The weather was typical for the realm; wet, windy, and blisteringly cold. The waters where the three unnamed rivers converged to form Silver River roiled and frothed, threatening to drown any who dared travel by boat that day. Or indeed, any other day, for a calm day on Nidavellir was rare. A day with sunshine was completely unheard of.
Jari had travelled for weeks, taking the underways for most of his journey, but those underways all stopped just east of Dragon's Pass, where Silver River turned back around in its course to empty into the sea. For the last week of his journey, Jari travelled above ground on worn paths, taking shelter in whatever small caves or dens he could find along the river, until finally he came upon the first sights of the city ahead. He was soaked through to the bone, weary, and only halfway through his quest. His pack was nearing empty, but he would finally have the opportunity to resupply after days of careful rationing. Only barely able to muster up the spirits to carry on, Jari followed the path of the river to the wide bridge that spanned the first of the three unnamed rivers. Without the great clock's chimes to mark the hour, Jari could not tell the time of day, beyond that it was day, but still he trudged on. Four Rivers was where he had been sent, and it was Four Rivers that lay ahead of him.
Four Rivers was an unusual city for the dwarven realm. It sat close to the gate leading to Midgardr, and had been largely built by the men of that realm. As Jari walked into the city, he slowed his pace to marvel up at the hugeness of everything around him. Rather than being dug into a mountain, it towered above the ground, built to the comfort of the men who came to the realm, rather than the dwarfs who lived there. Horses the size of gryphons were rideen through the streets, their riders oblivious to anyone else on the road. The men themselves were bigger than Jari had ever expected them to be, twice as big as any dwarf in every way. The houses they built were all of wood, with tall, pointed roofs that were covered with grass and thatch. One building in the centre of the city towered above all else, reaching toward the sky, with every part of it slanted or tilted in one way or another. As it reached higher, it also became smaller with each step, until at the very top, it was little more than a tower with a pointed top.
Jari forgot about everything else as he stared up at the structure, feeling smaller than he had ever felt in his life. He had been warned before he agreed to take up this task that the world of men was different than anything he had ever experienced, but he had not thought it would be quite as different as it truly was. He marvelled, both at the building itself and the task it must have been to build such a thing, not hearing the running horse coming up behind him until he was pulled away from it. He stumbled and fell back against the wooden side of a building, reaching for the sword on his hip as he spun round to see who had thrown him. The man he found next to him hardly seemed to even know he was there. His orange hair was plastered to his head by the rain, and as he craned about to peer down the road at the horse and its rider, the red and black ink of tattoos showed under his loose shirt, where his neck met his shoulder.
"You shouldn't stand in the street. It's a good way to get killed, you know," he said suddenly, scratching at one of his pointed ears.
Jari raised his sword to him, but the stranger hardly seemed to notice that either.
"What brings you out of your fortress and into the city?" asked the stranger, turning away from the street to frown at Jari's sword.
"What makes you think I was brought here at all?" asked Jari.
The stranger slapped his blade away and stepped closer under the eaves. "Who do you think you're going to maim with that pocket knife?" he asked.
Unsure how to respond, Jari looked away and sheathed his sword.
"And if you were from Four Rivers, you wouldn't be so distracted by the hof to nearly get yourself killed," the stranger said.
Jari shrugged, admitting that point. "I suppose. What is it?"
"Where men go to talk to their gods." His tone seemed to suggest he thought the whole idea wasn't worth anybody's time. "Do you have silver?" he asked suddenly.
If this man behaved like all men, Jari wasn't sure he could finish the task put to him. He felt like he had missed a step in the conversation, and struggled to keep up. If speaking to all men was like speaking with this man, Jari wasn't sure what he would do. "Yes," he answered.
The stranger nodded and grabbed Jari again to turn him in the direction of the door to their left. "Good. Then you can buy me a drink and a bed in exchange for saving your life."
"I suppose that's fair," said Jari, managing to shrug off the stranger and walk inside under his own power.
He was surprised by the alehouse on the other side of the door, and again stopped in his tracks. The existence of the alehouse itself was no surprise at all, but the sheer scale of it was more than Jari had been prepared for. The tables were almost as tall as he was, and if he wanted to sit on a chair, he would have to climb to do so. The men in the alehouse all seemed even larger in their drunkenness, but the stranger from the street was taller still than the rest of them, if none the wider. Some of the other men watched him warily as he walked through the crowd to the counter, though their obvious discomfort was lost on the object of it. Jari followed him through the, staying close to avoid being lost or trod on by drunkards who weren't paying enough attention.
"Sigrid, two horns and a room," the stranger called out.
"You aren't getting nothing. You still owe me from last time!" a dark-haired woman shouted as she rushed over. Jari could barely see her from where he stood behind the counter, but he could see enough of her to know she was angry.
He'd been told before that women of other realms had no beards, but it was truly a strange sight to see. There were other women in the alehouse as well, walking through the crowds to deliver horns of ale or sell their own services, but Jari tried not to look at them too much to avoid gawping at their bald faces.
"No, no. It's being paid for," said the stranger. He picked Jari up right off the ground and sat him on one of the high stools against the counter, before clapping a heavy hand against his shoulder. "This gentleman here has agreed to pay for it, in exchange for services rendered. Now, please. Two horns and a room. And the bag you've stolen from me."
Sigrid turned her face toward Jari, but kept her gaze on the stranger. "You've agreed to pay for this, have you?" she asked.
"I. Yes, I have," he said, wondering what exactly he had actually agreed to.
Sigrid nodded and turned away, muttering, "Filthy Jötunn bastard," as she left.
Jari looked up at the stranger again, beginning to suspect he was about to be conned out of all his coin before the night was through. The stranger caught him staring and frowned.
"What?" he asked.
"I thought Jötuns were all— well, I suppose everyone in here is big, but I thought they were supposed to be even bigger," Jari said. Like all children, he had heard tales of giants from the common realms, big enough to step on houses and flatten forests. This man was tall, but not nearly big enough for any of that.
Jari expected him to be offended by the remark, but instead he laughed. "Oh, you are new, aren't you?"
Sigrid returned with a large bearskin bag, and held her hand out over the bar. "Five silver," she said. "For what he owes me already, plus the two horns and tonight's room."
Having expected some sort of scheme to rob him, and feeling like it was too late to back out now, Jari dug into his purse and pulled out the silver coins, handing them over. With the coins in hand, Sigrid nodded and handed the bearskin bag back over to the stranger. "I'll get you your drinks and your key," she said.
"I do appreciate your help," said the stranger, digging through his bag. "Of course, had she not taken my bag in the first place, I'd have been able to pay her without..." He waved his hand vaguely above the counter. "All this."
He dropped the bag to the floor and passed three silver coins across the bar to Jari.
"What's this?" Jari asked.
"I asked for the ale and the room. The back rent was an unfortunate necessity, but not your burden to bear." He said as Sigrid returned, handing them each a horn of ale.
"And you, trickster. One night," she said, brandishing the key at the stranger. "After that, I don't want to see your snake face in here ever again."
He smiled and reached for the key, but Sigrid pulled it away and handed it to Jari instead. "Up the stairs. Number's on the door," she said.
Jari nodded, taking the key. "Thank you," he said, still feeling more than a little dazed at everything.
The smell and stickiness and the way everyone in the alehouse seemed to be shouting at one another was familiar, but even up on the stool, Jari still couldn't shake the feeling that he would be trod on by any of the wandering, drunken men in the building. He looked over to the stairs, finding them at least a reasonable obstacle to climb, and not nearly as treacherous as some of the stairs of his own home city. It reminded him that he had a task beset to him, though now that he was in the city, he realised he hadn't the first clue where to start. The thought crossed his mind to ask the man next to him, but Jari felt more and more distrustful of him with each passing minute.
"What did she mean by that?" he asked as the stranger drank.
His question seemed to shock the stranger, making him cough into his horn and sputter ale. "By what?" he asked.
"Either trickster or snake face. Take your pick," Jari said.
The stranger smiled, and it wasn't one Jari thought he liked. It was wolfish and insincere, with entirely too many sharp teeth showing. "I suppose it's all one in the same, really. One joke goes a bit too far, and then suddenly nobody wants you around." He shrugged and drank from his horn again as if Jari hadn't asked his question at all.
Nothing he'd said made Jari want to believe him. He knew he'd heard that kenning before, but he couldn't imagine it being unique to just one person. Nor could he remember who it had belonged to in the story he'd once heard. He thought that perhaps he was just being paranoid, and that being too far from home and under the open sky for so long had begun to make him see things that weren't there. After all, the man had saved him, and repaid him the extra three coins for the owed rent. Perhaps, he thought, the woman running the place simply held a grudge.
He decided he was just going to ignore it all and finally drank from his horn. The ale was sweeter than what he knew from home, but no less strong for it. He held the key to the room upstairs, but the stranger seemed to be in no hurry to leave just yet, so Jari took his time. He began to watch the alehouse, taking in its similarities and differences from what he knew. Though everything was bigger, it was no louder or livelier than the mead hall at Rötgardr. Men talked and shouted, sang and even danced as they drank their coin away. And it wasn't just men, Jari realised. Though he had not noticed it before, at least half of the patrons were dwarfs as well, blending in and hidden amongst their larger tablemates. They were all mingled together, singing and shouting with one another like it made no difference. Jari had never seen men step foot within Rötgardr, but here it mattered not whether one was man nor dwarf, it seemed. It made him wonder whether the old stories were true, and whether Four Rivers was truly to blame for the curse, or if it was just a convenient excuse. He looked toward the ceiling as if he could see the sky beyond it, and imagined the dark clouds, by then surely black as ink as night fell that never vanished or faded.
Jari pushed the thought from his mind and went back to drinking his ale and watching the room. His drinking partner seemed content to keep to his own business, as much as his own business was shouting at the landlady and being shouted at in turn. His attention was only diverted from harassing the woman when the door to the street opened again and a rough, sturdy fellow stepped inside. He stopped at the door, zeroing his attention to the stranger beside Jari.
"Loki, I thought you were banned from this place," he said, walking forward.
"Three times. Working on the fourth," the stranger called Loki said, leaning against the bar and grinning widely.
Jari thought he recognised that name from somewhere, but like the names Sigrid had used, he couldn't place it. It wasn't a name used often by dwarfs, leaving the question to where he'd heard it before an uneasy mystery. Almost as uneasy as the feeling he got watching the distance between the two men close.
"And what brings wise Odin to this realm?" asked Loki, looking suddenly rather shocked. "Or is it someone else today? I can never keep up."
Odin shook his head. "I'd say it hardly matters now, with your big mouth in the room."
Loki kept grinning, winking when he noticed Jari watching him.
"Kvasir's dead," Odin said without preamble. He stood next to the long counter as he looked over the crowd in the room like he was looking for something. From where he sat, Jari could see that the man was missing an eye, but the wound was old and long-healed. Jari half wanted to ask how it had happened, and would have if not for the matter of conversation to which he was not part.
"The rumours are true then," Loki said. "Perhaps it's fate that I'm here then."
Odin turned his attention back to Loki, glaring fiercely. "If you think you're getting your hands on the mead, you should perhaps think again," he warned.
Loki held his hands up and shook his head. "Mead? There's mead to be had as well? No-one told me."
Before anything else could be said, Odin had one arm around Loki's neck, though Loki seemed more concerned with not spilling his drink than being strangled to death. "I don't want your filthy mead anyway," he said, crowing with laughter. "It's probably crawling with bugs and worms!"
He twisted himself around easily, moving so that Odin's arm around his neck instead rested over his shoulders. Loki leaned his head on Odin's shoulder and looked up at him with a fond, tilted gaze. "Your man's long gone by now, surely. You may as well stay for the night and head out fresh."
Odin laughed quietly and pulled himself away. "And help you harass the dwarfs? Haven't you grown out of that yet?" he asked.
Loki rolled his eyes and shook his head. "I'm not harassing the dwarfs. I'm harassing Sigrid. I think she's warming up to me. She hasn't even thrown anything today."
"Yes, and in ten years, you'll have yourself a third wife," Odin said.
To that, Loki raised his horn. "How do you think I wore down the first two?" he asked.
"So that's what brings you here? Harassing poor women who have work to do?" Odin asked.
"Absolutely not. I'm here with my friend, uh." He frowned and looked to Jari. "What's your name?"
It took Jari a moment to realise he was being addressed. "Jari. Of Rötgardr," he said.
"I'm helping my friend Jari of Rötgardr do his uhm." Loki looked to him again. "What are you doing here?"
"I've come looking for my brothers," Jari answered.
Loki nodded. "I'm helping my friend Jari of Rötgardr find his wayward brothers, and bring them home safely," he said. He looked back to Jari, nodding uncertainly. "We are taking them home, yes? Or are we finding them to murder them?"
"Of course I mean to take them home!" Jari spat, slamming his horn against the counter and spilling his ale over the sides. But Loki only grinned and nodded.
If Odin was convinced of that story, he didn't show it. "I have matters of my own to tend to. Stay out of them and make things easy for a change."
"But of course." Loki grinned at him again in a way that was entirely unconvincing.
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