Chapter 8:

A writer, I would fancy myself, if things would be. But take note, I do not write for others – I write for my own amusement, and my brand of storytelling is my own – I only share these worlds that I dream up.

"And ever has it been known that love knows not its own depth until the hour of separation."

Khalil Gibran

Frigga knows the patter of tiny feet anywhere, and looks up from her loom to see her young son. Her surprise may be false, but she can never feign her smile when she sees his bright grin, "Thor! What are you doing here?"

Her son makes a happy noise, and buries his face in her skirts.

"Well, my Queen, if I may interrupt," Haraldr stands at the frame of the arch, Loki in tow, and Frigga waves them in, "the little Prince proclaims to have 'escaped' from his chambers. I thought it prudent to leave him in his mother's care while I seek for the guards responsible."

He cuts an impressive figure, even devoid of the imperial armour; stark black fabrics against the golden walls. She can never tell if he is merely jesting in such settings, even if there is nothing but familiarity and family between these walls, so she stops him regardless of his true stance and bids him to sit while the children attempt to wrestle Dáinn to the floor, "Such business can wait, for the guards will hardly run from their sworn honour – here is a sanctuary for my handmaidens, and it will be respected."

He sits down meekly, betraying his straight-faced jest, and begins to pluck at strands of seiðr from the air to add to her stock of fibres. The threads that he pulls are thin yet strong, and Frigga looks forward to the fineness of the fabric that will be woven. It is startlingly different to have the Shadow General of Asgard to do such a task, but then again, she has known Haraldr long before his titles of power and grandeur.

Their idle chatter over work adjourns when the rest of her handmaidens come into her halls, bearing smiles and hopes for the latest marvels and more that Asgard's diplomat brings to her halls.

Thor is sprawled onto Dáinn's back, and Loki laughs, trying to pull away the large head with a firm grip on antlers as the stag attacks his cheek with a strong tongue. The ticklish sensation stops when the Queen's ladies stream into the hall. Loki follows them, Thor opting to stay with Dáinn at the far corner of the hall, and soon most of them are cloistered around his father.

Today, he presents something called 'si'. The word is in a language that Loki has never heard before, and then his father calls it by another word: silk. Bolts of liquid fabric are pulled from thin air, and Loki cannot wait to master the art of storing items in seiðr .

It shimmers like light on liquid, cool on his fingertips, but Loki can feel no whispers of seiðr from the woven fabrics save for the residual storage magic. The swathes of fabric come in vibrant colours, and the ladies step forward eagerly. Where it comes from, or how it is made, his father does not say – only mentioning that he hopes for the cities of Svartálfar to begin their production as soon as possible, and Loki notes the interest in their expressions - there is no such cloth in the markets of Asgard.

The cloth exchanges hands, and in return, his father receives whispered sentences, pieces of parchment and handmade things. It is the way of things, a particular sort of ritual that passes each time that his father returns from his ventures out of Asgard. He shares the first of any commodities that the handmaidens of Frigga will favour, and tells them of tales of far beyond Asgard to feed their curiosities. They return the favour with handmade things and let him listen to the murmurs of the Court.

Loki returns to his father's familiar and the young prince when the exchange session ends – the work of the adults and their play with the stag is eventually adjourned for a grand celebratory feast in honour of his father's success in the recent negotiations, something that his father detests.

The feasting hall is bright with the torches mounted from every available bracket, and Loki watches in wonder as the many tables are filled with people, chattering excitedly as the servants ply the tables with platters of food and trays of drink. It is his first ever feast, but he is not afraid; he is safe in his father's arms.

The first time that Loki sees his father fight, there is nothing less than absolute awe and the swelling pride in his chest. Each clash of blade upon blade brings the singing of vibrating metal, and his heart jumps with each close call of Hallvarðr's blade. A blade eventually makes its way to the neck of the Weapons Master, and Loki thinks his father a hero among warriors for it. It is only later on that he discovers from Hallvarðr that the near-misses are merely calculated dodges by his father, and then there are no words to describe that startling revelation.

That first experience is a long time past, but Loki's emotions from that time have not faded in the least.

Neither Loki nor his father can see the glaive aimed for his father's head until it is nearly too late, but his father senses it somehow and parries, as Loki watches from the edge of the training hall. The sound of blades striking wood crosses the hall, solely punctuated by heavy footsteps and panting breaths.

"That was a good attempt," his father says to the one with the glaive – it is either Sigmarr or Volstagg, but with the padded armour and helmet, Loki cannot be sure.

"But you are fighting as a team of five. Had I the inclination to return the blows with my blade, I would be fighting two men by now. You cannot even hope to bring down a single new-born linnormr this way."

He watches as his father twirls the staff one-handed, and hears the hiss of the men as they drop their weapons from the shock of being struck on their knuckles, "And now, without weapons, you have been slayed by the creature that you sought to slay."

The practice continues, another batch facing his father, who is barehanded this time.

There is an unspoken question in his son's eyes, and Harry smiles at the restraint of his son, "What questions do you have now, dear heart?"

There is a flash of surprise in Loki's eyes at his father's perceptiveness, and then his son blurts out, "I want to learn how to fight, father."

There is a stab of fear that pierces his heart at the determination in Loki's eyes, but Harry stamps it down and smothers it. There is only so long a time that Loki can seek shelter under his blanket protection, and Asgard is hardly a Realm known for its peace and serenity. It is the symbol of absolute power – upheld only by blood and war and violence. His son cannot grow up to be as naive as most of Asgard are.

Harry agrees, and the evening sun finds them standing in one of his rooms later that day, cleared of all clutter. It is a delicate subject to begin, especially for a young child, and Harry waits until he has his son's full attention, "I will expect you to do as I tell you. I will treat you as I do the soldiers – push them till they know their limits – and you have seen them in training before. No soldiers in Asgard start this early, and you are no soldier, because I am not one."

His father's voice has taken on that quality – the one that makes the entirety of the guards stand at attention – and Loki feels for a moment like he is something to be proud of, "You will never be a mere soldier of Asgard. You will not learn how to fight; you will learn how to defend... and how to defeat."

Loki starts that very day that he voices his request; bare-handed stances that he has seen earlier that day. He learns how to stand firmly, how to fall, how to get up. He also learns other things, like how to make a man as tall as his father fall to the ground with only his legs and a sturdy push. There are so many things, and by the time they end, they barely clean up in time for dinner in the Royal Hall.

Loki smiles when his father apologises to the Queen for their almost-lateness, and feels the brush of his father's hand on his hair.

It is yet another secret that he has with his father.

Thunderstorms roil in the distance when Harry manages to tear himself from his work of researching seiðr from books in the Royal Library and the other Realms, and then reconciling them with his knowledge.

There is science,

there is magic,

and then there is seiðr,

and the ever-changing laws of truth of the universe.

It all seems impossible; how the universe contorts itself and Harry realises that his mind is simply not equipped to handle understanding it in its entirety. Death does understand it, and that is the reason why she is still unable to fully communicate with him with regards to the workings of the vast fabric of the universe.

The thunderstorm overhead is unleashing its unhampered fury when when Harry finally reaches his bedchambers. It is no surprise to see Prince Thor and Loki huddled together in his bed waiting for him right beside his stag; the storm sounds absolutely frightful. The two jump when the light shoots into the room, followed instantly by the monstrous cracks of thunder.

And now that he is here, he knows the reason for the growing intensity of the storm - his young godson is unconsciously fuelling the storm for every thunderous snap. It is the working of his mother's heritage, Harry thinks, and sends out a few charms to the window to muffle the sound instead of silencing it completely, because it will be good for them to get used to it, and for the young Prince to sleep in his own bed. He announces his presence to them, and then keeps them in a light hearted conversation in a bid to keep their thoughts off the 'monsters' that hunt in the clouds and rain overhead.

"I hunted for a monstrous beast in the dark Svartálfarian caverns," Thor recounts, bravado in his voice, which Harry thinks it to be an imagined jaunt through the kitchen's vast cellars, "and then I slew it, despite its vicious claws and snapping teeth."

Loki agrees with the Prince and Harry just chuckles when he joins them in bed, ablutions done. They have been excited by their own retelling of hide and seek with his familiar, who bellows his complaints through the mind-link at being trussed up like a common boar. They request a story from him - Thor plain out begging, and his son with those irresistible puppy dog eyes even in the semi darkness.

He thinks for a moment – because there are many stories that he knows, but all of them are too full of political treacheries for the children to understand.

He feigns, "I have no stories of swords and glory that you have not heard in the great feasts, all I have heard of are the stories from the Warriors of Asgard," They stop mid-groan when the lightning illuminates his wicked grin, "but I do know of one that few on Asgard have heard of."

"Now, we have need of names for our characters," Father proclaims with a wan smile, something that Loki has rarely seen on his father's face. He battles with the Prince for the right to grant the hero a name, but in the end they have chosen the same name, 'Hǫðskuldr' (hero). The other boy Thor names 'Tryggr' (trustworthy), and Loki names the young maiden 'Sigyn' (new victory).

The story starts off like no other – Hǫðskuldr is not like the brave men that all Asgardian tales start off with – the hero of the story is weak and a mere Midgardian. That is also what Hǫðskuldr thinks, until the day that he winds up in the acquaintance of a giant.

He learns of his people, and learns of his parents, long dead as victims of a savage war. Loki closes his eyes to imagine, as his father's beguiling voice takes him into the bustle of the marketplace as Hǫðskuldr and his Jötun friend prepare for their journey to the far reaches of Yggdrasil, places where common folk have never seen the likes of before.

The story is too long to be told in a single sitting, and Loki feels sleep pulling at his eyelids as his father continues. He dreams of a never-ending line of red carriages that night, and Loki thinks that there must be a monstrous horse at the helm of it all – the striking of its powerful hooves thundering through the land.

Harry is barely through the Sorting ceremony, when he realises that both boys are asleep. He would have lain down beside them, were it not for the fact that the young son of Asgard is a strong sleep-kicker.

He conjures a bed for himself and his son, setting Loki on it before tucking Thor into the bed. Harry slips onto the bed, pulling Loki until the small boy fits under his chin, and closes his eyes. He cannot sleep yet, due to the dredging of his memories. They are fuzzy, and have been so for too long.

He continues the story in his mind, turning it over and over until it saps his brain of thoughts. The story does not end with the boy having turned into a man, or having saved the world. But for them, the story will end there.

What Harry does not plan to tell in this story to the boys is how the wars afterward ravage the lands. How Hǫðskuldr's people are nearly decimated by the secrets of secrets – the ending they will never know - he can never tell them because he has not witnessed it - he had left before it could happen.

He watches the shadows pass along with the light rain, chased away by the soft light of the dawn breaking.

Thor is six when he learns that he has to take lessons from the scribes of the Court. They are boring men, who do naught but scribble on paper with ink when Father holds court with other boring men. He stares at his father, who has just made the statement while the House of Odin starts the breaking of their fast. His godfather is away once again, this time negotiating with the Dvergar for something.

"I do not wish to learn," he says, and feels the rest of the activity in the room slow to a halt, as it is wont to do when he tightens his chest to make the words hard and strong.

But his father is hardly fearful of him as the guards and servants are, "You will learn to read and write, no matter what you do or say, Thor. There will be lessons, and you will attend them. It will be indispensable when you are King, and will have the need to know about the going-ons of the Nine."

"Why would I need to learn," he says again, amending his sentence as his father's mouth curls downward, "when Loki can already do so for me?"

The attention of the entire table veers to Loki, who retracts his hand, previously set in a reach for his goblet of juice.

"Is this true, Haraldrson?" his father asks, voice hard in a way that makes Thor wince. He had not meant to get Loki in trouble; but the way his father looks at Loki is something that Thor is hesitant to redirect to himself.

Dáinn gives a soft huff at this moment, and all of a sudden Loki relaxes to give a slight nod. He then says something that Thor has heard his godfather say one or twice, "At your express wishes, Allfather."

Breakfast continues with the Allfather's nod, and Thor is left confused.

"Haraldr Hjortrson."

Harry turns to regard the voice, and then smiles, "The sons of Ivaldi, come to greet me in the flesh? An honour indeed."

Brokkr's face cracks into a smile, "Mayhap the bestowment of such honour lead to merry celebration?"

"If my reserves are not drained dry in your recompense," Harry replies without a beat, only to see Eitri's face shift, "but it seems that this is no matter of my commissions."

It is a full hour before Harry gets the extent of their problem, "You… wish for me to rid the Dvergar of this… fiend," they nod, and then he continues, "To what end then? There are many ways that I could end this, but few that the laws of your folk would agree with."

He watches as their faces twist at the reminder of his reputation. The Dvergar are a race who have honed their crafts of metalworking, from simple trinkets and sharp blades to marvels of master-crafts, and it is rightfully so that they have been humbled by the carnage that lies under their repute.

And so he listens to the tales that they carry in their heavy hearts.

Loki feels Dáinn's rumble of approval as the stiff brush passes through the thick coat. The repetitive work is soothing to the both of them – Father has yet to return as expected from his trip to the lands of the Dvergar, and the young Prince is under the tutelage of the scribes of the Court. It is not the first time that his return has been delayed, but it is not an often occurrence either; so the stables are the best choice to bide his time until then – any guard that his father sends back will have his horse tended to in the stables.

His favourite horses are getting their fill of treats when the stable hands bring in five horses, and Loki feels his heart sink at the familiarity of the newcomers. A dapple grey mare, a blood bay, two roans and one buckskin. All perfect matches of the horses that the guards accompanying his father had ridden out with.

And then the sixth horse comes into the stables, dark as night. Eylir.

Loki's heart feels like it has fallen through the floor itself, because Dáinn knows when his master has returned to Asgard, and his father has not returned. There is a horrible terrible fear that clutches tightly at Loki's chest, as he clings on to the giant stag. They thunder down the hallways just in time to see Queen exiting her halls.

Frigga looks upon Loki, and feels a sharp ache in her heart for the young boy. She cannot assure him that his father is fine, because she has not seen that Haraldr is fine. There is a shroud of darkly coloured seiðr over the lands that he has ventured to.

His hand clutches the cloth of her skirts, and together they walk into the Allfather's halls.

Niðavellir is a rocky mountainous expanse, but its surfaces are well decorated by delicate hands and coveted tools, carved out by dwarves who brave the threat of the twin orange suns, the petrifying light that scours the surface. But Harry has long trekked past the borders of the Dvergar, where the carvings – some immortalized along with their petrified creators – have long dwindled in number.

Skornheim is nothing but a wasteland – the landscape is nothing but ash-covered boulders, and what little that is not made of dust and sand are the withered remains of thorny plants. One sun crawls, directly overhead, while the other seems to move at an oscillating pace, unpredictable. It is no wonder that the Dvergar stay in their caves.

He has made the equivalent of a two-day journey in four hours by his judgement, and Harry suspects that there will be a ways more before he will be able to find the source of the fear that plagues even the faraway lands.

It has been a good choice to send his men back before him.

Loki stands at the furthest corner of the halls, nearly behind one of the guards on the lowest steps of the throne. He is not usually permitted to be privy to the Court's matters, but the Queen has made it an exception – it concerns his father.

Five of his father's guard plod into formation before the King, and they kneel in reverence to the monarch of Asgard. Loki takes solace in the fact that they seem unharmed and well; merely tired from long travel. His stomach still turns at the other few possibilities and the hundreds of possible reasons.

He stays his tongue when the warriors move through the formalities of greeting the Allfather, telling himself that it is a sign that his father is well. A sign that his father still remains in the hospitality of the Dvergar.

The appointed leader of the guard starts to speak, and Loki focuses his every word, "My King, I bear grave news from the Realm Niðavellir," he feels his stomach bottom out at the first sentence.

Hunger gnaws at his stomach. He must be quick to find food; very soon the second sun will follow after the first, and there will be little light to hunt by. His feet are afforded movement by sheer will, and even that reserve is fading fast.

And then he smells it. His stomach works itself into frenzied spasms, even as he crouches down to creep toward the source. He knows the rewards that patience will bring, and waits for the best possible moment. He sees the window of opportunity and pounces on the lone stranger seated on the flat rock, flashing blade in swift trajectory to the man's throat.

There is a brief pang of despair as Hogun slashes his knife and expects the give of flesh under the blade – he has truly fallen far.

The fight is quick and decisive, and Harry looks down at the man – no, not quite a man yet, a child – whom he has disarmed. The boy heaves breathlessly under the submission hold that Harry has him in, and he takes the opportunity to study the gaunt cheeks and greasy hair of the young adult. There are no weapons aside from the single gleaming blade lying on the ground a far bit of distance away, and Harry magicks it into his safekeeping for the time being.

He releases his knee from the boy's back, and slowly releases his hold on the arm.

The boy jumps back, dark eyes nearly eclipsed by the full-blown pupil, and the sight of it reminds him of the half-feral werewolf children of long ago. Harry pushes the packed meal of warm meat and drink from the Dvergar forward. It is not the last of his food, but it is the last of the perishables that he carries on his person.

"Eat. And then we shall talk," is what the man says, the delicacy of the spoken words is something that Hogun has heard once upon a time.

There is grit on his hands, and the sand from them grinds against his teeth as he grabs the food by fistfuls. The meat is lukewarm but tastes divine, and Hogun does not care if the meat is laced with poison – at least he will die a sated man despite the fact that he has failed the vengeance of his kin upon Mogul.

He pauses, feeling pangs of guilt towards his people, and sets his determination once again. He feels the gaze of emerald regard him, and resumes his brazen consumption of the food. He will need to renew his strength, and seek out the Mystic Mountains to exact the punishment that the Ruler of Zanadu deserves.

He washes down the remnants of the meal with the bitter drink, and then regards the emerald gaze. He has nothing much to lose at this point to a sheer stranger who has fed and watered him in this near lifeless expanse of land – all that sustains him are the thoughts of vengeance and blood, and he knows that there is nothing left to live for beyond that paper-thin excuse. He has long accepted the deaths of his family and brothers-in-arms, and he might as well leave the memories of his people with someone else before he perishes far away from the lands of where he was born.

He cannot look for long at those eyes that seem to pierce everything, so Hogun starts the narrative of his homeland and its people with his inelegant grasp of the Ӕsir dialect.

The land is wide and vast, and Hogun peers out from behind his brother's back at the spread of the land. His brother warns him against leaning too far out, and Hogun knows why – his brother had once leaned out too far, and fallen from horseback. The bone had been broken and reset, and what remains of the fracture is a bump where the bones have slightly overlapped.

"The grass has been shorn short by our animals – we will have to leave soon for the summer pastures," is what his brother says. The sentence is cut short, and Hogun spots the reason for it.

Dusk slowly approaches, but a section of the horizon is beginning to be shrouded in black smoke, the bottom of the plume highlighted by flickering red.

The pastures where their family had settled on is on fire – the start of a fiery nightmare that greedily swallows every joy that Hogun has known.

There is a bout of silence when the ragged voice finishes its last syllable.

It is the same story that Harry has heard, but it is not one passed on by word of mouth and empathetic hearts. It is a story, straight from the damaged throat of a survivor. He tilts his head at the young man who calls himself Hogun with nothing more attached behind the given name, and returns the blade with a flourish of seiðr that looks more like a sleight of hand to observers.

"Turn back. Return to your homelands. Mystic Mountain is no place for whelps to dream about glorious revenge."

The knife is a familiar weight in his hands, and Hogun snarls at Hjortrson's words, "And you know better then? I have nothing to return to. Those who stayed were slain for sport, and those who ran were chased and hunted like wild game. The lands lie dead, stinking of rot, and bones litter the surface. My father and uncles and brothers have perished in this unforgiving land for revenge."

Verdant eyes turn onto him, and Hogun drowns in the endless green and the cold hard truth in the man's face, "The dead have no need for vengeance, and those left behind are unable to lay down anything but their lives seeking blood to equal that that has been spilt. In the end, all that is left will be roiling hate and oceans of blood. When Mogul is dead, what will you live for then? Will you blindly follow those who have departed before you then, instead of living your life for them?"

The rage stops dead in its tracks, and Hogun thinks that he feels true despair for the first time, now that he has heard the denials of the deepest corners of his mind out loud from another stranger.

He truly has nothing to live for.

Frigga finds him huddled on one of the sills of the large palace windows, where the stars begin to make themselves known on the growing inkiness of the sky, accentuating the glow of the Asbrú.

"Dinner will begin shortly, little one," her voice is soft and comforting, but all young Loki wants is his father.

"I'm not hungry," a pause, and then he adds an afterthought, "my Queen."

The midnight curls of his hair are soft under her fingers, and Frigga feels a pang in her heart when he leans into her touch.

Well, this chapter is dedicated to the ones who've stayed on and written words of encouragement. You've been awesome.

Originally planned to post this prewritten chapter earlier for the 1-year (storyboard) marker, but things seldom turn out as planned. Very little changes to the original content in this arc, probably because it was still very fresh when I decided to do the rework.

As the saying goes, "I'll see you when I see you."



P.S.: Happy holidays to all - I hope you spend time with family and loved ones having fun.