyes again and shook her head. But as the embarrassed object of their amusement recovered and repositioned himself on the couch, Thor noticed that the warrior woman seemed to be watching Loki rather than the discombobulated Fandral. At first, his brother was so caught up in his revelry that he did not notice. But when his eyes met Sif's, the bottom immediately dropped out of Loki's smile, and he suddenly looked uncharacteristically meek. But then Sif smiled at him, sweetly and genuinely, Loki's expression took on a similar nature in return. It made him seem shy and innocent, almost delicate in nature, and not like himself at all. Thor gave a slight shake of his head, directed at no one in particular. That brother of his was an odd one.
Volstagg's voice drew his attention. "Nicely executed, Thor. But perhaps next time a bit less setting?"
"Really? I thought it was the perfect amount of setting." The god of thunder grinned widely at Fandral, who threw up his hands in a defeated gesture.
"Yes, yes, all right, I know when I've been made a fool of. We've all laughed at Fandral, now can we please get on with the story?"
As the others turned their attention back to the spinner of the tale, Thor reached over to clap Fandral lightly on the upper arm, a silent apology for any offense he might have caused. The romantic was, after all, rather attached to his pride. The blonde warrior shot him a small grin in return, letting him know that no real harm had been done, and all was forgiven.
His audience resettled, Volstagg began his tale once more. "My dear friends, I know the sorts of tales that all of you are accustomed to hearing from me-tales of faraway lands and the people and creatures that can be found there. But tonight, I tell you a different sort of tale. It is one that takes right here in Asgard, and many swear its truth upon their own lives. Tonight, I tell you the story of a place you all know, a place you all fear. That place..." Here, Volstagg paused for dramatic effect. "...is the Ugga Ruins."
Thor raised an eyebrow. He did, of course, know of the Ugga Ruins. They were about a three-hour ride from the palace, at the edge of the forest. The others nodded their comprehension-the enormous, crumbling complex of stone had always assumed a sort of hostile and foreboding manner, but Thor had never really thought anything of it. He had never had any reason to get close to the Ruins, having merely ridden by them on his way through the forest for some reason or another.
"They are the remains of an old palace, are they not?" Fandral asked.
"Very true, my friend. Our story takes place during the reign of the Allfather's father's father-millennia upon millennia ago, not long after the very beginnings of the universe itself. Buri, the great king of Asgard, had a very different vision for the kingdom than the peaceful one that our Allfather does today. For the universe was new then, and its peoples did not know the concept nor the value of peace.
"Back in those days, there existed an ancient race of wights called the Vittra, who were invisible and lived underground. The Vittra were evil, vengeful creatures who used magic to achieve their ends, arranging strange accidents to harm or even kill anyone who angered them."
The soft-spoken Loki interrupted him. "What sort of magic?"
Thor noted the intrigue in his brother's voice. It was only natural, he supposed-Loki himself was a scholar of magic and a practiced sorcerer who used his skills for all sorts of endeavors, from pulling pranks to fighting battles. And though his abilities were continually increasing, he was ever looking for more ways to expand his knowledge of the subject.
Volstagg shook his head disapprovingly. "Dark magic, Loki. Practiced with nothing but the most self-centered and cruel of intentions."
Loki looked a little less scornful of the idea than the storyteller, and very interested, but he said no more. Volstagg continued.
"King Buri became angered by the actions of the Vittra, and he sought to destroy them all, for the good of the realm. But there were some Asgardians, sorcerers who dabbled in the dark arts, who did not wish to see the Vittra destroyed. They thought that an alliance could be made with the wights, and that they could work together to fight against other realms who might threaten Asgard.
"But Buri had seen the pain inflicted by the Vittra, and ruled that they be destroyed-every last one of them. The dissenters rebelled, constructing the Ugga Palace as a fortress where they could assemble their forces as well as commune with the Vittra. It is said that the very structure of the palace is laced with dark magic, that it hides in the cracks between every stone."
Thor's mind turned toward the ominous aura the crumbling palace seemed to give off whenever he rode by it. Could Volstagg really be speaking the truth about the ruins? It was said that dark magic could linger forever, long after the sorcerer who had conjured it had passed into the Underworld. But surely the legend was just that-a legend, a story dreamed up long ago around a roaring fire, much like they were doing now.
"What happened to the dissenters?" Hogun's voice was hardly louder than a whisper.
"Buri and fifty of his fiercest warriors rode to the Ugga palace one night. They set upon the fortress like ants upon a discarded crumb. The warriors slaughtered every last one of the rebels. They then went on to destroy the Vittra, driving them out from under the ground and banishing them to the Underworld, where they remain to this day. Finally, Buri had the heads of the rebels put on spikes and set up around the stronghold, so that everyone who passed could see what he would do to those who dared threaten the safety of Asgard and her people. "
As Volstagg paused for breath, Thor glanced at Fandral, and his friend stuck out his tongue in an expression that jokingly portrayed disgust. Thor chuckled. The others ignored him, all still watching Volstagg with intrigue, waiting for him to begin again.
"Something tells me that is not the end of the story," said Thor dryly.
"For the dissenters, it was," Volstagg countered, his face seriousness personified. "At least, for all but one."
All five listeners were fully attentive now.
"The leader of the rebellion was slain at the hands of Buri himself. The story goes that as the captain of the dissenters lay dying with the great king's sword run through his gut, Buri commanded him to relinquish his folly, to say that he and the others were wrong. But the man refused, and he died swearing his vengeance upon all of Asgard."
"Did he get it?" Loki asked quietly, his green eyes wide. Thor had not seen his brother so intrigued by a story since he had been small enough to sit in Thor's lap.
Volstagg shook his head, his countenance grave. "No, Loki, he did not. It is said that his spirit still haunts the Ugga Ruins, forever doomed by his dying oath. They say that if you ride by the ruins at night, you can see him, a figure veiled and shrouded in black, standing atop the crumbling battlements. And whosoever lays eyes upon him will be forever CURSED!"
Volstagg's voice rose in volume and emphasis at this last word, causing them all to jump a bit-even Thor, admittedly. Despite his doubts concerning the validity of the tale itself, he would never say that Volstagg was anything less than a superb storyteller. The big man's words had drawn him into the story so much that the final jolt at the end had elicited a reaction from his normally unshakeable self. Not the story itself. Surely Volstagg's voice. Yes, that was it.
Glancing about the room, he took note of the others' responses. Sif seemed, like himself, skeptical, but it did not appear as though she entirely rejected the whole possibility of a doomed spirit haunting the Ugga Ruins. She appeared to be processing the idea, turning it over in her mind. The superstitious Hogun looked completely sold on the prospect-there was no surprise there. His almond-shaped eyes were as wide as Thor had ever seen them. Fandral's face held a similar expression, and Thor imagined that he was thinking about all of the times he had ridden by the Ugga Ruins, sometimes near dark, and consequently having come so close to being cursed. Thor wondered briefly what the worst sort of curse would be for Fandral. Probably something that spoiled his good looks, or possibly his...Thor let that thought trail off, smirking slightly to himself.
But by far the reaction that startled him the most was Loki's. He would not have been surprised at either skepticism or intrigue from his younger brother, but when he glanced to his right he saw that Loki's brow was furrowed with discontent, and his viridian eyes held a guarded mixture of worry and fear. Thor had seen that look many a time through the years, most notably the countless times Loki had crept into his chamber at night when they were younger, following his instinctive need for comfort but his pride not quite allowing him to admit that his nightmares had once again left him frightened. It was the look he used when something had spooked him but he did not wish anyone else to notice. Loki, the most practical of them all, actually believed Volstagg's story.
"An entertaining tale, and a testament to your skills as a storyteller, Volstagg. But surely it is all just a legend?" Thor inquired, keeping his voice light and slightly amused. But Volstagg did not return his smile, and Thor's face fell a bit. "Oh come now, say not that I am the only one who is thoroughly unconvinced of the truthfulness of this...ghost story?" He laughed to try to lighten the mood, but no one laughed with him.
"There is nothing amusing about spirits with unfinished business, Thor," said Hogun solemnly. "They can be very dangerous."
"So can curses." Fandral fingered his mustache nervously. Thor tossed an exasperated expression at him and Fandral threw up his hands. "What? I'm certainly never riding by the Ugga Ruins at night. I mean, who knows what that thing could do?! It could turn me into an old, hunched-back creature with warts on his face, or I could lose all my hair, or..."
"Maybe it will turn you into a bilge snipe," said Loki. He sounded hopeful.
Fandral turned to glare at Loki's mocking countenance and opened his mouth for the comeback- which probably would have been something along the lines of "I hope it does so I can trample you"-but the trickster god raised one ebony eyebrow in an expression that clearly dared him to say something, anything to offend the second prince of Asgard. Fandral shut his mouth.
"So you don't believe in curses then, Loki?" Thor could not hardly have misinterpreted his brother's earlier reaction, could he?
Loki turned away from Fandral to gaze thoughtfully into the fire, its warm glow contrasting with both the chill outside and the coldness of their thoughts. "Maybe not curses as all of you seem to see them," he began, his voice even softer than normal, "but I definitely agree with Hogun. I've read enough books on sorcery to know that angry or restless spirits are not something to be trifled with."
Thor raised an eyebrow. Loki was always reading books on sorcery, in nearly every moment of his spare time. And he was as frequently practicing the spells he learned from them, or trying out new ones. This, however, was the first time Thor had ever heard him speak of spirits. But Loki did look troubled-that much was obvious to his protective elder brother.
Sif spoke suddenly, as if breaking out of a long period of thought. "I don't suppose I can truly believe in it until I see it."
Fandral shot her his signature are-you-completely-mad? look. "Sif, that completely defies the point! By the time you've seen the spirit, it's cursed you!"
Sif did not look particularly phased. "I think I agree with Loki on this. I don't think I believe in curses." As she continued to speak, her voice grew louder and more confident, more characteristic of her manner. "And if there is a spirit who has a problem with us, then let us give it a problem to deal with!"
"That's the spirit, Sif!" Thor was pleased that someone finally seemed to agree with him on at least part of his sentiments. This whole thing was getting to the point of rather ridiculous. "And a very good idea. I say we ride out to the Ugga Ruins and settle this matter once and for all."
"Is that wise, Thor?" Clearly Volstagg did not wish to insult the grandiose schemes of the first prince, but it was obvious that he was incredibly uncomfortable with this idea.
"Perhaps not," Thor admitted with a shrug, "but how else can I prove to my friends, who are soon to be my warriors, that there is nothing to be afraid of?"
"And if there is?" Hogun was very clearly not convinced.
"Then, brave Hogun, we will show it that it would be wise to fear the mighty warriors of Asgard!" Thor had to hand it to himself-one thing he had always been good at was inspiring others to follow where he led. He could see Hogun's reservations receding a little bit, and he looked as though he were softening to the idea of an expedition. Volstagg also seemed to be slowly opening up to the idea-he was always one for proving his courage. They were nervous, yes, but Thor knew they would follow where he led. And Sif had practically thought of the idea herself-clearly she was on board. Now for the other two members of their little group.
"Thor, are you insane?" Fandral the Talkative was not nearly so tactful as Volstagg when it came to his doubts about Thor's ideas. Loki looked a bit jealous, as though Fandral had just stolen the words he planned to say right out of his mouth.
"This is not about my sanity, my friend." Thor clapped a hand to Fandral's shoulder.
"Then what, pray tell, is this about?" Loki looked positively exasperated with his elder brother's mad proposition. This was, perhaps, a historic moment-the whole of the group on the opposite side of the matter while Loki and Fandral actually agreed on something. Thor could not recall an instance of that ever having occurred before. Fleetingly, he wondered how they would react if he pointed that out. But he thought it better to let the moment last.
"This is about proving that our hearts are stronger than our imaginations! We will lay the doubts about the spirit of the Ugga Ruins to rest forever, and test our bravery in the process!" Thor paused his inspirational speech to take in reactions. Sif and Volstagg were smiling. Hogun, had he been one for smiling, probably would have been as well-as it was, he looked inspired, or at least Thor thought so. Fandral looked as though he were resigned to a terrible fate, but resigned all the less. Loki still looked as though his patience were being put to the most grueling of tests, but he generally looked that way any time Thor had an idea. The god of thunder had learned not to let it affect him.
"So it is settled. Tomorrow night we ride for the Ugga Ruins to take on the spirit, once and for all!"