~ He fell out of time and memories, through light and rage like the stars that blinked past him. Better this that the too-reasonable pity, the sentence that would be laid like shackles over his penitence. And there would be a sentence, imprisonment in a cell that negated his powers. How long it would last he could not say. They had reason to mistrust him now, Odin, Thor. All of them.
He could not bear their narrow understanding, the walls that would close about him for, they would say (and mean it) his own good. So he fell. At last, he closed himself off from it. Perhaps he would fall for eternity.
When it came, the sense of reality was a series of shocks, rattling around his mind like a handful of dice until, one by one, they settled. His eyes opened to a weave of long leaves that rustled in the wind. There was the sound and scent of water.
He sat up, came to his knees than his feet, one hand resting on the tree stem; the bark grew in a spiralling pattern. Clusters of yellow fruit hung heavily.
How long had he fallen? Long enough to make the sensation of sight, sound, smell and touch acute, welcome. He drew his fingers over the bark, then turned his head, stepped toward the water.
A spring bubbled into a clear pool that spread under fans of leaves. He knelt and scooped it into his hands; it was clean, tasting faintly of the rock underground. After, he ate of the fruit, drank again, the walked to the edge of the trees.
The land was desert, tawny gold as a great slumbering cat against a sky seared pale by the sun that struck him, soaked through his clothes, lay hard as a blow on his skin. A track, white as a scar, lead past this green haven, but he saw no sign of traffic. He did not know where he had come, but the scent behind the air spoke of Midgard. He smiled. Midgard held great possibilities, though there was something...missing. He recalled the tang of the air when he had visited Thor, cast from Asgard by Odin. It was not the same here, now, but Midgard was home to many climates, and this one seemed little touched by humans.
The sound of hoof-beats narrowed his eyes, took him into the shadows of the trees. Not one horseman, but several trotting out of the wavering heat haze like spirits taking on solid flesh. Their horses were graceful, glossy-coated, the riders swathed in veils and turbans against the sun. Hounds ran alongside them, long legged, feathery tails, gentle faces. A hunting party, then. They slowed behind a stallion fit for a king, tall and black. The man who dismounted caught Loki's eyes. His movements were arresting, and for Midgard, wrong.
He glanced around, caught the black eye of a lizard, melted into its shape. The world at once took on different dimensions, made it harder to observe. He flicked up one of the trees, and clung. The weapons the party bore did not trouble him, but until he knew more about them, he would watch and listen.
The dogs loped down to drink, the riders lead their horses to the pool before unwinding their veils and quenching their thirst. Others filled skins. The men were dark or gold skinned, slim, he judged, and they moved like soldiers. Their leader...
Astonishment slapped his mind. This place was not Álfheimr. But there could be no mistaking the otherness, the beauty of his face. Yet an incongruity nudged at his mind, troubling him until the man's eyes moved, sweeping the trees. There was power in their brightness. Loki recognised it. Of course he did. It was the power of the Æsir.† He would have raised his brows had he been in his own shape. This man, whomever he was (and Loki had never seen him before) was the offspring of the Ljósálfar and the Æsir, and living, unless Loki were very much mistaken, on Midgard.
Food was brought out, meat, fruit, and the men settled to their meal. Their leader did not. He had pushed back his head-gear, showing black hair caught in a braid as thick as a man's forearm, ears that tapered to fine points. Like all Elves, he was beardless, skin smooth as fine marble, white as a pearl. Shadows underlined the high cheekbones. His face carried no expression, but he prowled the marge of the pool, the trees like a predator. Loki was amused, knew the man was aware of his presence, or aware of something. How would he not be?
Who are you? he wondered. The half-blood walked like a god, as if he owned the Nine Realms, and it did not matter to him, but the arrogance gentled into warmth when he returned to his men. He smiled as a young man rose to fill his cup with a pale gold wine, and the expression changed his face completely as a sunrise banishes night. Loki concentrated on the language. It was strange, but no bar to his understanding. It was also not the tongue of Álfheimr. The youth used the title, “Sire,” which was no surprise. But ruler of where?
The shadows shifted, a hot wind set the leaves talking, and the men moved to pack their gear, remount. All Loki had to do was follow. The dust of their passing spun and blew away. The sun was pitiless. He was Jötunn (there was no doubt) and thus should be more at home in the cold, but he had lived in the warmer climes of Asgard all his life, and the heat did not unduly trouble him. He walked. Time was not an enemy, but too much of it and he would dwell on injustice, let bitterness dominate him. He felt injustice in the tightening of his jaw. Better that he lock it away, not forget, no, never. But there was time, too, for revenge.
The road curved about a hill of dunes to his right, their crests shedding sand like snow; on his left, the land flattened, a place of scattered rock, great bluffs weathered by the dry wind of ages. Behind him, the green blessing of the oasis dwindled, even to his eyes, to a hope, a guess. A dark shape circled high up, some great bird of the desert, wings spread on the hot updrafts. He caught at its shape, winged upward, let the world open below him.
The troop of riders became black insects on a pale ribbon, and ahead of them, some few leagues, sprawled a city dropped like a jewel in the arid cloth of the desert. Great roads pushed from its gates, far wider than the thin game-trail the hunters used, and Loki saw a steady stream of wagons, and riders heading in and out. The city shone white-gold, but her skirts were green. Cultivated land spread out around it, small scatters of villages. Flying higher, he could see the roads slamming north and south, the way-stations where merchants could rest and water their beasts. The desert stretched into one vast shimmer on the horizons. And nowhere did he see any sign of the civilisation he was accustomed to in Asgard, even that which he had seen on Midgard. This was an older world.
His wings beat closer to the city. An older world indeed, and one with hard laws. There was an execution ground before one of the walls; men, dessicated by the sun, hung impaled on blood-soaked stakes. Some were still alive. Their ruler, that half-god with the violet eyes, was not prone to mercy.
Neither am I.
He spent long in observing the city. Much of the trading went on outside its walls, permanent camps set up and high-walled caravanserai's for the merchants. The ruler had not permitted the inner wall to be used; it was still a killing ground in the event of an attack. Loki approved. On one sweep, he saw what must surely be the palace, a glimpse of shaded gardens, blue pools, and further away, in a great square, rose a circular temple with a huge dome stained by smoke. What gods, he wondered, did they worship here. It does not matter, they'll worship me.
He circled lower, over guards on wide ramparts, the bustle of the streets, noise and pungent smells rising: the close press of humanity, spices, perfume, food. Now the palace was below him again, and his avian sight spied smaller birds in fruit trees. He settled in a garden.
The sounds of the city were more distant here, the air fresher. Fountains spilled, and flowers frothed from glazed pots. Pathways of coloured stone ran under arches into the dimness of inner chambers. He walked into one of them, a study, one great marble table with stacks of scrolls, a map upon one wall, another lined with more alcoves for scrolls, leather-bound books. He went to the map, ran his fingers lightly over unfamiliar names, paused on one marked with a wooden pin. Sud Sicanna. Was this where he was?
I have never been here before.
It felt almost like freedom.
He had no doubt his instinct, the bleed of power, had brought him to the ruler's chambers, and they said much about him. A suit of armour stood, tiny rings of blackened mail, and helm with a plume dyed purple, clothes laid in herb-scented chests, simple gear of black, but of the finest leather and doeskin. There were no jewels. This man was a warrior. He had the presence and confidence to disdain ornamentation, and by the work laid out in his study, he liked to keep his finger on the pulse of events both here and in the world beyond. But he was not averse to luxury. There was a bathing room with scented soaps and oils, the bed could have slept four men, was spread with silks in blood red and gold.
With some relief, Loki offed his heavy gear, the leather and studded metal, his boots, and stepped into the pool. Water cascaded from copper pipes, splendidly cool; he let it pour into the roots of his hair, sluice away sweat and dust. Already he liked it here, and it was as well if he were going to rule this city. He had been bred for it, raised as a king-in-waiting — or so he had thought.
Damn you, Odin. Thor, It was always Thor...
His hands had clenched into tight fists. He allowed anger to ride him, let his mind dwell on justice. He had feared, falling from the Bifrost, that he would be lost forever in some limbo among the worlds.
He opened his eyes, water-beaded lashes heavy as the man walked into the room and stopped short. He, too was naked, and had loosed his hair. It fell in black ripples to his knees. Spiked black tattoos ran up his arms to curve over wide, flat shoulders. Everything about him was slim, taut, hard, except the flash of amusement in violet eyes as black brows went up.
Loki threw up mental barriers as the mind behind those eyes slid like a steel knife into his, and he tensed, ready to use power.
“I did not imagine the Valar were so interested in me.” The man had a lilt to his voice; it was low and rich as mead. A taunting smile curved the full mouth. “They have certainly changed their er...plan of attack. I like their new approach. Very much.”
“I don't know what you mean,” Loki said easily, leaning back against the tiled sides of the pool, arms spread. “My name is Loki, of Asgard.” And that was true, would always be true no matter what blood flowed in his veins.
“Loki,” the other repeated, and inclined his head. “I am Vanimórë of—” He gestured. “Sud Sicanna. At the moment. Come now.” The smile faded. He said curtly: “Thou art Vala. It was thee I sensed this morning when we rested from the hunt. But I am damned if I know which one thou art. What dost thou want of me.” His antique speech gave a not displeasing formality to the words, even the threat behind them. Loki regarded him. Whoever the 'Valar' were, this man, Vanimórë, was no friend to them.
“Are they your gods, these Valar?” he asked, and without taking his eyes from Vanimórë lifted himself from the water, straightened.
For a moment, no answer came. Vanimórë reached to a shelf, brought out a towel and tossed it to Loki, who caught it, wrapped it about his waist.
“Not gods, though perhaps they would name themselves thus. But believe me, I have been close enough to one of them to smell the ichor in thy blood.”
“No doubt you would, since you have it too.” He walked slowly about the pool. “Please do not let me keep you from your bath.”
Vanimórë laughed, shrugged, and stepped into the water. He washed briskly, and Loki watched with some appreciation for both his insouciance and body.
“This is Midgard, no, what you call Earth? I was on Earth not long ago, but I think in a very different time. Far in the future.”
“This is Arda; the Elves call the lands east of the Great Sea, Middle-earth.” Vanimórë finished his ablutions, rose from the water, and towelled himself dry. “Come. I will play the game, and be a gracious host so long as thou art a gracious guest.” He lead Loki into his bedchamber. There was a jug of wine set on a table, so cold that condensation misted its sides. Loki was suddenly thirsty, and accepted the jewelled goblet. Vanimórë knew his wine, too. Stony, dry, chilled, it washed the dryness from mouth and gullet, spread like relaxation in his stomach.
“That's very good,” he said, and meant it.
“So where is Asgard?” Vanimórë asked, refilling Loki's cup. “Come, sit. If we are going to play at riddles, let us be comfortable.” He gestured to a divan piled with cushions.
“I think you must be a superb liar,” said the one who was talented in that area himself. “or genuinely ignorant.”
“Let us proceed as if I am genuinely ignorant.”
“This is Midgard, I would swear. One knows. It is one of the Nine Worlds. No?” Vanimórë's expression was politely interested. “But you have the blood of the Ljósálfar and the Æsir, the gods of Asgard, and you rule a city of Mortals—”
“Álfar?” Vanimórë interrupted. “The Northmen call the Elves the Ælfar. I do have Elven blood, yes.”
“And that of the Æsir.” Loki stared at him.
“Blood of the gods.” Something wild moved in those brilliant eyes. One side of his mouth lifted. “He would certainly like to think himself one.”
The complicated loathing in his voice focused Loki like a drawn weapon. It was so close to his own for the man he had believed was his father.
“Can we just agree,” he said. “that I am not from your world, nor am I one of these Valar you speak of.”
“My father always said there were more realities, more worlds than we could imagine,” Vanimórë put down his goblet. With a move quick as a striking snake he took Loki's face in his hands, stared into his eyes. Loki loosed power like a slap, felt Vanimórë's body jolt, heard his tiny hiss of startled pain, but he did not let go. He was searching for something, and it would take more than a warning to send him reeling. But this could work both ways. Loki plunged into the mind behind Vanimórë's eyes, into titan darkness, halls that might have been built by the Æsir. Power was pressed into the very stone. He saw a volcano, a tower that rose like a black giant, spiked by fire and ancient stars, saw a man with a fall of pale hair and eyes that shifted from lavender to red and gold, a ring that spun in them written with words of binding, of might, and then he went further back to stand before one even he might call a god, beauty scorched by hate so vast it made his own seem a pygmy thing. And, through each vision, he saw Vanimórë's slavery.
He came out of it when he had absorbed enough, tucked everything he had learned into his mind. Vanimórë's hands drew away; there were scorch marks on the palms. No wonder he had absorbed the pain. He had experienced far more than Loki's brief irritation.
“So,” Vanimórë said. “I have never seen Valinor, the land of the Valar, but I believe thee. Thou art not of this world.” He picked up his wine. “And it seems thine own does not want thee back. I cannot blame them. There is more than one I would see fall into the Void.”
Loki felt the stiffness in his mouth as he answered truthfully: “I chose it. Better than than imprisonment and pity.”
“Ah, yes. Fathers and their sons.” A weight on the words. “The question is: What shall I do with thee, banished god?”
“What do you think you could do?” Loki flung images of himself about the chamber, each one exact, and he laughed. Vanimórë rose. His calmness was impressive. He looked at all of them, then stepped, unerringly and startlingly to the original.
“We should not have shared a mind-link if thou didst want that to succeed,” he said with a trace of amusement. “Although that is quite a gift. Useful, I would imagine.” He spread his hands. “Thy powers certainly outmatch mine. Indeed there may be no-one on Middle-earth who could match thee, until my father returns.”
Loki forced down chagrin. Vanimórë was right. A mind link could allow one to see reality and illusion, because there was no mind behind an illusion; it would be like looking like paintings hung alongside the living subject.
He said, with all the charm he could muster at this moment: “You are not afraid of me. I should be insulted.”
Vanimórë smiled, a white flash. “Thou art dangerous, untrustworthy, ambitious, and there is sorrow in thy past. But fear has never helped me in the least.”
The illusions vanished. Outside a bird sang. Loki paced the chamber.
“Tell me of this world,” he invited. “And then I will tell you of the Nine.” He wanted to know everything. Knowledge was always powerful, and among it, if there were any threads that joined Middle-earth to Asgard, might be a way home. A triumphant way home. He would make it so.
Vanimórë inclined his head. “Very well, Loki of Asgard,” he said, still with a faint smile folding his mouth. “I will tell thee what I had from my father, who witnessed the birth of Time. It begins with what the Elves call the Ainulindalë...” ~
A god from another world finds himself in Middle-earth.
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