The Conjurer

Excerpt from Black Wolf: The Binding of Loki.

With Skrýmir on his way, Thor wasted no time digging in to his supplies, and his brother and young servant joined him for breakfast. Despite having ribbed Thor for his massive appetite, Loki was the first to finish his portions. Thjálfi watched out of the corner of his eye as Loki inhaled his breakfast and wondered why such a lean man would need to eat so much.

Their meal finished, the three squeezed onto Thor’s chariot, which held two men somewhat comfortably but three not so easily. Thor and Loki climbed in first, and Thjálfi clung to Loki’s waist. Thjálfi preferred this arrangement, since there was no room to stand behind Thor and in any case, he was able to peer around Loki’s shoulder at the landscape. There was no way for him to see around Thor’s great bulk without being elbowed in the face as Thor drove.

Soon, they were jostling southwest, with the goats grunting and straining at the weight of their cargo. Toothgnasher, who was still somewhat lame, complained loudly and was constantly rebuked by Thor. Loki silently imitated Thor arguing with his ornery goat to Thjálfi’s amusement. Thor was too busy driving to notice.

After several hours of traversing the southern plains, a strange, shining palace appeared in the distance. They were all intrigued and eager to see it, but Thor and Loki argued about how far away it was.

“Look how high the gates stand,” Thor remarked. “It must be close, maybe an hour away.”

“Ah, but look how even the oaks are dwarfed by a distance not even halfway between ourselves and the palace,” Loki countered. “It must be at least half a day away.”

Both were wrong. They still had not arrived at the palace by nightfall and had to travel two more hours in the morning to reach the gates. The sheer size of the fortress was astounding. The tremendous wooden slats were as wide as the arm spans of ten men and their tops seemed to touch the clouds. The gaps between the boards were wide enough for Thor to walk through without turning sideways.

They left the chariot outside the massive gate where the goats contentedly munched on leafy, succulent weeds and slipped into the massive enclosure. The palace was almost a mile away still, but they were already amazed by the splendour of the ornately sculpted walls of smooth, glistening stone; as they approached, they could see the details of a brightly painted frieze depicting a bloody battle. The enormous doors stood wide open, and gauzy linen curtains billowed gently, beckoning the three closer. They obliged without question.

Loki continually looked around, unnerved by the strange sight. He asked Thor when he had last been this far south, and Thor admitted it had been some time. This structure must be new, he reasoned. However, Loki wasn’t so sure. He voiced his concerns about the sudden abundance of overly large things—how many times had they come here and not seen such enormous creatures? It was hard to imagine they could easily miss giants of that size, and Loki couldn’t think of a single group of Jötnar who built palaces such as this. Thor agreed it was all very strange but said it was probably not as strange as it seemed.

“No, indeed,” Loki muttered to himself, “it is probably far stranger.”

The great stone steps leading up into the palace were waist-height to Thor and chest-height to Thjálfi, who needed a boost to climb each of the nine steps to the gigantic threshold. They slipped into the palace beneath the hem of the unfathomably long curtains and into an enormous hall lit by its own sun. The floor was laid with sparkling stone tiles, and bright wall frescos vibrantly displayed luscious scenes of lovers in the throes of passion. All around them stood a small army of enormous beings who stared down at their tiny guests.

Thor and young Thjálfi were quite bedazzled, but Loki was irked by the feeling this was all very, very wrong. He took a deep breath, closed his eyes, and pictured Sigyn, watched her cradle their young boys in her arms and listened to her sing them lullabies. When he opened his eyes again, he cried out in shock. Without thinking, he wrapped his long fingers around Thjálfi’s head, covering the boy’s eyes. Thjálfi hollered angrily, but when Loki released him, he gasped loudly.

Thor frowned disapprovingly. He could not see what the fuss was about until Loki punched him squarely in the nose, making his eyes water. When his vision cleared, his eyes swept the room and his mouth hung open.

The hall had shrunk to rather ordinary proportions, although it was just as grand as before and the frescoes were just as colourful. Above their heads, a great, smokeless fire blazed in a chandelier from which delicate gold tendrils snaked outward. The tiles beneath their feet still shimmered with a metallic gleam, but Loki could now see how the brilliant hues formed a mosaic with intricate, curling patterns that mirrored the shapes of the chandelier.

All around them, beautiful figures reclined languorously on firm cushions, the women draped in simple, shimmering dresses with their hair falling loosely about their shoulders, and the men in long sarongs wrapped about their hips, their chiselled torsos exposed to the sultry heat. Their bodies lay loosely tangled, fingers caressing naked flesh, but their eyes fondled the newcomers, who were dressed in grungy linens and nappy wool.

Loki shrugged off a warm, enticing caress that graced his shoulders and set his body afire. He turned to growl at the fair-skinned seductress, who pouted with her lips and devoured him with her eyes before slipping away.

One doe-eyed young woman floated silently over to Thjálfi, whose adolescent eyes grew wide. He sucked in a breath when she cupped his cheek and leaned in to kiss him. Alarmed, Loki grabbed Thjálfi by the shoulders and pulled the boy against himself, using his forearm to shield him from the pretty Jötun. The girl cast her eyes down in disappointment but gracefully stepped back.

“Don’t take anything from them unless we say, and don’t let them touch you—at least not until we’re sure they are friendly,” Loki whispered harshly in the boy’s ear. Thjálfi nodded, then gestured towards Thor, who was grinning hungrily as a lithe woman pressed herself against his body and enthralled him with delicate fingers. Loki hissed, startling Thor, who frowned at his brother before sending the nymph away.

A jovial, lilting voice pealed through the hall. “I never imagined that you would be so cold to a woman’s touch, son of Laufey. Surely, the women here are as beautiful as any you’d find in Asgard, their lips as warm and sweet as fresh honey. Go on—try them.”

Loki batted away a dark, slender arm, before turning back to the source of the voice. A tall, pale-skinned Jötun lay propped on one muscular arm as his wild, auburn locks fell over one sculpted shoulder and cascaded down his brawny chest like a fiery waterfall. His wiry beard barely disguised a hard, square jaw, and dark, mischievous eyes peered out from between his prominent cheekbones and noble brow. His copper-skinned lover lay curled up behind him, her coarse, chestnut waves spilling over his shoulder as she kissed him tenderly behind one ear, keeping her eyes locked on the strange guests. The man turned to tenderly kiss her lips, then raised himself from his cushion and approached his visitors with a predatory grace, smiling broadly enough to reveal his pointed eyeteeth.

“You two need no introductions,” said the man slyly, his gaze settling on Loki, “but you may not know me. I, too, am known as Loki—Loki Beyond the Walls. I consider it a great privilege to be known as one without bounds. My companions call me Útgarda-Loki, and as my honoured guests, you are welcome to address me as such.”

Thor’s eyes grew dark and cloudy. He rested his hand on Mjöllnir’s handle. “No Jötun is without bounds—I will always ensure that,” he growled, eliciting a sharp look from Útgarda-Loki.

Loki felt the mood in the room grow tense and involuntarily squeezed Thjálfi’s shoulder hard. The Jötnar men were sitting up now, the women sitting back. Thor was mighty, but they were badly outnumbered, and Thjálfi was unarmed and likely unskilled in battle. In any case, they were guests, and it did none of them any good to insult their host. Loki nervously sidled up to his brother.

“Thor,” he whispered urgently, “I am not eager to die in any of the ways our hosts might like to kill us. Mind your tongue.”

Thor harrumphed. “You doubt me?”

“No—but I don’t doubt them, either,” Loki replied, his eyes sweeping the room before meeting Thor’s.

“We escaped from Thrym’s unharmed,” Thor grumbled.

Loki hissed. “We were lucky at Thrym’s. And we have him to consider.”

Loki nodded towards Thjálfi, whose tense posture and tight lips caused Thor to rethink his gruff words. Grumbling, Thor loosened his stance and crossed his arms over his chest to keep them in sight but away from his weapon.

The gesture was received well by their host, who smiled and held his arms wide, prompting the others to relax as well.

“There…it seems we can be friends, after all,” Útgarda-Loki purred, turning his attention to Thjálfi. “And who might you be, young one? Come closer, let us have a look at you.”

Útgarda-Loki beckoned Thjálfi with a subtle gesture, and Thjálfi felt a strange urge to obey. However, the boy stood fast and glanced up at his master. Thor pursed his lips and thought a moment; he shared an uncomfortable look with his brother, but then nodded cautiously. Thjálfi took a few staggering steps forward, which made Útgarda-Loki laugh with surprise and delight.

“So strong!” he exclaimed. “I wonder if all humans are like this one. We rarely see them so far from their home.” Útgarda-Loki approached the boy, slowly extending one muscular arm, his open palm reaching for Thjálfi’s youthful cheek.

“Don’t touch him!” Thor bellowed threateningly, barely aware that he had reached for his hammer. All eyes turned to the powerful Aesir, all bodies prepared to act. Útgarda-Loki observed his guest coldly, his eye dropping to Thor’s weapon. Thor very deliberately loosened his grasp on Mjöllnir and extended his open hands towards his host.

Please don’t touch him. He is my servant.”

Once again, Útgarda-Loki smiled warmly, and he took a step back. “You have a good master, young one. What is your name?”

“Thjálfi!” the boy barked with more force than he intended. His nerves were starting to fray.

A chorus of appreciative laughter filled the halls, and Útgarda-Loki grinned, seeming quite impressed. “You are full of spirit, young Thjálfi. I have no doubt you serve your master well.”

Thjálfi gave a shaky, slouching half-bow and thanked his host. More good-natured chuckles arose from the lounging Jötnar.

Útgarda-Loki beamed at Thjálfi, then turned his attention back to Thor and Loki. “I would be honoured to keep the three of you as guests this evening. You are free to wander as you please—you will find nothing that I wish to keep hidden. But I will keep no one who is not the master of some task, so after our meal, I will test you. If you pass, you may stay with me in my house as long as you like and enjoy all the pleasures you find within.” Gracefully sweeping his arm to one side, Útgarda-Loki gestured towards his many guests, all of whom watched the odd trio with intense curiosity.

Thjálfi’s eyes darted amongst the throngs of reclining Jötnar, their bodies casually entwined in jumbles of naked limbs. The young doe-eyed woman who approached him earlier caught his gaze and smiled innocently. He felt his trousers grow snug. Remembering Loki’s instructions, he glanced nervously at the men for reassurance, but they were not paying any attention to him. Thor was busy smirking at his brother; their host laughed and gestured to a rather unremarkable man named Logi, who stepped forward. Loki eyed him suspiciously.

Útgarda-Loki called for his servants to bring food. Loki and Logi settled on the floor in the center of the hall, facing each other; meanwhile, two large platters piled high with food were brought out and one set before each man. Thjálfi tugged on Thor’s sleeve and asked what was happening. Apparently, Loki had jested his way into an eating contest.

Thor led his curious servant to the front of gathering crowds to stand among the whispering Jötnar, who watched with a great deal of interest. Spurts of laughter sprang up as everyone waited for the contest to begin. Loki looked over his competitor, then shot a sceptical glance at Thor, who shrugged and grinned.

When everyone had quieted, Útgarda-Loki gave the signal to start and the two men began devouring their food with tremendous gusto. Loki downed an entire flatbread, barely chewing or taking any water; Logi practically swallowed an apple whole. Loki voraciously sucked the flesh from a fleshy peach; Logi ate a meaty drumstick, bone and all. Loki momentarily stopped eating and gawked at his opponent before grabbing a greasy drumstick from his own platter, shoving a whole thing in his mouth, scraping off every morsel of flesh with his teeth as he withdrew the bone. He considered swallowing the bone, too, but thought better of it.

The onlookers laughed and clapped and cheered, thoroughly enjoying the spectacle. Thor hollered, encouraging Loki on when he looked like he was beginning to flag. Thjálfi watched in horrified awe as Logi very calmly ingested whopping mouthfuls of food without stopping to drink or even looking up.

Soon, Logi had cleared his plate completely—not a core, peel, or bone remained. Loki struggled to cram the last few bites into his mouth, and a pile of bones and pits sat to one side of his platter.

Stuffed and nauseous, Loki leaned his elbows on his knees and leaned forward, trying not to vomit. He was about to concede defeat when his opponent picked up his clean platter and bit off a large chunk, sending slivers of wood flying in all directions. The audience laughed and hollered, but Logi paid them no mind; he continued to crunch and grind his way through the platter until the entire thing was gone, then sat staring quietly at the floor.

Loki stared at Thor with pained incredulity. What sort of trick was this?

Chuckling, Útgarda-Loki congratulated the competitors, then encouraged everyone to find a comfortable place for their meal while servants distributed platters of food. Thor and Thjálfi helped Loki to his feet and the three of them found a long cushion to share, although Loki took up half of it when he flopped down onto his back and threw one arm over his eyes, groaning quietly. Thor set about eating his meal, but eventually became irritated by his brother’s ceaseless grumbling and cut a slice of peach, which he shoved in Loki’s mouth. Startled, Loki sputtered and retaliated by hurling the sticky fruit back at him; it bounced off Thor’s forehead, leaving a juicy smear and amusing everyone sitting nearby.

“Can’t you leave a man to die in peace?” Loki muttered.

Thor scraped the juice from his face with one hand and wiped it on Loki’s kyrtill as a pup greedily snatched the fallen morsel from the tiled floor.


 Black Wolf: The Binding of Loki will be released by Renaissance Press in fall 2018.

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