From the cover of the dark arch, Eris watched the two guards standing together talking at the entrance to the reliquary. She couldn't hear exactly what they were saying though they seemed relaxed. Skiver and Gundrun had likely not been found yet. Eris smiled at the thought.
Now what to do about the two guards before her? How would she get inside the reliquary? She couldn't just walk up and open the doors and there were no visible windows through which to climb and once she were inside how would she get out, knock?
Her mouth dropped open. Knock. It was certainly a way to get in. She started for the guards, keeping her footsteps as light as possible, stopped at the door a few feet behind them, raised her fist and knocked on the heavy wood.
“What in Odin was that?” One of the guards muttered.
“What was what?” his colleague looked about the small courtyard.
They turned to stare at the door.
Eris bit her lip.
“There is someone inside!”
“By Mjolnir, how? 'Tis impossible. We've been here all evening!”
Knock, knock. “Come on you morons, open the door and check!”
“What do we do?”
The guard who'd first spoken withdrew his sword from its scabbard, “Open the door.”
The second guard unsheathed his sword as the first guard took hold of one of the iron rings and with a grunt pulled the massive door wide. The two guards rushed inside, swords at the ready, Eris sauntering in behind them to stand off to the side, waiting. Men were so simple to fool.
Guard one put a finger to his lips, pointing with his sword, directing his colleague to the left as they began to search the large room. At first Eris hesitated, momentarily overwhelmed by the profusion of treasure displayed about the reliquary on tall podiums, in wall niches, short tables. Glittering gems, gold, silver, copper met her gaze everywhere she looked. There was a gold glove encrusted with what looked like rubies, emeralds and diamonds. A glowing blue square encased in a glass cylinder. Was this the casket? Upon further inspection, she decided it was likely not. The design wasn't what Sulyir described to her. She began to move into the room. Upon a velvet pillow sat a silver bracelet, four holes along its surface where she surmised something valuable must have been inset.
“There is no one in here,” grumbled Guard two behind her.
“Was someone playing a trick on us then? There has to be someone in here.”
“The Guardian would have alerted us. All the relics are in their place, the Tesseract, the Gauntlet, The Casket.”
At the mention of the casket, Eris glanced over her shoulder to see Guard two gesturing to a podium draped with black velvet sitting at the end of the room. Upon it was a shimmering blue glass block encased in what looked like an ornate filigree of black iron. Two handles stood out from it, one on each end.
“Very well. We will tell Cais and Eron when they relieve us. If the incident warrants action, we will alert the king. Come, they will be here soon.”
Eris watched the guards trudge up the steps through the reliquary doors, shutting them with a bang. How was she going to get out after she'd picked up the casket? She inched closer to it until the details themselves began to solidify. The ornate workings across its surface were not iron but delicate undulating lines across the surface of the glass. From within, there was a blue light, pulsing, bright, dimming, growing bright again. Was it the same material as the smaller blue box further down the aisle? The ends of the box were encased in iron handles and a faint high pitched whistle like listening to the wind howl through a pain of glass.
Eris scanned the room once more. Those doors were the only exit she could see. Maybe if she lifted the casket, an alarm of some sort would sound and they would rush to investigate, then she could just walk right out as she'd walked in.....well, run....there would be no walking until she put this casket in Sulyir's hands. She lifted her skirt, feeling about the waistband of her panties until she felt the gloves right where she'd stuffed them that morning at the tavern. She slid them onto her hands, a bit of a job since her palms were slick with sweat, then held her hands, hovering beside the handles.
“I do not know what will happen to you when you touch the casket as you are not of Jotunn blood,” Sulyir's admission resounded in her head, “However, I know it is the only solution. The only way to give us both what we want.”
She screwed her eyes shut, held her breath and grabbed the handles, waiting to freeze over like she'd been dipped in liquid nitrogen but she felt nothing. The metal was cold, she could feel it through the gloves, likening it to touching a car door handle in winter. Now to see how heavy it was. Giving it a tug, she found it slid relatively easy over the velvet drape. Finally she lifted it from the podium and smiled. It felt like maybe ten pounds all told. The handles had to be the heaviest part of the object. And no alarms, no death rays, no....
A low scraping sound came from the dark wall behind the podium. Eris was rooted to the spot unable to react as the wall slid aside and a pair of glowing ruby eyes peered at her from the darkness. She took a step back from the podium, nearly stumbling as the Guardian emerged into the Reliquary, moving with unexpected speed to the empty podium, sweeping aside the velvet drape with a growl. Eris moved to her right as the Guardian strode past her, his massive head swinging from side to side, searching the room. Eris's arms were beginning to ache, no matter how light the casket might be but if she let go of it, the Guardian would know where she was.
The doors of the reliquary burst inward with a bang startling Eris so that she had to swallow a scream as the guards rushed in.
“What has happened?!” Guard one cried as the Guardian roared in frustration, turning to stare at the empty podium.
“The cask of Jotunheim is missing!” Guard two breathed as they all stood there, shock rooting their feet for a moment, long enough for Eris to race up the stairs and through the reliquary doors. The moon was low on the horizon, affording her little light as she ran for the cover of the archway. Behind her, a loud low blat from a horn rent the night air. She reached the door into the palace and stopped, she would have to set the casket down if she were to open the door. Her hands were a bit full. Panic striken she set it on the cobblestones, fumbling for the handle, sure at any moment someone was going to swing the door wide and discover her unconscious on the walkway but as the door opened, she found the corridor dark. She bent down, hefted the casket again and started toward the servant's quarters, at the end of the hall nearly bumping into a group of guards who passed her on a trot heading for the reliquary. In the servant's quarters the heavyset servant was now talking excitedly to another servant in a rumpled night dress, a gray haired tall thin woman.
“Volsa, did you hear the horns? Whatever is happened?”
Eris sidled around the other side of the table glad of their banter as she made the long corridor to the outer wall of the palace. As she reached the door, she let go one handle of the casket, her arm screeching in protest at the weight, grabbed at the iron ring and pulled the door open. It didn't matter now if they saw it. She was there. She was in the city. She felt like flying. She had done it, she had stolen the casket and kept her head. She'd even helped Sif escape in the bargain. She paused, turned and looked up at the palace spires, the parapets, turrets where torches were starting to blaze to life. The whole palace was coming alive. Eris lifted the casket to her shoulder and began to make her way through the streets.
The stag's head rose from the brush, its ears twitching, steam rising from its nostrils like smoke in the early morning air. He held his breath. If he moved, the stag would surely see him. After a minute, the stag returned to his foraging. Ever so slowly, he reached into his quiver and drew out an arrow, notching it to his bowstring with a smile. It felt wonderful to be able to draw a bow again.
“Take care, boy,” came a whisper in his ear, “His tail is waggin' like a yenta's tongue. He'll run for certain at the least movement.”
His gaze slid over to Chris who was leaning forward, holding himself upright with one hand against the trunk of a tree, “I shall stop his tail soon enough.”
“See to it you do. I'm all but spent for the day and the ladies will be wondering why we've been so long about this expedition.”
He pulled the bowstring back, knuckles grazing his cheek as he drew a deep breath, sighted his mark.
“Make haste, son. It's nearly time to waken!”
His tension on the string loosened as the stag raised its head again, looked directly at him and let out a bellow that filled the sky....
His eyes flew open, his hand, upon instinct, searching beside him in the bed for someone who was not there. Silence, then the distant blat of the horns echoing over the city. Loki threw the coverlet off, struggling to free himself as another blat resounded, closer now. He made the floor, his feet slapping the marble as he threw the heavy drapes aside and rushed out onto the balcony. In the courtyard below, there was assembled a phalanx of guards, with more arriving. Off to the left, a glow as if from a hundred torches, lit the far end of the palace grounds. Was the palace on fire?
He retreated back inside, yanking his robe off over his head, reaching for the tunic and breeches he'd left on the chair before the fireplace, hurrying his pace when a muffled roar reverberated through the hall.
Colin stared at his door, exchanging glances with the servant girl who was on her feet, wide-eyed.
“What the hell is going on?”
“I have no idea, Master Denehy,” She trotted to the door, opening it a crack to peek into the hallway, “I see guards at the door to the King's bedchamber.....oh the Queen Mother is with them....Loki is running to her.”
Colin heard the heavy clack of boots as he searched for his own which had slid beneath the bed. Another blat from the horn drifted to them through the drapes.
“Something is wrong,” the servant girl looked over her shoulder at him, “Very wrong.”
The casket had grown exceedingly heavy as she continued through the quiet streets. Feeling safely distant from the palace, Eris had ducked into an alley where she'd spied a length of rope strung up between two buildings. Upon it swung a woolen blanket which she'd taken, placing the casket inside and tied it up to form a sling. Now she looked as if she were merely carrying goods, or a small baby though it was hard to imagine anyone would be out with a child at such an early hour. The horizon was beginning to lighten, however and soon she would be beyond the walls of the city and on her way to Sulyir. Still, to be safe, she would slip through the city gates unseen. Why risk being caught at such a late point in the game?
A distant chorus of horns was drifting over the city, drawing residents out of their cottages and hovels in their robes to stare in the direction of the palace, speculating what was possibly wrong. In any case they were not paying attention to the strange woman, her face obscured by the hood of her cloak as she headed in the opposite direction.
Colin blessed his long legs, keeping stride with Thor and Loki as they hurried through the palace corridors flanked by a brace of guards including Silas to whom he now spoke.
“I want couriers sent out to the High Council. They are to be assembled by dawn,” Thor growled, “If need be, we will form a delegation to Jotunheim!”
“How do we know the Jotunn's have taken the casket?” Loki countered, “The nine realms know where it was stored and there are others who would wish to wield its power besides Jotunheim.”
“Who else would dare attempt to steal it?!” Thor roared, straight-arming the door to the Reliquary courtyard emerging into the middle of another large group of guards who immediately came to attention as they hurried down the path to the Reliquary itself. Two guards stood off to the side, their faces fraught with fear as Thor stopped before them.
“How did this happen?”
One of the guardsmen stepped forward with a deep bow, “Your Majesty, we were waiting for our relief, Cracas and myself, when there came a knocking from inside the Reliquary. We entered and searched but found no one, nothing so we returned to our post to wait for our relief...”
“AND YOU THOUGHT THIS INCIDENT DID NOT WARRANT ALERTING YOUR KING!” Thor bellowed. To the guard's merit, he stood solid.
“Your Majesty, we deigned to leave our post until our relief arrived because of the nature of the disturbance. If something had happened to my second while I was absent, the Reliquary would have been completely unguarded.”
Thor frowned, glanced at the Reliquary doors, “Come with me. Tell me what you saw.”
The guards swung the doors open and Colin was reminded of his visit with Trena. Thor and Loki sailed down the steps behind the two guards but when Colin stepped forward, he was met with a leather gloved hand at his chest.
“You must stay here,” one of the group assembled in the courtyard peered down at him.
“He may accompany us!” Loki called, waving the guard out of the way.
Colin sidled by the guard, catching up with Loki at the bottom of the stairs where he slowed to stare down the length of the reliquary. The Guardian stood behind the empty podium staring at the space where the casket had once set, plated arms hanging lifeless at his side.
If the Guardian recognized him, reacted to him in any way, there was going to be a lot to explain but it was too late as Thor approached the podium, lifting the velvet drape in his fist.
“How did this thief manage to avoid the Guardian? HOW?”
Thor threw the drape to the floor as the Guardian looked at him, shook his great head.
They turned as a group to see Silas running down the stairs, “Your Majesty, there has been an escape from the cells!”
Thor looked at the podium again, “It could not be! It cannot be!!”
Silas stopped, bowed, “Two prisoners, your Majesty. A thief from the streets and the Lady Sif.”
Thor moved forward, clapping a hand on Silas's shoulder, “Hasten to the queen's side, do not leave until I am returned. Send sentries to guard Prince Lorioi's bedchamber!”
“At once, your Majesty.”
As Silas raced up the steps, Thor turned to the two guards, “You will remain here with the Guardian until the Lady Sif is found. Let no one inside upon pain of death do you ken?”
The guards came to attention, their armor clanking, “We do, Your Majesty.”
“We are going to speak with Skiver. Has everyone forgotten how to do their task this night?”
At the top of the stairs, Colin looked back as the Reliquary doors closed just in time to see the Guardian raise its hand to him.
Eris was exhausted, frightened. Every footstep, hoofbeat, creaky wagon that came to her ears was a precursor to her capture but no one ever stopped her. She had slipped, unseen into the countryside, wishing she'd stolen a horse instead of a blanket but it was too late for what ifs. The rise where Sulyir would be waiting at the trees was within sight. As she neared, she saw movement at the edge of the road and prepared herself to duck into the snowy brush until she spied a blue scarf, the scarf she'd given to Sulyir the evening before. Sulyir met her halfway down the hill, putting his arm around her shoulder to support her as they plowed their way through the snow to the portal. Once they were far enough from the road, Eris set the blanket down in the snow, untying the ends and throwing them apart to reveal the casket, its cold blue light illuminating their faces. Sulyir dropped to his knees, his hands hovering above the glass.
“I take it I got it right,” Eris watched Sulyir break into a grin. All at once, he leaped to his feet, pulling her into a fierce hug.
“You are amazing! Were all Midgardians as talented as you, Asgard would lose its place as ruler of the nine realms!” he kissed her cheek, “Come, Menyir is waiting for us!”
Sulyir gathered the casket into the blanket again. Tucking it beneath his arm, he held out his hand to Eris and together they stepped through the portal.
The frigid air hit her all at once and she covered her mouth with the edge of her cloak. The sun was shining brightly in a clear sky but the warmth could scarce be felt even on her face. Spread out before them across the wasteland of snow and ice they'd crossed when first she'd visited Jotunheim were amassed lines of Jotun warriors, clad in armor the color of gunmetal, swords hanging at their hips shields slung across their backs but before all, his ruby eyes locked onto the blanket covered casket carried by Sulyir, stood Menyir.
Sulyir knelt down to the ground, tossing the blanket clear. As soon as his hands touched the iron handles, he began to change, his skin darkening to midnight blue but Menyir lifted the casket from his grasp, holding it high above his head as the warriors let out a deafening roar.
“You have brought the casket back to Jotunheim! You have done as you said you would!”
“Of course we did,” Eris scanned the legions behind Menyir, “I don't understand the welcoming party, however. What are they doing here?”
“Your task is not quite finished,” Menyir squatted down to stare at Eris, “Now you will open the Midgardian portal.”
Eris blinked once, twice, “What?”
Menyir nodded to Sulyir, “The bracelet on your wrist, it will open the portal the Midgardians built, will it not?”
Eris instinctively reached for the ever present band on her wrist, her original fail safe, “Yes it should but why would I open it? If I step out into that longhouse, I'm as good as in prison, or worse.”
“You will not be alone. You will hold the portal open as my warriors make their way into Asgard...”
“Sulyir?” Eris cried, “You lied to me! You bastard!”
Sulyir was suddenly before her, holding her face in his hands, “I did no such thing. I swear to you, we will deliver on our promise. You will have the Prince!”
“How? I mean this doesn't look like a friendly house call.”
A snowflake drifted down between them, then another, and another until the sky was gray with snow, swirling about in a shifting frigid wind. Eris stared at Menyir who held the casket in his hands, a maelstrom issuing from its surface.
“It is an invasion, one you have helped to begin,” Menyir laughed, “One you will benefit from if you help us.”
“Why can't you just use the portal we came through?” she pointed behind her with a trembling finger.
“We need a much larger hole to enter through and we need to stop the Midgardians from coming to Asgard's rescue,” Menyir brought the casket down to his waist where she watched the storm rage beyond the glass, “You really have no alternative. Either help us and be rewarded with your heart's desire or perish here in Jotunheim.”
Eris groped for Sulyir's hand, found it as she stumbled back against him, feeling helpless for the first time in her life. Her power wouldn't help her here. Even invisible she'd freeze to death in short order. There was no other choice.
“Yer Majesty,” Skiver wailed, “'Twas dark magic!”
Skiver and Gundrun stood before their table, Skiver wringing his hands together, “The thief the square sentries brought in, she disappeared, vanished! At first I thought the Lady Sif was to blame for the deception because she tricked us, made us open the cell to search for the lass but when the keys was snatched from me belt and the door shut, I knew the wench had played us. We watched the keys float across to Lady Sif's door and when she was free, she, too, vanished before our very faces. I canna explain it!”
Thor's hand shot out, grabbing Skiver by his leather vest, “Who was this thief? Did you know her?”
“Nooo, she was an off worlder. Ye could hear it in her speech. She was a comely lass with a fine shape, dark hair..,”
Thor shook him, “Did she have a name? We must search the city for her. 'Tis possible Sif will be with her if they left together.”
“Aye, she'd a name but yer Majesty, I didna' see them leave together, I didna' see them leave a'tall.”
“Yet they are not here,” Thor gestured toward the cells, “Her name?”
Skiver looked at Gundrun whose face was contorted in thought, “Ah, 'twas an odd sort of name.”
At last Gundrun tapped Skiver on the shoulder, “It's in the ledger, Skiver!”
“Och, yer right!” Skiver cried, tearing away from Thor's grip, whirling about to pull the thick tome across the table to him. He threw open the ledger, flipping through the stained, dirty pages until he found the last entry, pointing at it with a stubby finger, “There it is. She said her name was Eris.”
All at once, Colin, Loki, and Thor stared at one another.
“Begging yer pardon,” Colin raised his hand, “You'd recognize her if you saw her right?”
“Aye,” Skiver nodded, “Why wouldn't I?”
Colin backed toward the stairs leading up to the palace proper, “I'll be right back.”
“Surely you do not believe it is her, Colin.” Loki exclaimed as Colin took the steps two at a time.
“I hope not,” Colin called over his shoulder, “I really hope not.”
When Colin reached the corridor, he spied three guards heading straight for him, followed close behind by a shrieking woman whom he recognized as the nursemaid, Bruna.
“We must speak with the king. Have you seen his Majesty?” The guards halted before him as Bruna continued to cry, “He will have me executed! Odin's beard, where could he be?!”
“The King is down in the cells talking to Skiver. What's wrong?”
“Prince Lorioi is missing!” Bruna shrieked, “The entire household has been searching for him!”
Colin glanced at the doorway to the cells, “And the Lady Sif is gone too.”
“AHHHH!” Bruna fell to the floor, her forehead pressed against the marble, “She has surely fled with the Prince! It must be so! I am for the sword now!”
Colin watched the guards lead the hysterical nursemaid down the stairs before he continued on to his bedchamber at a sprint.
When he at last returned to the cells, his tablet in hand, he found Thor sitting in Skiver's chair, face in his hands, Loki leaning against the wall, arms crossed. Bruna and the guards were nowhere to be seen, Skiver was still prattling on about his innocence in the whole affair while Gundrun looked on, still too terrified to say much.
“Skiver,” Colin handed the tablet to him, “Is this the woman you had in yer cells?”
Skiver stared at the tablet, “Och aye, the very same. How did ye come to have her picture? Is it more Midgardian magic?”
“It is,” Colin rasped, “Yer sure it was her? Positive?”
“Aye, I am,” Skiver pointed to the picture, “Who could forget such a bonny face?”
Colin put a hand to his forehead, “I've got to get to the encampment. How the hell did she slip through the screening process?”
“Screening process?'” Loki held out his hand, “Let me see your tablet.”
“Aye, Eris is obviously a mutant,” Colin handed the tablet to Loki, “...but we disqualified mutants from the program for good reasons, this being one of them. She must have never registered as a mutant or we would have had her on file. Damn!”
As he gazed at Eris's file photo, his mouth dropped open, “This woman. I know her.”
Thor looked up, his eyes rimmed with red, “What say you?”
Loki tapped the screen, “She came to fetch tributes of wine at Mabon. She was a dancer in one of the city taverns. The Oak and Thistle I believe. She was quite bold.”
“It would seem we didn't lose Eris in the portal after all,” Colin groaned, “I've got to get to Stark, see if we can't find out where she is now.”
Thor shot up from the chair, grabbing one of the guards, “..And you are to go to the Oak and Thistle. I want the proprietor and his employees in the throne room before the sun hits its zenith!”
“Yes, your Majesty,” the guard bowed deeply before rushing up the stairs, his men close behind.
“Yer Majesty,” Skiver mumbled, his hands clasped before his round belly, “It was a mistake. I swear we didna' mean to make such a mess a things.”
Thor regarded him for a moment, “For your loyalty all these seasons I shall pardon you this time but in the future, if ever you come across such odd circumstances, follow your instincts and come to me at once. Do you ken?”
Skiver grabbed Thor's hand, pressing it to his forehead as he wailed, “Aye, oh aye. I'll no' fail ye agin, yer Majesty! If I do, I'll be the one to set my neck in the hangman's noose!”
Thor looked at Colin then, “We must hurry to the encampment for I fear this is all connected.”