It has been a long time coming, but Black Wolf: The Binding of Loki is now on the verge of publication. After several production snags resulting from the sheer length of the book and structural changes at the printing company, I am expecting the e-book to be released shortly, with the paperback novel to be available by early March. This week, I have been working with Renaissance Press to finalize the back cover copy, and we are ALL looking forward to finally setting this little bird free.
The creation of Black Wolf has been a four-year journey for me. When I started writing the prologue in those first days of February 2015, I wasn’t necessarily expecting to produce a publishable novel (although that was the hope). The story and characters kept turning in my hands over the next two years, evolving constantly right in front of my eyes. Sometimes I felt like I was merely the story’s assistant, writing it in the way it wanted to be written. I just hope it’s happy with the result.
I hope, too, that readers enjoy the story, its characters, and its world.
Excerpt: Frananger Falls
Though he was not quite of age, Thor had grown snugly into the mantle of manhood. He was broad and brawny, already quite adept at the skills of warcraft, and he frequently bested more seasoned athletes at games of strength and agility. His coarse hair had grown into a great mane of brassy blond, and his beard was full and streaked with copper. He could be quick to anger but just as quick to forgive, and his jovial demeanour made him many friends amongst the Aesir.
But as he strode across the fields in search of his younger brothers, his mind was clouded by thoughts of his parents’ strange behaviour in recent days and the increasing weight it placed on his shoulders as Odin’s eldest son. Frigg’s rational and compassionate leadership had lapsed suddenly when Baldr grew frail, and Odin’s disappearance had only exacerbated her fragility. Odin himself had remained distant and secretive since his return.
Frankly, Thor was growing impatient with his father’s too-frequent ramblings and had let him know a few nights earlier. The confrontation hadn’t gone as expected.
Odin had excused himself from the dining hall long before anyone else had even finished their meals, and Thor did the same, to Frigg’s bemusement. He barged into his father’s private chambers, nearly taking the antechamber door off its hinges. Thor was taken aback to find Odin standing at the inner doorway, waiting patiently and smiling sweetly, but he followed his father into the main room, closing both doors behind himself. Meanwhile, Odin continued to smile invitingly at Thor as though daring him to speak first, which Thor did reluctantly but with tremendous anger.
“Father,” Thor boomed, his cheeks as red as his beard, “you cannot simply abandon us as you do—have you no respect for the Aesir, for your family? Mother has been heartsick over you, and she worries endlessly about Loki and Baldr! Your carelessness has only ever made her worse.”
Odin stood, head cocked quizzically to one side, hands clasped behind his back. “Do I make her worse?” he queried. “It seems to me she is better now that I have returned. We have devised a plan that should ease her fears, and she is busy carrying it out. ‘Tis a mother’s work, my son.”
Rage clawed a burning trail through Thor’s belly, and he stifled the scream that would have unleashed it. A mother’s work? This from a man who practiced womanly magics?
Thor’s ragged, heaving breaths revealed his anger. “How are you helping? Mother is a wretched mess, and Loki lashes out with every whim. He is as callous and reckless as…as a common thief!”
Odin chuckled, amused by Thor’s attempt to hide his true thoughts. “He is a difficult child, isn’t he? He isn’t strong like you, but rather wily and troublesome. Strange that I had to adopt a child to get a son who takes after me. That is what you wanted to say, is it not?”
Thor sputtered and spat, to his father’s growing amusement, but he would not admit that this was indeed what he had meant. He could only stand and fume as his father clasped his shoulders with both hands, nodding thoughtfully.
“Yes, yes, he is reckless like me,” Odin conceded, his laughing blue eye capturing Thor’s incredulous gaze, “but he is short-tempered like you. Perhaps you two should spend more time together. He could learn from your example.”
Thor shook his head in disbelief. “This is absurd! What could he learn from me? I have no tricks to show him, and you said that he is not strong like me, so I cannot teach him sports or warcraft. He has no interest in such things, anyway.”
Odin stood, unswayed, and Thor felt his face grow hotter under his father’s unswerving gaze.
“Oh, come now, Father,” Thor cried, “Loki is endlessly cruel to Baldr, who shows him infinite patience and kindness! What do you think I can do for him?”
A broad grin spread across the old Aesir’s weathered face. “Why, you will show him finite patience and kindness, of course!”
Thor felt his jaw drop. Odin’s answer did not make any sense to him, and he worried that trying to follow such advice would only land him in trouble with Frigg.
Odin laughed. “My son, my glorious, beautiful son,” he crowed, clapping Thor’s bristly cheeks with the palms of his hands. “You look so intently at everything, yet see so little. Loki is clever but difficult. His waywardness makes him hard to love, while Baldr’s goodness attracts affection. This makes Loki jealous. When Baldr is kind and understanding toward Loki, it reminds him of what he is not, and so he returns love with spite.
“But—as you say—Loki and I are far too alike. What can an unruly boy learn from an unruly father besides unruliness? He already has fine control of his powers for one so young, so I can teach him little more. It is his tongue and temper that must be guided now.”
Unconvinced, Thor glared at his father without even remotely diminishing the mirth in that bright blue eye. “And how do I do that?”
Again, Odin chuckled heartily. “By being what you are. Your brother cannot abide Baldr or myself because we are like him and unlike him in all the wrong ways. We are in conflict with him. But you and he are each what the other is not. You are strong when he is weak, good when he is wicked. But he sees what you are blind to, and he makes clever calculations where you need certainty. It is my belief—and my hope—that the two of you will benefit each other.”
Odin stepped back and resumed his curious stance, his head tilted to one side and hands behind his back, as his son stood as though rooted to the stone floor. When Thor regained his wits, he muttered a promise to do something or other with Loki and quickly retreated.
Thor intended to honour his promise, but Loki was very good at not being found. He had created tremendous chaos in the past when he vanished entirely for several days, causing Frigg to panic. The Aesir searched every corner of Breithablik but could not find the boy within the palace, so the city guard and local huntsmen were dispatched to scour the city as well as the fields and villages nearby. Day after day, the searchers grew more desperate, but there was no sign of Loki until a huntsman realized his pack of hounds was one dog larger than it had been the day before. Shortly thereafter, a very petulant Loki was delivered into his foster mother’s care. Frigg chastised the boy harshly, but Odin held his tongue until Loki was out of earshot before bursting into gales of hearty laughter. Like father, like son, indeed.
The boy wasn’t missing now, but he was hard to find except at mealtimes, and he was often silent and sullen, so Thor’s repeated attempts to engage him in conversation weren’t exactly successful. Still, Frigg encouraged him to sit with Loki.
“At least he isn’t trying to set you on fire,” his foster mother said, tentative hope creeping into her voice. Thor grumbled.
Spending mealtimes with Loki hadn’t produced the desired result, so Frigg asked the master guardsman, Týr, to release Thor from his training for an afternoon. Baldr and Loki had set out for the river earlier that day, and Frigg casually suggested that Thor join them in their games. Strangely, she did not seem at all perturbed that her two younger sons had trundled off together unchaperoned, and this puzzled Thor greatly.
Thor pondered this change in his mother’s demeanour as he walked east, his thoughts interrupted by the sound of grunting and the clanging of metal against rock. The boys were probably playing with their golden checkers, but Thor worried that they might damage the game pieces by striking them against stone. However, when he crested the hill, he spotted Baldr by himself, his left hand pressed against a boulder and his right hand poised above, gripping a gleaming seax. Thor bellowed for him to stop and rushed down the hill. Stunned, Baldr threw his head back, causing his fair, shining locks to whip around his face.
Baldr started to speak excitedly when his brother drew near, but Thor snatched the seax out of his hand. “Baldr, are you mad?” he hollered.
Baldr grinned, his golden skin glowing with mirth. “I might be, but you should see what I can do! Hit me!”
Thor stepped back in surprise. “What…? No, I will not hit you!” he stammered incredulously, worried that this was Loki in disguise. The little Jötun had fooled him more than once. Perhaps this was Loki trying to convince Thor to hurt him so he could run crying home to Frigg. It would not be the first time the little brat had tried that trick.
Meanwhile, Baldr snatched a fist-sized rock from the ground, determined to show his eldest brother what he had discovered. “Use this!” he exclaimed, stuffing the stone into Thor’s outstretched hand. Thor sneered at it like it was a writhing bundle of snakes and dropped it.
“Oh, come now, Thor. You won’t hurt me, I swear!”
“No,” Thor growled, “at least not until I know it’s really you.”
This confused Baldr until he realized Thor was afraid he was Loki in disguise. He thought for a moment, then pointed excitedly at Thor’s left leg.
“The scar on your left knee—you did that to yourself when you were teaching me swordplay. You stumbled after a swing and gashed your own leg open on a rock. We said I did it by accident. I don’t think they believed us, but they never said as much.”
Thor continued to glare, unconvinced. “And you think no one else would know this?”
Baldr rolled his eyes and huffed. “Honestly, Thor, if anyone else had known it, then everyone else would have found out, and they would have teased you relentlessly. Does anyone tease you so?”
“No,” Thor grumbled reluctantly, still embarrassed about the incident, though it had happened years before. “But why do you want me to hit you?”
A fresh grin blossomed on Baldr’s boyish face. “Because you can’t hurt me! Watch!”
Baldr scooped up the rock Thor had dropped and knelt by the large boulder, splaying one hand against the stone and raising the rock above his head with the other. He brought the rock down with tremendous speed, but it skidded harmlessly off his flesh and cracked against the boulder. This he did several more times, then held out his hand.
“See!” he cried, “not so much as a scratch or a bruise. I hardly felt it! It was the same with the seax. You try it!”
Again, Baldr thrust the rock into Thor’s hand, and again, Thor glared at it as he would a horn of poisoned ale. Despite the impressive demonstration of his brother’s apparent invincibility, he couldn’t bring himself to intentionally do something that might hurt him. Thor had spent his youth guiding and protecting his little brothers, as was his duty—this was simply unthinkable. He almost dropped the stone again when he heard Baldr hollering.
“Hey! Thor! Loki was right—you do have girl breasts! Sif must be jealous!”
Thor’s fist tightened around the stone as Baldr thrust out his chest and strutted effeminately. When this failed to produce the desired result, Baldr made a series of rather disrespectful gestures until Thor lost his temper (which was, as usual, a rather short process) and forcefully hurled the rock, striking Baldr squarely in the chest. The rock simply bounced away and thudded to the ground. Baldr laughed, unharmed.
Puzzled, Thor picked up another hefty stone and launched it. This one struck Baldr directly in the face but, as before, it glanced off harmlessly while Baldr howled hysterically.
“A good throw! I knew you weren’t really a girl!”
Realizing that Baldr had gotten the better of him, Thor shook his head. “How did you learn you could do this?” he asked.
Baldr straightened out his dark brown kyrtill, and Thor finally noticed the singed hole at the waist. Both the fine wool kyrtill and linen kyrtill beneath were scorched through, and he could actually see Baldr’s flesh above the waist of his trousers. Shrugging, Baldr told how Frigg had sent him off with Loki earlier that morning and how odd it seemed that she showed none of her recent anxieties. But the peace hadn’t lasted long. As usual, the sullen and withdrawn Loki had not been particularly overjoyed to spend the day with his exemplary older brother, and when Loki’s verbal snips were met with the usual kindness, his temper flared—as did his talents.
Loki could take on nearly any form he wished, but when he was feeling especially cruel or wanted to be left alone, he transmuted into flame, a talent he unleashed on Baldr more than anyone else. Baldr was unharmed, but Loki managed to ruin his clothes before taking off toward the river.
Thor huffed. Frigg would be furious if he came home without Loki, but he wasn’t thrilled about the prospect of dragging an angry shapeshifter back to the palace. Assuming, of course, that he could even find Loki in the first place—the child was probably sulking under a rock. For once, Thor actually wished he were handling civil disputes rather than roaming the fields.
Thor sent Baldr home with a crack about how the seamstress would be pleased to see him again and strode off across the rolling hills. He followed the sound of rushing water until the rumble of Frananger Falls filled his ears.
The river was one of Loki’s favourite places. He could hide like a fox in the small caves in the hills, swim like a fish in the river, fly like a hawk above the lush green lands, and he could do it all far from the Aesir, many of whom feared and distrusted him. This was his domain and the most likely place he would hide. But how was Thor going to find him?
Looking for Loki had proved to be a mistake before—perhaps it would be best to let Loki find him.
Thor sat near the riverbank and tossed pebbles casually into the water, enjoying the wet plunk of each stone as it sank into the burbling stream. He waited for some time but did not see anything that might have been Loki, who probably did not want to be found after attacking Baldr. If Loki wanted to play tricks, Thor would just have to play along.
Thor stood and stretched, letting out a noisy, exaggerated yawn before clearing a grassy patch and stretching out as though to nap. If Loki thought Thor was sleeping, he might come over to cause some mischief. Of course, Thor knew he had to be careful that he did not alert Loki to the ruse by stirring too much, but he could not allow himself to actually fall asleep lest he awaken with only half a beard—again. Of course, Loki might not be anywhere nearby and this would all be a waste of time. But what could he do?
Thor got as comfortable as possible, ignoring every itch and twitch he could until he heard the grass rustle alongside his prone figure. When something sniffed at his ear, Thor threw his arm around the hairy beast and wrestled it to the ground. It was a small, black wolf—almost undoubtedly Loki in disguise, but he had to be sure.
Thor pinned the wolf’s body with one knee and shoved its head into the ground with the other. “Ah, little wolf, what a magnificent pelt you have!” he cried, slowly drawing his long seax from the sheath on his belt. “I will keep your skin by my bed and enjoy the feel of you under my bare feet each morning!”
The wolf’s eyes grew wild, and he began to writhe and bark and howl even before Thor finished speaking. Thor was not satisfied yet, and he very slowly lowered the point of the blade toward the creature’s face. Struggling and whining, the creature soon began to dissolve and reshape into the screaming form of a gangly, dark-haired boy.
“No!” Loki shrieked. “Don’t skin me!”
“Hmmph. Thought so,” Thor grunted, putting away his seax. He grabbed his little brother firmly by the arm before lifting his weight off the little runt and pulling him roughly to his feet. He took a good look at the scowling child and wondered exactly what had possessed Odin to bring this strange little beast to Asgard.
Loki glowered at Thor with his strange white-blue eyes as Thor brushed the dirt from Loki’s dark grey kyrtill.
“You should be more careful, little brother. A hunter might actually have killed you.”
Loki sneered. “I would have changed in time.”
Thor gave the boy a stern look. “You took a long time to change.”
“Well,” Loki stalled, crossing his arms tightly over his narrow chest. “I knew you wouldn’t do it.”
It was a lie, and Thor saw through it. “You panicked. You could have been hurt or killed, little brother.”
Infuriated, Loki clenched his fists, intense heat building beneath his skin. “Stop calling me that—I am NOT your brother or Baldr’s brother or Hödr’s brother or Vidar’s brother! I have no brothers!”
Standing tall with his chest puffed out and his hands on his hips, Thor decided to challenge the whelp. “So then, if you’re not our brother, then you must be a Jötun, like Father says.”
“Odin lies about me,” Loki shot back. “He lies about everyone.”
“And what of Mother?”
A cruel smirk tainted the boy’s lips and hardened his ice blue eyes. “She lies with everyone—hardly one to be trusted.”
Thor slapped Loki hard, causing tears to course down his olive-toned cheeks. Loki called up the burning heat beneath his skin, and when flames leapt from his hands, he rushed at Thor, who grabbed him under the arms and pivoted, heaving the boy into the middle of the river. The cool waters sizzled as they doused Loki’s angry flames.
Thor realized his mistake before the boy even splashed down, for once he was in the water, he changed into a large salmon and began swimming away with the current.
Cursing himself, Thor raced along the riverbank, keeping Loki in sight at all times. He couldn’t swim fast enough to catch the boy, so he ran hard to pass him while dodging obstacles on land. Just a little further downstream, the waters fed into a series of narrow, rocky channels. If he could get there first, he could dash across the rocks and catch Loki or at least block his progress.
Luck was with Thor, as the unusually dry summer had caused the water levels to drop until the tops of the exposed rocks were dry. He leapt across the flat rocks to a channel near the far bank, where Loki flopped about. The channels were too narrow for him to swim through, but he failed to jump clear of the rocks and had stranded himself. Thor captured him, gripping his slippery body in a bear hold.
Unable to breathe, Loki flopped and flailed, smashing Thor’s broad nose with his scaly, bony head. Thor grunted his displeasure, barking at Loki to return to his natural form, but he could not feel Loki’s body change shape. He shoved Loki’s face under the water until his panicked shuddering gave way to a strong, rhythmic wriggle, then lifted him back out of the water and hugged him close.
“Change, Loki, you can’t stay like this,” he implored, but Loki continued to flail.
Terror knotted Thor’s belly. He shoved Loki’s face back under the water, holding tight to him even though Loki’s fins cut his hands.
“You have to come back, Loki! By Father’s beard, child, CHANGE!” he roared, feeling the scaly body ripple unnaturally in his hands; moments later, he hoisted the gasping, dripping boy out of the water. Thor carried his foster brother back to land, relieved that he would neither have to explain to Frigg that her youngest son was a dead fish nor protect Loki’s body from Odin’s ravenous wolves.
Exhausted, Loki did not resist when Thor’s muscular hands wrapped around his head. Thor stared into his face, and he looked back at his elder brother with none of his earlier defiance.
“Loki, why did you not change when I told you to? Did you think you could still escape?”
Loki turned his eyes to the ground.
“Was it because you were scared or hurt?”
Loki bit his quivering lower lip, and one lone tear coursed down his cheek. Thor turned Loki’s head, trying to get the boy to meet his gaze. When that didn’t work, he shook the boy firmly.
“I’m not weak,” Loki muttered.
So, there it was. He could muster his talents easily to cause mischief, but he lost his focus when danger was present.
“A warrior fights despite the pain because he learns how. I can teach you,” Thor said, pressing his forehead to Loki’s. He felt the boy nod slightly. “Have you eaten anything since you left this morning?”
Loki shook his head. “Baldr carried everything.”
Thor thumped to the ground and gestured for Loki to sit next to him. He reached into his satchel and retrieved two of Idun’s apples, handing one to Loki, who sank his sharp teeth into it. When that was gone, Thor handed him a waterskin, but when Loki brought it near his mouth, he recoiled in surprise.
“Wine?” he asked, his eyebrows raised. “By the smell, one of Father’s best.”
Suspicious, Thor asked how Loki would know, but the boy looked away.
“Yes, it’s one of Father’s best,” Thor grunted. “Just don’t tell anyone.”
A sly grin seeped across Loki’s face as he drank deeply.
* * *
Frigg was relieved to see Baldr return home unharmed by Loki’s troublesome talents, even though he had lost yet another kyrtill to Loki’s temper. However, she grew worried that Thor and Loki were gone so long and panicked when Fulla brought news that Thor was carrying his brother’s limp body back to Breithablik. She rushed past her handmaiden to meet her sons.
Thor bowed his head and tried not to look sheepish when Frigg fussed over Loki, brushing matted locks of dark hair from his face. She was about to ask Thor what had happened, but a whiff of Loki’s breath revealed the secret.
“He’s drunk,” she uttered with great consternation, staring Thor down like a dog that had piddled on the floor.
“He talked,” Thor countered, refusing to meet Frigg’s gaze.
Frigg stepped back and clasped her hands together, her chin raised authoritatively. “Put him to bed,” she ordered. “I’ll have Fulla look after him until he recovers. The evening meal will be served soon, so hurry to the great hall before your father feeds your share to his wolves.”