Eris was thoroughly exhausted. They'd entered Jotunheim through the hidden rift in the forest, starting the trek back to Menyir's fortress across the frozen landscape. She'd tried to keep pace with the warriors but she was far outdistanced in a short time. Shivering with the cold, she'd stood there waiting to see if anyone noticed her absence. True to form, Menyir, Loki and the contingent of warriors paid her little mind as they continued on toward the distant towers bathed in cold blue light as they loomed over the horizon. The only member of the party to notice before they'd gone very far was Sulyir who returned to fetch her, hauling her onto his back and carrying her the rest of the way. For some distance, his stony silence doused all attempts at small talk though she wasn't sure whether his reticence was due to their proximity to the group or simple frustration.
At last she lay her cheek against the hood of his great cloak, “I'm sorry you had to come get me. I'll never get used to this cold.”
“You should not be here,” he muttered, “It was a fool's endeavor from the start.”
“Hmmph, a bit too late to worry about that. It was your idea from the get go.”
She felt him stiffen, “I am cursed to destroy all I touch. Must you remind me of my error?”
“What error,” she shrugged, “You've gotten what you wanted. You're the golden boy, back home in Jotunheim from the conquest of Asgard with two great big war prizes. You're a hero.”
“And 'tis you who will suffer for my selfishness.”
Eris frowned to herself, “How do you figure? I'm the mistress of a prince....or I will be. Why should you care?”
Sulyir glanced over his shoulder, twirling about like a lumbering ballerina until he realized he would not be able to look her in the eye and she stifled a welcome giggle, a momentary vision rising to the surface of her mind. The two of them lying in her bed over the Oak and Thistle, laughing in the glow of the lantern light, running her fingers through his shaggy mop of dark blond hair, the memory so poignant she bit her lip to stifle the angry tears forming in her eyes.
“If I did not care, would I have protected you? Would I have convinced Menyir to listen to us?”
“There was no us, remember? You threw me out of the room while the two of you had your little parlay and by then the ball was already rolling.”
“I know! I KNOW!” Sulyir growled, “This is my fault!”
Up ahead, the group had slowed. Menyir and Loki stood watching until Sulyir and Eris drew even with them.
“Is there a problem, Sulyir?” Menyir purred, “You seem quite put out at the moment.”
“No, my King,” Sulyir rasped, giving a short bow which brought Eris's head up to stare at Menyir.
“Very good. Now put the Midgardian woman down and let her walk. She must grow accustomed to this world and the bridge is not far now.”
Eris shuddered, recalling the bottomless chasm as the group started again to march onward. She proceeded to follow suit, expecting Sulyir to leave her to herself, however, he stayed even with her, taking smaller steps, his former silence returned with a vengeance.
Muffled footfalls were soon replaced with the heavy clink clank of metal on stone. She looked straight ahead, refusing to so much as turn her head to catch a glimpse of the endless void until they had reached the other end of the bridge and still she couldn't bear it.
When they at last neared the iron gates of the citadel, there were shouts and cries of joy from the windows, the walkways, towers, the gates making a thunderous rumbling sound as they swung wide to let forth battalions of fellow warriors, servants, women far smaller than their male counterparts, all coming to greet the returning conquerors, surrounding Eris, poking and prodding at her, laughing until Menyir clapped his hands together and the throngs parted ways to allow them entrance into the fortress.
Eris hung back, at first hoping to remain by Sulyir but now Loki would have none of it, catching her at the back as they filtered through the tall archway.
“Move your feet, wench! I desire a full chalice and a place to rest my head.”
If she had any chance of speaking further with Sulyir, it was quickly extinguished as Loki hurried her along further into the recesses of the fortress. Far from the loud clamor of the Jotunn mob, out from beneath the oppressive eye of Menyir, through the corridors , her eyes catching and holding on to little details, mental breadcrumbs with which to find her way back to the beginning of this insane journey.
They stopped before a set of carved granite doors which opened as if on cue.
“My prince,”a servant, a young Jotunn bowed deeply, backing away from the entrance as Loki passed, oblivious to his presence. When Eris passed by the servant, however, he regarded her with barely suppressed disgust and so as Loki shoved the door shut, it was with no small measure of delight that she watched his face disappear from view.
Her delight was short lived as she turned to face the room and spied Loki, his arms outstretched at his sides, glaring at her.
“Don't tell me they do Tai Chi here too, shit,” she brought her arms up to mimic his pose.
His arms begin to tremble.
“Undo my belt.”
She stared at him for a moment, dropping her arms to her waist, “What?”
“I wish to retire. You will attend to me. Undo my belt,” he growled.
“Make him feel at ease!” screamed the voice in her head, “shut your goddamn mouth and dance to his tune!”
She walked up to him and began to work out the knot in the braided cord, his loud sigh hastening her efforts until finally she was able ease it from around him.
“Okay, now what do I do with it?”
It was an honest question but he grabbed her arm, dragging her across the room to a door set into the rough hewn wall.
“Here is where all garments are kept. You will learn where to....” he paused, the expression on his face fading from anger to confusion as his scarlet eyes scanned the room, looking for what, she didn't know.
But she had an idea.
“Having another episode?”
His hand slipped away from her arm, “Epi....”
“You're a bit glitchy tonight,” she leaned over to stare up at him, “You need to have a sit down.”
Over the past couple of days,though they were still present, the torrent of visions had slowed to brief flashes as evidenced by his responding snarl.
“Do not presume to tell me what I need,” his hand was back on her arm, “Do as I say or suffer for your disobedience!”
“And risk pissing off your brother? He charged you with taking care of me! If yo....urgk!”
There was no time to react as the palm of his other hand connected squarely with her sternum, sending her to slide across the floor, skidding to a halt beneath the blue stone set into the wall.
“Menyir charged me with your care!” he roared, “He did not dictate to me how such a charge was to be carried out! Now rise and continue your chore in silence lest you lose your tongue for your impudence!”
She sat up, glaring at his back as he unfastened the cloak about his neck. The scales had tipped at last. She was returning to Asgard even if it meant spending the rest of her life in prison.
Simon sat in his reconstructed tent, smiling at the stack of crates beside the entrance flap. When Menyir and his contingent had departed for Jotunheim, Simon was quick to discover that, save for the lead warrior, Hobnir, he was basically in command of the entire encampment. He'd no idea what garbage Eris had fed them but at each turn, his word was been accepted as law by the remaining Jotunn warriors. He had freedom to roam about the compound, albeit under the watchful eye of the guards. He had put Kenworth in charge of seeing the tents were raised again, a senior agent, Miss Carter-Boylan was seeing to the mess hall.
As soon as Simon had a free moment, however, he was off to Longhouse one on a mission.
When they had first arrived in Asgard with the supplies to assemble the portals, Tony had taken him aside to where sat one large wooden crate surrounded by ten or so smaller crates. He'd guided Simon over to the larger crate and told him to peek inside.
“What do you see?"
Simon shrugged, “Nothing, really. It looks like metal....steel.”
“Exactly. It's a steel bunker. Not just any steel either, triple thick plates lined with nanofiber.”
“Whatever do we need this for. Are you not telling me something?”
Tony had laughed, “It's my own personal brand of insurance and I'm naming you as beneficiary. See the little baby crates all around the big daddy crate? Well the big daddy crate is going into a specially dug hole beneath the longhouse floor...”
“And the Asgardians, they're not at all going to question why you want to install a steel bunker below the longhouse?”
“They already have. I told them it's where I'm going to store some dangerous chemicals and stuff.”
“Yeah, the little baby crates, only they're not as innocent at they look. Each crate contains enough C-4 to level these longhouses. Every agent here knows how to wire up the detonators, it's part of their training so you won't be lacking for help.”
“Wait a minute! What....how did you...what are you thinking? We were told no incendiaries. Bloody hell, we had to beg for the rubber bullets. How did you manage this and why?”
Tony sat down on one of the smaller crates, “I told the pencil pushers back home the same thing I told the Asgardians, I needed safe storage space. Come on, I was only half lying. It is safe. As for the C-4, this came in my own personal caravan. The whyfor is called playing the odds, splitting up your eggs between baskets or what have you.”
Simon had stared at him until he waved his hands in the air, “Okay it's a fail safe. If anything happens, my suits aren't equipped with portal generators, which is a thought mind you, and I hate being caught with my britches down.”
“Right but why are you telling me about this? I'm not an agent.”
“No, but you are someone I trust and that's enough.”
“But why do we need any of it? You said yourself that nothing's going to go wrong.”
Here Tony had fixed him with a hard stare, “If you forget everything else I tell you, remember this. It's the agenda you don't plan for that will always fuck you up.”
Simon sat a bit straighter on his cot, pride swelling his chest. Tony had trusted him with a secret that was going to make things a whole lot more difficult for the Jotunns.
“Mister Foster?” came a whisper outside the tent. It was Kenworth.
“Come in, come in,” Simon stood from the cot as Kenworth ducked beneath the flap.
“What did you need, sir?”
Simon spied faces peering into the tent behind Kenworth.
“Bring them all in, hurry.”
Kenworth stepped aside, allowing Agents Carter-Boylan, Benlaw and two other agents Simon wasn't familiar with, file into the tent.
“In the beginning of this project, Mister Stark had the wisdom to prepare for just such an incident as the one in which we are now faced with. He entrusted me to safeguard his secret and through his foresight, we have the ability to level longhouse two when the time comes.”
Kenworth glanced at the crates to his left, “With the C-4 in those crates, we'd be able to level a whole lot more than just the longhouse.”
Simon stared at him for a long minute, “How? How did you know....what...”
“I know what C-4 smells like.”
Simon sniffed the air, noting the faint odor of motor oil, “Ah.”
“But Thor surrendered Asgard to the Jotunns because they've got that blue ice box,” Benlaw formed a square with his hands, “Blowing shit up is only going to piss them off isn't it?”
Simon thought of the runes back at the palace with Colin, “The Jotunns won't always have the upper hand, trust me. We just have to be ready for that moment.”
The agents looked at one another until finally Kenworth stepped forward, “Okay, chief. Tell us what to do.”
Bruna heard the footsteps outside the door, looked to the children asleep upon their beds. As the door swung open, she had to clamp her hand across her mouth to stifle her scream. Eidra eased herself into the room, shutting the door behind her gently.
“Milady!” Bruna whispered, hurrying up to her with a deep curtsey, “It is so good to see you. The children will be over the moon! They have been inconsolable! Shall I wake them?”
“No, no do not disturb their dreams for they are far preferable to reality. Let them sleep. I will sit and wait for them to waken if it is all the same with you?”
Bruna scurried over to the fireplace, pulling a cushioned chair about for Eidra, “Oh by all means, Milady.”
Eidra eased herself into the chair, wrapping her shawl tighter around her shoulders as Bruna set a heavy fur robe across her legs.
“The nursery is powerful drafty this time of year. Can I get you anything, Milady? A posset, some mulled wine?”
Eidra shook her head, “I fear I could not stomach it. No, Bruna, thank you. All I need is to be here with my children.”
Bruna sat back down opposite Eidra and picked up her sewing again, glancing up every so often to look at Eidra's face, illuminated by the firelight. She seemed to have aged ten seasons in the space of a few days. She was gaunt, her cheeks hollow, dark circles had taken residence beneath her sad eyes. Bruna frowned to herself. All the woman needed was good hearty fare, a long bath, a few days in the sunshine. No, she needed far more than that. Bruna paused, staring into the fire with Eidra. She needed her family returned to her, whole again.
“Barukh ata Adonai Eloheinu, Melekh ha'olam, hagomel lahayavim tovot, sheg'molani kol tov”
Colin had been on his way to find Brenna but the words drifting out of the palace library as he passed by made him stop. He stood there inside the tall archway watching Mister Mindel who was standing at the end of one of the long tables in the center of the massive chamber, his hands held high, eyes closed. Seated on either side of him were a handful of men, mostly of advanced age though there were a couple of younger boys as well, the whole scene illuminated by the light from a multi-tiered candelabra in the middle of the table.
At a mumured “Amen” from the men around him, Mister Mindel opened his eyes and gave them a gentle smile.
Colin cleared his throat, bringing Mister Mindel's attention to bear upon him.
“Mister Denehy! Come in, come in!” Mister Mindel waved him over, “Have you come bearing good news?”
“Depends on what your idea of good news is Mister Mindel.”
“Avrum, please. No need to be so formal. Sit with us a while. We were just praying.”
“Praying?” Colin regarded the men who had now turned to face him.
“Oh yes. In the time I've spent here in Asgard expanding my mind, it would seem I've expanded a few myself.” Mister Mindel clapped his hands in delight, “Or in the very least I've given them something to think about.”
Colin gave a slow nod, grimaced,“I'm sorry yer return to Earth has been delayed because of this incident.” The word, “incident” seemed almost an insult to their present situation.
“Sorry? So who's complaining? Out of our group, I can think of a handful ready to return to the sickness that is terra firma. Even Garth has found his calling in the stables. He loves working with the horses. He won't get that chance back home. We are all content here, well mostly save for this disagreement with the...Jotunns?” the men nodded their assent, “Jotunns, yes. Now please join us, tell us what news you have. Sit.”
“I can't,” Colin scanned the nearly empty library, “I have to find Brenna.”
Colin pivoted about to go, paused again, “Avrum, what were you saying before I came in?”
“Ah, it's a blessing. The Birkhat Hagomel is said after one survives illness or danger and I woke up this morning still alive so I think it counts.”
“It does,” Colin smiled for the first time in what felt like forever, “Can you say that prayer for a Gentile?”
“Of course, my friend, God is there for us all, Jew, Christian, Gentile, Asgardian....”
“Say it for me then, will you?” he called over his shoulder as he disappeared into the corridor.