He pressed his eyes closed, his breath a slow drag in and out of his chest. The words were stopped in his throat. They had to be spoken, spoken or forever left, and he had had enough with secrets. If nothing else, he would know the truth.
"Am I cursed?"
The answer was slow in coming, the moments ticking away in an agonized pause.
"No," finally. It came and his chest expanded in a kind of relief that had nothing to do with the nature of the reply, "not cursed."
He did not turn around but angled his chin up, running his eyes along the wide beams that supported the ceiling. An answer without an answer. His heart drubbed furiously in his breast. Closing his eyes, he wrested it to stillness and beat the frustration out of his voice. "Then what am I," he asked, the question just too soft for a demand, "if not cursed?"
The step behind him creaked, and the muscles all along his spine tensed, centuries of training and hours of over-drawn nerves springing to at a touch. "You're my son."
He turned, then, looking her up and down, and searched her with his eyes. The familiar lines, the soft angles. A thousand thousand memories crowded his mind. A thousand thousand thoughts.
He said nothing.
"Odin," she crooned, stopping near the bottom of the steps. She wrung her hands, the grief of all worlds written across her brow. She had always been soft of heart. He'd anticipated her sorrow, but to see it cut his heart rather more than he'd expected. "He did what he thought best," she promised.
She believed it. Every line of her bore witness to her belief. He wanted to resent her for that, but he found he could not. Confused rage and grief howled beneath the thrum of shock. Resentment was an intricacy that he was too numb to fathom yet. "And he sent you to tell me," he said, flatly.
"He loves you, Odin," she pled. She almost neared him, then drew back, as if in remembrance of some warning.
Her hesitance confused him. Odin retreated within his mind, analyzing her movement, and it reached him through the haze that she was afraid. His breath leapt in his throat as the realization took him. She was afraid. Afraid of him. Afraid of what he was. A thousand little faltering moments fell into their places in his memory. His jaw locked and he turned away.
"I, love you," she promised. But it was too late for her to reach him. His heart had shut her out, for good and all. "Please," she begged, "don't do anything foolish."
He looked at her, letting her see the tears that had come to his eyes. He gave them no concession as they spilled onto his cheeks. "Bor is a fool," he said, and the bite of his hurt cut through in spite of him.
She drew back, the fear naked in her eyes.
Spurred by that fear, Odin advanced on her the two steps that yet stood between them, "He is a fool, and a war-hungry coward," he said. He stopped before her, looking down on her soft, tear-stained face. "He sent you," Odin tipped his head back, breathing, bidding the knot in back of his neck lessen its ache, ignoring the bite of his own tears, "that I might be… softened… by your care. He knew I loved you."
Looking into her eyes, so blue, blue so like his own that he'd always thought…
He traced a finger down the line of her jaw and watched the fear as it stole her breath. "It won't work," he promised.
Abruptly, he turned his back on her. "Tell him, Mother, that his cowardice has cost him his son."
She called out after him.
He heard when she went to her knees in that great, resounding chamber. Her sobs echoed behind him.
The tears ran hot down his cheeks as he strode forward. He would not bow his head. His hands did not let go the fists they'd formed.
He never turned back.
Frigga had taken the child when he offered it to her, grey eyes wide and full still, of questions.
Odin was spent. He had no more strength left for anything. No strength to explain in fuller words why he had done as he had. Wearily, he turned from her, and he sank down onto the chair that stood for him by the fire.
The dark pressed in on the high window cut in the wall behind her. The gaping lack of vision on his side jabbed at him in a pain all its own. He leaned his forehead against his hand, part-way shielding what he ought to have seen. Somehow, the motion helped.
Cradling the babe against her, Frigga came and stood before him, in easy line of sight. She was kind, intuitive, implacable. He raised his head to better see her, allowing her the concession of her curiosity. "But why?" she asked, "Why would you take him?"
Only Frigga could speak to him thus. And they both knew it.
Odin wanted to lie, but to his wife, he could not. "She threatened Thor," he admitted hoarsely. The cloth bound about the ravaged lack of his eye itched.
Frigga paled, and she looked to the fire, all the thoughts of her cunning mind falling together in the barely perceptible motions of her beautiful face. She understood all he could wish to say in that moment without any further elaboration on his part.
"I defeated Laufey. Otherwise," Odin let his hand fall, "I suppose she might have left the child with him."
Sinking low into the chair opposite, Frigga studied the sleeping babe. She raised her head, "What are we to do with him?" she asked.
Odin stared at the fire. Blackness yawned at the edges of his limited vision. He turned his head so that he might see the hand he'd laid on the arm of his chair. "Raise him as our own," he said, working his stiff hand opened and closed. "Thor's life depends on it."
As if summoned, the boy crashed through the family door that stood behind Frigga's chair. The queen pressed the babe more tightly to her, startled, and moving to protect a child that was not hers. Odin took some little measure of peace from that. Frigga was everything he could ever have needed in a mate. She alone among all of the Nine was capable of bearing the fate of one who was wed to him. He was certain of that. She smiled at her son as he galloped to her knee. He was chattering, chattering as Thor always chattered.
"I'm sorry," the nurse stammered over Thor's clamor. Odin had to turn more than he would have liked to see her. She stood in the doorway, wringing her hands, "He's too fast for me –" By all accounts, the child ought to have been sleeping. Odin knew enough of a stubborn nature, however, to not fault the girl too heavily.
Odin shifted, opening his arm to allow his son to climb onto his lap. "It is no matter, Hlin," he said. "I have matters of import to speak of with my son, this night."
He gave a dismissing gesture with his hand, and, wordlessly, eyes awash with relief, Hlin inclined her head. She closed the door gently behind her.
The babe in Frigga's arm woke with a shuddering cry. She shifted him to a better place, turning him to her other arm, soothing him in mother's whispers.
Startled into sudden silence, Thor pointed at the baby. His eyes were wide in his little face, blue, just like Odin's own.
"Yes Thor," Odin said. Slowly, he rested his hand on the boy's golden head. It took him several moments for his impeded vision to allow it.
Frigga watched him, her brow knit in wordless sympathy, but she had the grace to allow him the space necessary to find a way for himself, and she said nothing.
Grateful to her for that, Odin did not address it. "He will be staying with us," he told Thor.
Frigga traced her hand across the babe's face, watching Odin, eyes wide with the understandings that were still working free in the deft machinations of her mind, "Your brother…" she started, then her eyes fell to the boy on his lap. She smiled at him. "Your brother, Thor."
Odin worked his fingers through the warmth of the boy's yellow hair. He nodded his head. The burden of Fate settled across his shoulders, and he knew that what he said now, he could never take back. But he had no choice. He met Thor's eyes with his own.
Noticing the cloth bound across his father's face, Thor raised one pointed finger to touch it.
Gently, Odin took Thor's little hand in his own and lowered it to the boy's lap. He promised, "He will be your brother."
Watching the boys gambole on the lawn, Odin took a seat beside his wife.
Straightening her skirt as she crossed her legs, Frigga studied him no more than a moment before she glanced away, asking him, "What is it?"
Truly, she read him better than all others. He allowed that knowledge to just touch the corners of his mouth, knowing that she would see it. "Loki apes Thor in their play," he said, resting the Gungnir between his feet on the pavement. "And more than that, he is mimicking Thor's dress…" Frigga was laughing behind her eyes, "…exactly. To the smallest detail."
Frigga turned her head, following his gaze fondly. "You are troubled by this?" she asked.
"Loki has strengths of his own. I would have him follow them."
"He is a child, yet," she suggested.
"Children," Odin said, "grow to become men."
"Not for some time yet," she countered, turning laughing eyes on him once more, "And you have to remember how a little boy looks up to his brother."
Odin did not share her laughter. But he took her hand within his own.
Odin had never seen his mother again. And he'd always regretted that his last words to her had been words born of pain. He would rather that he had returned before her death, and that he had admitted to her the high place she had held in his heart.
It was her compassion he had seen in the girl who would become his bride, his wife, his queen. She would have liked to have heard that.
But Odin had never loved his father. And the truth was a weight too much to be born. He had only returned from his self-imposed exile after many years, to find a concubine in the queen's old place, and his own seat strangely empty.
"He didn't want any heir," Frigga prompted him when they were alone. "He wanted you."
Odin had his reservations, and she knew it. But she did not press him.
He confronted his father the next morning, demanding the truth as his bargain if he was to remain and take his old place at the King's side.
The old king smiled distantly. "I dodn't understand it myself," Bor said. Clapping his son on the shoulder, Bor grinned. "They say the only great conquerors who aren't her consorts are her sons. She makes all her progeny kings."
Odin drew away, masking his disgust behind a curt nod.
"She admired the destruction Bor brought into the realms," he said disparagingly to his wife, when he recounted the conversation to her.
Frigga didn't argue with him, but her eyes softened and, tracing bent fingers against his cheek, she kissed him.
"Frigga," he took her hand, effectively stopping her, pulling away.
She watched him, confusion flickering across her brow.
Opening his eyes, he met hers squarely. "You want children. I," he faltered, as only Frigga could prompt him to do. "It has been so long… I may never be able to grant them to you. I would free you of your oaths, should you ask it of me. I had not thought," he explained. He stopped as she began to laugh, and he stared at her, suspended between offense, and a sort of awed fascination.
She drew him nearer her with one hand on the back of his neck until their foreheads almost touched. "I'm not going anywhere," she promised.
"Frigga is the only reason you're still alive," Odin said. He slid his thumb across the ridge of the Gungnir's haft. "And you will never see her again."
Loki's face blanched, his breath uneven and catching in his throat as he fell back a pace. In that moment, even the shadow of his insolence had fallen away. Odin was glad to see its absence.
"You will spend the rest of your days in the dungeon," he promised.
Loki was recovering himself, anger rising to give strength through shock and despair. "And what of Thor?" he demanded. Tears stood in his eyes, though in a show of pride Odin well recognized, he gave them no head. "You'll let that witless oaf become king while I rot in chains?"
Odin regarded his son for a long moment. "Thor must strive to undo the damage you have done," he said, finally. "He will bring order to the Nine Realms. And then," Odin sat back, looking down at his boy, "yes. He will be king."
He sent Loki away.
He sensed her as she came silently up behind him. Her hand settled, gentle as it was strong, on his shoulder.
He remembered a colder hand, heavier, doing the same, long ago.
He did not turn to face her, but watched the door through which his son had disappeared.
"He was supposed," Odin murmured, "to be better, than I was."
Frigga said nothing. Her hand was a grounding weight on his shoulder.
She did not leave him.
Ice slid and crumbled in shards under his thick-soled boot. He leaned heavily on the Gungnir, his mailed fist slick with gore and water from the ice that had melted under his touch. The wash of snow and stone wavered in the dark in the view of his remaining eye.
The socket where the other had sat was aching in its bereavement. It was a hurt that sunk deeper than the eye itself. He felt it through to his neck, burning. Blood slipped from the ravaged socket like tears. The Battlefield Healers had rushed to him at sight of his wound. Mute, sick at heart, Odin had turned them away. His wound would not cost his life. There were others who would die this day. So many who already had. And he sought solitude.
As if his lone eye and the attendant, moaning ache from the lack opposite were not enough, every direction he turned was blood. It spilled and it clung, black, and frozen to the rocks. Bodies could scarcely be moved from the places they had fallen due to the cold. And all about him were the cries of the dying, the faces of the dead.
He longed for the face of his wife. But he could not present himself to her. Not as he was. Frigga was no flowering maiden to be undone by the sight of blood. She would bear his loss bravely. But he could not show her. Not yet. Nor could he stand the looks of any about the camp, seeking guidance, offering awkward attempts at conciliation, or, seeing him, swallowing their tongues and amending their speech to half-hearted congratulations.
His father's words, so long forgotten, echoed – no doubt spurred to Odin's conscious mind by the King's recent death.
"They say the only great conquerors who aren't her consorts are her sons."
How was it that only half-blinded he should understand what it was he was becoming? Nevermore. Nevermore would Asgard seek out war. Asgard would be a Realm of Peace. A people of protectors. He would raise his son to be a king better than any before him. A King to build a better people. Thor would be the best of Asgard's line.
Lost in the whorl of his distracted thoughts, Odin was upon the babe almost before he saw him.
Small, for a giant's offspring, the babe lay naked on the stone. Blue, red-eyed, it wept for want of... Odin did not know. Warmth, food, companionship? The child's eyes found his remaining one before Odin had rightly found him, in the dark. It wailed in renewed proclamation of its need. Odin, for all his talk of peace, could not give him that.
He went to his knees beside the weeping infant. He could offer his presence, as the child expired. Nothing more. He could not touch the child. His presence would have to be sufficient. It galled him that that should not feel enough. Truly, he was powerless.
He had sought solitude. And his solitude had led him here, to a dying child.
She had led him here.
"You were knee deep in Jotun blood," Loki demanded. "Why would you take me?"
Weary, Odin could barely stand. "You were an innocent child."
"No." Loki's breath came labored, "You took me for a purpose," he rasped. "What was it?"
"Mm," her eyes flickered through his mind as she glanced from the knife held languidly in her hand. "So you are wise."
Odin did not realize how long the pause must have carried. He was brought back to the present by Loki's ravaged voice as the boy was doubled over by the strain, "Tell me!"
Odin opened his mouth, but he couldn't. He remembered the agony those moments had brought him. He could not inflict that added pain on this boy that had been entrusted to him.
I am no less the coward than you were, Father.
The ground swayed beneath his feet as Odin lied, "I thought that we could unite our kingdoms, one day." The words tasted like bile on his tongue, "Bring about an alliance, bring about a permanent peace, through you."
Jotunheim's cold bit into his lungs, carrying on it the think, cloying smell of blood and death. He was too far away to hear them, but never, never could he outrun Death. She surrounded him on all sides, looked on him through the eyes of the dying Jotun babe that pleaded with him from its death-bed amid the ruins of this temple.
She had brought him here.
Odin hung his head, a harried animal, giving in to the knife. There was no escape from this trap that finally encircled him.
He sensed her behind him, tangible, as he had never sensed her before. She had not come on foot. Over-strained by battle, his senses could have traced the landing of a feather, and he certainly would have heard her footstep. He did not question how she had come. Her presence plucked at him from behind, and he did not need to turn to know who she was. Though never they had met before, he recognized her. He raised his head. "Hela," he said.
A dry wind cast soft breath over them, "Odin," she purred, "it's been too long."
Cold tendrils slid up the back of Odin's neck. He closed his eye.
The child gave a shuddering breath, and quieted. Odin wondered if, faced by her, it had expired. He did not look down to see.
Odin heard the crunch of her heel as she stepped around to his left side.
"Laufey was a brute," she said, her tone bland, "But he had potential, and," she gave a laugh, "what can I say, I like variety. But you, you have vanquished him."
Her hand lighted on his shoulder, untellably strong. Should she choose to bear down he had no doubt that she could easily crush the bone.
"Laufey is still a mighty king," he ventured.
"I have no use for him," she snapped.
Her hand tightened on his shoulder, grinding against the bone. Odin's breath snagged, somewhere beneath his throat.
"You have a son," she purred, "and such a lovely wife. Quite the conquest, Odin."
Fear struck him in the breast, sure as any spear. "Leave them," he said.
"Mm," her nails drummed on the plate of his shoulder. "He wants your hand."
Odin had been expecting a demand. He opened his eye.
"The child," Hela said flatly. She clicked her tongue turning her head away to examine the knife she held. "And I had the impression you were wise."
Almost unwilling, Odin looked on the child. The babe's sanguine eyes were fixed on him, wide and rimmed with tears. Pleading. One fist waved.
The babe did not spare a glance at the woman behind him, but gave Odin all.
The Jotnar's touch burned. Odin put out his finger, and let the child grip it.
The child gave a squeak. He pumped his free arm, tiny fingers latching desperately onto Odin's hand.
His skin was rough, but there was no pain.
The babe's color washed away, and, under Odin's gaze, the child took another form. His skin went smooth and pale. All the red bled out from the eyes, leaving them clear, almost Aesir in their look.
Odin turned what remained of his gaze on the woman. Knowledge opened like a void in his breast.
She watched him, her smile smugly tilted. "A son for a son," she said. One brow quirked on her forehead. "What was your boy's name again?"
Defeated, Odin watched the babe. The cold was effecting him in his new form. Infant lips were pale, and the tips of his fingers were ice on Odin's hand.
His tongue was thick in his mouth. "I'll take him" he promised.
"Mm," she smiled. The knife winked out of sight. "So you are wise."
Odin's eye closed, heavy with a hopeless weariness, "You have my word," he vowed, "Mother."
Together they sat on the stone bench in the cool shade. High summer was upon them, and the flowers bore witness with their magnificent blooms and heady fragrance. The fountains offered respite to those who labored, tempting with their tinkling splash.
Somewhere away amid the trees, they could hear the boys wrestle. It was hard to say, from where they sat, which had the upper hand. They were growing up so fast.
"When will we tell them?" Frigga asked, gently breaking the silence.
"When they are ready," Odin answered her.
The reply came automatically to his tongue.
The answer that had stilled her so many times would abide no longer. She turned to face him, one brow delicately raised. "They are old enough now to understand it," she said. Her hand found his in the dappled shade. "There ought not be secrets in a family."
Above him, in the tree, a bird gave a chuckling call, and he could hear the boys laugh as they struggled. "Not yet," he said.
It was plea almost as much as it was answer.
Frigga understood him. Her fingers tightened about his.
So they sat together beneath the trees, and they listened to their boys play.