Of Pests and Summer Evenings
by Sauron Gorthaur
"Loki!" he heard Sigyn shout from their cottage.
He was lying on his stomach, watching a large, black beetle that was attempting to crawl across an open patch of dirt, but he was teasing it with a stick he'd found, prodding it back every time it almost reached its destination. Dropping the stick and allowing the insect to finally escape, he rolled up onto his knees. "Coming, my love," he called, dusting off the front of his tunic; Sigyn always rolled her eyes and sighed meaningfully at him when he went into the cottage coated in dust, with river mud on his shoes, or stray bits of leaves, feathers, or other relics from his romps in the woods stuck in his hair. Resisting the urge to raid a bird's nest that caught his eye on the way back, he meandered to the cottage door and poked his head in.
Sigyn was standing at the hearth, attempting to stir whatever was inside the small black cauldron resting above the flames while balancing their howling younger son, one-year-old Vali, on one hip while the older boy, five-year-old Nari, tugged on her skirt, trying to show her the designs he'd drawn all over his arms and legs with a charcoal stick he'd found. A fog of smoke drifted among the cottage rafters, and the already humid air of the late summer afternoon was even hotter inside from the fire, smoke, and warm bodies.
"Yes, my flower?" Loki asked, eyeing the scene warily.
Sigyn twisted around to glare at him, keeping one hand on her ladle and using the other hand to pry Vali's fist away from the handful of her dark yellow hair that he had begun to violently yank. There was a grim, forced smile plastered across her face and a glint in her eyes that would have made even Odin wince. She managed somehow to extricate her hair from Vali, pulled her skirt out of Nari's filthy hands, and turned the older boy towards his father. "Nari," she said, her voice matching her forbidding expression, "you're going to go play with your father now."
She leveled a glare at her husband. "Darling," she said pointedly, "you're going to take Nari for a nice walk." She lifted the ladle and pointed it at him. "And for heaven's sake, don't teach him to do anything bad."
"Of course not, love," Loki answered, giving her his best charmingly innocent smile, and for once, actually meaning it. The last time he'd taken care of Nari, he'd taught his son how to catch flies and pull their wings off without squishing them. Nari had shown off his new skill to his mother, and Loki had received a very thorough "talking to" later that evening, a conversation that ended with him sleeping on the ground outside that night.
Nari halted in front of him, his hands behind his back, gazing expectantly up at him. The boy had a large smudge of charcoal on his right cheek, and the front of his tunic was stained with some type of food that hadn't made it to his mouth. Loki scrutinized his offspring dubiously.
"Come on, you," he said, putting a hand on Nari's back and steering him out the door. "We're going to find something for you to do."
Nari trotted cheerfully after him as Loki headed for the woods before Sigyn could decide that she wanted him to take Vali, too. He liked the woods. Whenever he wanted, he had a home back with the Æsir, closer to his blood-brother's hall, but he preferred the cottage in the woods where he was free to wander the countryside. It also made an excellent retreat whenever he'd pulled a prank that was not particularly well-received.
However, he preferred being able to roam his woods alone. Nari chattered at his side, telling him every thought that entered his young brain and stopping frequently to tug a leaf off a tree, smell a flower, or catch a butterfly. On one of his usual treks through the forest, Loki would have behaved similarly, going wherever his feet and five senses led him, examining whatever caught his interest at the moment, and drifting from the main paths, but now he found almost all his attention directed toward not losing track of his boisterous son. He collared Nari as the boy started to climb a tree to chase a squirrel, his quick mind trying to formulate a plan that would keep Nari occupied and simultaneously not fall into Sigyn's categories of "unsafe" or "bad." He felt sweat trickling down the back of his neck from the warm evening and the workout he was receiving and decided on the option that sounded most pleasant to him.
"Why don't we go take a look at the river, eh? Do you want to skip some stones?"
His attention successfully diverted from the squirrel, Nari bounced beside his father, curling his small, grimy fingers around Loki's hand. "What are we eating for supper, Daddy? Will you catch a fish at the river? I like eating fish."
Loki had to concentrate to keep his steps small and even to allow Nari to keep up with him, rather than taking his usual quick, airy strides. "Well, we'll have to see. I don't know what your mother has planned for dinner already."
"Mommy will cook the fish that we catch," Nari replied confidently. His attention was sidetracked abruptly by a snake slithering across their path. The boy pounced at it, missed, then began to scramble into the foliage to chase it.
Loki dragged him out. "Come back here, you little pest. And don't chase snakes – you don't know which ones might bite you."
As they walked on, Nari was quiet a few moments. Then, "Daddy?"
"What's a pest? Mommy always says I'm a little pest."
Loki looked down at the bobbing blonde top of his son's head, the tiniest hint of a smirk turning up the corner of his mouth. "It means that you are a wonderful young man, Nari," he said in a serious tone.
Nari looked up at him and beamed. "Someday, I'll be just like you then!"
Loki frowned. "What makes you say that?"
Nari's large blue eyes were completely guileless. "Because Mommy says you're a big pest!"
Loki's frown deepened a little more. "She said that?"
Nari nodded emphatically.
Loki turned his head back around to watch where he was going as he mused on this piece of information. Not that it wasn't true, but it seemed a little unfair of Sigyn to go saying it to their sons while he wasn't around.
They had walked about a minute in silence, something that in and of itself should have alerted Loki to the fact that the gears in his son's head were turning, when Nari spoke again. "Daddy?"
"Then why did Mommy call me a little pest when I woke Vali up from his nap?"
Loki stopped walking and stared up into an ash tree to the right of their path, blowing out his cheeks as he sought an answer that wouldn't get him into trouble. He cleared his throat. "Ehmm, well, by calling you a pest, she was just reminding you of what a charming little boy you are and that charming little boys don't wake their brothers up from naps."
He glanced at Nari out of the corner of his eye to see if this explanation would be accepted. The boy was nodding his head slowly. He looked up at Loki, a pensive frown on his face. "But Vali wakes me up all the time," he said at last.
Loki winked. "But your mother doesn't call Vali a little pest, now does she?"
Nari's pout slowly transformed into a grin. "I'm a much better pest than Vali, amn't I, Daddy?"
"Astoundingly better," Loki agreed.
Nari looked for a moment like he was going to say something else, but the sudden flash of sunlight on water caught his attention. With a delighted squeal, he made a rush for the river that was now visible through the thinning ashes, oaks, and willows. In the middle of the dry, hot summer, the water was low enough that in many places the larger rocks were sticking out and the pebbled bottom was clearly visible. Loki allowed Nari to dash into the knee-deep water, though he shadowed him closely. Unfortunately, it was only after Nari was splashing in the shallows that Loki realized he probably should have made Nari take his shoes off first. He sighed; Sigyn would certainly have something to say about that when they got back. But he quickly forgot the problem as a splash of water caught him right in the face.
He dashed the water out of his eyes, spluttering slightly, and caught the sound of his son's delighted and decidedly mischievous giggles.
A smirk spread across Loki's face. Nari was definitely his father's son.
However, he was still only his father's son. And no one, not even the son, bested the god of Mischief.
Pleased that he had caught his wily father unawares, Nari had pranced out into the slightly deeper water, searching for a patch of nice, sticky bottom mud to fling next. With practiced ease, Loki took in the surrounding scene, making note of advantages and disadvantages in a glance before gliding into action. A fallen log lay half-submerged in the river, its splayed top disappearing into the water right behind Nari, causing the current to be almost non-existent at that point.
Light and quick as a wind-blown leaf, Loki darted down the log soundlessly. As he reached the end, Nari looked up and back at the bank where his father had been mere seconds ago. A small frown crossed his face and he began to turn, searching for the vanished Trickster, but Loki had already slipped into the water behind him.
A shrill shriek burst from Nari as he felt his legs pulled out from under him suddenly. Arms flailing in a vain attempt to stay upright, he face-planted into the still water.
Loki immediately hauled his dripping son back up before he could swallow any water. Nari's hair had turned a dirty straw color with the wetness and the curly locks were plastered onto his head. However, the charcoal mess was gone as well, thankfully.
Loki gave him a long look with one eyebrow raised, and finally Nari's head drooped in a silent acknowledgement that Loki had won.
However, a moment later, Nari's thoughts had moved on. He squirmed excitedly in Loki's grip, still staring down into the water. "Fish! Fish! I see a fish. I'm going to catch it for supper!"
For a while then, Nari tried to catch the small fish that darted amongst the shallows, but his awkward, blundering feet scared them away before he could get close enough to reach them. The boy started getting frustrated, and after another failed attempt, he looked at his father, a pout spreading across his face as his lower lip trembled. "Daddy, they all swim away."
Loki picked him up by the waist and set him down on one of the protruding rocks. "Well, wouldn't you run away if someone was trying to catch you for dinner? You stand there and watch the god of nimble hands and light feet show you how it's done."
He glanced around and saw a large flat stone further out in the water. On the lea, he could see the small disturbances that he knew were the fish taking shelter and resting from the current. Using the smaller protruding rocks as stepping stones, he lightly approached the stone and slipped onto it without making a sound. As he'd guessed, there were numerous fish gathered in the shadow of the rock, most nibbling at the bits of algae and growth. Loki crouched, keeping his movements fluid and slow, and slipped his hand into the water with barely a ripple.
Even so, some of the fish retreated, sliding down into the pebbles, but unperturbed, Loki kept slowly and steadily moving his hand down until he could feel his fingers brushing the stream bed. Letting his knuckles rest on the pebbles, he curled his fingers and waited.
Behind him, he heard Nari take in a breath as if about to say something, but without looking at him, Loki held up his other hand, index finger raised at Nari in an indication that the boy should wait. And just then, Loki felt the slight tickle and cool brush of a fish against his fingers.
With the speed and nimbleness of a thief, Loki closed his hand, trapping the unsuspecting fish. He took hold of its tail and pulled his hand from the cold water, displaying his trophy, which flapped awkwardly in the air. Nari crowed in delight and clapped his hands at his father's success.
Loki took it over to him and let him stroke the slimy wet body, though Nari jerked his hand away every time the fish wriggled in a vain attempt to escape. Finished, Nari looked up at Loki, admiration clear in the boy's eyes. "You must be the best fish-catcher in the world! Is it good to eat?"
Loki held up his catch and watched its small mouth gape open and close as it tried vainly to breathe. "I doubt there's enough meat on this fellow to make a mouthful. It knows we're the winners, Nari, and we can outsmart it and its little friends any day. I think we can afford to let this one go for now."
Nari leaned close to watch as Loki submerged both hand and fish then released it. The fish streaked away, doubtlessly terrified. Loki felt his lips twitch in satisfaction.
"But what if it tells its friends about us?" Nari asked.
Loki lifted Nari again and set him down on the bank before returning to dry ground himself. "Well, we'll just have to figure out new ways to outsmart them then, won't we? It wouldn't be any fun if we had to do it the exact same way each time."
The air was cooling as the sun began to disappear behind the distant mountains. Loki sat down with his back to an elder tree, deciding to wait until their clothing dried before returning to the cottage. Apparently overcome by weariness after his adventures, Nari came and curled up in his lap, tucking his damp head under his father's chin, resting his cheek on Loki's shoulder, and slipping his arms around him. He yawned. "Can we do this again tomorrow, Daddy?"
A small but genuine smile quirked the corners of Loki's scarred lips. "I'm sure your mother wouldn't mind that in the least bit."
Nari yawned again. "I'll catch a fish just like you did today."
The child was silent for a few minutes, and Loki put his arms around him and stretched out his own legs. His shoes were almost dry and he figured it was probably time to head back soon. Sigyn would have dinner ready. He felt peaceful though and comfortable, and his usual urge to move was absent. He stifled a yawn himself.
He felt Nari's short arms squeeze around his waist. "When I grow up, I hope I'm as big a pest as you," Nari said.
Loki ruffled his son's hair and leaned his own head back against the elder trunk, grinning. "I'm sure you will be, Nari."
Fifteen minutes later, when Sigyn arrived at the bank, looking for them, she found her older son curled in her husband's arms, both of them sound asleep. She shook her head but couldn't quite keep the smile from crossing her face. Quietly, so as not to wake them, she slipped beside them and crouched down. She gently stroked Nari's hair, brushing back a stray strand that had fallen across his face and into his open mouth, then kissed Loki's forehead. Who knew what they had been up to.
She slipped away and left them to sleep.