Thor nearly laughed when he checked his trap the next morning.
By conventional standards, the creature was positively tiny, much smaller than Thor and even the average Midgardian. He was definitely a frost troll—the blue-skinned species of jötunn that dwelled in the cold, snowy realms of Niflheim and Jötunheim. His horns were only just beginning to curve, a sign that he was yet a juvenile. He was gangly and terribly thin, his tail a long, bony appendage sprouting from his bottom. His ribs were visible through his skin and he had a crazed, hungry sort of ferociousness about him. He wore only a ragged breechcloth, but this was not unusual because frost trolls were unaffected by the cold. Like the rest of his kind, he wore no shoes; his feet were bare and surprisingly dainty, not thick and scaly as they should have been, nor were there claws on his toes and fingers. He did not possess the heavy, sturdy build typical of jötnar, though he bore their distinctive markings. Faint lines ran all over his naked blue torso and limbs, circles and bevels that Thor suddenly found to be quite intricate, even pretty. This petit specimen lacked the heavy, muscular features and large fangs that were common among his people, and his skin looked to be very soft and smooth. He had lovely hands—a bit bloodied and dirtied from his struggle—and was not completely hairless. An oily, leaf-littered tangle of black locks hung around his face, and he also had eyebrows. Thor wondered if he might be the product of an unfortunate union between a human woman and a frost troll. If so, this creature would be the first of his kind.
The little jötunn sat on the frosty ground with his ankle caught in a snare made of indestructible golden rope, and on the other end of the rope was Mjölnir, Thor’s mighty hammer. He was stabbing vigorously at his tether with a sharp rock when Thor made his presence known, and he immediately dropped his tool and recoiled, baring his teeth.
Thor squatted on his haunches and stared at his quarry. When he spoke, his tone was calm and level. “So you are the fearsome fiend that has been terrorizing the people of Túnsberg.”
The troll drew back farther, creating furrows in the damp earth with his hands and heels. The fear in his eyes was unmistakable, much more pronounced than his scorn. Thor felt inexplicably sorry for him, so thin and small and frightened. Did the villagers honestly believe this half-starved little mongrel was responsible for tearing a full-grown man to pieces and eating an entire herd of goats? Impossible. Their fears were clearly feeding their imaginations, which was by no means a rare occurrence. Thor had seen it time and time again; something unusual would happen in Midgard, the mortals’ panicked prayers would paint pictures of monsters and giants and blood-soaked paths of destruction, and Thor would descend from Asgard only to discover it was nothing more than a mangy, belligerent wolverine or a howling mad drunkard who liked to run naked through the woods. Occasionally the threats were real, but most of the time it was merely a case of mass hysteria. It was both amusing and tiring sometimes, but Thor had sworn an oath to protect the Midgardians from otherworldly enemies, even imagined ones.
“Can you speak?” he asked.
“Well enough,” said the troll coldly. “Who are you?”
A surprised smile came to Thor’s mouth. What a fair voice! So clear and smooth and pleasing to the ear. Surely this was no common jötunn he was dealing with.
“I am Thor, son of Odin.”
At that, the troll’s blood-red eyes widened. “I have heard of Odinson. You are a troll killer. Lightning-maker, they call you. Thunder-bringer, the terror of all jötnar!”
He turned and began scrabbling vainly through the dirt and slush, grunting in his panic, pulling so hard on his tether that it bent his foot at a gruesome angle.
Thor reached out and grasped the troll’s ankle. His hand encompassed it easily. “Stop that,” he scolded. “You will hurt yourself.”
When the troll turned, tears were gleaming in his eyes. Thor’s heart flew to him, and he knew then that there would be no killing this day.
“What does it matter?” he sobbed. “You mean to destroy me anyway! Well, go on then, kill me! I’ve suffered in this wretched realm long enough. Put me out of my misery, for mercy’s sake!”
“What is your name?”
The troll sniffed and became quiet. “I beg your pardon?”
“Your name. Surely you have a name, don’t you?”
He looked down at Thor’s huge hand on his ankle, then up at his face. “My name is Loki.”
Thor smiled. “Loki. That’s a good name. I like it.”
Loki’s face crumpled and he began to struggle with renewed energy. Thor was quite certain he was going to pull his leg from its socket if he didn’t do something, so he shuffled forward on his knees and gently took him by the waist—his hands nearly fit all the way around, such a tiny thing!—and pulled him out of the dirt and snow. Thor could feel the lean, rabbity muscles working beneath Loki’s warm skin as he squealed and kicked and wriggled.
“No, stop, please!” he wept. “Don’t ravish me, I beg you, just slit my throat and have done with it!”
Thor was quietly horrified. He picked Loki up and sat him squarely onto a fallen tree, then took his hands off of him. Loki went silent, studying his new seat and upright, elevated position, staring eye-to-eye with his captor.
“I am neither raper nor robber,” said Thor firmly. “I want only to ask you a few questions, then I shall determine what must be done with you.”
Loki crossed his arms over his hollow belly and hunched down, scowling to disguise his terror. “Alright. Ask away.”
“How came you to Midgard, Loki?”
“I was banished here.”
“By my father.”
Thor frowned thoughtfully. “Your father must be a very powerful troll if he thinks he can cast his people out to become the problems of other realms. Who is he? What is his name?”
Loki lowered his head and stared at the ground between his small, bare feet, his hands fidgeting in his lap. “His name is Fárbauti.”
Thor’s face went slack. “Fárbauti! King of the frost trolls, ruler of Jötunheim—he is your father?”
“Yes,” said Loki. His voice was meek, his shoulders slumped in shame.
“Then that would make you a prince!”
“I am no prince.” Loki lifted his face, his eyes bright with suffering. “Both my brothers are, but I have been shunned since the day I was born. The only reason my father didn’t throw me to the wolves when I was a baby was because he hoped I would eventually grow to be a full-sized jötunn.”
Thor suddenly found his heart aching for this poor, unlucky little waif.
“Only you never grew,” he finished softly. “You stayed small, and when he realized you would get no bigger, he cast you out. Is that true?”
Loki nodded his head miserably.
Thor stared at him. Of all the realms Fárbauti could have banished his son to, he had sent him to the one protected by the greatest troll-foe who ever lived, the Æsir son of Odin Allfather, who struck terror into the hearts of all jötnar with his thunder and his hammer, who rained lightning upon their armies and slaughtered them by the drove. Looking at this tiny, pathetic, starving creature in front of him, Thor wondered if he would ever be able to raise his hammer against a troll again.
He moved forward to kneel before Loki and loosened the enchanted rope from around his ankle, gently massaging away the indentations left by its cruel grip. He raised his head and saw that Loki was staring at him with an expression of awe on his thin, sad face.
“I am freeing you on one condition,” said Thor as he held Loki’s small foot in his hand and continued to rub the marks from his flesh. “That you return to Asgard with me and allow me to take care of you.”
Loki jerked his foot from Thor’s gentle grasp. “You mean to make me your pet, is that it?”
“I mean to take care of you,” Thor repeated. “Feed you, heal you, give you shelter and a place to call home.”
“I hate Asgard.”
“Have you ever been there?”
“No.” Loki swished his tail petulantly back and forth. “But I hear it’s terrible. A realm of sunshine and warmth, long days and short nights, not enough snow or ice.”
“The palace has many rooms that are cool and dark,” Thor insisted, “and the forests of Asgard are deep and green. You will love it there.”
Loki gave him a doubtful scowl.
Thor tried for a more appetizing angle. “There are streams teeming with fish. Forests filled with wild boar, stags, rabbits, small game, all the fresh blood you can drink. Mushrooms and berries, trees bursting with fruit. There are things to eat during every season in Asgard, unlike here. Won’t you at least stay for a little while and recover your strength? I will not force you to remain against your will. You will not be my prisoner. If you decide you would like to live in another realm, then I shall deliver you there myself when the time comes.”
Loki narrowed his eyes. “Are you trying to tempt me?”
“I am, absolutely.”
“Well, you’ve succeeded.” Loki stretched his thin blue arms out to Thor, his eyes wide and hungry. “Take me.”
A huge, handsome smile split Thor’s face and he reached out and picked Loki up. He felt so light and frail, like a skinny child in desperate need of care—something which, Thor supposed, wasn’t too far from the truth. Loki wrapped his arms around Thor’s neck and clung to his broad chest. He was so small that Thor was able to support him with one arm and rise to his feet, then call Mjölnir to his free hand. Loki jerked a little at the metallic toll that was often the last thing his people heard, and cringed when the weapon smacked into Thor’s palm.
Thor felt Loki trembling with fear and his heart grew even sorer. He tucked his hammer into his belt and coiled the golden rope about its handle, then drew his other arm around Loki’s slight frame, gently laying his hand upon his shivering, bony back.
“Don’t fear, Loki,” he murmured, hugging the little frost troll as he carried him from the wintry Norwegian forest. “I give you my word, no harm shall befall you so long as I live.”