Sif and Thor walked together towards the palace, at the back of the line of fallen warriors being returned. In total count three hundred and two. Many were fine men that had served Odin long.
"What a captain I am," Thor murmured bitterly, "that these men who survived hundreds of battles with my father perish under my command."
"Hundreds more died under your father's command, including his brother," Sif replied. "We do not need a leader who doubts his ability to defend and protect, Thor."
"Then perhaps I should not lead," Thor snapped bitterly, "for that is all I have been doing of late!"
Sif was taken aback at his vehemence. "Thor, you're doing the best you can."
"Am I?" he retorted. "Then why can I not find a way to end this conflict?"
"Wars do not end quickly once begun."
The thunder god shook his head. "I need to be alone. I'll see you at the council later." He stalked away.
He almost wished that Sif would follow him, but she didn't. I need to talk with Loki, he thought suddenly. But I have no way without going to Jotunheim, and I am needed here. There are those who can, though. Mother.
With a sigh, he turned back to the road taking him to the palace. He had not gone far before he saw Balder running to greet him. The expression on Balder's face surprised him; his little brother was beaming. What could he possibly find at this time to smile about?
"Thor!" he cried, catching up to the thunder god. "Thor, excellent news!"
"The war has been stilled?" Thor asked bitterly.
Balder's expression faltered. "We received news from Loki."
"The Jotünns will be sending troops?" Thor's heart lifted.
Balder shook his head. "No," he said, much subdued. "Angrboda had given birth."
A broad grin spread across Thor's face. Life goes on amid war. "Boy or girl? And how fares Angrboda?"
"A girl. Both mother and daughter are well. The baby was smaller than expected but has already shown signs of shape shifting. So far she's favouring her father's look, but her hair is red. Not fire like Angrboda's, but apparently really, really red."
Thor smiled sadly. "I don't imagine we'll see our little niece soon."
Balder head bowed. "I hate this, Thor. All this death and killing..."
Thor put his arm around Balder. "I hate it, too. Listen, if you don't want to be involved, if you'd rather remain in Asgard with Nanna and Mother... no-one would think less of you. I for one would be relieved to know you're safe."
Balder swallowed. "That is tempting-"
No! I forbid it, ssslave! You need to be here.
Balder broke eye contact with Thor as Set's voice sounded in his mind. He cleared his throat, and started again. "Remaining at home is tempting, but all other men are fighting for Asgard. I can do no less."
Thor nodded once, at the same time proud of his brother's courage and worried for his safety in the future. "Then I will not ask again. Your skills are far more impressive than I ever thought, given our sparring sessions."
"Those were in jest. This is in earnest," Balder replied stiffly. "And I had never killed a man until I stabbed Austmadr in the back. Perhaps bloodshed was what I needed."
"Don't think that way, Balder. No-one blames you for your actions. He killed our father."
"I blame me."
"You shouldn't." Thor's voice was serious. "Austmadr was a traitor. If you had not struck at him, who knows what he might have done to you? And even setting that aside, he would almost certainly have been put to death for his crime."
"Murdering him didn't help Father, though. I have nightmares, sometimes, about that night. Father lies there, unmoving. I'm holding Austmadr, and impaling him, and Father speaks to me as Austmadr dies, saying I could have saved him if I hadn't killed the Norn." Silent tears fell down Balder's face. "What if he was right?"
"Father's wounds were fatal. Even if Eir had been there the moment Austmadr struck, nothing could have saved him. Balder, look at me." Thor gazed seriously into his brother's eyes. Grief had darkened them from their once-cornflower blue to almost black. "Nothing we could have done would have changed Father's fate. You must believe that."
Balder looked away. If I hadn't given in to Set-
I would have found another way, and made your father sssuffer for your disssobedience.
Don't try to make me feel better, monster!
I merely ssstate factsss.
"Balder?" Thor's voice was etched with concern. "What's wrong?"
"Nothing. Everything. Loki and Angrboda are parents, Thor, but is their child ever going to know peace?"
"Of course she will. We will ensure it. When the sons of Odin stand together, nothing can stop us." Thor gave him a comforting smile. "Will you come with me to see Mother? I need to ask a favour of her."
Balder nodded once, and then shook his head as Set hissed in displeasure. "I promised Nanna that I would eat with her. She's probably waiting for me."
"Then let's at least walk to the palace together," Thor suggested.
"I actually have to talk to Heimdall first."
Thor blinked. "Shall I accompany you to the Bifrost then?"
"No... go and see Mother, I'll join you later." Balder muttered, walking away.
Thor frowned after him, but Balder was moving quickly, and he really did need to see Frigga.
"Maybe I am too protective of Balder, it's not as if he's a child." He turned, half expecting Sif to be near him. It surprised Thor slightly before he remembered that she and he had already parted ways. Shrugging, he went inside, making a note to talk to Balder again when he had a chance. His youngest brother's behaviour was... odd, to say the least. He'd mention it to Frigga at the very least, he resolved.
Meanwhile, Balder made his away to the Observatory, where Heimdall stood stoically waiting for him.
Remain sssilent and jussst let me ssspeak. Set cautioned the young prince.
As if you're giving me any other option! Balder complied nonetheless, allowing the serpent to take control of his mouth.
"How fares our lovely Gullveig?" Set sounded so guileless! Balder, trapped inside his lost mind, felt ill.
"Her prisons are nearly full with Karnilla's army and allies. Not long now, and there will be enough of them for Gullveig to overthrow those in her realm loyal to Asgard, and declare her loyalty to Karnilla. Your plan is going forth smoothly. No-one suspects a thing."
Set smiled with Balder's lips. "Good. And Jotunheim?"
"Loki and Angrboda have no soldiers to aid Asgard with and they have little food to spare, but your brother's dragon has found a vein of iron ore, and they are making plans to supply Asgard with weapons and armour, though they can spare little else."
"And the child?"
"Much like her father."
"Hmmm. An attack on Jotunheim is warranted. But I do not want the heir to the throne harmed... Perhaps if mother and child are sent here for their protection..." He nodded, satisfied. "I will send word to them, extending an invitation to mother and child. It will appear as a gesture of goodwill, to ensure that they, at least, have plenty of food. And then I will make sure that Surtur targets Jotunheim next. That will end the threat of Loki Atumson with little difficulty."
"Do you think he will send his wife here without him?" Heimdall questioned.
Set frowned slightly. "He is her husband, but she is his king. He will have no choice in the matter. And they know that one of the rulers must be ready for attack if necessary. No, Angrboda and the child will come here alone."
Heimdall nodded, ceding that he was right. Set narrowed Balder's eyes. The gatekeeper was under his thrall, courtesy of the Serpent Crown, but he sometimes wondered how much the man was truly aware of. Heimdall's powers were not famed for naught, and if he were to break free... Set's mood darkened as he felt a spike of hope arise in Balder, though the boy tried to hide it.
If Heimdall doesss realissse what isss happening, I will see to his demisse asss I did Odin'sss. Underssstand?
Understood. It's not like I could do anything to help him anyway, is there? Balder replied bitterly, his head handing low as he made his way back to the palace.
Head up, Balder. It will not do for the people to sssee their future king hopelessss.
Except I will never be king. You're going to destroy Asgard.
True. Now... How ssshall we go about killing Thor?
Plot yourself. I will do as you say but don't expect me to-
Then Nanna ssshall die tonight. Ssshame. Ssshe hasss sssuch happy newsss for you...
Balder tensed. Leave Nanna alone!
Are you going to make yourssself ussseful, then?
Balder's heart constricted. Nausea wracked him. I don't want Thor to die... but I can't let anything happen to Nanna!
Balder tried to stall. What news does Nanna have?
I won't tell you. If ssshe livesss, ssshe can tell you herssself. If she doesssn't, then it isss irrelevant. Have you made your mind up?
Balder felt like killing himself. Thor always wanted to die in battle. He wished he had never been born!
Now wasss that ssso hard? We can arrange for hisss gloriousss death. There was a long slow chuckle. I have ssso longed for thisss day. Thank you, Balder. For being ssso innosssent.
Can I go home now? Balder asked, subdued and broken.
Yesss. Go on. Your work for tonight isss over.
Balder slowly walked to his chambers, where Nanna was waiting with dinner ready. She hugged him tightly as soon as she saw him.
"Mor always said that watching Ve leave to go to battle was the hardest thing she ever faced. I don't believe her," she whispered.
"What do you think was, then?" Balder whispered back, holding her like he never would let her go. Tears filled his eyes. She is going to die because of me.
"Holding you now but knowing that I'm going to have to let you go again. Can't you stay, beloved? Can't you stay with me?"
"I have a duty to Asgard."
Nanna buried her face in his shoulder. "I know."
He stroked her hair, trying to hide his guilt and self-loathing. "I promise that as long as you are here waiting, I will always come back to you."
"I'm never going to leave you." Nanna whispered fiercely, stepping back and taking his hands in hers. "Balder..." she fidgeted nervously. She tried to lead into this subtly. "It's good news about Loki and Angrboda's little one, isn't it?"
"Yes... though I hope she grows to know something other than war."
Nanna bit her lip. "I hope so too... for her and her soon-to-be playmate." One of her hands moved, pressing to her belly.
Balder's eyes widened. "Nanna, are you..."
She nodded, her eyes full of happiness.
Balder forced a smile onto his face even as his heart destroyed itself. Another life that will end before it gets to live... I HATE YOU, SET!
I wasss wondering when that would come back. It'sss been, oh... two daysss sssince you lassst told me that? I think that'sss a record. Maybe we ssshould go for three daysss next time.
I hate you! I hate you! I hate you!
Yesss, you hate me. Let'sss move on, ssshall we? If I wasssn't in your head, what would you be doing right now?
"Balder? Balder, are you alright?"
He nodded. "I... I'm alright. I love you. And I already love our baby. It's just..."
"The war," Nanna agreed. "I know. I'm scared, too. But I know that we'll be alright. I just know it. We have to be, right?"
"We'll be alright. This war will end soon and our little one will grow up making daisy chains and complaining about his studies-"
"Unless she complains about her studies, or he loves them."
Balder smiled at his wife, smoothing her golden hair back from her face. "You're right. Exactly. She might love studying, too. Boy or girl, studious or not, our child will have a peaceful life." With each word, he felt his heart die a little.
Nanna sighed contentedly, leaning into his embrace and closing her eyes.
It'sss ssso nice to sssee a new family beginning. Set mocked.
I thought you were going to give us privacy, monster?
Asss you wisssh... for now.
Balder closed his eyes, imagining a happier world- Odin was still alive, there were no wars, and there really was hope for Asgard, and for his family and unborn child. He didn't want to open his eyes again, wanting to ignore the nightmare that was reality for as long as possible.
"Amora and Skurge?" The imperious Kree squinted at Sigyn first and then Helblindi. "Where is this Jotungard that you supposedly rule?"
"Far away from this uncivilized pit!" Helblindi replied, imagining himself a peacock with its feathers poofed up. "I am astonished you haven't heard of it!"
"Well, I haven't! Does it owe allegiance to the Kree or the Skrulls?"
Skurge looked at Amora, unsure what the 'right' answer was. She looked equally stumped.
"We owe allegiance to no world but our own!" Helblindi cried. "And as king of Jotungard, I demand you release me and the queen at once!"
The Kree did not look impressed. "Threats mean nothing."
"How was that a threat?" Sigyn wondered. "We come to negotiate a trade in weapons and you imprison us?"
"I have heard no reports of a trade." The guard's face was stoic.
Helblindi rolled his eyes. "That's because you arrested us before we could start the negotiations!"
"You can wait in the dungeons while I speak with the Accuser, then."
"You can wait in the dungeons!" Sigyn stomped her foot and tossed her head, trying to imitate her mother. "I am a queen! How dare you treat me like a common criminal!"
The Kree raised a brow. "You were committing a crime."
"How? By landing on the planet?"
"Take them away," the Kree ordered, turning his back. "I've had enough of this."
Sigyn and Helblindi were hurriedly bustled away without another word. Sigyn sighed. They were never going to believe this half-baked story that she and Helblindi had!
Helblindi met her gaze. Now what? He mouthed. She could only shrug. She wondered what her family was doing, and grimaced as she remembered leaving Asgard...
Sigyn mentally ran through all the supplies in her back as she prepared to leave her home for the last time. This is actually happening, she thought, her heart pounding as she tucked her note explaining everything behind the milk in her icebox. She paused for a minute- would anyone find it in there? Besides, the ice might cause the ink to smear...
But I don't want it found too soon! She tapped it against her chin and then put it under the fruit bowl on the table. Examining it from every angle, she was satisfied that it was noticeable. She took one last look around before leaving the house, locking it behind her. She slid the key back under the door before stealing to the spaceport to find a ship.
She smiled at the workers, who over the past two days had become used to seeing her come and go. There was only one ship in the yard that was kept fully stocked for immediate travel, she had found out. Humming pleasantly to hide her rising excitement and anxiety, Sigyn headed for the royal flagship. She tried to walk nonchalantly, hiding her nerves.
She jumped as Balder fell into step beside her.
"Balder! What are you doing here?"
"I come here sometimes to be alone... Why are you here?"
Sigyn shrugged. "Just walking. I've found myself very interested in the ships of late."
"I can show you around. The flagship is reserved for the royal family, but I can give you a tour. After all, we are family!"
"Thanks..." Sigyn agreed vaguely, already thinking hard. How am I supposed to get away from him?
Balder happily began talking, explaining a lot of things that Sigyn already knew, as he led her to the flagship.
Her conscience pricked as she noticed a number of hand-held, but heavy tools. She casually steered Balder in their direction, hoping she'd be able to lift one without him noticing. Being stunned will do no permanent damage...
"And here is the flagship," Balder announced proudly. "Come on, I'll show you onboard."
Sigyn picked up one of the tools, feeling guilty, as Balder bounded up the ramp into the ship. She followed. Balder was at the helm, examining the controls. Sigyn muttered a silent prayer for forgiveness, and crept up behind him as quietly as possible. She raised the tool in her hand and soundly clubbed him over the head. He crumpled at once. Sigyn dropped the tool, heart in her throat. What have I done? She dropped to her knees, checking his pulse. To her relief, his heart still beat.
"Guards!" she cried, cradling his head. "Guards, quickly!"
"What happened, my lady?"
"I don't know, he said he felt dizzy, then he just collapsed!" Sigyn hoped the panic in her voice would be attributed to fear for Balder, not the fact that she was lying. The guard knelt beside them.
"Get him to the healing rooms!" Sigyn shouted at him. "Now!"
The guard blinked and nodded. He scooped the young prince into his arms and started walking away. He stopped once to glance back at Sigyn, who had buried her face in her hands.
"I'm coming," she whispered faintly. The guard took Balder, plainly trusting her to follow. The minute she was alone, she went and sat at the ship's controls. She had gone amazingly calm. Her heartbeat was even very suddenly, and she started the engines, raising the boarding ramp. A grin lit her face.
"If I had planned this right, I'd be wearing some scandalous outfit, under my cloak, which I would then cast off at this moment," she mused aloud, lifting the ship from the ground.
There were shouts from within the hangar as she departed. She ignored them, already plotting the course to Jotunheim.
Sigyn carefully maneuvered the ship to a spot not far from the hunting lodge. She beamed as she saw Helblindi was already waiting for her. She lowered the boarding ramp and rushed outside to greet him. She jumped into his arms and he kissed her soundly. She grinned.
"We'd better move quickly. I had to leave a note, I just couldn't let them think that I was being kidnapped or something," Sigyn said.
"Right. Let's get this stuff loaded, then."
He lifted two of four huge bags with ease. Sigyn giggled, then gasped with effort as she tried to pick up one of them.
"Are there any lighter ones?"
Helblindi glanced back- he was already putting the bags in the cargo hold. "That is the lightest one!"
"Well, I can't..." Sigyn grinned. "Hold on." She muttered an incantation and the remaining bundles all floated into the air.
Helblindi watched wide-eyed as the packages all settled themselves in the hold. Sigyn closed the hatch behind them, offering her hand to Helblindi. "Shall we be off?"
She waited for a minute, smirking. "Are we going, or not?"
"Yes. Let's go."
They walked up the entry ramp to the ship, ignoring the rising storm. It closed behind them silently.
"Where to?" Sigyn asked.
"Anywhere you want," Helblindi replied with a grin.
"Random coordinates it is!"
She typed in something without even glancing at the input board, then sat down with a giggle.
The ship put on a burst of speed, taking them Bor-knew-where.
"And it brought us here," she murmured, grinning again. Yes, they were in chains and yes, they were in trouble... but as she glanced at Helblindi she couldn't help but think Better than being stuck doing nothing for the rest of my life!