The faint blush of the Asgardian pre-dawn began to wash the horizon in preparation for the arrival of the Asgardian Sun, and was heralded by the crow of an Asgardian Cockerel waking those who lived nearby with its call. All over the city those who baked the day’s fresh bread and those who served the great noble houses and the Palace rose from their beds to start a new day. Fires were lit to drive off the chill of the night and slowly the shining Realm Eternal began to awaken.
The charming soft chimes of her timepiece roused Erika from her slumber and she lay in her bed for a few moments as she became fully awake, rubbing the sleep from her eyes and stretching out the stiffness of the night from her limbs. Sitting up, the first thing she saw was her riding outfit hanging ready for the day’s Royal Hunt. The second thing she saw was her packed bag. A sinking feeling went through her as she remembered the decision she had made the day before; tonight she would leave Loki and her life here in the Palace behind. Erika rose from her bed and drew back the heavy drapes at her window just in time to see the very first sliver of the glowing hot disc of the Asgardian Sun appear over the distant horizon, which from her window was formed by the edges of the turbulent waters of Asgard flowing interminably over the edge of the realm and down into the Abyss. The Abyss. The place which was a place in between worlds and in which Loki had suffered at the hands of the Titan Thanos. A cruel corruption and twisting of the last vestiges of the former Prince of Asgard into the bitter and vengeful God he was now.
Loki’s maid angrily brushed away an errant tear which was trying to trickle down her cheek as she remembered his dreadful account of all that he had suffered there. There was nothing to be done about it now. Many people had tried to help him and had failed and she was just the latest on the list. Erika quickly got ready for duty, dressing in the elegant black velvet riding outfit which was trimmed in deep green and had golden buttons with emblems of Loki’s crests on them, just as his maid should wear. She wove black and green ribbons into her newly cut hair to keep it tidy for when she put on her hat later, and took a final look at herself in the mirror.
This is the last thing you will wear as Loki’s maid, she thought and was surprised to find that it did not upset her that much. She had clearly made the right choice and it really was time to move on. Smoothing the nicely cut black jodhpurs she was wearing, Erika went to awaken her King for the last time.
In a small house on the outskirts of Asgard, another young servant awoke to the Asgardian dawn, but she leapt out of her bed in excitement. Sæunn quickly washed and dressed in the riding trousers her cousin had lent her, along with a reasonably smart jacket and some sturdy boots. She braided her hair back and thundered down the stairs into the small kitchen, where her mother was just putting a large blackened kettle over the fire to boil.
“Hold your horses!” She laughed, “There is plenty of time before you have to be at the Palace!” The plump Asgardian went over to her daughter, who was positively bursting with anticipation of her day, and kissed her on the forehead. “Take a little bread with me this fine morning before you go.”
“Very well, Móðir, but I did say I would attend the breakfast. Erika is expecting me…”
“Is that your new friend at the Palace?”
“Yes!” Sæunn watched as her mother prepared a few slices of bread and a log of the local tangy goat’s cheese. “She is the King’s maid and that is why I am going along with them today. Oh, Móðir I am so excited!”
“I can tell! There you go, dear.”
Sæunn and her mother ate for a few minutes, but she fidgeted so much that finally her mother said,
“Go! Go Sæunn! I can see you are eager to be on your way.”
“Oh Móðir I am!” The young Spa attendant jumped up from the tiny kitchen table and went to give her mother a hug. “I love you, Móðir. If you had not supported me, then I would never have been able to work at the Palace and I would never have met Erika and I…”
“Yes, I know darling. We are so proud of you. Now, have a wonderful day and I expect you to tell me all about it when you get back. I love you.”
“I love you too, Móðir!” Sæunn grinned and hurried to the door to leave for the Palace. “See you later!” she laughed, and she was gone, leaving her mother smiling happily as she started with the day’s chores.
Hel stood patiently while Fulla laced up the tightly boned bodice, pondering upon her father’s return to his suite last night. It had not been especially late, he had looked decidedly unruffled and he had been alone. Had he actually spent any more time with that designer or had he simply escorted her back to her room and then perhaps taken an evening stroll around the Palace Gardens or something? When he had paused momentarily in his approach to his rooms, she had quickly stepped back from her own door, where she had been looking through a keyhole to try to see what he had been doing – had he sensed her? Hel grinned to herself: did she really care? If he had a problem with the level of interest she had in his life, then all he had to do was tell her. He should be flattered that his daughter was so bothered about him!
“Ow!” She winced as Fulla pulled a little hard on one of the laces.
“I apologise, Hel. The structure is a bit more complicated in order to accommodate your dead side and I am having trouble fastening it.”
“Do not worry Fulla. I understand and… do not worry about any feeling on that side as I do not have any. Just be careful wherever you can see blue skin!”
Over the time she had been here and had been attended by her father’s former nanny, they had relaxed into an easy relationship. Fulla was matter-of-fact about the problems Hel's physique presented without being mean or embarrassed and Hel liked it that way. It meant they could discuss ways to get around it and make her look her absolute best as a Princess of Asgard and made her feel less of an outsider. But Fulla was very old and although she was polite and friendly, she was not quite on the same level as Hel. Certainly not in the same way as someone like Erika would be.
“Yes, my Lady. Now, that is very tightly laced. It is a strong corset and should minimise any injury should you be thrown from your horse for any reason.”
Hel looked at herself in the long mirror and twisted from side to side to see what it looked like. She was impressed. Her lack of flesh and skin on half of her torso meant that she could potentially sustain nasty injuries through things getting lodged in her exposed skeleton, so the Palace dressmakers had designed a corset which copied the shape of a woman’s body on that side and hid nearly all of her, including her hips, ribs and chest. It was articulated at critical points, allowing her to move freely, but nearly all of her exposed bones were hidden beneath it.
“Perfect!” She said, smiling brightly. “Now, let me don my riding clothes. I am famished and I wish to take breakfast with T… everyone.”
Fulla hid the small grin which appeared on her face. It was nice to see that Hel was making friends and acquaintances whilst here at the Palace. She remembered all too well the day Odin had cast out her sister’s grand daughter and how devastating it had been to all – well, nearly all – of those involved. Despite the fact that Hel was not here at the invitation of the All Father, Fulla still held affection for the woman she remembered as a vulnerable little girl and she was quite content to attend her while she was here.
“Yes, my Lady. Now, I seem to remember that you settled on the midnight blue velvet outfit….”
In the much larger King’s suite, Loki’s maid had ensured that his riding clothes were ready for him to get into, had made his morning cup of tea in his favourite cup and had just swept open the drapes surrounding his bed to let in the morning sun. She watched as the stark naked King raised a lazy arm up to cover his eyes and listened impatiently as he groaned and then rolled onto his side to bury his face in one of the three pillows she had arranged there for him the day before. Not in any mood to pamper to this behaviour, she walked away from the bed and drew the window drapes open wider, brightening the room even further.
“It is time for you to rise, Your Highness. It is the day of the Hunt and you are to attend the breakfast in the Great Hall.”
She went over to the very large wardrobe and opened one of the spacious drawers she rarely looked in. This held an assortment of his alternative headwear, some of which she had never seen him in. There were a few older battleworn horned helmets of slightly different designs to his current one, some golden circlets with much smaller versions of the famous horns on and then there was the one she was after: his riding helmet. It was not quite the same as his usual one, being a little smaller and with much reduced side panels. The horns were much smaller, although no less curvaceous and pointed, but there were other crests on the golden metal. Images of Sleipnir galloping at high speed and of Fenrir in hot pursuit were depicted on each side. Jormungandr weaved about the neck plate and Hel was staring out of the back of it at anyone who chose to ride right behind their King. As she lifted it from the velvet-lined space it was kept in, a shadow fell over her and she stood up to face Loki’s bare chest, since he was standing right beside her. For the tiniest of moments, her eyes focussed on the thin smattering of fine black hairs on the pale skin and she felt an overwhelming temptation to reach out to touch them, but she shook herself and turned away to place the helmet on the top of the stand holding his riding clothes.
“Good morning Erika.” Loki’s voice was hesitant, as if he was not quite sure what mood he would find her in this morning, yet he did not move away from her, clearly expecting a response from her.
“Good morning, Your Highness.”
In that, he had his answer. Erika’s habit of defaulting to formal address when she was unhappy, scared or angry was a clear indication that she had a problem with him after what had happened and wanted that professional wall between them as part of her defence against any kind of emotional response she might be in danger of having should he try to talk to her about it. He decided to allow her some space as he did not want to spoil the day by an early morning argument and he made his way to the bathroom to carry out his ablutions.
Erika watched him go and breathed a sigh of relief; he had even conjured a robe around himself so as not to assault her senses with his naked form. Was he actually being considerate of her feelings now? Now, when it was far too late? She sighed and steeled herself. She would be leaving tonight and that was that.
When Loki returned from the bathroom, she made some small talk about the clothes he was wearing and brought the long mirror for him to look in once she had got him ready. He was wearing well tailored black riding pants with criss-crossed strips of leather – some plain black and some embossed with tiny horseshoes. They encased his long legs down to the sturdy black leather riding boots which came up to just under his knees. His riding shirt was of a deep green and a gold cravat was tied smartly at his neck. Erika was behind him and she brushed tiny specks of fluff from the very elegantly tailored black velvet riding jacket which hugged his lean figure in a very flattering way.
“Do you want me to braid your hair, Your Highness?”
Loki eyed himself critically and decided his hair would be just fine held under his helmet.
“No thank you Erika. I believe I am ready?” He turned to look at her riding clothes and smiled warmly as he reached down and linked his arm with hers, suddenly melting her heart. “I think we match perfectly, don’t you?”
The burning disc of the Asgardian Sun rose higher in the crisp blue morning sky and there was not a cloud to be seen which may have spoiled the day of the Hunt. Slowly but surely, its golden rays travelled down the Great Mountain of Asgard, bathing it in a warm glow and lending deeper hues to the autumnal colours which clothed the lower slopes and foothills where the trees were turning with the season. While the guests were arriving in the Great Hall back at the Palace to take breakfast and discuss the day’s various events, the ruling realm became alive with its almost ethereal glow which was revered as many Midgardian mortals as being only worthy of the home of the Gods.
Sparkling crystal clear water tumbled over the edge of the beautiful waterfall in the clearing which was destined to be the site of the day’s festivities and a rainbow appeared in the mist thrown up where the tumbling icy water hit rocks on the way down and splashed up into the air. The frost which had coated the cliff face to each side of the cascade began to melt under the warmth of the sun and the verdant green of the grass which coated the banks and the hillocks formed over time began to appear. It looked almost magical with the leaves on the trees still sparkling here and there with frozen droplets of water and the first of the servants arrived to get the fire going in the large pit ready to cook the wild boar they had been hanging for some time. Others busied themselves with setting out markers and straw targets in the tourney areas and it soon became a hive of activity.
Although anyone invited to the occasion could go along with the Royal Hunt, quite a few had declined for various reasons and provision was also being made for those who had chosen to stay here and watch the entertainments or even just to socialise. A large white marquee was being erected about ten feet to one side of the waterfall near the cliff face where it was well out of the way of the busy cooking areas, tourney arenas and horse pickets. Inside it was made comfortable with plenty of rugs on the floors, braziers with hot coals for warmth and lots of informal seating where people could gather with their friends and acquaintances. There had been a bit of a problem with the chosen site – as decided upon by one of Seneschal’s team – and the workers who were responsible for erecting it had complained at some length as to the difficulty in putting it right. However, the location was already almost finished and there was no time to relocate the marquee without great disruption and delay, so they simply put down lots of large oilskins to stop the very wet ground becoming muddy. It would not do to have clothing of the elite becoming wet and stained from what should have been the driest and warmest place available.
It took no small amount of effort, but the workers were being constantly shouted at to get the marquee ready and they hurriedly drove pegs into ground which was soggy, hoping that they would not move and cause the guy ropes – and the tent itself – to collapse. And as the last of them threw an off cut of oil skin onto the bottom of the large grassy slope they had erected the marquee right in front of, no one noticed the water starting to pool around the metal moorings.
The official breakfast for the Hunt was a whirlwind of activity and the various waiters, chefs and pot boys were run off their feet as they ensured all the guests had as pleasant an experience as possible. For those who were on the lookout, however, all was certainly not well with various people and not all of them were making much of an effort to hide it.
Loki had arrived with his maid on his arm and had instantly attracted a lot of surprised attention from the Gods and nobles who had seen him here in the Great Hall the previous night. Why had he arrived with his serving companion and not the beautiful Palace Designer? His display of being interested solely in her company the night before and of leaving with her to go to her rooms was surely an indication that he was considering making an announcement of some kind regarding their very obvious, if unofficial, relationship. There was not much which got past the Palace gossips and it had been a rumour for some time, so why had he brought Erika, of all people, to this breakfast? However, the King seemed oblivious to any increased observation from those around him and Erika took her place as his personal server anyway.
The next intriguing thing was the arrival of Hel on Tyr’s arm, looking exceptionally like the perfect Royal Couple. Loki’s daughter was in a stunning dark blue velvet ladies’ riding outfit and not even the dead half of her face could detract from the regal aura she gave off. The radiant smile on the living half of her face lent her enough beauty to more than make up for her disfiguration and it was clear that she had arrived with someone she thought was very special: Tyr, the handsome God Of Justice. He was wearing armoured riding gear and looked every inch the gallant warrior. He turned more than a few heads as he escorted the Princess of Asgard up to the High Table and took a seat with their King. Loki’s face was an impenetrable mask, but if anyone had cared to look properly at his eyes, they would have seen the green storms raging there in reaction to just how friendly and close a manner Tyr was treating Hel with.
As more people arrived and took their seats at the various tables around the room, it became clear that the elite warriors of Asgard had decided to attend the occasion, probably more for the tourneys than for the Hunt itself, and many of them were accompanied by ladies who were very good looking and very loud and flirtatious into the bargain. Njörðr looked on from one of the side tables satisfactorily. As the handsome fighting men and their beautiful companions began to grow louder and exhibit very familiar behaviour for breakfast time, he could see that Loki was growing more and more agitated. Like it or not, he was quite a self assured and vain God when it came to being around women and not one single one was giving him any kind of attention, even to greet him properly as their King.
Loki stewed inwardly; damn Hel for encouraging Seneschal in his ridiculous ideas! He motioned to Erika impatiently.
“Bring me a goblet of hot mead, Erika. I am already feeling the chill of the day.”
His maid looked at him quizzically, but upon seeing a dangerous glint in his eye, she decided not to question him in his request for an alcoholic drink first thing in the morning. She went to the large tureen set in the hearth of one of the huge fires and ladled a generous amount out for him, but she also collected a plate of food to go with it in the hope that he would have something to eat too.
“Thank you.” The words were said in a short manner and she watched as he drained his goblet swiftly. Realising there would be no opportunity to quietly try to discourage his behaviour, she picked up the goblet before he could ask and went back to the tureen which held the foamy drink, but she stretched out the amount of time it took her for as long as she could without risking his wrath. This day – her last here on Asgard as the King’s maid – was going to be a long one.
On Jotúnnheimr, one of the larger males woke from his sleep and saw the faint light creeping in around the edges of the tent flaps. He rose and threw his furred cloak around his shoulders before exiting his tent to go to relieve himself at a convenient tree, but he checked his stride as he glanced over towards where the fire had been the night before; the centre of a lot of discussion amongst the Clan Chiefs. The fire was still alight – just – with thin tendrils of smoke and steam rising here and there to join the early morning mist which was rising from the ground in the early sunlight. He looked up in surprise for the sun very rarely made an appearance these days, yet it seemed that there was scant cloud cover this morning and the distant grey-white disc was just about visible. He looked back to the fire and a figure appeared as a breeze blew away some of the mist which was there. He squinted, narrowing his crimson eyes as he tried to discern the identity of the figure and then grunted in realisation. It was Angrboda.
High Chieftain Angrboda, he corrected himself. The talk last night had gone on for hours, often peppered with shouting and disagreement, but one thing had been clear; the fact that Angrboda had managed to unite some of the most acrimonious clans over recent times had stood her in good stead for leadership of all the Jotúnns. Not one of the other chiefs had managed to come close in their attempts at showing their qualifications for the role and many of them were greatly disliked amongst opposing clans anyway. During the often heated debate, she had frequently interjected and calmed everyone down, voicing sensible and mostly agreeable solutions and ideas to their plight and it had all culminated in one thing. Angrboda was elevated to the position of the High Chieftain and when Loki’s envoys arrived with the Casket Of Ancient Winters, she would pledge allegiance to the Trickster for its return.
Njörðr sat at one of the lower tables reserved for the Gods. He had never been considered a true Aesir, being a hostage of a kind sent by the Vanir, and so to sit at a lower table was not uncommon for him. From there he observed the behaviour of those around him and smiled inwardly; the King was also observing the guests from up on the High Table and his face was displaying a measure of irritation at being largely ignored by them. A few words in the right ears, along with a bit of coin, had gone a long way in carrying out what had been termed “A harmless prank on the King” and he was pleased with the result. Anything which would make this day unpleasant in some way for the Trickster would add credence to the idea that being the ruler of Asgard was not necessarily all it might appear. Perhaps suggestions made by the right people and more burdens upon his shoulders would lead Loki to tire of his position and even be persuaded to give it up.
The breakfast passed fairly quickly as the servants bustled about efficiently, bringing food and drink and removing empty crockery and goblets. A herald arrived after about an hour and sounded a horn which silenced the general chatter enough for him to announce the departure for the Royal Hunt and Tourneys. A flurry of activity immediately followed as the celebrants rose to go to their various modes of transport, be it carriages, open traps or horseback.
In amongst this almost heaving mass of people, there was one who remained still to watch it all happen. He watched Hel positively glowing as Tyr took her arm and led her at the head of the exodus from the Great Hall, as befitted a Prince and Princess of Asgard, he watched noted warriors of the realm do the same with their many beautiful female companions – and some female warriors accepting the arms of theirs too. There were happy smiles all round as they anticipated the day's festivities, but they failed to infect their King, who was all but forgotten in the rush to begin the short journey to the waterfall.
Erika was mortified. Had all sense of propriety suddenly vanished? On a day like this, it should be the King who would quieten his guests and announce the departure, not a herald! It should be the Ruler of Asgard who led the party from the Palace to their destination, not his direct competition for the title of King, nor even his daughter. She stared at Loki as he watched everyone piling out of the huge doors with a sinking feeling; the very fact that he had not leapt to his feet to question what was happening was very worrying to her and she could feel his anger radiating off him in waves of tension. He sat looking at the doors for long moments after the last guest had disappeared, chewing on a fingernail at the end of a long pale finger, as if contemplating their fate, but then he sighed loudly, making Erika jump, and rose from the Throne slowly, straightening his tailored riding jacket and turning to her to smile tightly. He approached her and she did not quite know what to do; was he angry? Was he going to have a fit of temper at her? She stiffened as he reached out and gently gripped her arm, pulling her towards him.
“If you would allow me, Erika?” He said in a falsely happy voice and she felt a wave of nausea as the Great Hall disappeared from around them.