Not Your Average Cinderella

Just That Girl

Loki did not know where he was, nor how he got where he was. All he knew, at least from what he could see, was that he seemed to be in one of the most lovely forests he'd ever seen. Surrounding him were trees that stood in all directions and seemed to tower over him, their leaves the color of the purest emeralds, and their trunks black like ebony. They seemed strong enough to be nearly impossible to move, and yet, at the same time, frail enough to break into pieces at the slightest touch. Nearly straining to try and see past the canopies of leaves, he could make out what appeared to be the sky, perhaps even more black than the wood of the trees, yet decorated across with countless, glittering, silver stars, looking as though they might shower him with their favored light at any moment. Looking down, he saw that he was standing amid tall grass stretching nearly to his knees, the same color, it seemed, as the leaves of the trees above him. And standing just above the tips of the blades of the grass was a pale gray mist, so sensitive to touch that when Loki dipped his hand into it, it broke into a swirl much like water would break into ripples.

Suddenly, a pale sight caught his eye. Much to his intrigue, he saw what appeared to be a white, four-legged silhouette. Feeling almost beckoned by it, but not without caution, Loki moved one foot, then another. The pale shadow didn't move. Now even more curious, Loki moved slightly faster toward it, trying to remain as quiet as possible, until he finally beheld, with wide eyes, a great white stag standing in the middle of the greenest meadow he'd ever seen. The stag's fur was the color of the purest snow, his large pair of antlers looked as though they were made of ivory. He stood still, tall, and proud, like the symbol of male virility he was. But his large eyes, which stared unblinkingly at Loki, were as black as the night sky above him, yet seemed most agreeable, almost friendly.

Trying to smile, yet still remaining slow as he approached, Loki even more slowly reached out his hand as he got closer. "Hello there," he said, his tone of voice soft. Still, the stag did not flee, and Loki finally rested his hand on the stag's muzzle, and even began to scratch it as though it were a horse's. In fact, he couldn't help but chuckle at how tame this wild-looking animal was.

Just then, though, the stag raised his head, turned around, and hastened away from the startled prince. "Wait!" he called out, but the stag didn't stop. Eager to know where the deer was going, for reasons he couldn't identify, Loki began to follow the stag across the field, keeping his eyes on him. Even as he disappeared into the dense, black forest surrounding the meadow, Loki continued to chase after him, immersing himself in the darkness from which he'd previously wanted to escape.

Maneuvering between the towering trees, the leaves of which ruffling as he ran past them, Loki continued to search for the elusive stag, yet also remained alert, on the look-out for anything even remotely threatening. Eventually though, after what now seemed to be an endless pursuit, he laid eyes once again on the majestic animal, and a smile instantly formed on his lips. Repeating his actions of earlier, he took only two steps toward the deer before stopping, wondering if he should try to touch him again. Like before though, the stag did not run off, and his dark eyes, which once again were locked on Loki's, still seemed amiable.

But before Loki could reach out his hand again, the stag lifted his head to the left, almost as if to say, "Follow me," before taking off away from the prince again. Deciding to believe what he'd thought to be a signal to him, Loki went on the stag's path, following him deeper into the woods.

It wasn't long before Loki heard the faint sound of what seemed to be lively, feminine laughter. Immediately after, another sound reached his ears, that of splashing, running waters. Where was this stag taking him? Could it even be possible that he was being led into a trap? So far, he had sensed nothing sinister about this animal, yet Loki kept his guard up. He would not be easily surprised should circumstances turn unfavorable.

However, the sounds of both the water and the laughter grew louder the closer he got, until the stag finally stopped in front of him. Loki quickly rushed up to his side, curious to see where he had led him. What he saw almost immediately captivated him. Before him was a green meadow much like the one he first saw, sloping downward a few feet away. At the end of the small hill sat what appeared to be a spring, with a high waterfall and a low waterfall beside it descending into a medium-sized pond, the waters sparkling like the stars in a pool of pale blue. And sitting on the large stone in front of it was a woman so ethereal, Loki thought at first that she was a ghost. She sat almost as still as a statue, holding her knees to her chest. Her skin was pale, the only thing she wore was an unadorned, strapless, white dress which hugged her figure and stretched to her ankles, and her long hair, which seemed to be made of light gold interwoven with silver, fell down her back in waves.

Yet for all of her beauty that beheld him, her face was turned away from him. At first, Loki didn't know what to do, or think, so hesitant he was to approach her. "Hello?" he called, "Who's there?" She didn't turn around, only laughed again, and this time, despite his previous caution, Loki couldn't help but let a smile cross his face. Though he may have been reluctant to do so at first, one step at a time, he began making his way across the field then down the slope toward her, becoming more fascinated with every stride, until he finally stood beside her. Once he was, though the woman's mystical presence was as strong as ever, her face was still hidden to him.

Loki opened his mouth to speak to her, but found that he could not, as right then, the woman slowly turned her head around, until he finally beheld her face, or what he could see of it. It was finely formed, with lips that curled into a smile, but across her face – to his silent dismay – was a mask the same color as her dress, etched with small diamonds and woven silver. Yet he saw that her eyes were the color of the pale water beneath her, and she began to flutter her lashes at him, whether mockingly or flirtatiously, he did not know.

"Who are you?" he asked once he found his voice, "What's your name?"

She didn't reply, at least in words. Instead, she put her hands to her mouth, and laughed again. This time, Loki frowned. Although he did feel rather drawn to this woman, he had the feeling that she was playing cat-and-mouse with him. And yet, here he was sitting next to her. Unless she stood up and ran off like the deer he'd followed earlier, there was really nothing stopping him from finding out whose face lay behind this disguise. Without another word from either of them, Loki slowly raised his hands to the woman's mask. Interestingly enough, she did not try to flee from him, she didn't even flinch. She just stared at him with eyes as unblinking as those of the stag's. His curiosity now at its height, but not without slight confusion, Loki gave a small sigh to rid himself of it, and then, looking straight at the woman's eyes, pulled off the mask.

But before he could see her face, something touched his forehead, something wet and warm. Loki's vision then plunged into darkness, and he let out a disturbed gasp. Realizing then that his eyes were closed, he quickly opened them. And the face that greeted him was not the face of the woman he'd just met, but of another whom he was trying so hard to avoid, yet seemed to fail to do so at this moment. It was the Lady Idunn, and she was sitting next to him on what he saw to be his bed. Loki's head was propped against his pillow, and here the lady was, dabbing a wet cloth gently on his forehead. She was wearing a white nurse's dress, her long black hair fell in two braids down her chest. She was smiling softly, and her pale blue eyes were now – as usual – blinking several times at him.

"Good morning, your Highness," she said in a voice so sweet it would rival that of the purest honey, "Are you feeling any better?"

Though he knew she was trying to be nice, Loki kept frowning, trying to hide his bitter disappointment that his vision was just a dream. But trying to make sense of her second question, he slowly moved to a slight sitting position in his bed, and found that he was wearing his usual night tunic. And inside it, around his right shoulder were wrapped several bandages, slightly bloody from the wound he now remembered receiving. Though the near constant pain was now gone, he winced as he felt a slight shot of it travel through his shoulder. Idunn immediately laid a hand on him, preventing him from moving anymore.

She shook her head at him. "The doctors don't want you moving around too much," she said, "At least not for a few days. You really gave us all quite a scare."

Loki couldn't help but sigh as he rested against the pillow again. How was he going to handle not being active for three or four days? And with the last woman he wanted to be near as his nurse? He wished he could simply sink into the folds of his bed, but it appeared that Idunn would keep even that from happening should he have been able to. She put the wet cloth aside and then stood up from her seat, walking slowly around the room, keeping her wide eyes on him.

"You know," she said as she stopped in front of his bed, her voice still smooth, "I heard that there were, complications, regarding our engagement. So much so that they could, prevent it from going through."

Loki only frowned at her as she spoke, wondering why she had to bring this of all things up at the most inappropriate of times. But another question alarmed him even more. "Who told you about that?" he asked, giving voice to it.

Idunn gave him a smirk before replying, "Forgive me, your Highness, but I'm not deaf. If I hear of anything concerning me, or us, don't you think you'd want me to hear it?"

I'd rather not, Loki thought, trying not to bite his lip. He didn't even try to wish that she'd leave him alone, knowing she would do just the opposite.

A sigh escaped Idunn's lips as she continued walking, heading to the right side of his bed. "You would not believe how worried I was when I heard about your injury last night, after you were brought in by the Purple…Ghost, is it?"

"The Purple Phantom," Loki corrected her as soon as he was able, asking silently, despite her previous claim, how she'd heard about that too.

"Ah," Idunn nodded, "I see." To Loki's dismay, which he hoped she wouldn't see, she sat down on his right side next to him, and continued to speak in the syrupy tone of voice she seemed to delight in using at his expense. "Most mysterious woman she was. She left almost immediately, almost like a, spirit." Chuckling at her own joke, she raised her finger, and then, in a way that nearly made Loki leap out of his skin, began slowly stroking the side of his face with it.

"At least she brought you in," she said, eyebrows raised while her eyes underneath remained focused on him, "before the rest of you could be…marred."

Loki tried to remain as still as possible, which was easy to do lying in a bed, and yet at the same time, not easy at all, since there was nowhere for him to go. He attempted to swallow his uneasiness as he thought of what to do to make this woman leave, until he thought of something so simple he wondered how he overlooked it.

"Idunn," he said in the most polite tone of voice he could muster, "if you don't mind, for now, I'd like to have some privacy."

Idunn raised her eyebrows again, this time as if in surprise. She at last pulled her finger back away from Loki, and, as he'd hoped, also stood up from the bed. Almost immediately changing her manner, she kept both hands in front of her, and nodded at him. "Of course," she said with a soft smile, "Anything to please you, your Highness."

Loki watched as she then walked across his room, and toward the door, where she rested her hand on the handle before saying, "And you know, all you have to do is call if you need, anything." She said that last word almost as if it were a sentence of its own. And though she kept her face turned from him, Loki could almost swear that he saw her licking her lips for a brief second. Before he could shudder at the sight, Idunn turned the handle, opened the door, and finally left Loki in solitary peace, letting him breath out an immediate sigh of relief. Now he could focus on matters that he actually wanted to focus on.

Seeing the golden light of day seeping into the room from the window on his right, and deciding to ignore the doctors' orders, for now at least, Loki slowly climbed out of his bed, wincing again at the slight pain that shot through his shoulder. After rubbing his eyes, he walked to the open window, and rested his elbows on the golden railing as he looked out at the magnificent realm of Asgard stretching out in all directions. The events of yesterday morning felt so far away, yet, as for the events of last night, it was as though they'd happened only seconds ago.

It wasn't long though, before Loki's memory brought him back to that most haunting of dreams. How beautiful that masked woman at the spring seemed, yet how odd she acted. Suddenly, Loki's mouth fell open as another question was raised. Could that woman in his dream have had anything to do with the Purple Phantom? His mother did sometimes say that dreams were the mind's way of categorizing things. But how could he possibly categorize how he felt about this masked woman? He knew that, being a vigilante, she was worthy of arrest. And yet, he couldn't bring to mind another woman who seemed to draw him so easily to her, who made him feel so strange and happy, indeed, even enchanted, at the same time.

Soon, Loki found himself entertaining yet another prospect. Was it possible that he'd seen her true face before? He recalled the woman's pale blue eyes he saw in his dream, and before long, he let out a slight gasp as he realized that they did seem familiar. It was almost as if a painful part of his past he wanted so badly, and even managed to forget, had been brought into light, and this time, brought no pain with it. Yet for all his hope, Loki still didn't know if it was true. What was it that made him feel the way he did about her? Her bravery and skill in battle? Her possible beauty behind her mask? The mystery she posed to him? Or even all three?

So lost was he in his thoughts, that Loki nearly jumped when he suddenly heard a series of knocks on the door. He quickly turned to see Idunn standing in the entrance, holding one of the doors open, her eyes once again focused on him as she spoke.

"Do pardon me, Highness," she said, "but your family is here to see you."

Despite the way she looked at him, Loki raised his eyebrows with interest, as he was just now thinking of inviting his family in. "Thank you Idunn," he said, before immediately feeling odd that he had just addressed those words to her, "Bring them in."

Idunn nodded a slow nod, her lips curling into a snake-like smile, which made whatever one Loki had fade into a frown, before she left the room. For a moment, Loki's smile returned, until in walked his father, mother, and brother, all clearly eager to see him, all clearly happy to see him alive and well. Now that they were here, could he really tell them about the ideas forming in his mind regarding this woman?

One at a time they all greeted him. "Are you faring well my son?" Odin asked, his face showing rather great concern. Loki smiled to try and bolster his confidence. "Well I'm on the road to recovery," he replied.

"Loki!" Frigga then exclaimed as she rushed up to him, both arms open, "My dear young one!" Rather than embrace him, which she knew would hurt him further, she instead took hold of both his arms and kissed him on both cheeks. Then, looking him sternly in the eyes, she asked her son, "Are you following the doctors' orders?"

Before Loki could reply, Thor let out a hearty laugh. "For goodness sake, he's not a child anymore Mother!" he exclaimed. Frigga frowned at him, but Thor ignored her as he strode over to Loki, a smile on his face.

"And I assume you're doing well, brother?" he asked as he rested his hand on Loki's good shoulder. Seeing the smile on his face with which he laughed just now, Loki couldn't help but return it. "I admit I've been better," he replied, "But for now, yes, I suppose I'm doing well."

Thor nodded, and then let his hand leave his brother's shoulder, allowing Loki to muster up all his courage and stand straight in front of his family. Whether they, and he, liked it or not, he was going to tell them of his plans he'd thought up, plans regarding the future for him and the woman who seemed to entrance him so.

"I'm glad you all came," Loki said politely, "I've actually been meaning to speak to you."

Odin raised his eyebrows with interest. "About what?" he asked.

Loki again swallowed his uneasiness like before, almost forcing himself to reply. "About my, marital prospects."

As he thought he would, Odin rolled his eye and then closed it as he sighed. But Loki stopped him before he could do anything else. "Before you dismiss me," he said, "I think I've found a potential bride besides Idunn."

This statement renewed his father's interest. "Really?" he asked, "And who might that be?"

This question quickly made Loki's nervous state return. "Therein lies the problem," he frowned, "You might not like my choice."

Odin almost immediately brushed aside what his son said, so great was his relief that they were seeing eye-to-eye on this issue. "Tell us anyway," he said, "We might be surprised."

Oh you will be, Loki thought humorlessly. Nonetheless, he sighed and said, "Very well." Then, before he could even think of stopping himself, he said, "My choice is, the Purple Phantom."

Instantly, as he expected the eyes of all of his family widened, making Loki look away slightly. Even so, he just as quickly faced them again. This was his choice, and none of them could make him accept another.

"Do you seriously mean that Loki?" Odin asked, "Is this a joke?"

"I'm afraid not Father," Loki replied, remaining respectful.

"But of all the eligible maidens in the realm, why would you choose her?" Odin asked, his voice now raised, "You don't even know if she is eligible!"

Loki silently, and reluctantly, admitted that there was truth to that sentiment. Even so, the nagging doubt – or rather, hope – in his mind, remained. "If she is not," he then said, "then please explain how she has all this time to slay Frost Giants. How she had the time to help, me."

With that last word, Loki unwittingly found himself staring into space as he recalled the aptly named specter of the night before, displaying her bravery, boldness, and beauty, all in one. And indeed, it wasn't long before Thor noticed what he knew was going on.

"Oh no," he said, not knowing whether to smile or frown, "I know that look."

When Loki then turned to him, eyebrows raised in question, Thor couldn't help but give a laugh less hearty than before. "I don't believe this!" he exclaimed before announcing as if to the world, "You've fallen in love with the masked woman!"

At that, Loki's eyes widened, marveling at an explanation so simple and yet so complicated. Of course, he'd heard of the concept of falling in love before in most of the stories he'd heard growing up. But could that be what he was experiencing right now? And toward this woman? Was this what it felt like? So natural and yet so unnatural at the same time? He couldn't think of another emotion that made him feel so bizarre and yet so, entranced.

Once he found his voice again, he surprised himself when he spoke with such a bold tone of voice. "Well, if that's what it's called, then, yes, perhaps I am in love with her."

"But you know almost nothing about her!" Thor reminded him. But before he could say anything else, Frigga took him by the wrist.

"Now Thor," she said in a stern, motherly voice, "Love is a beautiful thing when it is allowed to blossom." The frown remained on his face, which unfortunately caused one to form on her own. She looked at her other son, and couldn't help but not. "He is right, though, Loki," she said, "You don't know that much about her."

"Well I do know that she saved my life!" Loki then said, becoming rather frustrated, "You should have seen her in Jotunheim, when she killed the beast that would have otherwise killed me! Admit it, I wouldn't be here now if it weren't for her!"

"But do you have any idea of who she could be?" Odin then asked.

Loki raised his eyebrows, but his agitated frown did not flee. "Believe or not, I do," he replied.

Thor widened his eyes in rather unexpected curiosity. "Really?" he asked, "Well then, by all means, humor us."

Now came a task even harder than the one before, one that would require not only Loki, but the rest of his family, to delve into those deep, seldom-visited parts of their minds that they would otherwise not want to explore. But the truth needed to be told, no matter what bitter memories it would evoke. Letting out a sigh, in an attempt to put his nerves to rest, Loki then forced himself to reply.

"Actually, I believe she might possibly be…Sigyn."

Silence immediately ensued. Not one word came from anyone's mouth, not even a gasp. Loki immediately began to wonder if he should have brought this up at all. And yet, he was completely honest about his suspicions when he voiced them.

Lady Sigyn was Loki's original betrothed, long before Idunn entered the minds of either of his parents. Her father was Forseti the Just, one of the most highly-esteemed judges of Odin's court. Her mother was Lady Eira the Merciful, one of their most respected physicians, renowned for her beauty as well as her skill in medicine. Though they'd seen each other several times before, Loki and Sigyn didn't formally meet until their betrothal was publically announced at his coming-of-age celebration, when Loki was eighteen, and Sigyn was still a child of ten years. Of course, they wouldn't have married until she too came of age.

But the meeting itself, no matter how much Loki could or would ever try to forget it, it would always remain as fresh in his memory as if it had happened only the day before. They had approached each other alone as soon as they were introduced to their future spouses, in front of the rest of the court. Sigyn wore a festive, white dress, and a kindly expression. She had even offered him a "present" in the form of a kiss on his cheek, which everyone immediately delighted in. At the time, though, Loki could barely contemplate how this impish-seeming girl eight years his junior could one day be his wife.

And yet, after three years during which they began to become better acquainted with one another, by the time she was thirteen, not only did she have a blossoming beauty, but Loki couldn't help but appreciate her lively and, indeed, spirited nature. How easily she had made him laugh, made him smile on a gloomy day, encourage him to enjoy life. But then, then came the day when he received news that her home had been burned to the ground by a group of Jotuns. The bodies of her parents were recovered shortly thereafter, however, her remains had never been found. Although Loki had since been hopeful, its fire had long been kept low and dim. But now…?

Right then, the silence was broken by Thor's incredulous exclamation. "Sigyn? You don't mean that Sigyn?"

Trying to smile in an attempt to persuade his brother to see it his way, Loki replied with a question of his own. "Why not?"

"Loki, you can't be serious!" Thor retorted, "The girl died years ago!"

"It was never proven!" Loki reminded him, "Her body was never discovered. Think, you've seen her too. She looks the correct age, with a similar physicality. She was wearing the family colors: purple and gold!"

"Then why does she wear a mask?" Thor suddenly asked, "If it is her, why would she hide herself?"

"Perhaps to avoid the Frost Giants?" Loki suggested, "If they knew she was alive, they'd more than likely stop at nothing to destroy her."

"But Loki!" Odin then spoke up, "What if it isn't her? What would you do then?"

For a moment, Loki widened his eyes. He had forgotten to remind himself not to let his fire of hope burn too brightly. Even so, the mystifying impression the woman in the mask left on him remained, and he was going to make sure the people he loved most knew it. "Well, even if it's not her," he then said, "I will marry her nonetheless."

Still, when he looked at his frowning father again, Loki couldn't help but return it, and rather frustratingly. "Father, why can we not compromise?" Loki asked, "If you wish so badly for me to marry, then I'm afraid you're going to have to agree with my choice, or I will not marry at all!"

Odin opened his mouth to speak, but before he could say anything, Frigga quickly took his arm in hers. She looked at him with rather steely eyes. "Odin, please," she implored him with a calm voice, "Perhaps we can speak of this at another, more appropriate time. I think we've had quite enough snapping at each other for now, don't you?"

For a moment, Odin didn't know what to say. His wife was one of the few people who could speak to him so. But before long, he nodded in agreement at her, causing a smile to cross her face. "And I do recall that you yourself have something important you would like to discuss with our son?" she asked, nodding her head to Loki before he could ask which one.

Odin raised his eyebrows at her reminder. "Indeed, I do," he realized. He then, with slight hesitation, turned to his son. "I'm afraid this concerns you, Loki," he said, "I meant to tell you last night before you left, but I forgot."

Loki nodded respectfully. "I'm listening," he said.

"Well, I had the idea to throw a masked ball in honor of your engagement to Idunn about a month from now," Odin explained, "But, seeing as how you have practically cancelled it in favor of a woman you barely know…"

"Wait, my dear," Frigga suddenly interrupted him, "What if he should find her before then? We could celebrate his engagement to her."

Odin immediately looked confused at such a suggestion. She of all people should have known by now that he wasn't terribly fond of the notion of a near stranger becoming his daughter-in-law. But still, once he saw the hopeful look on her face, Odin couldn't help but at least consider her idea. "Very well," he sighed, "But if I must compromise, then so too must Loki."

"Name the terms," Loki almost challenged him when his father looked at him again.

"You have one month from now to find this woman whom you claim to love," Odin said, "the end of which will be the stroke of midnight on the night of the ball. At that time, we will announce your engagement to her, otherwise your engagement to Idunn will be announced instead. Is that understood?"

In response to Odin posing a challenge of his own to him, Loki raised his eyebrows, and almost smiled in anticipation. "Perfectly, Father."

Odin nodded. "Good then. May your mother and brother serve as witnesses."

"Of course," Loki nodded back. In front of Frigga and Thor, father and son then exchanged a handshake, sealing their deal, though both secretly hoped that their side would come to fruition. But as Loki turned around and once again looked out the window that allowed him to behold the large kingdom he could one day rule, what he knew for sure was that, no matter how mysterious she might be, the masked thief who stole his heart had to be somewhere out there. From one area of the realm to the other, and whether or not she turned out to be his original beloved, he would search for his bride, and would not stop until he found her.

Later that day, the most unlikely person to be a bride for either of the princes stood outside her mistress's home, beating the third – and thankfully last – rug in a row. Ylva greatly valued her rugs, which required near constant care. Aska didn't mind that much. Beating the rugs was another one of the few chores she actually enjoyed doing. Pressing her lips together, and holding the tool like a sword with both hands, she hit the rug again and again, allowing dust clouds to emanate from the so called "work of art." She often pretended she was fighting an opponent, but today, the events of last night, and the strangest of feelings that came with it, were the two biggest things Aska wanted to keep her mind off of. Though, that was easier said than done with Regin sitting near her. She sat on one of the stone benches nearby, with a scroll in one hand, and a sharpened pen in the other. The Old Norse characters were upside down from Aska's view, preventing her from reading them. But, judging by the soft smile on her face, and the dreamy look in her eyes, it wasn't hard to tell what Regin was likely up to.

"What are you writing?" Aska asked in between hits, a sneaky smirk on her face, "A love-letter to Jarl?"

As fast as a bolt of lightning, Regin looked up at her with wide eyes. "Shh!" she said as she quickly put her finger to her lips, "They might hear you!"

Aska gave her a confused look. "They're in the back," she assured her, "How could they hear us? Especially with that voice?"

For a moment, Aska and Regin listened to Ylva shouting commands at Brynja. They were having another one of their training sessions today, and, as usual, Ylva wasn't taking any excuses. "I don't care if one of your fingernails is broken!" she shouted, "Never take your eyes off the enemy!"

Though Brynja shouted just as loud back at her mother, Aska and Regin decided to turn their ears away. They both had to deal with Ylva enough throughout each day, any more would simply tire them more than usual. But before Aska could go back to beating the rug, Regin suddenly interrupted her with a voice that matched the sneaky expression Aska wore earlier.

"If that is the case," she said, "Then perhaps you'd be willing to…"

"No!" Aska quickly refused, "A thousand times, no!" And before Regin could ask again, she hit the rug again, and again. All morning she'd been practically begging Aska to tell her what happened last night, but Aska would have none of it. Though she trusted Regin, some secrets were sometimes better left untold, especially ones that sent even her own senses into confusion and wonder.

"Then I won't tell you what I'm writing!" Regin exclaimed as she snatched the scroll up in her hand.

"Fine!" Aska said, almost smiling.

"Fine!" Regin repeated with the same near-smile.

However, as soon as they started getting back to their respectful tasks, a loud, hearty, masculine voice was then heard down the road. "Good day, ladies!" he called. Both immediately turned toward the source of that voice, as they had instantly recognized it. The two then beheld a smiling face they knew all too well, one that caused a smile to appear on their faces too.

"Jarl!" both girls exclaimed. But just then, Regin's smile quickly vanished when she realized how loud she'd spoken. Though Aska had told her earlier that her mother and sister were in the back, if they came to the front yard now, everything she'd planned for herself and Jarl would explode like a dying star. Still, seeing as neither appeared, Regin regained her smile, put her scroll and pen aside, and then left her seat to rush over and join Aska to meet with the blacksmith.

Once their eyes met, Jarl immediately looked concerned. "Wait Regin, are your mother and sister nearby?" he asked.

"We should be safe for a few minutes," she replied, trying to assure herself as well as him.

"Do you have the horseshoes?" Aska then asked, eager as much as they were to hurry through this before they were spotted.

"Oh, yes, of course," Jarl nodded. He then took from his belt and held out a pair of brand-new, finely-made iron horseshoes, both held by a rope. At the sight of them, Aska breathed a sigh of relief. "Oh, thank you!" she said, "We've been waiting so long for those!"

"Sorry to have kept you waiting," Jarl apologized as he handed them to her, "I would have delivered them yesterday, but I've been having more clients than usual."

"Think nothing of it," Aska shook her head.

"And you know," Jarl then said, "I saw you riding toward the palace last night. What were you doing?"

Before he finished asking his question, Aska's eyes widened and her smile turned into a frown in less than a second. For a moment, she felt as if she would freeze with shock. No matter how much she wanted to avoid it, it seemed that last night's adventure was just begging to be told. And judging from Regin's eager expression, it appeared she was ready to beg as well.

"Yes," she said, "What were you doing?"

With two sets of curious eyes staring at her, it didn't take long for Aska to realize that there was almost no chance of getting out of this trap. Biting her lip, and then giving a sigh, she said, "Let's pretend you're both deaf. You never heard what I am about to tell you."

Both Regin and Jarl nodded, and, with great reluctance, Aska told them her tale. "I journeyed to Jotunheim to try and find out why the Frost Giant were escaping," she said, filling Jarl in on that important detail, "I made it there, and then ended up fighting Jotuns alongside the princes and their warriors."

"You didn't!" Regin exclaimed in disbelief.

Aska ignored her and went on, preferring to get it over with as fast as possible. "In the midst of the fighting though, Prince Loki was hurt, and he was about to be killed by a beast, ridden by a female Frost Giant."

"Really?" Jarl asked, "I didn't know they existed."

"Shh!" Regin quickly shushed him, "Go on! What did you do?"

"Well, I obviously had to do something," Aska replied, "so, I challenged the beast, and then, I slew it."

Jarl and Regin's eyes immediately became as wide as saucers, a sight so funny that Aska couldn't help but chuckle. "But his Highness was still hurt, so I volunteered to take him back to Asgard," she then said.

"So that's why you were riding toward the palace," Jarl realized.

"Is he well?!" Regin asked, dying as ever to know.

"As far as I know," Aska replied. She then looked away slightly, and, in a softer voice, without thinking, she said, "I, hope he is."

Suddenly, before anyone could say anything else, they all then heard the sound of hoofbeats coming up the pathway toward them. All three looked with surprised faces to see what appeared to be a guard from the palace, wearing fine armor made of gold that matched that of the palace, and guiding his horse toward the house. All could immediately tell that he'd been traveling for quite some time, as his red face gave him away. And all three, especially Aska, wondered what a guard from the palace could be doing out here. Soon, he pulled his large, dark brown, and just as tired, horse to a stop. Then, holding the reins with one hand, he then took what appeared to be two small scrolls from his belt.

"Pardon me," he said, addressing Aska, "is this the home of the Lady Ylva?"

"Yes," Aska nodded, trying not to let her now tangled nerves infect her voice.

"Please, give these to her," the guard said, handing her both the scrolls, "They are important messages from the palace."

"Thank you," Aska said, "I'll see to it that she gets both."

"Very well," the guard nodded, taking the reins in both his hands again, "Good day, all of you."

Without waiting for a response, he gave his horse a slight kick in the flanks, and then urged him into a canter, leaving Aska, Regin, and Jarl to watch him travel down the road to the town proper until he left their sight. Once he was gone, Aska looked with interest at the two scrolls he'd given her. One was wrapped with a fine red ribbon, and the other in a purple one. Both had glittering gold on the borders. She could only wonder what messages they contained, and if they had anything to do with her.

"What do they say?" Regin asked.

"I don't know," Aska replied, "But we should probably get these to Ylva immediately."

"Oh right," Regin nodded, "If they're from the palace she'll definitely want to see them." But before either of them could go to the backyard, Jarl quickly grabbed Regin by the wrist. And before Aska and Regin knew it, the blacksmith was holding his secret sweetheart in his strong arms.

"Wait," he said, his voice now smooth, "Before you go, you must say goodbye."

"Oh!" Regin whined playfully, "Not in front of Aska!"

"Oh, she's not going to tell," Jarl replied, just as playful before planting a kiss on her cheek. Even he wasn't going to be too flirtatious in front of his love's best friend, but that kiss obviously had to be planted somewhere. "Until next time?" he then said, while Aska watched with a smile as he stroked Regin's black night hair.

"Until next time," Regin nodded, the dreamy look in her eyes returning, if only for a short time. Almost as if forcing herself to let go of him, she then turned to Aska, and seriousness quickly replaced the charm she previously wore on her face. "Come, we must hurry if we don't want to get caught."

"Of course," Aska replied with the same tone of voice. She then turned around and, with both the scrolls and the new horseshoes in her hands, hurried toward the backyard with Regin, waving a hand at the blacksmith. "Good day Jarl!" she said, "And thank you for the horseshoes!"

If Jarl gave a reply, she didn't hear it, for the apprehension in her mind regarding what the scrolls from the palace had to say immediately replaced the feelings of sentimentality toward the sweetness just portrayed in front of her. Even if she herself never experienced it, and she didn't know if she wanted to, Aska couldn't help but admire Regin's love for a common man.

However, by the time she and Regin approached Ylva and Brynja, both now sweating in a very unladylike fashion from the demanding physical discipline they were practicing, all feelings of delight and such quickly evaporated like droplets of rain on a hot day, not only because of the task ahead of the two, but because Brynja looked even more irritated than usual.

"For heaven's sake Mother!" Brynja shouted as she tossed her shield and sword to the ground, "I don't see why I have to learn all of this! Beauty is almost always preferred over battle skills when it comes to potential husbands!"

Aska subconsciously smirked, as she found herself silently agreeing with Brynja.

Despite the glow she gave off, Ylva more carefully put aside her shield and sword, graceful as always, like a black swan. "You'd be surprised Brynja," she said with a remarkably calm voice rather different than the one Aska and Regin heard her using before, "Most Asgardian men like the notion of a woman being able to defend herself rather than scream for help all the time."

"How could you know what most men like when you're a woman?" Brynja asked rhetorically, "As I recall most Asgardian men prefer non-sweaty women as well!"

Seeing her chance, Aska, using the soft voice that naturally came to her when around Ylva, suddenly said, "My ladies?"

Like a wolf instantly spotting its prey, Ylva whirled around and exclaimed in a somewhat angry voice, "Yes?!"

So fast was she, with eyes that were rather menacing even for her, that both Regin and Aska flinched, blinking their widened eyes twice and then wondering if they should back away. But despite their desires to do so, Ylva continued ranting and raving. "Yes Aska, what is it?" she asked, "What could be so important that you can't wait for another five minutes to tell me?"

Aska nearly reminded her mistress that it seemed that she and Brynja were finishing up, but she quickly stopped herself, instead handing out everything in both her hands. "Forgive me, madam, but these just arrived," she replied, "The horseshoes and two messages from the palace."

"The palace?!" Brynja suddenly asked incredulously. Right then she hastened with full speed, wide eyes, and eager hands toward Aska, exclaiming, "Let me see them!"

Though she managed to snatch both the scrolls from Aska's hold, Regin immediately tried taking them back from her. "Wait!" she said, "Mother's the lady of the house, she should see them!"

Brynja held her sister back with one hand while keeping the scrolls from her in the other, like keeping a bone from a rather desperate dog. "But I'm the oldest!" she insisted, "Let me read them first!"

Just then, their mother loudly clapped her hands, immediately getting the attention of her daughters and her maidservant. "That's quite enough girls!" Ylva scolded them, "Let me see the scrolls!"

Having been frozen right where they were once Ylva caught their attention, Brynja and Regin quickly got out of their tangled positions, and Brynja reluctantly handed the scrolls to Ylva. With her long fingers, and a slight smile on her face, she opened the scroll with the red ribbon on it, keeping the other one with the purple ribbon under her arm. Once she unrolled it completely, in a rare show of surprise, Ylva's eyebrows immediately widened and she gasped with what sounded like excitement.

"Well what is it?" Brynja asked, "Tell us already!"

Without looking up at her from the scroll, Ylva replied almost ecstatically, "My dears! A month from now, his Majesty will be holding a masked ball!"

"A masked ball?" Regin asked.

"In honor of his younger son, Prince Loki!" Ylva continued, ignoring her younger daughter.

"Prince Loki?!" Brynja asked with wide-eyed disbelief.

"And," Ylva then said, knowing the best was yet to come, "by the king's command, all young ladies eligible for marriage must attend!"

At that glorious news, Brynja squealed with excitement, causing Regin and Aska to laugh, though at her rather than with her. However, both were also marveling at the invitation. A masked ball? In honor of Prince Loki? Aska didn't know what to think. It felt as though her thoughts had been released like hunting dogs, silently running wild in a forest of consciousness, along with the confused emotions she was feeling lately. But suddenly, as a great realization descended upon her, Aska's smile became genuine, and she quickly made her realization known.

"Then, I suppose I can go as well?" she suggested.

All three pairs of eyes around her immediately turned on her, and Brynja was the first one to voice her humored shock. "You? At such a fine event?" she asked jokingly, "What business would a servant girl have at a masked ball, other than to clean up after everyone?!" She then – unwittingly – returned Aska's favor and began laughing at her, until Regin stepped in to her defense.

"But isn't that the command?" she said, "For all young ladies able to marry to attend?"

"Indeed," Ylva then replied with an agreeing voice, "For once, you are right Regin." Right then, Ylva turned her always-focusing gaze on Aska and, in a display all too rare for her, appeared to smile at her. "Do you wish to attend Aska?"

Aska's eyebrows instantly shot up, now that she was being smiled at by the same woman who just addressed her in a rather frustrated manner, and, more importantly, at the question. Knowing Ylva would want an immediate answer, but not knowing yet what to say, Aska gave the one that first came to mind. "I don't know," she replied honestly.

"Well, if you do," Ylva said, "you would have to do everything I tell you, and, of course, find a suitable costume to wear."

Though she herself had mixed feelings regarding the notion of attending such a momentous event, hearing these words addressed rather warmly to her by the woman she believed couldn't stand her was even more momentous. Indeed, she could scarcely believe her ears. "Really?" she asked.

But apparently, Aska wasn't the only one who felt so. Immediately, Brynja complained, "Mother! Are you honestly considering letting someone like her go?"

"A king's order is a king's order Brynja," Ylva replied with the utmost seriousness, "It would be most unwise to disobey it."

Brynja gasped, and her face quickly turned red, both from embarrassment, and anger, which she quickly directed at Aska in the form of a scowl. "Consider yourself lucky!" she sneered at her, "I wouldn't count on this if I were you!"

Trying to divert her sister's anger from the girl who actually acted like a sister toward her, Regin quickly asked her mother, "Mother, why don't you read the next scroll?"

"Very well," Ylva replied without a nod. After rolling up the first scroll and then putting it under one arm, she took out from under her other arm the scroll with the purple ribbon, opened it, and unrolled it. This time, instead of near giddy happiness, confusion and even frustration quickly crossed her face.

"Wha-," Ylva almost stammered, "It's a wanted poster!"

Aska immediately looked up, knowing this might be about her, and listened with a near racing heart as her mistress continued. "A handsome reward will be bestowed by his Highness Prince Loki Odinson upon any person who knows of the Purple Phantom's whereabouts or identity," Ylva announced, "False information will not be tolerated."

Brynja, like before, reacted instantly. "Hah!" she almost laughed, "I knew it! I knew sooner or later he'd become attracted to that Purple Pig!"

Her mother looked at her with raised eyebrows, wondering at such a statement coming from the one who preferred beauty over skill, which the vigilante clearly had, but also at another perplexing issue. "But Brynja, it is Prince Thor who is the crown-prince. If you married him you could one day be Queen of Asgard!"

Brynja wasted no time in retorting her. "But Prince Loki is so much more handsome! So much more charming! The day he marries someone else will be the day I die!"

Still remaining calm, Ylva tried again to reason with her. "Now dear, there's nothing wrong with a little responsibility."

"Says the one who refuses to rejoin court like a coward!" Brynja suddenly exclaimed.

Ylva said nothing. Her mouth fell open, and she looked with disbelief at such a display of boldness from her own daughter, especially toward her. But before she could say anything at all, Brynja continued complaining. "And besides, even if lies won't be accepted, there are many in the realm who fit the Phantom's description!" she pointed out, "In fact, even, even Aska could be a suspect!"

Suddenly, before she could suppress it, Ylva let out a disbelieving laugh, her previous shock at Brynja having melted away. "Oh, come now daughter, be reasonable! How could our weak and skinny servant girl possibly be a sword-wielding vigilante?"

While she wasn't looking, a shadow of a smirk crossed the faces of both Regin and Aska.

"But on one point you are right," Ylva continued, having recovered from her laughter, "It's unlikely his Highness could ever find the true one. He would be wiser spending that time seeking a more suitable wife, and, in fact, wewould be wise to start making plans!"

Brynja's face immediately lit up as her mother rolled up the second scroll, and then took both scrolls in one hand. "Come," she said, loud enough for everyone to hear, "We must all be getting inside, we have work to do! Aska?"

Aska raised her eyebrows and straightened, ready to take orders.

"Get the rugs and put them inside," Ylva commanded, "You may then take the horseshoes to the stables. Brynja, Regin, come with me."

"Wait, wait, Mother," Regin said, "I left something on the bench, let me go get it."

With uncharacteristic impatience, Ylva rolled her eyes at her. "Very well. But be fast," she warned her.

Regin nodded, and then began walking with Aska toward the front yard, while Ylva and Brynja headed toward the back of the house. Once they were sure it was safe, Regin and Aska immediately began discussing the rather wonderful yet somewhat baffling messages – at least, that was how it seemed to Aska.

"You see!" Regin exclaimed excitedly, "I knew you liked him! And he likes you too!"

"I didn't say I liked him!" Aska replied in an equally excited voice, though one of frustration, "And, it's not even the real me he, likes."

"You don't need to!" Regin said in response to her first statement before answering her second one, "And think about this, this could be the solution to all our problems!"

"This is a problem in itself!" Aska interjected.

"What are you talking about?" Regin asked, genuinely confused.

"Think about this Regin!" Aska almost implored her, "I'm a kitchen maid! I work day and night and he's expecting, a valkyrie, or a princess, or, something else great!"

"But you saved his life," Regin reminded her with a smile before rolling up her scroll, "That must count for something."

"I don't know," Aska shook her now weary head, "I just need time to think about all of this. It's just, too much to take in at once."

Regin nodded as she picked up her scroll and pen. "I understand. But, let me know when you want to attend the ball!"

Before Aska could say anything else, Regin walked off toward the back of the house, leaving Aska alone with the three clean rugs, and her thoughts which she could barely navigate. Indeed, her hands were shaking slightly as she took the rug of the line, almost dropping it.

An invitation, and a wanted poster. Why both at once? Was it a mistake? Was it a possible trap? It seemed so, judging by the nervous pace of Aska's heartbeat. And yet, it also seemed not to, judging by what she'd seen of his Highness. Friendly, brave, and free-spirited. A lot like her, she noted with a bit of surprise. But still, she wasn't used to receiving such attention. It felt frightening and flattering at the same time. The thought of being unmasked by one of the princes himself filled her with dread, but, also a nameless emotion she didn't recall ever feeling before. Would she face it, or flee it? How long did she have to make that decision? So many questions, thoughts, and feelings traveled erratically through Aska's mind that she wondered if all would eventually overwhelm her. But two questions stood out above all the others. She only just met the prince, but, why did she feel so drawn to and so familiar around him? And, why did she flinch when Ylva looked at her with those intense eyes?

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