Brooding 52

Queen Frigga found her husband on a balcony overlooking the city – the same balcony, she recalled, where he had been standing after banishing Thor to Midgard. One raven was perched on his wrist; the other, on the tip of Gungnir. They both flew off as she approached.

“I know what you have come to say,” Odin said without turning around, “but you should know better than to ask me to reverse my decree.”

“Would you compound the folly of your judgment with obstinacy, then?” Frigga replied, cold fury forming an icy edge to her voice. “When you brought Loki to me as a babe, you swore that you would treat him no differently than Thor – that he would be just as much your son as your own blood. Was that oath a lie?”

“I did treat him as my own son! Reared him, taught him, and loved him just as much as Thor!” Odin thundered, finally facing his wife. “I gave him every advantage of rank and privilege! But for what? After centuries of living among our people and learning from our best minds, he still reverted back to the bloodthirsty ways of the Jötun. What more would you have me do?

“Bloodthirsty?” she echoed, taken aback. “No more than Thor, who would have poured out the blood of our own men as well as our enemies in the quest for glory! And yet you gave Thor the chance to redeem himself. Even when you banished him, you sent Mjölnir to Midgard so he would have the opportunity to prove his worth. Will you provide Loki no such chance? Have you blotted him out of your heart forever?”

“Have you forgotten that he has tried to kill Thor, his brother in all but blood, at every opportunity?” the All-Father growled. “What hope of redemption is there for a heart as black as that? He had no remorse for murdering countless Midgardians, not even for attempting the annihilation of his own race. What else could I do but lock him up for the safety of the Nine Realms – as is my duty and responsibility? I should have executed him immediately, but for your sake I allowed him to live. Now he is about to spawn a child who will likely require constant vigilance to ensure that it does not follow in its parent’s footsteps. I have already shown Loki more leniency than is warranted by his own willful and destructive actions!”

“Have you not considered what caused him to take such actions?” Frigga demanded. “What terrible choices he had to make in order to survive after he had been swept away by the Void? You never asked of him how he had lived through such an ordeal or why he had attacked Midgard. Were you not in the least curious as to what had changed your son – the boy who had adored you no less than Thor – to the twisted, deranged creature brought before you in chains?”

“What was there to ask? His actions spoke loudly enough!”

“Ah! But I know!” Frigga paused to gather her breath, her eyes glistening with tears as well as indignation. “He was forced to it by Thanos, the powerful being who had plucked him out of the Void. He was first ordered to attack us – to attack Asgard – but he refused, even though he was tortured for his pains. He only agreed to attack Midgard in order to buy time in which to devise a plan against his captor.”

“Thanos?” Odin breathed, scarcely believing his ears. “Does the Titan yet live?”

“You know him?”

“By reputation only… but if the tales tell true… this is a serious threat indeed.” Odin paced a few steps in thought, then stopped and turned back to Frigga. “He told you this? Loki saw Thanos with his own eyes?”

“He implied as much, yes, although he only spoke of it to Clint Barton. He did not know I was observing them in their room,” Frigga admitted.

“He ought to have told us as soon as he had returned!” Odin declared, fuming. “To know that such a formidable foe is lurking in the universe and to not warn us of it–”

“You did not give him the chance!” Frigga cried. “You condemned him to the dungeons as soon as he had set foot on Asgard, with no attempt to inquire what had happened to him!”

“He had ample opportunity to explain himself, had he chosen to,” Odin retorted.

“Oh, of course – because being dragged to your throne in chains should have encouraged him to do so,” Frigga returned, her tone caustic. “Have you not heard anything I have said as to how he must be handled? If he is threatened, he will only turn stubborn and his pride will prevent him from confessing anything. Only with kindness and a gentle touch will you ever coax the truth from him. He is like a wounded animal; he would rather die of his wounds than let us know of his weakness – even if we only wish to heal his hurts.”

For a moment, Odin silently watched his wife as she wrung her hands in despair. Then he approached her and held out his hand, waiting for her to take it.

“Perhaps you are right,” he relented, releasing a sigh. “Loki is stubborn and proud and given to hoarding his secrets. He taxes my patience… and you know, better than any other, what little reserves of patience I have.”

Frigga pursed her lips and studied Odin’s hand without taking it. “You also are stubborn and proud and given to hoarding secrets,” she pointed out. “He is not so different from you, Odin. In fact he is more like you, in some ways, than Thor.”

Odin’s hand, still offered in mid-air, faltered. “Is he, now?” he said in a whisper.

“You know he is.”

“Well, then,” Odin replied, meeting the gaze of his beautiful Queen, “perhaps I also need kindness and a gentle touch… lest I grow stubborn and exhaust the patience of those who would help me.”

Frigga acquiesced and took his hand at last, her expression softening. “Perhaps.”

“Come with me to the library,” Odin asked, relief mingling with concern upon his brow. “We must search the records for what information we may glean of this Thanos. And then we must speak to Loki.”

 


 

 

After the men of the Fjǫðr Lið were dismissed, Gløggrsyn took Clint to another training facility that was designed specifically for long-range weapons. Clint was not surprised that Aldinn joined them; he had already sensed that the unit leader would be the most difficult member to win over. However, Clint was willing to allow that if an alien from another planet had ever tried to join his unit at S.H.I.E.L.D., he would have wanted to make sure that the man (or woman) was capable of handling the job. Clint didn’t know how often the Asgardian guards faced combat situations, but he understood that regardless of the risk level, trust had to be earned – especially when asking others to place their lives in his hands.

The shooting gallery had targets set up at various points, with the ones at the far end looking like mere pinheads. The distance was much greater than Clint had expected, causing him to realize that the Asgardian weapons must have a longer range than their more primitive Midgardian counterparts. But the basic structure of the bow was still the same; in fact it looked very similar to the recurve bow Clint preferred himself. Gløggrsyn checked that it was adjusted to standard parameters before handing it over to him.

“Aim for whichever targets you wish,” the Captain directed. “Once you have grown accustomed to the hvassalmr bow, we will set the targets in motion.”

Clint plucked the bowstring gently, listening to the high-pitched twang to assess its strength, then spread his feet in a firing stance. For the first shot he did not compensate for gravity since he wanted to see how much the arrow would be affected. He was impressed when it dropped only five or six inches at a distance of 300 yards.

“Nice,” he remarked, notching another arrow. “You’ve obviously got better materials here; I could never get that much velocity with a simple recurve on Earth.” The next shot was a bull’s-eye. Clint grinned with pure pleasure. “It’s as powerful as a compound! I could get used to this.”

“You must get used to this if you wish to join the Fjǫðr Lið,” Aldinn said with a slight frown, not understanding the Midgardian expression. Clint chuckled before he began shooting at the further targets.

“No problem there, buddy,” he murmured while he pierced target after target in its dead center. Adjusting the height of the trajectory, he was pleased to find that even the furthest target – at what he guessed to be about 1,500 yards – was still easily within range.

“Good, good,” Gløggrsyn grunted. “Are you ready for some movement now?”

“Let ’em rip, Captain,” Clint responded, grabbing another quiver. As the targets began to swirl on their invisible tracks, some curving gracefully while others zig-zagged in jerky evasive patterns, he quickly shot down the more predictable ones first and took his time calculating the harder shots. Still, it was only a matter of minutes before the forty targets had been hit, all but two of them very neatly in the center.

“Well done,” the Captain said with a nod, then turned to Aldinn, who had fallen silent. “I trust you have no more doubts as to his ability?”

“No… of course not,” Aldinn replied, looking rather chagrined but also baffled. “Clint Barton, how did you learn to shoot so well? I had heard that bows have not been in common usage on Midgard for some time now.”

“You’re right, they aren’t,” Clint agreed, pulling the arrows out of the targets as they were brought around on the track. “I grew up in a sort of… unusual environment. I was raised by carnies – carnival folks. Do you have carnivals around here?”

Aldinn shook his head. “That word is not known to us.”

“Well, do you have, like, traveling entertainers? Or even… when you have a holiday, people who perform special shows – do stuff you wouldn’t normally see – to entertain people?”

“Oh! Yes, we have entertainers, to be sure – story-tellers, singers, jugglers, and the like. They are paid to perform at feasts and celebrations.”

“Okay, so on Midgard we have groups of entertainers that travel from town to town to put on their shows. Most towns only have one carnival that comes once a year, so it’s a pretty big deal – especially for the kids.” Clint placed the last arrow back in the quiver and turned to address the other men. “I was still a kid myself when they took me in, but Popa figured out that I could shoot and made me practice. See, Popa had a shooting booth, where the townies would pay for three arrows and try to knock the prizes off the shelf – toys like stuffed bears and dolls, you know – and he wanted me to be his stick.” Clint scratched his head at the blank expressions on Gløggrsyn and Aldinn’s faces. “A stick is, uh… Well, basically, if the townies saw a little kid like me hit a prize on the first try, they’d think, ‘Hey, this is easy!’ and give it a whirl. Of course it wasn’t that easy, but my job was to make it look easy. And I guess I just liked it, you know… I liked being able to do something better than almost anybody else. So I saved up my pennies and kept buying bigger and better bows.” Clint turned the hvassalmr bow over in his hands appraisingly. “This is by far the best one I’ve ever used.”

“It is a worthy weapon for one as skilled as you,” Gløggrsyn told him.

“Uh… thanks,” Clint answered, flushing at the compliment. “Um… No offense, but would it be all right to make some alterations to it? If it wouldn’t be against regulations or anything…”

“What kind of alterations?” the Captain asked in surprise.

“Well, this guiding groove right here… I’d like it to be a bit shorter. It’s hard to adjust for the target’s movement at the last second, you know? It almost locks you into course so you can’t compensate for something you might notice just before you let it fly.”

Gløggrsyn’s hearty burst of laughter startled Clint, who looked up from the bow to see that even Aldinn was smiling.

“What? Did I say something funny?”

The Captain shook his head and slapped Clint’s shoulder. “No! Only that every single member of the Fjǫðr Lið has asked to make the same change to the hvassalmr. We have all disliked that feature and have pared it down to allow for more control and precision.” Gløggrsyn slapped Clint’s back again, grinning widely. “It seems you are truly meant to be one of us. Come! I will take you to the armory where you may alter it exactly as you wish.”

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