“King Gylfi ruled the land that men now call Sweden. It is told of him that he gave to a wandering woman, in return for her merry-making, a plow-land in his realm, as much as four oxen might turn up in a day and a night. But this woman was of the kin of the Æsir; she was named Gefjun. She took from the north, out of Jötunheim, four oxen which…”
Odin, the All Father, stopped reciting and looked at his son; Thor had given up any pretense of listening to his history lesson and was staring out the open library window. His mouth hung open, and he wore a far away and longing look on his young face as a sweet spring breeze ruffled his hair.
“Thor, kindly attend to your lessons. I am not speaking for the pleasure of hearing my own voice.” Odin said.
Startled out of his daydreams, Thor looked up at his father, and at the raven Muninn perched just behind his father on the back of his chair.
“Sorry.” Thor said, fidgeting uncomfortably under Odin’s penetrating one-eyed gaze.
“I know you think this dull, my son,” Odin said, “but the knowledge and history of the nine realms must be yours to draw upon. One day you may rule Asgard – and a daydreaming ruler with an empty head is a help to no one.”
“Empty head.” Muninn repeated, fluttering his wings importantly and looking smug.
Thor scowled at the bird. Muninn could speak beautifully and eloquently when he wanted to, but when it came to Thor, he simply repeated the most offending parts of whatever Odin had just said. Thor sometimes daydreamed about cooking the nasty little beast into a savoury pie and feeding it to a frost giant.
“Huginn and Muninn already know all this stuff. I could just ask them.” Thor said.
“True,” Odin replied, “you could. But they only repeat what they find out, they cannot make decisions based on that knowledge; only the ruler of Asgard can do that. That is why you must know these things for yourself.”
Thor nodded, but let his eyes slide back toward the window, toward the small garden where he could still hear Loki, Baldr, and Hodr arguing over who had to play the frost giant in their mock battle.
“It’s your turn, Loki.” said Hodr.
“No it isn’t. I had a dream last night that I was a frost giant – and you know how important dreams are; they’re a part of reality too, so really, I already took my turn.”
“Oh,” said Hodr, trying to puzzle out if Loki was pulling one over on him or not.
Thor could practically hear Baldr rolling his eyes at Hodr’s gullibility. Loki, two years older and too devious by half, almost always talked his way out of taking his turn, or doing his fair share, or finishing any task set for him by anyone. Even Odin had been taken in a few times by Loki’s quick tongue and disarming charm.
Playing games with Loki usually meant being bossed around until he got bored with the game, or angry when the others refused to be bossed. Still, as trying as that was, Thor would still rather be out there arguing and fooling around, than in the library listening to the All Father drone on about the history of such and such a place where some people – long since dead – once did something that no one cared about anymore.
Thor felt a little pinch on his arm and looked down to see Odin’s other raven, Huginn, perched on the arm of his chair, nipping at him with his beak to get his attention, his black and kindly little eyes shifted toward Odin and back, clearly telling him to pay attention before Odin became exasperated.
Both of the ravens were an invaluable part of Odin’s rule in Asgard – they brought back news and knowledge from all over the nine realms; everything they saw and everything they heard. It was said that even your thoughts and dreams weren’t safe if they really wanted to know something.
Odin valued both birds greatly, but had always had a soft spot for Muninn. As a consequence of that slight preference, Muninn could be rather insufferable at times, and was a terrible tattletale. Huginn on the other hand knew how to keep a boy’s misdeeds and bad ideas to himself, and Thor loved him for that. Thor tickled the raven a little under his beak and made a mental note to sneak him a few choice morsels of his dinner in the Great Hall later.
Odin shook his head and sighed, clearly giving up on the lesson.
“All right. If you cannot be still and listen, perhaps you had better see if Agni is free for an early training session in the yard. Perhaps you can work on the gaining the strength to catch Mjolnir when next you call it.”
Thor blushed, still feeling guilty for the havoc he’d wreaked the first and only time he’d called Mjolnir. He’d been playing with Loki and the others when it happened and, if he was being truthful, showing off a little when he called to it. The enormous hammer weighed almost nothing in Thor’s hand, and it had come like the wind when he called. Unfortunately, Thor had summoned it while in Odin’s audience chamber where there were several slabs of freshly cut and polished stone waiting to be laid down as new flooring – part of his mother Frigg’s campaign to make the room a little nicer looking. The hammer had sailed toward Thor’s outstretched hand, hitting it so forcefully that Thor had fallen onto his backside and bitten his tongue as he landed; the hammer had continued on, smashing into the stone slabs and reducing them to rubble.
Frigg had been furious about the destruction of the stones – “Do you understand the expense and effort it takes to bring in stone for floors? Honestly, Thor, you can be a most careless and thoughtless little boy.” – but Odin had smoothed things over by having the tilers use the broken pieces to create a mosaic of the feasts in Valhalla. He had also made it clear that until Thor was bigger in body, and had more sense and mental control, Mjolnir was off limits.
As they left the library, Thor could hear Loki trying to convince Baldr that he – Loki – was actually selflessly giving up the choice role of frost giant to Hodr because he had such high regards for Hodr’s ability to play one so convincingly. Baldr wasn’t buying into that at all and insisted that Loki take his turn and play fairly.
Thor grinned as he trailed behind his father. He already knew how that argument would end: Hodr would play the frost giant like he always did, and Baldr would enrage Loki by proclaiming his allegiance to the frost giants and setting Hodr on him like a well-trained hound. Loki was usually found sulking somewhere public after these games, hoping someone would ask why he was sulking so he could gain sympathy and wheedle sweets and favours out of people.
The most maddening thing about this sulking routine in Thor’s opinion was, it usually worked, and Loki came to dinner with his pockets full of sweet cakes, grinning like he’d just been crowned king of all Asgard.
The training yard was busy as always and rang with the sounds of metal on metal, and the shouts of his father’s warriors practicing their terrible war cries, or simply yelling out in pain when they got hit by their opponents. Agni, the Master at Arms and a huge grizzly bear of a man, was at the grinding wheel, carefully removing the burrs from and sharpening, a small pile of blades that shone in the mid-day sun. Agni looked up from the sparks flying out from the wheel and smiled as Odin and Thor approached.
“Daydreaming at your lessons again eh, boy?” he called out as he stood up straight.
“He certainly was.” Odin said.
Muninn nodded in agreement and called out, “Was!” in his scratchy raven voice, looking even more smug than usual.
Was not. Thor thought, glaring at the bird. Muninn stared back, his hard black eyes seeming to read his thoughts. Well, not that much, Thor amended mentally. Muninn raised his head in a dismissive gesture, his black eyes fixed forward on Agni, pointedly ignoring the boy.
“Well, let’s get started then.” Agni said. “Get yourself one of the practice blades from the wall.”
Thor’s mouth dropped open in disappointed surprise, “A wooden one? Still? But, Baldr gets to use steel already!” He cringed a little, embarrassed when some of the nearby warriors laughed at the squeaky indignation of his words.
“And you will too, but only when I say you’re ready. And you’re not ready yet.”
“That’s no fair.” Thor muttered.
“That’s life, my boy. You still have a way to go in training, and in following orders without questioning them, before I let you have steel.”
Thor took the warning and clenched his teeth together to bite back another, “That’s no fair.” and trudged over to the practice wall for a wooden sword, staring longingly at the steel blades hanging on the opposite wall. One day he’d carry the biggest blade on that wall, and Mjolnir besides, and ride out on Sleipnir, too, and then they’d see. He’d ride across the nine realms and deal with any and all threats as easy as you please, leaving a trail of dead frost giants behind him. He’d ride right into the Great Hall with the skin of Fenrir, father of wolves, strapped to his saddle. Odin would be fiercely proud then, and Agni and the warriors would be impressed. Baldr would have to admit that he was no match for Thor. Even Loki wouldn’t mess with him then.
He looked at the weighted wooden sword in his hand, and sighed. It was a nice fantasy but, much as he hated to admit it, Agni was probably right – he wasn’t ready for steel. The Master at Arms was a stubborn as a rock, and a tough teacher, but he was always fair, too. Baldr had worked hard to prove himself ready, and Thor knew he’d have to do the same if he wanted the same treatment and respect. When he came back with the wooden sword, Odin and Muninn had gone and Agni was waiting, a smile breaking up the thick dark beard that obscured most of his face.
“We’ll start again with drills.”
Thor took a deep breath, pushing down the complaint that rose up, determined to be mature and work hard.
“If I do well – then can I use steel?”
“We’ll see, boy. We’ll see.” His voice was stern, but he was still smiling, and Thor felt hopeful.
For the next two hours they drilled. Lunge and thrust, back and pivot…lunge and thrust, back and pivot – over and over until Thor was certain he’d be doing the move in his sleep. Agni stopped finally, handing Thor a large cup of cold water. Thor drank half, and poured the other half down the back of his neck. His right arm and shoulder ached, he was hot, and he was filthy from the dirt in the yard flying up as they practiced. He felt proud of himself for not uttering a single complaint the whole time. He smiled at Agni, expecting that the older man would praise his work ethic, but instead Agni said,
“Now the left hand.”
“Left?” Thor asked incredulously. He was already so tired he wanted to collapse. There was no way he could do another two hours of this.
“What if your right arm were injured in battle?” Agni asked in his irritatingly practical way. “Do you think your enemy would sit patiently by and wait for you to heal so you could fight?” Agni asked. “Do you think your enemy will care if you’re tired?.
“I guess not,” Thor said, looking down and scrunching up his eyes so Agni wouldn’t see how close to tears he was.
“You need to build strength and endurance – this is the best way.” Agni said gently, lowering his own sword so the tip touched the ground. “I know you’re tired, my boy, but this is very important. I also know you’d rather be playing at your games with the others but, you’re going to need to lead them one day – and they need to respect you, to follow and obey you without question. And you’ll need to earn their loyalty by becoming worthy of being followed and obeyed.”
Thor could feel Agni looking at him expectantly, so he looked up and nodded.
“Great things are expected of you, and though it seems hard and unfair at times, I believe that you will exceed all our expectations. It just takes time and practice.”
Thor nodded again, not quite ready to trust himself to speak without his voice wavering. Agni smiled at him, handed him another cup of cold water, and gave him a moment to compose himself. When Thor was ready, Agni grinned and said,
“Now then, the left hand.”
Thor left the training yard some time later feeling like he always did after a session with Agni: hot, trampled on, and utterly exhausted. He wandered toward the baths, eager to wash off the dirt of practice, and to just be alone to think. He knew Agni had spoken the truth earlier – as the prince of Asgard, everyone expected a lot from him. He had to be the smartest, he had to be the fastest and strongest, the most clever, the bravest and best at everything. Sometimes he envied Baldr and the others. Baldr was a talented swordsman already – and when he used a sword it was graceful and effortless; Thor was sure he looked like a dancing pig when he did it. Hodr was built like a stone and incredibly strong, and even Loki was gifted, with his ability to flatter and talk his way out of, or into, anything he chose. Thor suspected that his only gift lay in being Odin’s son – and he hadn’t had to do anything to earn that. All he’d done was manage to be born to the right parents – and where was the glory in something he had no control over?
As he approached the baths, he heard Baldr’s angry shouts, and Loki’s answering laugh, echo off the walls inside. Part of him wanted to see what Loki had done this time, but there was no part of him that wanted to deal with Loki’s sense of humour or teasing right now, so he turned away and headed to the kitchens instead. He could get water to wash his hands and face there, and the cooks were very generous in slipping him and the others little extras and sweets. There was a ruffled and feathery sort of sound to his left and he looked up to see Huginn coming down toward him. Thor smiled and patted his shoulder in invitation.
“Good timing.” he said, “I was just on my way to the kitchens.”
He could feel Huginn nod enthusiastically as he shifted on Thor’s shoulder, his sharp claws pinching as they found purchase.
“Kitchens.” Huginn croaked, managing to infuse that single word with an unmistakeable greedy desire for cake and pieces of freshly butchered oxen.
After a quick scrub at one of the large sinks, Thor managed to collect a small feast from the cooks: a meat pie, a large cup of cold, slightly watered down ale, a stack of tiny sweet cakes, and some chunks of fresh meat for Huginn. Thor handed up a piece of meat to the bird as he walked toward a seldom used garden where he liked to eat in peace and quiet.
“You know,” Thor said, finally settled under a tree and talking around a mouthful of pie, “Being a prince really isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.”
Huginn looked at him a little reprovingly.
“Well, sometimes it isn’t.” Thor said. “I mean, the All Father can’t die anyway, not really, so it’s not like I’ll ever have to rule Asgard.”
“You might.” Huginn said, tearing a bloody chunk of meat in half with his sharp beak.
“I doubt it.” Thor said, spraying pastry crumbs as he spoke.
“Best to be prepared.”
“Yeah, I know that, I really do – but sometimes I hate knowing it, you know?.”
Huginn hopped up onto Thor’s out-stretched legs, placing the piece of meat he’d been nibbling at on Thor’s leg and looked upward at the young prince, a sympathetic look in his eyes.
“Could be worse,” he said, “You have a destiny, a reason to be, a purpose. You will lead. They can only follow.”
“I bet Loki won’t though.” Thor said.
“Probably not.” Huginn admitted, picking up the meat again and swallowing it in one go.
“It’s just, what if I don’t want to lead?
Huginn looked alarmed at that. “You were born to it.”
“Yeah, but not by choice. When do I get to choose something for myself?”
“You can choose how you lead.” Huginn said. “You can choose to be good at it.”
It seemed everyone had some practical advice for him today, but not a lot of sympathy.
Thor sighed. “I guess so.”
Huginn looked at the cup of watered down ale and then at Thor, and Thor laughed despite himself.
“OK, but if you get sick again, it’s your own fault.” Thor warned him.
Huginn gave an avian sort of shrug and stuck his head and beak into the cup as Thor tipped it forward for him.
Thor took the lunch things back to the kitchens before rushing to his next lesson, which was with Erna, a lovely and serious young woman who taught him – and the others – the lore, history, and current events of each of the nine realms.
At the moment, they were learning about Midgard, the realm that intrigued him most, and he didn’t want to miss any of the lesson. Humans were fascinating: right now they were learning about ancient Rome which had ruled over, or influenced, nearly every other even semi-civilized area of Midgard. And humans seemed to be a lot like the inhabitants of Asgard in many ways: they fought, they loved, they invented marvelous things and created wonderful works of art. They even wrote surprisingly beautiful poetry and epics – though, Thor privately questioned his teacher’s liking for Catullus, a man who had a startling habit of reducing others to helpless tears either through the sheer beauty of his words, or his shocking bawdiness. He was hoping to ask Erna more about Roman roads and aqueducts and, if he could, maybe create an opportunity to hear more about the Oracle at Delphine – the idea of a human being the mouthpiece of the gods, or telling the future, was extremely interesting to him.
However, his heart and spirits sank a little when he arrived to class: Loki had decided to actually show up today and was talking to Erna, offering up outrageous compliments regarding everything from the colour of her eyes to her the shape of her toenails. Erna was trying to keep a stern expression in the face of this onslaught, but Thor could see that the corners of her mouth were turned up a little; he knew Loki could see it too, and was taking full advantage to turn his gift for flattery into forgiveness for his frequent absence from her lessons.
All he could do now was hope that Loki wouldn’t ruin the lesson by having a sulk, or make it impossible for Erna to teach anything by asking a lot of stupid questions.
That hope was squashed in the first ten minutes: “So, if there is radioactivity in the waters at Aquae Sulis,” Loki said, “does that mean that everyone who touches the water becomes a mutant with gills and stuff? Do they glow in the dark?”
“No, Loki, the radioactivity there is in trace amounts only. No human would grow gills, or glow in the dark from being exposed to it.”
Loki looked so disappointed that Thor had to stifle a giggle.
“Humans are boring.” Loki said, throwing his quill down in disgust.
“They are not!” Thor said, glaring at Loki. “Just because you’re too dumb to appreciate them doesn’t make them boring.”
“And just because you love the hairless little apes doesn’t make them interesting. So there.” Loki said.
Thor stood up fast, knocking his stool over. “You take that back.”
“I’ll hit you, Loki.” Thor threatened.
“Like you could, ape-lover.” Loki simply sat on his stool, smirking, as though he couldn’t care less. That infuriated Thor even more and he stepped forward, right hand raised, to slap the smug look off Loki’s face, but Erna stopped him.
“Thor. This is not very princely behaviour.”
“But, he said…”
“I’m well aware of what Loki said, and he’s entitled to his opinion.” Loki looked positively delighted. “Though, I do not like the baiting manner in which it was expressed.” Erna said disapprovingly. Loki’s smirk became a little less certain.
Erna sighed, “Thor, even if Loki provokes you, you cannot react without thinking. You are a prince, not a common guttersnipe. What would your father say if he knew you were getting into fights in your lessons?”
“But I wasn’t fighting! I didn’t even hit him.”
“You wanted to though, and you would have if I hadn’t stopped you. You and I both know that this kind of behaviour is unacceptable. You need to go think about what I’ve said – so I’m excusing you from the rest of the lesson for today.”
Thor opened his mouth to protest that he wanted to stay, that he cared more than Loki did about learning things about Midgard, that Loki purposely ruined the class because Loki ruined everything anyway – but the look on Erna’s face told him that arguing would be pointless, so he took his things and left. As he walked out, he could hear Erna say,
“Now, since Loki seems interested in the baths, let’s discuss how the water was heated and delivered to the baths themselves…”
Thor trudged back toward the Great Hall with a heavy heart. It was so unfair that everyone expected him to be so perfect all the time. Loki got to mess up and wreck everything and no one ever said anything to him. Hodr was hopeless at his lessons and no one ever said anything, and even Baldr lost his temper sometimes – and no one said anything to any of them about any of it.
He hated being singled out and made an example of. Why did he have to be the one to keep his temper and play nice all the time? Everyone else got to say and do what they liked, so how come he didn’t? He felt his eyes tear up and he rubbed at them savagely, refusing to give in to tears just because Loki ruined yet another thing that he valued and enjoyed.
Thor passed the kitchens near the Great Hall, catching a glimpse of a large boar roasting on a spit, and he paused to watch as the cooks rushed to prepare the evening meal. Normally he’d have gone in and helped himself to a little something to tide him over until dinner, but right now he just felt tired and angry. Too tired and angry to even be hungry for any of the mouthwatering baking smells drifting out from the ovens.
Instead, he went straight up to his room, closed the door, stripped his shirt off and crawled into bed, not caring a bit that he was still in need of a bath.
“I wish this day was over,” he thought, the tears he’d kept at bay finally falling and soaking into his pillow. After a little while, the tears tapered off into sniffles and he closed his eyes feeling worn out and bone tired.
Tomorrow. He promised himself. He’d deal with it all tomorrow.
Odin, with Huginn perched on his left shoulder, pushed open the door to his son’s room. He had prepared a fine and stern speech for the boy about duty and discipline; about the worry he caused when he went off without telling anyone; about the extra work it created when everyone had to drop what they were doing to look for him. Thor hadn’t come to dinner with the other boys – something Odin had thought would be impossible as the four of them were usually nothing more than walking appetites – but, the other boys hadn’t seen him since his lesson with Erna. He’d sent some of the household staff out to look for Thor, but no one, including him, had thought to check the boy’s bedroom.
The speech was forgotten when he saw that his son was here, asleep in his own bed, safe and sound. It was clear the boy had been crying and Odin was wise enough to know that whatever Thor’s failures today, he’d been punished quite enough for them, and that his speech would keep for another time. He knew all too well that if there was some mischief to be found, Thor and his friends would root it out pretty quickly – and his speech would work just as well then.
He watched as Huginn swept across the room on silent wings to the bed and used his beak to tug the linen sheet up over Thor’s bare shoulders. Odin smiled, a mix of exasperation and love on his face.
“I sometimes forget that he is still a boy. A prince, but still young yet. Perhaps we ask him to carry too much, too soon.”
Huginn looked up at Odin.
“He is stronger than he seems,” Huginn said. “These pains are part of growing up. He will endure them and triumph.”
“Can you see so far?”
I don’t need to see far to know this.”
Odin nodded. “I believe you are right.” He approached his son’s bed quietly, and leaned down to smooth the boy’s fine spiky hair, and shake his head fondly at the smudges of dirt on his face.
“It will be better tomorrow, my son,” he said quietly.
In his sleep, without knowing, Thor smiled as if he’d heard his father’s words, and then he turned and burrowed into his pillow, his body relaxing into a deeper sleep. Odin turned to leave, satisfied that his son was well and safe. He held out his hand in invitation to Huginn.
Huginn shook his head and fluttered upward onto the bed frame to look down at the boy. Odin smiled to see him there; a dark but kindly sentinel to watch over his sleeping son and keep safe his dreams.