The sound of voices nearing roused Loki from a dream. He felt for the book in his pocket - he hadn't lost it - then for the branch beneath him. He turned round to peer through the glimmering leaves of gold and silver.
"I know he's here!"
Loki smiled and shifted to the other side where the leaves were thicker. That was Thor, stomping now into the clearing with his round face creased in concentration. He dragged a child's practice sword behind him, its tip unsettling the dirt. Father would have his head if he knew.
"You don't know that," said Sindri. The toe of his left foot showed, then it turned toward the tree in which Loki hid. Loki stilled; he held his breath.
A violent crashing drew Sindri away again.
"This is pointless!"
Sif. Of course. Loki eased.
"I'm going to find him," Thor insisted as Sif, tall and gangly and spot-faced, loomed over his shoulder. A breeze washing through the trees set the leaves to wafting, and Loki lost sight of them for a moment, then another.
"The game's not over until I find Loki."
"You'll never find your stupid brother," Sif snapped. "I'm tired of running through these stupid trees."
The wind shivered and died away. Loki wriggled higher upon the branch and watched as Thor threw his hand out and said, "Oh, come on. You can't just give up."
"If you want to find him, do it yourself. I'm not chasing his stupid--" Loki mouthed along. "--shadows." Sif turned to Sindri. "Let's go."
"Sorry," Sindri said to Thor. "Sif's right."
A stick in the undergrowth snapped, then Sindri, too, slipped from view. Thor, alone in the clearing with the trees casting spotted shadows across his face, shouted after them, "Cowards!"
"Stupid!" Sif called back to him.
Loki covered his mouth and forced the laugh back down. A little snort escaped his nose, and the branch trembled beneath his belly.
Below, Thor snapped about. His head lifted; he looked to the trees. Loki caught his tongue in his teeth and scrambled back. The branch shivered again. Stupid. Thor advanced upon the tree; shed leaves made tinkling sounds beneath his boots. A simple thing, to imagine the grin surely spreading on Thor's face, how his eyes would flicker as he looked between the leaves. Loki slipped around the vast trunk and leapt quietly to another tree.
"I know you're up there, Loki." Thor's hair shone, gold as the leaves swaying beneath Loki's feet. "If you don't come down, I'll come up after you."
Loki dropped from a tree at Thor's back, landed soft on his toes, set his hands on his hips, and said, "Are you looking for me?" as if his chest didn't stick at all from running halfway around the clearing through the trees.
Thor whirled to face him, and the consternation which showed on his mouth gave way to laughter. He hoisted the wooden sword to his shoulder. In the muted violet light of the evening hour, his smile gleamed.
"I found you, Loki."
"No-o," Loki drew it out, "I think I found you."
"I found you first. You were in that tree, weren't you?" Thor turned and pointed with his sword.
Loki slipped about him and set his chin upon the sword's dull edge. He smiled.
Thor squinted at him. "Were you cheating?"
Sif had said as much the week before when Loki bested her at ten sticks thrice in a row.
"It's not cheating!" he said hotly. "And you have a sword!"
Thor turned red; his jaw set. "I wasn't going to use it on you!"
He dropped the sword to his side again. Loki brushed the grit from his chin. He'd known Thor wouldn't turn it on him for hiding so well.
In the trees a summer lark twittered and twittered, then flittered away, and Thor turned to watch it go. His shoulders were pulled back. Loki wished he could swallow his tongue. How it got away from him. Loki disliked swords, and axes, and hammers; his mouth did enough damage.
Loki touched Thor's sleeve.
"Sorry," he said, and Thor turned back to him. "But why did you bring it?"
Thor grinned and showed him the sharper edge, still dull.
"I thought we might meet a sickle boar."
"And you were going to stab it through the heart with a wooden sword?"
Loki mimed the tragedy: sword splintered, boar enraged, Thor dead. End scene.
"No," Thor said with great patience, "I was going to whack its head."
He demonstrated, punishing the imaginary boar which had so wronged him, and Loki laughed at Thor's exaggerated strength. Thor finished with a devastating blow from above, then swapping places with the boar, he clasped his neck and fell against Loki, taking him down as well.
"Does that mean you're dead again?" Loki asked. Thor was still laughing.
Loki rested his head. He stared up at the sky, darkening to a richer purple as the hour rolled on; soon it would give way to the deep and shining blues of night. The wind returned to set the trees swaying. Loki liked the woods; he liked the bird sounds and the way the leaves twinkled and the cool shadows hidden at the heart of it.
Thor rolled off Loki's chest. Leaves clung to the back of his vest.
"What time is it?"
"We should probably go back," said Loki. He sat upright and combed the dirt from his hair. "Mother said we had to be home by bluefall."
Thor looked to the sky, then he scrambled to his feet. "Get up!" He dragged Loki up with him. "We have to go!"
"But it's not bluefall yet," Loki protested. "It won't really be blue for another hour. Not all of it."
"Mother won't care," said Thor. "Hurry up! Why are you so slow?"
They darted through the trees toward the paved way, which cut around the Red Circle and led to the palace. Faster to cut through the trees direct to the Autumn Road, but Loki wanted to keep that path to himself. The sword bounced against Thor's thigh.
"Wait!" Loki called to him. "Thor! Your sword!"
Thor slowed. "What about it?"
Loki caught up to him. "It's dirty. Father will know you've been dragging it. And when he knows you aren't treating it right--"
"A drubbing," Thor groaned.
"There's a stream this way," Loki told him, and he grabbed for the sword. Thor let him have it and followed him down to the little watercourse, which shimmered like starlight as it ran over the rocks.
They were late by Mother's reckoning, but Mother's wrath was better than Father's awful stare. As Mother lectured Thor for muddying up his vest, he glanced over to Loki and shook his sword, cleaned and darkly damp, and grinned. Loki grinned, too.
They'd different rooms now, children instead of toddlers and no longer needing the other's accompaniment. Still, Loki knew the shadows to creep through to sneak into Thor's room. Warm lights shone in the ceiling and the walls, but they were muted, nearly gone.
Loki lingered at the door, squinting into the dark. A lump filled Thor's bed; he couldn't tell if it stirred. He leaned further into the room and whispered, "Are you awake?"
"Shut up," Thor hissed. "Close the door."
Loki did so quickly, then he bounded in four light strides from the door to Thor's bed, which rolled beneath him in welcome. Thor scooted aside to make room and said, "Sun half-up." The room brightened enough for Loki to see his face.
"Your hair is a mess," Loki said.
"Your face is a mess," Thor countered.
Civilities concluded, Loki stretched out alongside him and said, "You didn't finish your lesson, did you."
"I finished it!"
Thor pushed him, and Loki retaliated by rolling over him to the other side and onto the mess of pillows. He threw his arms out wide to encompass all of them and proclaimed, "This is my kingdom now, and I am King Loki."
"Well, I'm king of this room," said Thor, "so that means I'm your king."
Loki scoffed. "You can't be king of a king."
He pulled one of the pillows out and squished it to his chest. He'd pillows of his own, of course, all of them neatly ordered upon his bed, but Thor mashed his pillows so all the stuffing crowded one end. Loki wouldn't sleep on them, but he liked to hold them.
"What's in your pocket?" asked Thor. "It's sticking into my side."
"Oh!" Loki shifted the pillow to one arm and fetched the book from his pocket. The cover was worn leather, an old hide polished smooth by ancient hands. "I stole it from the library."
"You're not supposed to steal," Thor said on principle. "What's it about? Is it about dragons?"
Loki threw him a look of imminent disgust. "Why would I steal a book about dragons?"
"Because one day I'll kill one," Thor said. "And I'll give you the head." He leaned over Loki and dropped his voice. "The bloody, gorey, drippy head with all its guts still hanging from it, and--"
Loki threw the pillow into Thor's face and kicked at him, to which Thor had no recourse left but to grab Loki's ankles, hold his legs down, and swat his stomach. The conversation devolved. Loki used his nails and teeth, and Thor threw elbows like he'd six arms. This was largely why they no longer shared a room.
"Wait," Thor said suddenly, "Loki--" but it was too late. Already hanging half off the bed, Thor fell first; he dragged Loki down with him. The floor did not forgive their youth. Groaning, Loki rolled away from Thor and clutched his head.
Thor took a moment to catch his breath, then he turned and threw his arm across Loki.
"I told you."
"Stop talking," Loki said to his palms.
Thor set his head on Loki's shoulder. After a long moment, Loki passed his hands down his face and threw them to his sides. Thor nudged him.
"So what's the book about?"
"Why should I tell you?"
"Because I'm king of this room," said Thor.
Loki shoved his arm off and clambered back onto the bed. "You're not king of anything," he shot back at Thor. "You don't even have a real sword."
"You don't have a real sword either!"
The book dropped off the edge. Loki followed it. Landing neatly on his toes, he caught the book and said, "I don't want one. That's the difference. Here. Look at this."
He parted the book's covers, minding the age of the leather. The paper had browned with age. Thor rose to his elbows.
"How old is it?"
Loki shrugged. "Old. I found it in the section of Firsts."
Thor recoiled from the book.
"We're not allowed back there," he whispered harshly through his teeth, as if Heimdall were watching them at this very moment. He wouldn't say his name, no more than Loki would, for fear they'd call his gaze upon them.
"You're not allowed back there," Loki said with airs. "I am."
It was a lie, of course. Loki was forbidden from the Thirds, Seconds, and Firsts just as Thor, but Thor never caught Loki's lies. If Loki said he'd allowance to go as far back as to the oldest shelves in the darkest, driest, coldest part of the library, then Thor would believe him. Thor believed him.
Loki darted through the pages, his fingers light on the worn parchment. A shadow neared; Thor loomed over him. He skipped too far, then flipped two pages back and stuck his finger in the binding to hold the spot.
"There," he said. He turned the book around and smiled over it at Thor; he couldn't help himself. "Do you know what this is? It's a map to the Underway."
Thor dove for the book.
"Be careful! It's ancient!"
"The Underway?" Thor's face shone. He spread his hands over the pages, his fingers fanning like feathers. "You found a map to the Underway!"
Loki bent to the pages. His head touched Thor's, their hair mingling, dark and light.
"There's a secret tunnel in the north causeway, here. We can get to it when the water goes down."
Thor looked up, and Loki followed. In the reddish light of the room, Thor's eyes showed more violet than blue. His nose was too big, Loki decided. He'd tease him about that later.
"When does the water go down?"
"In two days," Loki said. He'd scoured the logs in the Seconds until he'd worked out the pattern.
Thor deflated. "We have classes in two days."
"Not if we play sick," Loki told him, in a fashion which suggested Thor unfathomably dull.
This proposition proved worthy of thought. Thor propped his chin in his palm and studied the pages, tracing the tiny, labyrinthine ways with the tip of his finger. His eyelids dropped; his mouth crooked.
Loki knew he thought of all the stories they'd heard of the Underway: the ageless treasures, the beasts locked away by nameless kings. Libraries stuffed with books of power writ in languages no one remembered. If Thor thought of glory, the head of a wyrm on the end of a sword, Loki thought of translating these forgotten books. Odin would smile when he gave them to him, and he would rest his hand on Loki's head.
"What if we get caught?" asked Thor.
"It's a secret passage," said Loki. "Remember?" He lowered his voice so it soothed. "No one will know. Not unless we tell them. And we won't tell them unless we bring home something grand, and if we bring home something grand, no one will be mad."
Thor dragged his thumb down the page. He chewed the corner of his mouth. Then, with his usual decisiveness, he looked straight at Loki, grinned so his teeth showed, and said, "I like it."
Two days dragged on. Loki measured the time and counted it out as Thor grew restless. At sword practice, he wasted more time bashing the dummy than he did learning anything, and once his instructor banged the hilt of his sword against Thor's head to make him stop.
"Stop being so stupid," Loki hissed at him as they crossed the courtyard to meet Mother for lunch. "You'll blow the whole thing."
"I know!" Thor snapped under his breath. "Shut up! I'll punch your face in!"
"No, you won't," Loki said as snottily as he could manage. "Mother would be cross."
"I'll cross your eyes," Thor muttered, then they were at the steps and Mother was rising to greet them.
She folded her hands in her sleeves and smiled upon them. Thor looked to his feet, but Loki smiled at her. She was very beautiful, their mother, and she rose like a tree from the earth. With the light in her flaxen hair, she glowed as if strung with lights.
"Hello, my boys." Frigg looked over Thor and Loki. Her brow arched delicately. "Have you been fighting?"
Thor looked up at this. His jaw jutted, and he said, "No," and that was that.
"No, Mother," said Loki sweetly. "We never fight."
Her brow arched higher still. Dryly, Mother said, "So your tutors tell me."
She shook her hands out from her sleeves and held them to her sons, the right to Thor, the left to Loki. Her fingers were rough from the spinning wheel. Loki held them tightly. When she turned to lead them up the steps, her curls trembled, and the smell of coumarin rose from her skin.
"How has your day been thus far?" she asked. Loki held his breath, but she looked first to her right. "Thor."
"All right," he grumbled. "Master Yngvi said my footwork is messy."
Loki feigned a stone in his shoe and leaned back to look at Thor around Mother. He cut his hand across his throat and pantomimed violent coughing. Thor looked at him as if Loki had started spitting foam from between his teeth.
"What are you doing?" asked Frigg.
He straightened. Loki pressed his hand to his throat and said, "I haven't been feeling well." He scraped his voice just enough for pity.
"Me, either," said Thor. He thumped his chest. "I feel like I drank a barrel of honey."
"I knew you shouldn't have played in the stream," Mother sighed.
Thor coughed grotesquely into his fist and rolled his eyes like a maddened horse, and Loki hid his face in Mother's sleeve as if he were faint, that he wouldn't laugh and spoil it all.
In the early, blue-black hours of morning, Loki snuck into Thor's room. The lights were dimmed, a red shading into purple. Shadows lay strewn across the floor. Loki tossed his burden up and caught it, then bounced it again.
"Wake up," he whispered at Thor, "wake up, wake up, wake up, you useless lump; my fingers are burning."
Thor stirred; his legs kicked twice. Loki considered dumping the coals on his head, then with a start, Thor snapped up.
"What!" he said. He squinted. "Loki? What do you want?"
"Quick," Loki said, "give me a pillow. Hurry."
Thor rummaged in his blankets, withdrew a pillow from the chaos that was his bed, and held it out. He yawned hugely and mumbled,
"Why do you need a pillow? What happened to yours?"
"Hold it still!" He pulled the hem apart and dropped the bag of hot coals into the empty space left from all Thor's mashing. "Stick this under your head."
"Why, what's it--" Thor snatched his hand away. "It's hot!"
"We have to act like we're sick. If we've got fevers, it's easier!" He pressed the pillow at Thor. "Put it under another pillow if you want. But hurry."
"There has to be an easier way," Thor said, but he took the pillow from Loki.
Loki ran out as silently as he'd run in, fading from shadow to shadow. The palace was quiet in these blue hours and still as well, but Father walked strange hours, and Heimdall never slept.
When Mother came to see why Loki wouldn't rise, she found him as she'd found Thor: curled in bed, a thin sweat on his brow. She knelt beside his bed; her skirts pooled about her knees. Loki blinked up at her shining face.
"Oh, my poor Loki," said Frigg. She stroked his pale cheek. "Your brother's made you sick."
"I can still go to classes."
He made to sit up, but lapsed bonelessly to bed again. Mother set her hands to his chest to forestall another attempt.
"No," she said firmly. "You are going to stay in bed until I'm certain you're well."
Loki murmured a protest which she swept aside as easily as dust off a polished shelf, and when, some long and loving minutes later, she left to speak with the kitchen of remedies, he threw the covers back and leapt from his bed as lightly as if he had never heard of being sick.
They met as agreed at the narrow gate which connected the vegetable gardens to a servant's alley, one which led straight to the Fourth Road. Loki crouched in the shadows and played with a little bone he'd nicked from his plate the night before.
A boot scraped on the stones. Loki looked up, ready to feign delusions, the sickly prince lost amidst the cabbages, but it was Thor who stood over him. A sheathed sword stuck up from his shoulder; the hilt towered over Thor's head. Loki pocketed the bone.
"I forgot something," he told Thor. "What do we tell Mother when she finds we're not in bed?"
Thor hitched his mouth to one side. "We got bored and ran to the woods. We did that last time we got sick."
"And what about Father?"
"Father's hunting," Thor said. "He'll be gone a week. Nobody cares what we did a week ago." He thumped the gate. "Let's go already."
"You're so impatient," Loki marveled as he stood, and stretched, and considered the movements of the clouds in the sky. Pale, thin clouds. No rain. He scratched the side of his nose.
"You," Thor announced, "are annoying," and he shoved Loki out the gate.
The causeway was slick, the stones darkened with water which lapped up the sides. Loki pressed his back to the tunnel wall and took a deep breath. Here where the channel began, the water was deepest, and his reflection on the surface shivered and broke apart as the water rolled on. If he fell, he thought, he would drown.
A hand grasped his own. Thor leaned into Loki.
"Don't look down," he said. "If you look down, you'll fall."
"I'm not scared," Loki said. His breath swallowed the words.
Thor said, "Of course you're not scared. You're my brother, and you're brave," and squeezed Loki's clammy hand. Thor's fingers were not slick with sweat.
Loki rested his head against the wall and closed his eyes. The clear, clean scent of water enveloped him, and the roar of the channel fell away from him. Thor was warm and solid beside him, as sure as the wall at his back. Loki slid his foot along the shelf.
"Like that." Thor held his hand as they walked. "See? It's easy."
He opened his eyes long enough to roll them at Thor, and they were there at the place where the causeway crooked left. Loki stopped and pulled at Thor's hand to keep him still.
"Are you sick?"
Loki dropped to his knees, and Thor said with alarm, "Don't be sick. If you're going to throw up, do it in the water."
"I'm not sick!"
He ran his hands over the stones, then he ran them over the corner again. A little sigil, etched at the base of the cornerstone. Loki fumbled for the book in his jacket.
"Is this it?" Thor crouched beside him.
A rune shaped like a cross with a curve like a sickle and a starburst at the bottom. He found its match on the map. He'd found it; it was real. Loki pressed his face to the wall. The stone was cool on his cheek and spackled with spray from the river.
"Loki," said Thor with infinite brotherly patience, "if you love the wall so much, then marry it."
Loki straightened. Absently, he wiped the damp from his cheek.
"I just have to open it now."
Thor leaned over and banged the side of his fist against the wall. Somewhere deep within the stone: a resonance. He frowned.
"I thought there'd be a handle.
"There is a handle." Loki pointed to the sigil. He smiled catlike at Thor. "You just don't know how to turn it."
Thor did the thing Loki thought of as the older brother sneer, the one which said, And what do you know? You're just the baby. Loki hated it; he was only a half hour the younger. They'd been presented together as babes in the grand hall, and Mother swore Father had introduced Loki first. Father wouldn't tell.
"Do you?" asked Thor.
Loki pursed his lips and turned from Thor. He jabbed his thumb to the rune; the groove bit into his thumb. The pain was not too severe, and as it cleared his mind, he thought of green things twisting and blooming, of lock pins turning, of dark clouds parting and the water in the causeway racing to the sea. A shiver ran through his guts. The wall opened.
He opened his eyes; he was surprised to find he'd closed them. Thor slapped his back, rattling Loki.
"I didn't know you could do that!" he said, delighted. "Is that how you made off with Sif's knife?"
"I don't know what you're talking about," Loki lied.
They looked together into the narrow hollow which ran down from the wall to a place beneath the causeway. The stairs, steep and with sharp edges, faded into shadows. Loki leaned against the exposed frame and drew a deep breath of freed air. It stung his nose, like a spark from a rubbed carpet. His skin itched.
Thor knocked his shoulder against Loki's. "Hurry up, snail son."
Loki ran his fingers up his ribs and conjured a green light which hung above his head. The itching eased. Thor followed the movement of Loki's fingers. This, at least, Thor could not do. Long shadows spilled out of Loki, out of Thor.
Loki Snailson inclined his head; he gestured to the passage.
"After you, King of Thor's Bedroom."
Thor grinned and hitched his sword higher, and he passed into the waiting shadows. Loki remained - the rushing of the water at his back made him think of Mother singing, and it caught at him, like hooks in his flesh - then he shook it from his head and followed Thor down.
In the book, the Underway had looked a narrow thing, but it was vast; its enormity consumed them. As they crossed a cavernous chamber, strange lights shone off distant walls, and the ceiling glimmered as if hung with stars. They had passed through three such chambers, each of which had been noted on the map with a small X, which the legend called "storeroom." The rooms were stripped clean.
Loki threw his arm out and the globe of light expanded. He consulted the map. A bead of water dripped onto the page; he wiped it away with his thumb. Above, the river whispered.
"Nothing," said Thor. "Again." He turned around on his heel, scowling. He'd drawn his sword out the chamber before and practiced footwork and thrusts as they crossed; now he bore it on his back again. The weight of it pulled on his shoulders.
"There has to be something here," Loki said, frustrated. "Why would they make it if they wouldn't use it?"
"Decoy," said Thor. His voice echoed off the stones. "To hide the real Underway."
Loki touched the wet spot on the page. The ink had smeared beneath it, and the paper had begun to tear. He considered the map, how the tunnels criss-crossed, how it went down and down, then ended in a pool of ink.
"Or," he said, "it's a bluff."
The stories. Strange beasts, monstrous beasts, books of power and enchanted rings. A labyrinth of wonders. A prison. The thought was electric. He rounded on Thor.
"Why would they put everything at the top? If they wanted to hide it?"
"I wouldn't," said Thor. "So we have to go down."
Loki started forward. His footsteps rang out, one-two-one-two. He held the map to his nose and followed the lines as they converged and separated; this one down, this one straight, this one left. Thor caught up with him.
"Which way are we going?"
Not this passage, nor this. Then-- He looked up and turned twice, gathering his bearings. Water struck his nape; he swatted at it.
"This way." Loki pointed. "There's a crossroads. We go left and then down."
Thor nodded. "Then let's go," he said, and he took lead as if it were his right.
Loki quickened his step and passed him. He turned sharply on his heel so Thor drew up short lest he run Loki into the ground.
"Thank you, Loki," Loki said in his best imitation of Father. He skipped backwards on his toes. "We never would have figured out where to go without you."
"You're welcome," said Thor gravely, "O, brave Thor, whose courage cleared the way."
Loki bowed once, twice, thrice at the chest, and in the rising the third time flashed Thor a particularly nasty hand gesture he'd stolen from Volstagg. Thor's eyes widened; his mouth dropped; his face reddened. Loki turned tail and ran.
"That was dirty!" Thor shouted after him. "Stop running! You have the light!"
Loki threw his head back and laughed. The shadows did not seem so vast, but then, he did have the light. Thor's boots slapped against the stones - Loki threw his legs out farther - then Thor caught him around the shoulders.
"That's--" Thor dug his knuckles into Loki's ear. Loki shrieked and hooked his arm around Thor's neck and flapped his hand there. "For calling me--"
He ground his knuckles down, and Loki, still laughing and trying to pull away, said, "Peace. Peace! I didn't mean it!"
Then Thor said the word, and Loki gasped fit to swallow all the air in all the Underway.
"I'm telling Mother," he said, and he jabbed three fingers into Thor's side. So cruel, so foul, but he got away. Loki glanced back over his shoulder to gloat; he'd his hand halfway to his nose when he slammed into the door and fell back on his arse. His head thumped down next and the stars in the ceiling burst.
When he stopped feeling as if he was going to puke - the first Asgardian to vomit in the Underway in who knew how many thousands of years; surely Father would be proud - he drew breath and said, "Shit!"
Thor crouched over him. His hair fell blond against his cheeks, and his teeth showed white.
"I'm telling Mother."
Loki clutched his head and said, "Shut up. Shut up."
Thor left him curled there on the ground. His voice drifted:
"Hey, Loki. You found the door."
"Shut up," Loki said again. He ground his palms into his eyes. The cavern settled slowly.
Thor, near again.
"Can you sit up?"
"I don't need help," Loki snapped.
He pushed up to prove it, then caught himself keeling over to the side. Thor grabbed his arm and hauled him to his feet. The world unrooted; his gorge rose. Oh, no, Loki thought. He was going to puke on Thor, and Thor would hold it against him forever. He covered his mouth.
"What did you eat this morning?" Thor wondered.
Loki touched his left eye, the back of which pounded. "I said I don't need help."
Thor left his hand on Loki's arm.
"I need your help," he reasoned. "I can't open the door."
Loki fought it another moment as the little lights playing behind his eyelids swelled then faded then swelled again. He sagged against Thor.
"Fine. But don't pick me up."
"Ha!" said Thor, "I should," but he didn't pick him up.
The door gleamed redly in the muted glow of Loki's green light. It was metal, unlike the coarse stone which surrounded it, and the texture was unlike even the finest metals the smiths worked. Like running his fingers through a cloud or a sweet drink. He wanted to eat it. Loki looked up the length of it. The door ran on and on, until it faded out of sight, into the shadows; farther still, the lights in the ceiling winked.
"What does it feel like to you?"
Thor slapped his hand to it. He tipped his head.
"Brass," he said. "It's oily, too."
Loki traced the decorative work stamped into it: twisting coils which met and joined and separated again. He thought if he pushed, his hand would pass through the metal. It was a strange thought, to think of walking through doors. The ache in his head was gone. Loki shrugged Thor off.
"Step back," he said. "I don't know which way it's going."
He ran his hands along the width of it, left left, right right. If he closed his eyes-- The metal rippled beneath his fingers. At his shoulder, Thor's breathing sounded, steady and deep.
Open, he thought. Open. Open.
The metal folded around his fingertips - he felt a light touch like a tongue licking at his wrists - then the door swung open onto a long, cold corridor. A buzzing filled his ears; then it was gone. He didn't feel ill at all.
He turned, smiling, to Thor.
Another sprawling, empty, gaping cavern succeeded another, and they came again to a door: a green one which smelled of upturned soil and felt like wood to Loki but iron to Thor. This, too, opened to Loki. Here the walls changed from plain stone to something like the great reliefs which ornamented the palace. Huge, strange shapes stood out from the walls; they cast weird shadows amongst themselves.
In an anteroom on this third level, Loki discovered: books, hundreds of books, books moldering in dust and wet rot. Thor clicked his tongue and hung back at the door as Loki dug into the shelves.
"Thor! Look!" He breathed in the musty fragrance, that delicious scent of old paper, aged leather, and glue which had long since dried and split. "Do you have any idea what this is?"
"Boring," Thor suggested. "Not interesting. Dull."
"History! Power!" Loki thrust one of the smaller tomes at Thor and said, rapturously, "Knowledge."
"It's falling apart," Thor said. He sneezed.
Loki stuffed the book into his pocket and grabbed three more. "We have to come back," he said, "with a really big bag. No, a chest."
"We could tell Father." Thor craned to look the small room over. The shelves were densely packed, the books all but spilling out of them. "He could send men to carry them out."
"No," Loki said loudly.
Thor's brow lifted. He eyed Loki, who paled and looked away.
"No," Loki said again, with more control. "Not yet. We're not supposed to be down here, remember?"
Thor made a face. "That means I'm going to have to carry the bag."
"Chest," Loki said brightly. "Thank you."
He tucked another book into the pocket inside his jacket. Seven books, but so few. He ghosted his fingers across the spines of a set of matching books, each thicker than his arm. Why hadn't he thought to bring a bag? Thor had remembered a sword. He took another deep breath of that old book smell and wished he could put the room in his pocket.
"Come on," said Thor. "You can't take anymore, and I'm hungry."
Loki drew himself away from the books. He made a mark on the map to remember the room and trailed after Thor. His hand on the doorframe, his heart with the books, he thought of food; then he thought of banging his head on the wall. It couldn't possibly do any more harm.
"I didn't bring anything to eat," he said to the wall.
"Really?" Thor pulled a packet wrapped with twine from his own jacket. "I brought plenty. Here, catch."
Loki barely got his hands up in time for the ball of bread, aimed direct for his chest.
"I've got salted cheese, too," Thor said cheerily.
He offered the packet up to Loki, who found he was fair hungry, too, and very much in love with salted cheese. Their knees bumped as they sat side by side against the wall, and Loki settled comfortably in Thor's burgeoning bulk. He licked waxy, salty crumbs of cheese from his fingertips and thought of books and of Father.
Thor finished the bread and said, his mouth full, "Want to keep going?"
What more could there be? A hundred rooms of books, a beast for Thor to slay, a necklace for Mother, and a crown to bring home for Father. Loki sucked the crumbs from out under his thumbnail. No one had walked these halls in time immemorial; even Heimdall was not so old as to remember when the Underway had been closed.
"Yes," he said.
"Good," said Thor.
"Do you even know where we are?" Thor demanded.
"Yes," Loki was saying as Thor finished, "I know exactly where we are. Stop leading. Go right."
Thor brushed ahead of him again. In his wake, Loki considered throwing the book at the back of Thor's head.
"We've already been down this hall!"
"No, we haven't! Look--" Loki pointed to the end of the hall as if his entire arm were a knife. "That's a door. We haven't seen that door before."
"Where," Thor said with excruciating care, "does the door go?"
"Down!" Loki shouted. "Up! Left!"
He shoved past Thor, no mean trick. He wished he hadn't wasted the hand sign earlier.
The door shone a pale blue, like frosted glass. Loki shoved it and thought, OPEN.
Fire bloomed between his fingers, a pale fire which snapped at his palms and stank of burnt flesh and ash. He leapt from the door; his heel skittered over the stones, and he fell back against Thor, who caught him and held him till he steadied.
The scent of old fire drifted out of the opened corridor. Fire-- Loki looked to his hands. Unburnt. He flexed his fingers. His fingernails pricked his skin.
"Bring the light," Thor called. He peered down the corridor. The sword at his back was sheathed.
Loki swallowed. He remembered Thor shouting "Cowards!" after Sif and Sindri, and he thought: not a coward. Not a coward. He clenched his jaw and stepped up to Thor, filling the rest of the narrow doorway.
Thor's shoulder bumped his as he preceded Loki, and together they descended. So far below the causeway, if they were even beneath the causeway, the silence outside Thor and Loki was absolute. Loki heard his breath as a wind at the end of a long tunnel.
The light guttered suddenly; darkness intruded, then retreated again.
"That isn't funny," Thor said irritably.
"It's not me," Loki said. "I didn't do it."
Thor looked over his shoulder. In the green light cast upon him, his eyes were a dark blue which verged on black. He said, "Then what--"
The light snuffed out.
"It's not me," he said again, "I didn't do it, I don't know why, it shouldn't have gone out."
He gestured once and again, and still the light did not come. His chest closed up. It was so dark. He couldn't see, and he didn't know where they were, and when he felt for Thor he couldn't find him.
"Thor," he said, his voice rising, "Thor, I can't start it. Thor--"
And at the far end of the corridor, a brilliant whiteness began to show. Loki turned his face from it; it stung his eyes. He saw Thor's shadow then, exaggerated upon the wall. It blackened as the light approached, and the air began to warm. The hairs on the back of Loki's neck crackled.
No, he thought. No, no, no.
Thor drew his sword. Too long, Loki saw then, it was too long for him to wield properly, even if he knew how. A terrible brightness filled the tunnel. Thor's shadow winked out, burned from sight, and a voice like wet wood snapping in a hearth said, "Little hero. Little hero, oh, my favorite. Yum yum."
"Thor," Loki shouted, "Thor!"
"Loki," Thor said, very calm, "run. Right now. Close the door."
He cast about for Thor and dashed his hand against stone. A bone in his little finger cracked. He gasped; hot air filled his throat. He couldn't see. He couldn't see. Pain ran up his finger and into his wrist.
"Thor," he said, "Thor, I can't find you. Tell me where you are, please--"
Thor boomed like thunder:
"Close the door, Loki! Do it now!"
"No!" Loki screamed. "I won't! Tell me where you are!"
"Enough of that," said that hellish voice, and Thor began to scream.
Burned hair, the smell of flesh roasting-- Metal rang out against stone. Thor roared - he screamed - and he was silent.
We shouldn't have come here, Loki thought. This wasn't supposed to happen, this isn't supposed to happen, I just wanted to look for books, I wanted to show Father, I wanted to show Thor--
"Stop," Loki said, "stop, stop!" and he threw himself after Thor.
The light roiled away from him. A hissing, like water thrown on fire, sounded and resounded, and whatever thing was in or of the light said, "You."
"Give him back!" Loki screamed. His throat hurt, not with fire but with tears. "Give him back!"
He advanced on the light, and it retreated again. He could make out shadows within it, darker fires, lines where the walls stood. He couldn't see Thor. His heart was cold, his mouth chilled. He didn't care.
"Give him back now," he said, "or I will rip you apart. I will tear, tear--" His voice cracked. He began, helplessly, to cry.
"He's a fool," said the light. "He came at me with metal and spit. I should eat him."
Fury drove Loki forward.
"I said give him back!"
His fingers brushed the edges of the light; they vanished into it. The air was hot, the light spat like fire, and yet-- Yet he did not burn. That hissing rose again, so that Loki thought it would devour him, then a shadow showed in the light, and Thor passed out of the burning thing and into Loki's arms.
Loki stumbled beneath the weight and fell hard to his knees. Thor's face-- He bled wildly from his mouth, his chest, his skin burned red. Loki bent over him. His tears spackled Thor's brow, his cheeks, his bloodied lip.
"I'm sorry," he sobbed. "It's my fault. It's my fault. I'm sorry."
A great, white hand drove into the wall beside him. Loki curled around Thor to hide him, to protect him, to keep him safe. Out of the light, something like a head lowered and turned to look into Loki's face.
"How?" said the thing. "How is one like you here? Are you lost?"
"Let us go," Loki said. His voice hitched.
The thing drew nearer still, and he thought whatever it was Loki had done to frighten it, it was frightened no more. Loki scrabbled to drag Thor back with him. Thor moaned and turned his head and spat blood across Loki's thigh.
"Let us go. Please let us go," Loki begged. "We won't come back. I promise. Let him go."
"Lost," the thing marveled. "So far from home. Opened the door. How did you come here?"
Blue lights rose in the head it had made; they rolled like eyes and winked out. Its attention wandered. The light receded, then grew brighter still.
"Why should I let him go?" it asked. "Is he yours?"
Loki clung to Thor. Blood welled around his fingers. Dying. He was dying.
"He's my brother," he wept, "he's my brother. Let him go. He's my brother."
The thing of light turned its implacable gaze upon him and then upon Thor, senseless in his arms. The edges of its skin crackled. Loki's heart ran wild, and he thought: please, oh, please, Thor, Thor, my brother; and his mouth said, "If you touch him, I'll kill you," though he knew not how.
The thing's face parted in half. Red fire licked around the shimmering hole. It would eat them, Loki thought wildly, it would eat them, and he would tear its insides though it burned him - then the thing laughed.
"You may take him," it said merrily. "Take your brother. Your dear brother. I would have eaten him and you would have been king."
"I don't want to be king," said Loki. His face ached. His eyes burned.
"Pity," said the thing. "I could have served you."
The blood on Loki's fingers was red, and it was sticky, and it was hot as the thing's breath against his cheek. Thor shivered beneath his hands.
"I hope you die," Loki said to the thing. His mouth hurt with it. Snot slicked his lip; he licked it away. "I hope you drown. I hope you burn out and freeze over. I'll kill you."
The thing split its head again and laughed, and the sound of its laughter, like bones cracking in a fire, clawed at Loki's skin.
"Go away," it said. "Take your brother, or I'll eat you both. Yum yum. Fun. I like to eat. I'm hungry now. Something's crawling."
The light dimmed; it turned away. Shadows engulfed them. The darkness returned. Loki buried his wet face in Thor's throat and shook. His fingers itched. The coldness in his chest remained.
"I'm sorry," he whispered. "I didn't mean it. I'm sorry."
Thor exhaled wetly. Blood dripped onto Loki's wrist. His little finger throbbed, sharp with pain. Somewhere in the vastness of the Underway, the thing of light wandered. Loki wiped his face with his sleeve and gestured. Light, his light, burst from his fingers, and Loki thought he'd weep again.
"We have to go," he told Thor. "I'm going to close the door."
He couldn't lift Thor, not enough to bear him on his shoulders or in his arms. Instead he hooked his hands beneath Thor's shoulders and dragged him. Thor's legs rattled; his boots thumped over uneven bits in the stone. A muscle in Loki's shoulder pulled taut. He thought of the white thing, its red mouth, the blue lights which rolled in its face, and didn't slow. His light held steady.
Through the threshold, he set Thor down gentle as he might, and turned back to the door. The light overhead flickered.
"Close," Loki said, "close, close, close!" and he thought of locks, dams, uprooted trees, cool things and shadows, empty hearths, water poured onto a fire, a candle winking out in winter, dead coals, rooms without air, rooms without wood or other things to burn, and of a darkness so profound no light shone.
The door slammed into place. It glowed hotly and then was blue and cold and still as frost.
"Heimdall," Loki shouted. "Heimdall! Heimdall, please!"
The Underway was thick with silence. No trumpets sounded. No horses whinnied. The air was still and old and heavy with death. He could not carry Thor to the causeway, not even if he emptied his pockets and stripped the sheath from Thor's back. He was not strong enough. He was only Loki.
Loki pressed his hands to Thor's chest and bowed his head.
"Please," he said. "Please. Listen."
He prayed for the Allfather.
Such a terrible stillness filled the halls, the rooms, the walls and great heights of the palace. Loki walked alone.
His brother's room was lit. A guard stood without it, to keep Thor in or the unwelcome out, but he bowed his head to the second prince and allowed him passage. Loki pushed the door open and peeked through the slit.
Mother sat at Thor's side, her long back to the door. She'd worn her hair down and it tumbled off her shoulders as she bent over Thor. She turned at the sound of the door. Her eyes were very sad, but she smiled and held her hand out to Loki.
"Come here, Loki," she said. "Let me see you again."
The door clicked into place. The walk to his mother seemed endless, but then he was there and she was resting her fingers against his cheek. So sad, her eyes.
"Oh, Loki," she said, and she drew him into her arms.
He clutched her tightly. She was warm and smelled sweetly as she always did, and as she held him she murmured, "Oh, Loki. My little Loki. I'm so happy you're well." His nose stung, his eyes too.
Mother pulled back. She cradled his face in her hands and smiled.
"And how's your finger?"
He thought to say something like "It hurts; it's awful." Then Thor breathed out deep from his chest.
Loki said, "Better," and showed her his hand.
Mother took it, looked at the silver splint which held his little finger to the one beside it, and smiling still, bent to kiss the tips of his fingers.
"There," she said. "How is it now?"
He flexed his fingers and said, "I don't need the splint!" He made to pull it off.
Mother caught his hands.
"Let us wait," she told him. Her eyes crinkled. "Just to be absolutely certain."
"If you say so, Mother," he said. He was glad she smiled as she did then.
She drew him near again, and Loki sat upon her lap. He was too large to do so now - he had been too large for some time - but Mother wound her arm about his chest and held him there.
"We are so fortunate," she said softly. "So very fortunate Heimdall saw you."
Her sleeves rustled. She turned to kiss Loki's temple.
"My boys. I almost lost you."
"I'm sorry," Loki said.
Her arm tightened. Coumarin washed over him, and she dropped a fierce, punishing kiss in his hair.
"Whatever possessed you to go into the Underway? How did you get in there? Why," asked Mother, "did you go?"
His throat closed up. Loki couldn't speak. He turned his face from Mother.
Mother sighed and rested her chin upon his head.
"Whatever the reason. I'm so happy to have the two of you back."
They remained like so for a long moment, till Loki thought Mother's legs might fall asleep. Then a knock came at the door, and the guard opened it to say, "My Queen. You are needed."
Another sigh, this one smothered. Mother patted Loki firmly on the shoulders and said, "Up you go. Will you stay and watch your brother for me?"
"Yes," he promised.
Mother smiled again and flicked the tip of his nose. Then she passed from the room, leaving only the fragrance of her hair and the ruffling of her skirts, which noise echoed once in the corners then faded, too.
Loki turned to Thor.
He slept, dreamless, in his bed, surrounded by blankets and pillows stacked too high for any man's comfort. Poultices obscured much of his face, and the bandages wound about his chest were wound thickly. He looked hideous. He looked dead. But: he breathed.
No one was there to tell Loki not to disturb his brother, and even if someone had been there - even if Father had been there - Loki thought he would have done the same anyway. He toed his slippers off and crawled up into the bed.
The bed shifted some small fraction beneath his weight, and Thor stirred. Loki went very still and he stayed so until Thor's breathing evened again. Carefully, he lowered himself down beside Thor. Loki looked at him, at his brother wrapped and bound in cloth. His brother, who lived.
"Thor," he whispered. "Thor. Are you awake?"
Thor breathed in and out and said nothing. Loki hesitated, then he set his hand upon Thor's chest, where his heart beat strongest. A flicker ran through Thor's eyelids. Loki wriggled closer.
"Thor?" He stared intently at his nose. "Thor. Wake up."
Thor's mouth worked. His lips parted.
"Tho-o-or," Loki said.
Thor frowned. He said, in a parched voice, "What?"
Love swept over Loki then, a powerful love that made him want to cry and be sick at the same time. He was so glad Thor was not dead. He was so glad. His face hurt for his smiling. He wanted to say, If I'd been as brave as you, I could have scared it off before it tried to eat you. That was what he'd come to say.
What he said was, "Your nose is too fat for your face."
"Your face is too fat for your face," Thor mumbled.
Loki curled into Thor's side. He tucked his face in his shoulder.
Thor sighed lowly. His chest towered beneath Loki's hand and then it fell again.
"It's all right," Thor said drowsily. "All right."
He slept again. Loki stayed there, curled up beside Thor as his chest rose and fell and rose again, counting his breaths as they came and went.
"I have to tell Father," Loki told Thor. "If I go to him and tell him before he asks, that would be better. Right?"
He laid his head down by Thor's. The ceiling showed an ever changing display of constellations and star patterns. Loki watched as the stars seen from the Second Realm crawled across the dome.
"It's my fault," he said. "So I have to tell him."
Father arrived the day next, two days after Loki and Thor had entered, and left, the Underway. Thor was not well enough to stand, but Loki would be expected to attend his father. He'd stuffed the books beneath his bed, too frightened and sick when they'd come home - Thor bleeding, Loki weeping - to think of a better place to hide them.
Now he withdrew them: seven from the library below, and the book with the map. He sat there on his knees and stared at the lot of them.
He would explain everything, and he'd give the books to Father, and Father would-- He didn't know what Father would do. He didn't want to think of it. Father will understand, he thought. Father was good and kind and, and just. He would understand. When Loki told him how sorry he was and gave him the books, Father would forgive him.
His fingers knit in his trousers; the bone in his little finger complained. He forced his hands flat over his knees.
"Stop it," he said. "You have to be brave."
Thor would not have hid in his room like a babe. Like a coward.
Loki stacked the books, the one he'd stolen from Firsts on top. He touched the last journal. The leather was cool on his fingers. Looping script marked it, told him this was something he didn't know, not yet. A book he couldn't read, but might. He traced the letters, felt how they turned and swallowed the tail of the letter before. He didn't think: I'll keep just one, or Father won't know if I don't give him all of them. He just put it back under his bed.
Gathering the rest of the books, Loki rose to his feet.
Loki went to Odin, Allfather. His father.
The king stood out on the balcony which jutted from the great hall. He stood alone, his face turned to the horizon. Afternoon had come, and the light made him red, made him seem tall as a mountain.
Loki stepped onto the balcony. He made a point of scraping his shoe. The king did not turn. Loki swallowed; his throat hurt.
"Father," he called.
Now the king recognized him. He turned, and though he wore only his crown and simple armor, he cast a long shadow which made Loki think of great swords and the horns of his father's war helmet.
"Loki," said Odin. His mouth was hard. "Have you come to tell me why you did it?"
He had thought of a great many things to say and written a comprehensive explanation which he'd thought enough to absolve him. It had been a stupid thing to write.
"I'm sorry," Loki said. He held the books to his chest, clutched them close. "I found a book, in the library. It had a map. I thought--"
He quailed under his father's eye, and it was right that he should be silent. Guilt weighed him.
In two steps, Father was at his side. He dwarfed Loki still; at times, Loki thought he would forever remain a small thing in his father's shadow. He took the book from the top of the stack and showed it to Loki.
"And what were you doing, so deep in the library?"
"I got lost," said Loki. He held his father's gaze. "I forgot where I was."
"There are wards to keep you out of there." The king was an ax striking. "They are there to protect you, and you broke them. You did so purposefully and without thought. You stupid boy."
He shouldn't have lied. He should have hid. What did he care what Thor would do? Loki looked to the books. He said, "I brought these back. They're for you," and held them out.
The king ignored him.
"You went into the Underway," he said, louder now, "but it was not enough for you to risk your own life. You took my firstborn son--"
Odin passed a hand over his face. Loki felt hot and full of air, then cold and dead and terribly bare. His heart beat, so loud he felt as if he were drowning in it.
The king began again: "You took Thor into the deeps. You took him against the Múspellsmegir--"
"I didn't mean to," Loki burst. "I didn't know it was there! We were just--"
Like a blow to the head, his father's rage - the strength of it, the height, the force - stunned him. Loki fell back; he dropped three of the books.
"Loki," said the king. "Because of your deliberate disobedience and your disconcern for your brother--"
"I'm sorry!" he shouted. It tore out of him; it ripped; the truth of it cut through his heart.
"You will not interrupt me!" Odin thundered. Every word sounded like a hammer on Loki's bones. "Whether you meant to or whether you did not, your brother and my son could have died, because you disobeyed, because you did not think of anything but your wants, because you failed him, and thus you have failed me!"
His father turned from him. Odin's hands fisted at his thighs.
Loki could not hear but for the storming of his heart. He could not breathe for the pain in his throat. A gulf had opened between them, and he was afraid to cross it; he did not want to cross it. He thought his skin might burn away if he so much as moved.
Odin rested his hands on the railing. He lowered his head, and in the motion, light caught on his hair and drew fire from the silver. Loki closed his eyes to it.
"Go," said the king. He sounded tired and worn. Loki wanted to hide his face in his father's cloak and weep. "Go now, Loki. We will speak later."
His father remained at the edge, looking to Asgard. Odin would never leave first. Loki bowed and set his burden down, then he turned and he ran and he did not stop until he'd reached his room.
"Moon half-up," he said. "Moon half-up!"
The room brightened. Loki threw his boots against the wall and rounding on the door, shoved it so it slammed, so it rocked the frame. His face itched; his chest worked quickly. If he cried, he thought he would die. His eyes prickled, so he pressed his thumbs to them. He would not cry. He would not do it. He would not.
Loki sat on the edge of his bed and held his thumbs to his eyes till spots showed, till the pressure in his head was too much, and then hotly, wetly, stupidly he sobbed. He clawed at his brow but could not stop it. His scalp pinched. He tugged harder on his hair.
He hated Odin. He hated him. Loki hated him, and the worst part of it was knowing he did not hate his father. He gasped for air, got it, and wasted it keening into his hands.
"Moon full-set," he managed between gulps. The lights went out, and he was alone in the dark, in the cool dark where no one could see him, not the Allfather, not Mother, not even Heimdall.
At night, someone crept into his room. A grunt woke him, and Loki raised his swollen, too dry face to a shadow rising over him. A frost giant, come to devour him in his bed. Loki threw himself away from the edge and shouted, "Moon full-up!"
But it was only Thor, bandaged and bruised, his hands on the side of the bed. Loki fell limply back against the pillows.
"Turn that off," Thor said, squinting. "It's too damn bright."
"I'm telling Mother," Loki said, but he turned the lights down.
Thor climbed up - Loki held his hands and tugged, gently as Thor hissed - then he tumbled gracelessly into bed.
"Ow," Thor said into the sheets.
"What are you doing here?" Loki evaded Thor's waving arm. Let him balance himself. "You're hurt. You should be in bed."
"I am in bed."
"In your bed," Loki said, exasperated.
Thor settled on the pillows. He dropped his hands on his belly and looked, briefly, introspective.
"I got bored," he concluded.
Loki clicked his tongue and dropped down beside him. They looked to the ceiling, their shoulders touching. The bandages beneath Thor's shirt were thick enough Loki felt them through his own sleeve.
"Idiot," he said. "You won't get better if you run around."
"I wasn't running. I walked," said Thor.
He elbowed Loki lightly, less, Loki thought, out of consideration for Loki than his own bruised ribs. And why were his ribs bruised? Loki. Loki bent his broken finger as punishment, then wished he hadn't.
"Anyway," Thor added, "if it weren't for you, I'd be dead."
He couldn't cry any more, Loki thought. He was empty, all dried up. Father was right. He knew that. He had disobeyed and Thor had bled for Loki's disobedience.
"If it weren't for me," he said, "you wouldn't be hurt at all."
Thor snorted. "You didn't make me go. I decided myself."
"But if I hadn't--"
Thor slapped his hand to Loki's mouth. His hand stank of bitter ointments and sweat, and Loki recoiled.
"Shut up," Thor said. "I need sleep."
Loki glared at him; it didn't work so well in the dark.
"Then go to your own bed."
"Can't." Thor sounded sheepish. "I think I pulled my ribs."
Loki sighed, and he leaned against Thor, and he said, "Don't bleed in my bed," which was all he could manage when his chest twisted so.
"Can't help it," Thor said. "I'll try not to. Sorry," he added as an afterthought.
Thor's shoulder rose against Loki's cheek, then dropped again. He was warm and sour-smelling and his hair stuck to Loki's brow, but all the same.
"I forgive you," Loki said.