Laughter rang through the branches of the trees, chased by the breezes from the surrounding seas of Asgard. Summer songbirds flitted among the youths as they made sport, challenging each other in a clearing of the palace hunting grounds.
“It won’t do any good, Thor,” Sif smirked at the prince. “We’ve tried everything—it just bounces off.”
“We haven’t tried everything,” Thor pouted. “What about a large boulder?”
“A boulder for Balder?” Loki looked amused. “You think that’ll work after the last trip to Nornheim?” he stepped out from beneath the shade into the clearing. “If the Rock Trolls couldn’t dent him, what makes you think you can?”
“Clearly there can be only one conclusion, Thor,” Balder laughed. “I’m simply tougher than you.”
“Nay,” Thor puffed up his chest at the boast, “it was merely a matter of timing. They had no room to charge at full power. I’m certain if a weapon is thrown with enough force, it will do damage. I say we have a contest, here and now,” the golden prince boomed out a proclamation. “Each of us will have a weapon of our choice to test against you—”
“Thor,” Sif tried to interrupt, “what kind of contest is that? It’s going to be nothing more than us hurling things at Balder.”
Loki remained quiet, seeming to mull the idea of the contest in his head.
“Sif,” Balder smiled, “let the prince have his fun. You know the enchantment holds still,” he flexed his arm as if testing it, “so I see no reason why we can’t indulge in a little fun.”
“It’s agreed then,” Thor pounded his hand into his fist, eager to start. “We’ll gather everyone from the court to have a go. Whoever manages to lay a blow to Balder may claim the title of the strongest.”
“An odd contest to be sure,” Balder folded his arms, “but one I’m certain you cannot win. Whatever magicks have been placed over me will prevent me from being harmed,” he gave a glance to Sif, “so you needn’t worry.”
Loki gave a sharp glance at Balder’s remark to Sif, his lips thinning into a tight line. Balder seemed to shine in the sun, his grin bright when he stepped out of the shade of the cypress trees. Loki folded his arms and leaned back into the shadows.
“I wasn’t worried about you,” Sif rolled her eyes. “I’m more worried about the tantrum Thor will throw when he fails.”
“Gather everyone together!” Thor pressed, purposely ignoring Sif’s comment. “We start the contest this afternoon!”
They had all come at the summons, noble sons and daughters of Asgard, each with mighty weapons—some Dwarven forged, some heirlooms from Asgard’s past, others imported from the forests of Alfheim. Each one sailed through the air to strike down Balder, and each one met with the same result: a clattering failure when his enchanted skin deflected the axes, swords, and spears that came at him. They all tried their hands, Sif, the Warriors Three, Einherjar of the court, and candidates for the Valkyries—none succeeded in even scratching Balder’s shining flesh.
“Who is to be next?” Balder asked smugly when Thor looked agape at his shattered sword.
Thor flushed with embarrassment at losing his own contest. “You still cannot stand up against Mjolnir.”
“Ah, but no enchanted weapons in this contest,” Balder reminded him. “This is a test of strength, not of magic. I may not hope to win against you with your hammer, but in this contest, I think I‘ve indeed proven the strongest.”
“There’s still one more contestant,” Loki pointed out.
From the crowd, an old warrior stepped out, a quiver over his shoulder and a bow in hand. He barely navigated his way between the others without being knocked down, stumbling through with his milk-white eyes unfixed on anything.
“Hoder?” Sif asked incredulously. “You can’t be serious!”
“Why not?” Loki gave her a grin. “Didn’t my brother say that everyone should join in the contest? Who are we to deny him?”
“It is true, Sif,” Thor supported his brother. “I did say everyone.”
“Loki is right, Sif,” Balder stepped over the pile of discarded weapons at his feet. “He should have his chance, just as the others did. Besides, what harm could it do?” he placed a hand over his chest, showing off the unscathed surface. “Let’s indulge an old warrior and let him have his try.”
“You mustn’t tease him if he misses,” Sif chided. “He at least deserves that much respect.”
“You have my word, Lady,” Balder flashed another grin at her.
“Aim it higher,” Loki turned abruptly from their exchange to shout over at Hoder.
“Yes, Hoder,” Thor stepped behind Balder with a grin, gripping both of his shoulders in place. “Aim toward my voice. No reason you should be at a disadvantage in this contest.”
“Oh please,” Sif rolled her eyes. “You men act like children.”
“Our childishness didn’t stop you from trying your hand at the contest,” Balder gave her a sidelong glance.
“Not that it made a difference,” Thor laughed. “Go ahead, friend Hoder!” he called out to the blind warrior. “I’ll make sure he doesn’t run.”
“I didn’t run from your sword,” Balder crossed his arms stubbornly, “why would I run from his arrows?”
“Why indeed,” Thor laughed. “Loki, make sure his aim is true,” he directed. “We’ll not deny him his fair chance at sport.”
“A little to your left,” Loki’s tone was detached as Hoder followed his guidance.
“If you ask me, there isn’t much sport in it if you know you have no chance of winning,” Sif scowled. “This should have ended long ago. You two are only being insulting by carrying on like this.”
“Insulting to whom, Sif?” Balder raised his brow. “To Hoder or to your ego?”
“Her ego would certainly take a hit if Hoder managed the feat,” Thor gave Balder a knowing nudge.
“My ego has nothing to do with this!” Sif flushed hotly. “Augh, I hope he does make his mark! It would serve you right.”
“Ready, friend Hoder?” Loki asked.
“Take your shot, friend! Right here toward my voice!” Thor shouted across the clearing. “Show good Balder who is truly the greatest in Asgard!”
The arrow flew from the bow with a quick thrumming of the string, sailing across the sunny clearing with a soft whistle that almost matched the birdsong in the trees. Straight and true, it came up against Balder’s broad chest like all the weapons that had tried before and struck it with a solid ‘thunk.’
For a moment, Balder laughed. The sight of blind Hoder trying his hand, the rest of his friends surrounding him indulging the old warrior to play at the sport of the young—it was an amusing sight. He felt Thor’s hands upon his shoulders, saw Sif’s hair billow in the wind, caught Loki’s wide, green eyes upon him, heard the murmur of the crowd of warriors around them, all under the brilliant summer sun.
Then the sun seemed to dim.
It was several seconds before the pain spread. It was almost unreal, stronger than he had ever before felt. It sank into his breast, burning just to the right of his heart, and seemed to fill his very blood with fire. The air within his lungs felt hot and stagnant, and he could not find enough air to fill them no matter how he gasped. When he looked down to his torso, a slender arrow shaft protruded, the sharp point embedded within him and sending burst of corrosive pain throughout his body.
That fading light from the sun around his friends in the clearing, the soft sound of the birds above them, and the firm hands upon his shoulders were the last things he sensed before oblivion took hold of him, and he fell.