”Father, please tell us a story!” Sleipnir tilted his head and nuzzled Loki’s shoulder with his muzzle.
“Yesss! Sssstory! With ratsssssss in it!” the big, greenish reptile hissed, flicking his tongue. Jormungandr loved anything to do with rats. He especially loved hunting them down and eating them, usually in a most messy manner. Hardly a manner suited for the son of a prince… Although it must be admitted that the castle and its surroundings had never been this free of rats before. The rodents tended to scurry away at the mere thought of the large snake creature, as did in fact most other castle inhabitants who had at some time or other had the dubious pleasure of being acquainted with Loki’s scaly son. It may have had something to do with his breath. Or possibly the fact that he greeted practically everyone with a threatening hiss of the “I-am-going-to-swallow-you-whole-and-then-spit-you-out-all-covered-in-slime-“ variety. Not many dared look him in the eye. Of course, not many dared look Fenris in the eye either – although that was for completely different reasons. Fenris was still a pup, and he had not quite gotten the hang of being a big, blood-thirsty wolf. If someone looked him in the eye, he took it as a challenge: a challenge to see who would first be able to wrestle the other to the floor and lick the opponent’s face. As surprising as it may seem, not everyone is keen on having a huge, hairy wolf - who believes himself to be the Asgardian equivalent of a Golden Retriever - on top of them.
“It is late, and you young ones should already be sleeping,” their father stated. His voice was soft and calm, but there was a tinge of fatigue in it. Not even the mighty Prince Loki was able to keep up with four rambunctious kids of differing species every day, without occasionally wanting to just melt into a sleepy puddle of goo somewhere. Oh, he had servants and nannies. They did not last long. It was even rumored that one of the more recent babysitters had actually been eaten by Fenris – although that was not the entire story by far. Actually, it had all just been a horrific mistake. The babysitter in question was in fact Tyr, a most ferocious warrior and something of a jackass. He had this marvelous idea, after having heard a Midgardian circus show described by Uncle Thor… Something about putting one’s head into the mouth of a large, furry beast. It did not occur to the good Tyr that the Midgardian circus beasts the King told him about had been trained and thoroughly prepared for having the body parts of weird, bipedal creatures put in their mouths. It did not either, in fact, strike him that Fenris could be somewhat shocked when his noisy babysitter suddenly roared “Open wide!” and shoved his head into his oral cavity. The wolf pup was so shocked, in fact, that he closed his mouth… The chaos that ensued had been most traumatizing for everyone involved, even the God of Chaos himself. To this day, poor Fenris still had nightmares. And his father still had to keep assuring him that nobody was going to make him eat anything that disgusting ever again. (Tyr had never been a great fan of bathing, and Fenris was surprisingly sensitive when it came to cleanliness.)
However, the whole debacle did actually result in at least one positive thing, though: Tyr never again attempted to shove his head anywhere it did not belong. Furthermore, the teeth marks on and around his throat had to be properly cleaned, and the healers promptly decided to dump the whole man into a bath tub while they were at it. The mighty warrior’s gurgling protests could be heard throughout the castle grounds, but the healers had been trained to deal with reluctant patients all of their lives. He left the Healing Chamber smelling (and possibly tasting) far better than he ever had before, a faint whiff of flowers stubbornly clinging to him. For a long time afterwards he was referred to as “The Fragrant Warrior” by some of his more humorous friends.
Loki’s offspring were now all in their nursery, seated on the soft rug in front of the fireplace. The room had been furnished especially to accommodate the needs of its inhabitants. There was a large tree for Jormungandr to climb, and another one for his wolf brother to… er, sniff at. The four beds were large and soft, and the sheets magically washed every day. Hela had lovely purple drapers, decorated with skulls and skeletons, hanging around her bed. She had chosen them herself and was immensely proud of them. A huge book case ornated the wall beside her bed. Hela had always loved reading. Sleipnir had a stable-like corner of the room for his own - always filled with fresh hay, apples and water – but usually chose to sleep in a bed, just like the others. Being a horse with eight legs does not stop one from loving cushions, or from wanting to be like one’s siblings. Sleipnir had one heck of a hard time getting up into his bed every evening, his legs getting tangled up in the sheets, but he insisted on sleeping there anyway. Nobody argued.
“Please, father, I want to hear about magic and dragons,” Hela begged. Jormungandr immediately perked up.
“Yeessssssss! Draagonsssssssss!” he agreed, always willing to hear about his fellow reptiles. Their father sighed.
“Very well. I shall tell you one story, after which you shall all go to sleep – do not give me that puppy eyed look, Fenris, I get plenty of that from your Uncle every day. After I have tucked you in, you shall all remain in your beds for the night. Nobody, and I mean nobody, is going to sneak up in the middle of night to do anything. Do we understand each other, children?”
A slightly hang-dog chorus of “Yes, father” echoed in the nursery. Fenris tried the puppy-dog-eyes-treatment on his father again, and got a glare in return – followed by a quick smile. Loki was not the kind of person to wear his heart on his sleeve (or on any other part of his clothing for that matter) but Fenris sighed contentedly and lay his head down on his paws, assured that his father was not cross with him. Hela scooted over to the wolf and started petting his soft fur, almost absent-mindedly. Jormungandr slithered across the rug and lay his head in Loki’s lap, enjoying the heat from the fireplace. Sleipnir managed to find a comfortable position close to his reptile brother. The snake flicked his tongue, but did not protest.
“I shall tell you a story I was told on Midgard. It is somewhat strange, and does certainly not include dragons, but perhaps it will appeal to you. It should be entertaining, at the very least... “Loki stated, drily. He then continued: “Many moons ago there was a rich man who lost his beloved wife. His young, beautiful daughter thereby lost her mother, and for some odd reason the man believed that one mother could easily replace another. He therefore quickly found himself another wife - a mother with two daughters. This lady he married, without bothering to first get to know her or her children properly – something that turned out to have dire consequences indeed. He then had the audacity to go and die himself, leaving his daughter with her new stepmother and step sisters – who naturally turned out to be very unpleasant people.” The prince shook his head, seemingly mind-boggled by such behaviour.
“Did ssshhhhhe eat them?” Jormungandr hissed, hopefully.
“No, Jormungandr. Eating people is frowned upon on Midgard, no matter how annoying those mortals may be. I strongly suggest you keep that in mind, should you ever have a reason to visit that dismal world. Now, where was I? Ah, yes. The young woman was soon being abused by the other women, forced to wear horrid clothing, do menial tasks and sleep by the fire place-“
“I like sleeping by the fire place,” Fenris interrupted. “It’s so warm and it smells nice…”
“Yes, Fenris, but you are not a tiny human. Humans are delicate and cannot stand sleeping on hard surfaces, apparently.” Loki replied.
“Couldn’t she get a rug, or perhaps a bear skin?” Hela asked. “That way she would not be lying on a hard surface…”
“It would seem the young mortal in question did not have access to any of those things. Or perhaps she was incapable of thinking for herself. It is possible the ash from the fire place had somehow entered her brains, making her incapable of rational thought… at the very least that would explain her behavior during the next few years…” their father commented, drily. He had never understood the appeal of this particular story, but perhaps his children would.
“The young woman, whom the other women referred to as Cinderella – honestly, of all the ridiculous names they could have come up with! – was treated as a servant by the others. Not once did she attempt to escape, or complain to an outsider. Nor did any of the family’s friends react to their treatment of her, oddly enough. For years she slaved for them, allowing them to insult her and dress her in rags. I suppose she may have been used to abuse before her father died. Why else would she subject herself to it?” Again, he shook his head. Hela watched him pensively.
“Maybe she did not know where to go, father.” Loki’s daughter suggested.
“Yes, Hela, perhaps you are correct in that assessment. In any case, her two step sisters were apparently both less unpleasant, not to mention foolish. Their only goal in life was to marry what the mortals call ‘a gentleman’. The term seems to refer to the fortune of the man in question rather than any gentleness of manner. Their mother did her best to find such a gentleman for each of her daughters, but seemed unwilling to marry Cinderella off. Maybe she could not afford other servants. Her life style is supposed to have been quite extravagant…”
“Extra-what?” Sleipnir wanted to know.
“It means expensive. Doesn’t it, father?” Hela asked, quietly.
“It does, daughter of mine. Fenris! Stop chewing the rug!”
Fenris looked up, a sheepish expression on his furry face. He loved chewing things. This rug was lush and blue, with a lovely, slightly musky, scent. The King had bought it on one of his travels around the realms and given it to his niece and nephews as a welcome gift. He had been very pleased that his brother had decided to stay at the castle and raise his children there, especially as his marriage to Lady Jane had not gifted them with children of their own. Fenris was really quite fond of Aunt Jane, but he wished she would not wear such delectable shoes. He always started drooling the moment he saw them, and the sudden appearance of puddles could be rather embarrassing to explain…
“Aaaaw, Fenris!” his brother Sleipnir complained, “Now the rug is all wet! Eeuuuuuugh…”
The next few moments were spent looking for rags and scolding the wolf cub – perhaps unfairly. After all, he really could not help the effectiveness of his saliva glands. Once they had all finally settled down, their father continued his tale.
“Surprisingly, one day the king of their pathetic little country invited every eligible young woman to a ball in his son’s honour. Apparently he wanted the prince to find himself a wife at the festivities. With no regard for the fact that the sheer amount of young women must be enormous, or indeed for basic safety measures, he had the invitations sent out. Cinderella’s step mother and sisters were most excited and immediately started preparing for the ball, as they clearly believed they would get a chance to actually impress the prince with their feminine charms. Meanwhile, the heroine of the tale despaired. She had no clothes suitable for a ball and clearly, for some reason, she found the idea of dancing with complete strangers to atrocious music pleasant. Perhaps she too was hoping to find a husband- ”
“That’ssss ssstupid!” Jormungandr was not impressed.
“No, it isn’t!” Hela replied, hotly. “Men are always considered better. So, if you marry an important man, others will think you are important. As though you are a part of him.”
This confused Sleipnir greatly. “But Uncle Fandral always says that ladies are much better company than men…?” he protested.
“Yes, because he thinks of women as bed warmers”, she answered, bitterly. “Nothing a woman does is ever considered as good or as important as what a man does. Women study and do magic, so doing that has to be a sign of weakness. And if a woman does anything else, like… fight… there is something wrong with her. And if she does not marry either, or if she is not pretty…” Her voice trailed off and an awkward silence filled the room.
“Hela…” Loki’s voice was soft, loving.
“Lady Sif is marvelous,” His daughter interrupted in a hard voice, turning her face away. “But I hear what they say about her. They say she is not a real woman. That a woman does not fight with swords. That there is something wrong with her, and that is why she has not married. Because nobody wants her.”
Now the silence was almost as thick as the blue rug. Sleipnir stared at his sister, still confused. Jormungandr started to slither over to his tree, as his usual modus operandi - to hiss and glare at any problem he faced or bite the one whom he believed to be the cause of it – was not likely to be effective in this situation. He was not foolish enough to try to bite Hela. She was the one of them most like their father, and just like him she was capable of administering the Chilling Glare Of Doom when displeased. She was also quite adept at magic, and had been trained by Loki ever since he received custody of her. Once, on a very frightening occasion, she had actually turned her reptile brother into a rat…
Fenris tried to lighten the mood by burping loudly, and was completely ignored. He gave a little whine instead, and thumped his tail on the floor. Nobody seemed to notice that either. Loki was looking at Hela with an unreadable expression on his face. He then rose from the carpet and walked over to her, kneeling in front of her. Looking into her defiant yet vulnerable face, he gently cupped her withered cheek with his hand.
“It is never easy to be the one who does things differently, Hela. Lady Sif knew this when she made her choice to become a warrior. Nonetheless, those accusations are most unfair. She is no less of a woman for walking her own path.”
“And what about me, father?” The girl’s voice broke slightly, but she went on: “I am not pretty. I shall never marry. And you say that I am powerful. That I will be a very skilled magician one day. But does it matter at all? For nothing I am good at is ever going to be considered half as good as what a man does – even if he is incapable of doing magic!”
Again, silence fell. The sorcerer quietly looked at his daughter, a slight frown on his face. She feared that she had angered him, but kept looking back in any case – refusing to back down. Fenris whined again. And her father’s frown seemed to soften as he put his hands on her shoulders.
“Our society is not perfect,” he said, quietly. “Our lives are long, and therefore changes do not occur quickly or easily. But with each generation something is bound to change, albeit slowly. Has it ever occurred to you, my young one, that perhaps you will be a part of those changes?”
“Can we go on with the story now, father?” Sleipnir begged. This conversation made him feel somewhat edgy, as though he had done something wrong, but he could not for the life of him figure out what that would be. He had never said that women were not as good as men. On the other hand, those conundra did not often surface within the horse world. You were a horse, and apparently some horses could give birth to other horses. Or give them milk. And sometimes the one who gave birth to you turned out to not be a horse at all, which was unusual but not necessarily bad. Sleipnir did not really understand what all this fuss was about.
Loki sighed and turned to Sleipnir. “Perhaps not tonight, my little one. We are all tired. I shall continue this tale tomorrow evening instead.” He ruffled the brown mane on his son’s fuzzy head. Hela was still looking at her father, pain in her eyes.
“I do not want to have to change things,” she whispered. “I just want to be allowed to be who I am, and respected for it.” Her words hit Loki straight in the heart. He winced slightly.
“You are a wonder, an amazing being. Be proud, daughter of mine. I certainly am.” He gently touched the dark bangs covering the withered side of her face. “And should some poor misguided fool show a lack of respect towards you, I trust you will let me know immediately…” he added, a slightly insane grin on his face.
“Or you could just turn him into a rat…” Jormungandr quipped from his tree. He had slithered up onto the highest limb and was now looking down at them with a mischievous grin on his green face. His sister rolled her eyes, but a slight smile was beginning to tug at her lips. Fenris nuzzled her gently with his large, wet nose. Sleipnir had somehow managed to get one of his front feet tangled up and now tripped on the rug, hurtling forwards with a frightened snort. Loki turned around at just the right moment and managed to grab him by the neck, putting his arms around his son.
“Time for bed, I think. Jormungandr, are you sleeping in your tree tonight?” he asked, looking up at the snake.
“Yeessssssssss…” the latter replied, securing himself by wiring his tail around the trunk of said tree and lowering his head so that he could look his father straight in the eye.
“Very well, my young one.” The dark-haired prince leaned over and kissed his reptile son’s angular head. “Good night.”
Fenris wagged his tail. “Please tuck me in, father?” he begged, tilting his head.
“Of course. But you will need to actually be in your bed for that to work…” Loki smiled slightly. The pup replied by making a giant leap across the room, missing his bed by inches and landing on top of Sleipnir – who did not in fact enjoy the experience at all.
“Eeeheeheeeheeeeee!” he whinnied, completely taken by surprise. “Get off, get off!” Panicking, the little foal kicked with some of his legs and waved with others, managing to get tangled up in Hela’s bed drapers. There was a tearing noise, and the drapers came down –covering wolf cub and eight-legged foal alike. The God of Mischief sighed. It had been a long day.
Roughly half an hour later, his offspring were all in their respective beds, or trees, neatly tucked in and getting ready for sleep. Well, Jormungandr had no use for duvets or blankets. Tucking him in basically meant making certain that he had secured his tail properly around the tree trunk, so that he would not fall down if he happened to have one of his more vivid dreams. But all of Loki’s children were quite content, having been kissed good night and/ or had their fur lovingly ruffled. Any damage caused to the furnishings by the earlier little… incident… had been magically repaired. With a yawn, Loki - the God of Mischief, Chaos and Various Shenanigans – slipped across the hallway in the large, quiet castle of Asgard, opened the door to his private chambers and entered. His bed called for him in a very loud voice. A voice he did not, in fact, associate with his bed at all…