PROLOGUE-COME THE WORLD
In the beginning, the world was void. There are two tales of how the world was created. In one of them, Odin and his brothers, the oldest gods in the world, lifted a rock from the ground into the air, and that is where the world came from.
In the other, only Fire and Ice, the primordial opposites, existed, in the realms of Muspelheim and Niflheim, separated by the void, Ginnungagap, but they drew closer and closer across the void, until they merged into the first being, the Jotun Ymir. He was alone in those times, with no one for company but a cow, Audumla. She gave him food and warmth.
One day he found her licking at a block of ice in Niflheim and asked what she was doing, but she kept licking until the head, torso, and figure of a man emerged, the first human, Búri. Ymir was jealous of him, for he was beautiful, and the cow loved him better. In time, there were other Jotuns who emerged from the void, and Ymir married one of them, the two having children. Now one of his daughters married Búri; their son, Bori, married Bestla; and from them came the oldest of the gods, Odin and his brothers, Hoenir and Lodur.
The gods wanted the land to themselves, so they slayed their great-grandfather Ymir and cut him into pieces, his blood the rivers, his skull the sky, his hair the plants, his eye the stars. Ymir's sons and daughters raged at the death of their father and came to wage war on Odin and his brothers, but they were defeated and left in one of the new realms, Jotunheim. The gods claimed another of the realms, Asgard, for themselves, but the Jotuns and their anger had been let loose. Forevermore, two wolves, Skol and Hati, followed Sol and Mani, the Sun and Moon, across the sky.
Odin's brothers journeyed with him often. While they were on one of their journeys, they came across some driftwood. They transformed this driftwood into some of the first people in the realm of Midgard. These people lived in dwellings of hides and used stone, following their food, fish and aurochs, with their camps, and they didn't know who the deities yet were. They thought they were spirits of fire, earth, the sky, and water; in a way, they were. But they did like to listen to the wisdom of Odin. The people who migrated later, who used bronze and made images of the deities of gold, knew who they were. The Æsir loved gold, too, and played with their golden game pieces when three Jotunesses came to Asgard, calling the Æsir on their corruption.
In the days when stone and bronze clashed in Midgard, there was the first battle that was ever fought, between the Æsir and the Vanir, the deities of Vanaheim. The Æsir were victorious, but they took two of the Vanir, Frey and Freyja, twin children of Njord, as their own.
This war didn't affect my family as much. We continued to live as we ever did in our wood in Asgard, under the ash tree Yggdrasil, until—until a Jotun came to Asgard looking for repayment for what the Æsir had done to his own; he sat on Odin's high throne, which could see everything, before Odin could find him and stop him. He saw me in our wood and decided I'd do, so struck was he. He came to my parents to say he would pay any price to marry me, but they said a goddess had never married a Jotun. He wouldn't leave, so they finally said they would ask me. As soon as I saw him, I couldn't say no. He was too handsome, with red-brown hair the color of fire and eyes the color of a storm. He said his name was Fárbauti. I went with him to Jotunheim and have stayed with him since. Your father, of course.
When she ended the story, Laufey's three young sons looked up at her wide-eyed from the sleeping bench among their furs. She moved from the hearth to sit beside them. Their father had not yet returned from the Jotuns' raid on Asgard, and she had told a story in hopes the boys would fall asleep, but no such luck. "Will we get to go to Asgard like Father?" asked Býlsteir, red-brown haired and blue-eyed like his father.
"Why would you want to?" Helblindi asked. He was red-brown haired, too, but green-eyed like Laufey and the more cautious one.
"So we can fight the Æsir like he does," Býlsteir said. "They're why we're stuck in Jotunheim and not in Asgard."
"I like it here," Helblindi said. Býlsteir stuck out his tongue.
"I'm going to Asgard," Loki declared. He had black and red hair like both his parents and was as green-eyed as summer leaves, because he was born when Farbauti's flaming-arrow struck Laufey. Everyone said he was the handsomest but that his impish smile and tricks made up for it. "I'm going to be one of the gods myself."
Odin stood at the edge of the Iron Wood in his grey traveling cloak and hat cocked over his face, waiting. Angrboda drew away from his grim figure and pulled her lover inside the house with her. "You can't go," she said simply.
"Why not?" he asked. "Name a reason."
He'd always had ambitions, but she had never for a moment believed there'd be a day he'd really leave to join the Æsir, that Odin himself would say he'd found him from his all-seeing throne and wanted him to come. What was she supposed to do, supposed to say, now that her childhood friend was leaving her? "They're horrible," she said, her harsh voice closing off. "They come to our realm, raid and steal Jotunesses and do whatever they want. They're all like that, and you'll become just like them."
He only smiled, and she wanted for once to slap that stupid smile off his face. Why couldn't he take even one thing seriously? "Really?" he asked. "You really think I'm like any of them? Like mighty Thor or warlike Týr or all-seeing Odin? I have more wits than any of them combined. You'll see. One day I'll lead the Jotuns against them. One day we'll win."
"Will it matter, when the Jotuns will probably think you've betrayed them, and then the Æsir will think the same? When they're both calling for your head and you have nowhere to hide? Don't think you can come running back here. Don't think I'll open the door for you." She folded her arms and stood away, by the hearth. She had to be firm, because that's all that worked on him.
"They won't know, until it's too late; I'll play the Æsir against the Jotuns and make them think it's their idea. It would be cause enough for the Jotuns to storm Asgard and take it for their own. They'll thank me in the end."
"If they don't kill you before then," she muttered.
There came a knock on the door. Odin.
"Take care of the house and Mother for me," he said. "I'll come back."
"Loki—" She almost shouted after him not to go and marry a pretty goddess, but he'd only say she was being jealous. It didn't matter. The door was already opened and shut after him. She kicked at the coals. What had she let happen?
They stopped at a natural outcropping, a cave, and Odin said, "Before we go any further, I want you to know the reason I asked you to come. It is because my son, Baldr, has had bad dreams many nights, about his death. I cast far and wide to seek the cause of these dreams. I gave my eye to Mimir's well and hung nine long nights upon Yggdrasil, but still I did not have the answers. It was not until I resurrected the Volva I knew why. She told me of the worlds' end, of Ragnarok, and of how my Baldr had to be sacrificed for this to happen but would return again in a new world. I know what is to happen. It is not for me to stop, for one day the world will need to be destroyed for it to continue anew. She spoke of you, and that is why I had to come find you. None of the other gods would have the strength to end this world, so I need you to. I trust you'll be able to do this?"
Loki inclined his head. Angrboda didn't think so, but he knew when to be serious. It fit well with his plan. "Of course."
Odin's one eye closed. "Thank you. I swear from now on I will hold you as my blood-brother and not drink unless you are offered a drink, as well."
Drawing his sword, Odin sliced his palm, and Loki did likewise. Their blood mingling, they stepped from under the cliff hanging.
"Who is that, with the reddish hair and green eyes?" I whispered to Sif. "I've never seen him before."
Sif had come over to my family's house while my parents were away, to visit and to help me wrangle my two younger brothers, Kerr and Inger. They were more mischievous than Svartalves, and probably craftier, too. We were in the yard, chasing after them to make sure they didn't hurt each other with their wooden swords when two riders came by the house. One of them was Odin, on a storm-grey stallion, with his grey traveling hat low over his missing eye, but the other one I didn't recognize. He was astride a black stallion, red-black hair and green cloak flying, the smooth lines of his lithe frame flowing gracefully as water. My heart choked in my throat.
"I think his name is Loki Laufeyjarson," Sif whispered. "Odin's blood-brother. At least, that's what Thor told me." Thor, her betrothed.
"Kerr hit me!" Inger cried, snapping me from my daze.
"Boys, please behave," I whispered to them as I checked Inger's head for bleeding or bruises, but thankfully there weren't any. "Odin's passing by."
"I don't care—" Kerr started, but I shushed him and put my hands on their squirming shoulders.
Surely the two riders would go on, but they stopped at our house instead, reining in their horses and leaping off. "Do you have any drink for weary travelers?" Odin asked. "I must be on my way soon, but I'd like a draught to slake my thirst before I do." I could've sworn he winked at me. The other one smiled at us, and what a beautiful smile. My heart was now lodged in my mouth.
"Y—yes—I mean, of course—I mean—I'll be back—" I ran inside the house, Sif coming after me, and fumbled around for two of Father's tankards.
"What's the matter with you?" Sif asked, as I poured the mead, missing the tankards and pouring mead all over the floor. "You're not usually so nervous."
"I don't—I don't know." Really, I didn't. The sight of a god never made me so flustered.
"Let me do it," she volunteered. She filled the tankards, while I set about mopping up the mead on the floor. Then we carried the tankards to the two riders, who had hitched their horses to a tree. Kerr and Inger were playing swords with the travelers and laughing as they backed them against the tree.
"Boys, go inside," I said as I handed the mead to the travelers, but they were both laughing just as much.
"What fine brothers you have," Odin said, quaffing the mead. "I'd take them for Valholl if I could." Kerr puffed himself up proudly.
"May there be many years before then," I said. My little brothers, dead in battle and in Valholl—I repressed a shiver.
"Yes," Odin agreed. "They'd be proper warriors by then." He returned the already-empty tankard to me. "Thank you for the draught; it was much-needed. I must be on my way; I have a Jotun to dine with tonight." He untied his horse. "Are you coming, Loki?"
"You go on," Loki said, with a slight smile. Oh, no.
Odin nodded and swept onto his horse, riding away.
"Come on; let's go inside." Sif picked up my brothers and carried them, protesting, in the house, leaving me alone with the stranger.
"Sif," I mouthed after her, but she didn't seem to notice.
"You have beautiful hair," Loki said, touching one of my curls. "It's almost red in the light, like fire." My face was probably more on fire. Mother always told me my wild auburn hair looked like something a bird would build a nest with, and here was some boy telling me it was pretty. I should've said thank you, but I couldn't get the words out.
"Do you ride?" He gestured casually at his stallion, who was now relaxed and eating some of the grass near the tree.
At least he'd settled on a topic I could talk about. We had several horses, and my boy was one of our finest. "I ride stallions," I blurted. Why did I have to say it like that?
"I'd like to see that." Amusement sparkled in those green eyes.
"You think a girl can't ride a stallion, don't you?" Indignation overcame my shyness.
"I didn't say that."
"You were thinking it."
"I don't see how you can prove what I was thinking, but go ahead and show me what a rider of stallions you are." He gestured to his horse. "He's friendly; he'll let you ride."
"Friendlier than his rider?" I retorted, but he, probably wisely, didn't answer.
I couldn't get out of this bet now, so I went to unhitch the stallion, tucked my skirt into my belt, and leapt onto the horse's back. I urged him into a full gallop, and we were flying across the yard, not girl and horse, but just one animal. I threw back my head and whooped. I hadn't been able to ride like this in a long time.
Loki looked on, impressed. "It seems you are a rider of stallions."
Mother and Father chose that moment of all moments to return.
"Sigyn!" Father roared, flying into one of his rages. "What are you doing? Get off that horse. And what is he doing here?"
I reined in the horse and jumped off, lowering my skirts. My eyes stung; I couldn't enjoy myself for a minute. Loki only grinned, in a way that made Father scowl more deeply.
"Odin and I were riding our horses by here, and Odin stopped for a drink, which your daughter was hospitable enough to give him. He has already ridden on," Loki said.
"How can you prove this isn't a tale, as Odin isn't here?" Father asked.
"Ask your daughter; she'll tell you." Loki nodded at me.
"It's true," I said, but Father gave me a look that told me I was in deep trouble.
Luckily, Sif chose that moment to come out of the house with the boys. "Thank Odin you're here," she told Father and Mother. "The boys have been so wild, it was all we could do to keep them quiet."
"Thank you, Sif," Mother said, as Kerr and Inger swarmed around Father.
Father heaved a sigh. "You should go on," he said to Loki, "but don't let me catch you around here again."
Loki didn't have to be told twice; he mounted his stallion and rode off.
Father rounded on me, and I braced myself; his temper could be almost as wild as Thor's. But all he said was, "Sigyn, I thought you had more sense than that."
"What do you mean? What he said was true; he and Odin were riding by and asked for a drink. That was all. You wouldn't turn away someone who comes to your house, would you?" He was a man who prided himself on his hospitality.
"I don't trust that boy; he has a shifty look about him I don't like. I don't suppose you knew his father is a Jotun and his mother a goddess, did you? It's unnatural. I don't want you getting involved with people like that."
"He's only just come to Asgard; we don't know anything about him. He could be a kind person—" There wasn't any need to judge someone just based on parentage; he couldn't help who his father was.
"He could not be. Until there's more to judge his character on, you should stay away from him. That's final." He gave me such a withering look I didn't dare protest. Sorry though I was to admit it, Father was right; we didn't know much about this Loki.
"Come inside." Father swept the boys ahead of him into the house, and I followed behind Mother and Sif, my head down.
That night, after Sif left, we ate the evening meal in silence, except for Kerr pushing Inger until Inger fell off the bench and started crying. "He's so mean to me!"
I picked him up and rocked him on my lap until he settled down again. "Boys," I warned. "Do I need to separate you?" I hated to have to do the disciplining, but Mother let them be and Father acted as though their hurting each other was completely acceptable.
"No," they said, turning back to their barley mash as though nothing had happened.
"That's what I thought. Now, eat your meal."
"Sigyn, they're all right," Mother said with a sigh.
I started to tell her about how Kerr hit Inger with a sword earlier, but Father interrupted us. "It's high time to find you a husband."
"What?" There were almost no gods in Asgard fit for marrying, at least the ones who were still eligible. They were all—what was the word?—too—temperamental or too fake-handsome or—Loki's face flashed behind my eyes, but I tried to push that away. Father would never let me talk to him. Even though he was handsome in a real kind of way and had a beautiful smile and a sense of humor.
Father's blue eyes flashed in warning. "I've left you alone for too long, and now I come back and find you flirting with the first boy who talks to you." My face burned; that's not what happened. "I've talked to Njord and—"
"Njord?" Frey's father—I shook my head; something was off. I touched the back of my head; that's what it was—my hairpin was gone!
"Frey would make a suitable match for you. He's of respectable standing."
"He's too—too—" Fake-handsome.
"Too what?" he asked, his eyebrows drawing together sharply.
"Nothing," I muttered. There was no reasoning with him.
"That's what I thought. We're still working on a price, but it should be finalized today or tomorrow." Only a day or two to find a way out of this; that wasn't a lot of time. At least the missing hairpin could be a blessing—I'd be able to see him again to get it back.
"Sigyn's getting a suitor!" Kerr cried.
"Gross," Inger gagged.
I frowned into my barley mash. That I could agree with them about.
The next day was wash-day, and I volunteered to do the laundry alone, even though Mother offered to help me; maybe Loki would come back so I could get my pin. Dumping the laundry into the stream, I began scrubbing it, and soon the sensation of being watched pricked at my neck. Smiling to myself, I flicked a little water behind me.
"What was that for?"
I caught him with a startled look on his face.
"Maybe you shouldn't sneak up on people," I laughed.
He sat beside me and dangled his long legs in the stream. "I came back, in disguise, but could never catch your attention."
"That must be why I didn't notice you," I retorted.
"When you see a falcon or a fly or a salmon again, you'll know."
"I'll look for you." He must be able to skinleap, then, like Odin. "Speaking of looking for things, have you seen my hairpin?"
"I can't say I have." He shrugged.
"It seems to have mysteriously disappeared; I thought perhaps a falcon or a fly might've carried it off."
"You think too much of the strengths of falcons and flies."
"Even ones who are really gods?" I smiled slyly at him.
"You just said you hadn't seen any." Remarkably, he kept a straight face.
"See if you can spot this!" I flicked water at him, and his eyes widened. Recovering, he splashed water on me, leaving me soaked. Laughing, I gave him a shove between the shoulder blades, sending him tumbling into the stream.
He sat up, spitting out water and wiping his wet hair out of his face. "Help me up." Holding his hand out to me, he waited. It was probably a ploy, but I couldn't help it. A small shock of electricity danced between our hands when I took his, and then the rush of water overcame it. I tumbled in headfirst, sputtering and my hair streaming into my face. The laundry lay in a forgotten heap around us.
"You snake!" I laughed. Extracting my gold hairpin from one of his pockets, I held it up triumphantly. He reached for it, but—
"Sigyn!" Mother's voice approached, and, when she stepped through the trees, there was only a tadpole wriggling beside me. I caught him; he certainly did know how to hide.
"Are you finished? I heard a splash and was worried something had happened."
"I fell in!"
It was lucky for me my parents didn't suspect. I got even luckier when I was going to visit Sif at her family's house and had to cross the field where the other Æsir had begun to build their halls. None was grander than Odin's hall, Valholl, and who should I meet leaving it but Frey himself. I could ask him myself about the contract with his father. But he had such a dreamy expression it looked as though he didn't even see me as he passed by. "What news, Frey?" I asked, by way of greeting.
He started and stared at me hard for a moment before seeming to recognize me. "The most favorable." He smiled like a blind man having just beheld the Sun. "I've seen a beautiful Jotun maiden, named Gerd, and my servant Skirnir is gone to Jotunheim already to bring her here. I wagered my magic sword to have her, but it doesn't matter to me if I die at Ragnarok without it. If I don't have her, I will be dead."
Here was someone sorely smitten. That must've been what he'd been doing in Odin's hall, sitting on the Allorderer's throne while he was away; how else could he have seen into Jotunheim? "I hope she returns your love," I said. "You deserve someone who'll be worthy of you."
"Thank you." His smile wavered. "I only hope she'll agree to meet with me before nine months pass, or it'll be the end of me."
"She will," I assured him calmly. But inside I was cheering. "I don't know anyone who could see you and not love you. I wish you luck."
"Thank you," he said again. "I'll need all the luck I can find." Hurrying away, he left me alone and jumping with delight. Laughing, I ran all the way to Sif's house. Father couldn't have me marry him, now that he was going to be engaged to someone else!
"Sif!" I grabbed her by the arms as soon as I ran into her house. "I just met Frey, and he said he's in love with a Jotuness and is probably going to marry her! I'm free; I'm free!"
"That's wonderful!" She danced with me around the house, her mother muttering "Mercy" as we almost knocked over one of her iron pots. "Does your father know?"
I stopped dancing, my smile slipping to the floor. "No, I haven't told him yet." This wouldn't go over with Father.
"Girls, could you go outside?" Sif's mother smiled at us. "I need to start the meal."
"Do you need help?" I asked.
"No, go on." She waved us out the door, and Sif sat with me on a tree stump nearby.
"What should I do?" I asked her. I'd been ecstatic a moment ago, but now she'd made me reconsider.
"Just tell him," she said, "that Frey is planning to marry someone else."
"It's not that simple. I don't know if Njord knows or not, or if it's of importance to him, but it matters to Father. If Njord hasn't blessed it, it's not legal to him. And Frey said he'd meet Gerd by the end of nine months. Father wants this finalized by tomorrow."
"Stall for time. Suggest that, if, in nine months Gerd says no, he can go ahead and make an offer."
"It's too risky. What if she does say no?" Usually her advice was sound, but this was the matter of my life, and I didn't want it left in my father's hands.
"I don't know a girl who would say no to Frey. It'll work out the way it should; you'll see."
I wished I could be as confident as she was.
Father was about as happy to hear the news as I expected. That night, after supper, I gathered my courage and said, "Do you know who I met today?"
He grunted but stopped sharpening his sword. "I don't like guessing. Tell me."
"Frey. He said he'd seen a Jotuness and was going to meet her in nine months; he sounded very in love. I think it likely he'll marry her, Father."
Silence. Mother gathered the boys and hurried them outside, where they peered around the door to try and listen in. Father's whetstone slipped, and he grunted again as part of his fingernail went with it. "Does Njord know of this?"
"He didn't say. If Gerd agrees to marry him, I don't see what Njord could do."
"Nine months..." He picked up the whetstone and continued sharpening. "I'll speak to Njord and see if he approves of this; if not, it'll no doubt be the end of it."
"Could you wait until the end of the winter? If by then Gerd and Frey don't wed, I'll—I'll let you speak to Njord." My voice cracked, but I had to take this gamble.
"You will, will you?" His voice started to rise, as it did when I dared to question him.
"I'll do what you like from now on. I'll be your obedient daughter and am sorry I haven't been before." I clasped my hands together. Please, say yes.
A small smile cracked his lips. "It's done."
When the end of nine months came, I slipped off to the still-unfinished halls of the Æsir to find Frey again. Instead, I met Freyja and a stranger outside her half-built hall of Folkvangr; they stopped speaking as I passed by. "What news, Sigyn?" Freyja asked politely.
"None of note," I answered quickly. "What news, Freyja?"
She smiled, equally politely. "Have you met my new sister? This is Gerd."
It was understandable why Frey would've been smitten with her. She was tall, with long blonde braids and a broad build suitable for a shieldmaiden; even though he'd lost his sword for her, Frey would have a formidable ally swinging her own sword beside him at Ragnarok. "Congratulations," I said, managing to keep my voice calm, but inside, I was screaming. I didn't have to marry him!
"Thank you," Gerd said, with real warmth. "I think I must be the luckiest goddess in Asgard. He is so handsome and kind to me."
"I think," I said, "you are, too." I meant it.
Father didn't seem to agree with this. When I returned home, rearranging my skirt so it didn't look like I'd been running all the way, and told him I'd seen Gerd, he tugged at his red beard. "You told me to wait, but I'm starting to wish I hadn't agreed to this. You knew Gerd was going to marry him, didn't you?"
"No. Not even Frey was sure." It was the truth.
He raised his eyebrows. "It seems he was planning to be married by the end of winter. It was only a matter of the bride."
"How can you say that? You didn't see him and how much he wanted her. What about you and Mother? Did you want to marry her?"
"Sigyn—" He warned. "I thought you said you'd do what I asked now."
I shifted under his gaze but didn't bow my head. I was starting to wish I hadn't agreed to that. "Of course, Father."
"Then you won't object if I speak with Odin regarding a price to marry Baldr."
Baldr? I almost choked. Frey began to look like a favorable alternative. They were equal in looks and personality, but Baldr was more the warrior.
"Odin is away," I said. "It might take a long time."
"I'll wait. He will return, and, when he does, I'll ask him then."
"Baldr may have a wife by then."
"You're making excuses."
"Go ahead, Father." He almost smiled, but I burned inwardly. I had to find yet another way out of this; may Odin not return for a long time.
"You'll murder that fabric," Sif said quietly, laughing, as we sat by the other goddesses, sewing or weaving. I poked my needle over and over through one of my brother's shirts without getting any farther.
"It's—" I lowered my voice. "It's Father. It wasn't enough that Frey got married. He wants me to marry Baldr now."
She gaped at me, dropping her distaff in her lap. "Baldr?"
"You're lucky to be able to marry who you choose."
"My father was happy about my being with a son of Odin, and I think that's what your father wants, too. But I can't see you with Baldr."
"No. Sometimes, I wonder how much Father knows me." Baldr seemed to like gentler goddesses, like Nanna, not ones running around and whooping on horseback like me.
Someone laughed softly behind me, and I dropped my sewing in the dirt, my heart in my mouth.
"What are you doing here?" Freyja glared at Loki, but he just smiled and said nothing.
"I think you have something of mine," he told me quietly.
The other goddesses had begun to stare, so I grabbed his arm and moved to a stand of trees out of earshot. As soon as we did, he began laughing, still quietly, and managed only one word, "Baldr."
"What could possibly be funny about that?" I demanded. There was nothing about this matter that amused me.
"Your father has a sense of humor." Starting to sober, he added, "That idiot Baldr is one of the last gods anyone should marry, least of all you." Baldr had no friend there, for whatever reason.
"I don't want to, but my father won't give me a choice. Is there any way out of this?"
"Marry someone else." His slender fingers brushed the edge of my jaw, and my face turned brighter than his hair.
"Father would never let me marry you, not in a thousand years, not in a million." And I don't know you at all.
"So you try to lure me here instead by stealing my things, clever girl." Extracting his knife from one of my pockets, he slipped it into his own.
"It's only fair." I held my gaze against his. "You steal something of mine; I can steal something of yours."
The corner of his lip quirked. "You're the only goddess I know who would have the guts to try."
"Passing by the other goddesses—" some of them were straining to see what was happening— "this mightn't be the wisest meeting place. They might let something slip to Father that he doesn't need to know about."
"True." He shrugged. "I'll see you again, Sigyn, I'm sure. Don't worry about Baldr. I'll take care of him."
"What was that?" Sif whispered as I returned alone.
"I don't know."
Winter was approaching again, and we had to finish harvesting the grain before the first snowfall. The servants and our family spent the days threshing the grain and storing it, though the boys had more fun running between the shorn stalks of wheat, hiding from each other.
"Sigyn," Mother said, "would you be able to get the whetstone for the scythes? They need sharpening."
I started away, dodging the boys as they ran underfoot. Above me, a shadow flew, and I almost tripped. A falcon sat on one of the branches, preening his feathers and watching me with one green eye. If birds could laugh, this one was. I ran the rest of the way to the house and hid behind it, as the falcon fluttered beside me, only he wasn't a falcon anymore.
"You have impeccable timing," I told him.
"I do, don't I?"
Craning my head around the house, I said, "I hope my parents don't notice."
"They won't; they'll neve know it was me." I wished I could be that sanguine.
"Have you heard anymore from your dear friend Baldr?" He leaned against the wall of the house, stretching his long legs out.
"No; thankfully Father's been too distracted with the harvest. He means to ask Odin when he returns. I hope he never does."
"Who can say when he'll come back? He only does what he likes."
"I thought maybe you'd know." Since he was his blood-brother.
"No. He wouldn't tell me. I'm not sure if Frigg knows, though it might be to her benefit if she doesn't. He's probably still with the Jotunesses."
"No doubt." I grimaced. There wasn't much I could say about how Odin chose to spend his time, so it was probably wise to say nothing. To change the subject, I said, "I was thinking—I don't know much about you, so I thought maybe you could tell me something, and I'll tell you something. A game, of sorts."
"I love games." Lightly, he slid his arm around my shoulders, and I let it stay there. "Let's see—I have two brothers, Býlsteir and Helblindi. Two annoying brothers. They picked on me endlessly, and I only survived through my wits alone. But now I'm here, and they're still in Jotunheim. They don't have anything to brag about. It's your turn."
Why did I suggest this game? I wanted to learn more about him, but I didn't have anything interesting to share in turn. "I almost set the house on fire once."
He snorted. "Do tell."
"I thought I'd let Mother sleep longer one morning and wake the fire for her. I started it and built it up, and then I went outside to get something. By the time I'd come back to the house, the roof was sparking. I had to wake everyone up to get outside, and Father just managed to save the house from burning down. He had to replace the roof, though, just after he'd had it thatched again. I wasn't allowed near the fire for weeks."
Chuckling, he said, "I wouldn't have thought you were that kind of girl."
"It's funnier now than it was then."
Before he could take his turn again, the boys ran over and sat down on my lap. "Mother's looking for you," Kerr said. "She sent us to come find you; she said you'd been gone too long." Their eyes widened as they caught sight of Loki.
"I'll tell Father on you," Inger said. "He said you couldn't."
"Please." I made them both look me in the eye. "Don't tell about this, or—or—I'll tell them about the time you nearly killed the cow. Promise."
"Promise," they said seriously, and then they went back to clambering all over me.
"Please help," I said to Loki. He held them both upside down until they started giggling and tossed them in the air to catch them again until all of us were laughing.
"Boys! Sigyn!" Mother called.
The falcon fluttered back to the trees, leaving the three of us alone. Both Mother and Father stood there, their hands on their hips.
"We thought you'd got lost," Mother said, "until we heard the boys laughing. If it's a game of hiding you're playing, you've done enough hiding. We need to finish before dark."
"We went to find Sigyn, like you asked," Kerr said, "and we found her back here, with Loki."
"Kerr!" I hid my face in my hands. There was no trusting a brother.
"Sigyn, what did I tell you?" Father grabbed me by the ear.
"Please be careful," Mother said.
"She's my daughter; I'll punish her how I like." But he let me go, and I rubbed at my ear, glaring at my brothers.
"She's mine, too," Mother said, folding her arms. That was the most assertive she'd ever been in a long time.
"I have an explanation—" I started, but it wasn't much of one. Should I tell them it was because he was a skinleaper? If they didn't know, it would be wiser not to tell them, or they'd see skinleapers everywhere.
The falcon flew low over Father's face, the talons brushing his head, him waving his arms at the bird until he flew off, leaving only one tail feather drifting behind, which I caught and put in my pocket. "Thanks," I breathed to the falcon. I could've sworn he winked at me as he flew off.
Father's face was livid. "Everyone, back to work."
We returned to the field, me trailing behind.
I was no longer to be trusted, it seemed. Father had my brothers trail me whenever I left the house and went to the woods, even if it was only to wash clothes in the stream, and Mother gave me so many chores to do with her I had no time to myself. We spent the days getting ready for the long winter ahead as the nights grew longer and the weather more biting. The hogs and old cows were slaughtered and smoked, the hay and wheat and barley put away, the house insulated, and the sheep's wool spun into thicker cloaks. Sometimes Sif came and sometimes I went to help her family, but it was always under the gaze of our parents, where we had no time to talk about anything that wasn't the task at hand.
They were doing this on purpose, of course, to keep me too busy to have time to myself to even think, and it worked. I went to bed tired and slept without dreaming and woke to repeat it all again. But sometimes I caught a falcon perched on the tree outside the window, watching me with those green eyes, or a fly buzzing near my bed at night, and I had to shake my head at him until he went away, little though I wanted to. I couldn't so much as risk letting him in my bedchamber, the only area I had to myself, without fear my parents would hear us. Even when I was with the other goddesses, I didn't doubt Father had told Sif and Idun, who always changed the topic when one of the goddesses began to discuss something Loki had done, to watch me and make sure I didn't disappear alone. It was agonizing.
It was coming up on the month of Yllir, the time of the solstice, when the Sun rose a little over the horizon before sinking back down again. It was the days of endless night, when we huddled around the hearth with the Yule log popping, hoping that Sol the Sun Goddess would hurry and bring her chariot wheeling back across the sky. It was the nights of feasting and drinking in the halls of Asgard, and I begged Father to let us go; Loki was sure to be there. He must've known what I was thinking and wasn't going to agree until the news came that Odin had come back.
There came a knock on the door, and I ran to open it. It was Sif, shivering in the snow, and I pulled her inside to the hearth. "Sif," Mother said, going to get a blanket to drape around her shoulders and pressing some mead in her hands. "You've come a long way in the snow."
Sif was beaming, and her face flushed bright red. "I had to tell you the news."
Behind her, the boys were at a game of chess, and Kerr called, "Checkmate."
"No fair," Inger said, tossing over the playing pieces, "you always win."
"Boys," Mother said, "let Sif speak." Inger ran to Sif and pressed his face against her sleeve, and she pulled him onto her lap.
"Inger," Father said, "you need to toughen up. No warrior will show you mercy on the battlefield."
"It's all right; he's still so little," Sif said, as he clung to her cloak. "What I was going to tell you is, I heard from Thor Odin has come back. He wasn't alone. A Jotun came after him as an eagle, but Odin flew faster than him, also as an eagle, drops of mead flying from his mouth, and the other eagle turned back. At least, that's what Thor said; he was there. He said Odin brought back the mead of poetry for the Yule feast, and he'll be there himself. What's more, Thor and I'll be able to be married soon, now that Odin has returned."
"Congratulations." I squeezed her hands, and she blushed even brighter. She'd been looking forward to it for so long.
But that also meant—Baldr—Father caught my eye, and the grin faded a little from my face. At least the Yule feasts were still going, and, with Odin there, Father might let us go now. "Oh, might we go to the feast tonight?" I asked Father, clasping my hands. "We have to greet Odin properly."
"I'll be there," Sif added.
He gave a small laugh, more than I'd heard from him in a long time. "If you'd like, daughter."
"Thank you!" I threw my arms around him.
The feast was at Odin's hall, and Odin himself sat at the head of the table, his sons and Frigg near him, and Loki also. We sat farther down the table, away from the choicest cuts of meat, but it was all right with me. Odin started recounting his adventures of the past year.
"A sip of mead I got," he said, "from the mead of poetry. Nine farmers I found harvesting their crops, and, when I threw a whetstone in the air for them to catch to sharpen their scythes, nine warriors I got for Valholl. These were Baugi the Jotun's farmers, Baugi brother of Suttung, who hid the mead of poetry in a cave. I offered my services to Baugi in place of the nine farmers, for a draught of this mead. He said it was not his to give, but his brother's. At harvesting-time I came back and fulfilled my part of the bargain, as promised.
"Baugi took me to his brother, who refused me a drink of this mead until I reminded Baugi of his oath. Thus reminded, he took an auger to the mountain where the mead was kept, again and again until a hole was drilled. Through that hole I crawled as a snake and found Gunnlod, Suttung's daughter, guarding the mead. Three nights I stayed with her in exchange for three drinks of the mead, and I drained the cup dry. On the third night, I drained the mead and flew away as an eagle, Sutturd in pursuit, also as an eagle. The gods were waiting for me with vats to hold the mead in, and I regret is that some of the drops of mead fell to mediocre poets. That, and I had to trick poor Gunnlod." He finished with, "It's time we had a wall built around our fortress to keep away Jotuns such as Suttung from attacking us."
Loki, who'd been busy until now hailing a serving-girl to keep Baldr's cup full, said quietly, "I know a man strong enough to build such a wall, from Jotunheim—"
"No Jotun will build our wall," Odin said, and Loki fell silent. Odin again returned to his tales, and the feast went on. Loki whispered something to Baldr, who was by now quite red in the face, and Baldr stood to face Hodr and Nanna, talking next to each other, shoving Hodr to the ground. Nanna reached to help Hodr up, saying, "How could you do such a thing to him? He was doing nothing to you."
"He was trying to seduce you, and that's all the invitation I needed!" Baldr swayed as he stood there.
"We were only having a conversation," Nanna said.
"Come and face me, Hodr, if you're a man," he said, ignoring her.
Hodr was in a difficult position; if he back down, he was a coward. If he stood up, he might fall and never get up again. "Go on, Hodr," Thor said, urging him on. Lunging forward, Hodr hit Baldr back, and the fight began in earnest, with blows that upended the table and sent cups and food flying.
My brothers sat wide-eyed, engrossed in the fight, even as Mother tried to carry them away from it, and Father watched on in disgust. In the chaos, Loki slipped away, and I hurried after him.
"You did that, didn't you?" I asked, catching up with him near the doors.
He shrugged. "I might've. But, even if I did, it was for you."
"To ruin Baldr's reputation so my father won't want me to marry him? Well, it's clever." But would that be enough for Father?
"Sigyn!" Mother called.
"I'm coming," I called back. "I have to go," I whispered to him.
"Come to my house," he said, stepping closer. "You'll be safe there."
Something seared in my stomach. He was really asking me to go with him, and I yearned to go with all my being. He was right, that it was the only place we could be safe—yet how could I defy my parents? They hadn't done anything to deserve my disobedience, and they'd be sure to discover us. It was only a matter of time.
"Why not?" He took me by the arm. "Are you going to forever let them make your decisions? Are you going to forever let them control you?" Those eyes sought mine, and I fell into them, like Sunlight filtering on pools of leaves in the forest. I couldn't say no. I couldn't say a word.
"Sigyn!" Mother called again, closer.
"Goodbye." I tore myself away from him and ran to meet my family, before he could stop me. Before I could stop myself.
"Are you going to forever let them control you?"
It seemed I was.
"That Baldr," Father said, as we left the feast hall for the darkness of the night. "I would never have thought he'd start a fight on Yule, with the mistletoe of truce clearly visible in the hall." I relaxed a little. Loki's trick may have worked after all. "But," he continued, "I suppose that may be attributed to drunkenness. Many a man has done a stupid thing while drunk that must be delivered on. What's more troubling is what Odin told me. I was about to ask him if Baldr was previously engaged when he said something strange to me. He said he'd intended my daughter for his blood-brother. He must've gone completely mad. Doesn't he know I'm the only one who can intend you for anyone, Sigyn?" His voice grew sharper.
Odin's blood-brother—My hopes rose and then crashed as Father said, "Of course I said no, but he told me we couldn't change what fate had in store. I said I wouldn't submit to fate without a fight, and that was that."
What fate had in store? Was that why Odin had gone riding by our house, to introduce Loki to me? What did Odin know of our fate? What did Loki know of it?
"It seems Baldr wasn't the only one who'd had too much to drink," I said, trying to keep my voice steady, but inside I was churning. Fate—the Norns carving the destinies of Asgardians and Midgardians alike onto wood tablets— "Odin must've had too much of that mead of poetry," I went on.
"Let's hope," Father said grimly, "that's all it is."
With Odin back, the days until Sif's wedding drew closer and closer. I should've been excited for her, and I was, in a distant way, distant because the images of Norns carving fates still burned across my eyes as I woke or when I had a moment of idle time. Father asked often about the plans for the wedding, likely to distract me and to make me wish for such a wedding myself, though it seemed unlikely that I'd ever have a suitor to marry at all. Odin had trampled Father's hopes for my marrying Baldr, and he was still searching for an alternative. Meanwhile, Mother and I helped Sif however we could.
The day of the wedding was upon us, but, when we went to call on Sif to help her get ready, her mother met us at the door. "My poor Sif's most distraught," she said. "She'll not have the wedding today."
"Why not?" I asked. "She'd so been looking forward to it."
"She isn't feeling well. She said she wished to postpone the wedding until she was."
"May we see her?" Mother asked. "I might have some medicine for her."
"It's not that; it's—" She never finished her sentence, cut short by a wail from the corner of the house. Running inside, I knelt beside Sif, whose hair was hidden by a veil, and pressed her head against my shoulder. "What's the matter?" I asked, rocking her gently in my arms until her sobbing lessened. "Why don't you want the wedding today? I was so looking forward to it. Thor will be disappointed—"
At the mention of Thor, her sobs started afresh, and I held her closer. "I'm sorry; forget I mentioned him."
"That's the trouble," she sniffled. "I don't want him to see me; if it were anyone else, I wouldn't mind as much, but it's him."
"Even if you had a red nose from a cold, I'm sure he wouldn't mind; Thor isn't bothered much by appearances," I tried to assure her.
"No, it's worse." Her hands shaking, she pulled back her veil, revealing her beautiful, wheat-gold hair shorn close to her head, and quickly put the veil back on.
"Oh, Sif. Who could've done such a thing?" This was cruel, this was beyond cruel, ruining the happiness of a bride on her wedding day.
"I don't know. I was asleep, and I kept feeling as though something were biting at me or buzzing in my ear. When I awoke, my hair was gone. It was all gone!" She lapsed into tears again.
Biting—buzzing—a fly— "I think I know who did it." My words came out like a hiss. "Stay there, and I'll find Thor. He'll know what to do."
"Sigyn," Sif protested, but I was already running out the door, ignoring the calls of our mothers. Loki. That damn, charming Loki. Why would he have done something so cruel? I'd begun to suspect him as one for tricks, but this—if I saw him, I'd slap him for Sif. For his sake, I hope he stayed far away from me.
When I reached Thor's hall, inside Valholl, I was out-of-breath, and the other married gods were barricading the entrance. "You can't go in there," Bragi said, "not on his wedding-day."
"I have to see him," I said, planting my hands on my hips and trying to take Father's authoritative tone. "It's about Sif."
"Very well," he relented, and he called inside, "Thor!"
In a moment, Thor had his head outside, his hair and beard less bushy than usual and more tamed. "What is it?"
"It's Sif; she's—" I told him all I knew and all I suspected, and at once he burst out of the hall with his sword at his side.
"I'll find that Loki and slaughter him on the spot!" He made a move to draw his sword, but Frey said, "With your father's sword? You'd dirty it when you need it for your wedding-day!"
"Then—Then—I'll beat him to death instead!" Thor rumbled.
"Please don't do that," I said, not least because I'd never have a bride-groom if he killed him. "That won't bring her hair back."
"That's true." He pulled at his beard. "I'll send him to Svartalfheim to get a gold wig, and then I'll beat him to death."
"I'll go with you," I said, to make sure things didn't get too ugly between them.
"This a matter for men; don't get your pretty-self involved in it."
"I have two brothers. I can handle anything." I folded my arms until he threw his up and said, "Let's go."
We took Thor's goat-chariot; the goats seemed to know the way to go because they were there almost as fast as Thor could run. When Thor spotted Loki, resting under a sapling tree in a forest glade with dark soil, he wrapped his hands around his throat in a choke-hold. "Dammit, Loki," Thor said. "Give Sif back her hair, or I'll kill you this instant."
"I d—don't know—wh—what you're t—talking about—" Loki choked out, scrabbling at Thor's beefy fingers, but Thor only tightened his hold.
"I think you do. Sigyn here told me all about it."
"Sigyn—help—" Loki gasped, but in vain. I gave him the slap I'd promised for Sif; he went limp and stopped struggling. At least he had the decency to know when he'd disappointed me.
"I went to help Sif get ready for her wedding day, but, instead of being able to help her spread her hair out, I found she had no hair left at all. She told me a little fly did it. Now who could that be?"
"All right—all right—I—I—I did it—" he said, almost too quiet to hear.
"Did you think it'd be funny? She was sobbing. I've never seen her so upset, and it's all your fault!"
"I did it—because—Thor—" He didn't get to finish the sentence, as Thor bashed his head against the tree.
"If you value your life, fiend, go to Svartalfheim to get Sif her golden hair back. I won't have my wedding cancelled because of you."
"I'll go—I'll go—" Obligingly Loki, still shaking and rubbing at the thick fingerprints indented in his throat, started off in the direction of Svartalfheim.
"Run, fiend! Your life depends on it!" Thor shouted after him. Transforming into a falcon, Loki took to the air and dove beneath the trees.
Thor dusted his hands. "You can't trust Jotun-scum. That's why your father won't let you near him."
"You know about that?" I blurted.
"Sigyn, everyone knows."
My face went red, redder than his was now after he'd been shouting. That was the trouble with the Æsir: they always knew each other's news.
We rode the goat-chariot in awkward silence to Odin's hall, where Thor told his father what had happened. Odin called his council, saying it was a serious matter. We sat on thrones, waiting until this was over. When Loki returned, his features rearranged themselves from surprised to composed; he must've gotten quite a shock to find so many people waiting for him, but he didn't show it. Bowing, he held out Sif's hair and two other treasures. "I've brought Sif's hair for you, Thor," he said, and Thor took it with a satisfied nod before handing it to me, to give to her, "and a folding boat for you, Frey, and staff for you, Odin. Only the finest from the craftiest of Svartalves in Svartalfheim."
Odin and Frey admired their presents, but one of Odin's Svartalves in the hall spoke up and said, "My brother can make finer things than that."
"Let him try," Loki said, straightening, "but I wager my head he can't."
"Loki—" I whispered, but he seemed determined to ignore me.
"I'll wager my own head he can," the Svartalf said. "I'll go to Svartalfheim straightaway." He left the hall, and Loki followed, "to wait," he said.
We had another long wait. I played with my fingers and started counting things in my pockets—a needle, an awl, a pin...All I really wanted was to take Sif her hair so she could get married, but I couldn't go without knowing what would become of Loki. After all the trouble he'd caused, he might've deserved such a fate, and he was the one who'd made the oath. It was he who had to follow it through, rash though it was—yet the image of blood dripping from that long, fair neck, the Svartalf holding up that beautiful head—it was almost enough to make me lose the rest of the morning meal. I couldn't watch. If it came to that, I'd be the first to run from the hall.
At long last, the two of them returned, and the Svartalf bowed to Odin, Frey, and Thor. "These are the presents from my brother—a ring that drops nine like it, for Odin; a flying boar, for Frey; and the hammer, Mjollnir, for Thor. I apologize that the handle is too short. A fly—" he glanced sideways at Loki, who stared impassively at the floor— "bit my brother in the eye while he was working. But I think you'll appreciate it all the same." Odin and Frey dutifully admired their presents, though they quickly put them aside for the first ones, but Thor held up Mjollnir, which crackled with lightning, for all to see. The others crowded around him to admire it, and he guffawed. "With this, I can slay more Jotuns in a day than I ever could in a year!" He threw it across the hall, smashing one of the walls and forcing Loki and the Svartalf to duck so they didn't both lose their heads.
"You'll have to repair that wall, son," Odin said drily, "but it is the mightiest weapon I've ever seen."
The Svartalf had clearly won. Grinning horribly with delight at what he was about to do, he pulled the axe from his belt and forced Loki down on his knees, but he just smiled slyly. I bit my lip to keep from calling out and turned my head away.
"I wagered my head," Loki said, "but not my neck. If you can cut off my head without taking my neck, go ahead; if not—" He let the words hang in the air, punctuated only by the Svartalf's axe against the ground. I let out a long, shaky breath and held to the arms of my chair to keep from running.
"Keep your filthy head!" the Svartalf cried. "But I won, and I deserve to deliver on our wager, so I'll sew up that stupid smile of your instead." I finally turned my head; at least Loki wouldn't die.
Loki stuck out his tongue as the Svartalf took an awl and a heavy leather thread from Freyja. "Don't make me cut out your tongue, too, though it'll save us all your idle boasting," the Svartalf said, as he stitched up Loki's mouth. Loki knelt there, his lips pressed together and wincing each time the awl passed through them, until the job was done. The other Æsir laughed and laughed at him now that he couldn't laugh back at them, and the Svartalf bowed as they admired his work. I was the only one not laughing, bending my head to keep them from noticing that I was almost in tears instead. Loki hadn't done an admirable thing, but there was nothing severe enough for something so painful as stitching up someone's mouth. He hurried from the hall, and I hurried after him.
"Loki!" I grabbed his arm, and he turned around. Those beautiful lips ruined forever. "I have an awl and a needle; I might be able to—"
He handed me the knife, the same one I'd stolen, and pointed at his mouth. Why was I doing this? I'd be in trouble if anyone found out it was me, but the tears stinging in those eyes kept me going. "Hold still." I pressed my hand against his cheek to keep him from jerking away, his jaw jumping each time the knife cut through the leather. My hand shook, and I breathed in and out to steady it. The last leather cord snapped, and I pulled it from his mouth. Sezing me by the face, he kissed me. Reeling, I stepped back, my face hot. Nobody had ever kissed me before.
"I'd marry you right now for that," he said. "What a woman."
"I'll remember that promise," I said wryly.
Thor had to choose that moment of all moments to leave the hall, and his eyes almost burst from his head as he stared at us.
"Please don't tell anyone," I whispered. Damningly, I still had the knife, and I slipped it back to Loki, whose hands pressed over mine.
"I'm not in the mood," Thor said, handing Sif's wig back to me. "I have other things to do today. Next time, though—" he added as he got in his goat-chariot—"you might find you're not so lucky as to have your woman come save you."
Loki rolled his eyes as Thor drove away. "What an idiot. He forgot to invite his favorite uncle to his wedding." Was that what this was about?
"You'll still come, won't you?" I asked, my lip quirking.
"I wouldn't miss it." As he started to walk away, he turned back only to wave.
My face still on fire, I ran back to Sif's house, touching my lips. A dream. It had been a dream.
"You're being very quiet," Sif said, as we arranged her new, shining hair, which she kept touching with a laugh of delight.
"It's nothing," I whispered back, nodding to my mother.
"I know what it is," she said with a smile.
Her mother hurried her ahead of me to the bathhouse, saying it'd get late if we didn't hurry, and that was the end of our conversation. Then our procession went to meet Thor's outside of his hall, and Sif trembled to meet him. She looked more beautiful than she ever had, with her jeweled bridal crown shimmering in her golden hair, and Thor couldn't stop staring at her. I smiled for them. But there was someone who wasn't there.
Odin read the vows, Thor and Sif holding hands, not on Odin's sword but on the hammer Mjollnir, and they exchanged rings. Thor threw his arms around her and kissed her, not on impulse, as strangers do, but as husband and wife. Sif turned and gave her mother a hug, her mother dabbing at her eyes. Thor's mother, Jord, looked on.
It was now the running of the bride, always the most fun. If the groom's party reached the feast hall first, they won; if the bride's did, we won. Odin called the race, and we started, fast as a lightning bolt. I laughed, picking up my skirts as I ran so they wouldn't trip me but trying not to get too far ahead of Sif. I came close to meeting Thor, but he reached the hall first and stood in the doorway with Mjollnir to keep Sif from entering before him. He laid the hammer in the threshold, and she stepped over it, no longer a maid but a wife.
The mead and wine flowed in toasts to the bride and the groom, who sat at the head of the table, and there was more than enough of ox and boar to satisfy even Thor, with his appetite bigger than the room. I tried to laugh and drink and eat until I was more than full and warm inside from the mead, but there was still someone who wasn't there. Father, who'd been sitting beside Mother, left the table, and she went with him. Were they all right?
An arm slid around my waist, and I almost spat out my drink. "I thought you weren't coming," I said. How did he always manage to appear out of nowhere?
"I said I'd be here," Loki said, raising a mug from the table and draining it, "and I always deliver on my promises."
At the head of the table, Thor glared at him, but he just smiled broadly, and Thor heaved a sigh, pushing back his plate as though even he'd lost his appetite. "He looks—happy to see you," I remarked.
"Who wouldn't be? I think it's about time for the games. I hope you'll save a dance for me," he said softly, taking my hand.
"Dance—with—with you?" I stammered. Of course, I wanted to, but—what if Mother and Father came back just then?
He was already on his feet, leading me to the circle forming outside around the couple, and Idun took my other hand. Bragi started a song on his harp, a wedding song, his voice rough and tuneful, as we swayed around the circle. Soon I'd lost myself in the dance, Loki and I both laughing, our fingers twined in each other's, and all that mattered was that moment. All too soon, it ended, and we walked side by side along the darkening field as the gods lined up for contests, starting with a game of tug-of-war. My brothers ran to join in. "Why don't you play?" I asked Loki.
"Oh, no. Thor's on the other side; there's no beating him." Exactly like he said, Thor put his arms around the other gods playing on his side and pulled at the rope, lifting everyone on the other side off the ground. I cheered along with Sif.
Father and Mother chose that moment of all moments to return. Father looked pale—had he eaten something that made him ill?—and, when he saw who I was with, he grew even paler.
"Sigyn, for shame, letting yourself be seen with the one who ruined your friend's happiness, and on her wedding day, too."
"Father—" I stepped towards him, my hand still in Loki's. "You're correct; I don't want to cause any scene on her day. Can this please wait until later?"
"Do as I say and keep away from him, and I'll let this be for now." He folded his arms over his chest with his tone of authority.
I turned my head between him and Loki, and Loki's hand tightened on mine. Why did I have to choose? I couldn't put Father in one of his tempers, not today and not when he looked unwell, but it was one of the few times I had to spend with Loki in a long time.
"Don't you have a sense of enjoyment, or are you always miserable, even on a wedding day?" Loki said to my father. "Do you want your daughter to be always miserable, too?"
"I don't appreciate your definition of enjoyment, amusing yourself at others' expenses. At Sif's and Thor's expense. At our expense. Whatever you may think, I do indeed have a sense of humor, but it doesn't involve laughing off the attempts of someone with such a low character as yourself trying to seduce my daughter." He shoved his hand against Loki's chest, making him stumble back.
Loki started to push Father back, but I seized him by the arm. "No," I whispered. "No."
Instead, he said, "That's a strong word, don't you think? I've never treated her with disrespect. I've only come when she asked me to, and I've left when she didn't want me. Isn't that so, Sigyn?"
"It's true," I said, flushing a little at the times he'd come to my bedchamber as a fly, and I could've let him in, but I didn't. I was thankful now I hadn't.
"You're fighting fate," Loki continued, but Father interrupted.
"That isn't half of it, not by far," Father said. "I've heard rumors of what he's done to other goddesses, besides poor Sif, and I fear some of them are likely more than rumors. I'm trying to keep you safe, Sigyn."
"Is that true?" I tried to meet Loki's eyes, but he didn't quite meet my gaze. How hadn't I heard of this, when I'd been with the goddesses?
Idun and Sif—they hadn't let anyone there speak of him at all. If they'd been trying to protect me, they could've done a surer job of it by not leaving me without knowing anything.
By now, our quarrel had attracted attention from other guests, who unfortunately found it more interesting than the wrestling match. Why had this had to be in such a public place?
"It's true," Freyja said to me, the first to speak. "He—"
"You're one to speak," Loki said to her. "You bed your own brother; it goes in the family."
Freyja, whose mother was also her aunt, started to retort, reddening with rage, and Idun started to speak, but Thor pushed his way through the crowd easily with bulk and Mjollnir in his hand. Sif stood near him, downcast, but it was clear she was on the edge of tears. Sif. In my mind, I ran to her, but, in reality, I stood there, head down, and blinked away my own tears. I'd ruined her day. We both had.
"I won't tolerate this, not on my wedding-day." Thor punctuated his words with a blow from Mjollnir against his hand. "You've done my wife more than enough damage for the day. Now be gone, sissy," he said to Loki, "or next time that'll be your head instead of my hand under Mjollnir."
"You still haven't thanked me for your new toy," Loki said, but he ducked away from the reach of Mjollnir. "You wouldn't have it without me."
"I said, be gone. I've tolerated you here long enough. Mjollnir will take your thanks." Thor started to swing his hammer, but Loki slipped into the gathering night, leaving me alone.
"Damn you, Loki Laufeyjarson," I shouted after him. "If what they say about you is true, damn you!" I cradled my arms, and a sob escaped my chest. Let them think it was anger, not something else. I hadn't cried, not in years, and I wouldn't anymore.
"Sissy and a coward," Thor said, putting his hammer away. "We found him once under the roots of Yggdrasil as a—"
"Thor, not in public." Odin stepped forward. "I wouldn't have interrupted a fight that a man had started for his honor had it been any other day, but that'll do for now. There was a wrestling match I was keen to see the end of." He spoke looking directly at me, but I continued to focus on the ground.
Thor muttered something like, "I'd squash that fiend under my feet," but he rolled up his sleeves and returned to throwing other gods over his shoulder with more force than before.
The only one who didn't seem to be enjoying the wrestling match was Sif. I should've gone to her, but everyone else had begun to sneak glances at me when they thought I wouldn't notice, and I wanted nothing more to be gone myself. "I'm tired, Father," I said quietly. "I'd like to go home."
"I think I may have had an undercooked piece of meat," he said. "I feel none too well myself." After he and Mother picked my brothers, who kicked against them to stay until the end of the wrestling match, we left as quietly as we could. Father put his hand on my shoulder, as if to say that would be the end of that.
I wished it was the end. I tried to focus on my duties, sewing, spinning, helping Mother and the servants prepare the meals, and feeding and taking care of the cows and horses, but not even my horse Faxi could cheer me, and I only rode him at a walk around the fields. If he could've seen me now, he wouldn't call me a rider of stallions.
"Really, Sigyn, what's gotten into you?" Mother asked me one night, when I left my distaff drop into my lap yet again. Not even the boys chasing each other around the house got me to move anymore. "Your horse is going to waste without you exercising him properly, and I haven't heard you sing in months. Is this because Sif moved away?"
Oh, Mother, if only it could've been that simple. Fate. Both Odin and Loki had said Father was fighting fate, but what was my fate? Couldn't the Volva and the Norns have sent me someone more honorable than that? He had acted like I was the only one, the most important one, but that wasn't so. I mattered no more than Freyja or Idun or Sif—
Men. What were men? I'd done well before I ever let myself fall for any of them.
"A visit with her might do you well," Mother continued.
"I don't want to trouble her. Not so soon after her wedding." It'd been about a month, but her crying at her own wedding stuck in me like a needle. It was my fault, and yet I couldn't face her to apologize for it.
"I'm sure she'd be happy to see you again. Married couples can be lonelier than you might think. Go on, and I'll finish the rest of the spinning myself."
"You will?" I was on my feet at once.
Mother smiled. "Yes. Go on."
I was running out the door at once, and then I went to the stable to saddle Faxi. It would be faster, and he did need the exercise. There was something about the brightness of the day, cold as it was despite the Sun, and the warmth of the horse under me, that it was impossible to stay gloomy. I started to hum under my breath by the time I reached Thor and Sif's door. Sif smiled when she opened the door, though there was a tightness around her eyes. "It's wonderful to see you again." She hugged me, and one of the servants took Faxi to the stables.
Thor thundering footsteps stopped behind me. "If it isn't Sigyn. Come in, and we'll have the biggest ox ready soon enough."
"Thor," Sif laughed. "Give her a moment to get settled."
"I'm quite all right; I ate not long ago," I said, but no one could stop Thor when he had food on his mind, and he was gone to the kitchen faster than my Faxi could run here.
"I do love having somewhere I can call myself mistress of," Sif said, as she showed me into the hall. It was dim but spacious, especially the feast hall, and there were touches she'd left places, a flower or a tapestry, that brightened the space.
"It is wonderful," I started to say.
"It still needs work, but we're progressing on it," she said.
There was silence for a moment. To fill it, I said, "I'm sorry I ruined your wedding-day."
Her smile faltered somewhat, but she sat at one of the benches in the hall, and I sat beside her. "It wasn't your fault," she said, "and it wasn't ruined."
"You don't have to say that." All my guilt came running out. "I saw you crying during the fight. If I hadn't asked him if he'd come, if I hadn't unstitched his mouth, he might not have been there, and that fight wouldn't have happened. I know Thor didn't want him there, for whatever reason."
"That wasn't your fault," she repeated. "He would've come if you'd said nothing; that's how he is. Thor—I don't know what the trouble between them is. It feels almost like—competition, for some reason, or maybe because Thor hasn't quite accepted him as part of the family, given his origins. It wasn't my idea not to invite him; I asked Thor to let him come, so no one would be left out, but he refused. If this hadn't happened, we'd never have gotten Mjollnir; I think sometimes he loves it more than me." She laughed, but it sounded forced. "There's no harm done."
"But—" I didn't know how to say what I was trying to say. There was some harm done. "You're married; you know more about men. Would you love Thor, no matter what he'd done?"
She hesitated. "It would depend on how severe it was."
"If—he went with another woman, would you still love him?"
"It's not for the gods to keep to one mate. Frigg doesn't seem to mind what Odin does, or maybe she just tolerates it."
"What about you? Would you still love Thor?"
"I would, as long as he loved me." She took my hand. "This isn't like you, to think so much about things like this. I think—you must be very in love."
I laughed, but it sounded unnatural. "Infatuated, maybe. Not in love. If he were less handsome, it wouldn't matter as much. I'm being stupid, to fall for a pretty face, when there's nothing underneath."
"You're more sensible than that. I always thought, if someone ever caught your eye, it would be someone unlike the other gods. He seems to admire you. He spends more time running after you than the other goddesses."
I shook my head slightly. "I haven't seen him in a month. It doesn't matter. It'll be over this in time, and I'll find someone I could really honor, and who could really honor me."
"I don't understand men, but sometimes they do things like that to make women jealous, to see if they really love them."
"That's men for you. Nobody ever said they were the smartest."
I giggled in spite of myself. Somehow, she'd raised my spirits a little, strange though it was.
Thor came into the hall, ending our talk, and a feast fit for all the gods together followed. "Thor," Sif laughed. "You can't keep doing this; you'll bankrupt us."
"You're too thin," he told her. "With a child coming, you need to fatten up."
Sif blushed. "Congratulations," I told her, grinning and squeezing her hands. "They couldn't have finer parents; they'll be beautiful."
"I hope so." She flushed even brighter, and her smile brightened, too.
"This calls for a celebration," Thor said, and the feast couldn't wait any longer.
It was coming on to spring; the Sun was a little warmer than before, and the wind a little softer. It was time for preparing the fields, and we spent the days tilling them to turn over fresh earth and planting seeds. There was nothing as refreshing as the scent of new earth, and, with that and Sif's child on the way, it seemed the world had started new growth. The sting from Sif's wedding had lessened, and I could finally sing as the birds did. It was over, but it was all right. I could find happiness somewhere else.
"You seem very cheerful," Father said, coming across me digging in the garden.
"I think I've found a flower," I said, pointing to a small bud poking its head above the earth.
"I'm sure it'll bloom, with you taking care of it." I just laughed a little. "I have something I wanted to tell you. I—" He bent beside me. "I've arranged a marriage for you, with Heimdall."
My spade fell in the dirt. "Oh."
"I know he's not Frey or Baldr," he continued, "but he's honorable and strong. His mothers agree to it, and we've met a price."
He didn't understand. He still didn't understand.
"You'd been so cheerful lately, and I thought surely you'd gotten over what was past and could be happy about it."
I was already on my feet, and, before I could stop them, they were carrying me away from here.
"Sigyn!" He stood after me. "Sigyn!"
I didn't stop, couldn't stop, even though I didn't know where I was going. I crashed deeper into the forest, away from the farm, not trying to hide my gracelessness as birds squawked into the air ahead of me. The forest changed, from thick, old growth to newer saplings and ashen-black soil. Hadn't I been here before?
Arms reached out and braced me as I started to fall over a tree-root, and I thrashed against whoever held me, stepping on a boot hard. A voice cried out in pain, and I drew back. I knew that voice.
"Were you trying to kill me?" Loki leaned against a tree trunk, holding his foot and grimacing.
"Maybe I was." The first shock, that I'd run to his grove of all places, wore off, and I drew myself up taller, folding my arms. That black-red hair, dark as a fox's pelt, glinted under the Sunlight, and those lips, scarred though they were, were so soft—Stop. Stop.
"It's lovely to see you, even if it is a—a surprise." He straightened and held his arms out to me again, feebly, but I backed away.
"I'm still angry at you; don't think I've forgotten what happened at the wedding."
"I thought you had forgotten about me. You didn't seem to want to see me, so I thought perhaps I should've found someone else—"
"Don't be an idiot. My father wouldn't let me see you; that's why. I didn't want to go against his wishes. I never thought I'd meet someone I'd want to defy my family for, and I still don't."
"Then why'd you come here?"
"I—I don't know! My father said he'd arranged a marriage for me with Heimdall, so I ran—"
"Heimdall." He laughed, but it was harsh and bitter. "Now he's trying to make me angry. Heimdall! What a joke."
"I know you don't like him." Nobody was really sure what Loki's antipathy was with the guard of the Bilrost bridge leading to Asgard, but it was definitely there, and mutual.
"Don't like him? If he put a finger on you, I'd kill him." He started towards me and stopped, his eyes sweeping the glade. "Do you know, this is where my father struck my mother with a lightning arrow?" He touched a burnt tree where the bark had been struck off. "That's where I came from. It's true," he said, as I continued to stare dubiously at him. "Laufey isn't my father's name; it's my mother's name. My father is Fárbauti, of the Jotuns. Now it's your turn."
"You don't remember your game? I tell you something, and you tell me something."
"I just told you something," I protested, "and it's a stupid game, anyway."
"It is, a little," he agreed, "but not so much since you came up with it."
"Shut up!" I smiled a little, in spite of myself.
"I don't think we finished the dance properly, either. Dance with me." He pulled me towards him, and we swayed back and forth, towards and away from each other.
"You're trying to make me forget I'm still angry with you, aren't you?" I asked, laughing all the same.
"Is it working?"
"No! They call you a coward, and a liar, and—" I started, sobering.
"What would you call me?" We stopped dancing and stood there for a moment, close enough to touch but not touching.
"Loki," I whispered. "Loki."
He pressed his lips to mine, and the world spun around us, days or weeks or months of green and gold, a sea of it, more valuable than any stones or jewels, and I was dizzy when we parted, lost in the sea of those eyes.
"Marry me," he said.
"I can't. My father won't let me." He was really asking, and I was really refusing. This was really happening.
"Marry me," he repeated. "I don't care what your father thinks. You're my fate. It's fate we're here now. Don't you see?"
I blinked. It was all moving too fast. I hadn't come here for that; I'd only come here to run away. But this was the only way I could run. We'd run forever, and nobody could find us. "I must be mad, but—I'll marry you." This had to be the most reckless and impulsive thing I'd done in a long time.
"Now," he said.
"What about—witnesses—and—and rings—and—" It was all so sudden.
"I'll take care of that. Stay here, and I'll come back."
Before I could protest, he had turned into a falcon and was gone. I settled into the hollow behind a tree, trying to stay out of view, and wove whatever flowers, buds, and leaves I could find into a crown. It wasn't as beautiful as Sif's, but it would have to do. It was fitting, in a way, to have a makeshift crown for a makeshift wedding; it wasn't what I had in mind for my wedding, but it would have to do.
When he returned, it wasn't alone, but with Sif and Thor. I ran to Loki first and embraced him, and he held me for a moment. "Your crown suits you," he said, touching the wreath, and I smiled.
Then I came to Sif and hugged her in turn. "Thank you for coming," I whispered.
"It was only a small favor to return," she said.
"I didn't come because I owe you anything," Thor said to Loki, jabbing him in the chest. "I only came because I like Sigyn."
We joined hands over the hilt of Fárbauti's sword, and Thor gave the vows. My heart tumbled over and over itself, and I could barely speak, but strangely I'd never been surer of anything. When Thor finished, Loki and I exchanged rings, the ones that had belonged to his parents, my hand trembling as I slipped his on that long, slender finger. It was done. Throwing my arms around him, I kissed him, for the first time, not as a stranger but as my husband. The one I'd spend the rest of forever with.
Thor gave a slight cough, and we drew apart. Sif touched her hand to her mouth, her eyes bright, but all Thor said was, "You ought to have the biggest roast ox I've ever seen. I deserve a reward for this, and I'm famished."
"I do, in fact," Loki laughed, and it was a race between Sif and me and him and Thor to the feast. Thor of course won, and we sat outside of Loki's hose as the Sun went down, the very large ox roasted on the spit, feasting and talking until even Thor patted his stomach and said he'd had his fill. The dimming flames flickered against the night sky, and I yawned, full of food and drink and company, my head nodding against Loki's shoulder. Father and the argument of this morning were very far away.
"You need to hurry," Thor guffawed, "or your bride will fall asleep on you."
"Sigyn." Loki nudged me.
"Mm?" I blinked up at him.
"Let's go inside." Gathering me in his arms, Loki carried me towards the house, and I nestled deeper against him, the scent of horses and fire and birch clinging to him.
"Do we need to go inside? I have confidence in you!" Thor called after us.
"Thor!" Sif said.
Loki's lip quirked. He passed over the threshold, where one life ended and another started.
A shaft of light slanted through the window, and I nestled closer into the darkness of the bed. It was too early to awaken yet. His arm draped across me. Lightly, I traced the lines of his arm and back, supple and finely-drawn, work a smith couldn't match even on the most delicately hammered and worked sheet of metal, that hair tracing down his back like veins of copper. How had I been so lucky? His eyes fluttered open, and he arm drew me closer, that smile curving like we finally shared the same secret. My fingers traced his lips, and he closed the gap between us with a kiss, his fingers tangling in my hair.
Someone knocked at the door, and I startled upright.
"It's only the servant," he said, pulling me down again. "It's not daylight yet."
"I think it is." But when I emerged again, it was in a tangle of sheets, laughing, my hair disheveled.
I had mostly readied for the day when the servant entered—thankfully, she was old—and clucked her tongue a little to find us, Loki pressed against my legs with his green cloak drawn around him while I braided his hair, though I swear she smiled. "It's high time a young lady come here to straighten him out. He's hopeless. He's always teasing us, and he'll never let me touch the place, even though it's a disaster." She was correct about that. It had been dark enough last night I hadn't noticed, but, in the light, it was clear the house had never known the touch of a woman. Clothes and bones and what might have once been fish were strewn everywhere, under the benches and near the hearth. I gagged involuntarily. Not even my two brothers had been capable of achieving that.
"You ought to be ashamed of yourself, bringing a bride into the house with it looking like that," the servant continued. Loki sat on, stony-faced.
Gathering a pile of rotten food—who knew how long it had been sitting there—I thrust it at him. "Take this outside, and don't stop until it's all gone."
"Just when I had it how I wanted it," he muttered.
"You'll make yourself sick and die." I gave him a shove between the shoulder blades, and he swept off with the sullenest look I'd ever seen him give.
"Thank you for that," the servant smiled. "I know you'll be able to handle him. Now it's time for me to do your hair."
I fingered my bird's-nest, as Mother always called it, still disheveled from the morning. It had always hung loose, only held with a pin on special days, but only maidens wore their hair like that.
She stood behind me while I sat on the bench and took thick strands of hair in her fingers. "Hm." Even she seemed at a loss as to what to do with it.
"Please don't cover it up," I said. He was the only one who'd ever complimented it, and I wanted him to be able to see it, correct or not. In the end, she drew it back into a simple braid.
When he'd returned from emptying the room to our standards, Loki stopped beside me, winding the braid around his finger. "It suits you, though I liked it loose." I just gave him a crooked smile. If it were still loose, I wouldn't be here.
"I wanted to give you something." He pressed the keys to the house and the other buildings into my hand, and my hand lingered on his before I tucked the keys onto my belt.
"Thank you" was all I could say, but I meant more. I was the mistress of the house now.
"I have the morning meal about done," the servant said, and I hurried over to the hearth, where the barley porridge was bubbling.
"Do you need any help?" I asked.
"Oh, no. You don't need to help me; I'm here to help you."
I stood by, a little uselessly. I'd always helped Mother and the servants with the chores.
When she handed the bowls out, I almost forgot about it, the porridge was so thick and sweet with the honey drizzled over it, and, with so few people here, I could have as much as I liked, though I was quickly learning that, even if Loki didn't have an appetite to match Thor's, it came close.
After breakfast, he walked with me outside, his hand twining in mine. "I want to show you around."
We walked together past the fields that were just starting to grow to the stables, where the black stallion was. The horse seemed to remember me, muzzling against my shoulder until Loki gave me a bit of apple to hold out to him, which he nibbled at. I giggled at the brush of his whiskers, like feathery kisses. "If only my horse were here," I said, my smile falling. I'd had to leave Faxi behind at my parents', for both him and them to wonder where I'd gone.
"I'll get your horse for you," Loki promised me, and I didn't doubt he would. "For now, let's ride." He leapt astride the horse and offered me a hand up, but I jumped up behind him, my arms encircling his waist, and we were gone. Where to, I didn't know. Maybe nowhere. It was enough to enjoy the ride, the icy wind tempered with the promise of spring echoing in our hair and the horse's mane, the trees growing ever closer until we were in the forest again, but the stallion was sure of foot and never tripped over a branch or twig. The whip of fresh water drew closer, shimmering scales peeking from behind the tree limbs until a stream, fed by a waterfall, came into focus. Here he let the horse have a drink while we rested on rocks by the water's edge, and he let his feet dangle in the water, still except for the occasional splash of fish, which the stallion watched, his ears twitching. I laughed at his rabbit-ears. When had I last had the time to do nothing? Resting my head on Loki's shoulder, I pointed up at the sky. "That cloud looks a little like a horse."
"Or perhaps a wolf." His arm drew around my waist.
Two great ravens startled the clouds, sending them skittering and the horse rearing back. Loki put a hand on his flank to calm him.
"Hugin and Muinin," I muttered. On instinct, I shouted and waved my arms at them until they flew away, but it was too late. They'd already seen us.
That was the first sign that this stillness wasn't to last.
True to his promise, the next day my Faxi was in the stable beside the black stallion, and he pranced to see me; I threw my arms around him, breathing in his faint horsey smell. The two of us spent the days riding through the woods or to the stream, and sometimes there was fish for dinner. Other times, we walked hand in hand and climbed the trees to pick the first fruits until the bowls in the house were full of them and juice ran down our arms as we ate them. Sometimes, I'd walk to gather flowers and leaves, humming to myself, to put on the table—the house was beginning to feel more like a real home, with everything cleaned and put away—and, though he complained about them, sometimes I caught him tucking them in my hair. Or I'd dig in the garden until my hands and fingernails were covered in dirt; there was nothing like the tang of fresh earth and bringing something to life. The servants said the plants grew like magic with me.
But Hugin and Muinin must have brought word of where we were, where I was, and, one evening, just before I was going to shut the door, my parents came.
"Sigyn," Mother said, starting to run to me, but Father held her back.
"We searched everywhere for you when you ran away," he said, his expression severe. "Then the next day you horse disappeared. I thought I knew what had happened to you then, but Hugin and Muinin confirmed it."
The world spiraled around me. When Loki came up behind me, his hand on my shoulder, I leaned into him, his sharp scent of birch and horses steadying me. Odin. Hadn't Odin wanted this to happen, and yet—he told them all the same.
"Let her go," Father said harshly. "She already has a contract, if you haven't ruined her chances of even that, and she's to come to me."
"I can't do that." Loki's arm tightened around me. "I won't do that. She's my wife."
Father exploded. He shouted about how Loki had seduced me, how I'd been a foolish girl to fall for the charms of a nothing, that the marriage couldn't be legitimate because he hadn't given me away and there'd been no witnesses. I couldn't listen. Flinching, I clung tighter to my husband, who only whispered, "I'll never let you go."
"It wasn't what you think," I said, standing straighter and trying to match my voice to Father's usual evenness. "You can ask Sif and Thor. They were there. They'll tell you it was legitimate."
"Someone like him—" Father pointed at Loki— "has no reason to legitimately marry anyone. He's using you."
Loki shouted something at him I won't repeat. "She came to me. I didn't abduct her. She came to me because she wanted me. When will you ever recognize that she can make her own choices? It's her fate, not yours."
Father started to reply, but I broke in. The two most important men in my life were shouting at each other over me, when all I wanted was for them to get along, like a father and son, like a family that could eat meals together and work together. "Stop fighting. I don't want anyone to fight over me."
Throwing up his hands, Father said, "I will, as long as you come with me. If not, you broke an oath, and I have every right to take revenge for that."
"Father!" He wouldn't do that. Would he? It wouldn't stop, not until everyone I cared about was dead, if he did that. Steadying my voice, I said, "I can't go with you. You won't treat me like your daughter, and no one else would treat me as respectable if I did that. Go to Sif and Thor and ask them. They'll tell you. If you find everything's as we say it is, please leave us be."
Father made a gesture, as if to unsheathe his sword, but Mother held him back. "You're not my daughter," he said, sheathing it. "I never want to see you in my house again." He turned on his heel and left, the storm of his red cloak swishing around him, and Mother hesitated before going after him.
I stood until they had disappeared, but they didn't come back. It was more charitable, perhaps, for him to disown me than to bring war here, but it stung no less that he had to be dead to me while he was still alive. A sob escaped the prison of my chest, and all the tears I had held in for so long came pouring out. I pressed my head into the hollow under my husband's chin, and he held me like a child.
"He doesn't treat you like a father should," he said.
I struggled to swallow my tears, to say something. "Did it hurt when you left your parents? Do you miss them?"
He paused. "No."
"Then you're lucky." Stepping away from him, I dried my eyes on the corner of my sleeve. "I'll try to be like that. I'll try to be strong."
He took my face in my hands. "You're very strong. You faced him, and he was the one who left." Smiling at me, he said, "Let's go inside. The evening meal will be cold."
My lips cracked into a smile. This was my future, every moment of it, not back with my parents, and there was no use being sad about it. "We can't have that."
Mother was correct about married couples sometimes being lonely. No matter how hard Loki tried to cheer me up, it still ached that my parents and my brothers would give me up so easily. Was I really making the correct choice, or just a rash one?
Then Odin called a council of the Æsir, which I think Loki hoped would distract me, about a stranger who had come to the city saying he'd build a wall. Odin had agreed to it without asking the price until a few days ago, when he'd gone to check on its progress. The builder had said he wanted no less than the Sun, the Moon, and Freyja for it! That was a builder who thought very highly of himself, and a Jotun, too, as was obvious from his price.
That was why Odin called the meeting, to ask what should be done about it. That was the first time we came to a council together, as husband and wife, and of course everyone stared at us as we entered, hand in hand, but I held up my head and pretended I didn't notice. Odin looked at us directly, and Sif smiled. The heaviness in my stomach lifted somewhat. As long as Odin recognized it, it would surely be more respectable in the other's eyes.
"As I'm sure you know," Odin began as we took our seats beside each other, "I called you here regarding the wall—" It loomed outside the windows of the hall like the ridges of a snake's back, the builder working on it still, while his horse brought him massive building stones.
"I know that," Freyja snapped. "He named me as part of the price of your precious wall. I won't go! I'm not that kind of woman." Frey touched her arm, trying to calm her, but she was in a fury.
"That's why I called this council," Odin said, a little severely. "It's been impressed upon me the need to build a wall to protect our city, and this man is the fastest mason I have ever seen. I know it was foolish of me to agree without asking him to name his terms, and to fall for the ploys of a Jotun, no less. What I am asking you is if there is a way to keep our wall without paying his price." If Odin himself was without an answer, who would have one?
"Name a different price," Frey suggested.
"I did," Odin said, "and he refused."
"Name a different builder," Thor suggested.
"We both know that isn't feasible," Odin said.
I whispered to Loki, "How does Odin think he can have a wall built for free?" It was beyond me.
But not beyond my husband, it seemed. "I've been thinking about it," he whispered back, "and—"
Odin's cool grey gaze fixed on us. "Is there something you're saying to your wife you could say to all of us, Loki?"
There were a few snickers, but Loki jutted his chin and said, "Tell him to continue to build his wall, but, if he's not finished by Midsummer, he'll not have his price."
"That would be breaking an oath." Odin's eye narrowed.
"Not if he breaks it first. You want your wall, don't you? You don't have any other ideas, do you?"
The hall was silent. What did my clever and reckless husband have in mind?
"I will tell him," Odin said at last, "but, if this fails and costs all of us, you'll wish the Svartalf had taken your head."
Loki swallowed but said, "It won't fail."
When the council had ended, Freyja leaving with a sigh of relief, not that she thanked my husband for it, I pulled Loki to the side. "What are you planning that might cost your head?" I asked. I couldn't afford to have gambled and lost him, too. Not so soon after Father.
"I wish I could tell you," he said quietly, "but it's confidential, and I'm afraid others might hear of it."
"I'm your wife. You can tell me anything. I don't want you to lose your head; I love it too much, even if it does get you in trouble."
He laughed and pulled up a handful of grass, which he twisted into a figurine and pressed into my hand. A horse. "Sviatopolk," I whispered. The builder's horse. I placed the figurine into my pocket, and he said no more about it.
News about the wall kept the Æsir occupied, especially with it so visibly rising around the city. Everyone made a kind of sport of watching it. Rather than the builder's progress slowing, he began to increase his production, so it seemed he'd finish before Midsummer. Freyja confronted Loki about this a few days before Midsummer as we stood by the halls to follow the builder and his horse beginning work on the gate. "You made him make that stupid promise that, if he wasn't finished by Midsummer, he couldn't have his price. That's what's making him work twice as hard. It's your fault we'll lose the Sun and Moon. It's your fault I'll have to go to Jotunheim with that—that—" She didn't or couldn't finish her sentence. The other Æsir crowded around Loki, threatening to crush him and blaming him for the wall, though it had not been his fault to start with. The grass horse weighed in my pocket.
"Enough! Get back!" I shouted, trying to push them away, but it was no use. He'd almost completely vanished under them.
"Silence!" Odin roared, slamming his wand against the flagstones as he approached. "What is the meaning of this?" The Æsir backed away. Loki straightened his cloak and swiped at his bloody lip; I dabbed at it with the hem of my cloak, but he lowered my hand.
"You'll have your Sun and Moon and Freyja," he said, his voice taut, as he started away, "and your wall. By Midsummer. I promise you that. If I don't come back for a while," he added to me, "don't wait for me, Siggi."
Siggi. That was the first time he'd called me that. "Loki—" I called after him, but he was gone.
"Siggi," someone snickered.
"Oh, damn your wall," I burst out. "There are more important things than stone."
True to his word, he didn't return the next night. Or the next. Or the next. I didn't sleep much, without him beside me, or eat much, without him to keep me laughing at meals. The servant, Haena, tried to comfort me and tell me stories, but it did little. I was all alone now, without any company at all, for the first time I could remember.
The only difference in Asgard was that the cornerstone of the gate alone was left, but no builder toiled at it, and no horse was to be seen. Midsummer came and went, and the gate wasn't finished. Odin went to the builder, his beard drooping to have to break an oath, and we all waited at the window to his hall. All except Loki.
"Remember your promise," Odin said in a heavy voice. "If you weren't done by Midsummer, you'd have no payment."
"It would've been done," the Jotun raged, "if I hadn't lost my horse. Give me a few days to find him."
"You've had a few days. You're dismissed."
The Jotun was thrown from Asgard, raging all down the road to Jotunheim, until he was out of sight. My heart weighted my stomach like a stone that he'd been cheated, but more so that my husband had to pay for it, too.
"He's gone," Freyja cried. "He's gone! I'm free!"
Thor ran to lift the cornerstone in place, but it took his and Heimdall's and Baldr's combined strength to lift it. The completed gate gaped like a serpent's mouth to swallow the first victim entering it, but everyone ran to call the servants for mead and wine to celebrate. I slipped away quietly into the evening, or so I believed I did.
"Sigyn." Sif faced me, her stomach rounder than a large bushel of apples now that she was six months with child.
"They may be happy," I said softly, "but, if he came back now, they'd call him an oath-breaker and say Asgard was finer without his tricks. They don't care at all."
"I know," she whispered, hugging me and crushing me against her side. "I know that."
It was three more months, the midnight Sun retreating again into the winter of no Sun. The apples ripened, the leaves changed colors, both a fire red, and still he was gone. It'd been a year since I'd met him, and he wasn't there for it. The only solace was Sif's child, a girl she called Thrud. She was beautiful, golden-haired like her mother, and, the first time I was able to hold her, she smiled at me, a smile that lit my heart more than the Sun.
"You're lucky," I whispered to Sif, who sat against one of the benches in her hall, wrapped in fur. "I'd give anything to have a child." Especially a daughter.
"I'm sure you will someday." She smiled as Thrud latched onto one of my fingers. I rocked the child gently on my hip.
"Not if I don't have a husband at night." I handed the girl back to her mother, who wrapped the furs around her.
"He'll return," she tried to assure me.
"It's been three months. It wouldn't surprise me if he's found someone else by now." The words forced their way out before I could stop them.
"Sigyn, don't say that." She straightened up. "I was at your wedding; I know how much he wanted to marry you. How much he begged Thor to help him, though you didn't hear that from me."
"He's always been impulsive; he'll do what he likes. Don't think I don't know how you helped Father keep him away from me or how all the other Æsir talk about how my husband is a nothing. Even if he really is, I have to stand by him and take their scorn because of them." I sank onto the bench beside her, the flames flickering emptily before us. Thrud stared at them, eyes wide, into the silence.
"I'm sorry," Sif said at last. "Your father did ask me to do that, and some of the goddesses had been gossiping—I didn't want you to get hurt. I'd never seen you in love before, and, if that man you'd given your heart to hurt you, I'd have killed him for you. But I also wanted you to be happy, and I knew you'd never be with the suitors your father picked for you. When he came to us, saying you were going to marry, I was surprised, because I didn't think he'd marry anyone, but I was glad for you, because it meant he loved you enough. That's why. I wanted you to be happy. I thought you were."
"I am, but—" Those days we'd spent together, doing nothing, were the happiest of my life, but they'd been so short.
"Then don't let anyone else trouble you. They're petty." Reaching forward, she took my hand. "You don't have to stay by yourself. You're always welcome here."
"I didn't want to trouble you, with the child and—"
"It's no trouble. Thrud and I would love the company." Her smile shone through her eyes, and my face softened in a smile for the first time in months.
So I stayed some with Sif and Thor and Thrud, once the fields were harvested, and Haena said she'd take care of the house while I wasn't there; Faxi came with me. Thrud began to crawl and then to walk while I was there, and I helped with her to give her parents some rest, letting her sit on my lap and play with her, and I ran after her to keep her from falling or finding something to eat she shouldn't. Her first Yule passed in the hall with her clapping as her father dragged in a log almost the size of the hall itself and lighting a huge bonfire that burned for days; her grandparents were there, but she sat most on my lap. Some of her first words, after "Father" and "Mother" were "Sigyn" and "aunt," what Thor had been teaching her to call me even though I told him not to.
It was the winter that brought the difficult times, as though, with the cold, the happiness in the house had melted. Thor and Sif started to argue, first over small things, and then over everything. "Don't let Thrud have that," Sif would say, pulling the girl away from the uncooked meat near the fire, or away from the knife she'd been about to put in her mouth, while Thor would look on and say, "What's the problem? I played with those things all the time when I was her age; it'll make her stronger."
"If it doesn't kill her first," Sif would retort.
"Let me see her," I'd say, trying to smooth the tension over. "She wants to play, don't you?" She'd sit on my lap and play with my string of beads, which she'd grasp at and smile.
Then it would be them arguing over things like finances— "You can't keep having our bulls killed, or we won't have any left," Sif would say, and Thor would reply, "You wouldn't want me to starve, would you?"—and the house itself— "Why did you throw out that tapestry?" Sif would ask, and Thor would say, "I thought it was ugly"—until I had to leave. I was in the middle of a battlefield, and, with spring and planting coming as my excuse, I returned to my empty house.
Sif brought Thrud over to visit often, saying she had asked about me when I wasn't there, but she and Thor brought their bickering, too. I kept Thrud company and tried to pay them no mind, and she happily shoved mouthfuls of dirt in her mouth as we worked in the fields.
As summer drew closer and the Sun heated the world again, things began to overheat here. Freyja lost her husband to a necklace; the goddesses gossiped about how she had had to bed Svartalves for four nights in exchange for a necklace they'd made, Brisingamen, and she'd searched as far as Niflheim when her husband had disappeared afterwards. In a way, Sif lost her husband, too, and the two of them stopped coming to my house at all. It was quieter than usual when the goddesses met to work. Sif sat in silence with her hand pressed to her mouth, and Freyja's face was still flecked with amber tears.
"He says I nag too much," Sif said quietly to me. "Do I nag too much?"
"Of course not," I said. Then I stopped. She had been the one wanting everything to be correct in their house; maybe that's what he'd meant by nagging.
"It's just Thrud; I wanted everything to be right for her," she continued. "Now I've heard he has another woman or two, probably prettier than I am."
"No one's prettier than you are," I tried to assure her. "He's being foolish, but he'll come around."
"Maybe there'll be a man more handsome than he is," she said, trying to smile. "I'm jealous of you; not everyone is as devoted to their spouse as you are."
"Me?" I'd thought no one could be jealous of me, not with who I'd married.
"That reminds me," Freyja said to me, a little loudly, "do you know what the Volva in Niflheim told me, about where trolls come from?"
"No." As far as I knew, they'd always been there.
"Your dear husband. She said he'd swallowed a witch's heart and mothered all of them. He's mothered more children than he's fathered."
My face seared. "That's not true."
"I must be, if it came from a Volva. She knows everything. Ask your husband."
"You see what I mean?" Sif whispered, but I couldn't say another word.
What Freyja told me spun around my mind for days. Maybe that was the kind of thing he'd gotten into while he'd been gone, or maybe it was before we'd married. It seemed I didn't know about half what he'd done then; I had no heart to ask him. Or maybe it was before I knew him at all, and it didn't matter. Should I ask him, should I not, if I ever saw him again? Would I ever see him again?
It was about Midsummer when Thor came to me alone. Before I could ask why, he said, "There's a great clamor at the gate. I heard it's because Loki's back; I thought you should know."
My shovel immediately fell to the ground. "Loki!" Something between a sob and a strangled cry escaped my chest. I didn't stop to saddle the horse. My feet tore almost faster than Thor could run towards the gate before I could decide whether to strangle or hug my husband to death. In the end, I did both, throwing my arms around his neck as he picked me off the ground and trying to kiss him long enough and fiercely enough to make up for a year without him. "Siggi, I can't breathe," he choked out, putting me down.
"I'm sorry," I said, withdrawing my arms from around his neck as some of the watching gods and goddesses tittered. We always knew how to make a scene. They stared at us with a frigidity that chilled the summer warmth.
"I was wondering if you'd come back, oath-breaker," Odin said to Loki. "The justice of Asgard has taken a fall since you tricked the Jotun by stealing his horse."
"It was you who broke the oath," Loki retorted, "by making an offer you had no intention of following. But I've brought you a horse anyway, if you want him. He's young, but he'll be the fastest horse who ever lived." His boasting might not have been in vain. The colt was young and unsteady, blinking in the light at the crowds, but he was beautiful, with a grey coat shining like dusky starlight, and he had eight strong legs. A horse like that would be the envy of anyone.
"I'll take him," Odin said, leading him by the mane, "and call him Sleipnir, for he looks young and sleepy yet. You might've repaid us this time, but I'll never forget how you got this horse, or where he came from." Odin led the colt, walking trustingly beside him, towards the stables, and the rest of the Æsir followed, leaving us alone.
"That's why you were gone so long." My lip quirked into a sideways smile; it was hard to be angry about such a beautiful horse. "I never thought I'd be the stepmother of a horse!"
"I never thought I'd be the mother of one." He caught my eye, and, for some reason, maybe it was the absurdity of it, we both burst out laughing. Encircling his arm around my waist, he said, "Let's go home."
In a strange way, I had two adopted children, and both Thrud and Sleipnir were growing fast and doing wonderfully. But I kept hoping for one I could truly call my own.
That came sooner than I thought. I had never been ill much in my life, but I started waking up nauseous for days in a row, for no reason I could understand. Usually I was awake before my husband, so I was at least able to run to the bathhouse before being violently sick and then run back before he woke, so I could act as though nothing was the matter at all. After a few days of this, Haena, who rose even earlier than I to stoke the fire, began to catch on. "Is there something the matter, dear?" she asked me softly one of those mornings, when I helped her finish the porridge. She'd given up a long time ago insisting I didn't have to help her; I was too stubborn, she said. "You look pale these last few days. I rather thought you were a very strong girl."
"It must only be a cold; it'll pass," I said, just as quietly. "Please, don't tell Loki."
"Why not?" She ladled the steaming porridge into wooden bowls.
"I—" How could I explain it? "I don't want him to trouble himself over me."
"You're his wife; why shouldn't he? If I had a husband, I'd want him to fuss over me."
"I've never been fussed over in my life." It was true. As soon as I'd been old enough, my parents had had me in the barn on a horse or feeding the pigs and cows; they weren't going to let me get sick. And, when my brothers came, they didn't have time to worry themselves about me, so I never asked them about things or bothered them.
"What's this?" Loki slid onto the bench near the hearth, running his hands through his disheveled hair. I almost dropped the hot bowl as I handed it to him. Nearly two years, and I couldn't stop admiring how beautiful he was, even in the morning. I was always a mess then.
"Nothing," I said hastily. The corner of his lips quirked down. He was too clever to believe that; when he wanted to know something, he found a way to know it.
It should've been no surprise to me, then, that Haena told him, even though I asked her not to. But that was also the very rare morning he woke before I did, as I'd been too unwell to even get out of bed. Their quiet voices drifted from the doorway while I struggled to sit up, and then he came and sat beside me. Putting his arm around me and kissing me, he said, "What do you think we should name him?"
I put my hands to my face, somewhere between laughing and red-faced. I should've realized that; I'd been foolish not to. But Mother had done such a job of hiding when the boys had been coming, I hadn't noticed until the last few months, and I'd had so little exposure to it otherwise, besides Sif. Throwing my arms around him, I held close to him, and he to me, the laughter low in his chest filling me up. It was all I'd ever wanted, and yet— "What is it?" he asked, as I drew away, the smile slipping from my face.
How could I say it? "Does it hurt?" I asked, even though that's not really what I meant to say.
"Of course it does." I was the only goddess in Asgard who had a husband who'd know that. "It's the most excruciating pain in all the nine worlds, but—it's worth it."
I shook my head; that didn't help.
He took me by the shoulders and kissed my forehead. "Don't worry about a thing, Sigyn. You and our child will be all right."
I blew out a shaky breath. Maybe some reassurance was all I needed to hear.
It was another several days before I was well enough to get out of bed, and the servant kept bringing me remedies that she said would help. Whether or not they did, I'm still not sure, but they smelled unappetizing, and only under her watchful gaze did I drink them. Not being able to participate in tasks was more difficult, and Haena had to forcibly hold me down in the bed more than once to keep me from trying to go to the fields.
"She's not much of a patient," the servant complained.
"No, indeed." My husband kept by side, bringing me whatever it was I needed and telling me stories to make me laugh and forget myself, until I was able to finally get up. But even then Haena insisted on me not doing any strenuous work outside, besides exercising the horses, telling me she and the other servants would take care of it; she had me inside sewing—I had another member of the family to make clothes for, after all—until I thought I might scream. I had to go out.
So, for the first time in weeks, I went with the other goddesses. As soon as I found Sif, I threw my arms around her and quietly told her my news. "Congratulations," she said, her smile radiating, but her eyes tightened.
"What's the matter?" I asked.
"Nothing's the matter. Oh, I'm so happy for you." She took my hands.
"Will it be a horse or a troll?" Freyja tittered.
My own smile slipped from my face as I spun around. Whether or not the rumor about the witch's heart was true, I couldn't bring myself to ask, though it wouldn't surprise me. But her bringing it up was more than I could take.
"That means a lot coming from someone who scared away her husband by sleeping with Svaralves for a necklace," Sif snapped.
Freyja's hand went to the amber necklace at her throat. "And a lot coming from someone who can't keep her own husband."
Sif lunged towards her, and I was the one who had to restrain her, even though I wanted to do the same.
"Enough," Frigg said. "Don't speak about things like this in public."
My head snapping between Sif and Freyja, I turned and ran. A horse or a troll. A horse or a troll.
Someone caught me by the arm. "Sigyn, wait!" It was Sif.
"What did Freyja mean by what she told you?" I asked her. I was sick a few weeks and already was lost on the latest news.
"Oh—it's—I didn't mean to tell you now—not so soon after—but—" She took a breath. "Thor's women are pregnant."
"Oh." I didn't know what to say to that. "I'm sorry."
"It's all right. It will be." Smiling, she took my arm. "There's—" I'll spare the god's name, for his benefit.
"What news, —?" she asked him as he approached.
"The most joyous, now that I've seen you." He smiled like he'd seen the Sun and pressed her hand. "What news, Sif?"
"Much improved with you here." She played with her hair, tucking the stray strands behind her ears, and flushed pink.
"I came to see if you wanted to walk with me." He held out his hand, and she took it. I kept my head bowed, as if the ground had become very interesting.
"I'd love to." Tucking her hand in his, she said to me, "You can walk home by yourself, can't you?"
"Of course." I mouthed to her, "Thor and Thrud," but she didn't seem to notice. They walked off together, leaving me to make my way alone, slowly and frowning to myself. How could Sif's and Thor's rift be mended, for little Thrud's sake? Could I do anything about it?
"You're very quiet tonight," Loki said after supper, tweaking my hair.
I tried to smile but failed. Should I mention what I'd seen today? It wasn't my business, and, though he was clever enough to know a solution, he didn't see things like this the same way. "It's Thor and Sif," I said finally.
"Thor." The corner of his lip quirked. "He can't contain himself to one basket."
I smacked his arm. "I knew you'd say something like that, you, who'd put Thor to shame." He scooted away from me on the bench. "That's what I thought," I said, crossing my arms. "I don't know why I said anything." Who could I confide to, if not my own husband?
"Go ahead." He played with a feather he'd found. "If you want to speak, I won't stop you."
"Sif seems very upset about it all. You remember how happy she was at her wedding and when she found out she was going to have Thrud; I don't want that wasted. Then I saw her today with another god; I think she's using him to get back at Thor."
"Or maybe she's really in love with him and prefers him to a certain redhead."
"We all know redheaded men are dangerous," I said pointedly.
"Now you're stooping so low as to insult men with my hair color." He threw up his arms. "Is this really about Thor, or is it about something else?"
He was too clever.
"There are rumors—Freyja started them—" I didn't meet his gaze.
"She does seem the type." Putting his arm around me, he said, "You wouldn't be jealous of an old witch, would you? That was ages ago. I barely remember it."
I breathed out shakily. It was probably before I even met him, and it shouldn't matter. "It was a nasty thing to do. Normally when people see hearts, they don't eat them, unless they really are a witch's."
"It could've been powerful." Slipping the feather under my nose, he tickled me with it, until I leaned away, laughing.
"You're trying to distract me."
"Is it working?"
"No—stop—" I laughed, as he took my face in his hands and kissed me.
"I think," he said, as he drew away, "you should leave Sif and Thor to their business."
"I probably should." Brushing my hand through his hair, I added, "I'm sorry I insulted your hair color. I love your hair; I always have. I hope our children have red hair."
He smiled. "Now you're laying it on rather thick."
"Well, I do."
He leaned in and kissed me again.
That promise was rather hard to keep. I spent less and less time with the other goddesses as it became more obvious that I was pregnant, and they whispered about it—"How does she stand him?"—and as Sif spent more time with her god-friend and less with Thor and Thrud or with me. I tried to talk to her, but she didn't want to listen to me. If only I'd had more true friends I could've passed the time with. I stayed longer in the stables with each morning, brushing Faxi's coat until he shined, but it was getting harder to ride him, until Haena banned me from exercising him at all and told me the servants or my husband would take care of that.
That was the hardest part about pregnancy; I couldn't do anything I liked. There was no riding, no running, no dancing, no working outside, none of it. Just resting in bed or resting outside or sitting inside weaving or sewing. As soon as this was over, I'd run as fast as I liked and ride my horse as hard and as long as I wanted.
It was one of those mornings that my husband came into the stables to saddle the horses. "Have you got him shiny enough?" he asked, setting the saddle over the door of his stallion's stall. "He's only going to get dirty again after his run."
"I don't care. He can at least look spotless before then." Faxi nibbled at my shoulder, and I started back, laughing.
"He's trying to tell you something." Loki came up beside me.
"You speak horse?" I asked. It was possible; he'd spent enough time as one.
"I'm fluent in horse-speak," he said, quite seriously, and listened to Faxi's neighing before neighing back.
"What's he saying?" I smiled, my mouth quirking to one side.
"He said he doesn't like that you spend all of your time indoors and not outside with his friends, and he doesn't like that you're sad all the time."
"She's making fun of us, Faxi." He rubbed the horse's nose, and the stallion tossed his head back. "That's what I thought, too."
There was a kick, less a kick than a tap, against my side. "He's moving," I said. "I just felt him." I couldn't help but call the child a boy; even though I wanted a girl, I was so sure this one would be a boy. Maybe because we both only had brothers.
My husband pressed his hand against my stomach and stood there for a moment. Then his face lit up. "So he is." Laughing, he spun me around, and I couldn't help laughing, too, as the world spun with me.
The world spun in a different way when I learned Sif's news. I had been out for a brief walk, one of the few times the servant—rather, my nurse—let me out, when I ran into Sif. "What are you doing?" I asked her. She had Thrud, who was asleep, on her hip.
Pressing two fingers to her lips, she said, "I needed to find somewhere to leave my baby. I'm afraid Thor's women won't take kindly to her—they've said a few hard words about her already—and I'm going to –'s for now. I can't bear it any longer."
"You want me to take her?" Her words sank in slowly, like water into a soapstone pot.
"You are her aunt, though Thor might throw his hammer across the hall if he knew I'd brought her to—" Her words trailed off. I nodded. I understood. "That's another thing, Sigyn. I—I'm pregnant." My jaw dropped slightly. "Don't look at me like that. Just because you'd only have children with your husband doesn't mean everyone else is that way."
"I wasn't—I was just thinking about Freyja. Do you want your husband to leave you, too?"
"You're judging me. It's all right if he has a lover but not if I do."
"I never said that! I'm sorry if anyone has. I only meant you shouldn't leave a marriage like that, without a proper divorce and a way to care for your child, and I never thought you'd want a divorce."
"We can't all be like you, staying with you husband even with scandal after scandal. Some of us have sense enough to leave."
My face burned. I wish she'd slapped me instead. "I love my husband, and I love my child! I thought you loved yours, too!"
Thrud started to stir and began crying, and Sif hushed her, rocking her back and forth. "I'm sorry," she said quietly. "I didn't mean to say such things to you."
"Why would you bring your child here, if you don't trust my husband?" She'd said once she'd wanted me to be happy, that she thought he loved me enough. Was she going back on that now, or had she not been truthful then?
"I trust you, and I trust you to know how to handle him." To Thrud, she said, "You're going to see Aunt Sigyn for a while. Won't you like that?" Thrud smiled, and Sif handed her off to me. I held her on my hip, and she clung to my necklace.
"This can't be forever, Sif," I told her. "You said once you'd love Thor no matter what he did."
"I said, if he loved me." She started back the way she came.
"Sif, wait—" But she was gone.
"I know you told me not to get involved, but I couldn't not," I told my husband as I entered the house with Thrud on my hip. Loki stared at me, for once, with genuine shock, which he quickly hid as I explained what happened.
"He's going to kill us" was the first thing he said.
"Couldn't you think about someone other than yourself for once?"
"I was worried about him killing you, too."
"I don't think he would." Turning to Thrud, I said, "Do you remember Loki?" But she hid her face against my shoulder. She'd seen him very little since he'd been back and probably didn't recognize him. "No?"
He made faces at her as she peered shyly from my shoulder until she started to giggle. Taking her from me, he tossed her in the air and caught her—"Be careful!" I said—but she only laughed harder. "I think she'll fit in," he said.
My stomach tied in knots at the reaction Thor would have when he found his daughter here, but that worry faded at being able to have her here for now. She seemed very taken with Loki, who liked to play games with her, and she made her own game of running from us and trying to hide until we found her; soon she said his name as much as mine, if not more. Sometimes, she went for slow rides on Faxi, and we walked alongside her to make sure she didn't fall. Haena seemed to like her, too, feeding her as much as she could eat and saying she needed to get stronger. It wasn't fair to Sif and Thor, but it was almost like having a daughter and a wonderful distraction; it would be difficult to give her up.
But it had to happen. It had been no more than a month when, one evening, after Thrud had been put to bed, there was a pounding at the door. "Open up! I know you're there!"
Loki and I exchanged glances. "Thor," he muttered.
"Could you be a little quieter?" I asked as we opened the door. "You'll wake Thrud."
"Then she is here!" he thundered. "Kidnapper! Thief!" He made to seize Loki by the throat, but I stood between them.
"No. Sif brought her here," I told Thor, and he took a step back.
"You see?" Loki told him.
"Please, let me handle this," I whispered to him, and he fell silent, staring at the ground.
"Sif? Why would she bring our child here without telling me? I searched everywhere for her!"
A twinge of guilt tugged my heart. "She was afraid your—women—might try to hurt her, now that they're to have their own children. They always talk about the jealousy of stepmothers, and mistresses are probably no different."
"She left without a word to go to her lover, and she took my child, too—to be corrupted by a thief—" Loki made a protesting sound— "I don't see how that's fair."
"I don't see how it's fair that you've been ignoring your wife. She loves you, but she doesn't think you love her. If you do, you should go back to her; if you don't, couldn't you end it cleanly, instead of leaving her in suspense?"
"I—" Thor sputtered. "I do love her."
"Then why don't you tell her so? Have you considered things from her perspective? She found someone she thought would adore her because she believed you no longer did. If she knew you did, and she knew for sure you did if you gave up your mistresses, then she'd come back to you."
"I—We both have other children, or will, and we can't give them up."
"I know. I'm not asking you to, though; if you kept them at your own hall, and not at theirs, it might be easier. What I'm asking you is that you right things with Sif; until you do, I can't give you Thrud back."
"No. She needs her parents and a stable home and a chance to do the things she likes without everything around her being tumultuous. I've tried to give her that, but I'd rather it be you who does."
There was a stirring behind us, and Thrud appeared wide-eyed in the door, Haena behind us. "I'm too old to be running after little children—Oh!" She stopped at the sight of Thor, his hair on end and his eyes red.
"Father?" Thrud looked up at him with a hopeful smile.
"Thrud! Daughter!" He held out his hands to her, but she paused, gazing up at us.
"Aunt Sigyn. Uncle Loki?"
"Remember your promise," I said quietly to Thor.
Loki knelt beside her and said, "You need to go with your father, Thrud, but you can visit us. Wouldn't you like to see your Aunt Siggi and Uncle Loki again?"
"Yes!" She flashed her wide smile, with a few white teeth showing. Grinning back, he pulled a jingle from behind her ear and handed it to her; she stared at it, wide-eyed. Kneeling with her, too, I gave her my strand of beads and put it around her neck. She giggled and clutched at them.
"Go with your father," I told her. "I think we'll see you again soon." She paused before hugging me around the neck, and I held her close for a long moment before having to let her go.
She ran back to Thor, who picked her up and started away without a backward glance, but she turned to wave at us until they were gone.
"I'll miss her," I said quietly, dropping my hand to my stomach. "I hope Thor will do what I asked."
"You were brilliant, Siggi," Loki said. "You had him quaking."
"I learned from the master," I smiled up at him, "though it wasn't my intent to scare him."
"You've really been picking up your lessons."
I laughed a little, but my smile faded as I said, "I know she's not mine, but I wish she were. I wish I could have a girl."
"They seem like more trouble than boys."
I made a face at him. "You liked Thrud; I know you did." Sighing, I said, "I guess it's not for us to choose. The Norns probably have already decided."
"I expect they have." He looked up at the black sky, crowned with bare branches. "It's dark and cold out. Let's go inside."
The days began to grow colder and brought more rain with them, and the roof could no longer stand up to it. The rain dripped and dripped through the roof near the hearth; I put a bowl under it, but it was too small to keep up with the rain. "Loki," I called to him, gasping as I bent down to pick up the bowl again. "How long has this roof been here?"
"I don't know. I expect since my grandparents were here. No one's lived here since then."
They hadn't been here in years. "It needs to be changed. I won't have a child in a wet house."
"I'll get to it when it stops raining."
But days passed, and, even when it didn't rain, it wasn't done. "It's not raining now," I called to him from the window, "so the thatch won't get wet."
That day came and went, and the rain began to come back, and still it wasn't done. I had just put down another bowl when there was a knock at the door. "Sif!" I waved her in from the drizzle that was starting. "Come in. You'll catch cold, though I think you might in here, too. I—apologize about the state of the roof," I added with a sideways look at Loki, who started towards the door, muttering something about wanting to leave us alone. "It's old and in need of repair." Settling with a wince on the bench, I said, "I don't know what's gotten into him lately. I think he's avoiding me. Every time I ask him to fix it, he's not there for the rest of the day."
"That's husbands," she said. "Sometimes you have to be strict with them. Speaking of that, I came to thank you. I don't know how you convinced Thor."
"It wasn't me," I smiled. "It was Thrud."
"Thrud?" She stared.
"Yes. She's very—persuasive."
"Oh. I see." Sighing, she said, "It'll be a while before things are all right again, but they'll get there. I hope."
"I'm sure it will."
"I hope—Thor will be able to accept my child. I think I'll call him Ullr."
"I—" I didn't know what to say. The only reference I had was Sleipnir, and it was hard not to like a horse. "Surely he'll take to little Ullr. If it were my place, I'd welcome him."
"You're optimistic. It's not always so easy, but—I'll try with his sons, when they come, to treat them like my own." She glanced towards the leaking ceiling. "Remember when we were young, and we didn't have to deal with things like this?"
"We still are young. It's only been about two years."
"You know what I mean. Husbands and children and such."
"I know." The ring on my finger sparkled in the firelight. "I know. We couldn't have stayed that way forever; we have to grow up sometime. I'm not sure I'd want to have stayed with my parents. I have more freedom here. I can do what I like without worrying about my father trying to marry me off all the time."
She smiled. "I guess that is one benefit to being married. You can't be married again at the same time."
After Sif left, and the rain let up, Loki still hadn't come back. I shouldn't have been too worried. He sometimes went away for the day and wasn't back until the night; usually, he said he'd been with Hoenir and Odin. When I'd asked them, they'd confirmed it. But night was coming on, and he still wasn't back.
"I'm going to look for him," I said to the servant as I put on the cloak.
"In your condition?" She hurried forward to the door.
"I'm only going as far as Valholl." I shut the door behind me and hurried into the darkening night, pulling my cloak closer about me and shivering. I didn't even make it as far as Valholl. Odin on Sleipnir, who'd grown up beautifully, met me partway. He seemed even more haggard and old than before. "Where is your husband?"
"I was going to ask the same of you. I thought he'd be with you. Has he done something?"
"He was with me, yes, and my brother, Hoenir, until an eagle carried him off. I'm not sure where he went after that, but Idun's gone missing, and some of the goddesses said they last saw her with him. That's why I wanted to know if you knew where your husband is. Wherever he is, she's likely to be, also."
"I don't know. He doesn't tell me everything." I brought my hand down from me face; it was starting to wrinkle without Idun in her garden of apples. Much though I didn't want him to see me in that condition, none of us would improve unless we found Idun. "Let me help you."
"No. You're too frail at the moment. Stay at your own house, and we'll find him."
There was no arguing with Odin, just as there was no reasoning with Loki, though I wanted to tell Odin I was the only one who could do a decent job of it. Nodding, I started to return to the house, but, as soon as he had gone, I started for Idun's orchard instead to wait.
When I reached it, it was full dark, but, even in the gloom beyond the wall, the apples were faded and withered. "Looking for Idun?" came a voice, and I stifled a cry.
"Actually, I was looking for you," I said, trying to set my mouth in a stern line. "You don't look too spry." His hair had started to tinge with grey in the shadows.
"Neither do you." He didn't meet my eye. "This is, oddly, the last place they'd look."
"Where's Idun?" When he didn't answer, I repeated, more harshly, "Where's Idun? All the gods are looking for her. If she isn't found, we'll all be dead as Svartalves by Sunrise. Where is she?"
He definitely didn't look at me then. "With the Jotuns. Thiazzi wanted her."
"You can't just give away goddesses."
"He swooped down on me as an eagle and held me down on an ice floe until I agreed to his demands. He would've let me freeze to death if I hadn't. And he called my father the most shameful of Jotuns. What should I have done?"
"I wouldn't have wanted you dead, but it's death by an ice floe or death by not being able to have her apples. Only that's all the gods and goddesses."
"So you're saying you would've rather me have died on an ice floe than for all the Æsir to die from not getting her apples?"
"No! That's not what I meant—" Was he going to go the same way Thor did, thinking I didn't love him?
"It doesn't have to be either or," he started, but the clatter of horses stopped him.
"This is convenient," Odin said. Thor, whose beard had gone almost white, glared at Loki from his horse. "Even though I told you to go home, Sigyn, you've done us a service by finding him," Odin continued. "Now you should go home and wait. Loki—you'll return Idun to us, or we will force you to." He held tightly to his spear, and Thor to Mjollnir.
"I'll—I'll go to Jotunheim at once." Ducking, Loki shifted into a falcon and flew away.
"Sigyn—" Odin said to me.
"I'm staying here," I said, lifting my chin, and he sighed.
"Ready the fire," he said to the other gods.
"Fire?" I asked.
"For Thiazzi. I doubt he'll give up Idun that easily."
Most of the gods rode away towards the wall, where a fire soon blazed against the black sky. I twisted the fabric of my dress and untwisted it, unable to say a word, and the night sky still remained empty of shadows. Would they come back? Had Thiazzi already found them and stopped them?
The stars had shifted before dark shapes grew larger against the sky, a nut clutched in the talons of a falcon and an eagle trailing them; both sailed over the wall, and I blew out a breath I didn't realize I was holding in. But the eagle following them wasn't so lucky, diving to follow them and burning in the flames. My hand shook at my mouth. "Was that necessary?" I asked Odin.
"Yes," he said grimly. "He won't let her go, so the only choice is death."
"Doesn't he have a family?"
"What will she think?"
"She does nothing but ski; I doubt we're in any danger from her. Even if we are, we'll be ready."
My hands pressed against my stomach. It was her every right to take vengeance, and I couldn't say I blamed her if she came.
Idun dropped to the ground beside her garden, her usually rosy face pale but otherwise mostly unhurt, and Loki landed beside her. I put my arms around him, and he held me there for a moment. Odin cleared his throat and said, "Idun, the apples."
"Of course." She opened the gate to the garden, the apples returning to their bright golden hue and the trees perking up once more. Smiling as the other gods returned, one by one she gave them an apple, and their youth and color returned. At the last, she handed one to Loki and to me each. "I don't think we deserve it," I told her. Not when our family was the cause of the trouble.
"Of course, you do. You're Æsir, too."
I bowed my head. "Thank you." Quietly, I asked her, "What did he tell you to convince you to go?"
"That—there might be apples as beautiful as mine, and he wanted to see if I'd agree," she whispered back.
"I wouldn't believe such things. There are no apples like yours."
"I won't believe them now." She half-smiled. "You're welcome to come here any time you'd like. My husband and I would enjoy it."
"Thank you," I said again. "You're very kind."
When we got back to the house, I told Loki, "What were you thinking?"
"I already told you," he said defensively.
"You found him," Haena said, stifling a yawn as we entered the house.
"I found him, all right." I crossed my arms.
"What are you angry about?" he asked. "Everything turned out all right."
"For whom? For Thiazzi? For his daughter?"
"I know them, Sigyn. They're not the kind of people you should waste time feeling sorry for."
"You certainly don't waste time feeling sorry for anyone. Not even gentle Idun. You shouldn't kidnap people; it's not moral."
"What should I have done, since you seem to know how to handle every situation?"
I wince. "You could have told Thiazzi you'd do what he told you so he'd let you go and then just not done it."
"What about when he comes knocking on the gate to Asgard? What then?"
"The other Æsir would no doubt have taken care of him."
"They would no doubt have sent me to do that."
"Which isn't undeserved, since it's your problem."
He stalked towards the door. "He always liked to bully me, so I can't say I'm sorry he's gone."
The steady drip of the roof began again in the background. "Where do you think you're going? Since it's daylight and you're up, fix the damn roof before I string you up from it!"
"Fine!" The door slammed behind him.
Kicking one of the pans at the hearth, which went skittering against the floor, I sat down hard on one of the benches. "Sometimes, I don't know if I'm dealing with a husband or a child."
"That sounds strongly like bitterness," Haena said. "In a little while, perhaps you'll feel differently."
I just heaved a sigh.
As the day wore on and the rain gave way and the roof finally stopped leaking, it took too much effort to be angry; I was too tired. When he returned that evening, he said, "You'll be glad to know your roof is fixed."
"Thank you." I shouldn't have spoken to him so harshly about it, but at least it had finally gotten done. As he slung himself at the table, I ran my fingers through his hair, and he leaned against me. "I'm sorry; I shouldn't have—I didn't mean to sound like I was nagging you. That's not why you left, is it?" That's what Thor had said about Sif.
"What are you talking about?" he asked.
I let myself smile a little. "I've never told you enough—that I love you. That's all I meant to say." I never wanted it to seem like I'd taken him for granted; he was all I had.
"I love you more than that."
"How much more?"
"More than this forest, than fire, than all the fish in the world."
"Or the earth."
"Or the Nine Worlds."
I laughed softly and pressed him closer. "You win."
After a pause, he said, "There's something interesting that happened you might want to know about."
"About Thiazzi?" I guessed.
"Close. His daughter, Skadi, came. She came for—recompense by asking to marry one of the gods. They made her choose by their feet. I think she wanted to marry Baldr, so she tried to pick the prettiest feet, but she picked the cleanest ones instead." He choked back a laugh. "Frey and Freyja must be very surprised about their new stepmother."
"Njord," I murmured, and he burst out laughing.
"She was so angry about it. She said she wouldn't marry him unless one of the gods could get her to smile. I was the only one who could."
That I wasn't surprised about. "I can't imagine that marriage lasting long. If she likes to ski and he likes the ocean, where will they live?"
"That's for them to figure out," he said, still grinning.
Things could've come to a harder end than they did, but poor Skadi still didn't seem to have gotten what she really wanted. "I wouldn't like to have to choose a husband by his feet."
"I happen to have very pretty feet."
I couldn't help smiling and kissed his forehead. "I know you do."
That was the most excitement Asgard saw for some time. The autumn turned to winter, and the winter to spring. I spent some time with Idun and her husband, Bragi, in their apple orchard, Bragi playing his harp and composing poems about the garden or about whoever came to visit that day for an apple, and Idun talking about flowers and how she cared for them in her own personal garden. It helped take my mind, for a time, off the fact that I hadn't been able to help with the fall harvesting and wouldn't be able to help with the spring planting. I visited some with Sif, too, and we talked for a time.
I didn't know if it was because of the incident with the apples, if that made my child age faster, but he came a little sooner than he should've. He kept me up all that night, kicking and kicking. I sat up in bed, clutching at my side, and my husband pressed my hand.
"I think—I think he's coming," I said, my breath in gasps.
"Stay there; I'll be back soon." Without another word, he threw on his cloak and left.
"Where are you going? Wait—" I managed to lower myself by the side of the bed, but then I couldn't get up and had to hold to the bedframe, shouting for him over and over until Haena came.
"Oh, dear. Let's get you to the bathhouse," she said briskly, helping me to my feet by gripping me under the arms, steadying me as we walked, every step painful, to the bathhouse. "Where is that husband of yours?"
"I don't—I don't—"
The door opened, and I almost fell into his arms. But he wasn't alone; with him was a woman who looked almost exactly like him. Laufey. He had to bring his mother here now, of all times.
She didn't seem to mind. With her on one side and the servant on the other, we somehow made it to the bathhouse before I collapsed. My screaming and the pain drowned out almost everything else.
But, when they put him in my arms for the first time, tiny and pink-faced, it was worth all of it. I smiled at him and kissed him on the forehead, and he stared up at me with a serious expression.
"He looks like you," Laufey said.
It was true; he had the same blue eyes but brown hair—shame it wasn't red, but there was always another time—and the same sharp chin. "I think he has your nose." I touched his tiny straight nose, and he sneezed. I laughed. "He's beautiful."
I spent the rest of that day resting in bed with him in my arms and my husband beside me. The first time he saw his father, he stared at him, and when Loki tried to pick him up, he started to cry. "He doesn't know who you are," I said as he handed him back to me, and I held the baby until he settled down again.
"He will." But Loki looked a little injured.
After a while of staring at Loki, the baby finally seemed to decide he could be trusted, grabbing him by the finger and holding on tight. Loki took him on his lap and bounced him lightly. "What do you think we should call him?"
"I don't know." I'd thought about it a lot, but I couldn't decide on a name without seeing him.
"You name him, and I'll name his brother."
"Not another. Not yet." Not so soon after the first one.
"No, but sometime."
What should I call him? There was my father, and my brothers, but they'd begun to seem far away, and his brothers, but I'd never met them, and a child should never be named after someone who was alive. There was Fárbauti, who was no longer alive, but I'd never known him, either.
"Vali," I said at last. Like Valholl. Odin had wanted us together. "We'll call him Vali."
"Then Vali it is."
The first several days we barely slept at all, with Vali waking in the middle of the night and crying until he was fed or had been rocked back to sleep, and, during the day I still wasn't strong enough to get out of bed much, so I stayed there with Vali. The days and nights seemed out-of-place. Without Laufey there to help with the household, and the servants to help with the planting, I don't know how I could've managed. She helped show me how to take care of a child, which I'd always imagined my own mother helping with, and told me about her sons.
"I remember when they were about that age," she said with a smile as Loki held Vali and showed him a jingle, which he hid and then looked at his father as if to ask where it was; pulling it out of Vali's sleeve, Loki handed it back to him.
"He'll be another trickster," Loki laughed.
"Oh, dear," I muttered. One was enough to handle.
"You need to keep a watch on him, or his father will teach him all kinds of tricks," Laufey said. "He was always the most for pranks of all of them."
"That's not how I remember it," Loki said. "My brothers always bullied me; that was the only way I'd ever get any attention. Once I told Mother they'd been spying on the Jotunesses who lived nearby when she told them not to, and they took me to the stables and threw me in the horse manure for it. I smelled like horse shit for a week."
I put my hand to my mouth, but it was hard not to laugh at the image of that.
"Don't tell Thor that," Loki told me. "I'd never hear the end of it."
"Why would I do that?" I asked, still grinning. "I'd never tell him a thing." He didn't need to know.
"I do remember that," Laufey said. "What did you do to them after that?"
"Put bloodied fish guts all over their beds; it was worth it."
"You probably deserved what they gave you," she said.
"She's such a mean mother," he complained to me.
"I'm sorry," I said, "but I don't have any sympathy for you." As long as my children never put fish guts in anyone's bed...
It was about the time I was finally able to get out of bed for a little while that Thor's sons were born, and there was of course going to be a feast for Modi and Magni. I wanted to go for Vali's sake, to find him some playmates, but Laufey said I shouldn't do anything too strenuous yet, and Vali was too little. In the end, I won that one, saying it wasn't far, and there wasn't anything too strenuous about a feast; if we needed to, we could leave.
So we went to Thor's hall, the four of us, that night, and almost everyone was there. Idun and Sif stopped to hold Vali, though he didn't let them for long. "He looks just like you," Idun said.
"Congratulations," Sif said as she handed him back to me, and he hid his face against my neck.
"I'll have that to say to you soon," I told her, as she was heavily pregnant.
"Thank you," she said, pressing her hands against her stomach.
Thor came up to Loki and thumped him on the arm. "You finally did it, eh?"
"Might say the same to you," he laughed. Modi and Magni were just like their father, redheaded and so burly they looked bigger than newborn; if they were as strong and angry as their father and their names suggested, Vali wouldn't last long in a fight with them.
"It's been a long time since we've seen you here, Laufey," Njord, who was also there, said to her. "You were still young then." His wife, Skadi, tall and serious, just stared on.
Laufey smiled but said nothing. Some of the other Æsir started to gather around her with their usual complaints—Can't you discipline your own son? He kidnapped Idun! What about Sleipnir? And Sif's hair—and, in all of it, Loki slipped away. I followed him—I couldn't bear to stay a moment longer—and Laufey came soon after.
"I don't want it said any of that was because of me," she said. "I did what I could, but I can't be held responsible for anyone else's behavior."
"I know," I said quietly.
It wasn't surprising she left soon after, and I was on my own again. There were such times as this I wanted my mother there, and she and Father should've been able to see their grandson. But, when I tried to tell Loki I wished to take Vali to visit my parents, he said, "That's not a sound idea."
"Why not? Your mother was able to see him. How's that any different?"
"She—she's my mother. We're talking about your father, the one who disowned you and made you cry. Why would you want to see him?"
"For once," Haena said, as she swept the floor, "I agree with him."
"But he's my father. How could I not go see him?"
In the end, Loki gave in, saying, "I'm not letting you go alone."
"You can't let him see you," I said. That meeting would not go smoothly.
"Don't worry; he won't."
So it was with him as a snake, slithering quietly though the undergrowth, and with Vali in my arms that I went back to my father's house, where I hadn't been in two years, which to Midgardians might've seemed like a thousand or more. At first it seemed the door wouldn't open at all, but at last Father threw it open, his face as ruddy and scarred as it had ever been. He took one look at me and started to slam the door, but I ran forward. "Wait, Father! Don't turn away your only daughter and grandchild."
"I don't remember having any daughter, and I certainly don't have any grandchildren."
By this time, Mother and the boys, who had grown so much they were almost unrecognizable, appeared behind him and stared at me like a stranger. "Please, let her in," Mother said, laying her hand on his arm.
He sighed. "I see you don't have that fiend here. Have you given up on him yet? If you leave him and come back here, I'll let you stay."
"So I can look like a loose woman with a bastard son? So you can marry me to a someone who doesn't love me and will never love my child? He may be my son, but he is equally my husband's and equally your grandson."
"If he's that fiend's, then he's not my grandson, for I have no grandchildren by him." The door slammed, even as Mother tried to tell him, "Stop!"
Then Loki was there, drawing me close and whispering, "What did you expect, Siggi?"
I leaned against his shoulder, tears squeezing their way out without my permission. "You were correct. I should've listened to you. You're my life now, not him."
I never went back there.
Maybe Vali knew I was upset and tried to cheer me up; I'll never be able to say for sure what he was thinking. But one day not long after that, he disappeared. I searched for him everywhere in the house, under the table, by the hearth, under the bed, but only found a little mouse and started to search outside when Loki came in. "Have you seen Vali anywhere?" I asked him. "I've been looking but can't find him." If anyone could find Vali, it'd be him.
He paused for a moment, his mouth quirking to once side, and then pulled the mouse from under the bed; it turned into Vali, his face split into the first smile he'd ever given. "Siggi, he is a shapeshifter!" Loki kissed me and tossed Vali in the air, grinning.
"Oh, no," I muttered. Two in one house.
It certainly made life with Vali more interesting. His favorite game became hiding, which he succeeded at too much, and I spent most of my time searching for him in the woods, the only thing giving him away in the end his giggling. Modi and Magni and Thor, and Ullr after he came, found it less amusing than Vali and Loki did. Modi and Magni quickly gave up playing Vali if hiding became the game—like their father, they preferred running and wrestling, which Vali quickly got left behind in—and Thor complained we were teaching Vali to be a sneak like his father, even when I tried to tell him the boy did it on his own (all right, with a little encouragement from his father).
That was how the first several months with Vali went, playing hiding and trying to teach him other games like ball, which he liked to kick or throw more than anything, and the first year came sooner than expected.
The boys were playing ball outside Thor's hall, Modi and Magni, and Ullr and Vali, and Sif and Thrud and I were watching to make sure nothing got too wild.
"How have things been," I asked her quietly, "with—"
She paused. "It's been all right. He's still seen them a time or two with the children, and I suppose I shouldn't resent that, but—then there are other rumors—sometimes he spends the night in Jotunheim. I suppose to him, our deal only meant he couldn't stay with those two." She kept her face carefully composed. "I'm tired of caring. As long as he comes back here, I suppose that's what matters. He treats Ullr well, not like his own son, but close enough."
"I'm glad to hear things seem to be going all right."
Maybe sensing my hesitancy, she said, "You know what they say, secrets usually come later." Was she referring to herself or something else?
"Mother." Thrud pulled at Sif's sleeve. "Can I go play with them?"
"No, absolutely not. It's a boy's game; you'd get hurt."
"But I'm as strong as they are—"
"No, Thrud. Now sit and stay here."
Pouting, Thrud slumped on the grass, pulling up handfuls of it and shredding it.
It was probably wise Sif told Thrud to stay there because, almost as soon as she'd asked, there was a thump, and Vali was on the ground, crying. I picked him up, checking his head for any bruises or cuts, and there was one right on his forehead the size of the ball; hopefully it hadn't hurt his head. "It's all right," I murmured to him, rocking him in my arms until he started to quiet. "We'll go back and get some water, and we'll get it fixed up for you."
"Which one of you did that?" Sif said, her hands on her hips and staring at her son and step-sons. They all pointed at each other. "Modi, Magni—" she started.
"Why do you always pick on my sons? They're just as likely to be it as yours," Thor rumbled as he came bursting from the hall.
"The only thing Ullr is competitive at is skiing," Sif retorted. "Yours are the ones who could knock someone out with a ball."
"I say hers—" he jabbed a finger at Vali—"should learn to act like a man and get even, instead of sniveling on the ground like a coward."
"Thor!" Sif gaped. "He's a baby."
"So are our sons."
"I can't blame him for crying," I said, a little loudly, "for getting hit with a ball. It had to have hurt."
"You're too gentle, Sigyn," Thor said. "You indulge him too much, and you let your husband indulge him too much. When he's older, he'll be running after all the goddesses and cutting off their hair, too."
"He will not! I'll never raise him like that, so don't tell me how to treat my child!" Storming away, I didn't stop, not even when Sif called after me, "Sigyn, wait. I'm sorry."
I was beginning to wish he did have a brother to play with. I had less time to wait than I thought. There were a few mornings that spring I woke up ill and had to run to the bathhouse, but this time I knew what it was. The morning I told Loki, he spun me around and gave me quite a kiss before setting me down. Picking up Vali, he threw him in the air and caught him, and the boy gurgled. "You're going to have a little brother!" his father told him. "Won't you like that?"
"At least he'll have someone else his age to play with now," I said. If they didn't treat each other as roughly as my brothers treated each other.
"Other than Thor's sons?" Loki gave me a sideways smile. Vali still had a bit of a bruise from the ball, though thankfully it didn't seem to have hurt his head any. "Now you know why I had to play pranks on people; it was the only way I could get even."
"I understand that." It might've been why Vali liked to play hiding so much; he was just playing to his strengths.
His smile broadened. "Now you're starting to see things from my point of view." My lips quirked.
What I wasn't looking forward to were the long months in bed again. Once this one was here, I was giving up on having daughters; I couldn't do anymore nine months of bed rest.
Idun and Sif—without her sons—came to visit some, making it a little more bearable. "I brought you something," Idun said, one of those rare times she was seen outside her garden, and she pressed an apple in my hands.
I sat up a little straighter in bed. "Thank you."
"Since you can't come to the garden, I thought I'd bring it to you." I smiled at her. "Where's Vali?" she asked. She and Bragi didn't have sons, which she told me she sometimes regretted, but that was how it was.
"They're at the stream, supposedly learning how to fish, though I think Loki's teaching him how to be a fish instead." She giggled, and my lips twisted upwards slightly. "I hope the next one isn't a skinleaper. I don't think I can stand it."
She got quiet for a moment.
"You don't blame him?" I'd asked her once.
"It wasn't him," she'd said. "He was acting for someone else; I suppose it's my fault Skadi's father is dead."
"No," I'd told her, "it's not your fault. It's just—misfortune. That's all."
Vali came into the room, walking unsteadily and soaking wet, and climbed into Idun's lap. "I'm sorry," I told her. "I should get him dried."
I tried to get up, but she said, "It's all right; I'm glad to see him." To him, she said, "How was your trip? Did you catch a lot of fish?" He nodded. "You did?"
"Yes," he said shyly.
His father came in behind him, also soaked. "What did you do, that you both got so wet?" I asked.
"He fell in," he said, winking at me, and I burst out laughing.
I was in the woods with Vali, walking slowly and bending down to hold his hand to help him practice walking, when he shouted, "Papa! Papa!" and started to run forward. He fell flat on the ground, a large black wolf pup sniffing at him. I grabbed him up, my heart racing. There had never been wolves here. "Puppy." Vali reached out to pet his nose, and the wolf growled low in his throat.
"Vali, that's not a dog," I told him, yanking his hand away. "Be careful."
"Fenris, you wouldn't treat your brother like that, would you?" Loki scratched the wolf's scruff, his voice light, and the wolf sat at his side, those blueish eyes still watching Vali.
My throat had gone very dry. "Brother—" The word came out as a scratch.
Picking up a thick knot of a snake, who wound its way around his shoulder, and putting his arm around a young girl with a half-blue face, whose features were so devastatingly like his, Loki said proudly, "My children. Jormungand, Fenris, and Hel."
Words failed me. At last I choked out, "Who's their mother?"
He didn't answer. Thin, high caws echoed from above, two ravens alighting on a branch, their black, beadlike eyes watching us. "Get them, Fenris!" Loki shouted, and the wolf pup snarled, tearing at the tree and shaking it in an effort to get the ravens, but they flew away, still cawing. "Damn ravens," Loki muttered. "I can't seem to hide them anywhere. If Odin finds them, he'll take them away."
Take them away. Whatever Odin was going to do with them, he probably wouldn't keep them in his stable like Sleipnir. My heart tore. They were part of him, whoever else's they were, and I couldn't let them be ripped away from him; if Odin had taken Vali, I wouldn't have forgiven him. Bending to catch the girl's eye—why couldn't I have had a daughter?—I said, "I'm Sigyn, your step-mother. This is Vali, your brother. You're Hel, aren't you?"
She stared at me so seriously with those copper-green eyes, like Vali had the first time he'd seen me. "I am," she said at last, her voice more mature than might be expected from someone her age. "My brothers can kill a grown man."
"I don't doubt they can," I said, a little unnerved. "They look very strong."
"They're stronger than Odin and Thor. They're going to kill them both someday," she said cheerfully. "Father said so."
"Loki," I whispered to him, but he just ruffled her hair.
"She's proud of her brothers, that's all," he said. "Who wouldn't be?"
They're going to kill Odin and Thor. Was that why Odin wanted them taken away?
Vali didn't seem bothered by the bloodthirstiness of any of his siblings; he acted like he just wanted to play. Holding out a ball to Hel, he waited until she took it, and I knelt on the ground beside her, keeping Vali on my lap. Soon Fenris was lying on the ground, tearing the ball to shreds, and Jormungand was warming himself in a patch of Sun nearby. Vali and Hel played with sticks in the dirt, pretending the sticks were warriors and giving the "dead" ones to Loki and me to hold. "You'll be Valholl and Folkvangr," Hel had said. "You'll be Odin," she told Vali, who'd clapped his hands, "and I'll be Freyja. Half the dead will be yours, and half will be mine." It was a very serious game of warriors. "My warrior killed yours," she said now, "so he goes to Folkvangr." Vali handed the bent stick to me, and I took it and acted like he was at the hall feasting with his fellow warriors, because I didn't know what else to do.
"I'm not sure this is wise," I whispered to Loki.
But he only shrugged. "They're just children."
"That's what I mean." Shouldn't children be happy, instead of talking so much about death?
"This is an—interesting family gathering," Odin said, stopping before us and sliding off Sleipnir.
I swept both Vali and Hel into my arms and stood behind my husband, who kept his hand on Fenris's scruff and Jormungand on his shoulder. Even Sleipnir came and stood beside us, his ears flattened against his head. "He knows who his brothers and sister are," Loki said, patting his neck.
"You can't keep them here," Odin said, "not in Asgard. The Æsir will say they're monsters."
"They're not monsters," I snapped. "They're children, even if they don't look like everyone else's. I can find a place for them here, and they'll never bother anyone. My son needs to have his siblings close."
"You surprise me, Sigyn; I thought you might hate them."
"They're my step-children. I can't hate them, and I won't let you take them away." I'd surprised even myself.
"You see," Loki said. "We didn't ask you to come here, and you're not welcome, so you can go."
"You know their fate, Loki," Odin said. "We had a deal, remember?"
"I don't seem to quite recall the details."
"As slippery as your memory may be, I still remember." To me, Odin said, "These are not Æsir, Sigyn. I've let you keep your son for now because he is one of us, but these are Jotuns and should never have come here." He stepped towards us. Everything happened very quickly after that. Sleipnir reared and kicked Odin in the chest, pulling him down; Fenris leapt at him in a flash of teeth and claws, and Jormungand slithered forward, fangs bared. A streak of red came from the forest ahead of all of us, a woman with wild red hair and torn clothes, bearing down on Odin and slashing every part of him she could find with her fingernails. "Leave my children alone! You're the monster, not them!"
"Angrboda!" Loki called, but he made no effort to pull her away.
Angrboda. It was the first I'd ever heard of her, but it wouldn't be the last.
Struggling to his feet, his face striped raw with fingernail marks, Odin said, "You're mad, Angrboda."
"They call you the Mad One," she growled, spitting out a mouthful of blood and still striking at his feet, "not me. You're the Mad One, taking my children!"
"Take them all away," Odin said to Thor and the other gods as they started coming, "including their mother."
They bound Fenris with a length of rope, dragging him, still growling and snapping, away and led Angrboda, still shouting and cursing, away by the arms, while Thor started a deadly dance with Jormungand and Mjollnir that only ended with Odin casting the serpent far away, into the sea. They took Hel, ripped her from my arms, and Odin said I could still visit her in Niflheim. Even Sleipnir, when Odin led him away, walked with his head down and called back to us with a whinny. I stood there and sobbed into Loki's shoulder, and he wrapped his arm around me. I hadn't been able to save them.
But hadn't part of this been his fault, after all? He'd lied to me about what he'd done in Jotunheim, lied about Angrboda, lied by not saying anything about them. I hadn't been the only one to him. And, if he could've lied about that, what else hadn't he been truthful about?
"Why didn't you tell me about Angrboda before?" I asked, when we returned to the house. "You lied to me!"
"I didn't lie. I never lie. She—" he started defensively, folding his arms.
"You didn't tell the truth, which is almost the same. I thought you cared about me. I thought I was your wife—"
"Odin and the Æsir see it as legitimate—"
"And Angrboda's the concubine? To the Æsir, your children are just monsters!"
"I thought you liked them; I thought you'd have let them stay. Or were you just pretending? Will you be glad when Fenris is chained up, like they will be?"
"No. No! I wanted them here. The Æsir are thieves, stealing them from their parents, and then they'll twist them up to be exactly how they imagine they are. But why couldn't you have told me about them? Is it because I'm not really a wife, so I don't have to be told?"
"No, that's not it; she's not—"
"Have you finally run out of clever retorts? Your tongue turn to lead? You can't even answer a simple question, like what am I doing here, if not just to give you more children, like you need more, because that's all women are for?"
I had finally struck him dumb.
In the silence, Vali started to cry, and I picked him up and started out the door.
"Where are you taking him? Siggi—" His voice broke.
"Don't call me that!" The door slammed behind me, hard enough to rock the house, and I inhaled sharply, the crisp air filling my lungs. In the end, I didn't make it far, just to the stables, huddled in a corner of Faxi's stall with him chewing on my hair. Vali stopped crying and tried to pat Faxi's nose. The horse snorted into his hand, and he tumbled back against me.
Where could I have gone? Not to my father's; he'd already disabused me of that. Sif's and Thor's was already full of children; they didn't need another. I couldn't trouble Bragi and Idun, not when they'd done too much already. Laufey might've taken me in, but Angrboda would probably not have welcomed me in Jotunheim, and that wouldn't have been going very far from the family. And, even if their father was the most hated god in Asgard, he didn't deserve to have all his children ripped away; he smiled so much, it was easy to forget he too could feel pain.
So I stayed.
He found me a few hours later, Vali asleep on my chest and Faxi breathing heavily. "You didn't run very far," he said.
I put my fingers to my lips, motioning to Vali. "I never said I was running." He offered me his hand, but I struggled to my feet on my own.
"You acted like it."
I sighed. "The last time I tried to run away from someone, I ended up here. I suppose it's where I'm meant to be."
"I tried to tell you, but you wouldn't let me. She's not my wife—"
"That makes it so much more tolerable!" I stormed ahead of him into the house.
That night for the first time, there seemed to be too much space between us. I rolled onto my back, but I couldn't get comfortable. Shadows chased their way across the darkened ceiling from the windows. His breath brushed against my skin. "Siggi. Are you awake?" he whispered.
"Why don't you go to her?" I whispered back. "Doesn't she need you more?" Where had they taken her? To her house, so she could rage to the emptiness, or somewhere else?
"She's at home," he said quietly, sounding sure of it. "She's not much of a threat to them, they don't think." I wasn't so sure of that. "Tomorrow, maybe. But I wanted to ask you something."
"What?" My breath came out a little short.
"What are you doing here, carrying my child, if you don't love me?"
A tear squeezed its way down my cheek. "I'm sorry. I shouldn't have shouted such things at you. I was angry, but I didn't mean them. And I never said I hated you. I love you, very much, and I always will." It wasn't the same kind of passion that had driven me to recklessly marry someone I barely knew, the same day he asked me, but it was commitment. It was why I stayed. And, if this didn't make me stop loving him, nothing would.
His fingers twined through mine. "I love both of you. You're both different, but I wanted you to be friends. She's tough, and she sees things differently. What's ugly to some people isn't to her. And you—you're not like the goddesses who care about their hair and their necklaces. The one necklace you had you gave to Thrud; you care about other people. You like riding horses and don't mind getting dirty. You laugh at my jokes, even when other people think they're not funny. You're strong, Sigyn. You're my strength."
More tears splashed on the pillow. He was why I stayed. "I love you," I whispered again, but I meant so much more. I wasn't as gifted with words as he was.
His lips brushed across my cheek, my neck, and lingered on my own lips, his arms encircling me as the space closed.
The next day I still struggled to get out of bed, the world had spun around me so much. Orbits had shifted, and I wasn't near the center anymore. "Are you going to Jotunheim?" I asked him. "I'll go with you." I had to know if Angrboda was all right; I couldn't stay here and be petty about it, when she had suffered so much.
"You should stay, if you're feeling ill," he said, maybe mistaking the cause.
"No, I'm all right. I'll go." I swing back the covers and stood, a little unsteadily. You're my strength. I'd lost all my strength, or maybe I'd just given that away, too. "I'm all right. See?" I tried to smile. He lifted an eyebrow but didn't say anything.
Haena told us she'd take care of Vali, and we went.
I'd never been to Jotunheim. Would it be cold, since it was down farther from here, or desolate, like some said? No, it wasn't so different from Asgard. The houses were much the same, and Angrboda's house was also in a forest, though this one's trees resembled iron. The Iron Wood, I later learned it was called.
"Angrboda?" Loki knocked on the door. When there was no answer, he opened it and went inside, and I followed.
A shape stirred in the corner, amid the pile of rags, and Angrboda's tangle of red hair emerged from it. They weren't rags. They were her clothes. She threw herself at him, pounding her fists against him and shouting. "What are you doing here? And why did you bring that goddess here?"
"It's lovely to see you," he said, trying to pull her off.
"I don't want to see you, and I don't want to see her. Go away! You let them take them! You let them take them, and now Fenris is in chains, and Jormungand is in the sea, and Hel is in the cold!"
Loki succeeded in pulling her off him and sat beside her on the ground. "I didn't want them to take them, but they'll have their revenge. They'll get even with Odin and Thor, and Hel will have all the gods."
"When they're dead," Angrboda said, still glaring at me. "She came here to gloat about it, didn't she? My children are gone, but she still has hers."
I shouldn't have come. "No, that's not why." I knelt on the other side of her. "I wanted to see how you were doing."
She snorted. "Why would you care? If I died, it would benefit you. You'd be the only one then."
I winced. Not even yesterday could I have wished something so cruel, just to be the only one in his heart. "I don't want you to die; I want you to live, for his sake, for your children's, for your own. Please, live." I wanted you to be friends. I have to be his strength. "He told me you're tough, and you see things differently. You have a strong name."
"'Lady of the sorrows.' I'm living it now."
"In sorrow, there's strength. I would be devastated if anyone took my children; I wouldn't give up until I'd tried everything to get them back." A plan started to form in my head, mad, perhaps, but—"Maybe we could get them back."
It was crazy, but at least we'd get Angrboda back, for a little while, even though we never made it farther than Fenris's island; he was even bigger than the last time we saw him, almost a full-grown wolf with glowing amber eyes. "Who's there?" he said, his voice as if honey had turned to music. "Another hand to eat? Týr's was delicious. Though I'm not sure he offered it in true faith."
"It's your mother," Angrboda said, stepping forward, "and father and stepmother."
"Mother and Father," he repeated, as Loki came forward to untie his chains. "I'm glad you came to visit." The wolf sniffed in my pocket, where I'd put a scrap of raw meat, and he scarfed it down as soon as I offered it to him.
"We came to get you out of here," Angrboda said, "and then to get your brother and sister."
"I would've expected something stealthier from you, Loki," Odin said, stepping onto the island. He'd come without Sleipnir; maybe he'd decided not to risk it. "This is hardly secretive."
The chains dropped from Fenris's mouth, and Fenris said to him, his voice much clearer, "Why don't you offer your hand?" Odin stepped away, slipping his hands in his sleeves.
"Thief!" Angrboda shouted at Odin, but Loki held her back. "Selfish coward!"
"I thought you were too unsound to threaten us," Odin said, "but I might've been mistaken."
"It wasn't her," I said, stepping forward. "It was my idea." He couldn't take her and lock her up like her children; she'd suffered enough already.
"Sigyn. You surprised me again. I didn't expect you to be so defiant."
"Would you like it if someone took Baldr from you? Or Thor? Or Hodr? Why would you take others' children from them?"
"There are things you don't know and would be happier not knowing, but know if you unchain that wolf, you start Ragnarok."
Ragnarok. A chill echoed down my spine. I'd just been trying to help Angrboda, without any other purpose in mind, but had they had Ragnarok in mind? "I didn't—" I started, without a clear idea of how to get us out of this. Odin was craftier and less straight-talking than Thor; he wasn't easy to fool.
"Let me," Loki whispered to me. "Of course, she didn't know," he said to Odin. "She was just upset about how our children were taken away. She's a mother. What do you expect? She only said she'd wished they hadn't been taken; it was my idea to come here, really. I was being rash; it won't happen again—"
Odin scowled. "Just shut up. I'll let you go once, but, if I find you here again, I won't be so lenient. Now begone."
Angrboda slumped to the ground, and I knelt beside her. "I'm sorry," I whispered. "I tried to help."
All the fight seemed to have gone from her. Loki visited her in Jotunheim some, and I let him go because she needed help, though she might have been beyond us. I didn't go often. She seemed to like Loki more than me, which I could understand. I just wished there was some way to help her.
That secret was out; everyone in Asgard knew about Fenris, Hel, and Jormungand, and about Angrboda, and they gave us a wider distance than before. Dangerous. We were "dangerous."
"I'm sorry," I told Sif, sitting up in bed. It was one of the few times she came to visit—Thor wasn't happy at all about Jormungand and didn't like her to be here much—while Loki was in Jotunheim. "I didn't understand what you had endured before. I shouldn't have judged you."
"It's all right," she said, a little stiffly. "I only wonder at your staying. I wouldn't be able to, not with children."
I rested my hands on my swollen stomach; I was becoming more and more obvious that I was pregnant again. "I don't have anywhere else to go." But that wasn't the real reason.
"You're very loyal. I always envied that about you. There aren't many people like that."
I shook my head. "It's not that. It's—I'm all right with it, really." She stared. It had taken me a while to get there, but I was. "So few people have one true love in their hearts, let alone two. There's so much love between us, and I'm glad to have been a part of that."
When Idun came to visit, she didn't say anything about what had happened, but she did give me an idea. "Here's another apple," she said, pressing it in my hands. "It's not much, but I hoped it might help."
"Thank you," I said, brightening. Maybe it would.
I gave the apple to Loki to give to Angrboda, hoping maybe it would help her feel stronger or like she could be treated like one of the goddesses, and he promised he would. When he returned, he smiled and kissed my forehead. "You're a genius. She seems much improved."
I laughed lightly. "Thank Idun."
If only there was a way to cure having to rest so much. I was tired of it.
A welcome distraction came as a feast Aegir and Ran were hosting, but they needed a kettle big enough to brew mead for everyone. Thor volunteered to go to Hymir's to get his kettle. He didn't come back for a day later, but he carried the kettle, large enough for everyone in Asgard to take a bath in, on his shoulders to the sea where the feast was with a story on his lips. "When I got to Hymir's," he said, his voice booming over the waves, "that oaf had only cooked two ox; didn't he know I needed more food than that? Then he got angry that I ate them all and made me go fishing for the meal the next day. If I had to work for my own food, I at least wanted to get something out of it.
"He was also a coward and kept our boat close to shore, but I took the oars from him and rowed farther out. He shouted at me, 'Don't row in the deep water! That's where Jormungand is.' I ignored him and threw the fishing line with the ox head into the deep water. Soon enough, the World Serpent himself came out of the deep, his jaw clamped around the ox head and thrashing so hard my foot went through the boat trying to keep him on the line. That fool Hymir got scared and threw the line back in the water. There went my chance to kill my foe and live another day longer.
"I threw Hymir in the water and rowed the boat back to shore before he could catch me. He would have to swim the way back to his house. I took his kettle—he more than owed it to me, after ruining my chance to beat that nasty serpent—and here I am. I can't believe it," he finished. "I was this close. I would've had him if not for Hymir."
"There's always another day, dear," Sif tried to console him.
"Ragnarok might be tomorrow," he grumbled. "I might not get another chance."
I couldn't eat. What if something had happened to Jormungand, or to Thor?
"What an idiot," Loki muttered. "Trying to take on Jormungand. He's never going to win."
"What was that?" Thor said.
"I'm sure Jormungand was just playing with you," Loki said, louder. "He didn't mean anything by it."
"He would've played with me in his stomach," Thor said, his hand at his Mjollnir's pendant.
"No, he wouldn't eat you; you're too tough."
Thor lunged at him, but Sif said, trying to distract him, "Oh, look, dear, there's some of the roast ox you wanted to try." She led him, sending one last glare in Loki's direction, away, thankfully averting a fight. I could breathe again, but I had lost all appetite.
"What did you mean, trying to pick a fight with Thor in public?" I whispered to Loki.
"He's too much fun to aggravate."
"I wish you'd be a little more careful." He couldn't possibly win against Thor.
"I always am."
I sighed. I wasn't so sure about that.
I was less sure after he disappeared for three months. I was getting more used to his disappearances, and, after he'd been gone a year with Sleipnir, three months wasn't as hard. All the same, it was three months of the servants having to do the planting and harvesting without me, as I was still fighting Haena over bedrest. I had to care for Vali by myself, not able to answer about when his papa would be back. The sheep were sheared, so at least I had some wool to card and spin to shape into clothing for the little one, but it ached my back. "Oh." I stretched at the loom, my back sore after being there all day. Thrud had just come, and she was playing with a new ball with Vali on the ground.
"Do you need to rest?" Sif asked, looking up from her distaff.
"No, I just got a pain in my side."
"I used to get them, too." After a moment, she said, "There's something I meant to tell you. Thor went to Jotunheim with Loki."
"Loki?" I sat up straighter, my back no longer aching. He was all right!
"Yes. I heard him say something about the Jotuns were preparing a feast for Thor, so he didn't need to bring any weapons, but that was all I caught. Thor would do anything for his stomach."
"I'd be surprised if the Jotuns really wanted to throw Thor a feast, after he's killed so many of them. It might be a trap." The loom stopped spinning.
She set down her distaff. "Yes, I thought about that, but he seemed so set on going, and I didn't have a chance to dissuade him. But it will surely all work out as it should. He'll never go without a fight."
It wasn't until a few days later, late that night, that they came back. After I threw my arms around my husband and nearly knocked him down when he came to the door, I said, "What were you doing in Jotunheim so long? What was I supposed to do if you'd gotten yourself killed and left the children without a father?"
"Relax, Siggi. Would I ever let that happen?" He took Vali, who shouted, "Papa! Papa!," in his lap and settled at the benches. "I'll tell you and your mother a story, Vali," he said, having me sit beside him. "I took Freyja's feather cloak to Jotunheim for a bit of fun—she never noticed it was gone—and looked in on Geirrod's court to see what it was like; I'd heard about it but had never been able to go there. I looked like a falcon to him. Surely, he'd never know I was there. But he did notice and had a guard seize me. He asked who I was, but I wasn't about to tell him, so he stuck me in a dreadful cage for three months without any food or water. Three months.
"After he wore me down, he asked me again who I was, and I was so parched I could hardly get the words out. Then he told me he'd only release me if I brought Thor back unarmed. I was dying and had no choice, but I was so weak I could hardly fly to Thor's hall. He didn't believe me at first, until I told him how generous the Jotuns had been and how they wanted to throw him a feast, and, seeing as he has a stomach for a brain, he went.
"We stayed the night with Grid, as it was a long way to Geirrod's court, and she gave him a belt of strength, a pair of iron gloves, and a staff. Without them, we probably would've died crossing the river Vimur. It kept rising until we needed the strength Grid had given not to be swept away. It was that Gjalp, sent there by her father Geirrod, making the river rise, but Thor knocked her out with a rock and grabbed some rowan branches to climb out of the river, and we went on to Geirrod's court.
"It was late when we got there, but the guards showed us the same lack of hospitality as earlier and put us in a goat house with one chair for the night. As soon as Thor sat down, it started to rise, and he slammed the spear down to keep it from rising farther. There was a crunch, and Geirrod's two daughters fell to the ground with their backs broken.
"Then the guards took Thor to Geirrod's hall for a 'contest.' There were two grates full of flaming coals. Geirrod threw one of the coals at Thor in a hot game of ball, but Thor caught it in his gloves and threw it back at Geirrod. He ducked but not soon enough. The pole cracked and speared him, and he fell down dead. And we still didn't get anything to eat. They were the most inhospitable hosts. I could eat as much as Thor could right now." He put his hand to his stomach, and Vali giggled.
I pressed my lips together but couldn't hold back a smile all the same. "What was that I asked you about being careful?"
"I don't remember."
"I don't think your memory is as poor as you pretend." Kissing him on the cheek, I said, "I'll have Haena make something to eat; it won't take long."
I looked forward to things getting calmer here, as calm as they ever got, as the months turned to winter. Idun worked to protect her apples from the cold, and Vali went skiing with Ullr, though, of course, I wasn't able to go. My poor husband chafed with boredom. I chafed with my confinement to the bed.
At last something interesting happened, and that was that the baby came. It was another sleepless night of tossing and moaning, though this one was calmer and at least didn't kick all night, and, by dawn, the contractions had started. I didn't want to scream and wake Vali, so I sat doubled up in bed and cried into the pillow instead while my husband left again to get Laufey.
"Loki! Loki!" I screamed, unable to bite my tongue anymore. It couldn't wait.
"Come on," the servant said, her arm bracing me and helping me stumble to the bathhouse one painful step at a time while Vali sat up in his bed and stared. "We'll get you comfortable."
No sooner had we made it to the bathhouse than Laufey came, and she took over from there. She stayed calm, even through the screaming and blood; I don't doubt I owe her my life, and my children's.
Then I sat slumped against the wall of the bathhouse, breathing heavily and sweat pouring down my face, and she handed me the child. I smiled at him, kissing him on the nose. He almost looked like he was trying to smile back. "He looks like you," I said to Laufey, "and his father." But he wasn't redheaded, either.
"He has your nose, I think," she said.
Vali didn't know quite what to make of him. He sat on the edge of the bed in his father's lap. "That's your brother," Loki told him. Vali stared, open-mouthed, between the baby and me.
"Do you want to hold him?" I asked, and Vali nodded. I passed the baby over for their father to help him hold. The baby gurgled and clutched at Vali's fingers and never did let go.
"What should we call him?" I asked Loki. "This one's yours."
He looked at the child for a moment and said, "Narfi."
Narfi. Corpse. I blanched a little. It did suit his brother's name—battle-slain—but—I shouldn't have agreed to this. "Narfi it'll be," I said quietly.
Little Narfi didn't fuss as much as his brother had, and he was more cheerful, too; he flashed his first smile sooner than Vali had. And he got into everything. We were forever chasing him, telling him not to stick his hand in the fire or touch a hot kettle, but he didn't even cry when he did get burned. He just stared at his hand as if it were fascinating. He started babbling sooner than he brother, and Loki kept trying to teach him how to say "Papa." Thankfully, unlike his brother, he didn't seem to be a shapeshifter, which made Loki upset, but I was relieved. It would've made it that much harder to keep track of him.
Vali was a natural older brother. He held Narfi's hand and comforted him when he did get scared and let him follow him everywhere, without ever getting angry or upset about it. They played ball together, pushing it back and forth, and Vali pointed out things to Narfi and told them what they were. Most of all, Narfi got Vali to laugh, hiding the ball or pulling at his nose or making funny sounds. They were truly inseparable.
It was lucky they were close; it made it easier for Laufey to look after them while I was still recovering in bed. Where one was, the other was bound to be. And, when it came time for spring planting, she stayed with them out in the fields, keeping them from wandering off while I tried to help with some of the lighter tasks. Haena kept telling me to sit in the shade with them and rest, but I couldn't; if I didn't work now, I'd never get my strength back.
A few months after, when I was mostly back to myself and Narfi a little more grown, Laufey said it was time for her to get back to Jotunheim, but she left them with a present each, a wolf pendant for Vali that he held often and wouldn't sleep without, and a flute of reeds for Narfi, which he liked to blow on.
He liked everything about the water. Where Vali liked the forest more and making his brother laugh by turning into forest animals, Narfi liked to splash in the stream and try to catch the fish, which Vali sometimes turned into for him to splash after, calling, "Sea! Sea!"
They were playing that game one afternoon, Narfi trying to stand in the shallow water to grab his brother's shimmering tail but falling over on the rocks. I picked him up and set him down in the water. "Are you all right?" I asked him, but he laughed, holding up a handful of smooth stones and sucking on one. He loved shiny things.
"Those are pretty," I told him, pulling the stone out of his mouth.
"Pretty," he tried to repeat, showing off his one tooth.
"Yes, that's it," I said, clapping my hands. "Pretty."
He looked up, his green eyes widening, and called out, "Papa!"
"Shh, shh." Loki, who'd been standing on the opposite bank, swept him in his arms and glanced around as if to make sure no one was nearby, then he showed him an amber necklace.
"Pretty." Narfi grasped the largest amber bead and put it in his mouth, but Loki gently pulled it away from him.
"Freyja's," Vali said, changing back and staring at the necklace. "It's Freyja's."
"Yes, it is." Loki smiled broadly.
"What in the worlds are you doing with Freyja's necklace?" I asked, smoothing Vali's hair.
"Odin asked me to—borrow it from her. He gave me instructions to give it to him, and he'd only give it to her if she agreed to start a war for him. If she comes by here, I wasn't here, and you didn't see it." He bent towards Vali and Narfi and put his finger to his lips. "You can keep a secret, can't you? Don't tell anyone about the necklace, all right?"
Vali nodded, and Narfi put his hand over his mouth.
"That's my boys," Loki said with a wink, handing Narfi back to me, and then he was gone.
Freyja did come by not long after in her cat chariot, and Narfi started trying to make cat sounds. She smiled at him, but it looked a little strained. "Have you seen my necklace?" she asked, her hand at her empty throat. "I was asleep, and something bit my neck. When I woke up, the doors of my chamber, which had been locked, were thrown open, and my necklace was gone. Have you seen it?" she asked again, a little more sharply.
Narfi started to blurt something, but Vali put his hand over his mouth. "No."
She turned to me, her blue eyes pleading, and I was a little sorry for her. "I don't know," I said, "but Odin might. He knows everything."
It must've been a mark of her desperation that she didn't stop to accuse or rage but instead drove her cats straight on towards Valholl. The boys went back to rearranging river rocks, Narfi still pretending to mew like a cat.
I heard the war she incited as a Valkyrie, to get her necklace back, is still raging, and that both she and Odin have gotten many dead souls in their halls from it.
Maybe for playing favorites with that war or some other reason, Odin brought the wrath of the other Æsir upon him and left. He did come back a time or two, but he was gone long enough for me to watch my children start to grow up. They didn't seem much alike; everyone remarked that Narfi was more like his father and Vali more like me. On the outside, it was true. Narfi smiled more, and he was one of the only ones who could get Vali to laugh. Vali was the serious and contemplative one, more apt to listen and learn and Narfi more apt to talk, and Narfi liked games more. Vali didn't use his shape-shifting to trick, just to hide when he didn't want to talk to someone and didn't want to be seen. Neither of them played hurtful tricks on anyone. I made sure they'd be brought up in such a way no one could compare them to their father that way. They were still inseparable, Vali still holding Narfi's hand and letting him come with him everywhere, and they were each other's surest playmate. Where Magni and Modi liked the rough games like their father and Ullr liked games of skill like skiing and archery, Vali and Narfi liked more games of intellect or fun, hiding and then pretending they'd lost the other and making me search everywhere for them, or playing chess or going fishing or riding horses.
It was when Narfi was about five and Vali about seven that Sif came and said Odin had ridden back from Jotunheim, a Jotun called Hrungnir coming after him, and that Thor was fighting Hrungnir now. "Can we go?" Narfi asked. "Can we go see cousin Thor?" He loved Thor.
"I don't see why not," their father said, and, despite my protests—"It'll be too bloody for them"—we went. We got there outside Valholl, where some of the other deities had gathered to watch, in time for Hrungnir's whetstone to get stuck in Thor's forehead, and Thor gave a shout that shook the ground.
"Is he going to kill Thor, Mama?" Vali whispered, holding my hand.
"No, of course not," I whispered back.
"He'll always win, you'll see," Loki added, lifting Narfi on his shoulders.
Sure enough, Thor raised Mjollnir, striking Hrungnir to the ground, stone-dead. His sons ran forward, cheering, and Narfi clapped his hands, laughing. "He got him!"
Then Thor fell, clutching his head, and Sif helped him walk away, saying that she was going to have the whetstone taken out of his head. While we were waiting, Odin started telling about a bet he'd had on with Frigg about their foster sons. "A king's sons, Geiroeth and Agnar, had been shipwrecked in a storm, and we had taken them in many years ago. When I had sat on the throne in Valholl a few years ago and seen them, I said, 'See how you foster son lies with an ogress in a cave, and mine is a king.'
"But Frigg said, 'Your foster son cheats his subjects and isn't hospitable to his guests.' I said it wasn't true and so had gone out to meet Geiroeth, who was now king. Geiroeth had known I was coming, even though I came as the warlock Grimnir, and set me between two fires for days until my cloak began to burn. Geiroeth's son, Agnar, gave me a drinking horn, saying I'd been ill-treated, and I thanked him for his hospitality, for he was the only one who'd showed it to me. I spoke thus about the halls of our realm and about the names men called me by, and Geiroeth recognized me then and came to cut me loose, but he tripped on his own sword and cut his neck open. Agnar still rules as king. I may have lost that bet, but I wouldn't say so too loudly."
Vali listened with a serious expression, but Narfi held onto every word, only stopping paying attention when Thor returned, the whetstone still in his head. "That damn healer," he said. "I started to tell her about her husband returning because I could feel the whetstone moving and wanted to encourage her, but she was so struck with tears she ran off and left the stone in my head. I have a massive headache now."
The whetstone is still in his head, to this day.
Odin left soon after again, to go where, nobody knew. But, before he did, he and Hoenir and Loki were gone for three days. When he returned, Loki brought back this story. "A farmer lost his son in a game of chess with a Jotun—what kind of person gambles away his son in a chess game?—and called on the three of us to save him. First Odin hid the son in a kernel of wheat, but the Jotun came to the wheat field and started to squeeze that very kernel of wheat. The boy got scared, and Odin spirited him back to the peasant, saying he was done hiding him. "The next day, the peasant called Hoenir to hide the boy, and he hid him as a feather on a swan's head, but the Jotun came and plucked that very feather from the swan's head. The boy got scared, and Hoenir spirited him back to the peasant, saying he was done hiding him.
"The next day, the peasant called on me to hide the boy, and I told him I would, if he'd do what I asked a build a boathouse with an iron bar on the window. He did what I asked. I rowed with the boy out in the sea in an iron skiff and caught three halibuts, the third one black, and I hid the boy in the roe of that fish's eye. The Jotun wouldn't find him there.
"When I rowed back, it was near to dawn, and the Jotun was waiting for me. He asked where I'd been, and I told him I'd been out fishing and was tired. Then he said he'd go fishing himself, and I pretended to change my mind and said I'd go with him, for I could row an iron skiff faster than he. He didn't believe me and rowed it himself. When we got to the sea, he went fishing and caught three halibuts, the third one black, and started to dig in the roe of the fish's eye for the boy. The boy was scared—he called out to me—and I spirited him to shore.
"The Jotun followed us. He tried to seize the boy, who ran into the boathouse, but, when he tried to follow, his head got stuck in the iron bar. I bashed his shin in, but he laughed as it regrew. So I bashed in both his shins and replaced them with a stick and stone so they couldn't regrow. The Jotun keeled over and died. The boy got the last laugh. I took the boy to the peasant and told him I was done hiding him and the Jotun was dead."
Vali and Narfi, who'd been listening with wide eyes on our laps, stared at each other until Narfi started to laugh with relief, and Vali laughed a little, too. The Jotun had probably gotten what he deserved, trying to threaten a child like that.
"The Jotun got knocked down," Narfi said.
"You saved him," Vali said.
Loki grinned. "That Odin and Hoenir couldn't even save him; they didn't use their wits. I wouldn't have let a boy like you be killed by some Jotun just because his father can't play chess."
"Can you tell it again?" Narfi asked, his eyes hopeful.
I smiled and kissed the children on the foreheads. "It's late. Go to bed and let your father rest."
Haena took them by the hands and led them to bed.
When they were gone, I leaned my head against his shoulder, and he kissed my cheek. "I'm glad everything turned out all right," I murmured.
It was another few years, when Narfi was ten and Vali twelve, before Odin returned, and it was Thor who first brought word of him. He tramped by the house, soaking wet, when we were in the fields, and stopped long enough to say, "Do you know who I just saw?"
Narfi and Vali ran over to him, and he caught them and turned them upside down before setting them down.
"Who did you see?" Narfi asked, giggling.
"Uncle Odin, of course," Vali said. "Who else could it be?" Narfi stuck his tongue out at him.
"A ferryman," Thor said. "I was trying to cross a river, and a ferryman was rowing across. I had him come up to me and told him to row me across. I asked his name, and he told me Harbarth, and he asked mine. I said it was Thor, son of Odin. Then he mocked me and said my mother was dead and I didn't look like I own my own pants. What does he mean, I don't own my own pants? Of course I own my own pants!" Narfi laughed, and Vali stifled a grin. "And I would think I'd know if my mother were dead. He kept insulting me, saying my killing Jotuns for the peace of Midgard was child's play and I was too afraid to face any Jotuns without wetting myself. Me, the wielder of Mjollnir? And he had the gall to say that with what he was doing, out catching maidens—"
"Thor," I said, putting my hands over the boys' ears, "not in front of the children."
"In the end, he told me to walk around and have a bad journey."
"That sounds like Uncle Odin," Vali said.
"You'd think I'd know my own father when I saw him," Thor said.
"I think Vali's correct. Odin's almost as capable of disguises as I am," Loki said, putting his hands on the boys' shoulders.
Thor snorted. "I wouldn't go that far."
Thor came back another time under strange circumstances and in as much of a rage.
He was dressed, inexplicably, like a bride, and Loki, who was with him, doubled over with laughter, ignoring Thor's glares. "What are you—" I couldn't finish, my husband's amusement too infectious.
"Why are you wearing a dress?" Vali asked Thor.
"Those damned Jotuns stole Mjollnir!" Thor rumbled. "Thrym won't give it back unless Freyja marries him, and she said it would ruin her reputation. As though she isn't already a man-eater! Heimdall made me dress like her to get the hammer. The gods will all call me a sissy."
Loki winked at me as Narfi ran to him, and he tossed him in the air. "I was to go as 'Freyja's' hand maid."
This had to be his most peculiar predicament yet. "I doubt I have anything that could fit you, but, maybe if I took the hem out—"
When we finished, Thor was waiting outside and holding the boys upside down until they squealed. They made a pair that day, Thor and Loki, Thor in his veil and dress with bridal keys jangling, Loki in a red dress and veil a little too small. "Are you ready for your wedding, Freyja?" Loki teased, playing with Thor's veil.
"Shut up, you fiend," Thor growled, his eyes about to shoot sparks.
"You sound very unfeminine."
I leaned against the doorway to keep myself upright, I was laughing so hard. "May you have success."
"We won't be back without the hammer." Loki waved as they set off for Jotunheim, and the boys ran after them until they were gone.
That night, when the boys had me throw the ball with them, Loki came back, a sly look still on his face. I kissed him, even though it made the boys gag. "Did you get Mjollnir back?"
"Yes; if you'll wait a moment, I'll tell you." Once he returned to his regular, dark grey clothes, he joined the ball game and regaled us with their adventures in Jotunheim until we were all on the ground laughing. "Did Thor have to kill the Jotuns?" Vali asked finally, leaning against me; I put my arm around him.
"They stole his hammer; they deserved it," Loki said, with a meaningful glance in my direction.
"He smashed them all!" Narfi said, wielding a pretend hammer.
Loki put an arm around his shoulder. "He did at that," he said, a sharp look on his face.
That was about the time of the war between Hodr and Baldr, who had been struck jealous to find Nanna in Hodr's arms one day. Baldr had prepared for battle to win Nanna, all the Æsir behind him except Loki, who said he'd never cared for Baldr, and Hodr had joined against him with an army supplied by a mortal king. It was getting more absurd by the day, and I tried to keep the boys indoors and away from the fighting. They didn't need to see it.
One night, when the boys were in bed and Loki was out, he said, at Aegir's feast for Baldr's victory in battle—I had no appetite for it—there was a knock at the door. When I went to answer it, three women appeared, holding carved pieces of wood. "Why are you here?" I asked, my face falling. The Norns.
They began chanting. "Odin learned this from a Volva when he went to see about Baldr's dreams, and the time is at hand. Baldr will die at the hands of Hodr and your husband; Hodr will die, and Loki will be chained in a cave with the entrails of Narfi, ripped out by Vali as a wolf. You will hold a bowl to catch the venom from the snake chained above Loki's head. When the time for Ragnarok comes, he will come into Jotunheim on the Nail and lead the Jotuns to Asgard, where he will fall fighting Heimdall—"
"No!" I slammed the door in their faces and bolted it. They chanted on, but I sank to the floor, a sob breaking from the prison of my chest. I balled my arms around my legs and cried more than I had in years.
Why would you sacrifice everything we have? Why must our children perish first? Is it because they're your children, and I shouldn't have married you—
Vali and Narfi came out from their bedchamber, still yawning. How much longer would they be able to stay together?
Narfi. Corpse. He knew. He knew all along.
"Mother," Vali said. "What's the matter?"
I couldn't answer.
That night, I couldn't sleep, and Loki still wasn't back. A caw sounded from outside the window, two ravens alighting on a tree, their eyes staring into pits of blackness. I crept outside, making sure not to wake the boys, and picked up a stone to throw at them; anger like venom coursed in my veins. Death to them, and to their master. Odin.
"Show me where your master is," I called to them. They ruffled their feathers. How stupid, talking to crows.
Then a figure solidified in a dusty traveling cloak, a pointed hat drawn close over his face, his one grey eye hollow.
"You called me," he said.
My hands balled into fists. "Why did you do it?"
"You know what I mean! Why did you consult the Volva? Why?"
"Sigyn, calm yourself. It would've happened whether I had or not; this way, we can be prepared for it."
"I don't want to be prepared. I want it not to happen!" Why didn't he see, if he was so wise? Why wasn't there a way to undo this?
"We all do, but the world can't last forever. It'll be reborn."
"You'll be dead! Everyone who matters will be dead." Tears threatened to choke me again, but I wiped them away.
"We can't last forever, either." That one bloodshot eye watched me like his ravens. He sighed. "I should've heeded my own advice. A man who knows his fate can never be happy."
"Why does it have to end this way and not peacefully? Why must it be him?"
"That's something you should ask him. Prophecies don't always mean what we think they will." He started to fade.
"Odin! Come back."
Both he and the ravens were gone.
I was sitting alone at the table near morning when he came back, drunk, naturally, and announced that Baldr was dead. "Hodr ambushed him," he said, "and killed him with a sword called Mistletoe. The feast turned into a celebration for Hodr's victory, but, for some reason, they didn't want me there. Thor kicked me out."
I could've strangled him then and there. "What's the matter?" he asked, once he finally realized I was crying.
"I don't know," I said sarcastically. He flinched. "It's not because Vali and Narfi and everyone else will die because of this."
He looked like he was being hunted, the way he shifted uneasily and kept glancing outside. "Siggi, listen." He grabbed me by the arms, but I tore away. "Listen; I need to tell you something. Odin—he came to me, when I was still in Jotunheim, and he said he had resurrected a Volva because his son, Baldr, was having nightmares he'd be killed. He'd learned from the Volva Baldr had to be a sacrifice so he could return after Ragnarok and lead the new world, and that I would be the one to do it. He asked me to be his blood-brother and to start Ragnarok for him. He said no one else in Asgard had the strength or the will to do it, so it had to be me. Do you believe me?" He tilted my head to meet his gaze, those eyes, for once, pleading and sincere. I nodded. I couldn't speak; it was too much, too much to take in at once. But I believed him. "I don't have much time. This is the first place they'll look; they won't find me in the sky or the earth." So he meant to hide in the sea as a fish. "I've built a hall, on a hill, where we can be hidden and see everything. Take Vali and Narfi and go there."
"It won't work. The Æsir will find us."
"Have some faith in yourself. I do."
"I need more than faith!" I needed him, us, like we used to be.
He was already gone. I had no choice, so I woke Vali and Narfi to tell them what had happened. "We could trick them," Narfi said. "I bet we could." He was too young to realize.
"It's not worth the risk," I said. "Let's go." We ran far away, and I hid them in that hall, where no one could find them. "Stay put," I told them. "Don't leave for anything or anyone; Vali, look after your brother."
"Where are you going?" Vali asked.
"For help. Stay there." It pained me to leave them, but, if I could talk to the other Æsir, perhaps they'd spare my sons. After all, they'd done nothing to offend the deities.
By the time I found the other deities, they were with a human hero called Thorkill, and they'd gathered in front of a cave, where my extremely smart husband was tangled up in some kind of net. "Sigyn," he called, thrashing to get loose. "What are you doing here? I told you to leave."
I ignored him; I could scarcely look at him. "I came to ask you," I said to the others, "to spare my sons. They're innocent. I will play my part, but leave them be. Those of you with children, would you wish this upon your own?"
Some appeared sympathetic, but Thorkill said, "There's no more fitting punishment; look, they're already here." Both of my sons had come.
I nearly threw up my heart was beating so hard. "I told you to stay put! You didn't listen." Why must they have inherited their father's rebelliousness?
"We thought we could help," Narfi said.
"You'd have been more help if you'd stayed hidden, like I told you to."
Some of the other deities seized Vali and taunted him into turning into a wolf and poked and prodded him with hot sticks until he snapped into his brother's flesh. I screamed and hid against the cave wall. "Vali! Narfi!" Even when I closed my eyes, red blood flashed.
By the time I worked up enough nerve to turn around, it was over. They'd bound my husband with those gruesome chains; he seemed in a state of near-shock himself. As for our sons—Narfi, poor Narfi, was only bloodied remains, and Vali had shapeshifted back, spitting out blood. "I hate you!" he shrieked to Loki, to me, to the world in general. His eyes seemed on fire, his expression savage; I could've endured almost anything but this. "I hate all of you!" he screamed. "I wish I'd never been born." He fled.
I started to cry again. For everything I'd hoped for to come to this... Someone gave me a bowl. The others at least had enough heart to leave a pyre for Narfi. I had no company after they left but a snake—and Loki. For a long time, I couldn't talk to him, but, when you have no one else, you take who you can get; it was no use staying angry. Despite it all, I loved him.
I was the dutiful wife, catching snake venom; I got what I could, but the bowl could only hold so much. His thrashing when the venom hit him stung me more than if I had to endure the poison myself, and his face, always so handsome, grew scarred. Once he said to me, "You must think me ugly now."
"No," I said. "Your scars are beautiful." He smiled. "There was something I wanted to tell you, years ago—" My voice broke. "When you said I was your strength. I wanted to tell you, I didn't marry you because I thought you were beautiful or because you made me laugh, even though you did. It was because—you saw me. I was never the most beautiful of the goddesses—"
"I always thought you were beautiful," he protested.
"You were the only one. You saw me as I was, and you made me shine. You—" The tears spilled down my face, and I had to let them come. I couldn't wipe them away, and he couldn't do that for me. "I just wish I could hold you."
"I know," he whispered. "I know."
CHAPTER EIGHT-THE BEGINNING
Odin was correct about prophecies never being what we think they will be. What we thought was the end of the world was something different—the end of our world. The beginning of another world, another faith, and we were forgotten. But we were remembered, too, thousands of years later, by other people, and the gods who had died were reborn in a new world.
He will be, too. We will, too. There will be our longhouse in the woods, with cows and horses to share it with, Vali and I grooming them together. "When will they get back?" he'll ask.
"Soon. They'll be here soon."
Impatiently we'll go to the window every few moments until two figures come down the hill, one walking somberly, though with a faint smile, the other waving, with a ghost of a laugh on his face. We'll run to greet them with cries of joy and welcome them back home.
Sigyn is a now-neglected Norse goddess, known mostly from a reference in "Voluspa," Poetic Edda:
One did I see in the wet woods bound,
A lover of ill, and to Loki like;
By his side does Sigyn sit, nor is glad
To see her mate; would you know yet more?
All that's known of her now is her devotion to her husband, Loki, (little though he deserved it) and that they had two sons, Narfi and Vali. She may have once had a role like Svaha, wife of the fire-god Agni in the Hindu tradition, who pours libations from her bowl over her husband's fire, and some linguists speculate that the name "Sigyn" comes from the Proto-Indo-European "she who pours," but we'll never know for sure. I fleshed out Sigyn's story with my own imaginings and those borrowed from other artists.
Readers of Snorri's Prose Edda may notice some differences in how this story is told, because it's based principally on Saxo Grammaticus's Gesta Danorum (History of the Danes—incidentally, Shakespeare's Hamlet is based on a story from this). Saxo includes the oldest-known version of Hodr's and Baldr's fight over Nana, involving the sword Mistletoe, and the oldest version of Utgarda-Loki, in which Loki himself is the chained Jotun. Saxo also mentions that no less than a King worshipped Utgarda-Loki—the Danish tradition appears to have been kinder to Loki, as witnessed by a Spanish traveler's account of Danes worshipping a star called "Lokabrenna" (Loki's torch), which the Greeks call "Sirius"—and that a Christian hero, Thorkill, went to find Utgarda-Loki for this King. Now, Saxo doesn't say why Loki is chained, but he has nothing to do with Baldr's death in Gesta Danorum, so I went with "Lokasenna," Poetic Edda, which suggests he was chained for taunting the gods and includes the "catch-myth," which Anna Birgitta Rooth in her 1961 Loki in Scandinavian Mythology claims to be the only authentic Loki tale, of Loki turning into a salmon and getting caught in a net. (The tale of Loki defeating the would-be kidnapping Jotun is from "Lokatattur," from the Faroe Isles, also a place more sympathetic to Loki.)
The appearance of Thorkill in the second-to-last chapter of this story heralds the Christian era; some are skeptical that Ragnarok is about Christianity, but scholars have noted the similarity of Ragnarok texts to the Christian catechism. If this is so, we might exonerate Loki further of his role in Ragnarok.