She was startled from sleep by the sound of the bedchamber door being swung wide. She opened her eyes and raised her head to see Loki striding past her cot to draw the heavy drapes aside. The sun was not yet over the horizon but it was growing lighter in the sky. She sat up and stood from the cot, trying to steady herself.
“Milord?” She followed him to the balcony where he now stood, staring out at the city blanketed in a soft coat of snow.
When he turned to her, she could see the grey hollows beneath his eyes, he looked exhausted, moreover he seemed agitated.
“What is wrong?”
His frown frightened her.
“The Svartelheimr are marching on Alfheim. We will be heading out by midday. Take my battle armor from the wardrobe. See to it that Silas is ready to leave with his pallet and winter garments. Of all times to march, they choose now.”
Eidra threw the wardrobe doors open, lifting the heavy armor from its hooks and holding it out to Loki who had already pulled a tunic and breeches from the shelves.
“I must pack my cot and my clothes as well.”
“Eidra, what mutter you?” Loki lay his clothes upon his bed, “You stay here in the palace. Silas will go.”
“But, Milord, who will take care of you, mend for you, set out clothes, bring food, fetch wood?”
“Silas will, he is old enough. Now go, woman, wake him.”
“Let me help you, Milord.” She began to lift the heavy breastplate but he waved her off. She could see his distress in the set of his jaw, the way he gazed about the room and then and there made up her mind.
She bowed to him, heading to the kitchen to speak with Helgi and to find Silas.
Loki scanned the crowd assembled in the main courtyard to watch the troops depart, his horse stamping at the ground, sensing his own impatience. He spied Helgi in the fray and made his way over to her, dropping the mouth guard on his helmet and leaning over the side of his horse.
“Where is Eidra?”
“I do not know, Milord. I last saw her heading towards your rooms.” She glanced around her at the throng of people, “She was frantic that you were going, she said that she could not watch you leave.”
Loki let out a growl of frustration, “Tell her I am looking for her,” drew his mouth guard back up and pranced away, still scanning the crowd.
He turned in the saddle to look again at the city receding in the distance, wondering if she was watching them leave from the balcony of their chamber. He faced forward again, clucked his tongue to spur his horse forward, matching pace now with Odin and Thor who were riding, heads together, talking.
Eidra drew the hood of the wool shirt over her head, hiding her face and burrowed a bit further into the interior of the sledge containing his household, the field tent, cots, scant wardrobe for official meetings, braziers, writing desk, papers, stools, rugs. She butted her back against the load and stuffed her hands inside her sleeves for warmth. She would have brought her heavy cloak had she not thought it would be noticed. She prayed that Loki would not discover her until they encamped for the evening and it would be too far to send her back to the palace.
She had wanted to convince him that she could be of help, could talk with the villagers for him in their native tongue, even navigate for them if needed as she knew, from traveling with her father, the lay of the kingdom, but she was sure he would not have listened. She had promised Silas that she would empty chamber pots for a month if he would let her go in his stead but he had not needed much prodding to stay. After pulling her hair back and tying it up, she had blended in easily with the confusion that was the start of a march.
But gods, it was cold. She drew herself in further and leaned her head back to the rug where the swaying of the sledge eventually closed her eyes in sleep.
Loki had listened to Thor and Father talk of stopping for the evening, expecting to arrive in Alfheim by midday next where they would make base camp just outside Freyr's castle around the battlements. Finally, growing restless, he rode down the line, watching the troops passing, his breath steaming in the cold air. He trotted through the fresh snowfall in the field beside the road until he came to his personal caravan, nodding curtly to the drover seated on the front and waited for the sledge to pass so that he could keep pace and speak with Silas, perhaps he had seen Eidra before they left.
He fell in step behind the sledge where he could see the boy asleep on the rolled rugs. He rode closer and reached out with his riding crop to move the hood from his face, coming up short and nearly dropping from his horse as he saw her profile, relaxed in slumber. He considered stopping the caravan there and sending her back with one of the soldiers but it was late afternoon, they would be stopping soon to encamp; they were already halfway through their journey. He urged the horse forward, endeavoring to hold down his rage at her foolish stunt and it was with mounting anger when they called halt that he dismounted above the sledge and began to walk back to where she was now stirring from sleep.
She stretched and let her legs down at the back of the sledge, waiting for the pins and needles to stop as the blood flowed back into her limbs, then she hopped down and drew the hood over her face just as a hand caught her arm hard, taking her to the side of the road stumbling through the snow into a small copse of trees.
“Are you mad?!” He whispered angrily, “I should send you home in the morning with a soldier for escort, an armed soldier to see you do not run back.”
Eidra held out her hands, “Milord, I can help you here, I can talk the native language, take care of you better than Silas..”
“Who will be flogged thoroughly when I return..”
“No, Milord, I begged him to let me go instead. I made a bargain with him.”
Loki shook her, and she gasped, “This is not one of your games we go to play, Eidra. Do you not ken we are going into battle to engage an enemy? If they infiltrate our camps, I will not be able to protect you.”
“Nor will you be able to protect the other servants, we will all be on our own.”
He put a hand to her shoulder, his face suddenly a mask of worry, “But they are not you! Why do you ask so much of me?”
“And why do you think I am so weak, Milord?”
Loki clenched his fist in the air, brought it to his forehead, “You are but a woman, you know nothing of armed combat, you would be overpowered in the blink of an eye by the demons we are to face,” He shook his head, “If Thor finds you here, he will have you flogged.”
“Why must you answer to Thor, are you not a prince?” She stamped her foot in the snow with a muffled thud.
“Hold your tongue!” Loki hissed, “He is first born, I must answer to him..”
“And answer to me he shall!” Thor bellowed, his hand closing around her other arm.
“Thor, wait!” Loki cried as Thor dragged her from the trees back to the road where he threw her against the side of the sledge.
“I should have you beaten here and now, brother what possessed you to bring her along on such a campaign as this.”
“I did not bring her, I only just discovered her before we broke for camp.” He cursed himself then, she had completely ruined his ability to think on his feet. He would have lied, told Thor it was his decision but he could only watch as Thor stood above her, hands into fists.
“We should leave you on the side of the road to find your own way home but my brother would raise such a hue and cry we would scarce be able to sleep.”
Eidra colored at the barb, “Milord has a large heart, were it known, you are the cruel one, the arrogant prince!” She shouted.
Loki scrambled to Thor's side just before his hand swung around to strike her, Loki catching the ham fist in his own with a resounding smack that rocked but did not unseat him. Thor drew his hand back with a growl, “Brother, I will personally see to it she receive thirty lashes when we return home! You would do well to prepare her. My fury is legendary. If you will not brook my striking her, it is your chore.” Thor glared at him.
“Strike her because she speaks truth?” Loki cried, “I will be responsible for her. I will speak with her, but I will not strike her because you say so!”
Thor gathered a fistful of Loki's tunic, giving him a hard shake, “She calls me cruel, arrogant and you stand in her defense? You come dangerously close to treason, brother, see that you do not cross the line again.” Thor paused, then letting his shirt go, stalked off towards his waiting horse. He mounted again, and whirled towards them. “Come wench, let us see if you can truly do man's work.”
As soon as the field tent was up, she was hauling the household goods into the tent, rolling out the rugs, opening the cots, dragging the braziers until Loki spied her, pushed her to the side and picked them up, carrying them into the tent as he shook his head. She had piled the coverlets onto the cots, her wool coat drawn off, so hot was she, when Loki entered the tent with two bowls.
“Come sit and eat your stew.”
“Milord, you should have told me to fetch the meal. It is not meet that you should be serving me.”
“Oh shut up and eat, Eidra. Gods.”
She sat on the edge of her cot spooning the hot stew into her mouth, watching him across the way as he stared fixedly at a point, lost in thought.
“I am sorry, Milord.”
His eyes flickered to hers, “You should not test my brother so. He already thinks I dote too much upon you,” He ate a spoonful of stew, wiped his mouth with his sleeve, “And he would be right. Think upon your words and your actions next time lest you come out the worse for wear. Coming with us was pure folly.”
“Forgive me.” She had set her spoon into her bowl, now staring into its depths.
He waved at her, “The deed is done, I wish to hear no more of it. Were you sorry, you would still be at the palace. Now hush, eat.”
She curled her feet beneath her on the cot, watching him, listening to the wind howl outside. When he had finished, she rose and took the bowl from him. “I will take them to the camp cook.”
He rose from his cot as well, “You do not know where to go. Stay here.”
Taking the bowls back from her, he exited the tent, returning moments later, shaking the snow from his coat.
“Thor stopped me and asked if I had punished you. I told him I had.” He took off the coat and lay it on the chair at the writing desk.
“And how did you punish me, Milord?”
He glanced at her but did not answer.
When he drew off his boots, refusing her help with a wave of his hand, she knew. He would punish her the only way he could now. He would not speak to her, would not let her attend him. While he sat on his cot writing in a small journal, she sat on hers, sullen and cross. When he finally blew out the candles burning on the writing desk, leaving only the small brazier at the vent hole burning for light, she had long ago lay down and drifted to a fitful sleep.
The painful throb of a full bladder roused her. She rose from the cot, peered into the dim interior of the tent. She could just make the outline of Loki, turned towards the wall of the tent, deep asleep. She looked to the tent flap, billowing slightly in the wind and sighed, reached under her cot and drew out her boots, pulling them on. She drew the heavy hood of her wool shirt over her head and ducked out into the snowy darkness. Large torches lined the rows of tents, sentries at guard interspersed among them. She hung her hood further over her face as she passed the nearest sentry with a grunt, heading out into the surrounding forest to a tree that looked big enough for her to squat beside.
The sentry watched the lone figure drift by him and into the woods, likely going to take a piss, the guard shrugged, glanced behind him in time to see the figure squat down in front of a tree at the edge of the torchlight's reach. He smiled, grabbing his manhood and giving it a squeeze through his breeches.
“Odin's beard. A woman.” He muttered as he leaned his lance against the tall torch beside him and headed towards the little figure through the snow shrouded forest.
She thought nothing could feel as good as an empty bladder as she stood up and began to fasten her breeches. The arm that grabbed her about the waist and spun her around was rough and gnarled and at first she thought it might be Thor until she recognized the face of the sentry she'd just passed. She started to scream but was only able to manage a squeak before the sentry slapped his hand across her mouth, pressing her against the tree, his other hand undoing the laces of his breeches as he whispered in a gravelly voice, “I didna' know we were going to have dessert tonight but then I didna' know we had any women along on this trip.”
She shoved her face forward towards his hand, trying frantically to bite the fingers as he fought with the laces to her own breeches which she kept pulling from his hand, trying to find a good foothold to shove off from so that she could knock him off balance. Her vision was beginning to blur, his hand was pressed up against her nose as well and she was starting to struggle for air.
Loki's eyes shot open and he rolled over to sit up. “Eidra?”
When he received no answer, he stood from the cot and walked over to hers, looked at the tent flap and drew his knife from its scabbard as he stalked from the tent into the night.
She had managed to move the sentry's hand a bit as she thrashed but he had also managed to get her pants down below her hips and was trying to stuff himself between her legs. “Come on, bitch. Soonest begun is soonest done and I am soon to be done with you.”
One of her hands had finally slipped free and she reached up, raking her fingernails across his cheek, dragging hard, making him lean back with a growl, “You mess up my pretty face and I will leave ya here for the wolves to find.”
She could feel the head of his manhood press forward and she squeezed her legs tighter together, her body near to exhaustion. Soon she would be beyond stopping him and she began to scream behind his fingers.
The hand that wrapped around the sentry's forehead pulled his crushing weight from her, his hand loosed from her mouth. She watched in shock as Loki threw the sentry face forward to the forest floor, straddled him with his hand entangled in the sentry's greasy hair, and drew his knife across the front of his throat in one single graceful motion. He dropped the sentry forward to the ground, choking, drowning words of anger and shock in a torrent of blood made black by the dim light.
He stepped over the sentry to Eidra whom he wrapped in his long cloak and lifted into his arms, retracing his path through the woods as the sentry's feeble gurgles ended abruptly in a convulsive shudder.
Loki set her down in the tent near the brazier but her legs gave way and he caught her before she hit the ground.
“Oh Milord, I thought he was going to kill me.” Her voice was thin, reedy, panicked. He unwrapped his cloak from around her and pulled up her breeches with one hand where she caught them, trying to tie them with hands that had developed a violent shake. He pushed them away and tied the breeches securely. Only then did she dive forward into his arms where he held her, his own body trembling with rage. He half wished he could have made the sentry to suffer a bit longer, wished to return to the body and stab it into a bloody pulp of muscle and bone until even his mother would have doubted her own eyes. But he stayed there, standing, holding Eidra until she had calmed down enough for him to back away without her whimpering, clutching at him.
“Now do you see what I meant, Eidra. This is no place for a woman. Were it not that I heard you cry out, he might have realized his goal. I now have to explain to Father why one of his soldiers lies dead in the snow.”
“I had to relieve myself, I did not wish to wake you for such a thing.”
He put his hands on her shoulders. “How am I to go into battle, to concentrate on killing mine enemies when you are so vulnerable?”
“Give me a short sword, Milord, I would at least die fighting.”
He gave a sad laugh, “Do not wish to see Valhalla so soon. Did he hurt you?”
Eidra shook her head, “I fought him with my hands and teeth and nails, I wanted to bite him but I could not get the chance.”
Loki drew a hand across her cheek, “Woman, you should be safe and sound in the palace at this moment but, faith, I am glad you are here.” He walked back to the tent flap and peered out once more into the night, then he turned to her, “Back to bed with you now, we ride in the morning.”
The sounds of activity and the biting cold brought her out of sleep. She sat up, noticed Loki's bed was empty. She rose and began to fold the blankets in preparation to break camp, turning when she heard the tent flap rustle. Loki was already dressed in his armor, the helmet and mouth guard under one arm, a bowl of porridge in the other hand which he handed to her. “Eat, but quickly. We will be on the move soon.”
“Did you eat, Milord?” Eidra held the bowl, warming her hands upon its surface.
He smiled at her, “I did, little mother. Now stop your words with food.”
She started to spoon the hot porridge into her mouth, blanching as she watched him fold up the cots, move them from the rugs on the ground and she sat her bowl on the writing desk.
“Oh, please, Milord, do not do that. Let me help,” but he only put his hand at her back and guided her over to where her bowl sat.
“There will not be another meal until we reach Freyr's stronghold this evening, and perhaps not then if the Dökkálfar arrive before us, so finish your bowl to please me.”
She ate as quickly as she could manage though he had packed most of the tent before she was able to help him. The tent was the last thing to drop as the soldiers packed it into the sledge and Eidra climbed aboard, feeling the horses start to pull with a hard jerk forward. Loki had mounted up and was now riding apace with the sledge, his mouth guard lowered as he spoke quietly to her.
“Thor questioned me about the sentry last night. I explained to him what happened and he was close to bringing you back to Asgard himself.”
“I am sure it was not out of concern.”
“No, he believes you are bad luck, that you shall bring defeat down upon us. I say if defeat be ours then we have not fought with valor.”
He drew his cloak higher on his shoulders, “Are you warm enough?”
She nodded, “I have made myself a little warren like a rabbit. I will be warm. And you, Milord?”
“I have at least three stone of armor on me, a heavy helmet and mouth guard. If I had chosen the ceremonial helmet, I would have another half stone of horn to deal with. I am riding a horse which feels like an oven between my thighs. I will be warm. If need be, you shall have my cloak.”
She met his eyes for a minute and found unspoken words in their depths.
“Milord? Might we talk later, about other matters?”
He looked ahead to the valley where Freyr's castle lay, the scene from the night in their chambers washing over his skin, rippling along his spine, nearly spurring him to dismount, take her face in his hands and claim her mouth in a rough kiss.
“There will be time enough for that back in Asgard. I must not cloud my mind with such thoughts before battle. Forgive me.”
She shook her head, “There is nothing to forgive, Milord. I hope that the Dökkálfar will see our forces and change their minds, maybe we shall be back to Asgard in time for Winternight.”
“May you be right, Eidra.”
The valley surrounding Freyr's castle was littered with tents on all sides. The snow had transformed the beautiful valley into a magical scene. The white marble of the castle walls seemed almost to blind, so bright were they in the sunlight with the snow upon the parapets.
Eidra knelt in the sledge and looked around her as the caravan passed through the encampments, hoping to catch a glimpse of her father and her brother though she would never approach them first. To save face, and honor her family, she would keep her distance The head of the caravan was far off, Loki and Thor riding on either side of Odin. It felt wonderful to be back in Alfheim again.
She watched the Alfari outside their tents, testing their bows, polishing their swords, tall, stately, beautiful in form, grace, and style. She thought she had seen Danar and was stretching higher to catch a glimpse when the sledge lurched to a halt, nearly throwing her forward onto the cart. She climbed down to the ground, following the soldiers who had come up to unload the field tent. While she was unloading the contents of the sledge, she listened to the soldiers talking amongst themselves.
Though she was concerned with setting up the tent, when one soldier pointed to the eastern ridge that towered above the valley along the eastern horizon, she paused to survey the enemy encampment, wondering how she had missed it before as they had entered the valley floor. Everything about them was dark, their tents, their weapons, their bodies, their minds. She retreated into the now upright tent preferring the normalcy of work to the horror of war and started to roll the rugs across the muddied ground.
The day had started to wane when Loki finally entered the tent and flopped down on his cot.
Eidra was at him before he had a chance to sit up, drawing off his boots. The brazier had a bright fire built in it and he sighed with the warmth as she helped him remove his helmet.
“We spent the better part of the day drawing up plans and discussing maneuvers until I thought I must go mad. King Freyr was insistent to get all the details down. I have no head for it right now.”
He stood, reached around his right side and undid the straps holding the heavy armor to his body, letting it down to the ground.
“And now I must join my brother and father in the castle proper for the evening meal. I will have you attend me.”
“No, Milord, please, I would not wish to shame my father if someone should recognize me.”
Loki stared at her, “Eidra, your father knows that you serve us.”
“Yes but he has his pride, he is a High Court member, and his daughter is a servant.”
Loki glanced at the side of the tent and she knew he was seeing in his mind the army encamped above the valley, “I do not wish you to stay here alone. What if they march while we are occupied thus?”
“I will be alright.” She smoothed his great coat out onto the chair.
“And what of food?”
“I will eat with the soldiers.” Eidra waved him out of the tent, “Go, they will be waiting for you, Milord.”
“No. Remain inside. I will bring you something from the castle.”
She had brought him a dry pair of boots from his trunk and he slipped them on.
“I will be back as soon as I can.”
She nodded, wishing, willing him to kiss her again, but he only touched her shoulder, lifted the flap and strode out into the twilight. Eidra shivered at the blast of frigid air and the foreboding therein.