Brooding 7

When Thor flatly refused to kill Loki, assuring him that the healers would make him well again, Loki wished he still had the strength to berate his brother for being such an obstinate fool. But since he did not, Loki merely whispered, “Mother,” and Thor shouted for the guards to send word immediately to Frigga on Vanaheim. Loki was certain that he would not live for much longer; he wanted to see the queen’s kind face one last time before he succumbed to the inevitable. He allowed his eyes to drift shut, only to have Thor shake him (rather roughly) awake. At any other time, the panicked look on his brother’s face would have been gratifying, but right now he was too exhausted to feel much of anything.

“Stay with me, Loki,” Thor kept repeating. “Stay with me, Brother. You will get through this!”

Two healers arrived and were let into the cell. The woman, a chief healer whom Loki vaguely recognized, asked him to lie on his back. As Loki struggled to comply, his body aching and protesting the movement, Thor carefully lent his aid and continued to hold Loki’s limp hand even after he had been repositioned. When she finished a cursory check of his condition, the healer had her assistant start an infusion of nutrient-laden fluids into Loki’s veins while she scanned his body with more intricate measures.

“What is wrong with him?” Thor demanded, although it was much too early for answers. “Has he been poisoned?”

“That is certainly a possibility,” the healer said without turning her attention from the image of Loki’s circulatory system.

“Venom.” Loki’s voice was so faint that Thor had almost missed it. The healer, however, had not, and she turned a shrewd look upon her patient.

“That would be harder to trace, of course. We will search for it thoroughly.”

Loki made a sound that might have been a grunt of affirmation or a snort of derision – Thor could not be sure. It worried him to hear Loki’s labored breathing and slight flinches of pain, but as the infusion began to saturate his body, he could see some color returning to his brother’s skin. Loki was still pale but at least not deathly so.

“What is the matter?” came the commanding voice of Odin from outside the cell. “Has he tricked you all into believing he is ill?”

“This is no trick, Father!” Thor protested. “He has been poisoned. We must find the culprit at once!”

Odin questioned the chief healer with a glance.

“It is possible. We have not yet determined the cause, but he was severely dehydrated and malnourished when we arrived,” she reported.

Loki cleared his throat, the effort costing him what little color had returned to his cheeks, but he managed to string together a sentence: “The spiked rock serpent of Haldos has venom that causes nausea, abdominal cramping, and painful swelling of the joints.” He turned to look Odin in the eye, his expression baleful and accusing, as he added, “There is no antidote.”

“No!” Thor gasped, looking to the healer for confirmation. Her grim countenance made his heart falter.

“That is consistent with his symptoms. We will look for it, as well as other poisons that would cause them.”

Loki turned his gaze back up to the ceiling with a sardonic grin that was more a grimace.

“As if they would actually find it when Odin himself has ordered its use… and has come to see his handiwork completed…”

Before he wallowed in his misery much longer, however, there was a flurry of activity at the end of the hallway. Frigga came rushing down the stairs, several soldiers trailing behind in a vain attempt to overtake her. Odin, not realizing that Thor had sent her word, stepped forward to greet her but was met instead by her cold fury.

“My child is dying and you would keep me from going to him?!” she demanded, not breaking her stride as she approached the cell. Although he had intended no such hindrance, Odin wisely held his tongue while she brushed past him. The guard at the controls for the shield nearly became the next object of her wrath when he fumbled to lower the barrier. She strode in and bent over Loki, concern etching the few lines in her face deeper as she took his free hand and studied the healer’s projection of his digestive tract. “Don’t worry, my dearest,” she murmured near Loki’s ear. “We will find the cause of this, I promise. I will not let you suffer any longer.”

She ordered some herbs to ease his pain and stroked his pallid cheek, all the while observing the chief healer’s progress. Loki gazed up at her silently, his lips pulled into a tight, thin line. The infusion was doing its work, helping him regain some strength, so the next time Frigga turned to him he whispered a plea.

“Please, Mother… let me go. Whether to the halls of Valhalla or Hel, I do not know, but I beg you to release me from this torment.”

“Loki! Dearest, you speak foolishly – of course you will go to Valhalla when you die, but that day is not yet come. You will recover, my child, once the healers find the source of your illness.”

“Venom,” Loki repeated, the word coming out as a tired sigh. “Haldosian rock serpent.”

Frigga blanched. She knew there was no antidote for that. Her piercing gaze, directed at the healer, was only half hopeful of finding denial. The healer gave what answer she could.

“We have not found any traces of it… yet. It is a notoriously difficult toxin to find in a body.”

“The symptoms… do they fit?” Frigga asked, her voice brittle.

“Of course they fit,” Loki spouted out, with almost a laugh. “I’ve had a long time… to consider the matter. It’s the only cause… that fits so perfectly.”

“But Loki,” Frigga said, combing his tumbled hair back from his forehead, “you were hale and well when I last saw you! Even such a venom would not explain how thin you have become in so short a time.” She pressed her trembling lips together for a moment, stroking her son’s emaciated arm.

“I know. Perhaps a parasite.” Loki drew another labored breath before continuing, “The Numorsian wyrm has minute larvae that feed upon its host… causing nausea until the host can no longer feed itself… but the larvae grow by absorbing nutrients from its living flesh. They attach themselves to the lining of the small intestine,” he added for the benefit of the healers. The chief healer looked insulted, as well she might, but wordlessly magnified the projection of his small intestine.

“Wait, so… you think you were both poisoned and infected?” Thor asked, his brows furrowed in outrage.

“Those two combined… would bring about these symptoms… very nicely,” Loki stated, his attempt at sarcasm falling flat. “And if either one failed, the other would suffice… to finish the job.” He turned his head slightly to see Odin’s reaction, but the All-Father did not so much as twitch a muscle. Frigga, however, saw where Loki’s gaze had fallen.

“For shame, Loki! Do you truly think your father would wish to kill you? Do you really think so meanly of us?” she scolded. “If your king had wanted you dead, you would not be in this cell at all but already executed and sent to the next realm!”

Loki’s expression was resigned, as though he knew the truth of the matter but also realized that he could make no one else comprehend it. Frigga was furious, but she contented herself with straightening Loki’s nightshirt, while Thor glanced in horror at his father, then back at his brother.

“We’ve found something,” the chief healer announced, interrupting the tense silence. She magnified the discovered object’s projection even further, revealing a creature with a large, bulbous head and enormous eyes, ill-formed limbs, and what seemed to be a tail curled around its bottom.

Frigga gasped as she studied it. “This is no parasite,” she cried. “This is a child!

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