"One boon, brother, I beg of thee—
one boon only albeit one
which slayer not often to slain man grants:
in thy weeds of war wind my body!
"(Have hateful norns knit our fate-thread:
to fight against fate the fey one avails not:)
lifeless shall I now lie on the ground,
slain by the sword, sorely wounded."
(Hildibrand's Death Song)
Balder stood still, his spine erect, his face an arras of confidence and calm.
A crowd of onlookers had gathered a furlong away from him, for it was the first day when the Thunderer finally decided to respond to the taunts of his youngest brother and test the invulnerability of the youngest prince, for which Balder had become widely known during the last weeks.
"Are you certain, brother?" Thor asked, the nature of his voice leaning towards a mocking attitude, yet still the first prince of Asgard understood the gravity of the situation.
Balder was the Golden One of Asgard, known for his gentle nature and kind manner. He spoke to animals and protected them from any harm, which made hunting expeditions with Balder nigh impossible, and the youngest prince's attempts at saving all trapped sylvan creatures or healing those wounded by the hunters resulted in Balder becoming excluded from every hunting trip. Balder's essence was incredibly pure and perfectly attuned to his surroundings, and his compassion and love of all living creatures endeared him greatly to the people of Asgard. It would do no good to harm him, even if in jest, and although Thor trusted the powerful protective seiðr summoned upon Balder by Frigga, his hand trembled ever so slightly, fingers clutching the hilt of the hammer with a great intensity.
"I shan't be throwing mere stones and daggers at you," Thor added, flashing a bright smile.
Thor had never been one to reject a challenge, for that would have been a distinct sign of cravenness, but he loved his brothers dearly and he could not bear the thought of wounding one of them, Balder or Loki, in any way, for any reason.
Balder chuckled merrily, throwing his slim hands in the air, his blue eyes shining with excitement, the light breeze tousling his brown curls.
"Are you afraid to throw the hammer at me, brother, knowing that it might well fail you for the very first time?" Balder replied cheekily.
"Of course not!" Thor offered immediately, raising Mjölnir to the sky for effect. "So be it, Balder. Prepare yourself. Mjölnir is not a gentle weapon."
"I count on it," said Balder and braced himself.
Balder was not at all apprehensive about the fact that he was seconds away from having the great hammer thrown at him.
He was frightened several weeks ago when he dreamed of his death for the first time. Then, he witnessed his own form trawling through a thick, grey fog, the gossamer droplets sticking to his hair and skin, curiously heavy. He heard and saw nothing, for there was only the fog that weighed him down with great strength and he could barely stand, let alone walk. And then, suddenly, a flash of silver appeared before his eyes, so quickly that he could not discern the object that caused it, and his heart was pierced. He felt no pain, only the seeping of the blood from the wound, and then he fell to the ground, his breath stopping.
He woke up covered in sweat and screaming. He would not have been so disturbed and terrified by the dream, had he been able to discard it. But whenever Balder dreamed, there was cause for joy or concern, for his dreams were always prophetic. The gift of prophecy was his to bear, just as unmatched strength was Thor's and magic Loki's. Balder had always been acceptant of his gift - until the night when it turned against him, promising him his own death.
He believed there was no way to cheat destiny, but Frigga proved that she truly was a great sorceress, the All-Mother to them all, for from her mother's desire to keep her dear child alive, she found a way to dilute the power of the prophecy and annihilate it. It had been an exhausting process, but she managed to make every object in the Nine Realms promise her not to harm him and to the All-Mother, every thing in creation willingly gave its vow, showing fidelity to the foremost among the goddesses. For good measure, she enveloped him in an invisible cloak woven from her loving magic, so that, truly, none of the things that had given her their promise could touch him.
Balder was safe and his invulnerability had become a game.
Every single person in Asgard had tried to throw something at him at Balder's own behest, for now that he was in danger no more, the threat of the prophecy removed from his existence, his gentle nature subsided a little and borrowed the playfulness of Loki. He was intrepid now and was becoming nigh careless, so thrilled was he by the prospect of having his life granted to him anew. Balder wanted to celebrate the miracle given to him by his mother and he turned his celebration into a game.
He was decided not to halt the game until every single Asgardian battled the shield that guarded him and his determination included his brothers. Loki had not risen to the challenge yet and had, so far, even refused to observe the attempts of others, thinking the whole 'game' ridiculous, but Thor finally picked the proverbial gauntlet and was standing one quarter of a furlong away from him, hammer at the ready, the familiar look of battle excitement glazing his blue eyes that promised thunder to anyone who dared cross his path during combat.
Thor began to spin the hammer in his hand with effortless skill, Mjölnir lighting up with blue sparkles of ancient energy and singing with the stirring of lightning in its core. With a confident grin, Thor lifted the hammer and the sky split apart for the briefest moment. The hammer sucked in the lightning its core had created and Thor directed it directly at Balder.
When the lightning hit the spot where Balder was standing, the crowd gasped. It appeared that the lightning truly hit Balder, penetrating the invisible shield wrapped about the prince's form. The sound of the bang spread around them like a brontide and for a few moments that seemed to stretch on for eternity, no one could see anything. A dark grey cloud was hovering around the place where Balder had been standing, and occasionally, the cloud crackled and spurted out hissing squirts of rain.
Thor dropped the hammer, shock etched in every feature of his face.
"Balder!" he screamed. "Balder!"
In response, the cloud coughed, once, twice, and a pale hand shot through it, waving around to dissipate it, succeeding after a short while.
A form appeared and the crowd exhaled at the same time.
Balder stepped forth, his blue tunic immaculate, not a scar or blemish marring his skin. The force of Mjölnir did not touch him and the people of Asgard cheered in open joy and relief.
"The hammer, too, made a promise to our mother, it seems," spoke Balder and Thor began to laugh, suppressing the surprise, suppressing the shock of the hammer failing him for the first time, for his brother still lived and nothing else mattered.
For the first time in his existence, Thor was glad to have lost.
He strode towards his brother and crushed the smaller man to his chest, rubbing at his head with one strong fist, ruining Balder's nicely combed hair.
"You lucky idiot," the Thunderer boomed as Balder struggled to release himself from his brother's strong grip. "And how glad I am of it," Thor whispered, so only Balder could hear the words.
Balder ceased the struggling and looked up at Thor. "Thank you, Thor." He smiled gently, then grinned in his newly-acquired brash manner. "The only challenger that remains is Loki, and then the game shall be complete."
"Good," said Thor, "for I do believe father's patience is wearing thin. He and mother are certainly not fond of your idea of playing games."
Balder shook his head, chuckling, but Thor covered the nape of his neck with his hand and looked him in the eyes with a seriousness that was not characteristic of the Thunderer. It made Balder close his mouth and listen, feeling chastised even before his brother spoke.
"Do remember, Balder, that your dream was not a game and that mother has gone through much trouble to keep you safe. Clearly, you are well protected, for even Mjölnir could not leave a single scar on you and I am glad of it, but do tread carefully, brother. Promise me that."
Balder swallowed and nodded solemnly, speaking the words of promise to Thor.
But only a few hours thence, he sought out Loki in the library and after Balder told his brother how the protective shield defeated the great Mjölnir and how Odin rebuked Thor and himself for their foolish behaviour, Loki, too, finally agreed to try his hand at chipping the invisible armour safeguarding Balder, the Golden One of Asgard.
As they laughed, Loki contemplated whether he was truly willing to make an attempt at hurting one brother to prove his worth to the other, his sore spot since the people of Asgard first began to compare them: the heir and the prince trailing behind him like a shadow, great, but never great enough to be Thor's equal.
Balder was born much later, so it was natural that the first two princes, born only a year apart, should be seen as a separate unit, although all three of them were brothers. Loki had always resented the juxtaposition thrust upon them, especially since Thor was on the receiving end of praise and adoration, and Loki the one they often ignored, unless he resorted to his role of the Trickster.
Loki looked at the innocent face of Balder and struggled with his decision a moment longer. He never passed an opportunity to stir the peaceful equilibrium of Asgard, but it was different this time. He did not use his seiðr in a harmful manner against his family as a matter of principle, for despite the general belief that he lacked honour most often than not, the truth lay in the opposite direction. He played tricks on his brothers, but their lives had never been at stake for it.
But why should he worry when even Mjölnir could not break Balder?
Loki could not resist the temptation any longer, for it was much stronger than his concern, and he knew he would dedicate himself fully to the attempt.
Since the time when he first became aware of his own existence, Loki could feel seiðr.
It dwelled within him and whenever he ventured close to a source of magic, in another being or an enchanted object, he could sense his spirit stirring, the strings of his own seiðr humming and vibrating in recognition.
He knew his mother's seiðr intimately, for she was the first one to teach him how to hone and control his own. He was so familiar with Frigga's energy that he could taste it, the distinct and specific flavour of the blooms of the elanor and lissuin flowers from her home realm, Vanaheimr, the seeds of which she brought to Asgard on her wedding day. Her flowers grew in the gardens around the palace and she loved them dearly, so it was no wonder that her seiðr was as fragrant and sweet as them.
For weeks, Loki wandered through Asgard, following the pulsation of his mother's powerful seiðr, convinced that, if there was anything that could still harm Balder, it was secluded in Asgard, the safest place in all of the realms. He attuned himself to every possible item, listened, felt, tasted, and so far, every single thing and person in the Realm Eternal had been cloaked in Frigga's forbidding magic that rendered them unable to hurt Balder. Yet Loki was patient and he did not lose hope that he would be the one to wipe the pleased smirk off his younger brother's face.
Loki had grown tired of Balder's confidence, of his strutting attitude and unyielding cheerfulness. The young one was dangerously close to becoming like Thor and Loki only had enough patience for one such character in Asgard. Two would be quite impossible to bear.
Loki would always be loath to confess to any sort of sentimentality brewing inside him, but he realised, with a strange pang nipping at his gut, that he missed the Balder that was before the terrible dream. He wished for the return of that Balder who breathed in rhythm with nature, who understood and spoke to animals, who loved every blade of grass and made trees bloom. There was Frigga's seiðr within Balder. It was much weaker than Loki's, but it was inside the Golden One. Now, Balder was spending more and more time in the training grounds practicing with his sword, laughing with Thor and the Warriors Three and attempting to charm the fierce Lady Sif. His visits to the library had become scarce, which meant that he did not seek Loki's company and guidance in seiðr anymore.
Loki was surprised that he felt slighted and jealous due to this new turn of events, for in the past, Balder was often left behind as Loki joined Thor on long and battle-ridden quests, the elder two princes spending most of their time together, for Balder was almost three centuries younger than them and still shamelessly spoiled by all of the court. Now, Loki realised that he truly missed Balder and hated the fact that his younger brother was changing, almost becoming tainted.
He hated, even more than anything else, how it seemed, now, that it was he who stood apart from his brothers. Loki had grown accustomed to the fact that he lived in Thor's shadow, for so had Balder, but things were changing and the change had to be stopped before its completion.
Balder was in need of a lesson and Loki would happily provide it – just a little bruise, or perhaps a cut, to show Balder that he was not impenetrable.
After weeks of searching for something that Frigga might have ignored or missed, Loki rode to Valhalla to join Thor and a select group of other Æsir to join the valkyries in the slaying of the nightly-resurrecting beast Sæhrímnir. It was an honour to be chosen by Odin to participate in the event and although Loki could think of several better ways to spend the night, for doing battle was tedious and never his first choice, he could not deny his enjoyment in wounding and killing the giant beast. He liked to unleash his magic and show his prowess inseiðr in public. It was the one thing he was truly proud of and better at than anyone in Asgard, apart from Odin and Frigga. He could prove to Asgard that he was not merely the Trickster, although he enjoyed the part very much. Killing the beast was unlike any battle in the Nine Realms, for it took place in the vast bowels of Valhalla, in the company of the best of warriors, led by the mighty valkyries.
As Loki dismounted and made to tether his horse, he felt a sudden strange emptiness cascade over him like a cold, wet fog. Ever since Frigga protected Balder after his prophetic nightmare, Loki had felt the constant flow and thrumming of her powerful seiðr. It pervaded everything. For the first time since the day she cast spells on everything she could, he felt the absence of her magic and it was with bone-juddering excitement that he realised the reason for it.
He looked up into the crown of the tree and with a grin stretching his thin lips, he saw it – the simple mistletoe, hanging from a thick branch, still young and unassuming. It could never be seen as a threat and Frigga must have thought the same of it, for obviously she had not made the plant make a vow to her for Balder's sake.
He joined the battle in Valhalla with barely contained excitement, chiselling wounds into Sæhrímnir's thick skin with particular vigour. As soon as the beast was felled, he did not stay for the feast. Instead, he hurried outside and climbed the tree that harboured the innocent mistletoe, untouched by a protective spell. He cut it from the branch with one of his knives and smiled to himself, observing the leaves of the plant with glee.
"Time for the lesson," he whispered to the mistletoe and jumped from the tree.
Later, when he reached the privacy of his chambers, Loki transformed the mistletoe into one long and perfectly sharp arrow.
It was early morning when Balder decided to meet his last opponent, as soon as Odin and Frigga left to travel to Vanaheimr.
A thick fog had descended upon the ground during the night, a clear sign that, despite the lack of snow in Asgard, which was present in other realms, winter was upon the Realm Eternal with its cold rains, and lingering morning and evening mists.
Balder felt an uncomfortable chill that trembled its way to his bones, but he discarded it as a mere nuisance. He had no reason to fear anything, let alone his brother Loki, who was standing half a furlong away, one corner of his lips curving into a pleased smirk. Balder returned the gesture, confidence replacing the nagging sense of vulnerability. He refused to be nervous. Mjölnir had failed against him; what could a mere arrow possibly do to him? Frigga's protection had proven itself to be impenetrable and such meetings in the northern courtyard were only a game. It would end today with Balder's absolute triumph.
Every courtier and warrior had come, and Balder was well pleased by the numerous attendance. He noticed, for the briefest of moments, as Loki glanced at the crowd nervously, then wiped the emotion off his face and replaced it with a mask of amusement.
Balder chuckled, attracting Loki's attention. "Nervous, are we, brother?"
Thor, standing a few steps to Balder's left, released his own brontide of laughter, which prompted the onlookers to do the same. Loki squared his jaw and assumed the shooting stance.
"Not for a moment," Loki replied tersely. "Are you, little one?"
Balder ignored the slight and winked at his brother. "You shall have to try harder to elicit apprehension from me. Go on, I am ready."
Without saying another word, Loki pointed his bow towards the ground and nocked the arrow slowly, as if savouring the moment. He raised the bow in a languid motion and aimed at Balder's foot. Before he could draw the bow and release the arrow, Balder stopped him with a shout that made Loki's thin eyebrows collapse into a frown.
"Oh no, brother, try again!" commanded Balder. "Do you really mean to aim at my foot? My foot? Please!"
Balder laughed and the crowd laughed with him; praise for Balder; insult to Loki.
Loki wried a tense smile, trying to contain his anger. "If this works, Balder, I would be loath to wound you too severely." His voice was cold and determined.
Balder shook his head. "But it won't work, I can already promise you this much! Do you think I would be standing here if I even so much as suspected that you could harm me?"
Loki narrowed his eyes and aimed again, this time at Balder's thigh. "I can wield seiðr, brother. I may have found a way to penetrate through your protective shield. Calm your confidence, for this may well be the moment of your humiliation."
He smirked and drew the bow, but he did not release the arrow into Balder's flesh, for the princeling interrupted him again.
"Come, Loki! Do not be a craven. Make a better aim."
The crowd began to grunt. The Warriors Three looked amused, chatting between themselves, their gazes so eloquent. The Lady Sif rolled her eyes and released an annoyed sigh. Thor was regarding the middle prince with challenge in his eyes and an impertinent whisper escaped one impudent mouth in the crowd.
"What are you waiting for, Loki?" Balder demanded and unbuttoned his jerkin brazenly, moving the collar of his tunic aside to bare his pale, smooth chest, making a few maidens titter and blush in appreciation, which widened the princeling's grin.
Loki had never felt so insulted. He knew, in the core of his spirit, that the mistletoe arrow had the potential to slay the one that was protected by Frigga's seiðr. He knew he should not rise to the taunts, but he was a prince of Asgard and the disrespectful behaviour of everyone around him, especially of his own two brothers, could not be allowed to continue with impunity. He tried to keep his ire at bay, but Balder was still in need of receiving his lesson, and Loki would deliver the humiliation. Balder would not die, he would merely suffer embarrassment. Frigga's magic was too powerful, so the arrow would merely bruise Balder. A voice whispered to him that the arrow might do much more than that, but Loki ignored it the moment another insult was flung at him from the crowd.
This time he aimed directly at Balder's heart and released the arrow, regretting his rashness the moment the transformed mistletoe flew with a soft hiss.
The arrow pierced soft flesh and Balder found himself on the losing side of the game.
He understood his stupidity now.
He understood that the fates which the Norns had been weaving for every being since the beginning of time could be altered by no one, not even by the foremost amongst the goddesses.
The dream had shown him his end and it came as promised.
The signs were clear this morning and he paid them no heed. He was surrounded by a thick fog that weighed heavy on him, drops of its wet gossamer veil sticking to his hair and skin. He revealed his skin to his death of his own free will and it came, sharp and cold, pushing through his flesh swiftly, tearing throw his heart. The only surprise lay in the unfortunate fact that his demise should come by his own brother's hand.
Even as Balder yelped, crumbling to the ground, he did not feel sorry for his fate, for it was written for him centuries ago and he was meant to die like this, although he had foolishly tried to change his tale. He was only sorry for Loki, his brother, his poor brother, his murderer.
"I am sorry," Balder rasped, tasting blood on his mouth, coating his teeth and finding its way past his lips at their corners.
He couldn't see, but the pain kept him conscious. He wished it hadn't, for the screaming and the wailing, Thor's strong voice urging him to stay with him, were not the sounds he wished to be the last ones he would ever hear again.
I love you, my brother, he wished to say, but his voice failed him completely.
He felt someone grabbing at him, pulling him into a chilled embrace, and his mind spun viciously, taking him somewhere else, to a place where there was silence and such brightness that his blind eyes could perceive it.
"Help him, please!" he heard someone scream and recognised the voice to be Loki's. "Bring the healing stones now!"
I love you, my brother, Balder tried to say again, but he failed again. He was destined to die without passing words of love to his brothers one last time, without telling them that he was sorry for coaxing them into trying to hurt him.
He was sorry for defying the Norns. He was sorry for everything.
Now, Balder lost his hearing as well. His world became utterly dark and truly impenetrable.
No one could harm him anymore and with one final sigh, his spirit left him, and Balder of Asgard was no more.
Loki's bones juddered as his clever arrow spilled Balder's blood.
It worked, he thought morosely and he did not feel any joy, only terror. He could not tear his gaze from the dark blood oozing out of Balder's wound, the abhorrent sign of his triumph, and he dropped the bow to the ground, his body shocked into numbness.
After several gasps sounded from the mouths of the observers, there followed a moment of heavy, expectant silence as Balder wavered on his feet, somehow still keeping his balance. The first red drop fell on the group and Balder's entire body followed it with a soft thud.
The crowd became alive.
The warriors forced themselves out of their own distress, barring the screaming crowd from coming too close to Balder, who was being cradled by Thor. The Thunderer tried to remain composed, centuries of vigorous training keeping him from falling apart by way of blind panic, but his movements were jerky and desperate nonetheless, and his big hands were shaking Balder's small, fragile shoulders, the princeling unresponsive.
"Balder, stay with me!" Thor demanded and slapped the young prince across one terribly pallid cheek. "Balder!"
Then, Thor looked at Loki, who was standing miserable and sallow in the same spot as before, mouth dry, eyes watering.
"Loki, help!" Thor commanded, assuming the role of a general in battle, his firm voice both comforting and menacing to Loki's ears.
Like a sleepwalker, Loki walked towards his brothers, steps heavy and dragging. Upon reaching his siblings, Loki fell to his knees hard, biting his lower lip with such intensity that he broke the skin of it and drew blood. Loki could not bear to look at Balder; he could not bear to look at anyone or anything, especially not Balder's wound, the arrow quivering in his chest; or his own hands, a murderer's hands. He could not bear it, yet he had to and he fixed his eyes on Balder's face that was visibly growing paler and paler in front of his eyes.
"I didn't mean..." Loki began, searching for the right words, finally deciding not to utter them.
What should he say – that he was sorry, that he had not meant to hurt Balder? He could not say that, for although he was sorry, so very sorry, the truth was that he had meant everything and he wanted to do it. He aimed straight for Balder's heart, aware of the possible danger, knowing he might kill his own brother. Still, he aimed and he did not miss. It was his fault entirely, a misdeed born of his wounded pride, and now Balder was dying.
Balder was dying. And next to him, Thor shed a tear, Thor, who never cried, and Loki understood the gravity of his deed, just as he understood that nothing would ever be again as it had been until the moment he decided to perform a trick that even he himself could not hope to control.
Loki ignored Thor and the howling Asgardians already throwing insults and threats at him, the same people who, moments before, were taunting him to not be a craven and shoot, making his blood boil and his hands commit an act that should never have come to pass.
Without a second thought, Loki pulled Balder from Thor's embrace and crashed him against his own chest, Balder's blood immediately staining his green tunic and black jerkin, the red liquid still warm and containing life. The copper smell was a punch in the gut for Loki, but he discounted that as well.
"What are you doing?" Thor exclaimed, his fingers clutching around Loki's arm, and Loki imagined that another question should have followed. Haven't you done enough?
Have you not done enough, murderer?
"I'm trying to save our brother, so let me go," Loki answered, his voice exuding despair.
Thor, unable to hide his fears and sorrow any longer, nodded weakly and released Loki.
How can you still trust me, you utter fool? Loki's mind screamed, but Balder coughed weakly and there was no time for poisonous thoughts.
Loki closed his eyes, speaking the runes in his mind, and teleported to the healing rooms with his dying brother lying in his arms.
"Help him, please!" he demanded immediately after they shimmered into the rooms. "Bring the healing stones now!"
Eir, the main healer, gasped at the sight and her hands flew to her lips. "Sweet Norns, whatever has happened to Prince Balder?"
"Damn your eyes, Eir!" Loki screamed and stalked towards her. "Now! The stones, now! Now, now, now!"
Eir ran to assemble her healers and as she turned her back to him, Loki let the first tear crawl down one cheek, burning its way down his skin, penning the truth of well-deserved guilt into it. He looked at his hands, painted red and sticky with Balder's blood, and another tear followed, and then another.
He remained rooted to his spot as Eir and her healers returned with healing stones, uttering healing runes in unison and crumbling the blue dust of the stones onto Balder's wound, and Loki continued to cry, abusing his lip with his teeth, so that he would not make a single sound. He was unworthy of the release of his pain. The churning sound of the arrow being wrenched out of Balder's wound made him shudder and the sound of the dust falling onto the pierced flesh of the princeling with a soft murmur of seiðr gave him hope, and the healing process was pure torment.
Then, Eir and her healers were done. Eir walked to Loki and touched his shoulders carefully, making him turn around. As he saw tears gathering in her eyes, he understood.
"Forgive me, my prince," she spoke weakly, yet she need not have, for he already knew, "but he was already dead when you delivered him to us. There was nothing left for us to do. I am sorry."
Loki's tears stopped and he nodded solemnly.
It was done. He fulfilled the prophecy from his brother's final dream. The Norns had wanted Balder to die and they had chosen Loki as his slayer.
They had been born for this.
It was done.
There were no more tears. Loki only hated – hated the cursed Norns, and the wretched mistletoe, and the people of Asgard who witnessed his act, and most of all himself.
He hated so much that he could hardly breathe.
He had taken his brother's life and he would forever be known as his brother's slayer. The seams of his existence were rapidly falling apart, leaving nothing behind.
And then, Loki laughed, and Eir observed him with disbelief and worry, and he continued to laugh until Thor arrived to the healing rooms panting, seeking hope and finding none.
Loki laughed and he only stopped when Thor – after begging Loki to cease the madness and calm himself, after making numerous promises that he would protect Loki and remain by his side throughout any ordeal – resorted to punching his brother with uncontained strength, shoving him into the realm of unconsciousness and taking him to his bedchamber.
Only then Loki stopped, and he did not laugh anymore.
On the day Odin brought Loki to Asgard and called him his son, he left the little one with Frigga and their firstborn, and travelled again, to the very beginning of Yggdrasil where, among its roots, dwelled the Norns.
He had taken the jötunn baby, for the child's innocent face and miserable situation made Odin merciful; but Odin was also wise and a king who thought ahead, and he knew that, in the distant future, the child – the jötunn prince and rejected heir – could guarantee an alliance with Jötunheimr. There was more than one purpose to every being and thing in Creation.
Allfather had a terrible need to know every purpose of the new turn of events, for he was convinced that Loki's arrival to Asgard had an even deeper meaning. Experience had taught Odin to never question his instincts.
And so, Allfather visited the Norns and sacrificed his right eye to the Well of Wisdom to gain knowledge, so urgent was his need to understand.
The Norns spoke, reading from spectral parchment, the fate of Loki that they had woven, and that of Asgard, and of all the Nine Realms. Odin listened and despaired, but what was done could not be undone. He had already come to love the child on their way home from defeated Jötunheimr and the Norns told him that no fate could ever be changed. One could try, but would always fail and any attempt at altering one's destiny, chosen for them by the Norns, would have awful consequences that would ultimately lead to the events that had been foretold.
The Well had shown three princes, two golden, one dark, ridden with envy and rivalry, but honest in their love for each other. Odin had seen the threads between them being cut apart, by murder, rejection, jealousy and darkness settling in one heart. Loki would be driven to hatred, to a desperate need to belong, to be equal, to escape the shadow that would fall on him on the day when he would find the simple mistletoe hanging from a tree branch by Valhalla. He would lose hope, and he would become vile and terrible, and lives would fall. Brother would war brother, and their battle cries would attract the winds of Ragnarök.
Loki was the beginning of the end, the key to its start, the harbinger of doom.
Thor would be his greatest opponent, and Loki his, dear brother turned to foe, and together, they would break Yggdrasil and only one would live to save the remains of the Worlds.
So, when a messenger arrived to the palace in Vanaheimr to tell him of his youngest son's death and how it had occurred, Odin was not surprised.
Frigga crumbled into his embrace and wailed, for her dear, sweet Balder, and for Loki as well, and Odin held her, sharing her loss, his heart bleeding in silent pain.
But he had always known and he was strangely calm as he thought, So it begins.
Loki did not attend Balder's funeral.
He had not left his chambers since the evening he awoke on his bed with a broken, bleeding nose, Thor hovering over him in worry. Loki chased away Thor, his only brother now, because the youngest was dead and his death came by Loki's hand. Thor assured Loki that he knew the fault was not his, but Loki remembered the devastated faces of the Asgardians who had witnessed Balder's end; remembered their shouting; remembered the word murderer slipping from their tongues; and he called Thor a liar, a pathetic, vile, terrible liar, Leave me alone, you lying oaf, leave me, or I'll kill you as well.
He shouldn't have said that, he really shouldn't have, but the words were spoken and Thor's face contracted into an expression of hurt and disbelief, and he left, leaving behind a gaping emptiness which cut into Loki's heart, but it was for the best. He killed one brother, of his own free will, and he did not deserve to keep the other.
But Thor was infuriatingly stubborn and forgiving, and he returned to Loki's bedchamber the next day, finding his younger brother lying on his back, staring up at the carved ceiling. Thor's face was pale and drenched in sadness, for the Thunderer was in deep mourning, as was all of Asgard; as was Loki; and Loki could not endure seeing Thor's face, for it was a vivid memory of the previous day.
"Leave me," Loki demanded, turning to his side, showing his back to Thor and not his face.
"You know I can't," Thor insisted and Loki jumped off the bed, assuming a menacing stance, although he knew that in strength, he was no match for Thor.
"If you don't leave of your own will, I will teleport you outside and bar my door with seiðr, so I may never see you again."
Loki's voice was a low threat, teetering on the edge of falling apart and morphing into a sob. But it would never come to that, for he would not cry, not ever, for murderers did not deserve such release.
"If you truly wanted me gone, you would have done all of that yesterday," Thor countered him, his voice maddeningly gentle and understanding. "We need each other, Loki."
Loki bared his teeth. "You don't need me, you never have, and you will do better without me."
"You know that's not true," Thor replied brokenly and Loki growled like a wounded beast, feeling every bit like one.
He called upon his seiðr and in the next moment, he appeared next to Thor, grabbing at his muscled arms and teleporting them outside. He enjoyed the shocked expression on Thor's face as the Thunderer realised what had just occurred.
"Do not come back," Loki said in farewell, yet when he teleported back to his bedchamber, he did not bar the door with seiðr, hating himself for not being able to realise his threat, yet another thing in the long list of things he despised about himself.
It was not a surprise when, on the next day, Thor returned. His visits turned into a ritual that consisted of silence, with Loki standing in front of the tall window, looking outside with his back turned to Thor, while Thor remained seated on the bed, lost in his own thoughts.
On the fifth day, Thor spoke, breaking the heavy silence between them, thick with regrets.
"It was not your fault."
Loki smirked, lamenting Thor's faith in him. That faith had to be destroyed.
"I hope you know I went out of my way to find the perfect weapon to wound our brother. I searched for it for weeks and when I found it, I knew it could well be the one thing that could hurt Balder, and still, I used it against him. I was angry and insulted and I shot the arrow straight through his heart. What will you say now, brother? Am I still innocent to you?"
Thor sighed. "You are not innocent, but it still is not your fault."
Loki turned around, looking into Thor's eyes for the first time after days of avoiding them.
"Are you truly helplessly daft, Thor?" Loki spoke, his voice laced with exasperation. He grinned, determined to make Thor see. "I killed Balder because it was in my power to do so. In fact, if I could reverse the time, I think I'd do it again!"
Thor swallowed hard, his fingers clenching into white fists. "Are you really so desperate for my hatred because you think you've lost my friendship, my brotherly love?"
Loki sneered. "A murderer hardly deserves better."
Thor stood up, squaring his strong jaw. "I lost one brother and I won't lose you, too."
"You disgust me, you sentimental fool. But, by all means, lie to yourself if it helps you sleep at night."
This time, it was Thor's turn to smile and the reaction made Loki frown.
"Listen well, brother," Thor said. "Your killed Balder, it is true."
Loki was surprised by how much it hurt to hear the words he'd been trying to tease out of Thor.
"But," Thor continued, "it was an accident that could have well happened when I threw the hammer at him, or when Sif tried to spear him with her glaive, or when Volstagg threw a boulder at him. We all tried to hurt Balder, for it was a game to all, and it is the fault of us all for letting it ever go so far. The fault also lies with Balder himself, who wanted to be tested until the day when the misfortune of succeeding in the venture fell upon your shoulders, and I am sorry it had to be you, brother. If I could, I would relieve you of your burden and put it on my own shoulders."
Loki was trembling with rage. "You should listen to the people of Asgard, prince. They understand the truth of the situation far better than you do, you blind idiot."
"But they do not," Thor insisted. "They do not. None of it is so simple, Loki, can't you see?"
Loki, realising that it was useless to press the matter further, walked back to the window and turned his back to Thor once more, cursing his brother for loving him and making him feel less wretched and alone.
"I am sad that you did not come to the funeral, Loki."
Loki was sitting on the floor by the window, showing his face to Thor. He chuckled sadly, picking at the carpet with his fingers.
"If I had come, I would have ruined the event, Thor. Asgard hates me, and rightly so. The funeral would have turned into a competition of who could throw the largest stone at me first and kill me with it."
Thor, perched on the bed, facing Loki, shook his head. "Their beloved prince is dead, of course they are devastated. Balder was well loved. But they do not hate you. Not anymore," Thor said, admitting to the truth that hatred had been present in their hearts.
"Not anymore?" Loki asked, damning the childish tone of hope in his voice.
"Father spoke at the funeral, facing them with the facts, chastising them all for participating in any of the events that involved Asgardians throwing things at Balder, attempting to leave a bruise on his skin."
Loki looked at his brother in disbelief, not understanding why Odin, the father of the child that Loki killed, would defend Balder's slayer. It did not matter that Loki was Odin's son, too; the only thing that mattered was that Loki had killed Balder.
Ignorant of Loki's thoughts, Thor continued, "Allfather reminded them that they pushed you to shoot the arrow, and even you cannot deny the truth of that, Loki. He commanded them to release you of guilt and to regard you as they always have, as a prince of Asgard worthy of their respect. Father forgave them and he asked me to tell you that you are forgiven, too, although he never blamed you, not for one moment."
Loki called for his rage to awaken, but it remained dormant, captive to a different emotion. Loki could not speak and he closed his eyes, so that he could not see, either, leaning his head against the wall behind him. Why did his family have to be so damn accepting of him, so loving, so wonderful? They should hate him; he wanted them to hate him, for it was the only thing that could ameliorate the matter for him. He needed their hatred because their love was suffocating him, widening the wound on his spirit.
"Father would prefer it if he could tell you the words himself, Loki."
Loki simply shook his head. He was not ready to see Odin and he did not think he ever would be again.
"And mother? Will you see her? She has asked me to convince you t –"
"No." Loki finally found his voice again. Especially not her. He deserved her love and forgiveness the least. He felt as if he had betrayed her by seeking out to counter her magic. She suffered the most and he had brought the suffering to her feet.
"Tell me about the funeral," he requested, surprising Thor, surprising even himself, but he wanted to be reassured that Balder left them with the highest honours. He wanted to know that the princeling looked peaceful in his death.
"Very well," Thor agreed.
Thor began to describe Balder's funeral pyre and Loki wept in silence, turning his back to Thor once more, so that his tears could go unnoticed.
They did not and when Thor embraced him, Loki did not struggle.
"You have been summoned to the throne room," Thor spoke ten days after Balder's funeral.
Loki's face blanched and the arches of his eyebrows straightened. "I am not ready yet."
Thor had been his only contact with the outside world since Balder's death and for three weeks, Loki had not seen anyone but his brother. Thor was the one to bring meals to his bedchamber, although Loki ate very little, only enough to keep Thor from pestering him, and Thor was the one Loki spoke to, and no one else. Loki did not wish to face his parents yet. He was contrite and ashamed, and he could not bear even the thought of meeting their gazes.
Thor lowered his gaze. "Allfather has summoned you to meet him, not as your father, but as your king. You must come."
Loki cleared his throat, a sharp coldness settling at the bottom of his stomach. "Wherefore does the king wish to see me?"
Thor did not reply. Thor did not even meet Loki's eyes and Loki knew, he understood, that he was not fully forgiven. He was not disappointed or frightened because he was finally going received what he deserved: his punishment. The thought was a balm, for he knew that the punishment for murder in Asgard was death.
He followed Thor to the throne room calmly, looking forward to hearing the sentence. Soon, he would join Balder in Helheim and drink with the miserable dead. Loki did not truly wish to die, but it was what he deserved and he embraced it.
He took a deep breath as two guards open the gilded doors leading to the throne room and his step halted, but he was grateful for Thor's presence. Thor had told him that he would remain by his side in support and Loki had called him a liar, but Thor had been keeping true to his word and he walked into the throne room not ahead of Loki, or behind me, but together with him, their steps synchronised.
To Loki's relief, the throne room was empty of the courtiers and the warriors. There was only Odin sitting on his throne and Frigga standing by his side, both of them perfect and absolute. Loki's heard was pulsing fast, hitting his ribs with the vehemence of the running deer during the yearly Great Hunt. His breaths were short, but he kept his composure, for he was many things and one of them was the Trickster, who was master of deceit.
They reached the base of the stairs leading to the throne and Loki stopped, bowing low. When he straightened himself, his spine rigid, Frigga was already running down the stairs towards him and he took a trembling step back. It was too late. Frigga's hands grasped his shoulders and interrupted his intent to withdraw further away.
"Look at me," she commanded softly. "Loki, look at me."
He gulped and lifted his gaze slowly, the green of his eyes meeting the warm hazel of hers.
"I love you, my son," she said and kissed his brow.
"Please, don't," Loki whispered, pleading, and made to lower his gaze once more, but Frigga would have none of it.
He complied with her wishes, for if he was going to die, he might as well give her what she wanted.
Frigga stepped next to Loki, linking her elbow with his, and looked at Odin, who had stood up, every bit the King of Asgard and commander of the realms. Frigga's fingers sought Loki and squeezed them, and Loki took a deep breath, ready to hear the sentence.
"Loki Odinson, my son, prince of Asgard," Odin spoke, his voice resonating in the vast chamber, "I find you guilty of fatuity."
Loki widened his eyes and stared at Odin dumbfounded.
"You and your brother Balder conspired to break the queen's protective seiðr. Your foolishness resulted in Balder's unfortunate death. Your king and queen understand that his demise was the result of a deplorable accident and while you hold one half of the blame, you are forgiven for your mistake, grave as it may be."
"What?" Loki whispered, unable to believe the words he was hearing. Had Odin Lost his mind?
"The realm forgives you, but you must be made aware that your mistake, which came from a great, childish foolishness, demands recompense."
Loki nodded, looking his father in the eye for the first time since the day of the tragedy.
"Every action has consequences, and dire consequences deserve punishment."
Loki's eyes watered, but he forced down the tears, jarring his teeth proudly.
"And so I, Odin King of Asgard, sentence you to exile for the duration of six months, which you shall spend in the Realm of Midgard, without the aid of your seiðr that led you to your troubles. Your seiðr shall be bound while you remain in Midgard and shall be returned to you at the conclusion of your exile. Do you understand the terms?"
Loki was so stunned by the turn of events that he could not speak. He understood that there must be punishment, but he had never expected his father to be so lenient towards him. Loki's need to be hated evaporated and gratitude washed over him. Thor had been right. There was hope and he had been given his chance of redemption.
Loki had not forgiven himself, but the realm forgave. He did not deserve it, yet for the first time since Balder's death, he accepted something good into his life.
"I shall visit you in Midgard, my son," Frigga spoke, startling him from his thoughts. "I shall escort you there and I shall be the one to take you back home when the time for it comes."
"As will I," added Thor and Loki wanted to escape the throne room.
It was too much, too much, too much goodness for one who did not deserve it.
Please, let me leave now, his thoughts begged, or he would break down and humiliate himself.
"I am not finished," Odin's voice boomed and Loki returned his attention to him, his body quivering with contained tension.
"Every action has its consequences. On this day, I name Thor the heir to my throne and his children will be kings after him. Once the day of Thor's coronation comes, Loki will be made regent and will hold the throne in his king's absence, but will never ascend to the throne in his own right. The king has spoken," said Odin and sat into the throne, his eye fixed on Loki.
"Be careful in Midgard, my son," Odin added, this time with the comforting voice of a father, his kingly demeanour gone.
But Loki heard nothing else after the final sentence.
He had just been excluded from his father's plans and from the future of the realm, and that was the true punishment.
The realm had lied.
And so did Loki.
Odin is watching Loki from his high seat Hliðskjálf, observing his sons conversing in Loki's humble abode somewhere in the North of Midgard.
Loki seems to be doing better and a special bond is forming between the two remaining brothers. But resentment is stirring in Loki's heart and although he is smiling, he is shutting himself away at the same time, hiding the truth of his festering heart, throbbing with jealousy and the sense of injustice.
He has lost everything and although he blames himself for Balder's death more than anyone else ever will, he cannot be cured from the slight that his own father has imposed upon him.
Loki would rather die than be cut off from his rights, but he will fight to prove his worth, not knowing that Odin does love him and deems him worthy.
But the prophecy must be fulfilled and Odin has planted the seeds.
AUTHOR'S NOTES: This work is a mix of the events from the comic books and Norse mythology. I did not follow those events completely because I wanted to incorporate the story into the universe of the movie Thor, so the interpretation of those events is the fruit of my imagination.
The flowers Frigga planted in the palace gardens are taken from Tolkien's works. He invented those flowers and named them, I just borrowed them to satisfy my Tolkien geekdom.
The Great Hunt in mythology is a different matter entirely. In my story, it is merely a great hunting expedition.
I took great artistic liberties in alluding to the events of Ragnarok. I wanted to adjust Ragnarok to what has happened in the comic books and in the movies so far (Thor, The Avengers, Thor: The Dark World).
Music recommendation: while writing this story, I had two songs on repeat: Brun by Garmarna and Helvegen (The Way to Hell) by Wardruna. They were a huge inspiration to me.
And finally, I'd like to thank you for reading this story.