“Papa Loki, who art in chains, or was in chains, or will be in chains forged from my brother’s guts,” I supplicated, damp sand grinding into the slashes on my palms and making a mess of my knees, “I wish to –“
A sharp hand grabbed at my scalp and pushed my head down, scraping my forehead on the ground. It didn’t hurt, but I could feel the individual prick of each grain of sewage-soaked earth sticking to my skin.
“No,” came the voice that should have been above me but was instead reaching towards me from every side and twining itself around my limbs. It was keen enough to pierce through my internal organs and pop my lungs like tired balloons but I knew that it wouldn’t.
“What do you mean ‘no?’ I didn’t even say anything yet,” I asked with a scowl, shaking myself free and lifting my head. Old Flamehair stared down at me with exactly the same scowl on his face. Like father like son.
“Doesn’t matter. I can tell by the way your jaw is clenched what you want.” He crouched in front of me and wiped the grime from my forehead with the back of his hand. “And the answer is still no.”
“Why’s that?” I shook my head, getting the sand out of my hair. Loki sat down beside me on the riverbank and crooked his elbows around his knees, the lights from the city twinkling through the air beyond him. He swayed a little when he talked, bumping my shoulder with every couple of words.
“I’m not your god, Finnur. We’ve got a different sort of relationship and you know it. Honoring your ancestors is one thing, but you can’t exactly worship someone you call ‘Pops.'” He flashed me his favourite tongue-in-cheek smile. “Might work for some folks, but not you.”
I flicked some sand at him from my bangs, narrowing my eyes.
“Okay, Pops,” I responded with the loving sort of vehemence he’d come to expect from all his children, “assuming I buy that, what do you suggest I do instead? I was kinda calling on you for a reason.”
“Maybe, kiddo, maybe, but you’ve gotta understand that I’m already as devoted to your betterment as you are to mine. I’m not the breed of mentor you’re looking for.”
“Eh, you’re a bad role model anyway.” I grinned when he knocked my shoulder a bit harder than before.
“A bad role model for you, maybe. Again, only because a different sort of teacher would suit you better. What with the whole ‘Captain of the Lawful Good Brigade’ thing you’ve got going on.” He snorted when I jabbed his side with my elbow. We both smiled.
“Finnur, you’re a good kid, man after my own heart and all that, and I’m glad you’ve finally come enough to your senses to realize it. Real proud.” He snuck an arm around me and clapped me on the shoulder, giving me a small squeeze. “Thing is, keeping you under my own wing for too long’ll stunt your growth, shape you into something you’re not. Everybody loses.”
“But you’re the man with the backup plan, right?”
“Of course not, kiddo.” He winked. “I’m a god.”
“Oi! That’s no way to speak to your father,” he said with a pout, the pitch of his voice tilting higher.
“As if you mind.” I could feel the heat of the playfulness I’d inherited from him burning in my eyes. He’d told me once that when I really smiled he could see starlight dancing inside me. I think that’s what he meant.
“Nah,” he relented, kicking at the sand to uncover a slab of driftwood. “Can’t hold a grudge against my own kin.” He snapped his fingers and the wood lit up with a crackle. “Now, as for the reason I called you here…”
“I called you here.”
“Details, details. It’s but a technicality,” he said with a wave of his hand. “My plan is not a backup because it is the original plan. Not your original plan, but mine came first.” His fingers drummed excitedly on my shoulder. “Time does have a tendency to get all warped and twisted around me, but the sentiment remains.”
“And what is that sentiment, exactly?” His chattering would have been annoying if his voice didn’t have a sort of swaddling effect on me. I got too wrapped up in how comforting his warmth was to complain about his circuitous speech. It was just how he talked, spinning his words rapid-fire and precision-tilted, aimed at the senses. Well, all senses but the common one. The good one.
“It just so happens that I’ve got the perfect match for your spiritual and experiential needs.”
“So what, you’re a dating service now?”
“You say that as though I weren’t already,” he told me with a frown, holding his hand over his heart. I unceremoniously stuck my tongue out at him. “It’s not like that, though,” he said, jabbing me in the side. “My blood-brother’s son is my nephew, so you’re cousins. Right? Sort of.” I snickered and he gave me another delighted scowl. “Whatever, we’re all still family.”
When I was eight years old my mother threw me from a mountain. She meant to kill me with the fall, I’m sure, but didn’t bother to check her handiwork. She was cold and tired and more than ready to return to a quiet, manageable home where there was enough food for one but not for two. If I weren’t crushed and flayed by the sharp rocks then I was bound to freeze to death. She was free.
My shoulder crunched first, smashing into a ledge I couldn’t grab onto. The wind wailed louder than my frail voice could manage as I rolled and thudded down the mountainside until, bruised and battered, my leg cracked open against a boulder and I came to a stop.
A thin layer of ice glazed over my cheeks. I could barely even tell that I was crying. A bird passed overhead and I fancied I was looking down at myself from all the way up there. I closed my eyes.
My mother’s broken toy or superfluous tool, I had no value apart from what others could manage to use me for. She didn’t want me because I was worthless to her, so she doomed me to die alone and bloody.
Unwilling to accept it, I prayed against the pain, against the snow, prayed without knowing what prayer really was.
A deep croak rumbled by my ear, a small feathered earthquake. I stirred, my eyelids creaking against the ice sealing them shut. Something heavy and sharp knocked at my hurt shoulder and I howled, wrenching my eyes open. The raven pecking at me leapt back with a clumsy half-flap of its wings. It cocked its head to the side, examining me.
“You can eat me when I’m dead, bird,” I said through chattering teeth, “but I’m not dead yet.” I was an obstinate child, if a little slow on the draw.
Laughter like a rockslide pounded the air around me, shaking the earth from every side. I whipped my head around to look for the source and winced when I strained my shoulder too hard. No one was there. The back of my head tamped down on the snow.
“I’m right here, child,” the chuckling voice said, bouncing off the rocks. ‘Right here’ could have been anywhere; it was everywhere. The raven took a tentative hop towards me. “I’m not going to eat you.”
I yanked myself to a sitting position with my good arm and stared at the bird. It bobbed its head the same way a person would flip their hair, throwing off its beak like a party mask. The feathers fluttered in and out of place and once they had settled it was a man who stood before me, running his fingers through his long, hot-coal hair.
“There, there, I won’t harm you,” he told me, crouching down to my level. I stared nervously at his angled nose, remembering the beak that had stabbed into my shoulder. He caught the look and reflexively covered his nose with his hand. His fingernails were painted like the night sky, deep swirls of lapis blue and lazuli gold. “Sorry about that. That whole transformation business takes a lot out of you. I can’t help getting a bit peckish…” He winked but I just frowned back, shivering.
“Oh. Right. Yes,” he said haltingly, recognition and reality dawning in the green of his eyes. He pulled the deep black cloak from his shoulders and wrapped it around mine, taking care not to jostle me too much. It was warmer and softer than I had imagined, the feathers weaving together to put a comfortable yet flexible wall between me and the wind.
“You’re … here to help me?” I asked, my eyebrows lifting as much as they could while set in my half-frozen face.
“Of course I am,” he said, and scooped me into his arms. I whimpered at the pain in my leg, but he was warm and just being near him thawed me out a little.
“Because you asked, dear.”
Loki trudged through the snow like it was nothing, gliding up the mountain’s steep inclines without breaking a sweat. I kept looking at him like he was an alien or some other thing that wasn’t quite from my world. I was right about that much, at least.
“It’s not like you’re heavy, kiddo,” he said in response to my questioning gaze, flashing his canines.
“I’m not that small,” I told him with a pout. He chuckled softly, cradling me closer as he climbed over an exceptionally large boulder.
“Yes, you are. But don’t ever let anyone tell you that’s a bad thing — when you’re small you can get away with anything if you play your cards right.”
“And how would you know that?” He was tall and strong enough to carry me effortlessly through the blizzard. I couldn’t imagine that he’d know what it was like to be small, cold, powerless, or afraid.
“Even the greatest and most terrible men were once children. Most of them will ask you to forget that. Don’t.”
He ducked into a cave and the wind finally stopped biting at me. A sharp pain still had its fangs dug into my shoulder and leg, though, and I winced despite the gentleness with which Loki set me down.
“Now, this might hurt a bit, but it’s going to help. Promise,” he said, holding up one hand. My eyes narrowed and I opened my mouth to protest but he cut me off, pressing his thumb to my forehead. “Mengloth taught me herself, if somewhat unwillingly.” He started muttering something unintelligible under his breath and I felt a sizzling sensation sear through my entire body like a bolt of lightning, lingering and ricocheting around the broken skin and bones. I whimpered, squirming under his hand, but after a moment the pain subsided. All of it.
“Who are you? Why are you doing this?” I blurted out, flailing the arm that had been injured to the point of debilitation just a few seconds earlier.
“Now he asks,” he said, pulling at a strand of his hair and looking away. I didn’t know if I should be glaring at him or not, so my expression kept faltering between that and a sort of bemused half-frown. He sat crosslegged in front of me and spread his hands wide. “My name is Loki, son of Laufey. And I’m helping you because I want to. Any complaints?” I shook my head. “Good, ’cause you’re my responsibility now.”
“Says who?” He stared at me, an amused smirk tugging at his scarred lips.
“It’s woven into your fate. Should you survive long enough to ask for my help, I’m to take you as my ward.” He lightly tapped my knee with his fist. “Obviously you have, so here we are.”
I sucked in my bottom lip, thinking. His help in the last few minutes had been more than anyone had given me in the rest of my whole life. My mouth opened with a sigh.
“Am I really meant to survive? You make it sound unlikely,” I asked. My voice wavered more than I would have liked.
“I make it sound unlikely because it was unlikely. The chances of you keeping your determination clenched so close to your heart for so long were slim to none.” Tears welled up in my eyes and my entire body drooped. Tiny splats of saltwater hit the cave floor in an uneven tempo.
“I don’t want to die,” I whispered, and Loki’s arms were instantly around me.
“You’re not going to, Finnur,” he said softly, squeezing my healed shoulder. “Not on my watch.”
A chord of thunder pealed through the air, yanking my attention skywards. I had seen no flash of lightning scorching the river’s reflection, or if I had I hadn’t registered it for what it really was. A heavy hand clapped onto my back and I leapt up, spinning on the spot.
“My, how you’ve grown, Finn!” the newcomer said with a grin, extending his hand to me. I grasped it, his huge palm completely engulfing my fingers. He had more than half a foot on me, this giant with his gnarly beard and thick strawberry-blond hair. His deep brown eyes were littered with reddish flecks, like dark chocolate flavoured with bits of chili peppers.
“Well met, cousin,” I answered, gripping his hand as best I could. He pulled me in for a hug and clapped me on the back again.
“Oi, Thunderpants — what am I, chopped liver?” Loki complained, crossing his arms over his chest. Thor released me and crouched down behind him, wrapping an arm around his neck.
“A very nice piece of chopped liver,” he said, lightly tapping Loki on the cheek with his fist.
“Insolent as ever, I see.”
“Says you. I happen to be an incredibly upright and respectable individual.”
“Don’t I know it.” Loki turned to face him and they both smiled at each other with full sets of wolf-teeth, embracing. “Now, have a seat, boys, we’ve business to attend to.” Thor gave him a playful nudge as they pulled apart and I settled back down in front of the fire.
“Your father has told me much about the man you’ve become, Finnur,” the bearded one said, circling around to sit beside me and putting me between himself and Loki. It had to have been three or four years since I’d seen him last.
“You can’t have heard anything good, then.”
“Of course not.” He gave me a knowing smile, gently bumping my arm with his elbow.
“I figured this day would come sometime soon in your timeline,” Loki said, glancing back and forth between my face and the flames licking at the driftwood. “So the two of us have already discussed this.”
“It’s still entirely your choice,” Thor inserted quickly, putting up a hand to indicate some sort of strange reverse fealty, “but I’d be more than happy to take you under my wing.”
“Have you even got any wings?”
“Maybe not, but a cart more than gets the job done.”
I’d been travelling with Thor for six months when he took me to the dam for the first time. He talked like we were going for a picnic lunch with the goats, but even with someone as beautifully uncomplicated as my cousin things were never that easy.
With a few unabashed strides he made his way out onto the top of the cement behemoth and took a seat, his powerful legs swinging over the edge.
“What are you waiting for?” he said with the raise of his eyebrow, watching me give the traditional full 360 check of my surroundings.
“Is this really okay?”
“Nothing will come of it.” He patted the spot beside him. “Sit.”
I teetered out on the concrete walkway, feeling more unsteady than I actually was. The dam was strong enough to hold back a terrible serpent of a river; my fewer-than-150 pounds weren’t going to crack it any time soon. When I reached Thor I hunkered down beside him, trying to keep my heels from clacking against the side. It didn’t work.
“Alright, cap, what’re we doing out here?”
“Shh.” He held a finger to his lips. “Listen.”
My head tilted to the side as I strained my hearing, trying to catch his drift. Seven hundred feet away someone made a prayer to Jesus’ old man. Thor smiled.
“What’s so funny?” I asked. He absentmindedly fondled Mjolnir’s handle.
“Nothing. That request just sounded like something your father could oblige to.”
“Too soon? It hasn’t even happened yet. Sort of.”
I snorted despite myself.
It was an earthquake they wanted, just big enough to carefully crack the dam’s shell and spill out its yolky pent-up insides.
“Now why in the hell,” I started, rocking a bit too excitedly on my precarious perch, “would anyone want something like that?” Thor’s hand swept in front of me, pointing down at the stopped-up lake of stagnant water. “The river?”
Part of me wanted to kick loose a chunk of cement or throw something down to disturb the water’s brackish-green coat, just to see what it’d look like. The dam was solid, though, and there was nothing for me to chuck at the murky film besides what I had on me. I eyed my shoe more thoughtfully than I probably should have.
“So he wants it to run free,” I managed to say, tearing my eyes away from my feet. “Isn’t it there for a reason?”
“Presumably. But you see back there?” He motioned farther off and I squinted, nodding a little. “What do you see?”
“A lake?” I flicked my eyes back to Thor and he gave me a taut smile.
“All he sees is what used to be his hometown, submerged beneath a substance not fit to be called water anymore.”
I stared down over the edge of the dam, my heels banging into the side a little harder than before. The river probably used to look less like a bloated frog and more like a proper snake — sleek and moving deftly between the canyon’s cracks. I frowned.
“So what are we going to do about it?”
“Eh, nothing. For now.” He pulled Mjolnir from his belt and laid it in his lap, running his thumb over the hammer’s head. The sun glinted off it and it seemed to quiver in his hand, like it was itching for action. I shook my head, blinking hard. My perception wasn’t off and I knew it, but part of my brain still struggled to accept that the hammer had its own special way of expressing its master’s intent.
“How about later?”
“I don’t know yet.” Thor turned to look at me, his eyes warm with a legitimate grin this time. “Someone else might end up taking care of the job.”
“Or no one. Seems like something a lot of the others would take as a tall order for something too trivial for them to even bother with.”
“Perhaps.” He set the hammer down beside him and the concrete shuddered, on the verge of admitting that the whole structure was drowning itself. “I know a few who would be happy to help, but until he builds the resolve to climb up here and dismantle it himself, no god will strike this dam down for him.”
“So what’s the point of praying if he has to do it all himself anyway?”
“Sometimes people have the will but lack the resources to carry it out. Prayer from someone with such determination can occasionally spark a miracle and inspire the gods to fill in the gaps.”
“A miracle, huh? You’re a lot more dreamy than you let on.”
“What can I say? I have my reasons.”
[Lucas Jewell Zarrilli is a poet by nature and an author by trade. His writing has appeared in the Burlington Free Press and anthologies from the Vermont Young Writers Project. He’s currently working on his first novel, a work of high fantasy starring phoenixes, unicorns, and witches running wild. In his free time he enjoys tormenting his fiancé and dancing to French pop music. He also works as the resident cunning man at Faust Corner Divination, mostly doing tarot readings. You can find him online at http://faustcornerdivination.tumblr.com/%5D