As the morning dawned over the rest of the realm of Asgard, the light of the now pale blue sky cast a shine on the golden palace which stood in the center of the realm, the home of Asgard's king, Odin, and his family. It was more massive and striking than any other building in the realm, and could be seen by almost all from near and far as it shone brilliantly in the morning light. But while it may have looked magnificent on the outside, inside the palace, a storm was brewing between Odin and perhaps the most stubborn of his subjects: his own son, Loki.
The great king sat in his throne room, the mighty image he usually donned for the public eye conspicuously absent. Instead, he sat on his throne with his head in his hand, his one eye closed and a look of pure frustration on his face. Beside him stood his gentle queen, Frigga, her hand on his shoulder trying to console him. The two had been awaiting their son's response to the most momentous news they'd given him for at least half an hour, but Loki had gone to his room to "think things over" as he had said.
Suddenly, someone came through one of the side doors, his face expressing nothing but nervousness. It was their older son, Thor, the crown prince of Asgard, though now he felt simply like any other subject, anxious over the volatile reaction he knew he'd get from his father once he told him what happened.
Both Odin and Frigga immediately turned toward him, and were instantly alarmed at seeing that Loki wasn't with Thor.
"Where is he?" Odin asked, the frustration in his voice clearly evident.
Thor hesitated for a moment, but he nonetheless mentally kicked himself into telling him, knowing there was no getting around this. "He's, not coming back," he replied.
His father wasn't going to have any of it. "What do you mean, he's not coming back?" he demanded.
Bracing himself for the worst, Thor replied, "I tried to talk to him but, he simply refused to come with me."
At this, Odin instantly stood from his throne, his anger quickly rising. "Confound that rebellious son of mine!" he exclaimed as he walked hastily down the steps, his voice echoing throughout the room, "I'll go speak to him myself!" He then walked past his firstborn and through the open doorway, and proceeded down the hall, determined to see to it that his other son would see it his way and no one else's, especially not his.
Following close behind him were two of his guards. Running over to him to be at his side was Frigga who, though she could feel the heat of anger emanating from her husband, was just as determined as he, though she wished to calm the situation rather than escalate it any further.
"Wait, dear!" she called out, "Please consider what you are about to do!"
"I consider everything before I do it!" Odin replied, not to be deterred.
"Odin, you cannot force him into this!"
"I can and I will!"
"But he's not just another subject! He's your son!" his wife pleaded with him.
"And as both he shall respect me and obey my orders," Odin replied with a bite in his voice, "or I shall take Mjolnir and beat him into submission!"
Despite the harshness that was in every word he said, Frigga gave even more effort at trying to get him to think of a different approach. "Since when has beating ever done any good?" she asked, "Much less raising your voice!"
"My voice will be the only one he will hear!" Odin replied. Frigga, now very disappointed with him, ceased to get him to reconsider with great reluctance. She hated being caught in the middle of a family argument, and could only wonder how this one would turn out as she, Odin, and the two guards behind them strode through the halls toward Loki's room, and perhaps a shouting match that the whole realm would hear.
They all soon came upon a pair of large golden doors with emeralds here and there. While Odin prepared his voice and his manner to meet and then quench the coming fire of conflict, Frigga prepared herself for the asking for assistance from both her husband and son.
"Loki!" Odin called out, calm but still frustrated, "It's your father! I must speak with you!"
Suddenly, they heard running footsteps echoing in the hallway behind them. Frigga turned to see that Thor had decided to follow them after all. He shouted anxiously, "Wait! You can't go in there he's…"
But he was too late. Odin had already opened the doors and was now marching inside. Though there was little Thor could do to prevent what would inevitably happen, he hurried inside after his parents and the guards. All four of them gasped as they saw that at least two sets of bed sheets had been knotted together, tied to one of the bedposts, and led out an open window. And Loki was nowhere in the room.
"He's not here," Thor admitted. But no one looked at him. In fact, they seemed to ignore him as they wondered wildly where the other prince was.
Odin went over to the window and looked out, amazed beyond belief, and clearly not in a good way. Though she couldn't see his face, Frigga could tell merely by the overwhelmingly intense unbelief his presence gave off that he was about to throw the most royal of fits if she didn't step in.
"Dearest," she said in the most relaxed voice she could muster, "I beg you, please remain calm."
As if in reply to her wishes, her husband slowly turned around to face his other son, appearing as though he was trying his hardest to be as calm as she was.
"Where is he Thor?" he asked, his tone frustrated but not as much as before, "Where did he go?"
Once again, Thor prepared himself for a gigantic outburst before replying uneasily, "I don't know. He wouldn't tell me."
Odin's eyes immediately widened. "You're telling me you let him do this?!" he asked, the anger in his voice returning.
Without waiting for an answer, he turned to the two guards who had followed him. They both quickly stood straight, and eager to please their agitated king. "What shall we do Your Majesty?" one of them asked.
Odin wasted no time in giving his order. "Gather your men! And don't come back until you have him!"
Little did he know that while he was giving this order, a big black horse carrying a rider clothed in black and green, with a hood covering his head, was galloping away from the palace, the rider determined to do anything to be free from his gilded, golden cage of a home.
Meanwhile, outside of a town about a half hour's ride from the palace, a rather fine looking house stood in front of a forest of green pine trees, which led to a grand meadow beyond. It had two stories and was made of firm gray stone, and it was owned by a former lady-in-waiting to the queen of Asgard, a widowed woman by the name of Lady Ylva. The lady herself sat inside the dining room. She certainly looked regal, with her newly washed face, high cheek bones, focused blue eyes, and her black braid which traveled down to her waist.
Yet, as her family was well used to, she also looked quite stern, strict, and cold. Her face seemed to be made of stone or white marble, as there was barely any hint of color to it, and she rarely smiled. Her eyes somehow often seemed to reflect a certain icy hardness inside of her. And she always wore black ever since the death of her husband. While her family at first took this to be a sign of respect toward him, with each passing year, it became clear that this new shadow of a figure was here to stay, and determined to maintain discipline and order at all costs.
At the table with her sat the only known family she had left, her two daughters, Brynja and Regin. While they were twins, they neither looked nor acted alike. Brynja, the older daughter, sat on her left. She had strawberry blond hair, shared her mother's high cheek bones, blue eyes, and regal demeanor, and wore a peach colored dress. Regin, the younger daughter, sat on her right. She had Ylva's black hair, but her eyes were brown. Her demeanor was more of one that was demure, and she wore a dark green dress. All three of them were eagerly awaiting their breakfast. Brynja, however, was bordering on intense impatience.
"Where in the realm of Asgard is that slower-than-snails girl with our food?!" she asked loudly.
Without turning her head, Ylva rested her cold eyes on her, which was more than enough to put Brynja in line without her mother's words. "Brynja," she said with a calm but stern voice, "what do I keep telling you about patience?"
Brynja breathed a heavy sigh of submission and replied, "Patience serves everyone, whether they be a lady, a mother, or a warrior." She then added, "But I still don't see why you've waited all this time to even think about letting us return to our real home."
"You know very well why I waited," Ylva replied, after an awkward, silent moment, "Much time may pass, but I will unfortunately have to live with your father's disgrace for the rest of my days."
Despite wanting to avoid the evident, and rather unusual, conflict, Regin spoke up, "I'm sure she's going as fast as she can."
"Well, she has only herself to blame," Ylva countered, "She should have been waiting for us when we came here rather than making us wait for her. That being said, Aska!"
"Coming!" she heard a voice in the hall behind her. Just then, into the room came the formerly ashen-faced girl. She'd since put on a dark gray tunic and skirt over her white shift – hoping the soot on it wouldn't be seen, and also pulled her hair back into its usual braid. She hurried in as fast as she was allowed, as she was carrying three full plates which she'd put together as fast as possible on a tray.
"I'm really sorry to have kept you all waiting," she said as she put the plates on the table in front of the respective person.
"Aska," Ylva spoke up, "you seem to have forgotten our drinks."
"And where are the salt and butter?!" Brynja asked, loudly again.
"Right, I'm sorry," Aska nodded, "I'm getting it all." She then rushed back down the hall toward the kitchen while Regin watched, her concern slowly showing on her face, before she turned toward her mother and sister.
"Forgive me but, must you both be so hard on her?" she asked respectfully.
"Must you be as sweet as honey toward everyone around you?" Ylva asked, clearly putting her off.
Regin didn't seem to care though. It was rather clear to her – as it had been throughout most of her life – that Ylva favored Brynja over her, despite the girl's tendencies to be flighty, empty-headed, and shallow.
Aska, however, soon returned with the drinks, salt, and butter, some of the hair in her braid starting to come loose, an indication that she was working too hard already.
"Thank you dear," Ylva said in a voice devoid of any real emotion, "But, might I ask what kept you this morning?"
"I overslept," Aska replied uneasily.
"I don't believe you," Ylva said, her eyes beginning to narrow ever so slightly, as though she were a cat eyeing its prey, "You never oversleep."
"Well, it's the truth," Aska insisted, "I was having this really odd dream and…"
"Dreams, like everything else, should not be allowed to get in the way of one's duties," Ylva interrupted her, "should they?"
Though Aska wanted to explain further, she shook her head.
"No," Ylva shook her head back. "And speaking of your duties," she then continued, "my daughters and I are going out for a walk, and I would like for you to exercise Arnthor."
"Oh, speaking of horses," Regin suddenly spoke up, "did Jarl come by with the new horseshoes?"
Aska turned to her, catching the faint sense of mischief as well as hope in her eyes regarding the local blacksmith, and replied, "No, I'm afraid not. But I'll be watching for him."
"See to it that you do," Ylva said before taking her first bite of food.
Aska nodded. Normally she left after being told what her morning chores would be, but this time something in her nagged at her to stay and speak to her mistress regarding one issue that seemed to bother her, despite her fierce denials, ever since she'd come here.
She stood tall and serious, and then she asked, "Madam, why do you never let me accompany you, Brynja, and Regin, except when it has to do with work?"
At this, Ylva stopped eating, put down her utensils, and gave Aska a look that was both confused and humorless at the same time. "Aska, you are a maid," she replied, "and maids do not make requests. They only see to those of others."
Aska, clearly not satisfied with that answer, pressed her further. "But, I've been seeing to your requests for five years, and I never ask you for anything. And if I'm only a maid then, why do you not pay me?"
"I do pay you," Ylva replied, "I let you stay under my roof when I could simply make you leave at any time. And here I thought you were grateful to me for allowing you to live here when I otherwise could have just turned you away and let you suffer even more, but, I suppose I was mistaken."
"I am grateful Madam," Aska replied, and she really meant it. She admitted that as aggravating as doing all these things for her could be, her past five years of living here were far more favorable than the five weeks of wandering she'd had to endure beforehand.
"Good," Ylva nodded, "Then I trust that you will remember my kindness before making such bold statements again."
"And don't you have better things to do," Brynja suddenly asked, "such as cleaning that fireplace of yours?"
Ignoring Brynja's sarcastic question with which she intended to make fun of her, Aska lowered her head to show her, inner grudging, respect to her mistress. "Good day Madam," she then said before turning around and heading back down the hall to the kitchen, hoping to have breakfast herself before going out to exercise Arnthor.
Later, she stood outside the front of the house to see Ylva, Brynja, and Regin off. They were all dressed in somewhat nicer clothing, while Aska remained in one of only two dresses she was permitted to wear, paling drastically in comparison to all three of them.
"We will return in about an hour," Ylva told her, "And I expect you to be here in this exact spot waiting for us, is that understood?"
"Yes Madam," Aska nodded.
"Good," Ylva nodded back, "Perhaps you have learned from this morning's mistake after all then."
She then turned to her daughters. "Come now ladies," she said, "It is a most beautiful morning, and I intend to make the most of it."
"Yes Mother," Brynja and Regin both said in unison.
Ylva passed them before they started walking behind her, as was their custom. And while her mother and sister weren't looking, Regin turned around and gave Aska a smile and a wave. Aska couldn't resist smiling and waving back, appreciating how she wanted to make her own morning a bit brighter, especially considering how roughly it started.
Once they were out of her sight, Aska turned around, walked around the house, and headed toward the stables, which was located a few minutes' walk through a group of trees. As she walked on the pathway, she saw that the leaves covering the trees were a beautiful shade of green, and the trees themselves stretched high above her, making her feel smaller than she already felt. But surely once she got onto Arnthor, her mistress's finest horse, she would feel tall again. Though she didn't tell Ylva, exercising the horses was perhaps one of the only two chores she actually enjoyed doing, while the rest involved washing dishes, scrubbing floors, doing the laundry and cooking, and basically making her exhausted by the end of the day while her mistress rarely even thanked her.
In fact, Aska couldn't really recall a time when Ylva did something nice for her, other than letting her live in her home. She'd turned eighteen only a few months ago, and she didn't even throw a special party for her as she did for Brynja and Regin. Aska didn't expect her to, but still, the eighteenth year was the time when one left childhood behind and became an adult. Not only that, but it was also the age when one was old enough to marry. Though why any man would want to marry her was beyond Aska. She did think she'd look pretty enough if she was allowed to work on her appearance. Her hair was so blond it was nearly white, and her eyes were a light blue. But she was also rather skinny, and her skin somewhat pale. In addition to that, she was a maid, a servant, a slave. Who in his right mind would want to be married to that?
But the weak and submissive side that she showed to Ylva instantly blew away with the wind once she was halfway to the stables. Her eyes caught a medium-sized piece of wood along with a long stick sitting against one tree, and a spark of mischief immediately set off in her, causing a slight smirk to cross her lips. She quickly ran over and took them up, the piece of wood with her left hand and the stick with her right. At once, she felt the boldest and most confident she did that whole morning, as well as that usual feeling of mischief whenever she took them up. It was one of three major secrets she kept from Ylva and Brynja.
Not long after she'd come to live with them, Aska had noted how Ylva would train Brynja to fight almost every day. Wishing to know how to fight as well, she secretly tried for herself what she'd seen them do after everyone else went to bed, only to find she could do most of those moves just as well if not better. And ever since, she would act the obedient maid by day, while at night she became a warrior in training, using pieces of wood and sticks like the ones she now held as practice shields and swords, and always keeping them hidden from her mistress.
For all of the hard times and hard labor that Aska had to endure in the past five years, nothing could stamp out the flame of hope that burned within her. It was now burning stronger than ever, now that she had come of age. In a way it had served as a fan for her inner fire. Whether or not she would get out of this place soon, by marriage or some other method, she would cease being Ylva's maid one day nonetheless.
For now though, Aska was only concerned with seeing to it that Arnthor was properly exercised. Still, she couldn't resist practicing a few moves as she traveled down the path. She swung the stick and the piece of wood around, battling imaginary foes, Frost Giants they were. Occasionally, she would give a kick or two, followed by a swift slash of her stick or a blow with her piece of wood, until she finally came upon the familiar, long building made of wood. Aska searched quickly around for a place to hide her faux shield and sword before placing them behind some bushes near a tree, and then proceeded on her way to the front door of the stables.
She opened the door and was immediately greeted by the smells of hay and leather, as well as the neighs of two of the three horses Ylva owned. A smile instantly crossed Aska's face, and she walked inside and toward Arnthor's stall, allowing the well-known scents to enter her nose.
A big, bay stallion with large, brown eyes turned to her as soon as she was in front of his stall, and he slowly reached his muzzle out as far as he could toward her hand.
"I'm sorry, I don't have anything for you today," Aska giggled. She then gave the horse's muzzle an affectionate scratch before going to the side room where the bridles and saddles were kept. "We're going riding today," she declared once she had one of each in her hand.
She then got to work tacking Arnthor. She first brushed him until every speck of dust was off him, and then she pulled the bridle over his head and strapped the saddle on his back. After opening the stall door, she walked him out, holding his reins with her right and petting him with her left. Once they were outside, she closed the stable doors again, promising the other two horses that she would feed them, before walking back over to Arnthor and climbing onto him.
Before long, she was smiling greatly and even laughing as she rode the bay through the flowing, green lands and below the blue sky, trotting and cantering. Aska always felt free whenever she rode a horse, never mind that she was still a maid. Truly, she often imagined herself just riding away on one of them, to a better and brighter future. But of course, reality's gripping, and sometimes painful, hold always pulled her back before she could actually do it. Even so, the thrill of riding such a spirited animal, with the wind in your face and blowing into your hair, was one that was unmatched.
Soon though, she reined in Arnthor for a rest, and together, the two stared out at the beautiful landscape before them, with birds singing, butterflies dancing across the fields, and flowers dotting the green grass every few feet. Aska then started looking for something else, another horse besides the one she rode, and another one of her three secrets.
A few months after she came to live with Ylva, Aska came across a beautiful but wounded filly. She had a very pale coat, mane, and tail, and friendly brown eyes, but she was rather dirty and had a large cut on one of her legs. Normally, she would have asked Ylva what she should do, but something about this horse seemed to draw her to her, almost as if there was some sort of bond between them, despite that Aska didn't recall ever seeing her before. So, ever since she found her, she cared for the horse in secret, hiding her in the woods, and tending to her needs. In doing so, she found that the horse was rather tame, somewhat intelligent, and she even had a name: Dagny.
Today, she didn't see her, either near or from afar. For a moment, she considered calling out for her with the whistle she would instantly recognize, when she heard the neigh of a horse that wasn't her own. She immediately looked, hoping it was Dagny, but her eyes widened in complete surprise. Not only was a solitary black horse galloping across the land, but he carried a rider too! "Come now you black beast!" he cried out.
He wore almost all black and had a hood on his head, but Aska didn't care who he was. In her eyes, he was a trespasser. A small crime, but a crime that she wasn't about to overlook. Though she hadn't planned on galloping Arnthor, not wanting to over-exercising him, she quickly urged him into a canter, and then into a fast gallop after the other horse and rider, determined not to let the man get away.
Once she was right beside him, she shouted over the thundering and pounding of hooves on the earth beneath them, "Sir, what gives you the right to pass through these lands when you neither own nor tend them?"
"I'm afraid you must let me!" the hooded man replied forcefully.
Not to be deterred, Aska asked, "And why must I let you?!"
"As I recall," the man replied, "I have a right to go wherever I please!"
"As I recall," Aska shouted back, "to pass through lands that belong to someone else unannounced is trespassing!"
"Oh just let me be and leave me alone!" the man shouted.
But Aska wasn't merely not going to honor his oh-so-desperate wish. In fact, she was going to make sure he knew of how serious she was. Very well then, she thought, you asked for it. While still in a position appropriate for galloping, she took her feet out of the stirrups, prepared herself both physically and mentally, and then, she leaped out of her saddle and tackled the man out of his own and onto the ground.
But they didn't stop there. They proceeded to roll and tumble together down a slope, hitting the rough, hard ground relentlessly, again and again, until they both finally came to a stop beside one another, their stomachs heaving over the shock neither expected. Aska, however, was not about to let this stand in her way of making sure this man knew of his wrongdoing.
She sat up on her knees, and through her panting said, "Now, if you know what's good for you, you will obey my order, and leave these lands at once!"
The man coughed twice before saying, "I beg your pardon?" He then raised himself up on his knees, and pulled back his hood, revealing himself to her. And once Aska saw him, with his slicked back, midnight black hair, grayish-green eyes, and finely formed face, she immediately knew, with great shock, who he was. Loki Odinson, Prince of Asgard.
A gasp instantly escaped her lips, and she got down on all fours, her head to the ground. "Your Highness, do pardon me," she said, her voice nearly shaking with fear, "I am so, so very sorry. I didn't know it was you!"
"And, I admit, that was my fault," Loki replied, with a slight feeling of awkwardness in his voice.
While Aska didn't believe she would ever get to, nor did she really understand why almost every girl in the kingdom was in love with them, she did sometimes entertain the notion of meeting one of the princes. She wondered what they would be like, though her most prevalent theory was that they would be rather conceited. However, now that she was actually in front of one of them, and that she had laid hands on him in an improper way, it mortified her.
"Please, have mercy on me Highness," she pleaded, "If my mistress were to know…"
"But she doesn't," Loki suddenly interrupted her, "No one saw what you did."
Aska slowly raised her head to meet the prince's eyes, which, to her almost pleasant surprise, were rather kind. "You mean, you're not going to punish me?" she asked.
"I could," Loki admitted, "But I'm not going to. You were right to act as you did. In truth, had I been in your place I probably would have done the same."
Though Aska was very grateful for his letting her go, she found herself confused at his last sentence. "But, you're a prince."
"Yes," Loki frowned, contempt evident in his voice even with that one word, "And I am told that at least a dozen times a day."
Though hesitant, for fear of agitating him, Aska felt the strange need to speak to him more, though he might push her away since she was a maid. Still, there was something about him that she kind of liked which made her want to want to continue the conversation. She raised herself back up again, and with great caution asked, "Well, if I may ask, why were you passing through here?"
In spite of her expectations, he responded, though after a moment of silence passed between them. "Let's just say, I was venting," he replied.
Curious to know more, but still somewhat hesitant, Aska asked, "What for?"
Loki then turned to her. Aska expected a rebuke, but again, he reacted differently than she thought he would. Though he did seem a bit frustrated, and still frowned, he spoke with concern. "Can I trust you?" he asked.
Aska swallowed nervously before replying, "I am a maid, Highness. Keeping trust is a requirement."
He looked confused, but Aska quickly defended herself. "Yes, you can trust me," she nodded.
Loki nodded back, giving only the slightest hint of a smile, before he breathed a heavy sigh and frowned again. "My father apparently set up a marriage between me and one of my mother's ladies-in-waiting, the Lady Idunn, though he told me about it only just this morning. I asked to be alone so I could think about it, but…Oh, I was so angry I just had to get away."
Aska raised her eyebrows at this revelation. "So you ran off?" she asked.
Loki nodded, looking as though he regretted doing what he said. "Yes," he admitted, "He's probably called for the Royal Guard to search for me by now. But truthfully, I'd rather face my father's wrath a thousand times over than marry that witch of a woman!"
Aska's eyes widened a bit at the passion with which he spoke those last few words. Though she'd never met Lady Idunn, she had to ask, "Is she really that vile?"
"Well, perhaps that was an exaggeration," Loki replied, "But she will not leave me alone. She hasn't stopped pursuing me since…"
That was when he broke off, and he breathed a shorter, and almost sad, sigh. With curiosity winning out once more against the fear of offending, Aska asked, "Since what?"
Loki then briefly pressed his lips together, and shook his head. "Nothing," he replied, "I, don't want to talk about it."
Aska nodded, her need to be polite finally coming through to her after deciding to leave it at that. Suddenly though, Loki gave her a small smile. "Well, you obviously know me. What's your name lass?"
Aska raised her eyebrows again, now that the focus had shifted so quickly on her. Still, she couldn't refuse to answer such an honest question. "I'm called Aska, your Highness," she replied, trying to smile back.
He looked at her with fascination, making her feel, even if it was slight, more nervous. "Aska," he repeated, "Why are you called that?"
Now she really hesitated to answer. She didn't like thinking of how she'd come to have that name, as it evoked memories she didn't like to recall. Still, he'd trusted her with his story. Perhaps she could trust him with hers. Perhaps. But deciding to take the chance, Aska explained, "Well, a few years ago, my mistress found me outside her home, cold, hungry, and very, very confused."
Loki nodded, and she continued. "I all-but begged her to let me stay. And she did, but on the grounds that I offer her something in return. So, I offered her my services, and I've pretty much been her maid ever since."
Loki's frown slowly returned to his face. "Well, that's rather harsh is it not?" he asked.
"Oh, it's not that bad," Aska replied, though that was a bit of a half-lie, "As for my name, since I could not remember my own, she decided to call me Aska, since I looked like I'd 'just come out of a fireplace' as she said."
"You don't remember your own name?" Loki asked her.
Aska shook her head. "I'm afraid not," she replied, "In fact, I don't remember anything of my life before I became her maid."
"Nothing at all?"
"Nothing at all," Aska shook her head again, trying not to sound sad.
"Oh, I'm sorry," Loki said, his tone of voice being one of pity.
"Oh, don't be," said Aska, "I don't dwell on it."
That was the whole truth. But concerning her whole story, Aska considered it best to leave out the details. Though her memory was faulty, she'd never forget the day she woke up lying on a riverbed, sopping wet from head to toe, and her blond hair somewhat tainted red with blood from a wound on her head. Even more alarming, she didn't know who she was or where she came from. It was as if she'd entered the world not as an infant, but as a girl already in adolescence.
And the following weeks were ones of near misery, ones she spent wandering alone and frightened, sleeping in barns, and eating all the food she could get. She didn't blame Ylva for her baffled reaction at seeing her in front of her house, for by then she looked a wild mess. Her hair was unkempt, she wore tattered and dirty rags for clothes, and she was remarkably thin, and so hungry that the grass looked inviting. Even more so, she desperately wanted some identity to cling to. And thus, no matter who she was before, she was then and now Aska, the ash-covered maid, and she didn't want anyone to pity her, especially someone like His Highness.
But before either could say anymore, they heard in the distance the sound of what seemed to be a large group of riders on horses. Even from where they sat they could hear the relentless shouting of the riders and their horses' hooves thundering against the ground. Once they ceased hearing both, they turned back to one another.
"That must be my father's guard," Loki frowned.
Aska nodded. "With all due respect, your Highness," she then said, "if I were you I'd return home, before your father gets really angry with you."
Loki nodded back. "I'm afraid you're right," he agreed. He and Aska both got back up onto their feet and then treaded back up the slope as quickly as they could. As soon as they were at the top, Loki put his fingers to his mouth and whistled. Before long, his horse came cantering up to his side, and Loki climbed back on before turning to Aska one last time.
"I bid you good day Aska," he nodded, giving her a smile, "It was a pleasure to meet you."
"And you, your Highness," Aska nodded back as she gave a farewell curtsy.
Loki then gathered the reins in his hands, and set his black horse off on a canter back through the field, while Aska watched from further and further behind, an invisible force planting her feet into the ground until he was out of her sight. Only then did she turn around and whistle for her own horse.
For the rest of what remained of the hour, Aska rode Arnthor some more, as though it was just like any other morning, as though her encounter with Prince Loki had never happened. And yet, she found that that was all she could think about. For some inexplicable reason, which she disliked and liked at the same time, she found herself rather fond of His Highness, perhaps a bit more than she should. Even more confusing was the way they almost naturally talked to one another. Something about his manner and the way he spoke to her made talking to him for Aska somewhat easy. Was it his handsome looks? His handsome demeanor? Both? Or some other possible reason?
Aska didn't know. All she knew, as she finally rode back home, was that the last thing she wanted was for the wrong person to find out about this meeting.