Loki had broken free of his bonds, Fenris as well. The Jötuns would be upon them and soon. Odin stood atop the fortress walls, Gungnir at his side.
Ǽsir and Vanir alike prepared themselves. They polished shields so the weak light of the sun would shine all the brighter against their enemies. They sharpened blades and spear points and stockpiled arrows to slay as many as possible before the ravaging hordes reached them. Loki and his brood were coming for them, their anger and desire for revenge on Asgård strong and poisonous.
The Gods were prepared for the final days, for Ragnarök, and they celebrated. Mead flowed every night at the banquet tables. Warriors filled their bellies with roasted boar, warm bread, and honey cakes. They laughed and boasted of their upcoming victories, though such triumphs would also cost them their lives.
Loki never showed. The hordes of Jötunheim stayed within their wintry home. The time for Ragnarök loomed over all of Asgård like a dark and suffocating blanket.
Days went by after the rumors started, and Odin joined Heimdall in his vigil. The God of Mischief was nowhere to be found. His ravens, Huginn and Muninn, reported as much to Odin.
At first, the men and women of Asgård gathered at the gates. They waited and watched. Whispers flitted amongst them. Odin heard the questions. Were the rumors true? Had Loki and Fenris truly escaped? If they had, where were they? All knew for certain the trickster God would come after them over imagined slights and insults. The whispers spoke ill of Loki, of how he’d been ungrateful to Asgård for all they had done for him. In the hearts of Ǽsir and Vanir alike, they had done no wrong, but they fretted. Loki prevailed over fire, swift and all-consuming when left unchecked. As such, they expected him to be quick in action, to rouse Jötunheim one last time. Every time they gathered at the walls, they gazed out and wondered when they would hear the drumbeats of war.
A fortnight passed. Yet, Loki never came.
Days had turned into weeks, and the crowds gathered at the gates dwindled in size until the only ones remaining were Odin and Heimdall. Arguments ensued and died out. Restlessness settled over Asgård.
Winter gave way to spring, bright and warm. The Allfather frowned, staring out at the receding snows. Green buds appeared on the trees, and Sleipnir fed on some sprouting grass. The eight-legged steed stayed close to Odin, ready to leap into action when the call sounded.
Still, there were no signs of Loki.
Rumors spread across the lands now, throughout most of the Nine Realms. A dire wolf with fur as black as night roamed free, towards the south. Some livestock disappeared here and there. Yet there were no signs of Loki or his beloved Sigyn.
Odin’s frown deepened. Along with the warmer, normal weather, Loki’s lack of appearance worried him. The God of Mischief knew his fate. Why hadn’t he gone to Jötunheim? What could have changed for Loki to run from his fate and not towards it? For one thing was certain to Odin. Loki had not reached the borders of his homeland nor had he gone anywhere else in the Nine Realms. Huginn and Muninn reported the same thing day after day.
Loki was nowhere to be found.
And what had become of Sigyn, dear, sweet, faithful Sigyn? Had Loki abandoned one of the last remaining souls who loved him? No one said as much in front of Odin, but the Ǽsir and Vanir whispered it was so, that Sigyn should have never committed herself to such a loathsome soul like Loki. No one should have trusted Loki, let alone permit him into Asgård. Trouble followed the trickster God wherever he went, and sweet little Sigyn was a fool for ever believing in him.
Guilt stabbed Odin in the heart. His gaze strayed to Sleipnir, the fastest horse in the Nine Realms, his faithful steed, a child of Loki born out of Asgårdian desperation, and abandoned by Loki out of necessity. The steed was the only other one of blood relation to the God of Mischief left, Odin included, and no one stopped to consider their words in front of him. He had to endure the hateful, scornful talk of the only parent he knew and loved, thanks in part to almost everyone’s hatred of Loki.
Anger replaced the guilt, anger at his fellow Asgårdians for their callousness towards him and Sleipnir and at Loki for bringing his doom upon him. His pride refused to let him say anything on Loki’s behalf, about how he never regretted forging a blood bond with Loki, or how, perhaps, he and the others had taken the God of Mischief and his abilities for granted. Loki’s anger at Baldur had run deeper than what anyone else knew, but the selfish part of Odin intended to keep those regrets in the dark. Loki had brought his own misery upon him. He had no one to blame but himself.
But Loki’s disappearance, his refusal to honor his fate, bothered Odin. The trickster God wasn’t one to let go of a grudge so easily. Did the rumors speak truth? Had Loki and Fenris escaped? If so, why hadn’t they gone to Jötunheim? There was only one way to be certain.
Odin strode towards the guard tower, his steps strong and with purpose. Upon descending the stairs, Thor and a handful of warriors greeted him. They knelt before him upon his arrival.
“Father . . .” Thor glanced up. “We seek your permission to leave Asgård. We wish to chase down Fenris.”
Odin raised an eyebrow at his son.
“There is no proof that Fenris has escaped,” he replied. “There is no sense in chasing down such a rumor, at least not yet.”
“No proof?” His son stood up. His beard and moustache quivered from his barely restrained anger. “Rumor has it a dire wolf who looks like Fenris is running free in the lands to the south of Asgård. Cows and horses disappear with only blood stains left. How can you doubt such stories?”
“Because no one has actually seen the wolf or Loki!” Odin snapped. The warriors flinched at his outburst, except for Thor. “Because the number is too low for a starved wolf. Mortals are easily spooked. These are dark times. Humans await their fates, the same as we do, and when things happen, things they can’t explain, they look for reasons for why it’s happening. Cows and horses? It must be wolves, even if they haven’t seen it.”
“Then what would you have us do?!” Thor roared back. “Ragnarök has yet to come upon us as the Norns have said it would do. Loki’s escape is to bring it to us. All we do is celebrate and practice for the final battle while our hearts yearn for the glory of one final battle against the Jötuns! You mean to have us stay here and become like cattle, waiting for the slaughter with our senses dulled?”
“You seek to crush Fenris’s skull so that I may escape my fate,” he retorted. “So that we may all escape our fates when such a thing isn’t always possible.”
“Is that so wrong?” his son asked, averting his gaze. “Is it so wrong to want to spare those we love from such a horrible fate? It is cruel, Father, to know how we are to die.”
“We cannot always protect our loved ones,” His heart beat heavy in his chest. They had tried to protect Baldur, after all, from death and failed. “No matter how much our hearts desire to do so, we cannot keep harm from befalling those dear to us.”
“We cannot remain idle, either. Please. Let us seek out the dire wolf.” Thor straightened his shoulders and met Odin’s stare, his expression earnest. “Let us do something of use while we bide our time.”
Yet, as he spoke, darkness clouded Thor’s blue eyes, darkness and trouble. Odin narrowed his eye at this. Last he knew, Thor wanted to spend as much time with Sif, their daughter, and his sons as he could before Modi and Magni left for the branches of Yggdrasil. The final days had brought many Asgårdian families together. Ragnarök drew close, though the signs indicated a significant event occurred to alter their fates. What had happened to change that?
“I do not plan to remain idle,” he murmured. He whistled to Sleipnir. If Thor wanted to go somewhere, Odin had a destination in mind for the both of them.
“Loki should have come by now,” Odin said. “He is not one to forget a grudge, and the anger he bears us runs deep in his heart. This is unlike him.”
“So you plan to seek out the traitor? But the dire wolf . . .”
“I plan to find out if the rumors are true, if Loki and Fenris have indeed escaped.” He grabbed Sleipnir’s reins and hauled himself onto his steed. “For all we know, it could be a ploy on Jötunheim’s part.”
“Why, Father? Why would they start such rumors if they are not true?”
“To weaken our will, and to wear us out before the final battle truly approaches us. It is a tactic I’d employ to lower our confidence if I were in their leader’s position. If we are weary, we are easy targets. That is why.” Odin pointed to two of the warriors. “Bring a horse for Thor and yourselves. The rest of you are to return to your posts. We are not going to let the enemy know we have left.”
“And what will you do if the rumors are true, Father?” Thor asked. “How will we find the Trickster and the wolf if their trail turns cold?”
“There is no place in the Nine Realms where Loki and Fenris can hide,” Odin said. Irritation flashed through him at the way Thor regarded Loki and his son. It was as if the God of Thunder had forgotten all Loki had done for them. Not just the bad but the good also. Odin reconsidered everything he’d felt since Loki’s confession, and some of his rage at his long-time friend melted away. Loki was not an immoral soul. Loki had not always been so vindictive. “We will find them.”
“Of course, Allfather.” Thor bowed. “And what then?”
“That will depend on them.”