Hercules struggled to run faster as the wet snow grabbed at his boots, adding weight and decreasing his hold on the already tenuous path. The thick fur trees stood like an army of sentinels, their boughs lowered by the weight of the heavy snow and extending across the path like a gauntlet, striking at Hercules head and torso as he pushed his way past. His muscles burned with the effort of his passage, each tendon and sinew stretching almost to the snapping point, but still he pushed on, plowing through the drifts, intent on reaching his destination. His hair was covered in snow, and where he sweat it had frozen into icy prisms, and each new droplet of perspiration added to the burden of ice he carried.
Hercules could see a light in the darkness of winter’s nightfall, the lights of a cabin ahead, a clearing. He squinted to see better. Almost there. Would he be too late? He pushed himself harder against the protests of his every joint and muscle. The path fell away as he bounded to the clearing and closed into the home. He grabbed frantically at the door, wrenching at the handle and pulling open the door in a frenzy of haste.
“Iolaus!” he screamed as he saw a bevy of knives flying toward the blonde. He sprung forward and deflected a knife with a swiftness and deftness honed by years of defense.
“Noooooo!” he screamed as he lunged further forward, splitting the crowd without hesitation, frantic to protect the blond one more time. He stood facing the crowd, and blocked the last of the weapons, ending with a back handed catch of a fighting axe.
From behind he heard the soft voice of the blond plead.
“Help me Hercules!”
Hercules spun around, startled by the foreign lilt in the soft voice. Not Iolaus, no bravado or undertone of joie de vivre that he knew so well. He felt his heart sink as his eyes met those of a tall thin man with long straight platinum blond hair and impossibly blue eyes, framed by skin so ivory he looked as if he spent all his time shaded. This was NOT his best friend.
“Who are you?” Hercules choked out in surprise and pain.
The knives and axes started to fly at the two men once again.
On another continent, in a land of ice and snow, where storms blew moaning through the tall pines and snow piled high, a pale blond man with impossibly blue eyes and long straight blond hair sat up in his bed, suddenly awakened by a strange dream.
In the frozen north an old woman shivered as she painted. The picture was of a sailing vessel leaving warm seas and coming upon the cold gray white capped waters of the north. The sails billowed and the ship rose precariously, caught between the rival forces of cold wind and incessant pounding of the waves against its hull. At the rail stood a tall handsome man, with honeyed blond hair and steely eyes, watching the horizon with determination.
“He comes,” she spoke to the man behind her who watched her picture evolve with rapt fascination. “It is the man god from the southern lands riding the waves of his destiny.”
The man’s eyes swept across her painting, taking in every small detail as his mind plotted. There was both good and bad in everything.
“What about my brother? Will Hercules’ coming effect Balder’s fate?”
“The future will unfold to men and gods alike,” the old woman spoke solemnly. “So must it remain.”
Hercules shook his head as he jumped onto the northern shore. His feet sunk into a layer of soft wet snow. “What am I doing here?” he muttered to himself. “Chasing dreams,” he snorted softly as he gazed into the dense pine forest. He noted the wide path which led away from the shore and most likely into the nearest village. He stepped forward into the cloistering darkness of the silent forest and heard a chilling scream from deep within it.
That was all he needed. He was here for a purpose and the first trumpet had sounded. He dashed down the path, feet fighting for traction and lungs constricting against his will as he breathed the clean, frigid air in deeply. He fought at stray branches extended over the path and surged forward, snapping through the bows as if they were no more than cobwebs, until he came upon a clearing.
In the center of the clearing stood an Inn, its wood as grey and stiff as the freezing Norse night. The door was open and Hercules could see that a crowd was gathering. He heard a second scream, more piercing than the first, and following the sound, he gathered speed entering the Inn.
Hercules blinked in the torch lit brilliance. The heat of many fur clad Vikings steamed through the room, chasing away any frostiness. Hercules’ eyes adjusted quickly and he scanned the room for the source of the scream.
Tied to a large spinning wheel was a young Norse girl with long platinum braids that had been fastened to stand away from her head at right angles. The wheel was turning and the girl’s ivory complexion seemed a little green to the demi-god’s eyes.
Two men were standing ten paces from the spinning wheel, both with axes raised. Their muscles stood out in bas relief as their cloaks fell away and broad shoulders were bared.
“My turn,” growled the thicker of the two men as he drew back a meaty arm, the fist gripping the ax handle white knuckled. “And I won’t miss again,” he added. He sneered over at the girl who spun lazily on the wheel. “Want to hold still?” he teased as he watched the wheel pick up speed from the girl’s struggling.
“Thanks, I will,” Hercules answered sardonically as he grabbed the handle of the ax just under the blade, holding it firmly as the man jerked to toss the weapon.
“Hey, let go!” the thick Viking snarled in warning as he pulled back on the weapon.
“Only if you play nice,” Hercules responded, not releasing his grip, but smiling knowingly.
“Kill him!” the thick man responded and the other swung his own ax forcefully, catching his buddy on the side of the head with the handle as the blade sliced nothing but air.
Hercules let go of the struggling man’s ax and he tumbled forward, rushing head first into a column, and then crumbled uselessly to the floor.
“Oh, that hurt!” Hercules exclaimed and then chuckled to the fallen body, “That’s using your head!”
His buddy rushed forward, fists curled and elbows cocked and ready. He snarled ferociously and with his head down aimed for the demigod’s solar plexus. Hercules simply raised his own clenched fist, arm straight out and elbow locked. The Viking ran headfirst into it and dropped like a boulder onto the floor.
Hercules shrugged. “Guess they’re both using their heads today.”
He turned to the girl tied to the wheel, pulled her braids free and tore the ropes away from her limbs, releasing her stumbling. He reached for her shoulder to steady her and keep her from falling. “Are you okay?” he asked, concerned.
The girl took a step back, tossed her braids and jammed her hands angrily onto her hips.
“I can’t believe you did that!” she exclaimed, a frown slicing her face.
Hercules looked pleased with himself and smiled down at her. “I was in the neighborhood and heard your scream.” He shrugged. “So, what was that about?’
The girls kicked him in the shin forcefully. “That’s for my brother!”
“Brother?” Hercules sounded puzzled. “Hey!” he protested as she kicked his other shin with enough force to make him hop.
“And THAT is for my Dad.” She stared defiantly at Hercules face as he reached down and rubbed first one shin then the other.
“Well you’re welcome!” he declared with disgust. These Norse people certainly were ungrateful, he thought to himself, shaking his head as he turned to leave.
His path was blocked by a solid, muscular Norse warrior wearing heavy furs and carrying an impressive hammer, the likes of which Hercules had never before seen. The man advanced menacingly, his long golden blond hair glinted with rusty highlights, and the fire lit room made him look ruddier than the people of Eire.
“You’d best be picking your fights well, stranger, he growled as he swung the hammer over his shoulder then launched it back at Hercules, striking him directly in the chest with a force that was beyond mere humanity.
Hercules flew back and upward, through the roof and hurtled in an arc out to the cold icy yard holding his sternum and thanking Zeus for once for his genetic contributions.
The stranger watched him soar toward the sun, shaking his head. No one lived after a blow from his hammer, yet this one was still talking. He strode out the door and faced the big man struggling to his feet in the slippery snow.
“What are you, a spoor of the Frost Giants?”
“Spoor of what?” Hercules answered as he found his footing and managed to regain his upright status.
The stranger brought up his hammer and Hercules blocked it. “That girl would have been killed!” Hercules sputtered as he parried a blow from the stranger’s forceful left fist.
“That’s my concern. These people are under my protection,” Hercules’ opponent spoke vehemently.
Hercules let himself be momentarily distracted by the response. This may well be a Norse god, if saw people as under his protection. He ducked and wove sideways to avoid contact with the powerful hammer. “Lucky them!” he muttered, seeing no benevolence at all in his attacker.
“Who are you?” Hercules spoke challengingly as he moved in with an iron fisted punch to the big man’s belly.
His punch was no more than a pebble tossed against a rock and his hand actually hurt.
The big man raised his hammer once again, shouting “I am THOR, son of Odin and god of thunder!” His voice boomed resonantly through the silence of the snowy landscape.
Hercules arched an eyebrow and used the moment of Thor’s declaration to reach up and seize the hammer that balanced over his head.
Thor roared and began pulling back on the hammer, which dropped lower between the fighters, giving Hercules an edge. He used his tremendous strength to pull back, applying force that pulled Thor forward, slightly off balance.
“Let my hammer go!” Thor roared.”
Hercules shrugged. “Okay.” He released his grip and the unsuspecting Thor went flying backward with all the power of his own strength multiplied by Hercules’ as well. Thor staggered backward unable to maintain his balance and control, his feet skidding on the powdery snow, and ended up sitting firmly on the icy ground.
Unable to contain his anger, the god of thunder rose to his feet and charged, hammer raised at Hercules. Hercules stood his ground, planning his own attack. This could go on for a while, he realized and he let out a heavy sigh as he readied for Thor’s attack.
But as if in response to his silent desire to simply be left alone to do his job, a figure sparkled into view directly in from of him. It was a tall, slender golden haired man and he raised his hand as he faced Thor. Hercules couldn’t see his face, but the thought of Iolaus popped into his mind immediately. He couldn’t help it, the blonde hair, the protective stance… But this wasn’t Iolaus.
“That’s enough Thor!” the blonde spoke placatingly.
Thor stopped in mid stride, approaching the blonde with measured words.
“But he broke up a trial by axe…”
“Father doesn’t want you fighting mortals anymore brother,” the blond spoke softly, placing a hand on Thor’s shoulder.
“He’s no mortal! I hit him with a thunderbolt and he didn’t even blink!” Thor protested.
Hercules stepped aside and forward next to the blonde. “Oh I blinked all right.” He turned to the blonde, satisfying his curiosity. This man stood eye to eye with Hercules. But the blue held a too familiar twinkle. His face was smooth, not wrinkled with cares or weathered. His golden hair was lighter even than Iolaus’ had been and straighter.
“I know you,” Hercules spoke softly as the face in the dream flashed back to mind.
“And I you,” The golden haired man answered without surprise.
Hercules realized suddenly that the blond had called the god of thunder, brother. At first he let it slide as a kindly gesture, but now he could see the resemblance.
“You’re a god!” Hercules both asked and declared.
The blond smiled kindly. “My name is Balder. This is my brother Thor. And to take a hit like that you must be a god too.” He nodded.
“Half god, I’m Hercules. I’ve come from Greece...and Eire.” He reached out and gave a warrior’s clasp to Balder’s arm which was returned in kind.
“Welcome to Norse land,” Balder replied warmly. Turning to Thor he spoke a simple command, “put down your hammer.”
“Oh, so this is your dream guy!” Thor answered sarcastically with a dismissing wave of his hand. “Some half god Greek! Your standards are indeed low brother!”
Hercules shook his head, staring at the ground and slowly lifted his eyes to Thor. “I’m not here for you.”
“No, that’s true. I can handle MY problems myself,” Thor started but was interrupted by Balder.
“Enough Thor. It was my dream and he came to help ME. I choose that he stays.” Balder stared firmly at his brother.
Thor curled a lip as he met his brother’s stare. “If that’s what you want.” He slammed his hammer onto the icy ground and sparks flew as the ground shook and steam rose from the melting snow. In that instant he simply disappeared.
Balder and Hercules walked through town. A light snow had started falling and the air was sharp, refreshing and invigorating. Both Hercules and Balder were covered in a fine coating of the hoary softness, though their fur cloaks kept them warm.
“It’s interesting that we had the same dream,” Balder mused, staring off into the village softened by the sky of white. The Norwegian pines stood tall and straight, accepting the extra dressing regally.
“I’m still wondering why we both had the same dream and why I felt so compelled to come here.” Hercules shivered a bit, his cloak seeming inadequate, though Balder’s provided even less protection and he didn’t seem to notice.
“That’s a question for the Norns,” Balder answered as he continued through the village not noticing how his breath rose in puffs of white.
“The who?” Hercules asked, puzzled. Nothing about this trip made sense to him. He tried not to shiver, but in truth, wasn’t used to this much snow, the icy air.
“They keep a book in which all things are recorded,” Balder answered.
“Like our fates,” Hercules murmured more to himself than Balder. They traveled on a bit further, the silence of the snowfall engulfing them. All noise was muffled, even their footsteps. Hercules glanced upward, noticing how clear the air was, how each flake of snow seemed perfect and how the coldness made him feel just a tiny bit more alive.
“I apologize for my brother’s actions,” Balder began and Hercules cut him off.
“Oh, I just saved a girls life.”
“You saved her pigtails,” Balder corrected. She was accused of stealing another’s man. The trial by axe was to cut off her pigtails.”
“They could have killed her!” Hercules protested.
“But it could also have proven her innocence. Your simply forestalled the verdict. If she was innocent I would have guided the axes to simply cut off her braids.”
“How was I to know?” Hercules asked, letting his frustration show.
“You don’t know us,” Balder responded, reaching out to Hercules and placing a warm hand on the demigod’s forearm. “But your actions have set her back to square one.”
Hercules sighed. “Trial by axe. “Who would have guessed?” He sighed heavily as he muttered under his breath. “Guess I do have a lot to learn.”
Hercules turned to Balder to ask him to clarify, but saw that the blonde god was distant, his eyes and mind elsewhere. He cocked his head.
“Mortals,” Balder spoke quietly. “I think one of them may be dying!” He turned to Hercules. “Excuse me,” he pleaded.
“Certainly,” Hercules answered, puzzled but understanding. He didn’t hear the voices of distant mortals, but if he could he would certainly respond.
Balder vanished, but in his mind’s eyes Hercules could still see him, though foggy and as if through a frosted window.
A man lay still on a bed of snow, his companions surrounding him weeping and holding him. An older man stood aside praying to Balder. Hercules couldn’t hear the words but the pain in the man’s face was apparent. His hands were clasped tightly and tears ran down his cheeks, freezing as they reached his beard.
Beside Hercules a smaller blonde Norse god appeared, also intent on Balder’s action.
“This I think you should see,” he spoke without even looking at the demigod and with a nod of his head opened a full window into place Hercules perceived with such limit. In the frigid night air, the scene appeared as clear as if Hercules himself was there.
The old man was beseeching Balder for help, while Balder knelt beside the warrior, pressing his hands against the gash in his side where the blood flowed unstopped. The warrior’s face was ghastly pale and he lay limply in the snow, a bed of stones beneath it. Flakes of white fell on his face as he lay unblinking and still, not shaking off the snow that covered him like winding cloth.
“Odin!” the old man beseeched. “Send Balder to heal this young warrior in the mercy of your spirit. It can’t be his time! Oh please!” The old man fell to his knees, dropping his into the powdery snow as his group of fellow warriors stood impotently watching the young man’s life drain out in a puddle of red, the only warmth in the night leaving him.
“They can’t see him,” Hercules spoke softly, the sudden realization hitting him. He watched as Balder’s hands caressed the unsightly gash, stopping the bleeding, putting warmth and vitality back into the young man.
“Mortals can only see us when we want them to do so, the smaller Norse God advised.
The demi god shook his head in amazement. “I haven’t known many gods who actually cared about mortals.”
“Balder is one in a million. I assume you’ve met Thor.”
“Yeah, we met,” Hercules responded dryly. In the opened window, he watched as the young warrior opened his eyes, the light returning to them. He reached for the older man and rose on shaky legs, finding his balance as his comrades supported him, smiling and gaping in wonder. The old man praised Balder, tears of joy now streaking his face.
“Sadly, Thor and Odin live only for war. If not for Balder, this land would have been laid to waste long ago.”
“Praise Balder the merciful!” the old man cried out.
“Balder is the only hope these northmen have for peace and justice. That’s what makes the prophesy such a shame.”
Hercules turned to this new god. “What prophesy?”
“From the Norns’ book of fate. All that happens is inscribed on those pages. Some say the future is written there, gods and men only play the roles written for them.”
“I believe we make our own fate,” Hercules snorted, raising a skeptical eyebrow.
“Really? Perhaps that’s why you’re here. To remake Balder’s fate.” The Norse god watched in surprise as Balder began materializing in front of them. “I’ve got to run.” His shape shifted and while Hercules stepped toward Balder, the other god morphed into a wolf and on swift and silent padded feet disappeared into the snowy night.
Hercules turned too late to see the metamorphosis. Shaking his head in wonder he turned back to the now fully present Balder.
“Want to talk about the Norns prophesy?”
Balder shrugged, his long golden hair shimmering in the light of the moon, trying to peek through quickly flowing clouds as the snowfall slowed. “I found this in my room in Asgard,” he spoke simply as he handed a piece of paper to Hercules.
Hercules opened the folded sheet and stared at a drawing of a funeral pyre.
“It’s torn from the book of fate. Loki thinks it reveals what will come. You see now why I need your protection.”
Hercules wrinkled his brow. “Loki?”
The god who opened the window for you to see what I was doing. Did you not know that I can feel my family’s presence at all times?
“That’s handy,” Hercules commented. I take it you believe this is your funeral pyre?”
Balder nodded, eyes focused on Hercules intently, ice blue meeting steel.
“But you’re a god,” Hercules tried to point out rationally.
Balder stood silent for a moment, his eyes softening. “In these northern lands, Hercules, even gods can die. In that way at least, we’re more human than the gods you know.”
Loki stood thoughtfully at the mouth of the remote cave. The winter wind ripped at his fur clothing like the teeth of a rabid beast, slicing with unrelenting power and unforgiving judgment. The mountain top lair had been used for shelter by both men and creatures since the beginning of time, but Loki doubted that there had ever been any more evil creature dwelling in its depths than the one crouched there now.
The wind tangled its fingers in his blond hair, twisting and pulling like a bully child and Loki shivered, feeling chilled to the bone. What must be done, must be done, he thought to himself as he took a first tentative step forward. The hourglass had been turned, the sand slipping slowly, inexorably down. One god must live, no matter what the cost.
He stepped forward, his stride gaining length and confidence as he left the dim light of the cold Norse night and entered the blackness of the forbidding cave. He didn’t want to seem frightened, though he sensed that this beast was more powerful than all of them combined, and like the animal derivative it was, could probably his fear, smell his nervous sweat in spite of the frigid night. The light from the door faded as he followed the path away from the maelstrom of blowing snow, light , not falling but carried and tossed like confetti by the wind. He stopped for a moment to let his eyes adjust to the deepening blackness.
He stared forward again when his vision cleared and the dark shadows of jagged stalactites looked less like claws and more like arrows pointing the way. He continued, hoping he sounded confident as he spotted the glow the creature’s eyes, like lumps of charred wood glowing hotly as the fire was sucked deep into its core.
He moved close, but kept back, not sure exactly what the thing considered a respectable distance. He knew so little about, sensed nothing, as if it had cloaked itself in a cocoon of such unfathomable strength, so that the creature within was shielded entirely. Loki could see it only in shadow, as always, but what was visible was entirely strange to him; leathery skin, lizard-like and at the same time almost scaly. The head was an oval, more like an egg lying on its side, jaw jutting and pointed teeth like tiny blades. The hands had long claw like fingers with nails that were more tool than ornament. And worst was its breath. The stench as it exhaled noisily became worse when it spoke, and the sulfurous emission made Loki’s stomach churn as his mind conjured images of pits of death, rotting bodies and maggots.
Loki swallowed back his revulsion, bowed his head and spoke.
“Hercules has arrived. All goes as planned.”
He stepped back, certain that he was done now that the message had been delivered. Surely this thing could handle its plan without him from here.
“Don’t move!” a commanding hiss rolled across him, stopping him instantly.
“Take this dart and my blood,” the monster demanded, stretching a curled claw out at him, but not close enough for him to simply grab it.
He stepped forward again, eying the tiny dart extended to him. He took it, careful not to touch the creature for fear that in doing so, some of its incredible evil would rub off on him. Loki was a mischief maker, but his heart wasn’t mean.
“What do I do with this?” he queried as he turned the tiny weapon in his hands, examining it from the needle sharp to the feathered back. So small, it could hardly be of significance.
But his ignorance was laughed at by the creature. It knew his thoughts.
“With this you kill a god!”
Loki shrunk back. NO! He closed his eyes for a second, and when he opened them the thing was gone, or hidden or cloaked. Damn it! He didn’t sign on to do the dirty work.
But Loki knew that he must do this, HAD to do it. To refuse was to foretell his own death along with the others. Loki wouldn’t die, he’d vowed that. A God must live to protect the people. He curled his hand around the tiny dart and with simply a thought he disappeared, a grey wolf with a magnificent ruff trotting off without missing a step.
Hercules sat in the village inn watching the commotion with distaste. A woman scurried across the wet floor, picking up pieces of meat discarded or lost in fights. Two men attacked each other, butting helmeted heads with tremendous clangs and staggering backwards.
Hercules shook his head in disgust.
“Why are they doing that?” he asked the old man perched on the stool next to his.
“The old man nodded sagely. “Because it pleases our father, Odin. Last one standing wins.”
“Makes sense,” Hercules muttered. “About as much sense as the rest of this trip.” He sighed. “I was hoping to find a place to spend the night; instead I get to watch people pounding each other senseless to honor a god who must think that his mortals are fools.”
“I’d be careful what I say,” the old man glanced nervously around the Inn. Odin is powerful and to win the battle insures the victor a special place in Valhalla.” Think about what you’re saying, stranger. It isn’t right to disrespect the gods or strip the people of the comfort of their beliefs.”
Hercules watched as one of the head bangers burst forward while the other moved almost imperceptively to the side and the charger ran headfirst into a support pole, dropping like a sack to the floor.
“Like father, like son,” Hercules spoke to the man next him. “Head butting, trial by axe…”
But the old man had slipped away, uncomfortable with Hercules judgment, having nothing to compare it with and knowing that the Norse gods had their own standards.
From Valhalla, Odin watched the strange demigod through his water mirror. He’d seen the Greek’s journey and watched as he meddled in the affairs of the Norse men. He shook his head in disdain.
“Who is this pup Hercules that he dares to insult Odin?”
“He is a stranger to our Northern lands father,” Balder explained patiently. “He is well meaning, but ignorant of our ways.”
Loki smirked. “Perhaps all his kind are so disdainful of the gods.” He snuck a sideways look at his father, hoping to fan the flames of anger. The old man could certainly mete out justice, and it could serve to get him off the hook in the long run.
“He who dishonors Odin, dishonors Odin’s sons,” Thor grumbled. He spun away from the mirror, facing his father. “I’ll kill him for you father!”
“No!” Balder interjected. “Kill him and you may seal my doom, as well as your own. Hercules is the one I saw in my dream, the one able to stop Ragnarock before we are all dead.”
“Thor shook his head in disgust. “How can a son of Odin let himself be frightened by nightmares?’ He turned from his brother. “Father, honor must be served.”
Balder grabbed his brother’s shoulder and spun him around in a half circle. He must be made to understand. “I’m not frightened and these aren’t nightmares,” Balder spoke with quiet strength. “We both know that my life may be at stake, and with it, the onset of Ragnarock.”
Thor couldn’t miss the strength of his brother’s conviction. And for all his hot headed responses he knew in his heart that the end of the Northern gods would begin with the death of Balder. It was written. And they all had experienced the dreams, though none would admit to it except Balder. To express fear would be to show weakness.
The brothers quieted as they heard the soft foot steps of their mother approaching.
Frigga had heard the loud voices, seen the argument through her own water mirror. The dreams of Balder’s death tormented her; the thought of Ragnarock tore at her spirit. She wasn’t afraid of death, and she knew her husband wasn’t afraid either, but the thought of losing her sons, of the North people floundering godlessly without leaders, without war and kindness and even a little fun made her soul colder than the ice that locked in this land and the people her family called their own.
She slipped a hand gently onto Balder’s broad shoulders. “Your life is what matters to me.” She turned to Odin bestowing him with a sad smile and eyes that conveyed both pain and hope. “For our son’s sake husband, withhold your wrath from the stranger.”
Odin stared across at his beautiful wife. She was his strength and his conscience, always at his side. She had given him these sons who made him so proud. He owed her everything and could deny her nothing.
“Odin may rule Asgard, but Frigga rules Odin.” He reached for her hand, brought it to his lips and kissed her skin, warm and beckoning in spite of the temperature. “Whatever you wish. No one will harm Hercules, my dear.”
Thor didn’t attempt to hide his disgust. He turned with a snort and marched out of the room.
Loki watched with interest. Another twist to the story. Who would be responsible for Ragnarock? An angry son, jealous over a foreign demigod? A father who wouldn’t listen to his chosen advisors? Or even a mother who let her love for one son be a cause of pain for the others. There were so many possibilities.
“I’ll go talk to him,” Loki offered as Odin and his Balder nodded assent.
Frigga turned to her husband as Loki scurried off after Thor and Balder disappeared, returning to his beloved Norse men.
“A mother shouldn’t love one son more than the others, but my youngest has always held a special place in my heart…”
“It’s nothing more than bad dreams and a scrap of paper. Not all prophesies come true,” Odin tried to reassure his beloved, but the gruffness of his own voice couldn’t hide the fear he also felt.
“Some do,” Frigga countered softly.
Odin could see her pain, the concern that kept her pacing, preoccupied. She was a goddess; she shouldn’t have lines on her face. Yet Frigga worried. A lot. And she believed in the prophesy.
“What if I was to extract an oath from all things living and unliving, an oath that no weapon made by gods or man would serve to cause our son Balder’s injury or death?”
“I would love you even more if that is possible.” Frigga leaned forward into her husband’s familiar arms, taking comfort there and let herself be wrapped in his warmth. She settled against him, pressing her lips to his and feeling him receive her with love and understanding.
Loki watched from out of sight. Thor’s feelings didn’t matter. His end would be no different from Balder’s. But his brother, that would be hard to watch.
Hercules was seriously wondering why it was he’d come to the Norse lands. He certainly didn’t seem to be either needed or wanted, except by Balder. He trudged through the town, if you could call it that. The torches in the few homes had been extinguished, windows shuttered and the darkness and silence seemed infinite. Hercules felt acutely alone, a tight fist gripping his heart. He’d spent his life with Iolaus by his side, never even thinking that Iolaus wouldn’t always be there. He’d taken for granted that Iolaus knew what he thought of him, the depth of his caring and the hugeness of his need.
There was so much that had been left unsaid, so much he now questioned. Did Iolaus really understand how important he was to Hercules? Did he need to hear the words that Hercules had always felt but never said? He let the blackness of the night enfold him in the complete silence offered unconditionally by the sleeping village and the insulating effects of the snow.
The wind blew through the pine boughs, whistling a mournful tune. Why was he here, he wondered as he trudged through the soft whiteness of blowing snow? Was it that Balder had called out for him, or simply that the Norse god reminded him of Iolaus in so many ways…the flowing blond mane of hair, his deep caring for people, the easy rapport he’d established with the demigod...
But Balder wasn’t Iolaus. Balder knew nothing of Hercules and certainly didn’t travel at his side. He hadn’t slain a hydra back to back with this god or slept under the star light tucked close to him. He hadn’t gone to school or raised a family or lost a family or slipped into an alternative universe with Balder. Yet there was something about the Norse god, his kindness to humans, his easy rapport, his refusal to accept the judgment of the other gods, and his choice of Hercules over the will of the collective deity which lent itself to the comparison.
Hercules pushed the thoughts aside as he spied a small hut standing alone and dark, nestled among a copse of trees. Perhaps the owner would let him sleep on the floor, near a fire, especially if he agreed to keep it going. Hercules was cold and tired. His mind was running away with him and he needed to get a few hours sleep if he was going to function tomorrow.
Hercules knocked on the door, waiting for minutes which passed slowly as his boots grew wetter and the wind blew the snow off the pines over his head and onto his hair and shoulders. No one answered. Hercules pushed the door and it opened easily to his touch, swinging open to a single room.
There was a small hearth and wood waiting to be lighted, neatly stacked. To the side was a bundle of extra wood. On one side of the room was a crudely made bed of cut trees tied tightly and rope supporting a straw filed mattress. A mat was stretched out before the hearth and an easel with a chair in front of it stood silently in a corner.
“Hello!” Hercules called out loudly as he stepped inside. “Anybody here?” He waited, assessing the solitude. “I don’t think so. Looks like this is home for the night.”
Hercules bent to the hearth, and pulling a flint from his pack, tried to light a fire. The wood refused to cooperate and Hercules felt the bark, the dampness that claimed the wood for its own.
“Too wet,” Hercules mumbled with a shake of his head as he cast his flint to the floor in disgust, knowing that the freezing wetness he felt would persist through the night. He drew in a deep breath.
Suddenly the damp wood in the hearth lit and a warm fire welcomed him. Fingers of flames waved a beckoning hello, chasing the frigid darkness back into the corners like chastised curs. A caldron appeared, dangling from an iron spit, and from the bubbling pot steam wafted. Hercules could smell the sweet scent of rabbit stew with fresh root vegetables and for moment he had to close his eyes.
It could have been Iolaus’ stew, and this room a wayfarer’s stop. He hadn’t smelled anything this wonderful since, well…he opened his eyes and pushed the unbidden thought back.
Blinking, he turned and in the bright room saw a loaf of bread suddenly appear on the table, followed by a mug of ale, frothy and bubbling down the side of the tin mug. Finally the air shimmered watery and a golden haired figure hovered behind the table. Hercules’ heart seemed to float up into his throat. The sudden warmth of the fire, the scent of the stew, it must be getting to him. Iolaus was dead.
The figure solidified and Hercules felt the lump in his throat melt and the warmth faded just a bit as he recognized Balder sitting now at the opposite side of the table.
“You looked hungry,” Balder spoke simply.
“Thank you,” Hercules replied.
“You’re welcome,” Balder nodded. A bowl appeared and a ladle next to it. “I’m not hungry, but serve yourself.”
“How did you know?”
Balder chanced a knowing smile. “Would you believe Godly omniscience?”
Hercules nodded and grabbed for the bowl and ladle, taking a good quantity of the stew and then sat down opposite the Norse God. “Not bad,” he ribbed. “But I’ve had better.”
“A new recipe,” Balder shrugged. Here we prefer wolf soup.”
Hercules swallowed hard. “Think I would have passed on that.” His eyes met Balder’s.
“I hope you won’t judge the Norse people by the standards of your homeland. We live in a trying land and have had to develop our culture around that.”
Hercules slurped down another spoonful of the rabbit stew, enjoying the tender meat and thankful for the sweet carrots and potatoes he’d grown to like ever more after his stay in Eire.
“Head butting contests? Trial by axe? I’ll admit it’s pretty foreign.”
“Life in a land like this is a war won by the strong,” Balder pointed out. There are months that go by when we don’t see the sun. The coldness seems unending at these times. And there are times when the sun never sets. We don’t live in a world like yours.”
“Strength and brutality don’t have to go hand in hand.” Hercules took a long swallow of the ale and tipped the stew bowl to his lips, swallowing the last of it. He hadn’t eaten all day and damn, this stew was good.
Balder nodded. He stared at Hercules’ bowl and suddenly it had been refilled with the succulent stew.
“I’m trying to help my people realize that. But they are mortals and time is finite. Staying alive is a struggle; diseases, war, famine and a short season for agriculture take their tolls. Small lessons are passed on and each succeeding generation becomes less violent, more malleable. The civilizing of a people goes slowly and even a god must be patient.”
Hercules tipped his head, conceding the point, but he had more to say. “What about your brother Thor? Bad weather the cause of his volatile temperament?”
“Thor isn’t a people person,” Balder dismissed his brother. “He rages against the endless night. We each face the darkness in our own way.”
“What darkness?” Hercules questioned.
“I have told you, we live at the edge of the world. Time stops. Darkness takes over without day.”
“Seasonal affective disorder,” Hercules snorted softly.
“Perhaps,” Balder mused. “But it could be his birth sign,”
Loki stood on the top of a hill. He watched his nephew kicking a rock and chasing it, only to kick it again. “Hello!” he called.
“Go away!” Thor responded.
“Thor, your father doesn’t love Balder best,” Loki soothed. “He’s simply worried. A child shouldn’t die before a parent. Your Dad fears that.”
“Balder has Odin worried, that’s all,” Loki cajoled. “All this talk of dying. Did you know that your father had all things living and unliving swear they wouldn’t hurt Balder?”
“Thor raised his eyes to his Uncle. “Can he do that?”
“Sure. And that means that Balder has no reason to fear prophesy.” Loki smiled, trying to put his nephew at ease. “That means we can go back to life as it was.”
Thor looked up at his Uncle.
Loki thought of the evil creature in the cave, the one who held the future of all people of Norse land in its twisted grip. He didn’t want it to win. He loved his nephews, but there was no other way,
“No, no, it won’t work,” he lowered his eyes.
“Why?” Thor questioned his eyes boring into his Uncle
Loki took a deep breath and steeled himself to look up at Thor. “Balder would never believe that he can’t be harmed.” He smiled softly, hoping Thor couldn’t see the pain in his eyes. “Unless someone he trusts proves it to him.”
Hercules woke, still full from the evening’s meal. He rubbed his eyes to remove the crusts accumulated over the nights sleep. Too much ale certainly took its toll. The sun shone in brightly through the single window, replacing the light of the long burned out fire and Hercules turned away from the hearth. His head ached. That darned mug of ale never emptied. Never trust a god.
Hercules let his hand drop away from his weary face and from the corner of his eyes he saw a white sheet flutter in the icy breeze that tore through the small window. He dropped his eyes and watched as a loose sheet of paper skidded across the hard dirt floor. Reaching out, he grabbed it, holding it up so that the beams of early light illuminated the exactingly draw picture. It was a funeral pyre.
Hercules sat up, his heart going into overdrive. The picture seemed too real, had he dreamed it? Had Balder sent him the mind picture? In his heart the demigod knew that this was the reason he was here in the Norse land.
He pulled his eyes away from the paper, trying to separate from the uncomfortable feeling that tugged at his gut. As he focused across the room, he became aware of an old woman, sitting with her back to him and painting with deliberate strokes on a pad of paper fixed on an easel.
“I’m sorry. I didn’t realize this was your place,” Hercules stammered, surprised at finding this person so comfortably ensconced in the hut, obviously aware of him, yet at ease with his presence.
“It is for now, the old woman answered, not turning from her easel.
“How long have you been here?” Hercules asked as he thought how empty and deserted the place seemed last night after Balder left.
“Forever,” she answered simply and kept painting as if the single word would answer all questions.
Hercules nodded, accepting the response for everything that it was. “And this is your work?
“I paint what I see.”
Hercules stood up and walked over behind the old woman. She sat so straight, her white hair neatly braided and pointing arrow straight down her back, and Hercules peeked over her shoulder to see what she was currently working on, worried that it would only cause him more angst.
The picture was plainly one of Balder in the throes of death, being struck by knives and axes, pain and surprise registering on his face as his knees buckled. Hercules involuntarily sucked in a deep breath, remembering the dream that had brought him here.
“Balder,” he spoke with concern. So you’ve seen this? I have as well.” He took a deep breath, steeling himself for the worst. “Where is this to be?”
“Where trees meet seas,” the old woman answered sparsely, not even turning to her questioner.
Hercules knew he had no time to spare. He turned away from the old woman and raced back to the Inn, so close to both the forest and the sea. His feet sunk into the slippery cold snow. Powder was so much more difficult to make headway against, but in climates as cold as this, Hercules knew there wouldn’t be the wet snow he was used to.
The distance was short and Hercules strode forward determined to see his dream become nothing more than that, and not prophesy. His breath was short as he sucked in the icy air, blowing out steam. He could see the dark outline of the Inn further down the path, had to get there!
The door grew closer as Hercules plowed on, his boots becoming slick with snow and ice, his fur cloak fluttering out behind him like a demented bird. He ran on, careening off of trees, sending the squirrels chattering to higher branches and the birds’ aflight. His boots fought to purchase traction as his mind worked overtime.
Not one more death of someone I care about!
He slammed through the door and immediately skidded to a halt as he saw Balder standing with his back against a wall and Thor’s men readying knives to be tossed at Balder.
“NO!!!!!” Hercules screamed as he positioned himself in front of Balder.
“It’s all right Hercules,” Balder reassured. He held up his hand to keep everyone away and with the other, gently moved Hercules aside.
Thor’s men threw their weapons at Balder as soon as Hercules was out of the line of fire. Hercules dived back in, blocking the trajectory of the weapons. Hercules fought to deflect each and every weapon, his arms like lightning strikes against the solid metal. He danced and wove as the knives flew at Balder, standing so perfectly still and peaceful.
But even the demi god was no match for the sheer number of weapons being tossed at a single individual at once. The odds played out and while Hercules blocked an axe and a scythe at one time, a small slender stiletto slipped past his extended arm and sunk itself deep in to Balder’s chest.
The weapons stopped coming and Hercules whirled around with a gasp, expecting the worst.
But to Hercules’ in astonishment, Balder stood unharmed, grasping the handle of the deeply imbedded knife. He gave it a tug and as the blade appeared in its entirety the wound sealed over without a sanguine drop spilling.
Thor stepped up to his brother and reached up to slap a meaty hand on Balder’s own broad shoulder.
“See brother, there isn’t a weapon on Asgard or any Norse land which can hurt you now.” He smiled up at his brother and nodded reassuringly as he flexed his hammer throwing arm. “Not even my hammer.”
Hercules clenched his fists and stepped stiffly forward, jaw tight and eyes fiery. “You could have killed him!” he spoke to Thor, not even bothering to hide his dislike for the warlike god who reminded him so much of his own half brother.
Balder turned kind eyes on Hercules, reaching a hand out to the demigod soothingly.
“No. Thor wanted to put my fate to rest and he has. I’ve been haunted by false dreams.”
Hercules shook his head solemnly as he reached into his belt and pulled out the folded paper he had secured there. He carefully opened and smoothed it, then held it out for the brothers to see.
“You call this an empty fantasy? This is what the Norn drew this very morning.”
Balder shook his head as he turned his eyes away from the paper. “This won’t happen. Odin’s power protects me. See for yourself. Try to strike me dead.”
Hercules shook his head again, his fist crumpling the paper as he sighed in frustration. The Norn was as much a god as Balder, and like the Fates was simply doing what she knew was right. Balder was acting on his father’s promise, and Hercules had first hand knowledge that Fathers weren’t always reliable. But he shook his head, turning his eyes down momentarily. He didn’t know Odin.
“This is stupid,” Hercules protested. “In a land that values trial by axe, I find it hard to see that all the gods are compassionate. If Odin offers you protection, why does the Norn deny that?”
“What’s so bad about trial by axe?” Thor demanded, pushing his face towards Hercules.
“Patience and compassion,” Balder reminded the two other men.
“I trust my father. You,” he nodded to Hercules, “have a very different relationship with your father than I have. I can’t be harmed. Choose any weapon.”
“I said no!” Hercules thundered, wondering why he had been called to this place of thickheaded men and Gods that refused to listen to him.
“That axe. That hammer. Anything,” Balder coaxed his eyes full of trust and his face sincere. His eyes were as blue as Iolaus’, his golden hair tumbled loosely to his shoulders and for a moment Hercules understood that this was about more than the Norse gods. It was about Iolaus, about accepting his failure to protect his best friend or to rescue him one more time when he passed into the underworld. Balder had all the good that Iolaus did and Hercules had the opportunity to finally to do right by a peoples who needed a champion for mortals, and Balder was that champion.
A little girl came forward and tugged on Hercules arm. She had a face of innocence and such big eyes. She held in her hands a tiny dart with a pin at the end hardly long enough to pierce the skin, let alone kill.
Hercules stared at the girl and the weapon. So innocuous. He didn’t see that the eyes were Loki’s, wasn’t aware of this gods ability to change appearance.
“If you insist,” he answered. “How about this?” Balder smiled and nodded.
This couldn’t be a true weapon. He took the tiny dart out of the small girl’s hand not noticing the glistening on the tip or the fine line where it had been dipped in God killing potion.
Balder laughed and extended his palm.
“Are you sure this is what you want? Hercules asked.
Balder nodded and Hercules tapped his palm with the tiny dart, bringing forth a small amount of blood.
“There, satisfied?” he asked stiffly, barely concealing his anger at Balder’s foolhardiness, and hoping this simple show of respecting Balder’s wishes would lead him away from the crowd, from this sideshow.
He looked up from Balder’s palm.
Balder gasped; his legs grew weak as he fought to stand. His eyes rolled back in his head and the room grew silent. Time seemed to stand still as Balder collapsed like a great snow shelf calving away from a high peak. Every muscle fiber seemed to be melting as the Norse god puddled down at Hercules’ feet.
“NO! Hercules breathed in horror as he dropped to his knees and tried to soften Balder’s fall. He cradled the fallen god in his arms, feeling the too familiar horror at the sight of his noble face gone slack, the icy blue eyes grown opaque and the tumble of golden hair across his arm.
Once again he had failed. Once again he had lost to the evil that sought to take away all that was good and righteous to mortals.
“Balder!” Thor bellowed in distress as he stumbled on legs no longer oaken but mere saplings, falling on his knees at Hercules’ side.
“Thor…” Hercules started hoarsely. He tore his eyes away from Balder and met Thor’s fiery glare.
“You killed my brother!” Thor bellowed, venting his pain and rage.
“Wait a minute,” Hercules answered defensively, his lids dropping and a scowl starting. “We were tricked, can’t you see that?”
His voice was nothing more than the rushing of the cold ocean tide, the cackle of a stormy wind blowing through leafless branches, the squawk of a lone crow. Thor saw only his brother’s murderer as he flew at Hercules in a rage.
“Thor!” Hercules implored as he fended off a blow from the mighty hammer and shoved the Norse god backward. The crowd pushed back, pressing against the walls, and some left swiftly and silently through the open door.
Thor raged forward again and Hercules spun away, leaving him to try and avoid stepping on Balder.
“Stop it Thor,” Hercules warned. But Balder’s perpetually angry brother turned deftly and started charging, hammer raised again.
Hercules raised his arms to block the blow. “Listen to me! Hercules shouted. “Stop fighting and use your head. This wasn’t something I did deliberately, we were set up!”
Thor didn’t listen. He charged forward stubbornly and Hercules steeled himself for the attack.
But it never came. As Thor raised his hammer mere inches away he suddenly stiffened. His legs stopped their forward progression and his arms remained raised, suddenly becoming cold and stiff.
Thor watched incredulous as Hercules turned swiftly to stone, becoming nothing more than a fearsome statue in a matter of seconds.
The little girl that had given Hercules the dart and had had stood wide eyed watching the action suddenly disappeared and in her place stood Loki.
Thor whirled around. “Loki! Did you do this?”
Loki stared at his nephew, nodded his head. He turned to Hercules, assessing his work.
“What have you done?” Thor shouted, feeling cheated out of a sure victory. “I could have killed him without a doubt.”
He will pay the pay the price,” Loki reassured. “But at the proper time. Meanwhile he’ll keep. We must bring your beloved brother back to Asgard.” Loki challenged Thor with a simple state.
“If not, you risk breaking your mother’s heart, and your father’s wrath.”
“Stand back, Loki,” Thor warned, wondering why his uncle didn’t mourn Balder’s death, seeing that there was no regret on Loki’s face or defeat in his stance. Perhaps Hercules had been right, Thor realized. Suddenly he didn’t want to be around his remorseless relative. Thor simply disappeared as Loki approached the stone Hercules.
“Don’t worry Hercules. I’m not done with you yet.” And in an instant he was gone, a little girl standing in his place. She turned and skipped out the door.
Thor stood stoically as the burning boat was launched into the ocean. Odin stood at his side, leaning on him for support.
“There lies Balder. He was the best of us, poor dearest son.” He gripped his wife tightly and pulled her into his chest where she sobbed uncontrollably.
“Balder the brave was more than just my brother,” Loki spoke. “He was my inspiration. He achieved a level of goodness I aspire to.”
Thor cast him a dark glare and stood silently as the boat slipped farther away until finally it was simply a tiny candle flame on the horizon.
The blonde girl with the long braids walked back into the Inn. She stared at the stone statue that once was Hercules, who had saved her from the trial by axe. She stared at the gray cold stone, eyes fixed on its face.
“Hercules!” she shouted. “Hercules! Where are you?”
Hercules had been inching away for hours, trying to free himself, chipping away at his solid god made prison with dogged certainty that he would free himself. He flexed and relaxed his muscles repeatedly, causing cracks and chips in the stone. Slowly but surely Hercules was succeeding in releasing himself.
From deep in the stone he heard a voice, high pitched and female. Commanding. Calling out his name. He made one final attempt to break out, inhaling deeply and contracting every muscle and pushing with every ounce of his being.
At the sound of her voice, Hercules burst forth from the stone, shedding pebbles that hailed down on the girl.
“Ok, now I’m mad!” he declared as he felt the pressure of the stone release and he burst out in a shower of rocks and pebbles, finally feeling the coolness of the Norse air surround him. He looked cautiously around the room and saw the blond braided girl lying in a hill of the stones he had burst from.
“Sorry,” he mumbled as he reached out and grabbed her hand, pulling her free of the pile of debris, then added “what are you doing here?”
“Thinking for myself,” she answered assuredly, shaking off the dust which clung to her like winding cloth. “Like you said last night,” she nodded and shook off what dust she could. “You know how long it took me to grow these?” She held up her long blond braids and waggled them at Hercules.
“Uh, not really,” he answered, glad that he had gotten through to her, but skeptical that such a small intervention could make such a life changing difference. After all, this girl hadn’t exactly treated his intervention with joy.
“A long time!” she exclaimed with a serious nod of her head. “And I’m not going to let anyone try to chop them off again!” She put her hands on her hips, staring pointedly at Hercules. “I just came to tell you that.”
Hercules nodded, thinking that this Norse land was indeed foreign and wondering whether he would ever understand the people. “Well good for you,” he finally answered, turning from her stare and shaking off the rock dust that coated him, stepping free of the fragments that mounded at his boots.
“Yeah, next time some bimbo accuses me of stealing her man I’ll just knock her head off.”
“Right,” Hercules responded as he turned in a slow circle to get his bearings. “You know what? I have to find Loki. Maybe we can talk later.” He hoped she didn’t take him up on it. “Uh, would you know where the gods live?”
The girl gave him a strange look. “Sure. In Asgard.”
Hercules shook his head. That was a name, not directions. “So how do I get there?”
“The blonde shook her head. And people thought blondes were dumb! “Duh! Try dying in battle.”
“That won’t do,” Hercules shook his head. “I need to be alive to do what I need.”
The girl cocked an eyebrow. “Which is?”
“Look”, Hercules sighed. “oki was responsible for putting the dart in my hand which killed Balder. And Balder was one of the few gods who actually cared about mortals. I need to set things right if I can.”
“You will have to take Bifrost to Midgard. It is the rainbow bridge between the land of mortals and the land of the gods, Asgard.”
“A rainbow bridge,” Hercules sighed. It shouldn’t be hard to find, but he hoped he had enough god blood in him to let him pass. Why was it never easy?”
“Thanks,” he said as he turned to leave.
“Hercules!” The blonde called after him. “Are you married?”
“Yes,” he answered wearily. His mind turned to his partnership with Iolaus. No real marriage had lasted as long as this partnership. Perhaps he was simply destined to walk alone, with fleeting friends and partners. He silently hoped again as he had so many times in the recent past that he wasn’t immortal, that he wouldn’t be destined to follow this path of loving and losing for all eternity. The Olympians could keep their godhood. It was worth nothing in the face of a great friendship.
The girl nodded and turned away as well.
On a hill over looking the ocean Odin watched as the flaming boat floated toward the horizon, bourn away on the winds and waves. He shuddered as he thought of his son, Balder, the kind and gentle being reduced to ashes. A child should never die before his parent.
The setting sun cast an orange glow across the sea, making the whitecaps shine like glaciers against a frigid gray sea.
“And so the long night falls,” he murmured as he leaned on wobbly legs to his wife, who stood stoically, though tears ran from the swollen red eyes and her body trembled at the effort of keeping herself standing. He turned to his son Thor, bestowing a somber stare.
‘You know the prophesy. For once, don’t do something stupid.”
“But father, Hercules…” he protested.
Odin held up a silencing hand. Hercules had been used; he could see that in the pain which dulled the foreign demi god’s eyes, in the way he mourned Balder. It was clear to Odin that this Hercules had pinned some sort of great hope on helping Balder, something bigger than simply being a guardian. And he had given Frigga his word that Hercules would be protected. However, a beating that didn’t result in death could also be considered protection.
“Thor,” Odin growled at his glowering son. “I am taking your mother back to her room to rest and grieve in private. I expect to see you in my chambers.” He pulled his wife close, feeling Frigga’s strong shoulders bow beneath the weight of her loss. He kept a stony stare locked onto Thor’s eyes before finally turning away from the roiling grey sea, away from the tiny dot of flame that raced against the horizon, ready to dip from view forever.
When he saw Thor’s eye look away from his, he turned, and with Frigga carefully tucked against his side, he faced into the raging wind and blowing snow and started down the hill.
Thor stood fuming, his strong arms crossed against his massive chest. He didn’t feel the wind or the cold, only his anger and powerlessness. The flaming vessel that carried his brother’s body into Valhalla to rule over the slain readying to serve Odin at Ragnarock had disappeared, presumably through the gates to that happy hunting ground.
He heard a soft voice carried on the howling wind, lifted to him and then the firm grip of a warm hand on his shoulder. Thor spun around to face his brother Loki.
Loki looked sadly up at Thor, regretting the path he was leading his last nephew through. But it had to be done. The beast had assured him that there would be one surviving god to insure the Norsemen followed the will of the beast. One to whom the people could look up to for guidance. And he had threatened that if Loki wouldn’t follow his directions explicitly, then all of the Norse gods would die, and the Norsemen would be left rudderless.
“Nephew, don’t blame yourself,” he choked on the words, feeling within that all the blame was truly his. He knew that Thor bore the burden for starting the melee that had ended in Balder’s death. He had known Thor for eternity, watched him grow up, strengthen and find his power, yet now he was part of the downfall.
“It wasn’t your fault, it was Hercules’.”
Hercules lengthened his stride as he climbed the hill leading to the rainbow bridge. It hadn’t been as easy to find as he had thought, but luckily the snow had started blowing and the scant light of the sun shone through the crystals making the bridge visible.
He scrambled upward and stepped onto the bridge glistening with all colored hues that paraded through the spectrum.
“Rainbow Bridge, this must be the place,” he muttered to himself as he stepped forward and climbed the arch that presented itself to him.
As he climbed up, closing in on the zenith, he heard a whistling sound. His godly senses kicked into action and he ducked, just in time to miss Thor’s hammer as it sailed through the air so close to his head that it grazed his hair.
“Thor!” he grumbled, realizing that nothing was going to be easy.But still he wouldn’t give up. “I’m NOT your enemy!” he shouted.
“I should have killed you when I wanted to!” Thor screamed hoarsely. “Then Balder would still be alive.”
Hercules heard the pain in his voice, and responded in the only way that would ensure that they could work together in the future.
“Loki killed your brother!”
But Thor charged blindly, fueled by raw anger and overwhelming pain and regret that he hadn’t been able to help his brother. He flailed at Hercules, punching with gnarled fists and butting his head against the demigod, his horned helmet gouging deep into Hercules’ flesh.
“Liar!” Thor roared and he pushed forward, trying to knock Hercules off balance.
The demigod held his ground, understanding Thor’s rage at the loss of his brother. He reached for the pounding fists and grabbed Thor’s wrists, restraining him, sidestepping the swinging head, sharp horned helmet.
Thor kicked Hercules’ ankle and pulled his feet out from under, making the demigod topple like a felled tree and the two men twisted and rolled in the powdery snow.
Loki stood in front of Odin’s water mirror watching the fight between his brother and the meddlesome foreign god with a satisfied half smile on his face. It really was comical the way Thor reacted without thinking and the way the foreign god kept trying to reason with him. And though on the outside it was amusing, inside, Loki saw the fight more no different than his own, a struggle overcome the ultimate evil. But neither of the combatants he watched actually knew who the true evil was…and Loki had to deal with that on his own. He lost the smile and sighed heavily, turning away, only to find his brother approaching him.
Odin strode into his chambers scowling, eyes fixed on his mischievous younger brother, their ages so different Odin had always treated Loki like a son, rather than the brother he was. He was so close to Thor’s age, so distant in upbringing it was easy to overlook the fact that Loki didn’t have to answer to him.
“Where’s Thor!” Odin demanded rather than asked.
“Don’t be angry,” Loki responded.
Odin brushed off the response. “Where is he?! I told him to see me in my chambers!”
Loki glanced at the water mirror and then pointedly back to Odin. “You know he means well, but he has a really nasty temper.”
Odin looked at the mirror, then back at his brother. He saw the false concern, the slight tremble as he leaned in closer. His brother was hiding something. He had grown up with Odin’s sons, as close as a brother with them, yet now he seemed to distance himself from them.
“You knew what was at stake. Why didn’t you stop him?” Odin questioned suspiciously. Loki had never been one to back away from confrontation before. True, he didn’t fight like Thor, or reason like Balder, but he did manage to weasel his way out of the spotlight. “Why didn’t you stop him?”
Odin in his age and wisdom could see what Loki couldn’t. That Hercules was the sole factor with the potential to prevent the total devastation that would be Ragnarock.
Me?” Loki squeaked. “When Thor has vengeance in his heart and a hammer in his hands? I don’t think so.”
Odin shook his head. His younger brother was a coward with no more forward vision than an ant. He never saw the full picture, only the end result from his own viewpoint.
“Was Thor winning?” Odon asked, sincerely hoping he wasn’t.
“He had the advantage of surprise at first, but that’s gone now,” Loki admitted candidly. He shook his head. “Rage makes a poor tactician.”
Hercules and Thor battled on, now rolling on the ground, grappling, claiming top position and getting a few good punches in before the positions were reversed. Snow clung to the fighters, dusting their hair and clothing.
Hercules shivered as his cape fell open and twisted, getting trapped by a booted foot and torn away from him.
“Stop fighting like a mortal!” Thor spat derisively. “I thought you had the blood of the immortals in your veins!”
Hercules spun him over onto his back in a cloud of rising snow.
“I DO have the blood of a god in my veins, but it’s my mortal blood that gives me true power!” He snorted and shook his head as he pinned a writhing Thor down. “If I fought like a god I’d be fighting dirty, no thought to mental strength, just how to best hurt you.”
He released Thor and stood up as the Norse God quickly pulled his bulk upward and regained his balance.
“I’ll fight like a man. Here I am!” He stood with arms extended, still and challenging, eyes locked on Thors. “Go ahead and see if you can kill the mortal in me!” he taunted. “Hit me with your best shot!”
Thor roared and reached for hammer, drew his arm back chambered for the throw.
Hercules stood his ground, never taking his eyes off of Thors.
Thor threw the hammer with every ounce of power he could muster, his eyes fixed on Hercules.
The hammer flew, spinning with such speed it was barely visible.
Hercules stood stoically until the last second, then without breaking eye contact ducked, letting the hammer spin over his head and crash into a wall of rock behind him, imbedding itself deep within the solid stone.
“My hammer!” Thor cried in surprise.
“That would have hurt,” Hercules murmured.
He leaned forward and grabbed Thor’s wrists. “All right, now can we talk?”
Thor pulled away. Hercules lunged for Thor’s hammer, reaching it just before the Norse god. Brandishing it high over his head he shouted.
“You want this Thor?”
Thor tugged at the demigod’s arms but Hercules stood tall and threatened Thor.
“Leave me alone or you’ll be the victim of your own hammer!” he growled.
Thor stepped back.
“That’s better,” Hercules admonished. “Now we can go to Odin and talk this through or I can simply take your hammer.”
Give me the hammer!” Thor howled.
“Nope,” Hercules shook his head, maintaining control.
If he couldn’t get past Thor to Odin, then perhaps he could divert him just long enough to gain audience with the Norse high god. He cocked his arm, muscles coiled and ready, and with a grunt, let the hammer fly as far away as he could manage, hoping that it wouldn’t hurt anyone.
“NO!!!” Thor screamed his face contorted in rage as he simply disappeared.
But Hercules had his head start. He stepped over the crest of the rainbow bridge, and with all the speed he could muster headed to find Odin.
Loki cowered in the cave, letting the shadow envelope him, hoping that the dark would cover his revulsion. The creature was here, he could smell its putrid odor even though he couldn’t see it. And he could feel its presence in the dramatically lowered temperature of the usually cool cave.
“All has gone well!” Loki shouted in to the cave. He waited and watched the shadows, feeling the coolness deepen to match the frigid outdoors. Slowly the outline of the ugly foreign god stood clearer in the gloom and iciness of the cave.
Loki fought to remain in control, though the knot in his stomach was almost tight enough to make him buckle.
“Balder is dead and Thor is defeated!” he called out.
“But what of Hercules?”
Loki could hear the contempt in the creature’s voice as it leaned over him, letting the stench of its breath suffuse the air around him. Its voice dripped distain and Loki knew he was only alive because it was convenient. Even if he survived Ragnarock, there was no guarantee this beast wouldn’t come back and kill him also. But Loki was tricky, always had been, and an eternity of trickiness had to give him some edge.
“Still in the dark,” Loki reassured silkily, hoping he wouldn’t have to be responsible for yet another god’s death. “So our agreement still holds?”
“I never betray an ally,” the evil one spoke, his voice coarse as he leaned closer so that the red glint of his eyes met Loki’s. “Unless of course it is absolutely necessary. You remain under my protection.”
Loki took little comfort in the words. After words were nothing more than hot air, and with no one as a witness, well, there might as well have been nothing said. ‘It’s a fine mess I’m in,’ Loki thought as he laughed ironically.
Hercules ran through Asgard, using his godly senses to lead him to Odin. The Old Norse god sat morosely at his water mirror, reviewing Balder’s life.
“Odin,” Hercules gasped as he pulled up short next to the god. “I’m looking for Loki.”
“He’s gone. Now go away.” Odin answered tartly as a young Balder tossed his first snowball.
“Odin!” Hercules started in frustration, but was stopped short by the arrival of Thor, hammer in hand.
Odin held up his hand as Thor raised his hammer over Hercules. “Enough!”
“I need to talk to you about your sons,” Hercules declared.
“I have no sons,” Odin responded and turned back to the mirror.
“I’m sorry Father!” Thor cried plaintively.
Odin spun around. “Betrayer!” he spat. “Fool! You have doomed us all!” He glared at Thor who stood with shoulders slumped and hammer held loose and carelessly. “Get out of my sight!”
Odin grabbed his son and getting a solid grip, lifted him, tossing him effortlessly out the window.
Hercules looked on in astonished silence as Odin turned back to his icy throne and settled on it with a heavy sigh.
“Was that really necessary?” he asked. “All he did was lose a fight.”
“He lost more than that,” Odin waved a hand dismissively at Hercules and the book of fates appeared.
“The Norse book of fates,” Hercules whispered knowingly, stepping forward.
“No matter where you go, the fates will find you,” Odin spoke wearily.
Hercules reached for the book and started turning its pages.
“According to the acts of gods and men, the book grows larger,” Odin sighed. “Until now. For us, this story is at an end.”
Hercules looked up puzzled. “I don’t understand.”
“In an age long gone, the Norse gods received a prophesy,” Odon explained. “We were born to wear three tragedies, which lead to Ragnarock. The first is Balder’s death.”
“Second was Thor’s defeat,” Hercules read.
“At the hands of a half mortal,” Odin sighed heavily as his shoulders sloped heavily. “So soon to come is the third tragedy, then Ragnarock.”
“And after Ragnarock?” Hercules asked quietly.
There is no after. Ragnarock is the final nightfall. The twilight of the gods.”
Odin bowed his head as Hercules took in a deep breath.
“What will the Norse people do without their gods?”
“A good question,” Odin responded.
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