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01 October 2013 @ 03:25 pm
Hail of Shadows 17  

Frigga opened her eyes and took her hand from Volstagg's shoulder. She inhaled deeply, bringing herself back to calm. Loki's summoning had been desperate and sudden, full of fear and a deeper self-loathing that seemed worse than she had sensed before. As if whatever Malekith was doing was chipping away at him from within.

Volstagg lowered bushy eyebrows at her, concerned. "My queen?"

But she would not share all his secrets. She had shared enough, maybe too much already. "Loki needs us to attack."

"He's escaping?" Volstagg asked.

She nodded, and then found a smile. "It seems Loki managed to persuade Sigyn, Durn's daughter, to help him."

Volstagg regarded her for a momet and bellowed a laugh that drew attention from nearby giants. "The lad got Malekith's own sister on his side?" He shook his shaggy head, still amused. "Only Loki. He is a cunning one."

She murmured, "Loki knows the power of words better than most."

Volstagg sobered. "Aye, that he does." He gripped her shoulder. "But now we turn to the power of arms and blades until they give him back."

Her eyes turned toward the broken lands to the east and the deep canyons of the royal city. "We will. I must find Skadi."

They gathered under the pavilion, where the great map lay unfurled. It was huge, as benefit something the giants could see, and Skadi had several of her people move some rocks into position for the Aesir to stand on and get a view of the map as well. Fandral looked offended by the notion that the queen should climb up on a rock, but offered his hand to steady her.

From above, the capital of Svartalfheim resembled Yggdrasil. There was one one main canyon that held the river, and several branching side canyons that led down to it from the mountains on either side. The hall was within the cliffs of the eastern side of the river walls. The giants and the Asgardian warriors had found and marked the entrances to the underground labyrinth on the map.

"Loki is prepared to escape," Frigga announced. "But he needs our help to draw Malekith away from him. Which means an attack of sufficient threat that Malekith must come forth to deal with it himself."

"We attack the gates." Skadi pointed to the near side-canyon. There was a large road, meant to bring supplies and troops, down to the main gates of the palace into the side of the canyon. The road ran beside interior passages, and the giants would face opposition from within.

"That entrance is highly defensible," Volstagg pointed out. "They can shoot at us through the openings in the wall."

"These openings are set against short Aesir and Ljosalfar," Jorn grunted. "We tear the tower out here, for the rest we carry shields. No problem."

"Tear out the tower with what?" Fandral asked.

"The catapult." The Frost Giants had started to build a catapult with the wood from the destroyed houses and barns of the surrounding farms. Ordinarily Frigga would have advised against it, as Malekith could reach out with magic to burn it, but he had made no appearance on the field, apparently being too occupied with Loki.

"There is a secondary gate here," Hogun borrowed one of the very long jotunn arrows and pointed to a farther place along the rim in a side-canyon. "Not disguised, but smaller. Good target."

"There are hidden entrances here and here," Sif pointed to another spot on the canyon rim and another on the plain not too far away. "We pretended we did not notice them, hoping they would think they remain undetected. But if either opens to attack, we have another way in."

"What is this?" Skadi pointed to another marking on the map. There was a lower broken ridge line away from the side wall of the canyon. The end of it was topped by flat granite, forcing the river tributary to cut around it, and the warriors had marked something visible in the top.

"A round opening," Sif explained. "Artificial. Perhaps a ventilation shaft."

Frigga frowned at the marking on the map, mentally widening her idea of how deep and spread the halls had to be, if the tunnels reached into that ridge as well. Odin had been right - this place was a labyrinth. That was a point of entry, but it would be difficult climb to get there. "There must be other ventilation shafts."

"We found two," Fandral said and pointed on the map on the plateau. "Barred and too narrow for even one of us to crawl through, though. There are openings in the canyon wall as well."

"They're rats," Jorn said. "We should throw frostfire down all the holes we know."

Frigga nodded. If the frostfire took hold that would certainly call Malekith to deal with it.

"All but one," Sif corrected. "Let them think one is undetected, so they use that one and open the door for us." Frigga glanced at her in surprise - Sif was not usually one for plans of misdirection. She returned a brief, hard smile. "It seems appropriate when rescuing Loki to use his tactics."

Skadi stroked the handle of her long knife, looking pleased. "Is that so? He has Laufey's cunning."

Frigga thought about how Loki had tricked Laufey into his own death, and forced a smile. "Indeed."

Soon they had their battle plan set. Both the Aesir and Jotunn were accustomed to bold, straight-forward strategies, but Loki's absence seemed to be inspiring a greater interest in more complex tactics.

Jorn and Skadi left the tent to gather their warriors and prepare the attack, and Frigga followed them outside to have a clear line of sight to the halls. She tried to reach Loki to tell him it was starting, but felt no contact.

Disappointed, she turned to her four warriors. "There is more to the plan. When a gate opens, I will go within."

"Absolutely not," Volstagg denied immediately. As her oldest friend he was the most willing to contradict her.

"The Allfather and I already discussed this," she reassured him. "I came because I can cloak in invisibility and find him."

"And yet the Allfather ordered us specifically to stay beside you," Fandral declared.

"So we go with you," Sif declared.

Frigga shook her head. "I cannot hide all of you." She directed irritated thoughts at Odin for giving her guards commands behind her back, but likely none of the four would let her do this even without his command. Probably it would be irresponsible for her to go alone, especially when she had no idea what Loki's physical condition was. He had mentioned nothing in particular, but he had been in pain, and he would be difficult for her to carry. "Very well. One other. No more." Just when the four looked as if they would duel for the privilege of getting killed with the queen, she decided, "Hogun, you will come with me." He was the lightest on his feet, and the least reckless of the four.

Fandral looked disappointed, but bowed with a flourish. "Then we shall protect you up until that last moment."

The solid thump of the drums began, silencing all other conversation. Swords and spears clashing against their shields followed, and shouted commands at the army.

With a loud whooshing noise, an immense rock flew overhead and struck the top of the main guard tower, stones crashing and splintering, and with a roar, the battle was joined.

The first ranks headed for the tower and the road, while the greater number headed for the second gate.

Frigga waited, keeping alert for a sorcerous counter-attack, and wandered when the tension grew too much for patience.

A small group of giants handled the frostfire, but they put hands to swords when Frigga approached. Her guards bunched around her, weapons ready, but she put a hand over Fandral's to keep him from drawing his sword. "No. We are not here to learn their secrets. We will go elsewhere."

She led the warriors away; she was curious about how frostfire was made but this was not the time. Frost Giants were about to die for her son, and the least she could do was stay out of the way.

There was a squad handling the catapult, and another which took some of the frostfire and dumped it down the nearest air shaft. That left the farther hidden gate unattended, behind a few piles of stone in a makeshift wall. There were now some wounded Jotunn there, as if in shelter. Some of them were actually, though minorly wounded, but mostly they were pretending to be wounded, baiting the Dark Elves to emerge from the supposedly secret gate. With hidden weapons, they lay on the ground and waited in ambush.

It was impressive in its way. She would not have guessed the Frost Giants had such a capacity for patience.

Her footstep paused, realizing that was her own attitude affecting her judgment. Her unthinking reflexive impression of the Jotunn race was impatient, as if they lacked capacity to wait for the strategy to unfold. As if they were not truly intelligent but only clever in the way that Munin was clever … Like something wild.

She recalled the words of 'beasts' and 'monsters' that Loki had hurled in accusation and self-loathing, and she so calm and soothing that of course that wasn't true, and all the while he had known she felt otherwise.

She pressed a hand to her chest, her breaths suddenly coming slow and thick. She had thought she was being fair and kind, doing things like encourage Loki to study the war when Asgard and Jotunheim had been allies, but how often had she implied by her reactions or some other way she had never noticed, that she too was dismissive of them as a people.

Oh, dear ancestors, Loki, I understand now. I am so sorry.

As penance, she wandered through the wounded, 'tending' them, asking their names and about their lives. Some were wary and refused to answer, but after she persisted, a few talked to her. A young one, Sjar, who reminded her of Loki when he slanted a guarded look at her, asked after Loki and how he was cursed by the gods to be small.

"Blessed, I think," she said. "He would not agree, for his size was ever a curse in Asgard as well, since he grew slowly. But think, if he had been left on Jotunheim and stood at your stature, never would he have come to be my son, and never held this power that he does. Your people and mine never would be here together, learning we need not be enemies. Those are gifts that will keep us all alive when the darkness falls upon us again."

She smiled at Sjar and moved on, while her guards kept a wary eye on the progress of the battle.

Volstagg paced her. "We have ever been enemies of the giants," he declared, bushy eyebrows low and drawn together, as if he worried that she went too far in declaring friendship with them.

"The past is a guide, not a chain, old friend. Nor will I permit unfounded enmity to persist when it breaks Loki's heart into bitter shards." Her gaze turned to watch the distant dust clouds as she listened to the shouts of the farther battle. "Had I not been complacent in my own superior wisdom," she said the word with biting scorn, seeing her failures all the more clearly with the living proof that this had always been possible if she had but tried, "I could have begun this long ago. Odin intended Loki to bring peace between our Realms and seat Loki upon Laufey's throne, but we failed to build a foundation for aught but his hate. So I will correct that as best I can, now." She glanced at Hogun and added, "Even should he refuse the opportunity in the end, it still must happen for his own healing. How else to learn he need not revile himself as one of them, except by others learning we need not revile them?"

Sif's gaze followed hers toward the battle. "Jotunheim will be as a candle to the flame of his rage against Malekith and Svartalfheim after this. As soon as he is free, he will avenge himself with the Casket of the Ancient Winters. That seems to me a fearsome thought."

"It is. More than you know," Frigga murmured. She hoped to reach him before that and calm him down from his fury, because she knew he would not stop to consider consequences. If not stopped, he would reach for all the power he could hold, through the Casket, and destroy the Realm, killing everyone from Malekith to the most innocent of babies. The aftermath would destroy him, too, either in guilt or rejection of it. That path assumed he did not destroy himself outright, by foolishly seizing that seed of primordial power deep within the Casket, if he believed he was strong enough to withstand it.

First though, she needed to free him, before she could worry about the aftermath. Her strategy finally bore fruit, as a great roar went up among the nearby Jotunn, as dark elves appeared at the 'hidden' gate and the trap was sprung.

Her warriors tightened up around her, weapons ready, and Frigga drew her own sword.

"Closer," she urged them. "We need to get inside."

Yelling, Volstagg and Fandral charged to clear a path.

The Dark Elf warriors were tremendously surprised by the ambush, and the Frost Giants battled them with little trouble, even as the numbers began to swing more in favor of the Elves as more emerged. Frost Giants hurried to the gate, including young Sjar, to make sure it held open for her. Sjar gestured, swinging his mace to block the way. "Come, Aesir!"

The Alfar were still coming out of the tunnel, some with raised hands of surrender. At first the Frost Giants hit them, until Frigga yelled, "Stop! Stop! They surrender!"

But then it became even worse, as she realized these later arrivals were not warriors at all.

She ran forward. "Sjar, no!" She screamed as he swung his mace at the next one to emerge - a child held in his unarmed mother's arms.

Volstagg hurled his axe, striking the mace and spinning it away.

Sjar turned infuriated eyes on her. "Sjar, no! Look at them! Look at them!" she shouted in plea. "They are not warriors, where is the honor in slaughter?"

He blinked away the haze of battle, and he stared at the female and her child for a moment, before he seized the wrist of the Frost Giant beside him, who was about to hit them. "No!"

"What is happening?" Frigga ran closer and demanded of the frightened mother. "Why are you fleeing?"

But she had no answer, her eyes wide with terror and she looked up at the Frost Giants and cradled her child. "Volstagg!" Frigga called. "Fandral, Sif. You three must help Sjar with these." For there were more following the woman, as the Frost Giants began herding them away from the gate.

"My queen, you do not intend to go in there!" Fandral exclaimed.

"I do. Hogun, with me." Putting a hand on Hogun's forehead, she closed her eyes and cast the illusions over herself and him. She did nothing with their clothes or weapons; this was a poor illusion of appearance only, but it was enough.

Something terrible was happening within. This was not luring Malekith forth, but all his people instead.

The Dark Elves crowded the ladder upward, so Hogun dropped within the mouth of the tunnel first, landing hard but safely below. Frigga inhaled a deep breath and followed him into the dark.

Crossposted from DW There are comment count unavailable comments over there. Feel free to comment wherever.
Ray: Cometrirenec on October 2nd, 2013 07:11 am (UTC)
Plotty plotty! I love how this is all building up and also how you show Frigga growing in awareness of the things she missed about herself, and instead of acting out, acts upon them.
lizardbethlizardbeth_j on October 2nd, 2013 06:11 pm (UTC)
I always fear with Frigga that making her too awesome, that it starts to raise the issue of "if she's such a great mom, how the hell did Loki get to be so screwed up in the first place?" so I try to keep that in mind, that it wasn't just Odin's parenting fail. Hers was more benign but ultimately she bought what both husband and son were selling and was too complacent to look more closely.