When Hell Freezes Over

Welcome to another Twelve Days of Fic-mas. If this is your first time with us, you’re in for a paranormal holiday treat. The next twelve days will bring you tales of holidays past and present, featuring characters from The Arbitratus Universe, including those you may know from Always Darkest and Before the Dawn, as well as those from Fic-mas past. We hope you enjoy this year’s stories and that we can usher 2020 out in style.

The crowded streets made Ben wish he didn’t need to be in this part of Hell. 

But it was the winter solstice. He had to see Aife today. And they agreed to meet at her house this year. 

She could have come to his place, but his neighbor, Abatu, (a miserable demon, bent on seeing Ben picked up by Hell’s not-so-secret police as revenge for Ben’s lack of tolerance for regular invasions of his grounds by the other demon’s strange pets) had marked their Yule observance last year. It caused some trouble with the higher-ups, but Ben managed to keep Aife out of the inquiry. 

He wouldn’t let his distaste for the neighborhood she had been assigned keep him from upholding their centuries old tradition. If not for his influence, it would have been in one of the even lower levels. Besides, he had good news for a change. 

She’d be thrilled to hear that he’d won an appointment to an Office. Agents were rarely called back to Hell. Not that the job didn’t come with its share of problems. Working for Hell was working for Hell. But it was a damned sight better than his current job. 

His only other option to get out of his Reaping gig was to accept the offer to join Interrogation and Initiation. Stolas, who’d taken an interest in his career since his sorcery apprenticeship, was convinced Ben’s rhetorical gifts would be invaluable to the department. He’d been pressuring Ben to take the position for a while now. But even if Ben was okay with all the torturing and misery inflicted there (he wasn’t), Ba’al was in charge of them now. 

Even if it meant he got granted leave to go to Earth every damned weekend, he wasn’t going to put himself under that god’s command if he could help it. Besides, if Ben worked under him, it would only be a matter of time before the god put two and two together and realized every time one of his rare books went missing, the theft coincided with Ben’s days off.

Of course, he’d nearly gotten caught this last time. He would have if not for some fast thinking and the infestation of screets outside Ba’al’s library window. He hated those squealing little blighters so much he’d have felt bad about coaxing them inside anyone else’s house. But Ba’al wasn’t someone who got any of Ben’s sympathy on his best day. 

Ben snorted a laugh as he recalled Ba’al’s rageful howl upon discovering the noisy little pests hopping their coal-hot froggy bodies all over his favorite rug and burning sooty, oily holes through it. 

Ben let himself into Aife’s modest home and set the flagon of better wine he’d procured for the occasion, along with a sack full of dinner ingredients, on the table next to the door. “Hey, Aife! Sorry I’m late! One of Cerberus’s heads got tetchy and it was a nightmare to get across the bridge today!”

No answer but his voice disappearing into her silent house.

Huh.

“Aife?” he called again, starting to be worried.

“She’s out just now, Lord Ronoven,” came a timid voice from right by his elbow.

The slight, pale girl he’d saved from the Pit not all that long ago who acted as Aife’s serving girl, had appeared as if by magic. He hated that she’d needed a rescue. She was practically a child. 

“Hey, Anabell.” Ben offered a friendly smile. “I’ve told you, unless we’re out around other demons, it’s just Ben, okay?”

“That wouldn’t be proper, sir.”

“I don’t know if Aife’s told you all that much about me, but I’m not too worried about what’s proper. And I’m definitely not into all that ‘my lord’ and ‘sir’ nonsense.”

Her lips flickered in what might have been a smile, but it was gone before he could be sure. “I’ll try to remember that … B–” Her hand flew to her mouth. “I’m sorry, sir. I just can’t.”

He chuckled, more to let her off the hook than anything. He hated that her life had conditioned her to expect bad things to happen if she didn’t behave a particular way, and hated even more that when it ended she’d found herself in Hell and had all her worst fears confirmed. “That’s alright. Maybe someday.” He looked around the dim house. “So, Aife went out? She must’ve forgotten what day it is on Earth.”

Anabell shook her head. “Oh, no, sir. She was most upset. Mostly because of the day, I believe.”

“I know it’s hard for her sometimes.” Ben frowned thoughtfully. “That’s one of the reasons we always get together.” He looked around again, searching for an answer to his friend’s unexpected absence. “I wonder what happened.”

Anabell shifted from one foot to the other, her eyes downcast as they so often were, no matter what Aife or Ben said. They might see her role as servant as a cover that kept another tender soul out of the Pit, but she obviously saw it as a continuation of her life Above. She hummed a small sound of distress, but didn’t speak openly.

Ben ducked his head to meet her eyes. “Anabell, do you know where Aife went?”

She danced a few steps back on her toes, but finally looked at him. “To walk in the cold, sir.”

Ben swore under his breath as his whole body tensed. “She went to Niflhel? After that last card game, Loki would love to see her go astray down there!” he exclaimed, more to himself than to Anabell. “Doesn’t she know demons are lost in the mist all the time?”

The girl stepped back further at the taut edge in his voice, but didn’t look away from his face as she usually did. “Oh, no, sir! My lady would never be so foolish. She was upset, not daft, sir!”

Ben smiled slightly. The eye contact and correcting him represented real progress toward this kid seeing herself as more than someone else’s property. He forced his voice to carry its usual reassuring tone so he could tease out where Aife had gotten to. “Well, that’s a relief. It would be a huge help if you could tell me where to find her. Do you know for certain where I might look?”

“Oh, yes, sir!” Anabell grinned. 

How pleased she looked at the prospect of helping someone she saw as a ‘master’ tugged at his heart, and made him vaguely furious all at the same time. Still, this wasn’t the moment to work on that. Instead, he said gently, “Wonderful. I knew you’d be able to sort me out. Where did she get to, if she isn’t trying to grey my hair by taking off for the Northmen’s perdition?”

“Cocytus, sir,” she replied, clearly expecting him to be pleased.

He kept himself from swearing again, but it took a considerable amount of will, combined with a desire not to frighten the girl. He needed answers before he took off to find Aife in one of his least favorite places in all the Netherrealms. Not that he’d been there before. He hated the very idea of it. “Why in the name of all that’s unholy would she go there?”

“My lady said it was the one place her own wailing would go unnoticed, sir.”

Ben chewed his lip. Aife wasn’t especially prone to big emotional displays. If she’d said that much to Anabell, something truly terrible must have happened. He’d know better where to look if he had some specifics. “Do you know why she was so upset?”

Anabell shook her head, but brightened after a moment. “Wait here!”

She’d forgotten to call him ‘sir’. That was real progress. His satisfaction at marking their influence on her evaporated when she ran back up the hall with a familiar green scroll. A rejection slip. 

Aife applied for a job? Without telling me? What is going on with that woman?

“I don’t know what it says. I never had my letters. But she came home with this, mumbling about the holiday, all manner of sad.”

“May I?” Ben reached out a hand.

She bowed slightly when she handed it over, so Ben might have had to amend his estimation of her progress, but this time when he swore it was none too quiet and she didn’t back away. Instead, she asked with open curiosity and concern, “What is it?”

“Apparently the lady of the house applied for a position in Reaping, and didn’t get it. Why the Hell…?”

“I can help with that!” the girl beamed. “She spoke about it over dinner the other night!”

“I’m glad to hear you’re joining her for dinner now instead of insisting on waiting on her,” Ben said. He almost wished he hadn’t when she bit her lip, but she slipped him a genuine grin that said she was glad about it, too. “What possessed her to apply with Reaping? She knows it’s a nightmare. Or she should. I’ve told her often enough.”

Anabell bobbed her head in agreement, as her concern for her mistress reasserted itself. “She said as much, sir. But she also said she wanted a way to spend some time Up Top. She hasn’t been able to see about her family since … well, since you took her.”

Of course. It’s been hundreds of years since I could do anything about that. Aife is still so attached to her kin … I should have seen this coming.

Ben handed Anabell back the scroll. “Thank you. That explains a lot.”

“Cocytus is no place for my lady to be wandering around.”

“Don’t worry. I’ll fetch her home for you.”

“You’re going there, too?” she asked with a shrill climb at the end. 

Ben could read her fear about something happening to both of them. If neither of them came back, she’d surely find herself back in the Pit by day’s end. He offered a reassuring smile that he mostly had to fake. “Don’t worry. I’ve come back from tougher places than Cocytus without so much as a scratch. We’ll all be sharing mulled wine together before the Earth finishes turning its day Above.”

“Are you certain?”

“I am.” And he was. But Anabell looked as uncertain as it was possible for a girl to be. “Look, why don’t you work on dinner? That way, there’ll be something to warm us when we get back.”

Anabell picked up the sack full of food. “Of course! I’ll start right away!” She dipped into a curtsey before he could tell her not to and ran up the hall toward the kitchen.

Ben let himself out. He was halfway down the walk when Anabell burst out of the door. “Sir! You’re not dressed for the cold! Do you want to borrow a cloak?”

Ben turned. “I’ll stop home for one of my own. I have another stop to make before I go get Aife for you.”

Her eyes widened a bit in obvious surprise that he wasn’t rushing to her lady’s side. “Where?”

Ben took a deep breath, steeling himself for what might not be a pleasant side-trip. “The Royal Palace.”

He registered her shock at his response, but turned to leave. He had almost reached the street when she called, “Sir?” 

He didn’t think he had any more reassurances left in him, so he pretended he hadn’t heard her and kept walking. He stopped when Anabell’s voice rose in an actual indecorous shout, “Ben!”

He spun, unable to help a grin. “Yeah?”

“Be careful!” she exclaimed, parroting the thing she’d probably already heard Aife say to him at least a hundred times.

He smirked and offered his usual response. “Never.”

***

“You’re sure this is what you want?” the King asked in his rumbling baritone.

“If it pleases Your Majesty,” Ben said with a deferential bow.

“It doesn’t especially please me,” the King said levelly. “But fortunately for you, it doesn’t displease me either. It’s yours, and therefore you may see it taken care of in any manner you wish.”

“Thank you, Your Majesty.” He bowed again.

“I suppose you’d like this announced at the next gathering of nobles? Increase your social capital, as it were?”

Ben cleared his throat. “Um … Actually, I’d rather this stayed between us, Sire.”

The King stared at him until Ben thought he’d catch fire from the heat of it. After an interminable period, during which it took every ounce of poise Ben ever cultivated not to fidget like some damned kid, the King simply waved his dismissal. “As you wish, Lord Ronoven.”

Ben bowed deeply and backed out of the Dread Soverign’s office. He collected his things from the spacious foyer and headed up the street to see about a horse. The Ninth Circle was further than he wanted to go on foot. 

Besides, he wanted to collect Aife and get her home before the last hour of Yule passed. He supposed it didn’t matter, since they were on Hell’s calendar anyway. But it was important to him. Especially now. 

***

The ride was long to begin with, but as he had to make it listening to the wailing spirits flowing down the River Archeron, it might as well have been eternity. Just another reminder of the abject cruelty found around every corner in Hell. 

Ragged, shrouded figures, moaning and weeping, wandered among the rocks, some stretching out their hands to him as he rode past. He knew he’d be faced with Hell’s discarded and forgotten along the banks of the Infernal Rivers that emptied into the lake, but he hadn’t been prepared for the sight of them. It chilled him more surely than the frozen air.

Even though he knew how easy it would be to become lost, almost as easy as it would have been if he’d had to go hunting for Aife in Niflhel, he passed out what food, drink, and coin he’d brought to the souls brave enough to approach him. 

Perhaps he’d regret it, at least according to the small voice in his head, but he had plenty of experience ignoring it. And no amount of whispers from long-departed family members could convince him he’d regret it more than not doing it. Part of him expected to see Aife’s face upturned with the others, just to screw with him. 

But no such luck. 

He rode up to the cliff’s edge where the Fall of Tears emptied into the frozen lake itself. The closer he got to the end of the road, the colder he felt. But it had nothing to do with the temperature. If Aife had wandered away from the road, he had almost no chance of finding her. 

What if she hadn’t just left home to have a good cry? What if she’d given up hope and gone into the water? 

He’d never see her again. 

He glanced at the river. Colorless, half-formed souls flowed over sharp rocks and around bobbing chunks of jagged ice. Their collective lament rose to a crescendo in his ears, until it was all he could hear.

Sick certainty gripped him. Aife was gone. 

A lump tightened his throat and he couldn’t swallow past it. Stinging, watering eyes quickly followed. 

Damn it. 

He hated to cry. He’d rather bleed. His breath hitched against his finer impulses and his eyes overflowed, entirely against his will.

His rented horse seemed to sense his sudden loss of composure and wrenched its head to the side, almost yanking the reins from his hands. He pulled the mount to a halt and climbed off to give himself a minute. But instead of mastering his errant emotions, he got closer to breaking down. He tried all the usual measures to box up his feelings, but nothing helped.

He found himself drawn to the water’s edge. Despite everything he’d read, or been told, about this region of Hell, despite all the warnings, he let his feet carry him there.

This close to the water, he could make out distinct faces, though they all bore a resemblance to each other in their suffering. As he watched them flow past, a deep melancholy settled in his chest. He blinked when a face caused a flicker of recognition. 

He leaned closer to the water.

He imagined he recognized not just one face, but many. Though he’d checked every register he could access and never found any of his family’s names recorded there, he became convinced he saw his brothers, his parents, even Cinnie. Her face finally pulled the sob from him he’d been trying so hard to keep back.

Once the dam of his emotions broke, he could no longer restrain himself. He reached out until his fingers brushed the icy water. Perhaps he couldn’t save them all, but Cinnie floated in the shallows, stretching an ephemeral hand toward him. 

He’d almost broken the surface when the face he’d been so certain belonged to his sister-in-law morphed into a monster’s horrifying rictus of malicious intent. He stumbled back, but frozen hands broke the surface of the water and caught his cloak, pulling him forward on the slick ground.

“No!” he shouted, digging in and backpedaling for all he was worth. “Let go!”

His riding boots got drenched and the cold lanced through his whole body. The sadness he’d felt while still on horseback paled in comparison to what overwhelmed him now. A dreadful sorrow engulfed him, and with it, an all-encompassing torpor. Fighting the hands seemed too hard. 

What’s the point, anyway?” the souls moaned from the water.

“No!” he said again, but he could hear it had lost some of its conviction. 

A stiff, chilled hand closed on his ankle.

He suddenly remembered something he’d read about the Infernal Rivers and the Great Lake of Wailing itself. According to legend, sadness seeped into travelers until they threw themselves in the water to join those from whence the urge came. He wasn’t feeling this hopelessness because it was his, it was the magic of this special Hellscape invading his very mind. It wanted to claim him, as surely as the fires in the levels above.

In a wild effort to free himself from immediate danger, he flung himself backward. He fell, tangled in his heavy cloak. Cold hands caught his wrists. He bellowed an incoherent protest, struggling for all he was worth.

“Ben! Ben! It’s me!”

After his vision of his family in the river, he didn’t dare believe his ears, but he gasped, “Aife?”

“No, it’s one of the blasted kelpies this wretched place is full of rescuing you from itself,” came the half amused, half irritated reply.

The response was too purely her to be an illusion. 

He stopped struggling and extricated himself from his damp outerwear. When he got clear of his hood and met her eyes he thought he might cry with relief. Instead, he climbed to his feet and dusted himself off. He forced his expression into a deep frown and glared at her, more in an effort to regain his dignity than because he was upset with her. “Rescue me? I rode all the way down to the Ninth Circle to rescue you! After what Anabell said, I thought you’d taken a dive over not getting a job you shouldn’t have wanted to begin with!”

“Oh, Ben, honey, no.” She reached out to brush away the tears he’d already forgotten about. “I’d never do that.”

He ducked his head and used his sleeve to dry his face. “Then what the Hell are you doing down here? Other than trying to scare the afterlife out of me?”

Aife shrugged. “I was upset about getting turned down by Reaping, as you clearly discovered for yourself. And I just wanted a bit of contrast for my own emotions. You know, to put things in perspective.”

“Ah, for fuck’s sake, Aife!” 

She smiled at him. “Your Scottish is showing, lovey.”

The laugh that brought out of him startled them both. Smiling in the face of the magic of this place was one thing. Laughing was unheard of. He glanced around, just to be sure the sound hadn’t called any nearby creatures out of the shadows. Once he was certain it was still only the two of them, he smirked. “Usually. Especially when I’m around you.”

“Why are you? Around me, I mean.”

Ben snapped his fingers and the horse trotted obediently over to them. Ben held its bridle so Aife could climb up first. “Don’t you know what day it is?”

“Day?” she asked with a grunt of effort at climbing onto the tall horse’s back. “Since when do days matter here?”

Ben easily swung into the saddle behind her and guided the horse to turn around and nudged it to trot back the way they came. Now that he had found Aife, the wailing from the river receded into the background. “Well, they hardly ever do. But it’s Yule.”

“Oh!” She glanced apologetically over her shoulder at him. “I’m so sorry, Ben. I forgot.”

“Fortunately for us, I remembered. I left Anabell working on our dinner to give her something to do other than worry about her lady and the guy she still seems to think is royalty despite my many protests to the contrary.”

Apparently as oblivious of the souls in the river and the bone-chilling cold as he was now, Aife snorted a brief laugh. “How many times did she curtsey today?”

He encouraged the horse to pick up its pace. He wanted to get them home more quickly, lest the turning of the Earth deny them the actual holiday. “Only the once,” he grinned. “So we’ve made some inroads.”

***

Anabell had outdone herself with their meal. She had also not protested their invitation to join them and even remembered to call their guest Ben instead of Lord Ronoven, possibly owing to the bone-crushing hug she’d wrapped him in when he walked in the front door with Aife. She’d even slipped off to her chambers early without asking permission.

In front of the comforting illusion of a homey fire, both full of a rather large quantity of exceptional mulled wine, Aife produced a thick book, tied with a ribbon. “I forgot what day it was, but not that the solstice was coming up.”

Ben couldn’t tell her she’d gotten him a spell book he’d already liberated from a certain Hell-god’s library. If she found out he’d taken up that particular hobby, he’d never hear the end of it. So, instead, he grinned and pulled her into a hug. “Thank you! This is a rare one! How did you get your hands on it?”

She poured them each another glass of wine and gave him one of her signature cat-like smiles. “I’ve been known to strike a deal worth writing home about from time to time.”

“So, you’re not going to tell me,” he chuckled. 

“I am not,” she replied archly. “Well, then?”

He furrowed his brow in pretended misunderstanding. “Well what?”

She widened her eyes, obviously sure he was having a go at her, but not sure why. “You know very well what. We have a tradition to uphold, my Lord.”

He patted his pockets, then got up and looked under the cushions. “Where did the damned thing get to?” He stood and clapped his forehead with an open palm and looked appropriately stricken. “Ah, damn it. It must’ve fallen out of my pocket when we were at the Falls!”

“Oh, Ben! It’s okay. I was only teasing. You know the gifts have never been an expectation between us! And I’m so grateful you came after me today. It would have taken me forever to get home on foot. I would have hated to miss our feast!”

Ben’s calculated facade collapsed and he laughed. “Gotcha!”

She tilted her head in the expected question. 

“Your gift isn’t one that fits in any pockets. Nor is it one I could wrap.”

“Alright, oh Master of Expression, you’re just winding me up now. I can tell.”

He sat next to her again and took her hand. “Anabell told me about why you applied to Reaping.”

“It’s silly. I’m sorry. I should have said something to you instead of–”

“It’s not silly. You love your family in a way I could never hope to be loved.” She opened her mouth like she’d try to say something to counter his words, but he didn’t let her even begin. “And love like that deserves a chance to see the light of day. A chance to walk the Earth. So your gift, if you want it, if you’ll accept it, is that chance.”

She shook her head like she needed to clear it. “What are you saying, Ben?”

He swallowed hard. He wanted nothing more than to leave Hell behind, to walk on Earth again. To feel the sun on his face without also feeling like every second was borrowed time. But wanting something for selfish reasons was petty and small in the face of Aife’s love for her descendents, for people she had never met, and had no shared memories to bind them together. She loved them because they were hers. Ben thought, perhaps, if he’d had a wife, if he’d had children of his own, he might share the same fierce light that kindled in his friend’s eyes when she spoke of her line. But he didn’t. So, he would do what the love he did have told him he should.

“I won the right to appoint someone as an Agent for Hell, Inc.”

“Www…What?” she stammered.

“I won an Office position.”

Her head tilted again, this time in confusion. “My Yule gift is you saying goodbye?”

“Of course not. Well, sort of.” He cleared his throat to dispel the hoarseness in his voice. “I’m saying goodbye to you. Because I’m sponsoring you to the position.”

Her mouth worked a few times without producing any sound, but after a minute she managed, “But Ben, you want to go back to Earth more than anything. It’s the only reason you took the job in Reaping to begin with.”

“I can’t go,” he lied smoothly. “The privilege is to sponsor someone, not go myself. Ain’t that a bitch?” he asked lightly.

She sat perfectly still for another long, silent minute.

“Say something, would you?”

But she didn’t. She simply tackled him in a hug that knocked over the settee they were sitting on. Lying on the floor, he hugged her back, covering the wave of emotion that accompanied having done the right thing with a fond chuckle he was positive she wouldn’t guess was forced for her benefit. 

“So, you accept?”

“Of course I do! I … I’ve never … I didn’t think … You’re a wonderful man, Ben. Just wonderful.”

“Ah, I’m alright,” he said, blushing furiously. After a minute, he disentangled himself from her enthusiastic embrace and righted their seat. “You’ll have to leave for training on Earth before long.”

She let him help her up from the floor. “I can hardly wait … But … what about Anabell?”

He’d already thought about that. “She can come to my estate when you go. Between Gareth and I, we’ll find her something to do that keeps her out of trouble and as safe as I can make her.”

Aife bit her lip. “What if something….” She trailed off. 

He patted her shoulder. “You don’t think I’ve worked out how to have things keep running if something happens to me? I’ve been at this for centuries, Aife.”

“I didn’t mean … You better not let anything happen to you!”

He laughed more genuinely this time. “I’ll certainly do my best. Otherwise, how will I have an excuse to come Up Top and hassle you at work the way you have been with me here all these years?”

She punched him lightly on the arm. “Are you ever going to be serious? Even for a minute?”

“Maybe. But just for this next minute.” 

He refilled their glasses and handed hers back. He raised his own. “A blessed Yule.”

She touched the lip of her glass against his. “And many more.”

They drank in silence for a while. Eventually, Aife turned toward him again. “You have to promise me something, Ben.”

He raised an eyebrow. “Do I?”

“You do. When I’m not here all the time to get after you … You have to promise me you’ll be careful.”

He grinned broadly and tipped her a wink.

“Never.”

Covenant, Light, and Oath

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Authors’ Note: Asher has appeared in numerous stories in The Arbitratus Universe, and remains, even to us, something of a figure of mystery. He was inspired by the myth of Ashor, the Black Knight, a story that continues to intrigue us. In this instance, our Asher, works to usher in a new age, important to the Balance he serves.

Covenant, Light, and Oath

Mithra paced. 

Then he paced some more, tugging on the hem of his robes. 

His followers were growing quiet in their devotions.

With the Solstice fast approaching, the opposite should be true. 

He stopped to chew his thumbnail for a moment. Perhaps he should perform some sort of miracle, send some sign … Or a plague. That ought to get them in line again. 

He started pacing again. 

“Tough day?”

He jumped at the sound and turned to interloper behind him.

An unassuming man, dressed in black offered a sympathetic half smile. “Want to talk about it?”

“What is the meaning of this?” he demanded, furious at the interruption of his contemplations. “I was clear in my command to be left in peace!”

Another half smile. “Don’t take it out on your servants. I let myself in.”

One fist slammed into the opposite palm. “Who are you and what are you doing here?!?” Mithra roared.

“Calm yourself, Mithra. Your anger is misplaced.”

Without another word, Mithra closed the distance between himself and his uninvited guest, drawing a blade from within his robes. The man in black took a graceful step to the side, grabbing the god’s wrist, and effortlessly flipped the furious deity onto his back. “Keep this up, and it won’t end well for you.” Mithra continued to struggle. The man in black twisted the god’s wrist. “Calm yourself. We need to talk.”

“Fine,” the god bit out angrily. The man in black released him and he leapt to his feet, knife held in front of him. “I’ll have your head for this!”

“Doubtful.” The man’s smile became a shade less sympathetic. “If you’re done with all this needless bravado, I am ready to forget these aggressive acts and talk.”

Mithra’s face went red, but he held himself in check, unnerved by this intruder and how easily he’d been physically subdued by him. “Who are you?”

“I am Asher,” he said simply.

Mithra snorted. “You can do better than that. Asher is a myth.”

“And yet, here I stand.” The man’s lips quirked in a wry smirk. “The man, the myth, the legend.” 

Moving faster than any mortal’s eye could follow, Mithra again lashed out with his knife.

And he once again found himself on his back.

“Really, old boy, I can do this all day. But I’d much rather have the talk I came here for before you hurt yourself.” 

He released the god’s wrist, and took a step away, hoping Mithra would use the space to rise with dignity and be reasonable. Mithra climbed to his feet, eyeing the man with apprehension and continued anger. He looked at his knife longingly, but put it away. “Fine. We will talk. But only because I wish it.”

“As you say,” the man agreed with a polite nod.

“First I will have your name and title.”

The man in black shrugged. “I’m still Asher. But if the title will help, Keeper and Humble Servant of the Balance.”

“More mythological nonsense.”

“Said a minor god who is bleeding followers as we speak.” Mithra reached for his knife again, but Asher made a gesture that said if the god did so, he would draw his own. “I am who I say,” he affirmed calmly. “But if it makes it easier for you, you can call me Bob.”

“Bob? That sounds ridiculous!” Mithra scoffed.

The man in black smiled. “Then let’s just stick with Asher, shall we?”

The god shook his head. “Fine. I will call you Asher. But I don’t believe in you.”

“Fortunately, you belief is not required. Shall we begin?”

Mithra scowled. “Speak your piece, then leave me.”

“Very well. Why don’t we sit down?” Asher inclined his head to the large, nearby table taking up much of the room.

“I prefer to stand,” Mithra said, the sullen note unmistakable.

“As you like,” Asher said with a shrug. Then he paused, considering his next words. This wasn’t a particularly pleasant task, and Mithra’s response so far didn’t bode well for its outcome.

Mithra didn’t care for being toyed with and the silence felt intentionally unsettling. “Don’t play coy, Creature Who Cannot Possibly Be Asher. This is a busy time for me. The Solstice approaches.”

Asher shook his head. “As you may have noticed, the time isn’t as busy as you’d expect, is it?”

“What’s that supposed to mean?” Mithra took up pacing again.

“I thought perhaps you’d already come to the appropriate conclusion.” Asher paused. When Mithra darted a murderous look his way, he sighed, and went on. “That the time is no longer yours.”

Mithra stopped pacing suddenly and faced Asher fully. He looked angry, but the glint of fear was now in his eyes. “Explain yourself.”

“I thought I was quite clear. Your time has passed, Mithra. You’re being replaced.”

Mithra let out a boisterous laugh. “Replaced by whom? Odin with his sad little bag of gifts. Ridiculous!”

Asher shook his head. “No, not Odin, I’m afraid. The news I have for him is no more auspicious for him and his line than that which I bring to you. This time is being claimed by Jesus of Nazareth.”

Mithra started to laugh, more genuinely this time. He made several attempts to speak, but couldn’t get his mirth under control. He gave up and sat down, trying to get enough breath to respond. Part of him was convinced this man in black was here to play some ridiculous prank. Maybe Odin’s adopted brat was trying to be funny again. Finally he managed, through tear-soaked laughter, “So, you mean to tell me, the Cult of Christ is usurping my day? Oh, oh that’s too funny.”

Asher grew serious. “They are hardly a cult at this point. His words will come to dominate your world. Your people especially are primed to accept Him. As I said, your time has passed.”

The expression on the so-called Asher’s face brought Mithra’s laughter to a halt. “That’s not possible. I … I was here first.”

The sympathetic smile was back. “That’s certainly true…”

Mithra interrupted. “I was born on the Solstice … I … I was slain, but I rose again on the Spring Equinox. I … It’s my day.”

Asher shrugged again. “All that’s true. But it’s true for Christ as well. Or at least it’s what his followers believe. Your followers don’t seem to believe much anymore. And that’s the important point, you see.”

“So … he copied me and I’m just supposed to … what? March off into oblivion because …”

“Not necessarily oblivion. Many of your fellows have chosen rather pleasant retirements.”

Mithra shook his head in utter disbelief. “I’m supposed to just accept that?”

“How you choose to proceed is up to you. But I’d recommend taking the retirement package.”

Mithra pushed away from the table, his face reddening. “Retire from being a GOD! Outrageous!”

Asher rose as well, sensing this was not going to play out amicably. “I get it. Change is hard. But you had a good run.”

“A good run?” Mithra sputtered.

“Yeah, but let’s face it, your faithful have been going over to Jesus for a while now. Even the Romans are getting on board these days. As goes Rome, so goes the world, at the moment anyway. Their leaders are starting to embrace this new faith.”

“Baaa! It’s not a new faith. It’s just repackaged.” Asher sighed, but let Mithra rail for a bit. “A savior, born of a virgin on the Solstice, grows up to be killed as a sacrifice, to rest in his tomb three days, and be resurrected to least his people … It’s been done. By me!”

 “And my others before you, Mithra. Surely you remember Horus.”

“Horus had no sense of style.”

“Perhaps, but his story was no less compelling than yours.”

“So people are just going to swallow this Jesus’s story because … what? It’s comforting and familiar?”

“That’s the beauty of it. It resonates with people. Say what you like about Jehovah, love Him or hate Him, but he’s the master of the long game.”

Mithra sighed and came back over to the table. He sat down heavily, and placed his head in his hands. He could see the truth in Asher’s words. Each year he had noted fewer and fewer of his faithful attending to his worship. And many who still did, did so halfheartedly and without zeal. “So … What now?”

“Now you step aside, go experience the universe. When’s the last time you took a vacation? And I don’t mean lurking in some grove somewhere to get a minutes peace from the petitions of your followers. When’s the last time you left Earth and had some fun?”

Mithra shook his head. “Not since the Dawn Wars, I suppose.” He sighed again. “And to think I fought on his side. This is the thanks I get.”

“Don’t look at it like that.”

“And exactly how should I look at it?”

“As an opportunity! Go enjoy yourself. Explore. You’re not being stripped of your powers, just being asked to make way. Who knows? Maybe you’ll find another planet, one that needs a god. If you play your cards right, that god could be you.”

Mithra’s brow furrowed. “No … You don’t think … That’s not possible. Earth is the only place where man exists.”

Asher shrugged. “Well, sure. Humans are Earthbound. But it’s a great big universe, Mithra. And believe me, it’s populated. Earth is but a speck in the grand tapestry of existence. There’s room out there for plenty of gods. Just not here.”

He seemed to think about that for a while. He sighed again. “Why can’t things just remain as they are?”

“Because a time of prophecy has arrived. Actually I’ve been working out some things to make way for it for a while. Making sure certain other players are in place. This prophecy is important to the Balance, which I serve and maintain above all else in the universe. Therefore that prophecy is of utmost importance to me. And it requires a dominant religion.”

“But why Christianity?”

Asher smiled almost sadly. “Because from the fruit of that faith will rise the instrument of prophecy. My purpose here is to clear the way.”

Mithra nodded, thinking. “But what of the other gods?”

“I will visit them each in turn, just as I came to you. I will offer them a choice as well. Support the Balance or don’t.”

“What if I refuse to go?”

Asher’s jaw hardened and his shoulders squared. “Well, then … Things may become unpleasant.” His eyes were hard as flint. “You may doubt my identity, but trust me when I say, do not test me.”

Mithra considered his words carefully, then he rose and faced the man in black. “I have no interest in leaving. And I … I will not accept … I don’t believe you have the power to make me leave.”

“You’re right. I don’t have the power to make you leave.” Asher shook his head, almost imperceptibly. A shining sword materialised in his hand. “But I do possess the power to end you.” Mithra eyed the blade, but stayed silent. “I ask you not to demand that of me. You can have an existence far beyond what you’ve ever imagined on this tiny backwater planet. Believe me when I say your death will bring me no pleasure.”

Mithra’s eyes narrowed. Images of Solstice past came unbidden into his mind. The feasts. The sacrifices in his name. The sweet, heady scent of burnt offerings. The pleasures of the flesh taken in his name. The bodies offered up for him to enter so he could partake himself. “No. I won’t do it. My faith will rise again. I refuse to cede my place.” He drew his dagger from the folds of his robes. “I am prepared to fight.”

“As you wish.” Asher stepped forward, raising his sword. The movement was so swift, no one but a god could have seen it. And no one but a very powerful god, in the full flower of his faithful’s attention could have countered the blow. Asher shook his head and wiped the blood from his blade. “Such a waste.”

He turned to go, mumbling to himself. “I hope things go better in the North.” He left Mithra’s home by the front doors, noting the god’s servants already trickling out themselves, sensing the god’s absence and looking for a place to go. “Thank the Balance I don’t have to work my way through the Hindu pantheon.”

He headed out for his next stop. His work was in the West, making room for this new faith, so that one day a girl would be born, and upon her shoulders would rest the fate of all mankind. And, more importantly to Asher, the fate of the Balance itself. 

 

The Direction of His Dreams

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Authors’ Note: By now, most readers know how much we love our Ben from Always Darkest. Exploring his human life has become my (Jess’s) favorite part of Fic-mas. You can read more about his youth here and here. This Fic-mas meets Ben in his ancient homeland as Chris will one day describe him, “only barely a man, with plenty of boy left over.” Dreams are a funny thing. It was long ago, but sometimes, in that place between asleep and awake, Ben remembers this, and it gives him a sliver of hope. Happy Solstice, friends. 

The Direction of His Dreams

He twitched in his sleep as she leaned in the bedroom to check on him. He moaned softly. “Oh, Beathan, hin, not again, love,” she whispered. She thought perhaps memories of battle invaded his dreams, but she never asked. He hated when anyone heard his nightmares. 

The moan became a whimper. 

He sounded so lost. 

Instead of stepping out, she moved closer. His brow creased. The whimper solidified into a pained mumble.

“Not again,” he pleaded, almost too low to hear. “Don’t!” came out louder.

Flames all around, burning, but not consuming him. 

Pain. 

Blades. 

Torment. 

Teeth.

“Please!”

Cinnie sat down on the edge of his bed, and rested her hand gently on his bandaged shoulder. “Ben, hin, wake up.”

His eyes snapped open and his arm wrapped around his middle as a ragged breath pulled at his injuries. “Damn.”

That dream kept coming back. And it felt … real. Sleep was more exhausting than being awake lately. He wished Daira was still alive. She would know what it meant. 

His head dropped back onto his pillow. He closed his eyes and willed himself back toward calm. When he felt most of the way there, he pried his eyes open, and started to shift himself to sitting. He got about halfway there before her glare, along with a stern, “What’ve I said, Ben?” stopped him.

His heart was still beating too fast. At least moving was getting easier. But only by degrees.

Still the last day or so … half a day, anyway …  had been better. He remembered most of it clearly at least. Prior to that was a bit of a painful, feverish haze. By comparison, he felt great. 

He resettled himself with a smirk. 

“So, I’m Ben, to you, too, now, am I?” he asked, doing his best to sound like everything was fine. 

She smiled, her knowing, big sister’s smile.

“We don’t have Daira ‘round anymore to call ye yer funny names. And they do seem to make ye less like te argue wi’ me.” 

She smoothed his hair off his forehead, like he was still a boy, and not the warrior who’d led men into battle since he was fourteen. 

His father had stepped aside to make room for his youngest son’s strength and leadership in the field. And, though he’d admitted it to no one but Ben, he couldn’t physically do what needed to be done anymore. Ben had happily thrown himself into the role, leaving his father free to focus on the other aspects of leading their people. At the time, Ben couldn’t understand the toll years of fighting had taken on his father’s body. He thought he understood it better now.

Ben didn’t protest Cinnie’s soothing touch. Under normal circumstances he might have. But not today. Letting his sister-in-law treat him like he was still the child who spent most of his time nicking extra food out of her cookfire was far more appealing than contemplating the road back to battle-ready. 

“No fever now,” she smiled, more truly pleased and less indulgent. 

So, that’s what she was up to. 

“Told ye las’ night,” he said, thinking he sounded a bit petulant, and not caring much. He was tired of being fussed over. Tired of needing it even more so. “I’m alrigh’.”

Her eyebrows went up.

After the last skirmish, the men brought him here rather the cottage he’d claimed as his own when Daira passed. He’d stayed with her during her final illness last Spring, and after she was gone, he just couldn’t make himself leave. 

He was too badly injured to do what he usually did. Normally he’d patch himself up, go off into the woods for a night or two and speak to the spirits Daira had taught would help him heal, maybe speak to her spirit a bit, too. Then he’d go right back out to get in more trouble. Er … protect his people. 

He’d been in no condition for any of that this time.

They hadn’t wanted his mother to see the state he was in, either. Drustan wisely suggested they bring him to Cinnie. And she’d taken care of him with the same affectionate firmness as always, though it had been coupled with more real worry than he’d ever seen from her before.

But he was fine now. 

Well, maybe not fine, but well enough not to need a nursemaid from dawn to dusk, and the stretch in between as well.

He’d been at their house for at least a quarter moon. He was fed and rested and wanted to get himself ready to fight again as soon as possible. He could at least gather the men and talk it over. The foreigners didn’t do well with the element of surprise or the ambush tactics he preferred. There were still very few of them. Just scouting parties it seemed. Ben wanted to use that to his advantage before any more arrived. 

The problem was Cinnie. She wouldn’t let him go off and fight in his present state, and he didn’t think she’d let him bring the warriors together to talk tactics either. She appeared disinclined to let him move. 

She still saw him as her darling rascal, her little boy, and had a motherly protective streak even his actual mother couldn’t match. Part of him loved that about her. The rest of him was sick of this bed. 

Of course, all of him understood. She’d been beside herself when they’d dumped him on her kitchen table and she’d gotten a good look at his wounds. He vaguely remembered her tears as she’d stitched him up, her saying to Drus and Osh who’d held him still that she hoped against hope she was adequate to the task, and that she didn’t believe she could be. He couldn’t deny her initial reaction had been fair. He’d been … not in great shape. 

But he healed fast. He always had. 

Not that his frequent reminders of that had yielded any less hovering. 

She unwound the bandage high on his arm, where an infection had a strong hold for a few days. “Tha’ looks better tonight, too.” She wrapped it back up, satisfied.

He pushed himself up on his elbows, pulling the blanket up over his bare chest a little awkwardly. “Does tha’ mean ye can stop fussin’ an’ lemme get home then?”

“Yer stayin’ right there.” She pointed at the bed he currently occupied, with another, more disapproving, raise of her eyebrows. “At leas’ until after Yule.” He opened his mouth to protest, but she talked right over him with a wry grin. “I’ll not have ye yankin’ out all those stitches. Not after the fuss ye kicked up gettin’ put back together!” 

He started to spout off something indignant. But he only got as far as, “I dinnae kick up any kind a…”

“Besides,” she interrupted, smiling sweetly. Time for a distraction. “Ye can’t take off out of bed. Or at least I doubt ye’ll want to. Shay took your clothes.”

This time Ben sat up all the way, grimacing as it pulled on some of the many stitches Cinnie just reminded him about. “That little … Make ‘er bring ‘em back!” 

Cinnie just laughed. Worked like a charm. She wasn’t going to tell him the whole family agreed if he went off in his current state he’d get himself killed. And none of them could accept that. She also couldn’t tell him they had news for him. That was for the feast. 

“Shay!” he called like all he wanted was to see his favorite niece. He heard a giggle, and the patter of feet outside his room. “Shay-shay! C’mon in ‘ere, lass!”

When the affectionate nickname yielded no results, his brow creased into the expression Cinnie learned meant trouble before the boy had ever gone on his first hunt. “She’s not comin’ back, lad.”

His eyes flashed with a bit of real temper. He’d set his sights on his own bed and the stubborn streak that ran deep and wide all through him was not going to let go of that easily. 

“Teasag!” he yelled, hoping to summon his niece back from wherever she’d run off to with the serious use of her rarely spoken proper name.

Cinnie shook her head and smirked. “Yer actin’ like I didn’t send ‘er away with ‘em.”

Ben growled in frustration. 

She probably had, too. 

Cinnie knew he wouldn’t just run off wrapped in barely more than a blanket. She also knew he couldn’t really be angry with Teasag. These days she was more young woman than little girl. But Ben hadn’t noticed yet. 

He was still her self-appointed big brother. She really was his favorite, with the exception of maybe Angus and Enaid’s daughter Fee who he felt sort of responsible for since one of his strange dreams had pretty much saved her life at her birth. 

“Ye di’nt need te do that,” he grumbled.

“Because yer always such a sensible lad.” She patted him gently, smiling a little when he flushed at her amused observation. 

“I wouldna gone far,” he insisted. “I need to go see to Sioda, and te make sure the lads didna shut Caraid out. She’s too old te jump up te the window and paw her way in.”

“I told ye before. Osh is lookin’ after Sioda for ye.” 

Cinnie fluffed his pillows and arched an eyebrow, managing an affectionate glare until he settled back onto them. She was glad he was well enough now to be worried after his animals. But she wasn’t about to let him go care for them himself. 

“I’ve made sure he knows how to make up the poultice for her leg. He cares more for tha’ horse than he does for his missus, I think. Certainly more’n’e thinks a ‘is brother.” Ben snorted a brief laugh. “Yer lucky he didn’ let ye bleed ta death out there jus so he could have ‘er.”

“Tha’s a fair point.” He smiled fondly. “I know I been tellin’ ye for goin’ on three winters now, but thanks. Ye’ve always made Yule a special thing, but tha’ … She’s a fine animal. An’ braver than ten of the men.”

“Ye cannae lead our lads on foot agains’ our enemies now can ye, Bean?”

He blushed. She hadn’t called him that in a long time. He gave her an affectionate shove. “Lay off tha’.” He winced and adjusted the pillows. “I wouldna hate some of Daria’s special tea jus’ now. I know ye ran out yesterday. If ye got Shay to bring back my things, I  could go get it a’ the cottage an’ be back before my spot here cooled.”

Cinnie chuckled. “An’ he finally admits he’s not some warrior god of the wood!” She patted his hand. “I went an’ got more this mornin’, lad. I’ve some in the kettle on the fire.” She raised an eyebrow again. “So there’s no need for ye to limp halfway ‘cross the village. An’ if it’s yer cat yer worried about…”

She made a gentle clicking noise with her tongue, and the ancient black ball of fur, now marked with strands of silver-grey, waddled into the room. 

“Caraid!” he exclaimed in genuine pleasure. 

He patted the bed next to him and, though it took two tries, she managed to get up and wedge herself in between Cinnie and Ben. She curled up against his hip, closed her eyes, and started purring contentedly. He petted her head with a gentleness and affection Cinnie wondered at. How could someone with such a soft heart, such a tender soul, be the strongest, most skilled warrior in their clan? 

Momentarily distracted from both his physical misery and his desire to get out from under his family’s watchful eyes, Ben truly relaxed. He supposed there were worse ways to spend a couple of days leading up to the Yule feast than in a comfortable bed being looked after by the woman who was basically his second mother. Not many. But he could think of a few. He laughed quietly when her back was turned to rewrap his stitched up leg.

She was glad he’d given up on his most recent push to go off on his own. Even if he was sure he was ready, she couldn’t quite let go of keeping watch over him. She finished checking over his bandages and went to get him some tea. 

When she returned, he accepted a cup of the almost unbearably bitter brew Daira taught him to make when he was still little more than a toddler. It always took the bite out of the various hurts he was all too prone to even then. Daira said he had an abundance of brains and courage, just not much in the way of sense or caution. 

He tentatively took a drink, knowing it would bring relief, but knowing just as well he hated the flavor, and always had. Then he smiled. Cinnie had stirred in an appropriately excessive amount of honey to cover the objectionable taste.

“Thanks,” he said, hoping the sweetness held to the end.

As he sipped the tea and stroked Caraid, it became clear Cinnie had either stirred in something else, too, or he was still worse off than he’d thought. It always made him relaxed, but not to this degree. He could barely keep his eyes open by the bottom of it. 

“Bit strong,” he grumbled as she took the cup from him. 

She heard the accusation in his voice but didn’t bother dignifying it. She set the cup aside and covered him with an extra blanket. She chuckled, shaking her head. “It’s just proof your strength isn’t yet what it ought to be.”

“Humph,” he grumped. But he clearly didn’t mean it, since he hid a small smile as he rolled onto his good side, wrapped an arm around an unresisting Caraid, and drifted back into a restorative sleep.

Cinnie watched him for a bit, hoping her presence would keep away whatever kept troubling his dreams. Once his breathing was slow and even, she got up to get back to the business of running the household. 

She paused at the door again, glancing back, just to reassure herself he really did look better. Caraid cracked one eye open and the expression on her feline face said all was well. 

Cinnie decided to take a walk and let Bean’s mother know he’d turned a corner for the better. They’d already lost three of his brothers in the last year. That was hard enough on her, but Cinnie didn’t think she’d take losing her youngest well. She’d be relieved to hear he was improving. Cinnie slipped out of the house with a word to Shay to keep an eye on her uncle.

***

When Ben woke again, it was dark, and the house was quiet. Mostly quiet. He could hear Drustan’s snoring from the other side of the cottage. He’d always been a loud sleeper. Ben was glad it had been a good long while since they’d shared sleeping space. He didn’t know how Cinnie tolerated it. Of course, with six girls running around, the youngest of which was only just off the breast, she probably didn’t sleep soundly anyway. He wondered how often she’d been checking on him. 

He shifted slightly. For the first time since he’d woken up here after that fight, the movement didn’t set off a cascade of aches. Caraid picked up her head, her eyes glowing green in the moonlight. She stretched and hopped down off the bed, walking out the door with a single backward glance. 

She liked to hunt at night. He’d have bet his best knife she was going looking for mice. He thought maybe he should get up and let her outside so she could go to their house. She could get after the mice there, or squirrels, of which there always seemed to be an abundance near the edge of the wood. She still loved hunting the squirrels.

He loved their cottage. He missed Daira, of course. He would have traded the house for his small corner in his parents’ busy home to have her back in a heartbeat. But the place was perfect for his preferences. Cinnie often pointedly remarked to his parents that it was too big for a man alone. If he was going to go off into battle time and again for his people, he ought to have someone to come home to. Perhaps a few wee ones who bore the stamp of his features in the bargain. He’d blush and avoid everyone’s eyes when she said so. But they knew he thought so, too.    

He didn’t dream badly when he was home. He no longer had a fever from his injuries and this time the relief he’d gotten from the tea seemed to be holding. Surely, no one would object to him sleeping in his own bed a bit. He started to get himself up to do just that, swearing softly when he remembered he was in a fairly advanced state of undress. He couldn’t go home wearing just a cloth and bandages. 

His eyes adjusted to the low light and he squinted around in the darkness. If I were my imp of a niece, where would I have hidden my clothes? 

He wanted to be annoyed with Cinnie and Shay for trying to trap him in bed like that, but he had to admit, their experience told them he would probably try to act like nothing was wrong well before it was even close to true. Most of the time that wasn’t a big problem. He’d managed to not get hurt too badly in countless battles. This time though… The way Cinnie had been sitting next to his bed when he remembered waking for the first time… He might have given them enough of a fright to justify going a bit far. 

An idea came to him. He wrapped himself in the blanket and levered himself out of bed. “Ow.”

He crouched down carefully to look under the bed. He chuckled softly. Shay really had picked up his sense of humor. Folded neatly, right in the middle of the floor under where he’d been sleeping, were all of his clothes, washed and mended. Even the boots he had no intention of wearing anywhere other than into battle were there. 

He picked up the pile and stood, groaning softly as he did so. Maybe home was a bit further than he ought to go. But dressed sounded too good to resist. He sat back on the bed and slowly, carefully regained his dignity. Just those small movements set him sweating again, but once he had his clothes on, the appeal of his own bed was too strong to resist. 

He got almost as far at the front door. 

“Where’re you goin’ then?”

He jumped in surprise. “Fer feck’s sake, woman! Are ye tryin’ te scare me ta death?”

She laughed softly. “More like I’m tryin’ te keep ye from yer death, ye silly boy.”

He sagged against the wall for a second, then waved dismissively. “Ach, I’m fine. I just … I want te go home fer a bit. See Sioda, let Caraid in the house, like I said before. I’ll come back.”

Cinnie rose from her seat and lit some candles. She took him by the elbow and pulled him nearer the fire. “It’s a howlin’ storm out there, lad. Sit here by the fire or go back te bed.”

Ben sighed. Now that he was listening, he could hear the wind outside. He shivered. 

“Bit drafty. Drus’ should see te the roof,” he said casually, though how heavily he sat down on the stool next to the hearth probably gave away how he actually felt.

She laughed lightly. “Drustan? On the roof? That’ll be the day. That’s why I need you aroun’. Yer my little squirrel.”

He grinned and shook his head. There was nothing little about him. And there hadn’t been in a long time. But he had always been a climber. None of his brothers had much of a head for heights. His expression sobered. Alastair had. But he was gone. 

“I’ll see te it as soon as the storm clears.”

“Ye’ll not be doin’ any such thing, lad.” She moved to sit next to him. “It’s not the draft.” She rested her wrist against his forehead for a moment. “Yer warm again.”

He ducked his head away from her cool touch. “That’s a grand fire ye’ve built is all.”

“Mmm,” she observed wryly. “Ye have te decide, is it cold an’ drafty, er too hot from the hearth? Ye can’ have it both ways.”

He managed a small smile. “Why not? Things can be more than one thing at a time.” He laughed softly. “That made more sense before I said it out loud.”

“It makes perfect sense. Take you, as an example. Yer still my darling boy who’d do anything te spare me trouble, and the one man I know more stubborn than the old goat out back who likes to cause me nothing but.”

She spoke in a lighthearted teasing way, but he looked wounded nonetheless. “I dint mean te trouble ye.”

She switched seats to be close enough to put her arm gently around his shoulders. “Yer not really trouble, lad. An’ I’m not sayin’ things te make ye feel bad. I jus’ wan’ ye te take a moment te heal.”

He sighed. “I keep tellin’ ye,  I’m alrigh’.”

“I hear ye. An’ I’m sure ye believe it. But it sounds to me like those tall tales ye used to come home with about faeries an’ the like.”

He opened his mouth to respond, to perhaps defend his younger self in some way. He stopped. He wasn’t even half sure any of that really happened anyway. Besides, with Daira gone, there was no one he could really talk it over with. Just like there was no one he could tell his terrible dreams. No one he could tell they felt like a warning of things to come. He decided to say something honest about the present instead. 

“Cin … Yer right. I push too hard. I know it. But ye haven’ seen what we’re up against. An’ I…”

“Can’t take the fate a the whole lot of us on yer shoulders, lad.” 

His brow furrowed and his eyes searched her face. “Then who will? Da’ cannae do it anymore. An’ Angus probably won’ ever get rid a tha’ limp. An’ Osh is … Osh.”

She shook her head. “Drus’ is the oldest, an’ he can lead them when ye can’t.”

Ben shook his head. “Drus has you an’ the girls, an … I’ve just got me. It has to be me, Cin. Whether I’m busted up er not.”

She squeezed his shoulders again. He shifted a little, reminding both of them he was still hurt. “Ye get te take care of yerself, same as any of them. An’ ye have as much te live for, too.”

“Like I said, it’s just me,” he said with a slightly listless shrug. 

“Not fer much longer,” she said. Her hand went to her mouth with a little gasp.

He turned on the stool to face her fully, his eyebrows drawing together in a look somewhere between amused and suspicious. “Say again?”

She bit her lips together. “I shouldna said anythin’.”

Ben was not much for keeping secrets. And he hated when other people did. This was a good one, too, because Cinnie was positively squirming. He flashed the charming grin he was used to using to get his way. “How can ye torment a man in my condition like tha’?”

“Yer condition? I thought ye were fine.”

He laughed. “F’I admit I’m maybe jus’ shy a fine, will ye tell me?”

She shook her head. “I cannae tell ye, Bean. Yer mother’ll kill me.”

“Ach, she won’ know.” 

He chuckled softly. How often had he said those exact words? He had to admit, secrets weren’t all bad. If his mother had known half of what he’d gotten up to when he was a child, she’d have killed him

“But … I’ll understand if ye want te keep it te yerself. She’s a right terror when she’s angry.”

She considered him for a long quiet moment. Perhaps knowing what was on the horizon would make him a shade less reckless. She chewed her lower lip. “Ye cannae tell them I told ye.”

He grinned. “I’ll not give it away, Cin.”

She took his hand and squeezed it. “It’s … well, I think it’s what ye’ve wanted.” 

She stopped, chewing her lip again.

“Go on then!”

“Yer father’s been … and yer mother…”

“Cin, just spit it, would’ye?”

“They’ve found a bride fer ye, Bean.”

He blinked several times and swallowed hard. “I … Oh.”

He appeared stunned rather than happy. Cinnie got up to tend the fire to give him a minute. When she sat back down, his whole face had become a confused frown. “Are ye alrigh’, lad? I thought ye’d be pleased.”

He didn’t answer right away. Finally his bright eyes found hers. “I … I s’pose I am. I just thought … I knew Daira said it wouldna be up te me … I always thought that was jus’ talk. I thought I’d meet someone and we’d decide … I…” He trailed off.

She thought she understood. She took his hand again. “I never met Drus’ face te face before we married. An’ look at us. Never have two people loved each other more. The same goes fer yer parents.”

He nodded slowly. “I know tha’… But … Drus’ is oldest. He’ll be chieftain one day. The others chose…” He stopped, his frown deepening. 

“Ye don’ like all tha’ talk from when you were born followin’ ye aroun’ still. Is tha’ it?”

“Maybe,” he hedged.

Ben hated the idea such a fuss had been made about his birth, that predictions and plans had dictated the direction of his life in so many ways. He’d had several brushes with infatuation when he was younger and something had always put a stop to it. In retrospect, it had mostly been his parents and Daira. 

All that talk about Daira’s vision the first time she’d held him, and the vision of the woman he’d marry, had prevented a lot of things. In fact, now that he thought about it, his most serious case of nearly falling for someone had been interrupted by his father asking him to lead the men. He wanted to be angry about it, could feel his temper starting to heat. 

Still, he’d always wanted a family. Since before he could really remember. Who knew if those youthful blushing meetings would have ended like he might have hoped. He never had a plan for much of anything. He supposed it was good someone did. 

His expression softened. “Do ye know anything about her?”

“She’s Argyle’s niece.” Cinnie proceeded to tell him about the chieftains coming together to talk of an alliance against the foreigners, about Argyle’s own daughters all succumbing to a sickness that took many of their people including his clan’s previous leader early in the fall. About him coming to Donal to broker peace a few weeks ago. 

Ben shook his head. “So now I’m a peace treaty.” She looked like she’d say something, probably to rebuke him in some way for his slightly resentful tone. But she stopped when his face slipped into a shy sort of expression. “I meant do ye know about her? Herself, I mean.”

Even in the dimness, she could see his cheeks had colored and she didn’t think it was the fever this time. “Well, I understand she’s been apprenticed to their wise woman since she could walk.” When he didn’t say anything she went on, teasing just a bit again. “An’ she’s a healer. Seems like that ought te come in handy fer ye, Bean.”

He rolled his eyes at her. “I need somebody else fussin’ a’ me like I need a pack a hungry wolves at the door.”

“I think you need at leas’ ten more somebodies to fuss at ye!” she laughed. “But I also don’ think ye’ll mind. I hear she’s very kind.”

“Well, tha’s good, I suppose.”

Cinnie remembered nearly everything her lad had said about his ideal mate when he was growing up and smiled. “I don’ know if she likes to hunt or fight, but I do hear she’s very pretty. And tha’ she very much wants to start a family.”

He flushed crimson then, but he grinned broadly. He hesitated for a moment, before asking, “Is she … Does she want te do this though?”

“Tha’s important to ye.”

“Course it is. I won’ go through with it if her people are makin’ her do it.”

“From what I hear, Bean, it was her idea. She saw ye in a vision.”

“I’ve had enough a visions,” he said with a dismissive wave. He’d had a few himself. Cinnie knew about it; she’d been the first one he’d told about his dream before Fee was born. 

He was grateful she didn’t bring that up now, just patted him on the arm. “I know, lad.”

“I s’pose if it’s really her idea, it’s not up te me to worry about why.”

“They’ll make the announcement a’ the Feast. Her people’ll do the same at their own celebrations. She’ll be here after the first planting if everything goes as planned. Is tha’ enough to send ye back to bed to let yerself knit back together, lad?”

He swallowed hard against a dry mouth a couple of times and ran his hands through his hair, wincing when the movement pulled at his wounded shoulder. Cinnie concealed a smile at the nervous gesture. “I think,” his voice cracked and her smile bled through. He cleared his throat and rose slowly. “I think it is.”

She watched him go back to the small room she’d set aside as his years ago. He was moving better. But he was a long way from healed, she thought. He stopped in the doorway and cast a tentative smile back over his shoulder. “Do ye think she’ll be happy with me?” he asked softly.

“Oh, mo a bhobain, how could she not?”

His smile faltered for a moment. “Are ye sure it’s really her idea?”

“Te bed with ye!” she ordered with a smile of her own that brought his back.

He chuckled, shook his head, and did what he was told.

***

By the time the Feast came around several days later, Ben was managing to move with the slightly coltish grace everyone was familiar with. He’d wince or catch his breath if he moved certain ways, but Cinnie didn’t think anyone but her noticed. He ate the expected ridiculous amounts of food, toasted their successes, remembered their losses, and called for a prosperous year, welcoming back the sun with copious amounts of every available fermented beverage. 

Their people had taken heavy losses all around over the last few months and their leader being brought home bloody and unconscious had caused an uneasy silence to fall over the preparations for the holiday. 

Ben’s hale and hearty appearance seemed just what the clan needed. Although, the expressions on the faces of the young women soured somewhat when his father announced his betrothal to Argyle’s niece, Elara. 

Cinnie laughed softly to herself at the way he blushed when he noticed their expressions. He never let on that she’d told him. His knowledge was well hidden behind his shy embarrassment over being the center of attention at the Yule feast, his thanks to his father, his grateful acceptance of offers from his family to help him prepare his little home to grow.

He’d slipped out the door on the early side, admitting quietly to Cinnie he was worn out and sore. She offered to walk back with him or to get Shay to go and make him some tea. He shook his head. 

“I’m goin’ home tonight. I … I need te be alone for a bit. This was … I need some quiet is all.”

“I could send Shay over there with ye, too. She could get yer fire goin’ an’ stay in case ye need anythin’.”

“Cin, I’ll be fine. I love her more than my own life, but Shay is anythin’ but quiet.”

Cinnie laughed. “Alrigh’. But I’ll be over to check on ye in the morning.”

He just smiled and shook his head. “Course ye will.”

***

Ben had slipped out of the party to gain some time to think. But by the time he made it to his small cottage near the wood, the reasons he’d given Cinnie were more honest. He almost wished he’d let her send Shay along, at least to start the fire.

But, there was nothing for it now. It was too cold to just go to sleep without one, and he was much too tired to either go ask for help or admit defeat and go back to his bed at Cinnie and Drustan’s. 

He moved through the dark with the confidence of memory. He hadn’t moved a single thing here since Daira had … “Ow!”

He barked his shins on a stool that wasn’t where he’d left it, and cursed the rest of the way to the hearth. Cinnie must have moved it when she came over here to get ingredients for tea. He flushed when he had the fleeting thought someone was probably going to move stuff all the time soon and he definitely wouldn’t mind. But he smiled, too. 

He crouched by the hearth and started building a fire, hopefully one big enough to take him through the night since he had no desire to get up and tend it. 

Once he had the fire roaring pleasantly, he lit a few candles. He half smiled and moved one to the window to encourage the sun’s return, just as Daira always had. It was her favorite Yule tradition.

He looked around. He’d hate to leave this place. He hadn’t thought he ever would. But if he was to build a family, the small cottage wouldn’t hold up for long. He’d been resistant to the idea of the marriage at first, not that he’d really said so out loud. But the more he’d sat with it, the more his brothers and their wives had talked about their own unions, the warmer the idea made him feel. 

Perhaps he’d see her for the first time and feel the giddy elation he’d always imagined. Falling for someone when you just laid eyes on them was a terribly romantic notion for a warrior to have, he supposed. But it didn’t stop him from having it.

The room was warming nicely. He could, and probably should, head to bed and get the rest he’d promised Cinnie. He did have something other than more warfare to motivate him now. He stooped to add some more wood to the fire and groaned. 

He stood slowly. He was moving like an old man. He felt like he imagined one must, too. His father wasn’t really so very old, but Donal moved like he was older than the rocks. Such was the fate of a warrior who made it home past his usefulness in the field. He was still an excellent chieftain though. Measured, calm, diplomatic. Traits Ben envied when he was at his most impulsive, hot-tempered, and quick-tongued.

He should just do what he planned to, and get some sleep. That would help. It always did. 

But suddenly he didn’t want to. Suddenly coming to be in this house alone felt like a terrible idea. Those dreams … Even unformed memories of them made his stomach drop. He really didn’t want to wake up alone from that. 

He smiled a little when he reminded himself he wouldn’t have to for much longer. Soon he wouldn’t have to take up space at Cinnie and Drus’s when he needed someone. 

Still, he was in no hurry to fall asleep. Those dreams fought for his waking attention in the quiet of his cottage. He tried reminding himself he didn’t usually dream badly, or much at all, when he was here. It helped some, but his reluctance to go to bed in the house alone made his various pains all the more noticeable.

He fed the fire for a while, called out the door to Caraid with no success, and changed out his day clothes for his nightshirt. He wouldn’t admit to himself he was stalling.

Eventually, when he’d run out of other things to do, he decided there would be no sleep without some tea. And maybe a few drops of the dark liquid Daira had never shown him how to make, or even told him much about. That would almost definitely knock him out. Better than a barrel full of mead. Even if the nightmares tried to come for him here, he doubted they could find their way through the deep purple haze of that elixir. 

He didn’t know enough about it that he’d ever dare share it unless someone was absolutely dying anyway. But he knew he tolerated it. It was how Daira had set his badly broken arm when he was eight. He was contemplating the pots of herbs and the dark little bottle. 

“Ach, lad, ye don’ need any a tha’. Not here.”

The voice was almost as familiar as his own, but Ben jumped. He blinked a few times, but Daira still didn’t disappear. Once his initial shock wore off, he realized she was glowing faintly and as she settled into the chair next to his, he could see through her to the room beyond. 

He cleared his throat. He felt his face slip into a wry grin, accepting the visitation for what it was quite naturally. “But apparently the charms you made to keep spirits out aren’ worth a damn.”

She chuckled. “This is my house. Ye can’t charm a lady out of her own home, no matter how dead she is, my boy.”

“I hope ye don’ mind tha’ I’m here,” he offered respectfully. He thought perhaps anyone else might be afraid right now. But he’d seen stranger things than the ghost of his friend, and he was suddenly quite sure all those things had been real. “I did go to the wood to ask, but I’ve never been much good at readin’ signs.”

She smiled, a rather indulgent smile he remembered from his childhood. It meant she was pleased with him. “I’d be more upset if ye weren’ here, lad. I heard ye ask. You were always so polite.”

“Ye’ve not visited me before.”

“I have, just not while you were awake. Why do ye think those terrible visions don’ trouble ye here.”

“Here I’ve been wishin’ I could tell ye about ‘em, an’ ye’ve known all along.” He didn’t ask, but the question hovered between them.

“I wish I could tell ye they’re just dreams, lad, but …” She looked toward the door, tilting her head like she was listening. “Caraid wants to come in,” she observed. 

Ben started to push himself up out of his seat. “Ah,” he groaned softly. 

“Ye stay righ’ there, lad. I’ll get ‘er.”

He frowned. “Don’ take this the wrong way, Daira, but ye look more like ye’ll pass through the door than be able te open it.”

She laughed and went to the door anyway. “I tol’ ye. My house.”

Surprising him completely, she opened the door with no trouble. Caraid zipped around her like she could see her, too. “Can she…?”

“Course she can, ye silly boy. Cats can always see spirits. And your particular cat has one foot in another world anyway.”

He wanted to ask what she meant, but was distracted by a snow-covered Caraid leaping into his lap with surprising agility. Of course, he was on the low stool, close to the fire. If he’d been in his chair, he doubted she’d have made it to his legs. 

“Snowing again, is it?” he asked her, brushing her off.

Once she was free of snow, Caraid jumped down and curled up on the hearth. Daira sat back down next to him. He turned back toward her, his expression both hesitant and curious. “What about my dreams?”

She chuckled fondly. “An’ here I thought ye might jus’ let tha’ go.”

“Daira.” One of his eyebrows went up and a stubborn line formed across his forehead.

She smiled at him, but there was a sadness behind it, Ben noticed. “I cannae tell ye.”

His face creased, and he leaned forward, his whole manner morphing into a frown. But when he spoke, his tone was light, familiar, almost teasing. “Ye wouldna said anythin’ if ye weren’ gonna tell me.”

“Ye cannae charm ole Daira, lad. I know ye too well.”

He sighed. “Spose ye do.”

He looked so dejected, Daira reached out and put a hand on his shoulder. He looked up when he felt its comforting weight. Despite being able to see the room beyond right through her, her eyes had the old familiar warmth they always had. “Alrigh’ ye can charm me a little.” He smiled hesitantly. “There’s truth in those visions,” she said simply.

He swallowed hard. “But what…?” He trailed off. “The foreigners. War’s comin’. Real war.” He looked to her for confirmation of his interpretation.

She shook her head, but whether in denial of his guess or as a refusal to answer was unclear. “I cannae say. But I can show you what lies beyond those visions, lad.” 

He tilted his head. “How?”

She rose and moved to the hearth. Then, surprising him again, she added a log to the flames, sending them higher. “Come. Look.”

Ben obeyed, sitting down next to her on the warm stones. He peered into the fire. “I don’ see anythin’.”

“Look with the eyes that see me, Ben.”

He thought he knew what she meant. 

He forced himself to relax, his gaze to soften. This time, as he stared into the heart of the fire, the shifting embers, an image began to emerge. 

He could make out himself, smiling broadly. He looked different, not quite right, though he couldn’t have said why. His fire-self reached out his arms and was handed a bundle. He couldn’t tell for certain, but he thought the package might be a child. 

The bundle was given to him by someone with a dazzling smile, a beautiful bow shaped mouth. He couldn’t see the rest of her face, but the curve of her jaw, her slender, graceful neck, a profusion of curls flowing over her shoulders … she was beautiful, even made of fire. Her arms went around him and the bundle, and Ben felt like the warmth of it encircled him even in his place on the hearth. 

“Daira … is that…?” An unnatural roaring interrupted him, and he gasped as one of the horrible faces from his nightmares erupted, destroying the peaceful vision of his future. The flames burned so high and so hot that for a moment they seemed like they’d engulf the house

“Be gone, ye foul thing!” Daira commanded. “Ye’ll not trouble him here!” 

She stirred the fire and the beast disappeared. She smiled at Ben gently. “Tha’s on yer mind a great deal, is it?”

Ben tried to slow his breathing and answer her, but his voice had left him. He nodded.

“That wasn’t really here. It came from yer mind.”

Finally, he was able to swallow and open his mouth past the twisting fear that image had wrapped around his neck. “Are ye sure?”

“I am. Ye have a hard time lettin’ yerself accept that there’s anythin’ good beyond the battle in front of ye. Don’ ye, lad?”

He closed his eyes briefly. “Maybe.” He opened his eyes again and looked at her, his expression serious. “How sure are you tha’ there is?”

She smiled. “Just as sure as I was the first time you opened those golden eyes o’ yers a’ me, Ben.” She put her hand on his shoulder. He was once again startled by its weight. “An’ there’ll be times ahead tha’ll make ye forget such things are possible, love. But they aren’ jus’ possible. They’re certain. Alrigh’?”

He managed a small smile then. “If ye say so.”

“I do.”

He stared into the fire again, willing it to give him another glimpse of that momentary happy vision, but nothing appeared. The warmth and the lulling shifting of the flames made his eyes want to close.

“I’ll make ye some tea, lad.”

He just nodded, and gave in to the impulse to rest his eyes.

When he opened them some time later, he was curled on his side on the hearth. The fire had burned low, but was still warm. He stretched, and pushed himself up to sitting. “Tha’ was quite a dream,” he said aloud to the silent house.

He must’ve fallen asleep feeding the fire. He decided he should should restoke the fire and try calling Caraid again. 

He got up with a groan and bent to scratch at his leg. Whether Cinnie liked it or not he was going to sharpen a knife in the morning and pick out all those stitches. He was more worried about scratching himself to death than he was about his insides leaking out at this point.

As he laid wood onto the fire, Caraid twined herself between his feet. “Ahhh!” he shouted and dropped the log he was holding almost on his foot, and narrowly missed her. “How’d you get in here?” he asked, recovering from the momentary fright she’d given him.

She looked up at him placidly and meowed. He started toward the window to see if she’d actually jumped up and pawed the shutters open but she tried to hop up onto the stack of blankets on one of the chairs and couldn’t quite make it. He stopped and boosted her up onto her preferred spot. “Huh.”

He tended the fire for a few minutes. He wasn’t nearly as achy as he’d been a few days ago, or even as much as when he’d gotten home from the feast a few hours ago. But he hadn’t done himself any favors falling asleep on the hearth. He decided to follow his earlier impulse and make some tea.

He turned for the pot of herbs on the nearby shelf, but it wasn’t there. “Huh,” he said again. 

He searched around and found it on the edge of the hearth. He also found the pot full of a perfectly steeped pot of the medicinal brew. He was suddenly certain his late night guest hadn’t been a dream. “Well, now,” he murmured as he poured himself a cup. He raised it to his lips. “If it’s already sweetened too, I’ll eat my boots.”

It was so bitter he nearly spit it out. “Well, o’ course she dinnae sweeten it,” he chuckled fondly. Daira always seemed to think making him drink it straight might knock some sense into him.

He put what anyone else would have thought an offensive amount of honey into the cup and sat next to Caraid, stroking her fur as he sipped his tea. Finally he said, “Did we really have a visitor tonight, girl?”

Caraid purred contentedly in answer. He smiled and shook his head. He thought about his talk with Daira, which he had to admit he remembered too much of to have been a dream. The promise of light, of love, of hope was such a perfect Yule gift, he was almost ashamed he’d questioned the reality of it. 

“Thank you, old friend,” he whispered, hoping, and being very nearly certain, Daira was listening.

Eventually, he felt as though he could go back to sleep. He thought perhaps he’d get up early, and instead of calling the men together to talk about fighting, he might visit his mother and ask what she thought he ought to work on to make the cottage more welcoming.

He went to bed and burrowed under his blankets and skins, confident that his nightmares wouldn’t come for him here. Daira would keep them away. 

He closed his eyes and drifted off. Something told him his feet were finally on the path that would lead him to happiness. It might feel like forever before he got there, but he could hardly wait for the journey.

The vision of the woman’s bright smile, of the child in his arms, came back to him with vivid warmth. 

In his sleep, as the earliest rays of the returning sun brushed the eastern sky, Ben smiled. 

*****

 

Doubt Truth to Be a Liar

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Authors Note: Here we have another look at a solstice from Ben’s past, this one as a demon. In traditional Norse mythology Loki is the blood-brother of Odin. In most modern literature, not just the MCU (although, who doesn’t love Marvel?) Loki is Odin’s adopted son. That’s so much more fun. Odin is also pretty much ancient Norse Santa. He had to make an appearance. 

Doubt Truth to Be a Liar

Barely fed and rested from the Wild Hunt, Allfather made his way to the great stable. He smiled despite his weariness, listening to the Yule songs carried on the winter winds from his people in the mortal realm all the way to his ears here in Asgard.

He hadn’t yet laid eyes on his steed, but he could hear Sleipnir pawing at the ground impatiently. He chuckled to himself, his warm breath frosting in the frigid air on this, the longest night of the year.

“Patience, Sleipnir! We’ll ride soon enough and you’ll feast on the gifts of the children!”

The horse neighed softly in reply. Allfather laughed to himself. There were few things his eight-legged companion liked more than riding out with him on this night, the eve of the Solstice, as they did each year, and had since time out of mind. He looked forward to distributing gifts to his faithful, especially the children.

Sleipnir preferred receiving rather than giving. The offerings of straw the children left in their boots to be replaced by the bounty that would signify a prosperous year to all were probably an explanation for his friend’s impatience.

It was a night the two of them looked forward to, perhaps in some ways more than the Wild Hunt itself.

He paused to look up at the sky, his anticipation marred by something that had concerned him for some time. For weeks a star burned in the sky, bright and cool and unfamiliar. A portent of some sort, of that he was certain, but of what he had been unable to even conjecture. He supposed it didn’t matter. The Heavens could fall around him and he would still fulfill his promises to those he watched.

He pushed through the last of the knee deep snow to open the stable door. “I’m coming, old friend,” he called out, gathering what he needed. He patted Sleipnir’s neck before he harnessed him up to his flying chariot that would carry gifts to every home that kept his name and ways close.

He threw the doors wide and led Sleipnir outside. He looked up at the strange star again. Sleipnir snorted and pawed at the snow. “Nothing for it, noble one. Tonight we ride.”

Sleipnir snorted his agreement and his master moved to climb aboard his chariot.

From behind him, he heard a throat clear nervously. “Um, Odin, isn’t it?”

Odin stopped what he was doing and turned to see his questioner, a tall young man, with an unruly mop of blond hair, strongly built, and wearing only a simple tunic and dark kilt against the icy Nordic air. Odin took his measure.

No, not a man. Well, not a man anymore, he amended.

“You show either great stupidity, or great bravery, to face me like this, Demon.”

He raised Gungnir. The runes on his magical spear glowed blue, red, and a burning black, as soon as he held it aloft.

The demon dropped back a step, holding up his hands. “I don’t want any trouble.” He appeared unafraid, but was cautious. “And I’ve been told I’m stupidly brave once or twice,” he added with a slight smirk. “So, let’s call it a little of both.”

Odin advanced on the demon a few steps. “Your tongue is glib.”

“I’ve been told that, too.” His hands opened just a little more, raised just a little higher so he could be sure Odin could see he was not making an aggressive move. “Look, I’m not here to fight.”

Odin brandished Gungnir again. “Boy, you don’t have a choice!”

The blond danced back out of his way. “I’m here to help! Give me a chance to explain!”

Odin stopped advancing. This man, this demon, truly wasn’t afraid of him. He wasn’t backing off out of fear, but rather because he was intent on talking. However, Odin could not excuse a demon boldly roaming the streets of Asgard, even walking up to his own stable. He took a belligerent stance.

“I am not interested in talk. Your actions beg for a fight.”

The demon’s hands came up again. “I’m unarmed.” Gungnir dipped fractionally, and he took a step toward Odin. “I really am here to help. If you let me speak, you’ll have cause to thank me and my glib tongue. I promise.”

“What good is the promise of a demon?” Oden laughed with exaggerated derision.

“Not much usually.” The blond shrugged. “But mine is.”

“Why is your promise a good one when others are not?” Odin asked with skepticism.

“You see all, or so I’m told. You at least see the hearts of those who walk and who have walked the Earth.”

“That is so.”

“Alright, then. You know my word is good.”

Odin’s eyes narrowed. “I also know that with demons, appearances can be deceiving, might even be capable of deceiving me.”

The demon ran a hand through his hair, a disarmingly human gesture. He met Odin’s cold blue eyes with warm amber ones. He felt Odin reading his very soul. “I swear on my family, I’m here in good faith.”

There was a sincerity in his words, a huskiness that came into his voice, that Odin found intriguing. “Alright.” The god lowered his spear. “First, I will have your name.”

A smile flashed, there and gone almost before Odin could mark the humanness of that, too. “You can call me Ben.”

“Ben is sort of an odd name for one of your kind.”

The smile was back. “Well, I’m an odd sort of demon.”

Odin finally gave a grudging nod. “Speak your piece then, demon. Ben. If your words displease me, you will be rewarded with the final death.”

“Oh, they’ll displease you alright.” Ben puffed out a breath, shaking his head. This wasn’t going as well as he’d hoped. “But it’s not me you’ll be displeased with. You know, unless you’re a kill the messenger kind of god.”

Ben hesitated to go on and Odin snapped, “Enough! I grow impatient and I have much to do this night. Speak.”

“Okay … It’s um … It’s about your horse.”

Odin gestured to Sleipnir. “What about my horse?”

“Um … That’s not him.”

“Of course it’s my horse!” The horse snorted his agreement and pawed at the ground again. He almost seemed to be nodding his head. “I know Sleipnir better than I know my wife, my children!”

“Um … about that…”

“Spit it out, boy!”

“Well, he looks like your horse, but…”

“Nonsense!”

Ben sighed. “Just … Look into his eyes, just like you looked into mine a few moments ago…”

Sleipnir clomped forward and pawed at the ground, nearly stomping on Ben’s boot clad foot. He tossed his mane, neighing his displeasure.

“Look,” Ben repeated. “You’ll see.”

Odin growled, “I’ll see you’re a deceitful beast straight from the Pit of the Damned. And then I’ll kill you.”

“Please,” Ben said calmly, or at least appearing calm. “Just look.”

Sleipnir puffed and stomped and tossed his head, glaring at the demon and attempting to step on his feet again. “Calm yourself, Sleipnir,” Odin coaxed.

When the horse continued to toss its head, Odin reached into his pocket and held something up near the horse’s nose. “I said, calm yourself. Come on now.”

Like he was powerless to do anything else, the horse sniffed at whatever was in Odin’s hand and took it in his mouth, chewing happily. Odin took advantage of Sleipnir’s distraction and grabbed hold of the horse’s bridle, stilling his head. The horse went completely motionless as Odin gazed into his large brown eyes.

“Bah!” Odin released the horse’s head in frustration. “I should have known. Change back at once!”

The air shimmered and Odin’s son stood where Sleipnir had been a moment before. “Father, I can explain,” he began with a charming smile.

“You’d better!”

Ben concealed a smile as Loki’s own faltered a bit. “Yeah, Loki, go ahead. Explain what happened.” Odin shot him a look and Ben bit his lips to keep from laughing. “Sorry.”

“Go on,” Odin said with tightly concealed fury. “Explain yourself.”

Loki’s hands opened and his smile fixed back into place. “Well, you see, I was only trying to … I know how important this day is to you … And…”

“Loki,” Odin warned.

“I, well, I rather misplaced your horse and…”

“Misplaced?” Odin asked, his irritation only barely held in check.

“Lost,” Ben interjected. “The word you’re looking for is lost, Loki.”

“We’ve heard quite enough from you, Ronoven,” Loki spat.

“As in, at cards,” Ben managed, before Odin cut him off with a wave.

“Do you know this demon?” Odin demanded.

Loki swallowed hard. “Uh … we’ve met.”

“Met?” Ben laughed. “You were just at my estate. For the weekly card game.”

Odin seemed to ignore him. “So you’re consorting with demons now. Weekly. I shouldn’t be surprised. Well, then…”

Ben cleared his throat. “Look, I’m glad I could help you guys start to sort this out, but I’ve got to be going.” He started to turn away.

“You stay right where you are, Demon!” Odin ordered. “Where is Sleipnir?”

Loki stammered, then regained his composure. “Well, you see, Father. That’s actually a rather funny story…”

“Oh for the love of…” Ben threw up his hands, interrupting Loki before he could implicate Ben in his family squabble any more than he already had. “Your horse is back in your stables, Odin. I led him there before I came to speak with you … He’s a biter, by the way.”

Ben’s exaggerated wince and rubbing of his forearm surprised Odin into a chuckle. “And how,” he glared significantly at Loki before looking back at Ben, “did he come to be in your possession? If you don’t mind my asking.”

“Some light cheating of me at cards. And getting caught at it. In my home.” Loki shot him a murderous look, but Ben continued. “It was a rather considerable bet. And there’s obviously a penalty involved.”

“For cheating?” Odin asked, ashamed that anyone who could be called Odin’s son would cheat, not to mention be sloppy enough to get caught at it in Hell of all places, but entirely unsurprised that Loki was guilty of it.

“Nah, people try to cheat all the time. It’s Hell.” Ben grinned. “Just, getting caught got him into a kind of double or nothing situation. Then, when he couldn’t pull it out with all eyes on him, he offered Sleipnir as payment.”

Odin shot Loki a withering glare. “A bet, was it?”

“Father, I only thought…”

Odin waved him into silence and returned his gaze to Ben. “And why are you here?”

Ben might have blushed, Odin couldn’t be sure. “I’d never take another man’s … er … god’s … You know what I mean. I’d never take someone else’s horse. I knew Sleipnir wasn’t Loki’s to lose.”

“You speak as a man who understands the bond between a horse and his master.”

“I do.” Ben swallowed. “Look, you obviously have some family issues to work out. I took the horse as payment to begin with so Loki could save face in front of the crew. I’ll lose some myself if I don’t get back before my absence is noticed.”

“Very well,” Odin said with a solemn nod, and extended his hand. Ben hesitated, but took it. “I thank you, Ben. Should you ever need to call on me or my house, I hope you will not hesitate.”

Ben nodded, it was almost a bow. “Thank you, Odin. I will if the need arises.” He tipped a wink at Loki. “Good luck.”

He walked away, puffing in the cold, to get to a place where he could open a portal and travel back to his estate, leaving the Allfather to deal with his mischievous son.

*****