“A wolf without his pack — what a sight,” said Aerl the rabbit, teasing Sköll as he approached.
“Watch your ears, rabbit,” Sköll bristled, haunches tensing.
“Or what?” Aerl replied.
Sköll peeled back his lips in a snarl, ready to leap upon Aerl, but the butterflies’ whispers grew in his ear — an indecipherable hiss, soothing him, easing the tension in his tendons. He found himself calmed against his own wishes.
“That will be enough,” said the pale hind, known to these rabbits as Dust. The rabbits found it curious that the butterflies seemed to follow her will. They knew of no other hind or stag who could communicate in this way.
“You may have the spirit’s protection now, rabbit, but wolves have a long memory.”
“As do I, Sköll,” said Dust with an expression of utter calm, leaving Sköll perturbed that this delicious creature showed no fear of him.
“I thought hinds were supposed to be red,” said Sköll.
“Oh dear …” chittered Burl, the other rabbit. “You shouldn’t be here, Sköll … Odin isn’t going to be happy about this …” Burl blabbered, his ears pinned back with nervousness. “I can’t bear to see the All-father again … The last time I- I- I- was a human! But that snake son of his— ”
“Loki,” added Aerl.
“Yes! He- he- he- banished me to this body.”
“And what’s so bad about being a rabbit?” Aerl asked, tone hinting that Burl ought to watch his words.
Burl sneezed out of nervousness, his nose twitching. “Ah, well, nothing, it’s just, ah- I miss certain … pleasantries of being a human.”
“Pleasantries?” Aerl asked.
“Well, I could focus more … My, eh, libido was much calmer.”
“Enough!” Barked Sköll. “I will not be convened by any spirit to hear of a rabbit’s libido. If my grandfather put you in this rabbit suit, he did so for good reason.”
Burl shivered at the wolf’s words, acutely aware of how tasty he would be to a wolf such as Sköll. At the same time, Dust whispered words on the wind, something the butterflies picked up on. Within seconds their fluttering wings coalesced, taking on the angular form of a hawk.
“Can they just turn into anything?” Aerl asked, astounded by how many creatures seemed to slip from one form to another.
“A being can transform into anything they set their mind upon,” said Dust.
Sköll groaned. “And yet here you are — a walking, talking dinner plate.”
“You know why I’ve called you here, Sköll,” said Dust. “Just look up.”
Above the creatures hung the roots of Yggdrasil, visibly shrinking in the baking sun. They’d become brittle, the wind snapping off dried root bits and felling them to the ground. Burl moved to sniff one of these bits now, wondering what would happen if he ate it.
“I wouldn’t do that,” said Aerl, snookering his fellow rabbit.
“No? No, of course not, you’re right … It’s the world tree.”
The wolf stepped between them and ate the piece of root whole. “It’s a tree like any other you fool.”
“It is not, Sköll,” said Dust. “It is Yggdrasil. It is the world tree. It is where your great grandfather hung from its gallows. It is the tree that binds our world together such that we may all live in harmony. And it is dying — because of you.”
Sköll groaned meekly, “The tree is not of my concern,” and curled up into a ball on the dusty basin.
The pale hind eyed the wolf, seeing the despondence within him, and whispered more words to the wind. The hawk took flight then, disappearing out onto the horizon. She knew that without Sköll to chase the sun and moon, these endless days would continue on, eventually burning their world to ash.
“Look,” said Aerl, staring off into the distance where a spec floated in a cloudless sky, and beneath the spec a figure wriggled in the air. As the spec and the figure grew larger it became clear it was the hawk, returning with Dust’s request.
“Put me down this instant you infernal spirit!” Shouted the wriggling figure in the sky. The hawk acquiesced, bursting into a ball of orange color — a flock of butterflies fluttering about where a beak had once pierced the wind.
Loki, that wriggling figure, meanwhile plummeted down toward the earth, smashed into a pile of dust and dirt, and laid limp on the ground beside Sköll, Dust, Aerl and Burl.
“Welcome, son of Odin,” said Dust, unable to hide her amusement.
Loki groaned as he pulled himself up from his own crater, brushing the dirt off of the crisp cut black leather of his suit.
“It’s a pleasure to see you again,” added Dust as Burl shivered behind her legs, trying to shield himself from the trickster god.
“I’m afraid you have me mistaken for someone else, hind,” said Loki, face grimaced with agitation. “Now will someone please explain why exactly I’m here?”
“Your grandson has given up the chase,” Dust replied. “It seems he’s lonely.”
Sköll snarled at the hind, kept at bay by the butterflies’ coos.
“Grandson?” Loki asked, eyeing the wolf. “You’re sure this one’s mine?”
Sköll glowered at him, said only, “I am the son of Fenrir.”
“Ahhhh, so you are,” said Loki, sauntering around his kin, taking him in. He was distracted by a nibble at his ankles and looked down to see Burl standing beneath him.
“Loki, I- I- I- don’t suppose you could return me to Midgaard? Ah- Ah- As a human?”
Loki shooed the rabbit with his foot and returned his attention to Sköll. He could read in the wolf’s demeanor that the hind was right — Sköll’s aura seemed to lack a light that only companionship can bring to a wolf. Still, he found himself lacking any desire to help.
“I see …” Loki said to Dust. “But I’m afraid I quite enjoy the heat, and I’m sure the sun and moon appreciate no longer being chased through the skies for all eternity.”
“Our world dies in this unending sun, Loki,” said Dust.
“And?” asked Loki, a grim smile adorning his face.
The butterflies whispered something to Loki then, something only a creature of his cunning could perceive, and a spark of realization came across his face. They were right. Fimbulwinter could never come in this blazing heat. The great winter that brings Ragnarök, the storm of unending snow that ends the reign of the Odin, the glorious opportunity for Loki to once and for all enact his revenge upon the gods — none of it will come to be unless Sköll returns to his chase.
“So what is it you propose, hind?” Loki asked.
Dust sensed Loki’s motivation, felt uneasy in having involved him. But she knew she needed him to find Sköll’s father and pry that sword from his mouth. “Fenrir,” said Dust.
“Ahhh, you wish to give Sköll a sibling?” Loki intuited.
At this, Sköll’s ears perked up.
“Yes, I wish to give Sköll a companion to return to the skies with,” said Dust.
“Fenrir, bound as he is, will not be so eager to help,” said Loki.
“Leave that to me, son of Odin,” said Dust. “I need only your help in finding him and prying that sword from his jaws. I know what he will need.”
Loki smiled. He always seemed to smile, yet it was a smile others found no joy in. “Fenrir rests on the other side of the dark lake. We had best get moving.”
The group found themselves at the gaping mouth of a cave, its edges sharp and jagged. A river gurgled out from within its depths and flowed to the dark lake which they’d sailed across. Aerl and Burl exchanged nervous glances, staring into the abyss of the cave’s mouth, waiting for the great wolf of legend to appear. Sköll noticed that the hind appeared uneasy, the first time he’d seen her this way since they met.
Loki turned to the hind, “And I suppose you want me to …”
The hind nodded.
“Right,” Loki said, and made for the cave, the others watching on until the dark of the cave swallowed him whole.
“Is he going to find Fenrir?” Burl chittered.
“I believe so,” Aerl replied.
Neither Dust nor Sköll said a word.
Loki returned with a silken band in his hands, glimmering in the sun — a strand of Gleipnir he’d stolen when Fenrir was first bound. He set the strand into Sköll’s mouth and said, “Pull this, would you?”
Sköll, who had kept quiet on their journey, was eager for this plan to work. Though he loathed to admit it, all those years chasing the sun and moon alone had left him longing for someone to share life’s journey with. He knew deep down in his wolf’s heart that one day he’d devour the sun whole. But it just didn’t seem to excite him anymore without someone to share the memory with. He ached for a companion, to be a part of a pack, and now he saw this was his opportunity. Sköll bit down on Gleipnir, the silken band fitting against his teeth. He dug his paws into the dirt and began pulling with the wolves’ might, forcing the earth forward as he ripped the band back.
“I suppose we’ll see if this works,” said Loki. And it was just then something snapped inside the cave, and from the depths a bolt of metal came flying out threw the sky — a sword of the gods, left behind to keep Fenrir’s mouth pried open.
The whole of the cave began to rumble and writhe, the jaws of the cave snapping shut for the first time in eons, cutting off the river’s flow. Aerl and Burl coward behind the hind, realizing now their mistake. Fenrir was not inside the cave. Fenrir’s jaws were the cave, and his body the mountains above.
Fenrir’s nostrils flared as he sucked in the wind of the world, Aerl and Burl burrowing into the ground such as not to be sucked in through the wolf’s nose, the world’s scent reawakening the great beast. He rustled, quaking the ground beneath them, but his limbs — thick as the trunk of Yggdrasil — were still bound to the earth by Gleipnir.
“Father,” Fenrir growled, his voice tingling the rabbits’ spines. “It is good to see you. I presume you and your merry band of friends here have come to apologize for Odin’s treachery and free me from these binds?”
“You know your time will come,” said Loki. “I’ve come for a favor.”
“A favor?” Fenrir snarled, incredulous. “You would stand idly by as the gods bind your son to the Earth, and then have the gall to ask for a favor?”
“This was a terrible idea,” said Burl, cowering in the shadow of the mountainous wolf.
“It is not a favor for my self,” said Loki, cooly. “It is a favor for your son, Sköll.”
Fenrir rumbled, a low growl in his belly. “If my son wishes for a favor, he can ask for one himself.”
Dust and Loki turned their gaze on Sköll, who found himself ready to admit his inner desire: “I wish to be part of a pack,” said Sköll.
“Ahhh,” said Fenrir, the weight of his breath billowing through the trees. “I know all too well the sorrows of a lone wolf.”
So you will give Sköll a sibling then?” Asked Loki.
“I will give you a child, yes. But I ask for one thing in return.”
“And what is that?” Loki asked.
Loki laughed. “I am flattered you think me capable of such a feat, but even if I could steal away Freya’s beauty from her, the gods do not know where she hides.”
Fenrir’s laugh bawled across the land, knocking Aerl and Burl to their sides. “And here I thought you were the wise one, father. I do not wish you to steal Freya’s beauty. I wish for her to give it on her own accord. Her scent is unmistakable.”
Loki’s puzzlement could be felt across the realms, bringing joy to Thor in Midgard. But through the puzzlement Loki sensed an air of magic in his midst. He turned to the hind known as Dust, but the hind was no more. Where the hind had been stood — the goddess Freya. She was old and withered, her locks once red with fire now drained to nothing but a pale film of white. Her hair framed the hollow cheeks of one who stands in line at the gates of Hel, desperate to be let in. Her skin, riddled with warts, sagged over brittle bones, barely holding up her hands which glowed with the fire of her beauty, offered freely to the wind.
“Freya?” Loki said, chiding himself for having missed such a simple illusion. “You can’t do this, Freya,” he said, barely able look upon the wretched hag she’d become.
“Odin always said I was more beautiful than the sun and the moon. Perhaps in drinking from Mímir’s Well he always knew this day was to come.” She whispered something to the wind, and the butterflies fluttered to her hands, carrying the glow of her beauty into Fenrir’s chasmic mouth.
Loki looked on in anguish as his son, Fenrir, swallowed Freya’s beauty whole, no creature living or dead ever able to gaze again upon something so magnificent.
But Fenrir kept true to his word, and from somewhere beneath his mountainous form a wolf known already to the world as Hati emerged, dashing with a devilish smile past Sköll, scratching that part of Sköll’s mind that cannot resist the chase.
Sköll turned to run after her, but before he did he looked to the goddess Freya and bowed deeply to her, knowing he was forever in her debt.
Freya nodded to him, “Go.”
Sköll took off after Hati, the two of them leaping over one another into the sky above, beginning again their chase of the sun and moon, returning night to the nine realms.