Loki had settled very happily into his new home at Stormbright Hall. He now had a generous run of rooms beside Sigyns, an easy walk from the larders and the ale cellar. He had also found an excellent lolling place on the roof of the stable-block where he could watch the industry of others. He was reclining there now with his lap filled with a platter of spice cakes.
There was plenty happening below to pour honey sauce on the delights of idleness. Thor was readying his wain for a long journey in the Outlands. The hallfolk were running to and fro with supplies and equipment: hay for the goats, ale, cheeses and hams for the Os, spare set of bridles and traces, and bundles of cooking gear. Thor himself was lashing bronze cauldrons to the tail-board. "Meilli, there you are at last!' he cried, spotting his blood-brother in the crowd. 'Go and fetch your travelling clothes and we can leave.'
'But Thor, these are my travelling clothes.'
Loki roared with helpless laughter, Meilli's shirt was a riot of embroidery and ribbon trim.
The sounds of mirth from the rooftop drew Thor's attention. 'Ah, Loki, want to come too?'
The Trickster considered briefly, weighing the pleasures of the vast hall with less male competition for the females, or an adventure. 'I will come' he decided and slid carefully from the roof shingles, landing light as a cat in the yard below.
'Run and get some warm clothing then.'
Loki wasted no time and hurried to his room to fetch his own travelling clothes and a warm, black, felted cloak. He leapt back down the stairs and happily took his place on the wain's tail-bench.
Sigyn approached with a roll of blankets. 'Yes, I thought as much, you have packed enough food for an army but not a stitch of bedding between you.'
Thor kissed his housekeeper fondly 'Thanks, lass.'
With the two Osfolk finally settled Thor urged his goats forward and with a din-full rattle the wain left the cobbled court and rose into the heavens.
After a long ride above the clouds, during which a whole net of hams was gnawed to the bone, Thor brought the wagon down onto a stony road in the Outlands. They were in the mountains beyond Hymir's Stead. The region was remote and most of the wights living there were hostile to the folk of Godhome.
The wagon's heavy wheels rumbled; the spark-throwing goats' hooves clattered on the rough rocky lane and the cauldrons hanging on the back-board rang loudly. The din caused many an ettin to bolt his door and the trolls and the mountain hags to scatter. 'Where is everyone?' asked Loki.
'Avoiding trouble' Thor answered smugly.
Not all the inhabitants of the wilds were so wise. The wagon rumbled around a bend in a steep sided valley and they found their way barred by a towering ettin. The goats skidded in the loose stones in their efforts to stop. The ettin was three times the height of a man of Middle Garth, bore three hideous heads on his shoulders and swung a tree trunk as a club. The outlander roared a challenge. Thor shouted back 'Think again, rock-dweller, this is Jord's Son you are facing. If you strike at me you will never strike another.'
The creature roared again advancing on the travellers.
'Hmm,' mused Thor, 'maybe you need smaller words. Ettin, get off the road or I will kill you.'
Undeterred the outlander bellowed, spraying the godfolk with three helpings of spittle. Loki cowered: the ettin was close enough to do them some serious damage. 'Maybe there is another road through; we could turn around.'
Thor ignored Loki and addressed the giant again 'Last chance!' He turned to his brother 'Satisfied Meilli?'
'Yes Thor.' Meilli sat calmly on the wagon's rear bench above the terrified Loki.
There was a net of large spherical stones on the front bench beside Thor. He hefted one, tossed it from hand to hand and there was a blur of movement that Loki registered only as an explosion as fragments of ettin skull were hurled in all directions.
'Uck!' cried Meilli peeling pieces of skin from his fine clothing. 'Can we stop to wash brother?'
'And eat too' Thor agreed eagerly.
Thor halted the goats where the valley's small stream formed a pool and the three Osfolk washed off the worst of the grime. Thor used a pebble to bring down a deer and soon had it spitted. Loki, ever hungry, gathered wood and lit a fire. Thor and Loki sat tending the roasting flesh while Meilli explored the plants on the stream's banks.
Loki watched bemused as Meilli exclaimed in delight at the flowers he found and stored them away in layers of fine linen and wooden panels. He enthused about each one: this would work well as a pattern for weaving or carving. Once he wandered out of hearing Loki asked 'How by Ymir's Beard can you two be brothers?'
'We are foster brothers.'
'Ah, that partly explains it. But he is so... innocent, how can you stand him?'
'Sometimes I need reminding that there is good in all of us.'
'What, even in the rock-ettin back there?'
'Probably,' Thor laughed 'but you would need to divide him a thousand times with an axe to find the good bit.'
After their feast the Osfolk rested and took turns to stand watch. On rising they continued on their journey through the most dangerous lands in the Outlands. The way had opened out with pine forest on either side of the track. To their surprise a young trollwife stood in their way and waved for them to stop. The trollwives avoided the Osfolk and so the gods' curiosity was strong. The troll was short for her kind, about five feet to the tips of her horns and very stocky. She smiled hopefully revealing the full length of her tusk-like fangs. 'Mighty Jord's Son, I am here to warn you' she said. 'My sisters are planning to ambush you beyond the next river crossing.'
'Your sisters?' asked Thor, puzzled. 'Why would you be betraying them unless this is a trap?'
'This is no trap, my love for the Osfolk is stronger than that for my kin. Their hatred of you is abhorrent to me.'
'She lies!' warned Loki. 'The trolls love none but their own.'
'I believe her' objected Meilli.
'Huh! You would!' scoffed Loki.
'Hush' Thor muttered and he leapt from the wagon. 'There is an easy way to settle this.'
'Careful Thor,' Loki warned. 'Trollwives have powerful magic.'
'Indeed', said the trollwife, 'but not as powerful as the skills of the Vans. My tribe heard that you have made peace with the Vanfolk and are teaching one another your lore. They want to try and kill you before your training is complete. I pledge my service to you, Thor.' The trollwife drew a flint knife and cut a lock of her hair which was thick and white like the coarse tail of a horse. She drew the blade across her palm and wetted the hair with her own blood and then spat on in. She placed the stained lock on the ground at the thundergod's feet and crouched down in front of him.
'What is she doing?' asked Meilli.
'Its a trollwife's act of submission' Loki replied, greatly surprised. 'Hair, blood and spittle are used in trollish magic, she is offering him the means to attack her.
'How do you know that?' asked Meilli.
'I grew up here.'
Thor regarded the trollwife 'What's your name, lass?'
Thor reached out and touched her lightly on the forehead between her horns, her thoughts, memories, hopes and dreams were laid bare to his inspection. No hint of mind-wall blocked his way. He nodded satisfied. 'I am honoured to know you, Wise Mother. I accept you as a member of my household.'
Loki near choked in surprise. 'Have you gone mad, Thor?'
'No. Gytha will you look after Meilli for me? I will deal with your sisters and return for you.'
Meilli, ever trusting stepped down from the wagon as Thor leapt back aboard.
The Thunderer seized up the reigns and looked meaningfully at Loki. 'Stay or come as you please, but I warn you, there are forty trollwives up that road. I might not be able to protect you.'
Loki stood a moment with mouth agape. 'Have you totally lost your wits?' he finally burst out. 'We can't fight that many witches, we should call the Vans to fight with us.'
'And show the trollfolk that we fear defeat? I don't think so.'
'Fear? Ymir's beard, of course I am afraid, and so should you be too. Thor, don't do this, we need you alive. And think of Meilli! Are you going to abandon him in the Outlands at a trollwife's mercy?'
'Meilli should be safe.' Thor urged the goats forward.
Loki ran after the wagon and hauled himself onto the tail bench. 'How many stones do you have?'
'Nine' muttered Thor. He was groping under the bench and drew out the spit iron they used for roasting meat.
'Oh great,' Loki wailed, 'rocks and kitchen equipment. Why does that not fill me with confidence?'
'Hah! I can do a lot of damage with a spit iron; just ask my mother'.
Convinced that Thor had lost all reason, Loki reached out with his mind to Freya in distant Godhome. She greeted the Trickster warmly and listened to his pleas with interest. Forty troll wives! she thought at him Well that should be interesting to watch.
Watch? We need you here!
Why? I would only get in the way. You boys have fun. She broke the link with a mindľkiss, which, on any other span, Loki would have been happy to savour for hours.
Thor grinned at his jittery friend 'Courage, Loki, you distract a couple of them with your spellcraft, leave the rest of them to me.'
The goats rushed onwards. Standing stones stood either side of a wide shallow river marking a safe crossing. The wagon rumbled through, barely slowing. On the far bank Thor bellowed a command and the goats swerved, halting the wagon across the track. A circle of troll women emerged from the forest, their earth-coloured tunics blending with the forest. 'Oh Hel!' whimpered Loki.
The Osfolk's senses prickled at the strength of the spells the trollwives were casting. Some of the foul creatures tore off their clothing baring their sagging breasts and extended their arms enticing their prey to lust. Loki felt his prick harden unbidden, resolve fleeing, panic fading into surrender as the spells took hold.
Thor roared defiance as the spells battered his mind-woven defences. He seized up a stone and shattered a troll's skull and then, with a second, brought down another. Two more fell to the missiles and with each troll dead he felt a little relief from the onslaught. The goats kicked out with their hooves at the advancing foe. Thor spared a glance for Loki only to find one of the creatures with a flint knife almost at the helpless Trickster's heart. He grabbed the trollwife by the throat and hurled her against a tree, shattered the trunk and broke her bones.
Thor pushed out his mind-shield to provide cover for Loki and the goats. All disguise abandoned to the fight, the flames of his Os-strength blazed brightly about his head. The remaining five stones each found a target. The trolls were not so easily routed. They had prepared long for this battle. Despite their heavy losses, they fought on with spell and knife, tusk and claw. Thirty trollwives screamed in rage and determination.
Bereft of stones, Thor snatched up the spit iron and used it as a wand to direct his Os- strength against the remaining horde. His first attempt caused a blinding explosion that threw one of the creatures off her feet, killing her instantly and setting the fat of her lich on fire. The spit iron survived six such blasts before the metal melted in his hand. He flung the softened iron away. The remaining four and twenty trolls screamed in triumph and pushed forward, straining against the Thunderer's mind-shield that still protected the wain. He lashed out at the next hag with a mind-bolt of such strength that the troll's skull exploded and one by one the remaining trolls fell to the deadly mind hurled missiles. The air was thick with foul smoke and when Thor searched for the fortieth attacker he found that she had fled. The Thunderer stepped down wearily from the wain, checked that Loki was still breathing and that his goats were hale and finally checked his hand for injury but found no sign of burns where he had held the white hot iron. He shook his head in wonder and gazed, sickened, over the devastation on the riverbank. He started to drag the burning and shattered corpses into a pile.
Loki woke coughing as the stink of burning troll flesh caught in his lungs. He kept his eyes closed fearing the worst and noted with surprise that his hands and feet were not bound with troll-ropes. That could only mean ... he opened his eyes and found himself safe in the wain. He looked about baffled, the clearing smoke revealing scorched ground, shattered tree trunks and lifeless liches. The air was acrid with the smell of a fierce storm. He spotted Thor piling the corpses and staggered over to the Os and embraced his friend with relief. 'Thank Ymir!' Loki cried. 'I thought we were dead: there were too many of them. So Freya did come and aid us.'
'Yes I asked her for help. Frey then?'
'No Loki, I killed them, and I hope it is a long tide before I see that much blood again.'
'You killed them?' the Trickster gasped 'But how?'
'I threw nine stones. One troll I threw against a tree. Then I used the spit as a wand and set six of them on fire. I killed three and twenty with mind spears. The last one ran away.'
Loki looked again at the troll liches. Some resembled roasted meat, this was no kind of spell-craft he knew of. He regarded the Thunderer in confusion, then noticed the flames that still flickered about Thor's brow, half hidden against the glow of the pyre behind. 'Have you been keeping things from me?' he ventured.
'Yes, since you sent me to Freya's spell chamber' Thor sighed.
'But why, how? Oh please explain, you are making my mind ache.'
Thor smiled apologetically 'Many reasons. Firstly the best weapon to have is the one your foes don't know you have...'
'Devious' grinned Loki.
'Secondly, to ensure that when the trollwives did try to kill me, they underestimated my strength. Otherwise there could have been a hundred of them.' Loki gulped and nodded. 'Our enemies will now try every trick they can think of to gain an advantage. The stakes have been raised, Loki, dangerously high. I also had Vanfather Njord to consider: the war between his kin and Mother Jord is still vivid in his mind. This knowledge will make him greatly uneasy. He has long hoped that I am what the warriors of Battlehall delight in believing, weak in spell-craft.
'Now Loki, you should know I am deeply aware and grateful that you fought with me when you could have fled. I would be honoured to have you as my travelling companion, but would you be willing? Now that you know it will make you a target for all manner of Outlandish schemes? In fairness I think you are one of the best able to bear such a burden.'
'I am not sure I know you anymore', Loki admitted, concerned. 'Was your carefree and cheerful nature part of your bluff? I would hate to be tied to one as serious, grim and gruff as Odin has become.'
'You do know me, Loki, I have little in common with Odin.'
'Then I agree, gladly: let the trolls do their worst.'
'Splendid. Now let us rescue our companions and head for home. I will be happier when Meilli and Gytha are safe.'
Thor climbed back aboard his wain and with a word caused the pyre to burst into roaring flames, then urged the goats back across the ford and down the lane. Meilli and Gytha were delighted to see them returned, safe if battle weary. Thor took Gytha in his arms and kissed her on the forehead. 'I may well owe you my life. I wish I could reward you with the husband you crave. But come back with us and maybe in time one of the Osfolk will see the beauty within you.'
'Oh Wisemother, you have seen my dreams, impossible fancies, I am not worthy of a husband in Godhome. I would be content just to sweep your hall.'
Meilli laughed at this. 'Wisemother! That's a good name for you, Thor.'
Loki explained, still regarding the Thunderer with awe, 'It's the name a troll clan give the highest ranking female, the one most gifted in magic.'
Meilli giggled 'She called him a woman; that's funny.'
'Not really, male trolls don't do magic. They are very dim witted. It's the most respectful title she knows.' Loki shook his head trying to settle his thoughts. 'Remind me never to pick a fight with you, Jord's Son!'
A single trollwife strode with dragging tail back to her elder's tent at the camp of the Stormcrows. 'Alas Wisemother' she said as she entered, 'we have failed.'
'I know that' snapped the angry, ancient troll. 'What I don't know is why you left before the battle was won.'
The younger troll hissed. 'Are you calling me a coward, Wisemother?'
'Then listen, Wisemother, and mock me not. Seven and thirty witchwives had been downed by Jord's Brat. I stood, rune staves in hand, the breath of the goats warm against my knees, the smoke of my burning sisters harsh in my throat. I saw Fylga fall, leaving only two of us. He cleaved her shield-spells as if they were cobwebs and with a thought alone he broke her mind-stone and sprayed me with her brains. The stink of his strength was strong, unfailing, and his brow glowed with power. To stay and fight would have been a useless gesture. I chose to live, to fight again.'
'I saw the glow from my spell trance' the elder admitted. 'Yes he is strong. I have only your word for the smell of him. So was there any lessening in his reek of power to give us hope? Could an army of a hundred sisters bring him down?'
'I think not.'
'Then were must be more cunning. Somewhere in the Nine Worlds, there must be a thing that can hurt him. If I have to chew every leaf, slice up every beast and turn over every stone, I will find it.'
'My honour weeps with our defeat. I will help you.'
The elder nodded 'That is well, youngling, I will need your strength.'
Although short, Gytha was heavy and with her added weight the wain was a little overloaded. Thor urged the goats up onto heaven's vault and turned laughing 'How would you like to be enjoying Sigyn's cooking and a hot bath within the next watch?'
'That would be wonderful' agreed Loki 'but...'
'Hang on then.' The cloudy skies of the Outlands were suddenly replaced with bright sunlight over the fields of Stronghome. Meilli and Gytha cried out with delight seeing the towering hall just below them. Loki swore: any lingering doubts he had over Thor's spell-skills melted away. Thor guided the goats carefully down to the courtyard to find his family and the hallfolk there ready to greet them. A delighted Frigga threw herself into her brother's arms and kissed his cheek. 'Welcome home, Almighty Thor!' she laughed, a cry that was taken up by everyone that heard it.
Freya playfully seized hold of Loki and kissed him. 'You were wonderful, I saw everything' she praised him, making him blush. The hall was in joyous uproar with the folk all eager to hold a feast in honour of the Thunderer's victory.
Word of the battle spread through the halls of Godhome as fast as a falcon can fly. The warriors were subdued about the feasting tables at Battlehall; the subject of their scorn had been stolen from them. Finally a spearman spoke up, 'There is always Os Braggi, I have heard that he has never held a sword.'
'For shame' muttered his companions, and gradually they found fresh conquests for their ridicule.
This tale is my own invention and serves to reveal Thor's magical abilities and introduces Gytha who has a role to play in later tales.
Thor has a natural and instinctive talent for magic, of which he is not aware until he consents to be trained, rather unwillingly, in the magical arts by Freya. They decide to keep this a secret as long as possible to distance Thor from the legacy of his mother, who killed the previous generation of gods.
Thor's magical abilities follow on from his magical training in 'The Kindling of the Fire Crown'. His control of lightning is new and takes even Thor by surprise. All he needs now is a tool strong enough to channel this ability without melting.
The trollwives in these stories are extremely dangerous, so Loki's panic is well justified.
Thor's title 'Almighty' comes from the Icelandic legal oath 'so help me Frey, Njord and the Almighty Os'. The Icelanders invoked Thor for legal matters so this must refer to him.