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14 November 2014 @ 10:04 am
A Crocus in the Snow, Part 14  

Sif awoke with the early sun flooding the room. She stretched leisurely, finding she was still naked though his sheet had been pulled up over her. The bed was also empty.

She sat up to find Loki wasn't in the room, and after tucking the sheet around her she went to find him on the balcony. He was fully dressed, though in softer tunic and breeches, not his armor, and her lips pouted that he seemed to have no interest in coming back to bed.

"Good morning," she murmured and was pleased he raised an arm to let her get close. But she got a look at his face and the shadows smudged under his eyes, and the deeper lines at his eyes and mouth, visible in the bright early morning light. "You should have woken me," she chided softly. "I could have read to you, or we could have gone for a walk, if you weren't resting."

"I didn't want to disturb you."

"I want to be disturbed," she insisted and hugged her arm around his waist more tightly. "Remember, we're in this together."

He swallowed hard. "No, this is my--"

She put a hand across his lips. "What did I promise you? What did I say we would find, together?"

He shook his head and didn't answer.

"Salvation, Loki. Peace. It's there. You can't give up looking for it."

He looked down, and his jaw tightened, no doubt to prevent himself from saying that there was no such thing. Then he shook his head and tried a smile. "You say that so sincerely I can't help but hope you're right."

But before she could speak, the outer door chimed and they heard the Queen's voice, amplified in the chamber, "Loki? Are you awake? I need to speak to you."

Loki called, "Enter!" He let go of Sif, heading back inside to greet his mother in the sitting room. Sif considered not joining them, staying on the balcony where she would go unseen, but realized that was hiding again. She and Loki didn't have to explain themselves to anyone. She should change her clothes, since it was not exactly proper to greet the queen wearing only a bedsheet, but if Frigga would come at an early hour, she could really expect no better.

Feeling defiant, Sif adjusted the sheet and entered the sitting room as main door closed behind the queen. Frigga took note of what she was wearing, and her lips turned up in amusement, but no disapproval and no surprise at finding Sif in Loki's chambers. "Good morning, both of you." But the amusement fell away for more serious expression. "The king has announced Tyr's sentence will be in the Great Hall at noon. Thor will bring him from the dungeon himself. Tyr will not be permitted to speak before the court, and no one will identify you in the reading of the crime. You may attend, if you wish. Or watch it via scrying, if you prefer."

Loki took all that in, without his expression shifting a hair, then he blinked. "What is the sentence to be?"

"He will be exiled from court and lose his lands for certain. What more, Odin didn't tell me. Long ago, the punishment was castration for similar crimes, but I do not know if your father will choose that."

Sif raised her brows at that news, but decided it was possibly more just than anything else she had considered.

Loki nodded as if he didn't care. But then he observed flatly, "None of those will keep him silent. Even if you cut out his tongue, he will reveal your secrets."

"His silence buys his life," she answered. "I will put geas on him myself, to ensure it."

Loki nodded again and told her with flat politeness, "Thank you." He walked away to face the wall hanging, an illustration of the movement of the Realms on Yggdrasil, and folded his arms.

"Anything, my son," she said quietly and she took a step nearer him as if she might embrace him, but the rigid line of his back did not invite consoling hugs. "I will send up some food for you both."

She took her leave, flicking her eyes from Sif to Loki to urge her to go to him. Sif did as she suggested, hoping she could get Loki back into bed and focused on her again, but he took hold of her wrists gently to bring her hands away from him. "I can't. Not right now. I don't want to taint our time together with this."

She nodded understanding. "All right. Do you want me to leave?"

He looked startled as if the thought hadn't crossed his mind. "No, unless you want to. I just… not that."

She took his hand and dropped a kiss in his palm. "After today, it'll be over, Loki. Think of that. After all these years, it will finally be over."

"I hope so," he murmured. But his gaze was distant and he was not gladdened by the prospect at all, as if he didn't think it would ever be over.

Yet that moment crept nearer, despite what he seemed to believe. She dressed and tried to get him to eat a little from the tray that Frigga sent to them. He was too tense to eat, anxiety shredding his nerves; something she didn't understand the depths of, until she came up behind him, intending to rub his shoulders. He flung her off, anxieties welling up and bursting out of him in a flare of uncontrolled temper. "Don't touch me!"

She raised both hands. "I'm sorry. I should have asked first."

He swallowed, shaking his head and settling again. "No, I reacted poorly. It's not your fault."

He let her hold his hand for about two minutes until he got up to pace the balcony. She stayed out of his way, wishing she could do more, until finally a messenger came to announce it was time. She asked, "Are you coming?"

Loki shook his head. "No."

She wasn't surprised, since he would have changed to his court armor if he'd intended to go to the Great Hall. "Do you want me to stay with you?"

"No. You go, watch. Bear witness for me," he asked.

"I will. And when it's done, I'll come right back to you," she promised and though she wanted to kiss him, decided it was best if she not touch him just then and slipped out the door.

The Great Hall could hold thousands, but now it held a scant two hundred people, mostly those who knew Tyr and seemed shocked that he had done anything wrong at all.

Sif took her place near the front, next to Fandral, who greeted her with a charming smile and a bow to her. "Lady Sif."

"Fandral. It is good to see you again."

"Not under these circumstances, I fear." He looked at her, eyes more somber than she had seen in some time. "You were traveling, Thor said? Did he fill you in on what this is about?"

"He didn't need to. I was there when the truth poured like rain," she answered grimly. "And if this sentence does not inflict half of the fear upon Tyr that I have seen recalled and relived these past few days, I will say it is unjust."

"Oh?" He frowned curiously and, glancing at their neighbors, he asked with careful vagueness, "You were there when the king learned the truth? Why did you go below in the first place?"

She turned her eyes to him surprised that he still didn't know. Of all their friends he would have been the one who would've guessed. "I wanted to know if there was any hope for him."

Fandral still looked intensely curious, as if he'd figured out there was a secret he didn't know, but then the horns blared to announce the king, and they all faced the throne.

Odin wasted no time getting to the distasteful role he had to perform. "Bring in the prisoner," he commanded.

Thor brought in Tyr, down the long aisle. Tyr's good hand was chained to a collar, and he was gagged to keep him silent.

Odin stared at him in weighty silence at first, before lifting his head to address the crowd. "For many years, as is known, Tyr has been a mighty warrior in our service, helping protect Asgard from its enemies. He has made himself my own companion, to myself and the queen. He had been a part of our trusted councils, admired for his wisdom as much as his skills.

"But now I have discovered that this has always been a terrible lie," Odin declared sternly. "The trust he was given, he repaid with betrayal. The wisdom he seemed to offer was false. Because Tyr has committed great wrong within these very walls. He has offended my house with vile acts of treason, and tainted this very Realm.

"He has put his hand upon Gungnir and I know his guilt to be a fact. Tyr, you are guilty of the crime of the repeated rape and other cruel and harmful acts committed on a youth." An audible gasp arose from the audience, as they learned what he'd done. Those nearest him stepped away, while the guards lining the aisle tensed. Standing behind Tyr, Thor clenched his jaw tightly and looked as if he was about to rip Tyr's head off with his bare hands.

Sif put a hand to her stomach, feeling sick at the words. Somehow it was different this way, more stark and horrifying, to hear the king confirm the truth from his knowledge of Tyr's mind.

Odin paused and looked very old before he pulled himself together to speak again. "Crimes such as these have not happened in a thousand years. I had thought such evil had been eradicated from Asgard, but it has taken root in this serpent, nestled so close to me that I did not see it. This traitor has spread his poison, sowing darkness where there once was light, from the highest towers to the lowest dungeon, betraying everything Asgard should be."

A breeze suddenly stirred Sif's hair and Sif saw Frigga look to the side of the throne, toward the family's entrance. Sif craned to see that Loki now stood at the edge of the dais, nearly hidden entirely by one of the pillars. He was wearing his court armor, combat leathers beneath the formal coat and emerald cape. He was also wearing his helm, which left his eyes shadowed, but she thought he was looking at Tyr.

Odin's eye looked to Loki and then back to Tyr. "For these terrible acts of unbearable depravity, it hardly seems any punishment is just. Yet I have decided." He tapped Gungnir on the floor and the Hall rang like a great bell, the vibrations rattling them all.

The sound stopped abruptly and Odin's head lifted in a signal that he hadn't done it himself.

In the silence, a dagger came out of nowhere and slammed point-first into the stone at Tyr's feet, embedding itself halfway to the hilt. Sif grabbed for her own dagger, fearing attack, before she realized the even worse truth.

Loki stalked out into full view. He was glaring at Tyr, his eyes too bright and his lip curled in pure hatred. It was as if no one else was in the hall. "I challenge you."

"No, Loki!" Frigga gasped in dismay.

He ignored her and all the whispers that arose in the audience in the wake of his challenge. If he'd wanted to keep the truth a secret, it was in the open now. He didn't seem to realize though, addressing Tyr in a level, almost reasonable tone, "You get no champion. I use no magic. We fight to the death."

"No!" Sif blurted, and she was also ignored. Had he intended this move all along, or was this a snap decision, spurred by his fear that Odin's justice would be anything but just?

There was no answer to be found in his face as Loki walked down the steps of the dais, still looking Tyr in the eye. "Accept my challenge or face whatever the Allfather has ready for you. But we both know you will accept, won't you?"

Tyr's gaze flickered between Loki and the king and queen, seeing Frigga shaking her head in desperate denial. But if he had ever felt merciful toward her, he didn't now, and he nodded his acceptance of Loki's terms.

On the throne, Odin shut his eye and clenched his jaw, unwilling to pronounce the duel, and then he gave in, as custom demanded, and pronounced heavily, "Then it is done. Loki will --" he paused and added with deliberate care, re-claiming Loki as his own, "Loki Odinson will fight Tyr at dawn to the death in the arena. Tyr may choose his second, as custom and law demand, but he remains in confinement until he should win his combat. Tyr may have no champion fight in his stead, and Loki may not use seiðr, as the combatants agreed. Let justice be served."

Loki bowed his head to the king and walked with measured stride along the aisle to the far doors, meeting no one's eyes. He left behind his dagger, still embedded in the floor, even after Odin ordered the Einherjar to remove Tyr in such a thunderous temper no one dared speak.

Sif slipped out of the hall, running as soon as she cleared the doors, and reached Loki's chambers ahead of anyone else. She slammed his door behind her, the words flying from her in the depth of her rage. "How could you do something so incredibly stupid?"

Loki had shifted to his usual combat gear and was standing at his desk examining daggers. He shot her a flat look. "You think I am so likely to lose?"

That effectively quenched her temper. "No, no, of course not," she hastened to reassure him. "You are a fine fighter. But this is still a foolish risk. To the death?! What were you thinking?"

The edge of the dagger he held suddenly blazed white-hot, as if it were being forged again. He stared into the brightness, and answered, "I was thinking-- I will not let him leave this place alive."

She could sense the seiðr, gathered in thick ropes in the room, though she could see nothing of what he was doing. But she could see the result, as he honed the dagger's edge at the base level. She had never seen him do this before -- had not known he could do this -- and she watched in some amazement. Finished, he hurled the dagger past her to splash into the ornamental fountain by the wall, where it sent up a hissing cloud of steam.

He picked up another dagger.

"Daggers are useful, but you should take a spear or halberd," she suggested, knowing better than suggest a sword. "You need more reach. You know he'll have his sword and shield hand."

"I will kill him with my own weapons."

"Then why did you say no magic?" she demanded. "That's your best weapon."

"If I wanted to kill him with magic, I could do it from here."

She took an urgent step closer. "Then do it! Avenge what he did, and kill him. No one will demand a blood price, and the Allfather wants him dead, too."

"And be a coward?" he demanded, turning on her in a fury. "Loki can kill without honor because he hasn't got any left to worry about?" He practically spat the words at her before whirling away again. "If you think I'm that spineless and dishonorable why are you here?"

"I don't think that! Loki, that's not what I--" she started and then her voice stopped because those had been her words. Urging him to kill from afar with sorcery, just because he could, would be both dishonorable and a coward's move. She had to start over in a softer voice. "I meant that he has no honor. He deserves no protection from the warrior code or traditional combat. I want him dead and you safe."

He looked into his reflection in one of his dagger blades. "It is no secret I think honor is a bad jest, a game the strong rig to win and I usually refuse to play. But sometimes not playing is the same as losing, and this time, I have to win, Sif. I have to kill him clean."

Thor's voice interrupted from the outer room. "And if he doesn't do the same? He is an honorless dog, Loki."

Loki looked his way and his smile was unexpected and amused. "Yet you would say the same about me, I think."

Thor's steps were quick to Loki and he seized Loki's shoulder. "No. Not at all. He is… what others accuse you of, brother, but you are not. He revealed himself when I arrested him, sly and full of malice. And I fear his greatest weapon in the arena will not be his sword, but words."

That made Loki laugh. "Oh, well, then what do I even need with these?" He tossed a dagger to the table's surface. "In a battle of word and wit, I assure you, I have few peers and he is not one."

Sif wanted to smack him. He wasn't taking this seriously. "Loki!"

But Loki wasn't looking at her, as his eyes were drawn to the entrance, and Sif turned to see the queen had entered. Frigga's face was set and drawn, and she saw only Loki, barely glancing away. "Thor, Sif, if you would excuse us."

The polite dismissal did not allow for objection, and Sif nodded. "Of course, my queen. Loki, send for me and I will return, when you wish."

Thor was more reluctant but he knew better than to argue with his mother, escorting Sif out of Loki's chambers.

They got to the corner and Thor let out a cry and slammed a fist into the wall, rattling the statue in the niche nearby. She grimaced, sharing his anger and frustration, and held out a hand to keep the statue from toppling.

Needing distraction from what Loki had decided to do so impetuously, Sif looked at the statue which had been a dull ornament in this same niche as long as she could remember. It was of a smaller warrior defeating a much larger one. And on closer look she knew what it was meant to be: an Aesir about to slay a Frost Giant.

Her own rage welled up and she slammed her boot into it, breaking the statue off its pedestal and it fell to the floor, breaking into three more pieces. Thor turned to her, shocked. She pointed to the fallen pieces, "Does he need a statue of that, not twenty paces from his door?"

Thor peered down and his eyes widened. "That's always been there. I'm not sure I have ever looked at it."

Probably no one had. It was something there, one of the many vague reminders of Aesir history and magnificence. But Sif was sure that Loki, as curious as he had always been, knew exactly who and what all the art throughout the palace depicted.

Thor knew that, too. He knelt, picked up the piece of the fallen Jotunn and held it in his hand. "This is why he believes nothing we say," he whispered in stricken realization. "No one saw. We never saw anything." He hurled the broken piece down the corridor, watching it smash into the far column.

"We have to see him now, Thor, or I fear we will lose him."

"If that dog hurts him…" Thor growled and his right hand's fingers curled, seeking Mjolnir's handle.

"Then we kill him," she finished. "But… we need to give Loki this chance to do it himself first." She lowered her voice and stepped nearer to him. "We have to let him fight his own battle and prove his own strength to himself. If we take it from him, it shows him that we think him weak. His enemy is not Tyr, not truly; it is that dark shadow on his heart that seeks to drag him from us."

Thor didn't answer right away. Then he glanced down at his empty fist and opened his fingers, realizing that weapons and all his great strength couldn't help this. That it had been, in fact, part of the problem because Loki had never wanted to admit that he'd been so horribly victimized and felt so weak, when his brother grew stronger.

She jerked her head toward the reception room. "Shall we drink?"

He accepted, though not without a worried frown toward Loki's closed door.

On the other side of the door, Frigga watched Loki pace back and forth four times before she brought it to a halt. "Sit."

He stopped pacing, but didn't sit. "Mother--"

She seated herself on the chair opposite the one she nodded to. "Loki. Sit."

He perched anxiously on the edge, as if he was still a youth or he thought she intended to discipline him. She took a moment to gather her thoughts and reached out. He let her grip both of his hands between hers. "Your father is in quite a terror of anxiety and regret, Loki, that you would not let him prove his judgment. We wanted so much to spare you a duel, my darling."

He pulled his hands free and rose back to his feet. "You try to spare me too much, and yet all the wrong things," he said, moving back to his table and picking up the dagger there, mostly to avoid looking at her. "Sparing me the truth of my origins, but not sparing me the knowledge and stories that the Frost Giants are beasts, fit only to sharpen our blades upon."

"That is not true!" she protested. "They are people, Loki. But they have been our enemies for a very long time, that could not change quickly." But that was not the real problem and she knew it. He wasn't talking about general prejudice against the Jotunn, but about one person's hate in particular.

"When Tyr touched Gungnir, we found out something else you should know." She hung her head, looking down at her hands, now bereft of his. She opened her mouth to tell him the full truth about Laufey, but decided that needed to wait until after he had won this duel. "He saw you on Jotunheim in the final days of the war. He thought you were the same baby, shifted to an Aesir form and taken as a hostage, but he was never sure." She swallowed hard to take a breath. "At first, he was trying to force you to shift, to prove what you were."

"One would think that hating what I am as much as everyone else would make that easier to hear, but… it doesn't."

"Oh, Loki, no," she jumped back to her feet to go to him. "I told you when you were a boy, and I meant it then, as I mean it now: there is nothing wrong with you. Can you not believe me at least as much as you believe Tyr's lies?"

"How can I? When you've never even seen what I look like?" he demanded in a snarling fury, hurling a dagger to impale the painting of a bird in flight hanging on the western wall.

"I did, my darling. Long ago, when you were a baby, Odin showed me how you'd looked when he'd found you. And do you know what I saw? A baby." She raised a hand and cast the illusion between them, the light twining into the image of a small shape, so dearly familiar to her. She smiled to see it again. "Yes, he was blue and his eyes were scarlet, and he was small, but he was a baby. This baby. You."

Loki was rapt by the sight of himself as a baby, staring with parted lips.

"My baby," she added more softly. "He - you - were so beautiful, Loki. Charming and sweet, I never once considered letting you go once I had you in my arms." She stared at the image of that precious baby that she'd failed so badly, and her eyes pricked with wet heat thinking how she would do it differently now. "We meant well," she offered softly. "It is a poor excuse, but it's true. We made mistakes but they were made in love. But you are right; we protected you from the wrong things and never saw the true threat to you. I am… so sorry, Loki. I know you will never forgive me, but I--"

His head snapped up, interrupting her with its sudden movement, and he said, "I forgive you."

"No, Loki." She banished the image. "No, you can't. Not after--"

"I can if I want to, and I want to," he insisted stubbornly. "You saved me. Odin carried me from Jotunheim, but you saved me. You save me still."

"That is not--"

He interrupted again. "Mother. Please. I absolve you. I forgive you."

She shook her head, eyes filling. "But I do not deserve it, Loki, not from you, when I failed you so badly…"

He didn't reply immediately, dropping his eyes to the floor, and then swallowing hard. "Then how will I ever deserve it?" he asked finally in a whisper. "If your… good intentioned love is so wrong and deserves no forgiveness, then there is no hope for me."

She realized her mistake. "No, darling, no," she wrapped her arms around him, clutching him to her chest as hard as she could. "Of course there is hope. I should not put my regrets onto you, as another burden. You carry enough, and you need none of my guilt. I am here for you, to love you and to help you."

His hands gripped the back of her mantle tightly, desperately. "I don't…" he whispered in hoarse confession into her hair. "I don't know what to do... I'm so lost..."

"Hush." She smoothed his hair. "It will be well, my son. You will duel Tyr and you will kill him. And then a new day will come, and you will not be alone. Little by little, it will be well." She kissed his forehead and cupped his cheek in her hand to look into his eyes. "Do not listen to him. Whatever cruel things he says they are only words, not truth. You are strong; you are not that child he tormented anymore and he has no power over you."

She wasn't sure that was actually true, but if Loki gave him none, he would have none. Loki swallowed hard, but nodded, looking more resolved.

"He will have his sword and shield hand. You must not let him pin you, but be swift and slippery as a fish, until he gives you an opening. He has not seen you fight in many years; he will underestimate your skills. He will probably talk too much and get distracted by the sound of his own voice gloating - don't listen, but take that opportunity to strike him. And," she hesitated and added with a touch of lightness, "if you should happen to cut his other hand off, I'm sure Fenrir would approve."

The addition stirred a sudden smile from him, and she patted his shoulder. "There, that's better. Do not play with him. I have seen you toy with your enemies, but you mustn't do that with him or he will tire you. Finish him as quickly as you can."

He nodded, gaze focused, and his expression tight with intent as he listened.

"Remember what you have learned in sparring Sif and Fandral," she advised. "They were taught by Tyr. You cannot use your usual illusion tricks, but remember, you may use everything you bring into the arena with you. Including yourself. If you break his neck, he will be just as dead."

Of course, Loki would be as well, but she was trying not to picture that. Or Tyr's sword in Loki's chest.

She reached out with trembling fingers to lay his collar more smoothly. "He will have his integrated shield in place of his hand, but if you can detach it--"

Loki grabbed her hand, with a fond smile. "Mother. Enough. I will kill him, and tomorrow we will laugh that you were so anxious."

Her return smile felt wan, as if once he pointed out she was anxious, it all fell on her. "I believe so, my son, I truly do. But you cannot blame a mother for worrying."

He lifted her hand to his lips, a gesture that pleased her as much as it worried her that he was deliberately being affectionate in case he lost tomorrow. "I do not underestimate him, I promise you," he said.

"Good. Then I want you to eat something, and rest. Shall I call Sif to join you?" she asked.

His gaze flicked toward the outer door and the doorway back toward his sleeping chamber. "Not now. Would you … stay with me?" he asked with a heart-breaking uncertainty, head down, as his fingers picked at his cuff as if it was bothering him.

She set her hand over the fidgeting. "Of course," she agreed, and drew him toward the sofa to sit together. "As long as you like."