Sæunn watched as the throng of the Gods, nobles, warriors and their companions exited the Great Hall and her spirits fell; she had turned up too late after all it seemed and everyone was already on their way to the waterfall. She searched the crowd, wondering where Erika was, but it soon became apparent that her friend was not there to meet her and she began to worry if she would be allowed to go without her. She glanced at the back of the stragglers and made a quick decision; if there was room in any of the transport taking guests to the Hunt, then she would go along and if not… well, she would go home to change into her uniform and spend the day at the Spa refining her skin cleansing technique. She ran to catch up with the others and followed them as they left the Palace through the giant front entrance to go to their carriages and horses.
Many of the horses and traps had already departed and Sæunn walked out to see only a few people mounting their horses, with no more carriages available going to the waterfall. However, she saw Sleipnir standing there, and the huge grey beast was clearly looking to see if someone he was expecting was about to arrive. She decided to go to stand near the Royal Equine Prince so that if Erika did happen to still be in the Palace somewhere with her King, she would be here to greet her when they came out. However, after about ten minutes, Sleipnir and Sæunn were still standing there with Loki and his maid nowhere to be seen.
“Oh Your Highness,” Sighed Sæunn, “I believe I am going to miss the hunt today. I was supposed to meet Erika and go there with her, but she must have left without me.” She looked up at the massive grey horse and cocked her head to one side. “I imagine you were waiting to take Loki. I think we can surmise that they have gone there by some other mode of transport.” She looked around again one more time and then made up her mind; she would not be able to attend and she might as well just go home and change into her work uniform. But a snort from Sleipnir caused her to look at him and he tossed his head and snorted again. As she watched, he came closer to her and then knelt with his forelegs to get closer to the ground. Her bright young features creased into a smile and she asked excitedly, “Am I to climb on? Are you going to the hunt? May I go with you, Your Highness?!”
Sleipnir blew air from his nostrils and nodded his head as his eye fixed on her and she tentatively went to his side and took hold of a bunch of his mane hairs. Loki’s son remained still as she somehow managed to clamber onto his back despite how small she was in comparison and she let out a nervous giggle as he got to his feet again. “Oh by the Gods! It is so high up on your back, Your Highness! I can see everywhere…. Oh!” Sleipnir started to trot down the wide paved area which led from the front of the Palace to the great gates and Sæunn laughed with exhilaration as she leaned into his muscular neck and grabbed even more of his mane to help her stay on his back. As the great horse increased his speed, a thrill went through her and her eyes shone in excitement; never in a million years did she think she would arrive at a Royal occasion this way.
As new surroundings appeared Erika clutched at Loki’s arm and doubled over, retching with sickness. But the strong arm she clung to slid from her grasp and she was more or less forced to quickly stand upright as she waited for the feeling to pass and was shocked to find that they were at the site of the Great Hunt. Loki turned to look at her as he took his place on the Throne which was situated in the Royal Stand next to the tourney areas and he beckoned to her.
“Come along Erika and stand beside me in your place! We want to be ready for the arrival of our people, do we not?” His voice was tight, and with a heavy heart Erika detected the warning signs building in him; today was already turning out to be a trying one and the thought that she was going to make it worse by leaving during the Harvest Celebration supper back at the Palace was beginning to weigh heavily on her. Should she stay?
“Erika! What is keeping you?” Impatience now laced the Trickster’s voice and she hurried over to him, hoping to deflect any deterioration in his temper.
“Would you like some refreshment, Your Highness? I can see that the chefs are already here in the kitchen tent. Some tea, perhaps, or…” The words tumbled out of her mouth to try to dispel the heavy atmosphere, just to say anything to avoid a strained silence.
“Some spiced mead would be nice.” Erika paused; a stab of uncertainty passed through her as she looked down to where Loki’s fingers had suddenly grabbed at her arm and winced slightly at the strength of his grip. She glanced at his face and could still only see a stony façade there, “Do not tarry Erika. I want you back here for when the guests arrive.” He let go and waved impatiently in the direction of the area where food and drink was being laid out, effectively dismissing her. She hurried away and hoped with all her heart that it would not be long until everyone else arrived. Then with a sudden pang she remembered that she had promised to meet Sæunn at the breakfast. Loki’s decision to teleport her directly here had ruined that plan and she now wondered where the young Spa attendant might be. Things seemed to be going from bad to worse and she now considered making an exit while the Royal party was out hunting rather than waiting until they were all back at the Palace.
The young maid exchanged pleasantries with some of the servers while she obtained a pitcher of hot spiced mead for the King’s Table and on the spur of the moment, she decided to take a goblet for herself as well as for Loki; the autumn air was very chilly and damp and the mead would surely warm her bones. As she exited the refreshment tent, a thunder of hooves sounded and the smell of scorched grass reached her nostrils. Turning to see what was happening, she was rewarded with the sight of Sleipnir landing on the ground from his fiery aerial path, which he had taken from the Palace to get here. He snorted and tossed his great head as he got his bearings and then approached the King’s Royal Stand, where he nodded to his mother respectfully before coming over to where Erika still stood near where she had got the mead from. To her surprise, someone jumped nimbly from his back and shouted out, “Erika!”
It was Sæunn! Her young friend hurried over to her and smiled broadly, “Oh Erika! I have just had the most amazing experience of my life! I flew through the air, borne by Prince Sleipnir! Can you imagine what that must be like?” Sæunn’s cheeks were flushed with excitement and Erika’s heart lifted. Such events were what made life happier and she laughed gaily along with her friend. She did indeed know what it was like to ride on the massive horse’s back, but it had been in very different circumstances and he had been saving her life. She held up the pitcher and two goblets.
“I was just getting a drink for the King,” She said, “You go and get one for yourself and have a wander around to see what sort of entertainments are going to be on. I have to attend to Loki, but as soon as they depart for the hunt, I will join you and we will have our own fun.”
“Very well, Erika,” Replied Sæunn, her eyes still shining with happiness, “I think I might just have a little of that hot drink too. See you later!”
Erika watched Sæunn thank Sleipnir once again before she disappeared into the tent, clearly very excited to be attending an occasion such as this. A sad smile crossed her face as she remembered being so naively happy at Palace functions back before she had found Loki lying in the King’s bed with a stonking hangover. She turned back to the King’s Table to take Loki his drink, recalling how she had once denied him his wine and had caused a courtesan to be hurt in doing so, which had led on to all manner of terrible things. The young maid hoped that this last day in Loki’s service might at least be bearable with her friend now here to talk to, but all traces of merriment drained completely from her as she met his gaze and realised he was not happy at all.
“We must ensure the beaters are slow in their efforts to flush out the prey.” Njörðr said to Tyr as they rode along on their way to the waterfall. They rode great stallions which had been bred at the Palace stables, and each of them had livery in their own crests adorning their mounts. He was pleased with how the morning had gone so far; the warriors had excelled in their efforts to rile the King with what they thought was just a harmless prank to wind him up before going hunting, and the look on Loki’s face as everyone had left the Hall with Hel and Tyr leading the procession had been priceless. Yet it was not enough. He was now putting into action plans to spoil the King’s experience during the hunt. Several staff from the Royal Household were already in the woods, searching out various game animals for them to pursue and they would wait until they heard the Hunt approaching before flushing them out with beaters so that the party would spot them and have a decent chase. However, Njörðr had spread the word amongst them to get their timings wrong so that it would be the other members of the Royal Party who would be more successful in their tally than the King and he was ensuring Tyr was still on board to carry it out.
The God of Justice was still having a bit of a hard time reconciling this behaviour, but he knew that the bigger goal was to try to cause Loki to tire of ruling Asgard to the point where he might abdicate. What would happen after that he did not know because surely Loki would want to appoint his successor rather than having one forced upon him? As far as Tyr knew, plans were afoot to return Thor and Odin to Asgard in a timely manner so that they would show up conveniently to wrest the title from the Trickster whether he wanted it or not, and thence arrest him and put him back where he belonged; in the dungeons. It all seemed a bit complicated and precariously balanced on chance and supposition, but it was the only plan anyone seemed to have and the only alternative was to sit back and watch him eventually bring about the Twilight.
“I have sent word on ahead, Sea God. My horse has a red ribbon on its bridle. This is the agreed signal to indicate the plan is still to happen. I must warn you though; Loki will not like this one iota and I cannot possibly predict his reaction to it. Hopefully it will culminate in an almighty sulk, but I cannot guarantee that he will not find cause to imprison someone for neglect of duty. He is already wound up by the public correction by his maid of his attempt to charge Hulda with Regicide yesterday and by the awful lapse in Royal etiquette in leaving the breakfast this morning. We risk much by piling on the pressure like this.”
“Fear not Tyr! What if he loses his temper? What will he do? We can contain any repercussions between us… you can offer to mete out the justice on his behalf and I can offer to investigate why the training of the beaters was not satisfactory…” Njörðr grinned at Tyr and spurred his horse on ahead to speak with a few of the warriors who were involved in the ruse, “Do not allow your doubts to stop us having some fun on this fine day, my Prince!”
At the Palace, a transformation was taking place. The Great Hall, which had only just been vacated by the Gods and Nobles, was being cleared of all the breakfast paraphernalia and getting spruced up for the evening’s Harvest Celebration. By then everyone should have had a good time out at the Hunt and be ready to party on until perhaps the early hours as the harvest of the Apples of Iðunn was duly celebrated. The kitchens had been at full steam ahead all morning as they prepared the various dishes for the feast and the smells permeating the great corridors of the Palace of Asgard were enough to make everyone’s mouth water. Some of the dishes had small amounts of the Apples included and would be served to those mortals who were involved in their cultivation, and some of the dishes were potent concoctions for the Gods to consume as part of their intake of the life-enhancing fruits.
As gilded branches and green swags of silk were placed around the huge space, Aida stood in the middle of it all and felt pride in the theme she had created. The only things spoiling her day at the moment were the side-long glances she knew were being thrown her way and the ill-disguised chatter and smirks that went along with them. Even the people she worked with could not resist gossiping about her public appearance with the King and she was finding it difficult to ignore. Doubts began to surface in her mind as to the path she was following and she wondered, not for the first time, whether she should abandon the idea of killing Loki and perhaps simply enjoy her time as the Palace Designer, which she actually loved doing. A little dalliance with the King might have to be something that went along with the job, but was it really all that bad? He had seemed to be getting more interested in her personally the previous night, even if he had gone on to leave her later without speaking, but surely that was something that would change as he grew to trust her? He was surrounded by those he was not completely sure of – except that maid of his – so his distrustful and distant manner was not entirely surprising.
A loud bang as one of the chairs being moved around the room fell over brought her back to her senses; sounding like a distant explosion, it brought back to mind the mission of ACPoS, which was to get rid of Loki and somehow bring back Thor or Odin. No, her path was still clear. This doubt was all part of the potential to fall under the Trickster’s deadly charm and should be dismissed immediately before it had a chance to take hold. Pointing to a corner of the room which was looking decidedly neglected, she advised one of the workmen as to what she wanted him to put there and strengthened her resolve. She must complete her mission for the good of Asgard, indeed for the good of the Nine. The one who would bring the Twilight must be stopped at all cost.
Loki watched in annoyance as Erika employed what he believed to be very obvious delaying tactics in bringing him his drink and began to glower at her. Why was she taking so long and who was that girl she was talking to? Erika was not usually so circumvent about things she felt were wrong; if she thought he should not be drinking so much so early in the day, why did she not simply tell him as she usually would? He tapped his long pale fingers impatiently on the arm of the wooden Throne and sighed heavily; if she did not make her way to him soon, then he would simply bring her here by the force of his Seidr! However, just as he felt his temper begin to fail, she turned towards him and met his eye, whereupon her face fell at the dark look he was throwing her way. She lowered her own eyes and began to make her way over to him, carrying the two drinks carefully, but now completely avoiding looking directly at him.
Loki frowned. There definitely was something the matter with her this morning. Things had been strained between them over recent days as it was, but today she appeared to be very uptight and there was certainly something on her mind, yet she did not seem to want to share it with him. Did she know about his having entertained Aida in the Great Hall? For the briefest of moments, Loki saw what his behaviour must be doing to Erika and how it might be making her feel, but he quickly dismissed it. She was basing her choices on her limited – and incorrect – knowledge. She was bringing a lot of her sadness upon herself! At least she only had one side to her personality; she was an Asgardian through and through. That she had somehow been imbued with immortality – the strength and type of which was yet to be determined – had not split her mind! Unlike Loki, she was still very much herself.
He, on the other hand, had undergone a prolonged period of rejection, torture, and abandonment! His physiological composition was such that he was only now experiencing certain aspects of his life cycle, of which he had previously been unaware. He had not had anyone there to teach him of what he might expect to happen! There was no supportive Jotúnn Elder to explain what was happening to him inside and to guide him in his actions. From what he could fathom, he seemed to be undergoing some kind of puberty all over again, yet this time it was of a stronger type and it was causing him to be exceptionally interested in pursuing what one could reasonably argue was his primary goal whilst here in the Nine: to procreate. Had it been brought on by being in close proximity to another of Jotúnn descent? Perhaps it had been held in check because he had only ever been close to those of non Frost Giant heritage since that part of him had awoken. He sighed and his fingers ceased their staccato on the arm of his chair as Erika tentatively handed him a large goblet of winter spiced mead. It was also making him incredibly selfish and ignorant of the needs and the worries of perhaps his truest friend, and something about her whole demeanour was telling him it was far too late to put it right. Just as he made the decision to ask her what was wrong, a horn sounded and the faint thunder of hooves and jingling tackle broke the silence, killing the question on his thin lips.
The noise of the approaching throng of celebrants reached the waterfall shortly before they eventually appeared and all of a sudden the site became a flurry of activity. Grooms ran up to greet Hel and Tyr who were leading the procession and the Princess of Asgard looked every inch a Royal as she accepted Tyr’s hand to dismount her horse. The horses were picketed, traps and carriages were driven off and parked up to one side and everyone poured into the tourney areas, the refreshment marquee and the spectator areas. It was not long before the tournaments had filled up with competitors willing to show off their prowess to those who were interested enough to watch and even to bet on the outcome, and the servers in the marquee were soon filling goblets with spiced mead and mulled wine for the nobles and Gods. Having put on a show of politeness in greeting his daughter and her chosen escort for the day, the King was soon regaled with those wishing to greet him and Erika found herself taking a step back as others brought him drinks and delicacies to try, which was not entirely a bad thing for her. No one had even flinched as they had seen that he had been there before anyone else; it had not been remarked upon either and Erika could tell that this marked indifference towards the accepted etiquette in the presence of the Ruler of Asgard was winding him up. Spotting Sæunn wandering along one of the fences watching the warriors warming up, she glanced at Loki to see if he wanted her to stay near him. He was busy talking to a very muscular-looking man and she realised it was one of the senior War Masters. Deciding she did not want to spend any more time in the company of her moody King, she slipped away down the back of the Royal Stand and made her way over to where her friend was staring in admiration at the men and women lining up to get their competition numbers.
“Impressive, are they not?” She asked, and Sæunn turned to her with a smile.
“Impressive indeed! Look at that woman there… her arms are bigger than my legs!”
“Hahah, yes they are! She must have trained all her life in the warrior corps to develop a physique like that. I have to admit it is not something I ever felt drawn towards, but I do appreciate their appearance.” The two girls stared as the female warrior turned to her side and picked up a massive battle axe, swinging it experimentally and making it whoosh through the air.
“No wonder she has such large muscles!” Exclaimed Sæunn and then she blushed as the warrior turned to her and grinned. She wandered over to her little audience and brandished the axe in a mock menacing manner.
“Would you like to try it?” She asked and Sæunn quickly shook her head.
“N… no thank you, my lady!” She blurted, “I think it would be too heavy for me.”
“Ha! That is what I once thought, dear girl. Watch me in the tournament today, for I will win! My name is Boudicca and I am from Midgard. I am descended in the line of a great warrior from Midgard’s history…. And I will win today. Good fortune go with you, my ladies.”
Both Erika and Sæunn stared goggle-eyed as Boudicca strode back to where she had pitched a small tent in the tourney enclosure; she was a formidable woman and huge for a Midgardian, but kind as well, it seemed.
“I think we should back her in the competition.” Said Erika, “What is her number?”
“Oh, I have never placed a wager on a tourney before!” Said Sæunn excitedly, “What do we do?”
“We take her number, look at the odds being given on her winning and place money on her to be victorious.” Replied Erika. “I have a little coin with me, come on!”
They went over to where a few tables had been set up next to the fence and watched the Wagermen chalking up their prices. Boudicca’s number was nine and Erika pointed to the sets of numbers written on one of the boards.
“There. He has the best odds. We will place a wager with him.” She pulled on Sæunn’s arm and they went over to the Wagerman, who smiled at them warmly.
“Greetings to you, dear ladies! Who would you like to back today?”
“Boudicca, please. Number Nine to win!” Said Sæunn brightly, pointing to where he had written the Midgardian Warrior’s name.
“Hmmm. Boudicca. To win? The entire heavy weapons tourney?”
“Yes! She will win today. She said so!”
“Very well, young lady. You do understand that she will go up against male warriors from all over The Nine in this competition, do you not?”
“Yes. She will conquer them!” Sæunn turned to Erika, “I do not have any coin. Please will you place a wager for me?”
Erika looked at the shine in her young friend’s eyes and grinned; “Of course!” she said and placed two silver coins on the table. “Boudicca of Midgard to win. The heavy weapons tourney victor will be number nine on your board.”
The two coins disappeared into the Wagerman’s meaty hand before they could say Odin and he grinned at them, revealing a row of gold teeth.
“Boudicca of Midgard to win the heavy weapons tourney.” He said as he scribbled out a receipt and handed it to them. “Good luck, dear ladies!” He laughed and turned to his next customer in the belief that he had just made the easiest money of the day. There was no way a mere Midgardian Woman was going to beat some of the Nine’s best warriors here today, no matter how much training she had put in!
The two girls walked away from the stand, looking at the piece of parchment the Wagerman had given them. Erika gave it to Sæunn to put in her belt pouch.
“Keep it safe or you will not be able to claim your winnings. Nine is the luckiest number of them all and Boudicca is sure to be victorious!”
The smell of roasting chestnuts reached them and it was not long before they were walking along eating some as they wandered in and out of the various areas of the Hunt celebration, taking in all that there was to see. Some of the competitions had started, such as the children’s archery and there were lots of entertainers around showing off their skills. Fire eaters and jugglers caused whoops of appreciation from the spectators as they blew great spumes of flame high into the air and juggled increasing numbers of brightly coloured balls. Then the horn sounded and people began to grow quiet as Seneschal, dressed in even finer finery than usual, took to one of the stages and signalled for silence.
“Gods, Nobles, Ladies, Gentlemen and all…” He paused for dramatic effect and raised his arms, “Let the Hunt commence!”
The last of the horses disappeared into the woods and the people who had been cheering them on drifted off to watch the various entertainments and tourneys which were still on. Only about twenty Gods and warriors had gone along to the Hunt itself and everyone else had elected to stay here at the waterfall. Sigyn had waved her sons off as they had ridden in pursuit of their father, who was riding Sleipnir just in front of Hel, Tyr, Njörðr, Bragi and various other Gods and warriors, and she now decided to retire to the luxurious large tent which had been provided for those who had decided not to go hunting. It was warm and cosy inside and there was a server there to bring whatever it was one wanted. The Goddess chose a comfortable looking sofa near to which a trio of musicians was playing soft music and she sat down to relax. She was so happy that her sons had been invited along to hunt with their father and the other Gods; it indicated his acceptance of them as part of the ruling House of Laufeyson and would be a great experience for them.
For about an hour Sigyn sat and listened to the pleasing music being played by the trio, sipping at some deliciously spiced mead and chatting to various people who came and went. It was very nice to spend time in the company of these Gods and nobles as she had during her time at the Palace while she was growing up. Living at the house of Njörðr had been somewhat lonely until Loki had come to visit and had taken an interest in her, but her time at the Palace being educated both academically and as a young lady had been a wonderful time. Her marriage to Loki had been an odd one and was not – she felt – entirely voluntary on the Trickster’s part. Odin had played no small part in it, she felt; he had not been entirely happy that Loki had some sort of blood partnership with the Jotúnn witch, Angrboda, and had insisted he take a wife from the Goddesses. The green-eyed God had been a friend and an admirer of hers when they had been younger, and so it was perhaps inevitable that she had been the chosen one and their marriage had actually been a good one at first. They had quickly conceived and Loki seemed to love her and to be happy in their home together, but as the years passed he had eventually started to stray and she had known deep in her heart that it had been back to Angrboda, his true love. Yet the scoundrel had strayed from that poor woman too! Loki was never satisfied with something for long and soon felt the pull of adventure. To love him was to hurt deeply at times, yet when he returned the love he had been so freely given, the reward was one of purest happiness.
Sigyn looked up as someone else entered the tent, which was growing fuller by the minute as various people – mostly ladies – came in to escape the relative chill of the outside air. She noticed it was Loki’s maid, Erika, and a young lady she recognised from the Palace Spa. They looked around for somewhere to sit and as they approached, she waved and called them over.
“Erika, Sæunn! There is room here.”
The two young women spoke briefly with the server, who busied herself making some drinks, and they came over to where Sigyn was sitting. As they arrived however, Erika stopped and looked down at the ground, which was covered in groundsheets and rugs.
“The ground is soft here!” She remarked and prodded with her toe to demonstrate, “I hope it is not going to seep up and ruin our boots and the ladies’ gowns!” She prodded again, but the oilskin groundsheets seemed to be doing their job of preventing the wet from getting to the rugs, and she sat down across from Sigyn. The server arrived with some drinks and little canapes, which she placed on the low table in front of them and curtseyed, “My ladies.”
“Thank you.” Said Erika, “Could you ask one of the workmen to take a look at the ground just outside this bit of the tent, please?” She poked the rug with the toe of her boot again, “The earth is very soft. It won’t get wet in here, will it?”
“As you wish, my lady. I will get right to it.” Replied the server and she left to go to find someone.
“It will be alright, Erika,” Said Sigyn, “there have been Royal occasions held here for years. Have you seen the waterfall today, by the way? It is absolutely magnificent and there are even rainbows in its mists, so beautiful.”
“Yes, it is a very pretty sight, I have to agree.” Erika took a long draught of her warm spiced mead to ward off the chill and grinned at the beautiful Goddess. “Have you seen the warriors who are to compete in the tourneys? We have been watching their exciting fights for ages and have only come in here to warm up again! Sæunn has placed a bet on one of the Midgardian competitors called Boudicca; she is quite the most powerful mortal I have ever seen in my life! She is descended from a great historical figure in Midgardian feudal affairs, whom she is named for. Are you aware of any such mortal?”
Sigyn, who had been taught Midgardian history when at school in the Palace many centuries ago – indeed she had attended the same lessons as Loki for much of her schooling – thought about the name. It was familiar and she knew of the original name bearer. However, Boudicca was not someone she had learned of in history lessons; she had been someone alive and well when Loki and Sigyn were about two hundred years old and they had watched on from Asgard as the primitive races of Midgard had matured and developed from fairly simple tribes into well organised towns and cities. Boudicca had been the Queen of the Iceni in Roman Britain and had fought fiercely against the occupiers at the head of her armies. It was not clear what had happened to her or her daughters following their desperate last stand, but that this Midgardian was now claiming to have been descended from her indicated that someone could well have survived.
“Yes, there was indeed a woman of note in Britain about a thousand years ago with that name and she was a prominent warrior Queen. I would be interested to see the mortal you have backed in the tourney. Perhaps she has her looks, even after all this time.”
“Well, let us have our drinks and then maybe we could take a walk to the arena to watch, my Lady.” Suggested Erika.
“That would be lovely!” Sigyn smiled, but her face changed to puzzlement as a strange noise began to grow in volume from the direction of the corner of the tent, which was about ten feet away from them. Just as shouts began from just outside, muddy water began to seep out from under the rugs and run across the groundsheets in brown slurries. The women pulled faces at the mucky sludge and picked up their feet to avoid spoiling their fine boots, but then the noise suddenly increased tremendously and the shouts turned to screams which were quickly muffled. Cracking of timbers reached their ears, along with awful rumbling and the ground began to shake. Erika leapt to her feet, no longer caring about getting mud on her clothes and turned to pull Sæunn up off her chair and towards the other side of the tent to get out.
Then their whole world caved in around them.