Winter's Fury

Before the Jotun goddess Skadi came to Asgard after her father's death to claim her inheritance and a husband, she was worshipped widely in Midgard among the humanfolk. She went often among them during the winter months, preferring to spend the summer months either in Niflheim or in the far northeastern reaches of Jotunheim, where it was snowy year-round. It was Skadi who first taught them the making of skis for the quick and snowshoes for the slow, of winter dogsleds and traps of many kinds, of tracking and recognizing spoor even in the bitter cold, and slowly they became winter hunters under her guidance. She taught a few of them, also, of the ways of the stars, and how to read their chill and gleaming knowledge.

Among the northerners of Midgard who lived more than half the year in snow and ice Skadi was much beloved, and also not a little feared. To gain her favor could mean the difference between surviving the bitterest winter in reasonable comfort, or seeing one's children perish of cold and starvation. They did not fool themselves into thinking that Skadi was a kindly mother goddess; she was a maiden of ice, a white wolf in the snow with blood on her breast, a spear of ice falling upon the unwary. They knew her nature, both cold and bloodthirsty, and they offered her sacrifices.

When the seers looked upon the signs of Nature in the autumn, and knew with sinking heart that this winter would be especially harsh, a young man was chosen among the handsomest of the village, and offered to Skadi as consort and sacrifice. He was sent naked to a bower built for them in the snow, there to await her pleasure, and she could take it as she wished. Then he was lashed to a tree, and his testicles tied to a buck livestock animal of some sort - goat or bull - and they were ripped from him. Whether he lived or died was up to Skadi and how well he had pleased her, but he would never share his seed with another woman again. His blood was caught in a vessel of carven stone and left on her altar, and she would have mercy on the village and send them plentiful game, and fewer snowstorms.

When Skadi came to Asgard, the Aesir were well aware of her reputation among the humanfolk of Midgard; they knew of the shrines built to her and the sacrifices made. She was a Goddess in her own right, and thus after a time they allowed her a voice at their Moot, once she was safely married off to Njord. Yet the marriage with Njord did not last, and while Skadi claimed the inheritance of her Aesir stepmother and dwelt in her castle in the few snowy mountains of Asgard, she often grew lonely in the strange golden land, so different from the places that she loved to roam. She could not go home as often as she chose, as there were decisions to be made and she was the only voice to speak for Jotunheim, and the burden of it weighed on her heart.

One other thing weighed on her heart as well. She was still married to Njord the hostage sea-king - for it was not the custom of the Vanir to divorce before the first year was up - yet she no longer lived with him, nor shared his bed. He had been a pleasant enough bedmate, but now she slept alone, and the huntress was not used to sleeping alone. At home, in the court of Thrym, Jotun men vied to share her bed, and offers of marriage had come thick and fast. But here it was different. The men of Asgard might admire her crisp beauty, her dark hair and snow-pale skin and eyes the blue of a winter sky, and they might even bed her, but they would not take a giantess to wife, nor even treat her as more than a brief pleasure-tryst. Frey was entirely taken by her cousin Gerda, and she would not tread there out of respect, even were he interested, which he was not - his eyes were all for his own etin-bride, and Skadi begrudged them not. There were no Jotun men in Asgard save Tyr, who had an Aesir wife and an Aesir mistress....and Loki, who had been the cause of her father's death.

At first she would not speak to Loki, nor even look at him, though he plied her with fair words. She was no fool; she knew that her father's greed had been more than half the reason for his death in the guarding flames of Asgard - that and his foolishness, to attempt to fly into their citadel without permission - but she had loved her father in spite of his flaws, and it was a long time before her coldness towards Loki thawed in any way.

Yet, finally, she managed to speak to him, and to her surprise found him to be a fine listener - something that she would not have expected from the green-eyed wagtongue. In spite of her misgivings, she found herself telling him about her loneliness, her family, her empty bed. He simply nodded, and said, "It must be hard for you here, Lady, especially now that your cousin Gerda has gone back to her people."

"Aye, and though I do not blame her, there are times when I wish that I could do it myself. Yet I am here, and I have made the commitment; I will see it through. I would not turn tail like a hare so soon," she said.

"No one could ever accuse you of cowardice," Loki said, and it was the sort of compliment that a giant gave to a giantess, and in spite of herself Skadi glowed.

Soon after, Loki spoke to Odin about Skadi's sadness. The All-Father smiled and said, "Well, my brother, of all the people here you are the one who could best bring a smile to her face, if she were to forgive you your part in her father's death."

Loki's brow wrinkled. "Are you saying that you would have me court her for marriage, after her handfasting with Njord is over? I do not think that she would wish that; nor would I." For Loki's thoughts were ever on Sigyn, the child in Njord's household who was growing fast towards womanhood, though he spoke of this to no one save the sea-king,

Odin looked at him with sharp eyes that twinkled, and said, "No, my brother, I would not order you to marry the white she-wolf, for I know that your heart is elsewhere in my realm." And Loki started, for he thought that he had kept this secret well, but Odin merely smiled, and said, "Yet you could bring her some comfort, for a time, or at least pleasure. There is no harm in two meeting as equals in this way, as I did the beautiful Vanadis. Give her some comfort. We need her happy, for otherwise she might fill her castle with men from Thrym's court, and I would not have that here in my land."

Loki went away and thought about this, and decided that a roll in the furs with Skadi would not be so bad a thing, and besides he heard the implicit request in Odin's voice. "Of all the things that he has asked me to do, this is one of the most pleasant by far," he thought, not knowing that someday it would be one of the things he would most regret. Yet Skadi was hard to approach; she was still cold and distant, and he did not wish to count on words to win her.

One day Skadi came down to Gladsheim while all and sundry were in the yard, playing music and watching folk dance. She seated herself on a great chair and sat, glumly staring at the dancers as if they were hardly there at all. Loki looked over at her, and an idea flew into the trickster's head. Hurrying off to the barn, he grabbed a large buck goat by the horns and dragged him out.

A few minutes later, Skadi looked up to see Loki being dragged along by a furious buck goat. A rope was tied around his horns, and the other end was tied around Loki's testicles. He was screaming and waving his arms in a manner that suggested there was more acting going on than genuine pain, but it had the desired effect on the crowd. Roars of laughter broke out all around. Skadi stared openmouthed at him. Loki met her glance just for a second as the goat dragged him past her, and winked at her. She realized immediately that this was meant to be a reference to her sacred rites, although not a serious one. She sat there openmouthed, not sure whether or not to be offended, and then as the goat dragged Loki by again the rope strategically snapped, and he tumbled rear-first into her lap.

"Oh! Oh, my Lady, I am so sorry! Oh, that brute!" he cried with exaggerated pain, and then winked again and flashed her a smile. For a moment she stared at him, still dumbfounded, and then slowly she smiled. Everyone around saw that smile, and applauded.

He may have been mocking my sacred rites, she thought, but I sense no malice or scorn in him. He is a trickster, so perhaps this is his way of asking. If so, it can mean only one thing... he is proposing to become my consort. Why else would he do this, in this manner? And it is true, as a Jotun and my equal he should not be unmanned, and it would be a fine way to pay his debt to me. As my consort, it would be a life lived for a life taken.

She put her arms around him, and said, "I trust that the goat did not harm you, then?"

Again that flash of a smile. "I believe that I am still intact. However, perhaps some testing is in order."

Skadi inclined her head to him, still with that reserved, knowing smile. "I would be glad to aid you in your tests, Laufey's Son." A man who wore only his mother's name, she thought, ought to do well following a powerful woman. And I am told that his other wife, the Hag of the Iron Wood, is a strong one as well, so if we can divide him properly between us, it will be fine. He took her hand, and she rose and followed him, and together they went to his bed. There they stayed for three days, pausing only for food and drink and sleep, for Skadi was a woman of strong passions. And though by the end he was exhausted, Loki pleased her well.

Indeed, her heart opened to him, and she began to dream of love, and a bridal bed with a man who would, she was sure, accompany her wherever she chose to travel. For was not Flame-Hair a far traveller himself, born of her own mountainous land? No, it had been folly to think of marrying outside her own kind; she smiled at his heavy-lidded eyes and kissed him, tentatively. It was not a kiss of passion, but one of budding feelings. Skadi was slow to warm to love, and was not easy with effusiveness.

On the third day, as Skadi was dressing to go home to her hall, she asked him, "Shall we travel to the Iron Wood to speak to the Hagia, then?"

Loki, who was half asleep by the time, was startled awake. "What? Why?" he mumbled groggily. "What has Angrboda to do with this?"

Surprise showed in Skadi's eyes. "I would not tread on the hem of her garment; I would gain her permission to take you as my consort, as she is my senior in this. Besides, there are details that we women should work out together - children and inheritance and such-"

Loki sat bolt upright. "What are you talking about?" he asked, staring at her in bemusement. "Consort? What do you mean?"

The ice-giantess froze in mid-movement, and her boot tumbled out of her suddenly confused fingers. "You wooed me with my sacred rites - well, a version of them, anyway. Did you not mean to offer yourself as my consort?"

"By the Slith, no!" Loki cried, and then regretted his harshness as soon as it was out of his mouth. "I mean - I meant only that we should take our pleasure together; that was all. I have no intention of marrying-" The word "you" was swallowed before it left his lips. He fell back on the bed and closed his eyes. "No, no, you misunderstood, sweeting."

Skadi slowly rose from the matted pile of furs and sheepskins. "Then why did you come to me in the way that you did?" she asked. There was no expression on her face at all, and hardly any in her voice, and if he had been paying attention, Loki would have known that this was a very bad sign.

Instead, he yawned and shrugged. "I thought that it would get your attention."

Very slowly, and in a low voice, Skadi murmured, "You mocked and defiled my sacred rites merely in order to get me into your bed? You had no intention of following their meaning? You committed sacrilege for three nights of sport? Is this the truth, Flame-Hair?"

Loki looked up, beginning to realize that the woman standing over him had gone cold as a statue of ice. "I did not mean it as sacrilege," he began lamely, but suddenly her face was an inch away from his, and her wintry-blue eyes were gleaming with rage.

"How dare you!" she hissed. "How dare you treat me like some lesser girl to be used and discarded! I am a goddess in my own right, Flame-Hair, and not to be trifled with in this way! Do you realize what an offense you have created? A mortal would be dead by now!" Behind the rage, tiny burning coals of love were being snuffed out by a freezing blizzard. She wanted to weep, wanted to curse her own foolishness, but instead she struck him and fled his home, burying her hopes by the roadside.

Loki left his bed and looked for her, but did not find her, and he dared not go to her castle for fear that she might gut him like a fish. When he returned home, he found Njord standing by his doorway, half in shadow. "So, Loki," he said. "You would have not only my foster-child but my wife as well?"

The trickster's breath went entirely out of him in one whoosh. "Please accept my apologies, my Lord," he said. "I thought that you two were as good as divorced. Besides, this was a mistake that I do not intend to repeat."

"Then you will not by marrying her, when our year is up?" Njord asked.

"By stone and bone, no," Loki said in a tired voice. "I am already married to one she-wolf, I do not need another one. That is the last thing that I need."

"Good," said Njord, "for if you had taken Skadi, I would have refused you Sigyn. She is no match for that one."

"She only used you as a stepping-stone for her ambitions," Loki said suddenly, harshly.

Njord inclined his head. "I know," he said. "I did not mind being so used, as her intentions are honorable, and we have parted friends. And I intend we shall stay so. Your people need someone to speak for them here, Loki, and this is a job that you have not wished to take."

"My people!" Loki spat. "My people are who I choose to be with. I will not be told who to ally myself with, or who to impress!" He stopped, wondering at his own words; Njord merely looked at him for a moment, nodded inscrutably, and left.

Skadi, for her part, nursed her wounded heart in silence, and never spoke of it anyone. So it came to be that no one knew of it, although on that fatal day in Odin's hall after Baldur's death Loki did make a spiteful mention of their short-lived affair. But even if her heart was healed, her pride was not; she bitterly resented Loki's treatment of her sacred rites, and considered his actions an offense against her status. Soon after, when Sigyn grew old enough to marry and Loki wedded her in Asgard in front of all the Aesir, Skadi watched with cold eyes. So you were not looking to wed, were you? She left quietly before the ceremony was over, and said nothing.

Yet Skadi came to find out that more damage still was done to her than merely her heart and her pride. Loki was as much a God as she, and when he performed his mocking version of her sacred ritual, his deeds reverberated through the worlds and affected the deeds of mortals. It was not long afterwards that Skadi found the humanfolk of Midgard had decided to stop sacrificing the blood of their fine youths for her; surely, they reasoned, Skadi would like it better if their young men lived to hunt further in her name, and they began to make the ritual a mock-sacrifice rather than a real one. She was furious, and cursed them with bitter winters and no game for eleven years, but in the end she relented and took their bloodless offerings, deciding that the blame lay at Loki's door and not theirs. .

So it was that by the time Loki was caught and bound by the Aesir, Skadi had a deep and burning fund of resentment against him. After the last of them had left the cave where he lay bound by the guts of his eldest son, she remained, gazing upon his furious face and the weeping visage of Sigyn, kneeling at his side. Drawing from her coat a venomous snake, she hung it from the stone-spears jutting downward form the cave-roof, and bade it stay there. "As you have made me suffer, so shall you suffer," she said, and left just as the venom was dripping from the serpent onto Loki's bound form. As the screams began, a picture flew into her head - Loki and the goat, and his false screams. "You shall suffer for me one way or another, blasphemer," she said, and did not look back once as she strode from the mountain's gaping maw.