Wildfire, Chapter 2 part 1
The sun came up on Sessrumnir, and when the servants had thrown open the glistening doors it glanced through all the rooms and glittered in Freyja’s mirror. She sat before her glass admiring her beautiful face, rouging her lips with a paste of blood and honey. The yellow light shocked glints of red and gold from her auburn hair, and stroked a gentle hand along the twisted amber and gold of the Brisingamen like a lover departing in the morning.
An elvish maidservant came hurrying in silently bearing scented water in a golden dish. The steam rose like a grey blossom as she walked between the silvered pillars and filled the air with the fragrance of forest flowers. Her dark green oblate eyes were wide with anticipation,her face unreadable. As Freyja washed her red-stained fingers she said;
"My Lady, Loki is at the door."
"Loki!" Freyja exclaimed, putting a hand to her necklace; it was still there. "What can that thief want?"
Everyone had known, every god had known, that you couldn’t get into Freyja’s house unless she opened the doors to you. Everyone had known it, until he had found a secret way through all the locked doors; until he had come silently into her bedchamber while she slept and taken the Price of Three Nights to shame her before the gods.
She shivered. He could have killed her; would have if he’d had the nerve. He could have taken a knife and driven it through her throat while she was sleeping. No-one would have known who had done it…He had the eyes of a secret murderer.
"At least this time he has come to the door." she said, "Let him come in then."
The elfen ran to the door lightly. She anticipated some entertainment in this meeting, whatever happened. Something to talk over thoroughly while the gods were asleep. Nevertheless she said nothing to Loki as she led him into the inner hall. There was nothing she could say that could not be misinterpreted.
"I thought you were on Midgard," Freyja said icily, without getting up to greet her guest. She looked with badly concealed envy at his golden hair.
"I had said so." he replied smugly, "But my words are not always wholly accurate."
"It’s true you are a liar." Freyja said. She waved a graceful hand to the maid, who ran off silently on light feet.
"Only occasionally." said Loki, "I say what I want, it’s up to you to decide the truth."
"Oh yes, I will keep forgetting," Freyja sneered, "You are our benefactor, it’s good for us to be constantly betrayed."
"I think it is."
"You think too much."
When the maid returned with glasses and a pitcher of wine she was careful to stand outside the locked gaze. She poured the wine as if she felt no danger; deft as a doe kicking her heels in the teeth of wolves. The smell of the wine was sweet, and the sound of its pouring like that of rivers. Loki Banefire shivered at it.
He turned his burnt eyes to the elfen, but she made no sign to show she felt the threat. Only Freyja, sister to the lord of elves, knew how afraid she was by her calm.
"Cloudshadow," she said, "You may go."
The elfen filled the glasses to the brims, carefully, slowly as the coming of spring. Then, favouring both the gods with a closed and secret glance, she departed. She went straight to the door, where she stood when her mistress was asleep or away, the door that led into the forest. The shade of the trees offered many good places to hide, and she wanted to be there, but she went no further than the threshold. Reluctantly, after gazing only a little while, she turned and padded back secret as the undine in the brook. She was too faithful to leave her Lady alone with Wildfire.
"So," said Freyja, "What do you want?"
She leaned forward and the sun outlined the shape of her breasts beneath her silken dress. It gleamed along her red lips.
Loki smiled, "There’s a young man…" he said.
Freyja reddened with anger. "Tie him up and take him at knife point." she said, "That’s your usual method isn’t it?"
"But you misunderstand me!" said Loki, laughing, "This is different."
"Oh yes?" Freyja sneered, "It always is." She combed her fingers through her shining hair, leaving it furrowed like a field of rich earth.
"I don’t want him for me!" Loki exclaimed with a look of innocence, "I want him to fall in love with a young woman."
Freyja frowned, "Now I know you’re up to something," she said, "Why should you want anything so good to happen?"
"It’s a particular couple," said Loki, "And they haven’t met. Also the boy is a follower of the new god."
"Oh that’s it is it!" said Freyja, "You want their children to grow up despising us, so that we will all be as dishonoured as you."
"If I wanted that," Loki said, holding on to his glass with both hands, as if afraid it would be taken from him, "I should merely make public everything I know."
"And leave yourself defenceless?"
"When I wish to die I may do it."
"I will take that as a denial," Freyja said, smiling knowingly.
"As you like."
"So what do you want with the foreign god?" Freyja asked,
"Aren’t you wasting your talents? That one will never last…I hear his followers are forbidden to have children, and that they hate women. There won’t be too many husbands permitted to follow that one."
Loki laughed, but he huddled closer in his chair. "True," he said, "And he is not too fond of thieves and deceivers, which makes him unpopular with Woden."
"And also with you." she pointed out.
"I didn’t think that needed stating." He put the empty glass down quickly, nervously, as if he might have forgotten and left with it still in his hand.
"There are many things you don’t think it necessary to state about yourself," said Freyja bitterly, giving the fire an angry stir with her weaving sword; "You didn’t think it needed stating that it was you who stole my necklace."
"But it didn’t need stating," he protested as if in anger, "Whenever anything at all goes wrong up here Heimdallr and Balder blame me. Why even yesterday Heimdallr accused me of spoiling his aim at the hunt."
"Surtur’s flames, I most certainly did. He was aiming at me."
"There," she said, smiling, it was a just accusation. Would it be too much to ask why you want this particular couple to fall for each other? Their progeny might hurry the Ragnarok perhaps?"
"Would you believe my answer?" pointed out the Father of Lies with the air of a philosopher, cutting to the heart of the problem. "No." Freyja said scornfully.
"Well then," said the Sly god with a shrug, "Why should you wish to hear more of my lies?"
The goddess of love gave the fire another brutal stab, "So why should I help?" she said.
The fire flamed high and the twisted gold at her throat was outlined in a light like blood. From the high smokehole in the silver ceiling bars of light descended. The gray fragrance still drifted in them, like fleets of longships tossing on a bright tide.
"The brooch and bracelet of Hymir the fisherman’s daughter," said the Thief of Heaven indifferently. He had seen her gazing jealously at them while she sat, thinking herself unobserved, in hawk form on the High One’s seat of watching.
"You could get them for me?" she asked with a little catch in her voice that made him smile. She drew her hair over her eyes like a veil, fancying that he could not see through it to what she thought.
"My Lady!" Loki protested, "Haven’t you learned yet that I can easily take what I want?"
Freyja clenched her fists, but she asked, "Tell me, where does she keep them?"
"Ah," said Loki with the air of one making a confidence, "I would be a fool to tell you that with an elfen looking on from the shadows ready to fly there in an instant and steal them for you herself."
"What!" Freyja shouted, jumping up angrily with her hair wild, holding her weaving baton as a wolfskin clad berserker goes into battle with drawn sword, screaming. "Cloudshadow! Spying on me! Come out here, girl!"
Cloudshadow stepped out of the shade of a pillar with open,innocent eyes, unashamed.
"My Lady?" she said, "How have I offended you?"
"How have you offended?" Freyja repeated in astonishment. "You slink in the shadows of my hall like a thief waiting for weakness; you watch my moves, rob me of my words…And I was gentle to you, I trusted you! Who has sent you to spy on me? Tell me his name and I will give you leave to go freely from my house, and take your treacherous service to whomever you will. But, if you choose not to tell me, Freyr, my brother, your Lord, will set you among the Dark elves, to be their slave forever."
"Do not judge me so swiftly, Lady." said Cloudshadow spreading her hands and curtseying so deeply that her bronze girdle-tips skittered on the ground with a metallic ring. "I was concerned for your safety. I thought you would not like to be alone with the Father of Monsters. He is a dangerous god."
She rolled a strand of her raven hair backwards and forwards between her fingers, gazing at it in rapt concentration, in order to avoid the amused stare of Loki Banefire. "Also," she said, "What he said, was so. I would have gone, for you, to get the jewels you spoke of, before he even thought of setting out. Then you would have been freed of any debt-bond to him."
"Well, my girl," Freyja got on her high horse, "It so happens that I don’t want those jewels." She stared at her guest: "I would never be able to wear them without being called a thief…"
"They called you worse things for the Brisingamen," Loki interrupted.
"I don’t care for your bribe," Freyja replied, with cold anger.
Loki moved, his face caught the light of a leaping flame and seemed suddenly sharp and cruel, but he spoke softly. "Leave the girl be," he said, "She meant no harm to you." And he smiled his smug, meaningful smile.
"Oh, so that’s how it is." Murmured Freyja to herself. "Very well," she said, "Cloudshadow you may go. You may leave my house and go. Go back to Alfheim, girl, you’re not wanted here."
She poured out more wine, watching it fill into the delicate claws of the glass, feeling them go cold against her fingers, noticing how the blue glass became aquamarine with the colour of the liquid. When she looked up, holding out the full glass, she was quite calm again.
Once Loki sat over his glass like a beggar boy over a bowl of soup she picked up her own and refilled it without half so much care.
"What wouldn’t you do…" she said in mocking tones, "To persuade me to do this thing for you?" She caught his rapid nervous look to the door through which the elfen had gone and she smiled to herself.
"You mustn’t think…" said he, looking at her with his coal-black eyes blacker still from worry, "That I had anything to do with her eavesdropping."
"Why should I not?"
"I wouldn’t want her to suffer your anger. Besides, it isn’t true."
"You say it isn’t true?" Freyja set her empty claw-beaker down on its side on the floor,"You, the Father of Lies, say it isn’t true?"
"Who should know, better than a liar, the difference between truth and falsehood?" Loki said, hanging his head so that she could not see his face. Within the hanging circlet of his hair his shadow face looked up at him with satisfaction and a slight smile. A smile which broadened, just a little, when she said, "It’s nothing to me," in obvious disbelief.
"What would you not do for this favour?" she insisted. Loki seemed to think about that, and his face became blank and empty, like that of a dead man. "I wouldn’t live in Giantland again, under the hand of my father, or of Thrivaldi King…" he began, in emotionless tones, but then he laughed and looked up frankly; "And I wouldn’t go through the pains of childbirth again. Oh! not for anything!"
"Childbirth!" Freyja snorted derisively. She gathered up her skirts and walked to where, on a table carved with snaking flowers was a bowl of copper, overlaid with gold, which shone with a dark lustre. She brought it back and set it on the floor between them. It was full of hazelnuts. Taking a handful, she sat down again. "What do you know about childbirth?" she said, "Father of monsters."
"They may be monsters." Loki protested reasonably, "But they’re still my children. Didn’t I carry them long enough, or scream loud enough when Fenris blooded his teeth eating his way out of me?"
"It’s your own fault." Freyja noticed how the sun had changed its angle through the rafters and now gilded a dead bird far up upon the beams. She didn’t like this talk. It should not have been possible that action of his; that a man could bear life of whatever kind. It was a slap in the face for her, that he should so twist the laws of her realm. What was more worrying was that she doubted if any of the other gods, even Odin Vakr King of the gods, could have done as much. "You should not have eaten that evil woman’s heart."
"Oh yes," Loki laughed bitterly, turning the bowl of hazelnuts with his foot, "So everyone says, now. But then it was a different story. Oh yes, when they were all there, in the sanctity of the Hall, stabbing the woman with spears, flinging her in the fire-pit till the air stank of charred meat, sawing her into bleeding pieces and scattering them about the floor, wringing their hands and crying ‘Wyrd save us, the woman won’t die!’ then they weren’t so chary of asking my help.
“Three times they slaughtered her, each time more inventive; Balder the Beautiful had the idea of impaling her on an arch of spears above the firepit and they roasted her until only her heart was left. You weren’t there, were you? Or you’d remember how they capered when that was done and Angrbotha the witch-wife was reduced to so much meat, and Freyr was rid of a mother-in-law. How they laughed! ‘That’ll teach the old witch to come looking for her daughter here,’ they said.
“But then.… You should have seen their faces!" He put on a mask of horror so profound that his listener, despite herself, giggled nervously like a child at a telling.
"The heart," Loki said slowly, "Began to beat. There in the embers, thud, thud, thud. Blood pumped from it. ‘Wyrd preserve us,’ cried the Einherjar, whose combined might could not kill her, ‘Nothing in the nine worlds will destroy the bitch! Nothing!’
“Well, all eyes turned to me. ‘Loki,’ says Odin, kindly and sweetly, ‘You have a reputation for answering impossible challenges. So, you get rid of her.’
“Then they all left, and I was sitting there, looking at this beating heart and feeling sick with the smell of blood. So I cut it up into little pieces, and I put salt on it, and I ate it before it could join itself together again. What I went through for the good of Asgard!
“’Loki get rid of her,’ they said. Now they say ‘You shouldn’t have done it.’ How am I to follow the changing whims in the hearts of you Vanir?"
"Alright," Freyja laughed, "I’ll admit the possibility that there might be another side to the story.
"Poor woman." said Loki in a maudlin tone, "She shouldn’t have been so devoted a mother or she’d still be alive. Left to myself I would have made that a different ending."
He nudged the bowl with his foot and it went over the edge of the hearth and into the firepit. The nuts spilled out and went up in flames but the bowl he retrieved, soot blackened and hot, from among the embers. At the bottom, flame-scarred, the red enamelled escutcheon showed a boars head with a golden crest. Gullenbursti, a gift he had given to Freyr, unthanked.
"Apart from that," he said, "I wouldn’t live three months shut in a chest for it with nothing but the smell of apples to soothe my hunger."
Freyja laughed again, "Your dealings with giants have not been very fortunate have they?"
"I no longer think about them," said he, but his eyes were full of long nurtured grudges.
Freyja ignored it. "But you’d do anything else?"
"It depends," said he, "On what you ask."
"Would you sleep with me?"
She watched his face intently when she said that, but it hardly changed, there may have been some surprise, but not much. She was disappointed. This was her ground and she had not expected him to fight well on it.
Loki laughed. "I’ve been a whore for less," he said. "But do you really think it would make any difference?"
"I think you would find that it did," said Freyja, "You underestimate me."
Loki stared at her, with a smile of self-satisfied contempt. "I am not Odin," he said, "Or Thor, or Heimdallr, or any of those other contemptible weaklings you have tied at your girdle. They are innocents, I am not.
"Odin!" Freyja forced a laugh, "Innocent?"
"He believed that you cared for him," Loki said, "Which was more than innocent, it was stupid. I on the other hand know well that you loathe me, and I have used women’s power myself. I think that you would find that I could overmatch you if I put my mind to it. So, out of kindness I will give you some good advice: Don’t play with fire, you will get burnt."
"You’re not short on boasting," said Freyja, and she returned the fire-god’s contempt threefold, "Anyone would think from listening to you that you were the goddess of love here."
"Love is a game of deception," said Loki, "And I am a master of such games; am I not the Arch-fiend himself?"
"That’s a big name you’re taking to yourself," said Freyja scornfully.
"I was given it on Midgard," he said impatiently. "Will you give me my answer?"
"You still expect me to say yes, after such a very civil request?" Freyja laughed, "You are a fool. You can leave my house now."
She got up, gathering her skirts about her as she prepared to make her way in quiet dignity to her sleeping quarters.
"Freyja," Loki spoke softly, "Do you still expect to be able to say no to me, now that you know how very easy it has been for me to find out all about you?"
"What do you mean?" Freyja turned sharply to see Loki smiling.
"Thor is a kindly and stupid sort," said Loki, "But he can become quite dangerous when he’s jealous. And Odin is not renowned for his tolerance, or his mercy. That’s not mentioning the reaction of the outraged wives. Or perhaps…" He paused for emphasis and to watch her false outrage become genuine, "Perhaps…" he went on, quietly so that the servants could not hear, but with a growing look of spiteful joy, "Perhaps I should tell the inventive Balder what you and your beloved brother and father get up to within the family. I told you what he did with the witch, didn’t I? Shall I go on?"
"You filthy bastard!" Freyja screamed at him. She took up one of the spears that leaned against the wall. "Get out of my house and take your spying bitch with you."
"You only had to say yes," Loki backed off carefully, "And you would never even have known that I knew."
"Alright! Alright!" Freyja pulled herself together, "You get your way. I’ll come to Hlithskjalf with you to see these humans; I’ll send them dreams, but you just keep your mouth shut or Freyr will cut your tongue out, and the Vanir, my kinsfolk, will flay your precious Hoenir and send you curses written on his skin."
His face didn’t change, but she felt him flinch. She laughed then in a triumph of her own, "You say you’re indifferent to my power." she said, "But who was it made that little dent in your hard heart?"
"I don’t thank you for that," said Loki, "He betrayed me too; he went away. You can kill him now for all I care. I’ll take my elvish spy from your household, but be at the Hlithskjalf one hour after noon, or I may indulge my tendency to gossip."
"Very well." Freyja turned her back on him and when she heard the hinges of the door creak she spun and hurled the spear. He was not even surprised. He ducked quickly out of the way and the heavy weapon slammed the door shut behind him with its head buried deeply and its shaft humming angrily as a hornet.