In the fourth year of the war, Garðaríki was overrun.
Thor had spent the first retreat, from Bralund, yelling at Odin's back the entire time. This one, the fifth, he remembered only as a broken sequence of images. The horns sounding the retreat; the palely gleaming slithering thing he slew at the last, a nest of arms and teeth. The demoralized ranks of the Aesir stumbling ahead of him, on to the Bifrost. The dozen scuttling imp-creatures clawing at his leg-armor as he turned away, clutching at his calves and staring up at him with hungry pale lamp-eyes.
He hadn't bothered to kill them. His feet followed one another through the faintly glittering dust that had once been a fertile field, followed the warriors through the gate and onto the shining bridge. Silently he crossed and silently went through the doors of the great hall of Asgard; silently he climbed the stairs to his chamber, and fell down on the bed still in his armor. He'd been fighting for seven months without a day of rest.
His armor was off when he jerked awake, Mjölnir leaping into his hand by instinct. Sweat and dust still caked his scalp beneath his hair, but his face had been wiped clean, and his hands and wrists. He felt naked. "What?" he said shortly to the page-boy staring at him.
"The All-father summons you, mighty Thor," the boy said wide-eyed, taking a trembling step back from him, and Thor was sorry to have frightened him. There was enough for a child of Asgard to fear now, old enough to understand what was happening, too young to even lift a sword in his own defense when the enemy did, in the end, come to their walls.
Thor poured the jug of water over his head, put his armor back on, and went to the stables.
"We have not yet been attacked again," Odin said, when Thor joined him at Sleipnir's stall.
"Then why in the Nine Realms did you wake me?" Thor said, yawning.
"You have slept for eleven days, and time grows short," Odin said. "Come."
He beckoned to one of the grooms to bring a steed for Thor, and mounted up himself. Thor dragged himself onto the horse and followed, too tired to ask even where they were going. The light around them began to fade as they rode, and the path bent slowly down and away both from Asgard and the Bifrost, into dim woods that grew dimmer as they went on. He was half-sleeping in the saddle while the trees began to shrink, then to be replaced by thin scraggly bushes, and then by moss and lichen and finally great swollen fungi curling over knotted tree-roots.
Eventually he woke enough to wonder why there were roots, and no trees. A mist lay thickly overhead now, blotting out the sky from sight, and beside them a strange smooth grey wall rose from the ground and vanished into it. "Where are we?" he called, and spurred his plodding horse on alongside Sleipnir. "Father, where—"
"You know where we are, Thor," Odin said. "I am certain that the tutors covered the subject on sufficient occasions to work its way past even your remarkable inattention to any portions of history which did not involve battles."
Despite a certain sharpness in his tone, he was holding out his hand: with one of Idunn's golden apples, queerly bright and unreal-looking in the dim light. Thor snatched it, suddenly ravenous, and ate; the juice burst over his tongue, a sweetness scarcely remembered. He even ate the core.
"To be fair, Father," he said, licking his fingers for the last stickiness, "that doesn't leave out much." The apple's strength reached deep into his bones: he felt himself again, for the first time in—he didn't want to think back that far. There hadn't been anything pleasant to remember in the intervening time. He looked around instead, and then he knew where they were. "Stop," he said, and pulled his horse to a halt. "How long have we been riding? There's a war on, and you've dragged me down to the roots of—"
But Odin didn't rein Sleipnir in even for a moment. "Therefore consider, Thor," his voice floated back over the hoofbeats, already sounding as though they grew distant, "whether I would have brought you here for any small purpose."
Thor swore under his breath; sometimes a man could grow wretchedly tired of having the wisest man alive for a father.
And the cleverest for a brother, that thought had used to finish. Thor pushed it away and set his horse onward again. Strange to think that soon, his brother—vanished, exiled, hiding, cursed—might be the only one of them left. Would Loki—miss them seemed absurd. More likely he would only regret he hadn't been the one to bring down Asgard himself. He'd certainly been trying hard enough, the last decade. Thor glared at his father's back as it came back into view through the fog.
Odin's shoulders bowed. "Even the wise can be mistaken, my son."
Thor didn't say anything. It had only been ten years, and he wasn't ready to forgive Odin yet. But conversations with his father always seemed to end up with Thor nodding in understanding—when they didn't end up with him flung to other worlds and stripped of his powers, or something along those lines. Just as well to avoid the subject for now, either way. "So what are you going to ask them?" he growled instead, looking uneasily up again at the smooth grey bark that rose out of sight, into clouds, and stretched without end as far as he could see in either direction. He flexed his hand around Mjölnir's handle. "And what are you going to pay with?"
"Nothing I cannot bear to give away, I hope," Odin said. There was a sound of trickling water, not far away, and with startling suddenness the mist opened on a small round pool of deep water, dark, and a woman standing on its bank with a full jug in her hands.
"Hail, Odin Allfather," she said, as they slid from their horses: she was very tall, and her mantle was thrown over her head, so her voice came out of darkness. "Hail, Thor Odinsson. Come and see my sisters."
She turned and led them a little way to where a straight new taper off the great trunk, paler white than the spreading roots around it, had freshly broken down from the dirt above; it groped for the earth beneath them, trailing little pallid rootlets. Two other robed women sat by the exposed root, washing it with their own jugs of water. "Odin comes," one of them said, without looking around.
"Thor comes also," the second said.
"Hail, Grey Sisters," Odin said, very steadily, and Thor swallowed; his father was afraid. He tightened his grip on the hammer, and one of the women's cloaked heads swung round to him.
"Would you swing Mjölnir here, at the roots of Yggdrasil?" she said—not sneering, but only curious. "That would be a mighty destiny indeed, Thor Odinsson, to shatter all the realms and all their worlds at once in one great swing: but perhaps you would prefer it to defeat?"
"To lose a battle is not to lose a war," Thor said, defiantly, but it rang hollow in his own ears; they were losing the war, after all. The three cloaked women shook their heads as one, from side to side, waggish.
"Grey Sisters," Odin said, "It is of the war I would speak with you; will you name your price for the answer to my question?"
"Odin Allfather, loathe are we to refuse an offer so rich with promise," one of the women said. "But how high would you pay for an answer which is already in your heart?"
Thor looked at Odin; Odin said nothing, standing looking at the Norns, and then he turned and walked back to Sleipnir.
"Wait a minute," Thor said, catching his arm. "All that, and we're just—leaving?"
"The Grey Sisters have been generous," Odin said, drawing his cloak more closely around him. He took hold of the pommel and pulled himself up; the act was labored. "My question is answered; we must return to Asgard as quickly as we may.
"We must return to Asgard," he repeated. "And then you must go and bring your brother home."
That, Thor did have the energy to argue. "Why now?" he snapped. "Why drag him back to die with the rest of us? And after I've tried to persuade you to give me a troop of men to hunt him down, over and over—the time he nearly toppled the citadel, the time he tried to murder Balder—"
The argument lasted all the way back to Asgard, which turned out to be nearly a month of riding. Odin didn't say a word the whole time. Thor didn't stop talking anyway; he was awake, and it passed the time. But he was damned if he was going to bring Loki back to be—punished? executed? something unpleasant, anyway, and stupid when there wasn't any point to it.
When they reached Asgard at last, Frigga welcomed them home; the tables were full again of Aesir warriors, drinking and eating, but their feast was a quiet one and their faces yet drawn and hollowed-out with weariness. Thor looked at them, these warriors he had led into battle, these warriors who soon would be fighting again in their hopeless war, and Odin at last broke his silence and said, "What question do you think I would have asked the Norns? What question would you have asked?"
"How to win the war," Thor said, unwillingly.
Odin nodded. "Take however many warriors you require."
"He is to be treated with respect," Thor said, to a row of sullen looks. He'd asked for volunteers, because he didn't want to drag any man away from what would surely be only a brief rest for this of all stupid missions—but word had gotten out they were going after Loki, and so the men who'd come forward were the ones who had reason of their own to want his brother brought back to Asgard in chains.
There were rather a lot of them. Thor didn't even know what Loki had ever done to Hothur or to Jodi—he would have said Loki didn't even know their names—but they'd nearly fallen over themselves leaping up from the tables to come along.
"You will remember he is a son of Odin," Thor added sharply, and turned his back so he wouldn't have to see their faces saying no he's not. Damn Father, anyway. "Come on," he added over his shoulder, and stalked out along Bifrost.
Sif fell into step next to him. He hadn't asked her to come along, and she hadn't bothered volunteering; they'd fought side to side and back to back every moment of the last four years. "You've tried to persuade Odin to send us after Loki for years," she said. "The last time he said no, you smashed three tables and said he was making a mockery of the laws of Asgard."
"That was before this war started," Thor said. "What's the use of it now? Putting Loki in a dungeon won't bring us victory."
Sif didn't say anything. He looked at her narrowly. She and Loki had sniped at each other down the ages, and she'd been angry enough to rip his head off his shoulders after the business on Midgard, but Thor had never thought she'd hated Loki for her own part.
"If your father plans an offensive thrust," she said, "Loki is an enemy left behind our flank."
"He's my brother," Thor said.
"Are you saying he wouldn't take advantage of the opportunity to do something dreadful in Asgard?" she said. "You do remember he's tried to kill you a dozen times now."
"And yet here I am," Thor said. "If Loki really wanted me dead, he'd come back, beg forgiveness, and stick some magic poison in my cup."
"No," Sif said, dry. "No, that's true, he wants you dead and humiliated."
Thor wanted to argue that, but the truth was he didn't have any idea what Loki wanted, which made it difficult. He thought not even Loki knew, these days; or maybe that it changed from minute to minute. "A real offensive," he said instead, wistfully. "That would be something, if there were anything to go after." He envisioned it: a triumphant charge, arrowing through the twisted and shimmering ranks of the enemy, at the very heart of their force—and the bright vision faded. There was no heart to their force.
"There might be," Sif said. "If your father has learned at last where the shining ones come from, perhaps he means us to go after them there."
"What difference would it make?" Thor said. "They don't have generals or officers; why would they have a capital, or a kingdom, and why would they care if we razed it? They haven't done anything on our worlds but devour and destroy."
Sif was silent again, but her face was thoughtful. Thor sighed and said, "Out with it."
"They might have been sent by someone," Sif said, and nudged her horse ahead, leaving her words hanging there for Thor to make the inevitable connection; he scowled at her back.
It was never easy to find Loki when he wanted to hide, but he wasn't doing a particularly good job of it at the moment. Probably he didn't think anyone from Asgard would be wasting their time hunting for him while the shining ones churned their way steadily through all the realm; and even a half-assed bit of magery was good enough to conceal him from mortal eyes. Thor led his men through the silent half-deserted nighttime streets of Detroit, the industrial wreckage married oddly with the fresh clean scent of the plants that were growing up over the razed sections of the city; they made peculiar bedfellows, and strange angular shadows against the light.
The factory stood enormous and oddly familiar in silhouette, confusing until Thor realized it looked a little like the counting-house at Asgard. Without a word, he detailed off the men to every door with the enchanted nets in hand, and sent Sif to the small magicked bolt-hole in the back. Then he swung Mjölnir back over his shoulder and knocked most of the front wall in.
Loki didn't look up from the book he was reading, one leg thrown careless over the arm of his chair as shards of metal and chunks of brick rained down in a circle around him. The chair was an odd and uncomfortable looking thing, enormous and covered with flowered padding, rat-chewed where it was not stained; tiny dark eyes peered out at Thor from inside an exposed spring in one arm. "Thor. It's always nice when family drops by to pay a visit, isn't it?" Loki said.
The chair was the only piece of furniture; it sat in the center of the empty, trash-strewn floor, with a single cold blue mage-light hovering above, illuminating great spiderwebs and gashes of paint peeling away from the metal walls speckled with rot. Small scuttling insects moved in all the corners, just on the edge of visibility. Thor looked at his brother sitting alone in this hideous place and his gut clenched with sorrow. "What are you doing here?" he said.
Loki's eyes raised a little to meet his: calm dark wells, serene, as though they hadn't ever burned with hate. "Under the circumstances, I would really have to make a case for that question being properly mine, dear brother."
"You know why I'm here," Thor said.
"Only in the most minimal sense," Loki said. "I do wonder that you could be spared from the front at present, though. Or is this in the nature of a restful vacation? A brief amusement before the concerns of the battlefield take their just precedence?"
There was a cold, malicious sneer to the words that didn't manage to quite conceal the real question behind them; not from Thor, anyway.
"Don't be an ass," Thor said. "You don't think this was my idea? Father sent me."
"Ah," Loki said.
Wonderful: so he'd made it worse, somehow. Thor swore at Odin silently in his head yet again; the last thing Loki needed was to be wandering around the universe living in wretched holes like this, brooding himself deeper into the pit of squirming vipers in his mind. He ought to have been dragged back to Asgard, given his due punishment—Thor wasn't really sure how you would punish someone for the things Loki had done, but he had previously decided it would include being ducked in a lake privately and repeatedly by Thor himself—and then taken off to a nice little war somewhere for distraction.
"Will you come?" Thor said. "Or are we going to have to do this the hard way?"
"As charming as is the prospect of a visit home," Loki said, folding his book and clasping his hands together in a parody of delight, "I am afraid I have some pressing engagements elsewhere; I really think I must decline."
"The hard way, then," Thor said resignedly, and went for him; the spiders and cockroaches scurried away from his footfalls, and even the rat fled from the chair. Loki didn't move.
Except to vanish even as Thor's hand reached out. Loki appeared again on the other side of the hall; Hothur emerged from the doorway, grinning, with his battle-axe in his hands. "No way out for you here, trickster," he said.
"Hothur," Loki said, "has it grown back yet, then?" He tilted his head. "Not quite the same size it used to be, perhaps?"
Hothur growled and swung, and the axe swept through thin air; Loki was at yet another door. But Haskner and Rondo were coming out to block him, and all the rest of the warriors coming from every side, a hungry-eyed mob. Loki paused and watched them closing in. Thor pushed through and got to him. Half the work of this was going to be keeping the men from tearing him apart, it looked.
He caught Loki's arm. Loki looked at him, eyes open clear through for a moment, and so lost that Thor had to fight not to look away. "I see; Father really wants to see me," Loki said, and then Thor was standing in the circle holding a handful of shimmering dust that fell all around him.
"Wonderful," Thor said under his breath; that was a new trick. Then Sif said, "If you're all done over there," coming through an illusionary patch in the back wall with three of the nets bunched up in her fist, and the small dark rat struggling in the mesh.
Thor wasn't stupid, so he didn't open the nets again until he rolled the rat out at the foot of the throne dais. Loki rolled and stood up in a continuation of the movement, and brushed off his sleeves in catlike fastidiousness before he turned his head up to look at Odin. "Dear Father. Or should I say—"
"Father," Odin said quietly.
Loki's mouth twitched at the corners, a sneering smile. "Well, I'm here, thanks to my dear brother and the escort—" he turned and bowed grandiosely to Sif and the warriors standing at the head of the hall, "— that you so graciously provided. To what do I owe the honor of the invitation? I understand things haven't been going very well." He paused and added archly, "There's that spell in the Wyrddenning—"
"Loki!" Odin said sharply. "That book is forbidden."
"And yet there is a copy in the palace, isn't there?" Loki said. "Not in the library, but—"
Odin's face was enough answer to that; Thor looked between them, frowning. "What spell is this?"
"It's very impressive," Loki said, without looking away from their father. "You'd like it a great deal, brother; raining fire and destruction everywhere—I imagine it would be quite useful in the present circumstances. Of course, the central ingredient is the still-beating heart of a frost giant sorcerer—"
"What?" Thor said, and grabbed him by the arm and swung him around. "You think we—you think I would ever—"
Loki looked at him. "If it meant saving all Asgard?"
Thor just stared at him. Loki kept looking at him, challengingly. "No!" Thor yelled at him, and shook him hard. "You idiot!"
Struggling against Thor's hand as he rattled back and forth, Loki finally managed to wrench himself free, stumbling half a step back. He straightened and smoothed his tunic back down with one hand, breathing a little hard. "Father may have miscalculated in sending you after me, then," he said. "But I'm sure once he's had a private conversation with you and explained—"
"My son," Odin said from the throne, tiredly, and Loki stopped. "The book was taken from the library that no one should ever see that spell, or the other accursed workings within it, which no one ought ever perform. I am sorry that you know anything of it, and more that you should imagine such evil things in consequence. Your wits alone ought to tell you otherwise. There is no single spell, no one enchantment however powerful, which would win protection for Asgard or the defeat of this enemy."
Loki's mouth worked briefly; Thor saw a small swallow go down his throat. "Then I suppose my wits are wandering, because I really can't think why else you would go to this much trouble to bring me home when you've already been attacked again."
"What?" Thor said. "How would you know that?"
Loki threw him a raised eyebrow. "I looked at the tables, dear brother."
Thor glanced back; he'd been too preoccupied making sure the nets didn't slip through his fingers, but he would have noticed if the tables had been half-empty—and then he realized that there were fewer tables in the hall, and the seats spread wider apart; Loki was right. He wheeled on Odin. "You said the enemy would be consolidating—"
"It does not matter," Odin said. "If we lose Dregul a few months sooner for lack of your being there, it will not change the course of the war."
"And this farce will?" Thor said. "Why have you made me bring Loki back?"
Odin paused and said, "The Odinsleep comes upon me, my son."
Thor stared up at him, and felt the ripple of that announcement go rustling through the hall behind him. He now led their armies in the field, but Odin yet directed them at every turn; it was his wisdom that had allowed them to take advantage, now and again, of a brief momentary weakness in the enemy's forces; his wisdom that had staved off utter defeat. Thor had been ready to rule for a long time; but to lose Odin now—
And then Loki started laughing.
The noise grated like claws against the stones of the hall, echoing. Thor glared at him. "You think this is funny? Asgard is on the verge of falling—"
"I think it's utterly hilarious," Loki said. "Dear brother, don't you understand? Father means to put me on the throne."
"Don't be a fool," Thor said.
"Yes," Odin said. "I do."
The rest of the conversation didn't go well. Loki sat on the steps and kept laughing softly the entire time while Thor yelled at Odin; who said nothing and only sat on the throne looking ever more tired and stooped and old, which only made Thor angrier: Odin had sent him away from Asgard—from their armies—at a time like this, knowing that at any moment he might fall, and for this absurdity—
And then abruptly Odin stood and slammed the butt of his spear down against the ground; the dais and even the hall itself trembled and rang with the impact. "Enough!" he said, and then he sank back down into the throne. "Enough," he said again. "My son, you came with me to the Norns—"
"And they spent the entire time watering a taproot, they didn't tell you to put Loki on the throne!" Thor said. "You've lost your mind before it's time for you to sleep; giving command to this—lunatic?"
"And suddenly your affection for me seems gravely diminished, brother," Loki said, with infuriating cheer.
"I'm not going to let anyone carve your heart out of your chest!" Thor said. "That's not the same thing as giving you the throne."
"On the contrary," Loki said. "The two seem quite nearly the same, in the present circumstances. I don't think you can have quite grasped the excellence of our father's design. Really, this sleep comes at a most opportune moment. It would be a shame for the line of Odin to be marked by defeat. How unfortunate should history mark down Thor, his firstborn son, as the one who lost Asgard itself; and of course, one might justly expect the ruler to fall in the final defense, while perhaps a hardy band of warriors—led by a noble lord—might win away with a handful of survivors—"
More of this madness; Thor snorted. "Then why would you take it?"
"Oh, our dear father has taken my measure most skillfully," Loki said. "He will willingly stand before these assembled notables," he swept his arm out to the hall, taking in not only the listening nobles but the very warriors who had dragged him in, "and declare me his heir, above you; no, he knows quite well I won't refuse." He smiled, thinly.
Thor rolled his eyes and turned back to Odin. "And you still want to give him the throne? We'll be lucky if he doesn't set fire to the hall because he thinks it wants to fall in on his head."
"Thor," Odin said, "can you win this war?"
Thor stared up at him. There was only one answer he could give that question, standing before his warriors and the court; only one answer that would force Odin to give up this scheme, and Thor had to give it; the only problem was, he knew it would be a lie.
He didn't answer, struggling, for a shade too long; Odin took his silence for answer and nodded to it. "The foe we face has no reason we can grasp," he said, "no deliberation and no passion; they act without logic, and when they are pushed back they resurge again. My wisdom will not defeat the ranks of chaos; not my wisdom, and not your strength. Both have failed us."
"And so you think you'll try madness instead?" Thor said, but unwillingly he felt the idea grab a hold of him. Sif's accusation hadn't come from nowhere; fighting the shining ones felt like nothing more than fighting off another of his brother's mad schemes, where things you could not understand came at you from every direction at once, and seeming to make no sense. He knew damned well he couldn't beat them; if Loki could come up with something different, however mad, to try—
"This is getting even better!" Loki said. "Now you're going to agree. You do realize, dear brother," he leaned in conspiratorially, "if you swear obedience to me, I'll have to think of something very entertaining to do with that."
"I'd still be able to duck you in a lake if I have to," Thor said; he hadn't agreed yet, and he was damned if he was going to give in to this lunacy.
"Not if I'm to maintain authority over our people, you won't," Loki said, and beamed at him falsely. "Console yourself, dear brother. After all, I can hardly lose the war more than you already have."
Thor flinched; because that, of course, was true.
Odin came down from the dais and gripped him by the shoulders. "This is no reproach to you, my son," he said. "The failure has been mine." Thor jerked his head in a nod; but he knew who the people of Asgard were looking to, to protect them from the foe on their doorstep; and he knew he had failed them. Odin sighed. "Thor—I see no other course before us that offers hope, or I would not ask this of you. But I must. Will you swear allegiance to your brother, and follow his command in this war?"
Thor could almost feel Sif silently yelling NO at his back; he didn't need to turn and see the look on her face, or on the faces of the men with her. All of whom would be dead in a year, if the war went on as it had—as it had while he had been leading them. He pulled his shoulders free of Odin's hands. "The throne is yours, and so is the choice of heir," Thor said, low. "If you command it, I will swear."
Looking on from the steps, Loki clapped his hands. "And here I thought this was going to be another boring family dinner."
Odin didn't waste any time, either; Thor barely had time to drink three horns of mead and to just start reconsidering before his brother was on the throne, holding Gungnir and looking down at him with a smirk so infuriating that Thor nearly climbed the steps to punch him in it instead of kneeling down to swear his loyalty. "Until Odin awakens from his sleep," he added to the oath, pointedly.
"A little conditional, but it'll do," Loki said, waving an airy arm. "Next!"
"What do you mean, next?" Thor said, standing up. "We don't have time for you to do an oathtaking with every man in the hall, there's a battle on—"
"Which you wouldn't even know about if I hadn't told you," Loki said, "so I do think you might assume that I am aware of the fact. But a man's rewards should match his pains, after all. Next," he hissed, leaning forward.
No one moved at first. Thor threw a look at Sif: this was mad, but he'd already sworn, and he knew Loki wouldn't hesitate to order him to bring every man in the hall to their knees by force. She heaved a breath out her nose and knelt at the foot of the dais and swore allegiance; and afterwards she took the other side of the throne and glared pointedly at the other men with him until one after another they reluctantly gave their oaths. And then abruptly, even as Jodi was kneeling, purple-faced with resentment, Loki said, "Never mind, I'm bored." He stood up. "Let every man and woman of Asgard now in the hall kneel, and swear allegiance," he ordered. "And don't think I won't know it if you just mouth along," he added.
"There," he said, when the oath had been somewhat raggedly recited, and he dropped himself back into the throne. "Lady Sif."
Thor clenched up, looking over at her; if Loki was looking for some sort of revenge—
"Yes," Sif said shortly. "My king," she added.
"Congratulations, my lady. You are now in command of Asgard's army," Loki said.
Thor relaxed, and then he said, "What?"
"Take those of our forces here, and go to—let's see—yes, I think, Alftaness," Loki went on, ignoring him and the rustling confusion among the men, and Sif's own frown.
"Odin said they were fighting on Dregul!" Thor said.
"And my powers of hearing were remarkably unaffected at the time," Loki said, and looked down at him. "These constant interruptions begin to smack of insubordination, dear brother, and so recently after your oath; must I engage to give you a reminder of it? I think perhaps I must."
He held up his hands and shaped a collar out of the air like something one might put on a war-dog or a stallion, heavy leather riveted with steel, and he tossed it down the stairs at Thor's feet. "Put it on," he said softly.
Sif took a half step towards him, her hand going to her sword-hilt; but this, Thor could swallow easily enough; he'd known to expect something stupid and petty when he'd taken the oath, after all. He picked up the collar and buckled it on, and then he folded his arms. "There, it's on; now if I may remind you that the fighting is on Dregul—ow!" He jerked as the collar spiked with heat around his neck, an angry prickling like a hundred wasps stinging at once.
"You may not," Loki said. "Lady Sif, you will take the armies and depart at once. Oh, and while you're on your way, tell Heimdall to open the Bifrost to Dregul and order a full retreat there. It's always been a boring backwater of a planet, anyway."
Sif threw a horrified look at Thor, who gritted his teeth against the pain and stalked up the dais. "Loki—"
Loki tilted his head back to look up at him inquiringly, thin mouth pursed. "Yes? What would you do instead, brother?"
"Send the armies to Dregul!" Thor said. "Reinforce the men there, fight until—"
"Yes," Loki said, interrupting. "Yes, that's what I thought you would do. And since we've all seen how well that's worked so far, we'll do something else instead. Are you still here?" He turned his gaze down to Sif. "Would you prefer I gave the command to someone else? Lord Lieff, perhaps? I'm sure he would welcome the chance to exercise some paternal supervision over his warrior maiden daughter—"
Sif ground her teeth together audibly in keeping in her response to that, shot Thor one last grimly reproachful you let this happen look, and turning stalked out of the hall with a jerk of her head to the men.
Helplessly Thor watched them straggle out of the hall, resentment and mutiny in every man's back, and turned back to Loki. "Alftaness is barely inhabited. There's nothing there but a few sheep and woodsmen. If you were going to give away some territory—"
"Alftaness is lovely in the springtime," Loki said. "I've whiled away many an hour by the Gljufur Falls. Thank you for reminding me, brother. You there, page, run after the Lady Sif and tell her to encamp there. Oh, and that I expect her to post a watch of fifty men. Changed hourly."
The collar squeezed off Thor's throat in the middle of his drawing the breath to bellow protest, so he ended up coughing uselessly into his fist while the boy ran out of the hall. "Are you out of your—" He stopped and sighed. "Why am I even asking? Brother, I beg you, let go of your malice and think. These are your men now—your kingdom now. You injure no one more than yourself in sending them to guard nothing, to guard an empty pool a thousand miles from any habitation at all, and wearing their strength out besides. Sif only has three hundred men there: if they must stand for watches fifty men an hour, they will not have a rest. I swear to you, if your orders were other than I would give, I would make no protest—"
"Dear Thor," Loki said fondly. "It's absolutely marvelous how you can say that with perfect sincerity in the same breath as you prove it utterly false."
"This is madness," Thor roared at him, giving up.
"Is it?" Loki said. "But that's what you wanted, wasn't it?"
"No!" Thor said.
"Oh," Loki said. "Well, it's a pity you swore that oath of obedience, then." He stood up from the throne in a swirl of cloak, and lifted the great helm from his head and tossed it at him; Thor caught it reflexively. "Come along, brother. Leading Asgard to ruin is hungry work."
"We're in the hall, there's food right there," Thor said, baffled.
"I don't want to eat with everyone else," Loki said, making a narrow, disgusted face, and swept around the back of the throne, towards the door at the end of the hall. Thor looked at the helm in his hands and thought of crushing it.
"Now, Thor." Loki's voice floated back over his shoulder, with a disembodied tug to the collar; Thor took a deep breath and went after him. He could do Asgard no good if he kept fueling Loki's worst impulses. Odin had said it aright: losing Dregul would not turn the tide of the war. If Loki only spent his poison so far, before he grew bored with teasing his enemies and turned that mad ingenuity against the shining ones, it might still be worth all of this.
And of course, if it wasn't, Thor still had no idea what else to do. Except to fight until he died, and that wouldn't do Asgard much good either. Or Midgard, for that matter. The thought of the shining ones swarming across that beautiful world with all its fragile, lovely mortals twisted his gut; and once Asgard fell—once the Bifrost fell—what was to stop them making that leap?
He pulled up; Loki had halted and was staring at him. "What?" Thor said.
"Are you poisoned?" Loki said, incredulous. "I know I didn't poison you, and I can't think who else would have."
"Of course I'm not poisoned," Thor said. "What are you babbling about?"
"You're brooding," Loki said. "I could feel it from over here."
"It happens when you see all Asgard about to fall—its people doomed to die!" Thor snapped. "Not that you would care; you've tried to bring it down yourself enough times."
"Really, brother, you wound me," Loki said. "I wasn't planning to eat everyone."
Thor shuddered, his stomach twisting; he'd seen too many times what the shining ones did to those who couldn't flee, their hideous feasting—
"I know what will make you feel better," Loki said brightly. "Let's have some lunch!"
Thor picked at the bowl of hazelnuts, trying not to look at the platter with the suckling pig on it, ribs exposed, and the other full of broiled eels. Loki was eating as though he hadn't seen food in a decade. Of course, perhaps he hadn't. He'd occasionally used to go weeks without, lost in his books, until Frigga had sighed and told Thor to go make his brother come to table.
"Mm," Loki said, licking a few shreds of meat off his fingers. "Are you sure you won't have some eel? Try the pickled sheep intestines, they've done them to perfection this time."
"No, I thank you," Thor said shortly. "Loki—"
"Some mead? I must have you eat something, brother," Loki said. "Here, at least have an apple."
"I don't want anything!" Thor said, batting away the apple, which had floated out of its bowl and was bobbing mid-air before him. Loki had cut him off nineteen times so far, every time he had tried to get in a word. In a few days of this he would be as mad as Loki was. "Will you listen to me for a mmrph!" The apple had managed to get under his guard and shove itself in into his mouth.
Thor seized it and bit down vengefully, to pull it free, and then stopped. "How did you get one of Idunn's apples?" he demanded while chewing, looking at it. "She didn't give it to you." It didn't even look like one of hers until he squinted past the illusion that made it seem an ordinary apple.
"Oh, is it one of hers?" Loki said, which meant he'd stolen it somehow; there had been a few on the high table, and there had been at least thirty seconds when Thor hadn't been looking directly at him. Loki took the apple out of Thor's hand and took an enormous bite himself before handing it back. Thor couldn't help finishing it, and by the time he'd done, Loki had wiped his hands at the bowl and was up from the table.
"Wait," Thor said. "Loki, we must—"
"Not now," Loki said, with an enormous and elaborately stretched yawn. "I've been assaulted, abducted, and crowned all in one day. I need some rest." He flung himself onto the bed and said over his shoulder, "You'll stay and guard me, of course. You can sleep on the floor if you like."
"I am not sleeping on the floor by your bed like a dog," Thor said and waited for Loki's rejoinder, which failed to come. When Thor walked to the bed and peered over, Loki was already breathing evenly, his lashes dark against his thin cheek and his hands folded beneath his head. Thor kept staring at him suspiciously, but if Loki was faking, he was determined about it, and trying to outlast Loki's patience when it came to carrying out a game had never served Thor very well.
He sat down on the bed deliberately heavily—Loki never stirred—and pulled off his boots. If Loki wanted Thor to hang about on damned guard duty, he could lump sharing his bed.
When Loki's thrashing woke him for the ninth time, Thor began to wonder whether Loki had meant the invitation to use the floor as a kind gesture. "Will you lie still?" he said, trying to pin down Loki's flailing arms. Loki only moaned in some strange foreign tongue that sounded like magic and writhed some more; there was sweat standing on his brow. When Thor shook him, Loki's eyes only opened for a moment, wide and unseeing and red-pupilled, then closed once more.
Thor tried rolling Loki into one of the blankets; Loki went nearly mad, hands transforming into crooked taloned claws to shred it; Thor only narrowly avoided having his face slashed open and pulled the scraps away himself. "Of all the—" He finally heaved Loki over onto his side, threw his own arm and leg over him, and held him.
Loki jerked and twitched a little longer, and then abruptly he said, "Thor?"
"Yes," Thor said. "Go to sleep."
"Oh," Loki said, and relaxed all at once, limply.
"Finally," Thor said. And then realized he was wide-awake and tense with adrenaline, while Loki was lying sleeping peacefully under him. "Misbegotten son of a—" Thor said, and then stopped, irritated: he couldn't even call Loki the same old names anymore. At least as long as Loki was asleep he couldn't be giving any more ruinous orders, Thor consoled himself.
He did fall asleep eventually; the door woke him creaking open once, but it swung shut again without anyone entering the room, and he went back to sleep easily.
"Gnah," Thor said, and reached up blindly to push away the hand trying to shake him awake; there was a thump and a crash and a tinkle of breaking glass. He raised his head and blinked away sleep: Loki was sitting on the floor, looking annoyed, with a table and the wreckage of a vase around him. "How d'you get up w'thout waking me?" Thor said, around a yawn.
"I had to turn myself into a snake and wriggle loose," Loki said, standing up and brushing himself off. "What use are you as a guard? Get up."
"You don't even need one, dolt, you're in the middle of Asgard," Thor said, rolling out of bed.
"Oh, and I'm the dolt," Loki said, and it was so like the old days, so like the way everything ought to have been, that Thor had to restrain the impulse to go and hug him. Only for a moment, however; then Loki had swept his cloak over his shoulders and put on his helm and picked up Gungnir, and Thor was reminded exactly how wrong everything was.
He followed Loki out of his chambers, wondering how long they had slept. There was a noise and a presence in the hallways of the citadel that told him the rest of the army had returned from Dregul, with whatever survivors they had managed to get out. As they drew near the great hall, Thor could hear an edge to the noise: a deep, rumbling anger.
Loki heard it also; or at least, he halted in the corridor and stood with his head tilted back in apparent thought, and then said, "Never mind, this way."
He about-faced and turned to a stairway leading down instead; after a minute Thor recognized it as the way to the libraries. He sighed, but at least he wasn't going to end up having to stand between Loki and the assembled legions of Asgard. Yet.
After nine hours in the library watching Loki read, Thor was bored enough that he was beginning to reconsider his preferences. He'd tried yelling at Loki a few times, but Loki had looked up and said, "By royal command, you will touch neither me nor the book nor the chair," and after that Thor could have set the rest of the library on fire—he'd considered it—and it wouldn't have made a difference; Loki could go so deep into a book that Thor wouldn't have been surprised to see him vanish and reappear inside the pages.
He put his head down on his arms on the table and dozed until the thump of Loki's six-inch tome landing directly beside his ear jolted him awake. "That should be long enough," Loki said, and didn't give Thor time enough to ask what for before sweeping out again, pausing only long enough, just outside the hall, to arrange his cloak and his helm. "Do try to keep someone from putting a spear through me."
"Try not to provoke more than three men that far at once," Thor said.
"I hate to make questionable promises; they're so inconvenient to get out of later on," Loki said, and reached out to touch Thor's forehead before he could lean away; a shimmer went through the air around them, and settled into the corners of his sight. "Don't get more than five paces away from me until I'm on the throne."
The hall was full of warriors ranting about Odin going mad and Thor along with him and their plans for Loki, the favorite of the moment being tying Loki to a stake and throwing him down the Bifrost to Dregul for the shining ones to deal with. Loki settled into the throne still under the illusion spell and propped his chin on one fist and kept listening, interestedly.
"This is dishonorable," Thor said. "You can stay under your spell if you like; I'm not going to sit here eavesdropping on men who think they—"
"What, are speaking in private confidences in a hall full of ten thousand people?" Loki said. "Fine, if you're that bored," and let the spell go; the ranting kept going for several minutes before men started noticing them and conversation slowly died away along the length of the hall.
"Don't stop now, Rotvargg," Loki said pleasantly. "You were saying something about my entrails?"
It went as well as Thor had expected, which was to say Loki managed to play the men in the hall off against one another for nearly an hour without anyone growing quite angry enough to come to blows with him; but then Sondi Dunnersson got to his feet and slammed his war-hammer on the table. "I have heard enough of the silver-tongued liar's words: if honey and poison could win a war, long should he reign! Thor Odinsson, no man here more than I would do you honor; gladly would I make my oath to you in the Allfather's place, yea, and ride to Valhalla by your side if the hour of our doom is come. But neither for love of you or loyalty to Odin will I bend the knee to this cringing get of a Jotun whore!"
Thor set his jaw grimly. Sondi was a good man; an honorable man and a brave warrior; and respected—he could see men nodding all around the hall in agreement. And Loki—damn Loki—was smiling, and opening his mouth to order Thor to—
"Good Sondi, shall we wager?" Loki said. Sondi spat comprehensively upon the table. "I will wager the throne against, oh, let's say—your beard, that you will bend the knee to me. Will you take my wager?"
"I swear that I—"
Loki cut him off. "I would not offer a wager that would mean your being forsworn, so save your oaths." He paused and smiled. "Here, I'll even make it more interesting. You'll bend the knee—within the hour. Or I will abdicate, and leave Asgard at once. My own oath upon it before these witnesses if you will take my wager. What do you say?"
Sondi hesitated—Gunther his brother, known to be a cunning man and hard with a bargain, was whispering in his ear—and then said, "If I freely bend the knee—"
"Yes, yes. I'm not wagering on my brother's strength," Loki said. "The choice will be yours."
Thor leaned over and gripped Loki by the arm. "What trick are you playing at now?" he hissed. "Have you had your pleasure making a mockery of us, and now you mean to flee Asgard for safety?"
Loki turned cold eyes on him, narrow. "Let go," he hissed back, venomously, and the collar tightened strangling-hot around Thor's throat. It was too late, anyway; Loki had given his oath, and Sondi was standing and saying, "I accept your wager, Loki Laufeyson! Your oath upon it, and mine!" and the mood in the hall had turned both baffled and pleased.
Loki turned back to Sondi, ignoring Thor's hand on his arm as though it wasn't there. "Agreed. Now, the rest of you, do make way for that page there; he's been trying to come to the dais for the last ten minutes."
Heads turned, and the men who had crowded around the throne with their spears and axes and wrath looked and made a path; the boy came panting through their ranks and came to the throne and knelt. Thor frowned: it was the page Loki had sent after Sif. "Yes, boy?" Loki said, in bored tones. "Out with it."
"The Lady Sif sends," the boy panted, "sends me to say, the shining ones have attacked on Alftaness."
The hall fell silent as though a spell had descended. Loki jerked against his hand, and Thor managed with an effort to relax his clenching grip before he broke the arm-bone.
The boy looked anxious and confused around the staring warriors around him, their naked blades all slowly drooping to the floor. "And?" Loki prompted.
"And—" the boy said, "and we are holding them at the rift, at Gljufur—" he had to raise his voice to be heard, "—but they come without end. She asks for more men—"
The noise of the hall was resurging louder than before, ten times louder, but it stilled again when Loki raised a hand.
"Well," Loki said, "unfortunately, there isn't a man left here who has taken oath to me, save my brother, and I'm afraid he has other work to do. And I don't think I can see my way clear to letting men not sworn to the throne of Asgard travel the Bifrost, so—"
"Loki!" Thor said.
Loki turned innocent eyes on him. "Yes, brother?"
"Enough games!" Thor said. "We have been fighting this war without hope; do you think there is any man here who will not swear?" He turned to the hall. "Do you still doubt my father's wisdom? Would he, or I, have made this choice otherwise? Swear your obedience and ride for Alftaness! And you can have Sondi's beard only when he has grown out its length again," he added to Loki, flatly.
"Must you spoil all my pleasure?" Loki said, as ten thousand warriors of Asgard knelt and swore him fealty.
And then he still wouldn't let Thor go with them.
Thor ground his teeth watching one thousand and seventeen men—Loki had insisted on exactly that number, without explanation, and had chosen the last seventeen by throwing grapes off the throne and sending whichever man he hit—ride out on the Bifrost to Alftaness. Without him.
Thor had managed to get the page alone and question the boy: the rift had opened on one bank of the river near the falls. They had never before been able to catch one opening: by the time the shining ones attacked, the rift was usually a gaping empty gash in the air miles wide, spewing out an endless horde of the enemy. This time, caught early, the rift had become a bottleneck serving them out in handfuls which might be slaughtered before they had a chance to widen their own passageway.
"From what he says, if I went, I alone might hold the way—" Thor argued, chasing Loki through the hallway back to his chambers. "Give me Fandral and Hogun and Volstagg to guard my back, the rest might return to Dregul—"
"Who cares about Dregul?" Loki said. "I have better things for you to do."
"Like wander the city dogging your heels?" Thor said.
"Exactly," Loki said, sweeping into his room. Thor swore under his breath and followed him in. The remains of their meal had been cleared, and the bed straightened; this time Loki looked around the room thoughtfully and began to rummage around the wardrobes and chests—there were dozens of them, more than anyone ought to have needed, and Thor noticed that even more of them seemed to appear as Loki shoved others around, which vanished in their turn.
Thor gave up on Dregul: even if Loki had agreed, and even if somehow they had managed to take back the world, there would be little left after the shining ones had been given free rein for so long upon it. But damn, he hated the idea that the warriors of Asgard were fighting anywhere while he sat idle. He thumped down on the bench at the foot of the bed. "Fine. Then tell me, how did you know they would attack on Alftaness? And at the river itself—how could you have known?"
"Lucky guess," Loki said, without taking his head out of the chest he was digging inside.
"The second Father awakens, I'm going to wring your neck," Thor growled, then jumped. "And I'm going to put this damn collar on you!"
"Don't be silly," Loki said. "It won't come off."
"What?" Thor said, and seized it with both hands, pulling with all his strength. The collar still felt like ordinary leather under his grip, but it didn't yield in the least even to his greatest effort. "Loki, you—"
"Isn't consent magic splendid?" Loki said. "Ah!" He sat back on his heels, coming out of the chest with a sheaf of musty old papers, crumbling at the corners with mold.
Thor got up, temporarily distracted from his initial plan of taking Loki and hanging him upside down off the vault tower until he took the collar off, and came to the table as Loki spread the papers out. They were written in his crabbed hand, letters so tightly knotted in with one another that it took Thor a good five minutes of trying before he realized that the pages weren't written in Norse at all. "What are these in?"
"Don't distract me," Loki said absently. He was walking over the pages with his long fingers, eyes intently fixed on the writing, and then he drew a large blank sheet out of the air with his hands and began to draw circles upon it, joined by lines, going from the musty notes and back to his new diagram regularly.
Thor watched him work; gradually the circles began to be labeled with names: Hrútsstaði, Kambsnes, Þrándargils, Rangárvöllum, worlds not yet struck. Only a few were heavily settled worlds; most indeed were only words on maps, just barely explored. Thor vaguely remembered Þrándargils: they'd gone there once together, with Sif and the Warriors Three; Loki had persuaded them to come with him to explore a distant new world only lately reached by the Bifrost. There had been nothing there but vast wet grasslands, stocked only by immense saurian creatures too big even to hunt. Thor had tried knocking one over with Mjölnir, and it had only wobbled and then looked down at him with so reproachful a look that he'd felt guilty and given up.
When Loki had finished drawing his chart, there were fifty worlds labeled upon it; he took it to the wall and fixed it there, then stood back from it in satisfaction.
"Well?" Thor said, bursting the shreds of self-restraint that had held him silent all the while. "Are you saying these are the worlds where they will strike next? We cannot send the army to fight on fifty worlds."
"Yes, that's true," Loki said thoughtfully. He picked up three letter-knives from a jar on the table, stood looking at his diagram a little while—and then he closed his eyes and threw. Thor stared as Loki went to the wall and peered at where his knives had fallen. "There we are! Kambsnes, Höskuldur, and Reykjardals. That's where we'll send the army."
"You threw darts!" Thor said.
"It's as good a way as any," Loki said.
Thor managed to keep Loki's face smothered in the pillows for a good ten minutes, but while that did prevent Loki ordering him to let go, it also prevented him yowling for mercy, which made the whole thing unsatisfying. Then Loki stopped squirming and just lay there beneath him, somehow conveying with the slope of his shoulders and the line of his back an attitude of patient tolerance with Thor's unreasonably juvenile behavior, which left Thor with only two options: letting him up or becoming a forsworn fratricide and regicide.
The choice was a painful one.
He wasn't any happier about it after Loki sent off the rest of the army divided into three and didn't let him go with any of them. The citadel was empty of all but the women and children and old men, refugees from their fallen worlds, who bedded down in whatever awkward corners could be found and sat silently at the lower tables; the higher tables were deserted. He ate alone with Loki, and drilled alone in an empty ring, and managed only once or twice a week to creep out along the Bifrost to speak with Heimdall, to hear that nothing had yet altered. Sif and her warriors were still fighting, still holding back the shining ones on Alftaness; the rest of the army had scattered across a dozen sites on each world where Loki had sent them, and stood their watches.
Three interminable weeks crept by. Loki spent nearly all the time reading books and occasionally tormenting Thor by dragging him along on rambling walks through the lower reaches of the citadel or out into the forests, loading him down like a pack mule with baskets of gathered herbs and roots that any maiden could have collected.
"The maidens are busy weaving bandages and the crones are tending to the wounded," Loki said. "It's important work."
Thor dumped the five baskets of acorns (each one perfect, with unmarked cap, harvested from the tree by hand—his hand) on the ground. "And this is useless time-wasting!" he roared.
Loki sighed. "Now you'll have to start all over again. They're no good once they've touched the ground."
Thor answered that as it deserved, and turned around and stalked back to the citadel, feeling killing rage rising off him like steam; the collar scrabbled and clawed pain at him, ignored. People looked at him startled and skittered out of his way, and he didn't notice the noise until he shoved open the doors to the great hall and stopped: the tables were full of men, shouting, laughing, as maidens carried horns of mead around.
"Thor!" Sif was there. Her hair was straggled around her face, and a smear of phosphorescent ichor clung to her cheek, and there was blood streaked on her thigh and her forearm. Her eyes were brilliant.
"What—" he said, and halted, his throat closed.
"The rift collapsed," she said, grinning savagely. "We have defeated them. Thor, we defeated them. They came and came, but we slew ten thousand of the things, and we did not lose a single man."
"Well, my lady Sif?" Loki's voice cut sharp through the noise, coming down from the throne, and she turned away and knelt at the base of the dais and said, "My king, we are returned victorious."
"Of course you are," Loki said. "Are you not warriors of Asgard?" and the hall roared out with wild cheering.
Thor walked dazed back to the royal chambers behind Loki, who had deserted the hall as soon as the celebration had properly begun, and had drawn him along with a tug to the collar. Thor sat down on the bed as Loki swept to the table and laid aside his helm and unfastened the cloak from around his throat. "I am sorry for dragging you away from the festivities," he said, his chin tilted up, "but really I cannot bring myself to endure listening to a thousand drunken warriors each reciting all the stories of valor they've pent up waiting for a victory over—what has it been, four years?"
Thor abruptly put his face in his hands and wept: a victory. He could hear the voices raised in triumph even here, even with the spells of silence Loki had put on his chamber; there was singing in the halls of Asgard again.
Loki had fallen silent; he held motionless a moment, and then Thor heard him cross the floor slowly to the bed, and felt him sit beside. He couldn't stop weeping. Loki twitched next to him a few times, and then he put a hand on Thor's arm, and Thor turned and crushed him into his arms and kissed his cheek, too full of joy and tears to speak.
He woke with Loki still pinned half beneath him; Loki's hand was in his hair stroking absently, and he was staring up at the ceiling with eyes that saw somewhere else; his garments were still crumpled and stained with tears. "How long have I slept?" Thor said, propping himself up and rubbing his face through a yawn; he felt as though he could move mountains. "Is there any news?"
"Only six days or so," Loki said. "They've attacked us on Reykjardals."
"Reykjardals?" Thor said. "Why didn't you wake me?"
Loki blinked at him as if the question were puzzling. "Why would I?" He reached out, and a handful of grapes floated themselves from a tray upon the table, over to his hand.
"No, you may not go," Loki said, sing-song. "You've already forgotten, what a shame."
"Forgotten what?" Thor said, glaring down at him.
"The acorns," Loki said patiently. "I still need them."
"You do not need them!" Thor said. "You only want to make my life a misery to me!"
"Is it working?" Loki said.
"Yes!" Thor said.
"Then you shouldn't expect me to stop, if you think it my goal," Loki said in reasonable tones. "And I order you not to lay hands on me," he added. "Let me get up."
Thor rolled away onto his back and folded his arms. "I may as well stay here, then, as I'm not needed anywhere more important."
"Pouting is very unbecoming, brother," Loki said. "Here, let's see where we'll send the men from Alftaness." He sprang out of the bed and picked up another letter-knife to throw at his chart: "Ah! Breiðá. Have you ever been to Breiðá?"
"Yes!" Thor said, getting up out of bed. "Walrus hunting. Will you let—"
"Get me my acorns and then we'll see," Loki said, reaching for his helm. He turned away for the door, and behind his back Thor hesitated, and then snatched the moldy papers from the table where they had been pushed into a corner.
"Fine," he said, loudly, stuffing the papers into his belt under his cloak before he followed Loki out into the hall. He knew perfectly well that bringing Loki his damned acorns wasn't going to get him sent anywhere; unless of course there wasn't going to be any fighting there, and he'd end up sitting on an ice floe in the middle of the ocean watching walruses fuck and fight for a year.
"Ah," said old Skeggi, peering at the pages. Then he said nothing more for several minutes.
"Can you read it?" Thor prompted.
"Ah!" Skeggi said again. Then he added slowly, "The letters have been written mirror-fashion."
"Yes, but can you read it?" Thor said.
Skeggi paused and fumbled in his desk, bringing out a great lens, which he laid upon the page and bent down to look through with one eye. "Come back later," he said after a few moments.
The collar made its little biting summons. Thor sighed and went back to the great hall, deserted again now that Loki had sent on all the warriors returned from Alftaness. Sif had caught him before leaving. "Be careful," she'd said.
"Are you joking?" he said sourly.
"No," she said. "How did he know where they would strike? Twice now he has caught them, where before not Odin himself was able to predict. And since he does know where they will come, why does he spread all the warriors of Asgard across many worlds, and keep you, our strongest, here?"
"To torment me, as you know well," Thor said.
"And if there is another reason?" she said. "For now, Loki relies upon you to keep him on his throne—if you did not back him, he would surely be flung down. But a few more victories like this one, and the men will begin to cleave to him for true."
"Do you think me so small that I would rather see Asgard destroyed than ruled by another?" Thor said. "If Loki can save us, I would gladly follow him."
"But why should he be able to save us?" she said. "He is not wiser than Odin; he is not a greater magician."
"I cannot say that is true, anymore," Thor said slowly. "Our father has grown old, and he is weary; and Loki has long been secretive about his studies. If he has uncovered some scrap of knowledge, made some researches that let him anticipate our foe—"
"Or if he is directing—" she said, before he covered her mouth with his hand.
"Enough, Sif," he said. "He is our king, now, and such words are treason, if you speak without proof. And," he added, when he saw her eyes grow stormy, "I do not believe it. He is wrathful, and bitter, and half-mad; but he is not wholly depraved; he would not set loose such creatures on our people."
When he took away his hand, she did not try again to make the suggestion, but shook her head. "I will not argue; but I mislike leaving you here with no one to guard your back. Have a care, Thor."
Well: he was determined anyway to work out how Loki knew where the shining ones would attack next. Their targets had never made any sense—and still didn't—but somehow Loki was predicting it. And not with darts, either. Thor came into the great hall and walked down its empty length: it was late, and all the refugees were asleep; all the warriors gone. Loki was sprawled sideways over the throne with a book and another apple in his hand, with a second lying in the curve of his stomach; Thor stole it and sat down on the top step with his back to the throne, taking a bite.
"Did you steal these, too?" he said.
"Idunn was moved to relieve my fatigue," Loki said loftily. He did look better: less gaunt, and his eyes were brighter. Idunn had never been particularly generous to him before; Loki made too much of a habit of stealing the apples whenever she wasn't looking, and almost always preferred using them in spells and potion-brewery to eating them. "It's been a good harvest, I understand."
"Yes," Thor said. "It's been four good harvests." As though Asgard had been trying to give them every last golden moment that it could, before the end, he'd felt. "Loki, will they strike on Breiðá?"
"Not until we've closed the rift on Kambsnes, I would imagine," Loki said, polishing off his apple with a couple more bites.
"They haven't attacked on Kambsnes," Thor said.
"Oh, did I forget to mention?" Loki said, yawning.
Thor held still. "Yes," he said, proud of his restraint. "You did."
"They've attacked on Kambsnes," Loki said.
Thor stalked back into Skeggi's workroom two hours later, after chasing Loki all over the citadel through seventeen different forms and three walls, which he'd smashed while Loki was in vole shape and hiding inside them. He slammed Mjölnir down on the table. "Have you reversed the letters yet?"
"Ah, yes," Skeggi said absently, and held out the sheaf of papers without looking up. He had a new and clean copy before him instead, letters disentangled and facing in the right directions now.
"So what does it say?" Thor said.
"I cannot say," Skeggi said. "It is encoded with a most unusual cipher."
Of course it was. "How long until you can break it?" Thor demanded.
"Come back in a few days," Skeggi said.
Before then, the Bifrost opened, and two thousand men came streaming back from Reykjardals flushed with victory. Not even the burning heat of resentment could dim Thor's joy. "I don't care how you know," he told Loki that night drunkenly, crawling into the bed; Loki had crept from the hall early on again.
"Of course you don't," Loki said, without taking his head from under the pillow. "You do realize anyone could have come in and murdered me the last seven hours. Go and bathe, you reek of vomit."
"S'a good party," Thor said, and belched hugely before he flung his arm over Loki's chest and went to sleep.
In the morning, he regretted both the last three tankards of ale and the hasty words. Loki had woken him just before noon and dragged him out to the woods to gather the acorns again while the sun blazed down on his aching head. By the end of that excursion, Thor was ready to believe that Loki was depraved enough to be the master of the shining ones.
He let Loki get ahead of him in the corridor when they returned, and then darted down a side passage and went to Skeggi's workroom, limping: he'd stumbled over at least two dozen tree roots he was sure hadn't been there when he'd stepped. "Have you broken the code?" he said without even a greeting.
"Yes," Skeggi said.
"Finally," Thor said.
"Alas—" Skeggi said.
Thor groaned and covered his face.
"It is written in a tongue unknown to me," Skeggi said. "I believe it may be an invented language. Very intriguing. In a week or two—"
Thor stalked away down the corridors to catch Loki up, and just around the corner from the bedchambers, the collar blazed suddenly with heat. "You goat-livered poxheaded bastard, I'm going to tie your entrails in knots!" Thor bellowed and charged down the hall, boiling. He rounded the corner to find Loki fighting desperately with only a pair of knives, helm knocked off, an enchanted net entangling one arm, and eight warriors of Hothur's clan surrounding him.
"What are you idiots doing?" Thor roared, and ripped three of them off Loki with one hand, flinging them down the corridor behind him; he swung Mjölnir gently and knocked two more through the wall, where they lay in the rubble groaning. Loki tore the net from his arm and flung magic at the rest, flashing strands of light coiling around their limbs and tripping them onto their faces.
"And stay down there," Thor said, "unless you want me to crack your skulls for you. Hothur, have you and your kinsmen lost your minds? For the first time in four years, we have hope—"
"Better all of us should die and Asgard perish in fire than this Jotun cuckoo should rule us!" Hothur said, staggering up out of the rubble of the wall. He spat blood in Loki's direction.
"He is your king!" Thor said. "You swore—"
"To be fair," Loki said, leaning against the wall heavily, panting; there was blood trickling down from a rent in his sleeve, "they were very careful not to be in the hall during the oath-taking."
"Then they'll swear now," Thor said.
"I will not," Hothur said.
"They'll swear now or die," Thor amended, coldly.
Hothur snorted. "You would kill me and my sons, Thor Odinsson, because we would not see you supplanted?"
"Which of you has suffered more injury at my brother's hands than I have?" Thor demanded. "Which of you has more right than I to object to having him on the throne?" He seized Hothur by the chest strap of his sword-belt and hauled him forward, and thrust him down to his knees in front of Loki. "For the good of Asgard, at my father's command, I have sworn my loyalty; and so too will you, Hothur, or yes: I will slay you as a traitor, if that is what you force me to do."
Hothur hesitated, wavering and off-balance on his knees, and Thor grimly readied himself: he'd known it might come to this from the beginning. Loki had offended too many men, warriors juice-full of pride, who had disliked him even before the truth of his nature had been known; he had never answered dislike openly, but with subtle sly torments that insulted even as they injured. There were men in Asgard who would face death cheerfully not only for themselves but for their kindred before they would withstand a slight to their honor; and Hothur was one of them.
Hothur straightened, and Thor gripped Mjölnir, and Loki said, "No."
"What?" Thor said. Loki came away from the wall, and stood in front of Hothur.
"I said no," Loki said. "It scarcely makes Hothur unique that he hates me; the only difference between him and half the men in the great hall is that he is brave enough to die. And we will need every last brave man in Asgard before the end of this war." He looked down at Hothur. "I do not demand your loyalty, or even my safety at your hands, Hothur. What I do require is merely a promise of your obedience—so long as the shining ones threaten Asgard."
He smiled his thin hatchet-smile and added, "And after that, you can come after me in a back alley somewhere, when I no longer have my brother to shield me. Which would improve your chances of success considerably. Well?"
Hothur scowled up at him, and then he lurched to his feet again, and spat on the floor in front of Loki. "Very well, Jotun freak. While the war lasts. And when it is over, you will pay for having dared to put yourself above true warriors of Asgard." He threw Thor a last cold look, and jerked his head to his kinsmen; they limped down the hall and away.
Thor watched them go, and looked back at Loki.
"When I command you to guard me," Loki said cuttingly, "I don't in fact mean sneak away while my back is turned so I can be taken unaware and murdered by eight lumbering idiots." He whirled and stalked off down the hall in the opposite direction.
"What did you mean by that?" Thor said, following him, frowning. "When you no longer have me to shield you—"
"You said it yourself," Loki said over his shoulder. "When the war is over, and Odin awakes, I will of course be disposable again. After all, neither he nor you would ever choose to have me on the throne." Thor barely remembered what Loki was talking about: he'd said it in passing, weeks ago, and anyway, what did Loki expect? That anyone would want to hand over the throne to him, after he'd betrayed them all, lied and sneaked and tried his hand at every crime from thievery to murder?
"That doesn't mean I'd let that fool Hothur and his kinsmen murder you in some alleyway," Thor said. "Nor that you'd need to flee from Asgard and hide yourself again."
"Yes, because I'd so enjoy remaining here, among such good friends," Loki said. "I do realize it would be inconvenient if I were to get myself killed before the next time Father or you need to take me off the shelf to use, but you'll just have to endure the risk."
"Loki—" Thor said, exasperated. "What, would you rather go and live in another rathole on Midgard?"
At the entrance to his chamber, Loki paused without looking around, his hands resting on the wood. "I would rather live in Niflheim among the rotting corpses of the dead," he said, soft and bitter as ash. "Guard the door. I prefer to be alone."
He slammed it shut behind him. Thor stood outside with the carved faces grinning back at him in sly mockery, as if to say you handled that splendidly, didn't you. He slowly let himself slide down the opposite wall, feeling a strange and unaccustomed wretchedness: as though he were watching Loki slip from his grasp all over again.
He jerked awake in the morning when the servants brought the breakfast tray, and followed them into the room: Loki was bright-eyed and cheerful as though nothing had happened last night, and even ate a handful of grapes and a piece of cheese. "Shall we see where the men from Reykjardals are going?" he said, and picked up the cheese knife; Thor rolled his eyes and threw a peach pit as the knife flew, knocking it off course. It landed on the very edge of the chart, barely pinning one circle.
"Leifstokk, really?" Loki said. "I wouldn't have thought so, but there you have it. Give the order." He picked up another bunch of grapes to eat.
"What—but—it only landed on Leifstokk because I threw that stone!" Thor said.
Loki looked at him as though he were the madman. "The knives only landed on Kambsnes and Reykjardals because I threw them. What difference does it make?"
Thor gawked at him. "You know where they're going to attack!"
"Why would I be throwing darts if I knew where they were going to attack?" Loki said.
"I have no damned idea!" Thor roared. "I have no idea why you do anything!"
"I don't think it's very fair of you to shout at me for that," Loki said, injured. He looked to the door and called, "Enter!" as another page came in panting his news: a rift had opened on Höskuldur.
"It wasn't right where they kept watch, sire," the boy said, "so it opened wider: they ask for reinforcements—"
"They'll have to hold alone until we've defeated them on Kambsnes," Loki said, then paused and looked at Thor and said thoughtfully, "Unless—"
Thor seized Mjölnir, forgetting that he'd been about to use it to beat in Loki's skull. "I'll go at once—"
"No, no," Loki said. "We'll send the men from Reykjardals to reinforce them. You will have to go to Leifstokk."
"I don't want to go to Leifstokk!" Thor said. "They're not going to attack on Leifstokk!"
"Why wouldn't they?" Loki said. "It makes as much sense as attacking a backwater cesspit like Höskuldur."
"Because—" Thor stopped; why was he even bothering? "Aren't you worried someone else will try to kill you?" he demanded, switching arguments.
"Not once I've sent all the other warriors away," Loki said. "Yes, in fact, I order you to go to Leifstokk. You can keep watch by the city gate of Merenna."
"Can we stay here and watch you fight when they attack, Mighty Thor?" the little girl asked, with huge eyes, peering down at him from over the edge of the city walls. Thor hadn't trusted himself to have civil conversation with anyone, so rather than stay in the city, he'd taken up his stupid and pointless post outside, but some of the local children had stolen out onto the ramparts to watch him.
By the third day, they started bringing their own little weapons to show him: knives and hand-axes, mostly rough-hewn and handmade; there were few cities under Asgard's rule where even the children had not been armed, by now. They were so enthusiastically brave that Thor had not the heart to disappoint them by telling them that if there was one place in all the worlds of Asgard's realm safe from attack by the shining ones, this was certainly it; so instead he looked over the weapons and gave them critique; showed them how to wrap the leather of the dagger-hafts more tightly, how to properly sharpen the edges.
It soothed his temper, and so eventually did the absence of Loki's constant harassment; the collar lay quiescent upon his throat. And after all, if he was only going to be kept idle and not allowed to fight, Leifstokk was as good a place to be as Asgard: better, even, once he taught the younger children to keep watch in threes, and could begin to train some of the older ones in their weapons. He had often thought that they should send some of the warriors of Asgard out to the smaller provinces, to seek out any children with a gift for war-craft, and spread more widely the martial arts.
"Thor," little Greta said, running into the practice ring while he was drilling her older cousin Mikkel, in perfect disregard of their moving blades, "Thor—"
"Greta," he said sternly, catching Mikkel's blade in his hand, "what have I told you, of entering the ring when warriors are fighting?"
"I know, but they are here!" she said. "We drew lots and I won, so I got to come and tell you: come and see!"
Thor sighed and went to see: a rainbow perhaps, or a low-lying cloud, or perhaps some dust kicked up by a mule-train.
"See!" Greta said triumphantly, pulling him to the gate. "There."
Thor stared at the queasily shimmering light that hung in the air, just outside the gate, the streaks of dark and color that played over its surface. "But—" he said aloud. "But—"
Greta was looking up at him, anxious and suddenly uncertain. "That is them, Thor, isn't it?"
A groping translucent arm, strangely jointed and too-long, emerged creeping from the rift, feeling out its edges like a man in the dark. At the sight of it, Thor jerked out of his utter bafflement and caught Greta by the shoulder, bending down. "It is: now listen to me, little one. Go and run to the center square of town and call to Heimdall to open the Bifrost to you: and when it has opened, you will go and tell the King yourself that the rift has opened here. Can you do it? Can all of you go help her, and see the Bifrost opens?" he added, looking around at the other children.
"I can! Oh, I can!" she cried, pale with delight, and flung herself headlong towards the square; the others ran after her, and Thor gripped Mjölnir and flung himself over the city wall, to stand and face the opening rift.
It wasn't like any of the other battles he'd had, against the shining ones: surrounded on all sides, an endless sea of heaving misshapen bodies that made no sense, fighting and fighting without respite or any sense of movement either forward or back; this time, the rift constrained them, so they could not come at him more than three or four at a time.
The people of Leifstokk were farmers and merchants, not warriors, but there were still some brave enough to come out with pitchforks and stand on his flanks, herding the shining ones towards him; and others who brought him drinking horns and food. If he needed rest, he only had to fight them back to the rift and stand directly by it, smiting any clutching limb or tendril that reached through. He laughed, the first time he paused so, after a few days of easy fighting: this he could do forever if need be, to protect Leifstokk, to protect Asgard.
Four days into the battle, Fandral suddenly appeared on his left, and Hogun on his right, and Volstagg with them pressing a horn of honey-sweet mead into his hand. Thor drained it dry in a single pull and grinned at them. "What kept you?" he said, tossing the horn away over his shoulder, and smashing down a couple of shining ones who had taken the opportunity to leap for his throat.
"Only mopping them up on Kambsnes," Fandral said, his swords already flashing, "and then Loki sent for us and said you were taking an unconscionably long time here, so we ought to come and speed things along. Shall we let a few more of them out, do you think?"
Thor laughed and said, "Let them come a hundred at a time," and they stood back long enough to let the shining ones open up the rift a little further.
It took another week, and then abruptly, with one monstrous shining one halfway through, the rift collapsed with the speed of a punctured balloon: the twisted bulging shape fell to the ground writhing in its death throes as its entrails spilled around it, and the rift in the air darkened and vanished as though it had never been.
"Feeling better?" Loki said, when Thor marched back into the great hall—still empty—with his friends by his side. Loki wrinkled his nose as Thor mounted to the throne. "Perhaps you might consider a celebratory bath."
"I sluiced off at Merenna well," Thor said. "How did you do that?"
"Do what?" Loki said, tilting an innocent gaze up at him.
"How did you make them come to Leifstokk?" Thor said.
"Sif's theory sounding a little more plausible every minute?" Loki said, and Thor stared at him. Loki smiled thin-lipped. "Sif was always the cleverest of all of you."
"Are you saying you are—"
"No," Loki said. "Of course, if I were controlling them, I certainly wouldn't admit it, which does leave you with something of a conundrum." He stood, sweeping the cloak back from his sides with his hands, and looked into Thor's eyes: his own were mirrors, unreadable, and then he turned and walked away. "I do insist on the bath, brother," his voice floated back over his shoulder as he vanished into the shadows at the base of the dais.
His friends joined him around the throne. "Do you really think...?" Fandral said, glancing at him.
"I don't know," Thor said, staring after Loki. "But how else? Leifstokk was utterly random. Why would the shining ones have showed up there, if Loki didn't send them?"
"Loki has not been well," Hogun said, after a moment, "and even before—" he didn't need to say before what, "—he oft delved into dark magicks, at times with consequences he himself did not intend."
The gates to the great hall opened, and Thor turned to see men pouring in: the army returning from Kambsnes and Höskuldur and Breiðá, roaring with victory; and Sif was in the lead.
"So he's not controlling them," Sif said, after they'd told her about Leifstokk.
"What?" Thor said.
"Well, if he were, he wouldn't have sent them to Leifstokk," Sif said. They stared at her. "Why would he send them there?" she demanded. "It makes him look guilty." She paused. "Though I cannot understand why they should have come there, then," she admitted.
They all sat puzzling. Fandral ventured, after a moment, "What if he sent them there, knowing that would make him look guilty, and so we would think he wasn't controlling them—"
"But we did think he was controlling them," Volstagg said. "Until just now, when Sif said—"
"Yes, but he knew we would talk to Sif," Fandral said.
They all thought about that, and then Volstagg said, "But wouldn't he know that you'd think that he knew we'd talk to Sif—"
"Enough!" Thor said, and stood up. "If we must unravel the tangled thread of my brother's thoughts to understand this mystery, we never will. Let's go see Skeggi. By now he ought to have made some headway on those papers."
"Yes," Skeggi said, when they had pried him out of his new book. "The language was not wholly new: an obscure dialect of northern Alfheim, with loanwords from several different tongues of Midgard, transliterated into the formal characters of the high speech of Vanaheim, which produces a most efficient script—"
"So what does it say?" Thor interrupted.
"That, you must judge for yourself," Skeggi said, and handed him a thick sheaf of pages, nearly five times the size of the original set.
Thor tried to read through the first few pages. Then tried again; then checked to make sure the pages were in sequence—they were—and tried once more. There were words, and most of them he knew, but they didn't seem to make any sense following one after another. "What is this?" he demanded, handing the pages on to Sif; she and Hogun and Fandral bent their heads over them.
"I am a scholar, not a sorcerer," Skeggi said. "But from my imperfect understanding, it would seem to be a rough treatise on the mechanics of advanced intraplanar travel by magic. Quite unpolished of course: no citations, and no evidence; it is certainly not rigorous enough for publication. Nevertheless, an impressive work—"
"Advanced intraplanar travel?" Fandral said.
"What if he's not controlling the shining ones?" Sif said, slowly. "What if he's only controlling the rifts?"
"If you are referring to space-time rifts," Skeggi said, peering at her owlishly, "the energy required to produce and maintain a directed rift across any length of time is directly related to the quantity of mass traveling that rift."
They all stared at him blankly. Skeggi sniffed. "In other words," he said, "a rift traveled by a single individual requires only little energy to maintain: a solitary sorcerer might manage it, if both skilled and powerful. A rift traveled by an army of ten thousand would require some extraordinary source of power. Rifts are most inefficient means of travel: it is why the Bifrost was established, and why it gives Asgard so great an advantage among the realms."
"But then how are the shining ones making their rifts?" Thor said. "They haven't sorcerers, so far as we have seen—"
Skeggi shrugged. "I cannot say. You must consult a scholar who has made a particular study of rifts and rift energy."
"Where can we find one?" Sif said.
"Why, I know of none in Asgard," Skeggi said, "save whoever wrote that treatise."
Thor spent the evening waiting for Loki to slip away from the great feast, so of course Loki seated himself at the head of the high table and stayed, sending horns of mead to particular warriors to single them out and induce them to stand and recount their deeds, each of which he turned into a verse on the spot. At dawn he rose and recited the entire poem to thunderous cheering, set off elaborate magical fireworks above the tables, and sneaked away in the smoke. By the time Thor realized he was gone—well, he'd been drinking along with everyone else, of course—and chased him back to his chambers, Loki was fast asleep.
In the morning, Loki was already gone when he awoke, and when Thor reached the great hall he found men lumbering groggily off to the Bifrost: Loki had commanded all the army to be deployed to Wittgard.
"We don't want the men lying around getting bored and lazy," Loki said, lounging horizontally across the throne; he was nibbling at one of Idunn's apples again: a splendid one, nearly burnished gold and with a smell like a perfect summer's day. He held it out at arm's length with a dissatisfied expression. "Not to be ungrateful to dear Idunn, but I don't see why we must always be eating them fresh."
Thor, who had been trying to think of a way to ask Loki about rifts that might get a useful answer back, was distracted. "How would you want to eat them?" he said, baffled: Idunn's apples were a treasure.
"Oh, I don't know. Why not in a pie, every once in a while," Loki said.
"—pie?" Thor said.
"The thing they make on Midgard, with the pastry—"
"I know what pie is!" Thor said. "Pie is wonderful, but—"
"Or dried!" Loki said, sitting up with sudden enthusiasm. "That's what I'd like. Go and tell Idunn and her maidens I want them to make dried apples."
Thor stared at him. "I'm not telling Idunn that. You can tell her."
"In fact," Loki went on, ignoring him, "I want her to dry all the apples. Have them chop up the entire harvest—the entire store, for that matter."
"The entire—" Thor stopped and folded his arms. "This is one of those things like the damned acorns, isn't it?"
"Orders that for some inexplicable reason you seem to think are optional?" Loki said.
"Orders that you are giving only to make yourself look more mad than you already are," Thor said, "and conceal your true intent. Loki, I know that you have learned something about the way the shining ones use the rifts for travel—"
"You know very little, and understand less," Loki said, nastily. "Now go and tell Idunn my orders."
"There are a hundred storehouses full of Idunn's apples," Thor said, unable not to protest even while he knew himself a fool for arguing. "If they did carve them all to your desire, there is nowhere even where they might lay them out."
"We'll close the highway from the citadel to Mount Dorenn," Loki said. "They can lay them out on the grass along the road."
"Twenty thousand travelers go that way each day!" Thor said.
"Thirty thousand, actually," Loki said, "since the toll was removed twenty years ago; they'll just have to go by the coast instead."
"You're getting tiresome," Loki said. "Never mind. Go to Wittgard and change places with Sif. She's not afraid of Idunn."
Thor opened his mouth to argue and then paused. "Wait," he said suspiciously. "Sif is in command of the army."
"She was, now you are," Loki said. "Happy?"
He'd desperately wanted the command back for every minute of the last three months. Thor glared at Loki. "No!"
Of course, after Leifstokk, Thor couldn't even assume that nothing would happen, so instead he spent every day pacing the breadth of his small headquarters, watching the air in every direction intently. There were no decisions to be made. Loki had specified every encampment: a thousand men in each one, at such a location, at such distance from the others, their hours of watch. Thor was nothing more than a nursemaid, sitting about and waiting.
And waiting, and waiting, for near a week, and still nothing: no rift opened, no attack came. He began to go from one encampment to the other each hour only to have something to do, and after the third, something about it began to nag at him out of his memory. He kept walking to let it surface, and at the seventh he remembered: the war against Gorunheim, when he had been a young warrior, and all the army had been deployed. Odin had ordered all the men to form into small battalions of a thousand men, on the plain of Dorenn—because only so many could be sent across the Bifrost at once.
Thor went back to his headquarters and looked at the watch rotation: each encampment offset by fifteen minutes, exactly as in the Gorunheim deployment. There was no attack coming here. They were waiting to be sent elsewhere.
He slammed down the schedule and went outside and roared, "Heimdall! Open the Bifrost to me." He was going to get answers out of Loki. Or rather, he wasn't, but he was at least going to yell at Loki for a while and feel better after.
There was no reply. The Bifrost remained closed. "Heimdall!" Thor shouted again. Silence. The night was still.
Thor stood in the center of his encampment, feeling the warriors' eyes anxious upon him: they had heard him call, they had seen no answer. "Hogun," Thor said finally, "let every encampment go on alert. Every man is to have his weapons ready to hand. Let them know we will be deploying by the Bifrost elsewhere soon, and to battle."
Then he sat down on a rock and watched the sky, waiting for the bridge to open.
The summons came six hours later: the sky shuddered and yawned open, and Thor stood and had a thousand men around him, ready, at once. The Bifrost pulled them through, and Thor looked up at Heimdall, Mjölnir in his hand. "Where are we fighting, Heimdall? Where have they attacked?"
"Here," Heimdall said savagely: his eyes were ablaze with fury, and his sword trembled even as it held the Bifrost, with his rage. "They have entered Asgard itself. And Thor," he added, "he opened the way for them."
"Who?" Thor said.
"Loki," Heimdall said. "He summoned me to the citadel and sealed me by sorcery into a chamber to keep me from reaching you with the Bifrost. But he did not even bother to conceal what he did from my sight. He went to the plains of Dorenn and opened a rift with his own hand, and let them into Asgard. I have only now won free to bring you back."
Thor stared at him in horror, and then he said, "Bring the army across as swiftly as you may, Heimdall, and then join me! We must keep them from the citadel."
"The citadel's defenses have been raised," Heimdall said. "They have struck across the plains towards the passes of Mount Dorenn itself." The passes which led to the great and rich farmland valleys where millions of lives waited to slake the hunger of the shining ones: undefended, unprepared, sheltered only in cots and farmholds.
"Go, Thor," Heimdall said, already turning back to the Bifrost. "I will come when I have brought all the army back across."
Thor led Hogun and Fandral and Volstagg and the rest of his thousand men across the bridge and past the citadel: the shimmering wall of magic which surrounded it was the only comfort to his burning heart. He had allowed this; he had given Loki the command, and even when suspicion had begun to touch him, he had let Loki distract him; he had closed his eyes and trusted Asgard to a poisoned mind.
They rounded the citadel and came onto the plains of Dorenn, and Thor nearly wept with horror: the shining ones were so many they stretched without end. The rift which had brought them here was visible but already collapsing, and it did not matter: there were more of them here than Thor had ever seen before. For some reason they had cleaved to the highway, perhaps for the easier terrain: as a hideous and seething mass they were marching, marching steadily onward, and Loki had let them in.
Thor raised Mjölnir and roared wordlessly in challenge. He flung himself into the air and at the back of their force, smashing into three towering monsters at once, creatures which looked almost like twisted and misshapen trees with many-branched arms and dozens of clutching clawing hands. He brought them down into the mass of smaller creatures, and struck again until they died; he whirled away and slew another four. By then Fandral and Hogun had caught up with him, and more of the shining ones were dying, all around them.
More and more of the army came, and Thor began to split off the men into lines to flank the army of the shining ones. The creatures were so intent on their waiting feast that they did not even bother to turn around; they did not break their mass. They marched onward, turning only when attacked directly, and died. Grimly Thor raised Mjölnir again and again, slew and slew; he wiped ichor from his eyes and thought not of thirst or hunger for himself: but soon, he knew, he would have to start to spell the other men, to send them perhaps to the citadel for supply—
"Thor," Fandral said, fighting to his side, and pressed something into his hand: small and sticky. "Eat it!" Fandral shouted, as the tides of battle swept them apart; Thor put it to his mouth and felt the startling sweetness of the apple break on his tongue even as he cut down another bestial creature with his next blow.
He swung Mjölnir around to open up a little room, and caught Fandral again. "Have you any more? Can you spread it to the men in the front rank—"
"There's heaps of them," Fandral said.
"What?" Thor said, and looked: the shining ones were marching along the highway to Dorenn, and beside the road, laid out on crisp white sheets under the sun of Asgard, all the harvest of Idunn's orchards for four years lay neatly sliced and waiting.
Thor stood in the midst of the battle a moment unable to speak or act; and then he bellowed out loud, "Loki, when I find you I am going to tie you to a rock and hang a serpent above you to drip poison in your eyes, so you know how it damn well feels!"
Then he sent runners to the head of each battalion, and they began to go one at a time to the apples, to eat; each man coming back not only refreshed but healed of all his hurts, strengthened and renewed. Thor began to press the pace: despair had lifted, and he did not need to fear driving the men past where they could fight. And all the while the shining ones still had not broken ranks; as though their mindlessness had seized upon a new idea, and they could not release it even as they were being slaughtered.
Mount Dorenn was growing larger in his sight, and the day was waning: as darkness fell behind the mountains, Thor raised his eyes and saw in the distance far up the mountaintop flashes of magical fire, at the front of the glimmering horde. "Yes, that is Loki," Heimdall said, when next they were fighting together. "Sif is with him; they draw near to the summit and they are hard-pressed: if they must fight from lower ground, they will be overrun."
"Damn," Thor said, and beckoned Fandral. "Heimdall, I need you to take the command here," he said. "Fandral, get Hogun and Volstagg. We must go and hold them at the summit pass."
Together Thor led the four of them like an arrowhead through the mass of the army: running alongside where they could, fighting their way through when they could not; the shining ones still marched onward, and did not turn to hamper them. Thor leaped into the air and flew ahead at the last, and reached the crest of the pass even as a shining one like a misshapen many-legged mammoth reared up and smashed Loki down with a foreleg, and Sif flung herself bodily in front of him to take the next blow.
He plunged from aloft and drove through the creature's entire body, Mjölnir leading. He landed before Sif and Loki dripping ichor, then turned and smashed the monster's carcass back with another blow into the front ranks of the shining ones, driving them back. He reached down and heaved Loki to his feet, shaking him for stupidity, though not as hard as he truly wished: Loki was bleeding freely from a cut upon his forehead, and his eyes were blown.
He gripped Thor's arm and said hoarsely, "Can you win? The rest of them—if they fight, can you—" He choked to silence, swaying, and his eyes went blind and unfocused abruptly.
Thor looked down the mountain slope, and realized that the vast inhuman mass of the shining ones had been carved down to a fraction of itself. Down upon the plains of Dorenn, the ranks of the army had nearly reached the foot of the mountain, and a great phosphorescent slaughter lay upon the road behind them. All that remained of them was a force perhaps ten thousand strong—great, yes, but not beyond their strength; in this narrow pass, Thor could hold them, while the army advanced upon them from behind.
"Yes," Thor said. "We can win. Loki—" But Loki had given a single sigh, and was dead weight sagging from his grip, his eyes rolled back into his head. Sif caught his other arm, and abruptly the shining ones were surging up towards them in a furious rush, limbs thrashing, as though they had been set loose. Thor had to drop Loki the rest of the way to the ground and fight furiously with a single mind to keep from being overrun, until Hogun and Fandral and Volstagg managed to reach their side and help to block the pass.
Killing the last ten thousand took as long as the slaughter of the first hundred thousand. The shining ones had shaken free of whatever hold Loki had managed to keep upon them; they fought with all their usual mindless savagery, but the mountain pass kept them pent, and even without the apples, the men fought on with dedication and energy seeing victory so near to their grasp.
When the last one had been slain, Thor came down from the mountain top, stained head to foot with their ichor, and went to the citadel: he plunged into the baths and flung his garments into the fire, and then he went to the healing chamber.
Sif looked up from Loki's bedside, weary-eyed; she had taken grave injury herself, defending him, and her arm was yet wrapped tight in bandages. "I don't know how he did it," she said, low, as they sat and watched Loki sleep. "He cast no spell that I saw, save to open the rift and then to close it. But you saw the way they marched, the way they fought—"
"Yes," Thor said.
"He was—he seemed half-mad, or fey, as we fought," Sif said. "He tried to send me away several times, and once even struck at me—and, Thor, once—I was fighting, I might not have seen it clearly, but—I thought once he nearly turned his blade on himself."
Loki showed no signs of rousing all that day and the next, and the healers shook their heads when they came by. Thor drowsed by the bed, waking only to see that Loki yet slept; until finally he asked.
"I cannot tell you," the healer said. "There is no physical cause why he should sleep; therefore he sleeps for other cause, and that is beyond my arts. We can try a draught to rouse him, but such things are perilous: better to let him wake from within."
Another day and night passed. Heimdall watched all the worlds of Asgard's realm, and the shining ones had not yet struck again; the field of slaughter little by little was being cleared and the corpses raised into mounds at the base of the mountain, to be covered over and left barren; nothing would grow where they lay. But Loki did not stir. Thor at last yielded to temptation and tried surreptitiously to jostle him awake; it had no effect that he could see, but the collar at his throat twitched a little.
"This is a magic unknown to me," the healer said, studying the collar disapprovingly. "If it holds a connection which might permit access to his mind, I cannot see it."
Thor tried Skeggi, who glanced at the collar once and said, "Yes, a Jotun binding-collar. But it is not sealed."
"The hell it isn't," Thor said. "It won't come off."
"Precisely," Skeggi said. "After the binding is sealed, the collar becomes purely decorative and may then be removed. Then, of course, the bound partners can perceive one another's minds, and—"
"Wait, what?" Thor said. "Perceive—I could read Loki's mind? How do I perform the sealing?"
Skeggi blinked at him. "There are a variety of rituals. Consent and sexual congress are the only required—"
"What?" Thor said.
"Childbearing is not required, of course," Skeggi said reassuringly. "Although perhaps due to the confluence of mystical energies it often results—"
"Never mind," Thor said, speechless. Except of course Loki would put a sex collar on him. Wretch.
"I do suppose that theoretically, a degree of communication might be established before the sealing," Skeggi said, after consideration. "With proper concentration—"
Thor spent the rest of the day trying to think at Loki and feeling a fool as he did so; the collar twitched now and again, and a few times grew either warm or hot, but nothing more. Thor finally put his head down on the bed to drowse for a little while, and the collar brushed Loki's fingers where they lay upon the coverlet. Loki murmured. Thor had a vague impression of dreadful heaving darkness, gleaming limbs clutching everywhere. He jerked his head up and Loki's fingers slipped away; the images faded.
It hadn't occurred to Thor previously that sharing Loki's thoughts might be unpleasant. He had to steel himself to put Loki's hand back onto the collar. "Loki," he said, fighting a sudden impulse to look wildly about the room; he seemed to see things moving from the corners of his eyes. "Wake, brother. These are only shades. Loki."
His voice rose as he felt almost a yawning chasm open before him: thoughts on thoughts twisting, love and anguish entangled so with rage, a nest like the roots of Yggdrasil and Loki himself nowhere to be found. Thor flinched back from it, or wished to, but he kept Loki's hand pressed against his throat and called to him again. Loki made a faint noise and stirred, tried to turn away; Thor held him. Loki heaved for breath almost with a sob, and pulled his hand away.
The shadows faded from his sight. Thor reached for Loki's hand again, but Loki drew it close to his body and curled around it on his side, his eyes opening a little. "Enough," he said. "I won't fall back to sleep."
He didn't sound grateful, only weary. "Is there no—no draught you could take," Thor said, "—no medicine, which—"
"Which would make me truly Aesir?" Loki said. "Make Odin my father, change the ice in my veins for blood, turn all the lies into truth? If you hear of such a spell, do tell me."
"Which would help to ease your rest, if nothing else," Thor said.
"I like my dreams," Loki said. "They're full of inspiration. Well?"
"What?" Thor said.
"I assume something's happened to make you so desperate to wake me," Loki said. "Have they attacked again?"
"No," Thor said. "Heimdall keeps watch, all is well at the present. I feared for you."
Loki was silent a moment, and then choked out a little laughter. "Of course you did."
"I do not lie," Thor said, annoyed.
"I know," Loki said. "That's not why I laughed."
"And now that you are awake," Thor said, folding his arms, "you can start telling me what is going on. You did control the shining ones."
Loki didn't speak. He didn't close his eyes, but lay on the bed limply, exhaustion in the lines of his face; he looked older and worn. Thor felt a stab of guilt, but they could not go on this way. "Brother, I beg you," Thor said. "Why do you seek to fight this war alone? What if you had fallen, in the battle—would you have been glad to know, as you fell, that Asgard would fall with you?"
Loki laughed again. "Ah. You'd like to use my methods."
"I would know what your methods are," Thor said. "Father and I fought this war a long four years without you, and at every turn we lost: in their very mindlessness they seemed invincible. Now it seems as though they come willingly to your command to be slaughtered—"
"They aren't mindless," Loki said, tiredly.
"There is no reason behind the worlds they choose to strike—was no reason, so far as we could tell."
"Yes," Loki said, "but no mindless horde would have defeated you, or Father, so they couldn't be mindless." He shut his eyes and said, "Is there water?"
Thor slid an arm beneath him and raised him up, and poured him water. Loki drank half the goblet, and sat gazing into it unseeing. "The rifts," Thor prompted, after a moment.
"What?—oh, those papers you stole," Loki said, and Thor inwardly sighed. "Rifts are easier to open where they've been opened before. I've traveled enough among the worlds behind Heimdall's back to know where all the soft landings are, that's all. I imagine Father had worked that much out himself. Didn't he ever try and send you to a world before the shining ones came?"
"Yes," Thor said, surprised, remembering. "He sent me to Tergine once, to the iron city—"
"Yes," Loki said. "There's a splendidly easy riftmouth just by there, the world's worn so thin that you can slip out of it with scarcely any effort."
"But the shining ones didn't come," Thor said.
"No, of course not," Loki said. "You were waiting for them. If they had come to Tergine, they would have been defeated."
"But they came to Alftaness, and were defeated," Thor said. "And to Kambsnes, even to Leifstokk—did you trick them? Make them some sort of promises—" He trailed off. It made no sense, of course; the shining ones had never spoken even among themselves, and why would they have believed any promise Loki made them, after the first?
"They wouldn't have been defeated on Alftaness, if the camp's well-water had been poisoned, and all the men had sickened halfway through the battle," Loki said. "In fact, it would have been an especially good chance for them. Asgardian warriors are more powerful than ordinary men; they would have feasted gloriously, and had less opposition to face them on other worlds."
"How would the water have gotten poisoned?" Thor said, bewildered.
"Why, I would have slipped to Alftaness and done it during the fighting," Loki said. "After the shining ones had attacked, and all the warriors were distracted."
"But—that's absurd!" Thor said. "Why would they imagine you would do such a thing? Even if they knew you were angry at us, you are their enemy, their target, as much as we—"
"Because I planned to," Loki said.
"You told them you would?" Thor said. "And they believed—" But Loki was waving a hand languidly, in negation.
"There's no telling them anything," Loki said. "They can't be persuaded. They remember nothing, they believe nothing, they wish nothing. That's for us, poor blind stumbling creatures that we are, who can only try as best we can to remember the past, and guess pathetically at what consequences will come of our actions. Our shining friends don't need to. They know."
Thor said slowly, "They—see the future?"
"They see the future," Loki repeated, nodding, "and they choose at every moment whichever action is most likely to lead them to the future they desire: the one where their hunger is sated."
At once much seemed clear: the dreadful wear of the battles, how the shining ones had always been exactly in the right place to exploit whatever maneuvers Thor had tried or stratagems Odin had commanded, how nothing but brute strength had ever served against them. "But then," Thor said, "why should they have come—not only to all the other worlds, but to this last battle, if they could see where the future would lead—"
"Making choices based on knowledge of the future is preferable to choosing based on knowledge of the past," Loki said, "but that doesn't mean they can't make mistakes. The future is an uncertain thing, after all. They can only choose based on what they see at the moment. Change what they see, and you can control their actions."
"But how could you change what they see?" Thor said.
"Why, haven't you understood yet, dear brother?" Loki said. "By changing my mind."
"But—" Thor paused. "But that's—You could alter the way their entire army behaved only by changing your mind?"
"You make it sound easy," Loki said. "Would you like to try making up your mind to allow an army of shining ones to invade an undefended Asgard and pour over the mountains and devour all our people?"
Thor stared at him. "What?"
"This isn't a matter of tricking them," Loki said. "They have to see a future where they feast and all Asgard lies in ruins before them for their devouring, and so I must choose what would make that future come and remain determined upon that choice—until they are committed, and I can change my mind to a course that will bring them to ruin instead."
Thor struggled to grapple with the notion, and then gave over: it made utterly no sense, except that it had worked. "So how do you do that?"
Loki laughed, cold and derisive. "You think a great deal about how much everyone in Asgard loathes and despises you. You remind yourself that if by some chance you should miraculously win this hopeless war for them, your reward will be to yet again find yourself cast aside in favor of your splendid elder brother, for whose benefit you have been used every minute of your life. And you contemplate how pathetically stupid you are for allowing the man who kidnapped you from your homeworld as an infant and lied to you all your life to use you so yet again, in exchange for nothing but the hope of a few crumbs of false paternal approval. And after you have meditated on all these truths, you will be in exactly the right frame of mind to set the world ablaze."
He pushed back the covers, and struggled free of the bed. He was unsteady when he gained his feet, and stood a moment wavering, leaning heavily on Gungnir, before he limped slowly towards the door. "You might better ask," he said over his shoulder, "how I change my mind back."
"How do you, then?" Thor said to his back, bleakly.
Loki paused, and did not answer. "Mobilize the army," he said instead. "We leave tomorrow for Garðaríki."
"So—" Fandral said, "—he really is defeating them by being mad, then?"
"And driving himself more so," Thor said. He thrust a stick into the fire and stirred it up with short jabs. All around them, the camp slept in exhaustion and in peace. The shining ones had flung themselves stupidly from one side of the field to the other as Loki sent fresh orders to the front every half an hour. There was little more dreadful than being ordered to lay down your weapons as the shining ones turned and rushed at you, seeing that hideous tide coming, and yet Thor was proud not a single man had faltered even as they drew near, and nearer, until at last the flanking battalions were set loose upon the rear of their force.
So Garðaríki was theirs again: swept barren and bare, down to rock, and the fields poisoned with the offal of the shining ones, but theirs. In the morning they would go on to Redgna, and on after that until at last even Bralund was free again, the shining ones wholly defeated and pushed back; and then—
Thor had no idea. Odin was yet deep in slumber, and showed no signs of waking. And when he did, what would he say? Loki had proven himself worthy of the throne; Thor could not even deny it, and if there were yet men among the warriors of Asgard who would not willingly follow a Jotun-born king, they had fallen silent since the battle of Mount Dorenn.
Thor had seen others look at him with troubled glances as he walked through the camp, and he understood. They no longer feared the shining ones in the same way, now that they might be fought and defeated. They dreaded a worse conflict still: a civil war. If Odin woke, and removed Loki from the throne, and Loki refused to go easily—
"The throne is your birthright, Thor," Sif said to him, as the embers crumbled to ash. "You are Odin's eldest son, and named his heir a long time now. Loki did not make honorable challenge for the throne, and if he did, he could not stand against you in battle. He has struck at you and at Asgard time and again in underhanded ways—"
"And in the hour of our need," Thor said, "though brought to Asgard bound and as a criminal, despised by our people, and in the midst of a hopeless war, he took the throne and has saved us from death and ruin when neither I nor Odin himself could have done so."
"Only through madness and spite," Sif said. "Would you call those the qualities of a king? Would you truly see him on our throne?"
Thor was silent, and did not answer her. He had always wanted the throne; he had always meant to have the throne, whatever their father had said in their younger days. That had been merely a boy's greed for pride of place, a hunger for power and glory. But he had tasted of mortality since then; he had seen true passion and true wisdom in those he would once have gently disdained as far beneath him. Now he understood that the throne of Asgard was not a prize for himself, but a seat from which to defend all the worlds there were. And he did not think that Loki cared anything for any other worlds but Asgard. The same upheaval which had opened his own heart had closed Loki's tight and put iron chains upon it, and Thor could not bring himself to believe that even gaining the throne he had tried so hard to steal would ease Loki's misery.
A month later, he still had no better answer: in three days' time they were deploying to Bralund, for the final battle, and Thor as yet saw no middle ground, no solution. When their father woke, he would find his throne occupied not by his despised second son, but by a warrior king crowned with victory. Loki had come to the front at the end of the last battle himself, and fought alongside the front rank with Gungnir in hand, not even using sorcery: as much as if he had wished to say, look, I am as much a warrior as any man of Asgard, when I choose to be, and Thor had not needed Sif's sharp look behind Loki's back to tell him how it acted on the men.
And they yet knew nothing of where the shining ones had come from—Odin had not been able to uncover that secret, either. When Bralund had been freed, the war would be temporarily at an end, but the shining ones might come again. Would men give up the king who had proven himself against these creatures, when they became an eternal shadow beyond the known borders of Asgard, monsters who might at any moment strike again from the dark?
Loki had brought victory within grasp, and the warriors were straining towards it with all their will, but Thor knew this war had overspent their strength. The shadow of weariness lingered in their faces now even after long sleep, and though no man would admit to fear, they knew in silence the boundaries of their strength. Another such war would ruin them. Loki could justly claim, as Odin could not, that he might preserve them from such a fate.
If he refused to surrender the throne, there would be civil war—and Thor hardly knew, then, what he would do. If he surrendered his own hope of the throne, and stood behind Loki, he might avert civil war—Father would not go to war against them both for a burden he had long wished to yield—but then what kind of king would Loki make? Would he rise above his own misery, give up his delight in malice and trickery, and be a king? Or would he grow bored with his own triumph, and begin to gnaw away at his own realm merely in idleness?
Thor had been relieved of his bodyguard duty since the battle of Mount Dorenn; he rose from his own sleepless bed halfway through another night of wrestling with his doubts, and went to find his brother. Loki surely knew all these fears and thoughts as well as Thor did; maybe Thor could persuade him to share whatever answers he had worked out. For all he knew, Loki did not desire the throne; he had claimed as much often enough.
But Loki's chambers were empty, the bed unrumpled. The great hall stood silent and near deserted in the early hours of the morning. The library was quiet, save for three scholars reading by isolated islands of lamplight, none of them Loki. Baffled, Thor even looked in the training hall: a few older boys practicing urgently, who delayed him with an attempt to persuade him they were ready to join the warriors for the final battle—they were not, but pity made Thor stay long enough to see them each demonstrate his skill, and give them advice. At last he went to his mother's chambers, where Odin slept, more to seek her advice than to seek Loki; but when he came in, Frigga looked up with half a smile and said, "You are both restless tonight."
"What?" Thor said. Loki had been and gone, after sitting by Odin's bedside an hour in silence.
Thor looked in the library again, and the hall, and Loki's chambers; they were all still empty. He stood in the bedchamber a moment longer, looking at Loki's dart-pinned map, and then with a sudden nameless fear he went to the Bifrost.
"I cannot see him," Heimdall said. "But Thor, you must know he conceals himself from me more often than not, these days. It may well be without intent that he hides in this moment."
Thor said, "Open the Bifrost to Bralund for me, Heimdall. To wherever a rift may most easily be opened."
The shattering, blazing journey dropped him directly behind Loki's back: on a flat-topped peak looking down upon what Thor first thought a sea of mist, and then realized in utter horror was an ocean of the shining ones, packed so tightly their writhing bodies blended in with one another, an endless maw of hunger in every direction. Loki whirled as the Bifrost roared shut behind them. "Loki—" Thor said, and then the shining ones were surging forward, rushing up the peak upon them from every direction at once,
"Get over here!" Loki screamed at him. Thor was already leaping to his side, Mjölnir in hand, but Loki hissed at him wordlessly in fury. "Forget that and hold on to me!" He turned and gave Thor his back. Thor slung Mjölnir from his belt and gripped Loki's shoulders as blue sorcerous light erupted around them. Thor had a moment only to see the Casket of Ancient Winters between Loki's hands before Loki was drawing it open, and the cold clenched down upon Thor's body like a vise.
The first shining ones were clawing over the edge of the peak, and the ice took them: a handful of tentacles and talons frozen on the brink. The ice swept onward, and Thor saw it make crystalline statues of the nearest creatures and then bury them beneath layers of ice, and more layers beyond that, ten thousand winters in the time between one heartbeat and the next. Loki was drawing the casket open still further. Glaciers were creeping away from them down the mountainside, swallowing all the ground. On the horizon, Thor could see the phosphorescent gleam of the shining ones vanishing like sunset beneath the ice.
It went on and on, the terrible cold sinking into him. By the end he was clinging to Loki shamelessly, arms wrapped about his waist and pressed against his back, face tucked against his shoulder. The casket spoke with angry voices, some rumbling deep, some shrieking like blizzard wind; Loki stood and held it open against all its fury, channeling the power into the ice. Overhead, the sun was growing small and cold and white.
When it ended, when Loki at last closed the casket up once more, they were no longer on a peak. They stood on a solitary bare exposed circle of ground with a level plain of ice spreading wide around them, glimmering from below: the radiance of the shining ones filtering up through the glaciers like light seen watery through thick glass. Thor no longer even felt cold; his flesh seemed somehow distant and numb. Loki turned, blue-skinned, red-eyed, and put his arms around Thor. He said, "Heimdall, open the Bifrost, and let's find out if I'm going to execute you for sending my brother to his death." Thor didn't entirely understand the words; he wasn't supporting his own weight. The shock of the Bifrost taking them was the last he knew.
He woke in the hall of healing, with thick leather socks full of unguents upon his hands and feet, tingling at the tips. For three days, the healers prodded him with needles that he could only distantly feel and refused to let him leave. Sif came and sat by his bed, and Fandral and Hogun and Volstagg; Loki never appeared. "He hasn't shown himself since he returned," Sif said. "Lady Frigga sent one of her maidens to me to say the attack was off, that Bralund had already been retaken, but he hasn't come to the hall."
"A page-boy who saw him carry you to the healers said he was in a thick cloak, but his hands were blue," Fandral said. "Do you suppose he's gone Jotun permanently? That would certainly solve the problem of the succession."
He sounded hopeful about it, damn him, and Thor struggled up in his bed and said savagely, "Yes; for I will renounce it in his favor, if he has given so much for all our sake: I swear it on my honor."
Fandral gawked, and Sif said, "Thor!" in dismay.
"Enough!" Thor roared at them. "He is your king and mine. Leave me, if you have no better comfort to give me than treason."
He woke that night and found Loki sitting swathed in his cloak beside the bed. Thor pushed himself to one elbow. "Brother, are you—"
Loki pushed back the hood, and was himself; only hideously gaunt, skin drawn tight against his bones. "Not blue, despite that particularly juicy rumor Fandral's been offering up. A shame for your truly grand gesture: how noble it would have been."
"If you want the throne—"
"I certainly don't want you giving it to me in a magnanimous gesture of pity, as if it were yours by right and yours to give away, and I unworthy to be considered of it," Loki said.
Thor shook his head in exasperation. "If you truly wished to rule, then you should be glad to have me step aside."
"Then I suppose I mustn't really want to rule," Loki said.
"All Asgard hangs in fear of civil war," Thor said, "and already the men begin to take sides quietly among themselves: you must know it so! If you do not want the throne, why would you risk a conflagration—"
"But only think how satisfying it would be to tear the throne from your unwilling hands, proving myself the better," Loki said.
"Then what would you do with your conquered realm?" Thor demanded.
"Oh, if all else failed, I could magnanimously give it back to you," Loki said. "And you could see how you liked being on the receiving end of a little condescension and arrogance for once."
"How would that be different from now?" Thor said.
Loki opened his eyes comically wide. "Brother!" he said. "That was sarcasm! I'm so proud of you!"
Thor grabbed for his throat despite the encumbering mittens, but Loki leaned back out of reach, shaking his head sadly. "It was too much to hope for that it would last. Here." He reached out and gripped Thor by the wrists: magical power surged over the mittens. They divided themselves into fingers and closed more snugly about his hands. Thor flexed his fingers in the new gloves; they yet felt strange, but the pain was gone. The thick socks upon his feet had hardened into boots.
Loki stood. "There's not enough time for you to lie about here healing. You can mend while we ride."
"Ride where?" Thor said, warily.
"Not again," Thor groaned, as the road began to bend down into familiar grey mist and darkness, and the citadel vanished from view behind them as though it did not even exist. He spurred alongside Loki. "What do you mean to offer the Norns, then? They will scarcely let us away without payment twice."
"We're not going to see the Norns," Loki said.
"This is the road to Yggdrasil!" Thor said.
"Really?" Loki said. "Perhaps I took a wrong turning somewhere."
Thor glared at him. "And why are we going away from Asgard when the war is scarce won? Surely you must realize our people are yet anxious. If the shining ones should come again, and we are both away—"
"That could be awkward, couldn't it," Loki said.
"And why do you insist on being as close-mouthed as a mollusc?" Thor ground out, between clenched teeth.
"But explanations are so boring," Loki said.
"I could use this damned collar again," Thor said.
"Really, brother," Loki said primly, looking at him sidelong through his lashes. "Do you know what those collars are for?"
Thor glared at him. "I do, and don't think we won't have words on the matter soon."
"And you still want to use it?" Loki said. "You do realize, if you use the connection often enough, the binding will form. I understand the, er, rest becomes imperative."
"You're only saying that so I won't use it to read your mind," Thor said.
"Hm, that does sound like something I would do," Loki said. "I suppose you can use it until you find out one way or the other. After all, it wouldn't really be incest."
"Of course it would," Thor snapped, blushing involuntarily.
"All right, all right," Loki said in placating tones. "Far be it from me to diminish your pleasure. I never knew you were quite so adventurous, brother."
"That's not what—!" Thor said, blushing even harder.
"So you don't want me to—" Loki reached a hand out towards the collar, long fingers uncurling, and Thor jerked his head back out of range. Then he realized that he'd just given away a perfect opportunity to read Loki's mind; and when Loki smirked, Thor had had enough: he seized Loki by the wrist and put his hand to the collar.
And abruptly he was kneeling—no, he was being forced down, Loki thrusting him down by the collar to his knees, pulling him in close at the same time, off-balance so it only made natural sense to brace himself on Loki's thighs, the thin mesh of armor beneath the leather warm from his body, and then Thor was wrenching open his pants—
Loki jerked his hand back from the collar and it was gone: they were still on horseback, on the trail, and Thor roared at him, "That was not funny, you perverted lunatic!" His mouth was watering.
"No," Loki said in a strangled voice. He had a pinched, pursed-mouth look. "It seemed as though it would be." After a moment he even added a very grudging, "Sorry."
That night Thor dragged himself desperately out of sleep where Loki's cock lay heavy and cold and sweet upon his tongue like ice in midsummer, Loki's hands tangled in his hair. He shoved himself upright and scrubbed his hands violently over his face, then turned to shake Loki to pieces. Loki was lying awake on the other side of the fire, staring up at the tangled branches above them with a fixed, appalled expression. "Damn you, Loki, take this thing off me!" Thor snapped.
"I can't," Loki said.
"You can too!" Thor said. "Skeggi told me!"
"I can physically remove it," Loki said. "That's not what I mean. I didn't just do it to annoy you."
Thor stared at him. "I will forgive you everything if only you're lying this time and you stop now."
Loki sat up and looked at him across the flames; shadows hollowed his green eyes. "We're not done, you realize. Just because we've pushed them from our worlds doesn't mean they're defeated."
Thor caught his breath, hope and horror warring with one another: if Loki knew—if Loki hadn't said before—"You know where they come from," he said.
"You told me where yourself," Loki said. "What the Norns were doing, when you and Father went to them."
Thor barely remembered: it seemed a long and hopeless lifetime ago. "Watering the roots—"
"No," Loki said. "You said something much more particular. Pouring jugs of water on a taproot, I believe."
"If you say so," Thor said doubtfully. "What difference does it make?"
Loki pressed his lips tight. "You do realize," he said snottily, "that Yggdrasil isn't actually a tree?"
"I'm not an idiot!" Thor said. "It's not a tree, the Norns aren't women, and we aren't even really here, it's only a trick our minds play to let us survive looking on things too large to understand; I haven't forgotten all our lessons. So?"
"So what do you think it means, when Yggdrasil puts out a new taproot?" Loki said. "There are more than nine realms, of course. An infinite number, as there are infinite systems and infinite worlds. But the nine realms are those within a single sphere of influence, those we can travel among without bending time and space out of shape, and those nine realms, the connections between them, that is what Yggdrasil represents."
"A new realm," Thor said. "They've come from a new realm entirely."
"Yes," Loki said. "A tenth realm, one that's only just creeping into reach of our own."
"If you already know this—"
"Once I see the root, I should be able to determine where it lies," Loki said. "And then—we can point the Bifrost there."
Thor was silent, thinking of the chance of it: at last to strike the shining ones in their own lair, instead of fighting merely defensively; it had been his hope for a long time now. But an entire realm—the shining ones had fielded a dozen armies and more against Asgard already, and how many more legions might be teeming there on their own homeworld, where their hunger had long had exclusive license. "Loki," he said, low, "our warriors are already tired. Can we delay a while, before we strike?"
"When realms are coming into conjunction, the mathematics of rift travel grows complex," Loki said. "There's an early period when small temporary rifts become easy and cheap to open, little more than a matter of willing a connection between two thinner places in the realms, although these moments of opportunity are fleeting and the rifts prone to quick and unpredictable collapse. Then a brief fallow time, when any sort of travel becomes nearly as impossible as to realms not linked with ours at all. And then, when full conjunction is achieved, real connection may be established—a dozen riftmouths, for instance, which will hold so long as they are fed with power."
"And we must strike before then," Thor said: Loki did not need to say any more to draw the picture. If the shining ones could pour onto Asgard's worlds unchecked, even Loki's ability to tangle their foresight would not long preserve Asgard; he could not be at a dozen battlegrounds at once. "How long do we have?"
"A month or two, perhaps," Loki said. "Three, if we want to press our luck. We don't, by the way."
"Yes, so I had already gathered," Thor said. "Loki, we cannot win such a battle. Our armies are spent. With five years of rest, new warriors to replace those lost or wearied past endurance—even then, even with your arts, if the enemy's numbers are as great as we must fear, it would be difficult. With less time than that—"
"Your optimism is an endless bath of sunshine and kittens," Loki said. "Don't give up hope so easily, dear brother. We can still win. We're just going to need another army."
"Where do you propose to get another army the equal of Asgard's?" Thor said.
"I thought that was obvious," Loki said. "On Jotunheim."
"This is not wise," Thor said grimly, his hand clenched on Mjölnir's haft. The peaks and citadels of Jotunheim still stood broken and jagged around them, mute testament to the devastation Loki had wrought upon the world in his mad attempt to destroy it, ten years past; the giants slowly gathering around them fixed their gaze upon him and him alone, with savage glowing hatred in their eyes. "You should return to Asgard: send another to negotiate—"
"Hail, Great Council," Loki said, stepping forward and raising his voice with sorcery: it echoed off the icy canyons around them. "Are your proper numbers assembled to hear my challenge?"
"We are gathered, Loki Odinsson," one enormous giant said, in deep rumbling tones, "so speak: Jotunheim hears your words, for what little they are worth."
"Laufeyson, if you please," Loki said genially. "Let us be accurate, after all."
Another giant, tall and white as a frost-covered pillar, made a shrill noise of displeasure. "Would you name yourself patricide, then?" he said, in a thin shriek.
"To be fair," Loki said, "my father did abandon me to be snatched up by an Aesir, so in justice he couldn't have expected much in the way of filial devotion. And Jotunheim's laws don't disown a child merely because he's been exposed to die. So yes: I am here for my rights, as my father's only heir."
Thor only barely managed not to gawk at Loki; the frost giants, who had less practice, did not manage as much restraint. "Are you out of your mind?" Thor hissed. "You think they're going to make you their king?"
"Do be quiet," Loki hissed back out of the side of his mouth, without ever shifting the smile on his face.
"He may as well shout it for all the world to hear," the first deep-voiced giant said. "For Laufey's son or not, we will never bend the knee to a murderer hot from his crimes and the lackey of the Aesir. The throne is not a mere trinket to be passed from father to unworthy son."
"No," Loki said. "I didn't think it was." He raised his hands and turned them one over the other, and the blue shining casket appeared in his grasp. The frost giants one and all leaned in towards it, longing. "Call a challenge for the throne, my lords of Jotunheim," Loki said, "and the victor shall take this as his prize: as long, of course, as you're willing to make it the price of my candidacy."
There was silence among them like a night of falling snow. Finally the deep-voiced giant said, "We accept the price, Laufeyson. And may the son be the instrument of returning to Jotunheim that which the father lost."
"Splendid!" Loki said. "Oh, and in case I didn't mention it, Thor Odinsson will be fighting as my bonded champion. Who would like to make the first challenge?"
The warriors of Jotunheim were not short on courage, nor on strength. "Try not to kill them if you don't have to," Loki said, before Thor went into the ring the first time. "Keep in mind we want them to fight for us, in the end."
"I'd try anyway," Thor said grimly. "You might have mentioned that your plan was for me to fight all the best warriors of Jotunheim one after another until they reconcile to your being their king."
"Since when do you object to a little fighting?" Loki said.
"Since it's going to last all of the month we have left, if not more!" Thor said. "You murdered their king and tried to destroy their world. They'll never yield to you as long as they have a stripling old enough to hold a blade who can step into the ring with me."
"A challenge can't last more than three days and three nights," Loki said. "Just keep winning."
And Thor did, although the Jotuns were marshaling their strength wisely: the first warriors he faced were not the best, nor the second; only on the third day did their greatest come into the ring, and in the third match of the day, he was wounded for the first time, a low shallow scrape along the arm, dead white frostbite stinging where the ice-blade had scored his flesh. Thor swore in irritation, swung his hammer a little too hard, and knocked the warrior across the ring, through the makeshift wall of ice which had been raised around it, and halfway up the stands.
There was a brief pause, and then a giant rose from the seats where the nobles had assembled and said, "I am Wauthir Werinson, and by my champion Ghanrath I do make challenge for the throne."
Murmurs followed: Thor looked at Loki, whose eyes narrowed. "He's one of their chief contenders," Loki's voice said softly in his ear, a whisper from far away. "This is early for him to enter. Watch for some sort of trick."
Ghanrath fought almost entirely defensively from the beginning, backing away from Thor's range: not hard for a giant. Thor might have chased him down, but he was glad of the rest: he planted himself at the center of the ring and watched Ghanrath circle him and now and again dart in to make a quick stabbing feint, withdrawn before Thor had a chance to meet it. There was an air of puzzlement in the watching giants, as if they too did not understand; and then Ghanrath closed again and stumbled, and the opening was too perfect: Thor swung Mjölnir and halted bare inches from his skull. "Yield, or die," Thor said, and then jerked back his hand, startled, as Ghanrath treacherously poked him in the wrist with a blade a single finger long, drawing a drop of blood.
He drew Mjölnir back for the fatal blow: he hated a man who betrayed the honor of the ring. But Ghanrath rolled nimbly to his feet, despite his size, and looked back at Wauthir, who rose in the stands and said, "I cry foul, my lords: blood was drawn, and the challenger did not flinch. Thor Odinsson is not truly bonded to him: he may not stand for him in the ring."
"Am I supposed to flinch for every little drop drawn?" Loki said, drawling.
"Loki!" Thor said, and crossed the ring and leapt into the stands to grab him by the arm. "What are they talking about?" Loki shot him a furious look. Thor shook him. "I am not going to be a party to a cheat in the ring! I thought you only meant I had to be wearing the damned collar."
"Cheating is allowed, you idiot," Loki said.
"Unless, of course, it is uncovered," Wauthir said, "and now confessed. Therefore decide, Laufeyson, whether you will withdraw from the challenge, or face yourself the might of Jotunheim in the ring."
Loki stood and bowed to Wauthir. "I suppose a king has to be ready to get his own hands dirty, now and again. Is your champion ready now, or will he take a respite?"
Ten minutes' rest was agreed on, and Loki jerked his head and drew Thor aside, already stripping out of his cloak and taking down his helm: he studied it intently, and the horns melted back into mere surface decoration, to offer no purchase to an enemy. "Listen carefully," Loki said. "If one of them kills me—"
"Wait a minute," Thor said. "Loki, you are no master of the ring: you cannot face every one of their best warriors."
"Very well," Loki said. "When one of them kills me—"
"What?" Thor said.
"What did you think this was, a game?" Loki hissed. "That we were here for my amusement? We need the legions of Jotunheim, and until they have a new king, there's no one who can give them to us. None of the lords left to issue challenge is a fool, they'll see the danger the shining ones pose. You'll be able to persuade them to join you."
Thor stared at him. "We can't win without you!"
"I wouldn't have been able to do as much against them anyway once we were on their world attacking them," Loki said. "Just assume they will know any strategy or tactics you come up with, and keep on the offensive."
"I am not going to stand by here and watch you get yourself killed!" Thor said.
"Well, I had planned it otherwise, but you didn't like my original approach either, did you?" Loki said icily.
"If you had told me—"
"Then you'd have refused to fight under false pretense at all," Loki said. "At least my odds are somewhat improved, this way,"
"You think I'd put my pride before your life?" Thor said. "Before Asgard?"
"Come, brother," Loki said. "Tell me honestly you'd have agreed to lie and step into the ring, to signal me any time you took some hurt that I might fake a flinch—" Thor couldn't help but be revolted at the idea, and Loki smiled a little, twisted, seeing it on his face.
"You need not fight," Thor said. "Let them have the casket, let one of their number take the throne—"
"And you think they'll make alliance with me as king of Asgard after that?" Loki said. "If I die in the ring, at least that they'll be able to respect." A deep ringing gong sounded, as though from somewhere deep in the ice. "Time's up, brother. Do tell Father his plan worked out splendidly in the end, as usual."
He was already turning away; Thor seized him by the arm. "So finish the binding, and I'll keep fighting!"
Loki laughed. "You didn't ask Skeggi enough questions: do you know what a Jotun binding really is? It's a sacrifice of self. I'd flinch when you were hurt because we would share one flesh; you'd know my thoughts because they would slip into your mind beside the thoughts that were already there. Sex doesn't make the binding: surrender does. Afterwards, we'd lie together without thinking anything of it because my body would be as much yours as your own. Oh, and in a Jotun binding," Loki added, "one is master and the other servant, forever." He smiled again. "A little more to give up than merely a throne, wouldn't you agree?"
Thor swallowed; he could scarcely imagine it. Worse than slavery: slavery might have an end, might yet offer some measure of choice. "Yes," he said, low. "More than a throne. Do it, brother."
Loki's face stilled, his body: he was motionless, the helm in his hands between them. After a moment he reached and cupped Thor's face with one hand; Thor had to fight not to jerk away. He closed his eyes.
For a long moment nothing happened; he felt no different.
"If it matters to you," Loki said at last, quietly, "when you asked how I changed my mind again, why I chose to save Asgard instead of destroy it, the answer has always been you."
Thor opened his eyes, startled, to look at him.
Loki smiled a little. "There is no such thing as a binding of convenience, brother," he said. "Unless you truly yield in your innermost heart, it simply won't work." His hand fell away, and he stepped back and turned to go into the ring.
There was nothing for Thor to do but go into the stands in Loki's place, and watch. Loki was no mean fighter, but his true strength, what made him a deadly opponent, was not in the open challenge of the ring: it was in strategies laid out over the span of months and years, in clever tactics, in turning the enemy's strength into weakness. None of that could serve him now against the best that Jotunheim would offer, and Thor could see their eagerness around him: a thirst for Loki's blood not less than for kingship.
Ghanrath came back into the ring with that same dread eagerness alight in his eyes; he fought wholly differently, fought to corner and to kill, but Thor was glad to see, too eagerly: he wanted the kill too badly, and he was already fatigued. Loki danced away for three passes, evading with all his quicksilver grace and speed. Then Ghanrath overreached on one swing and Loki dived beneath his guard, came up directly before his chest, and flung him out of the ring with a sorcerous blast.
The next six opponents were lesser fighters, but they did no less harm for that: they each of them fought not to win, but to tire, to eat away at Loki's strength for the warriors yet to come. Thor clenched his hands tight around Mjölnir's haft as he saw Loki's steps begin just barely to falter: a misstep of an inch here, an adjustment of weight there; nothing extravagant, but enough for a truly great fighter to exploit. And when the seventh round was called, a great frost giant near nineteen feet in height unfolded himself from the stands and said gravelly, "I am Marduk son of Hror, and I will challenge for the throne."
He was cheered from the stands as he carried in with him two great scimitars of ice and steel somehow wrought together and whirled them expertly in preparation. Loki was standing at the far end of the ring breathing heavily from his last bout, and when Marduk charged across the ring, he only barely managed to evade the first blurred-quick strike. The blades were enchanted, Thor realized, to compensate for the loss of speed which Marduk's size ought have meant: and on the third pass, when Loki stumbled at the very edge of the ring and Marduk turned upon him, Thor lunged from his seat in dread—
— and Marduk's blades passed through Loki's form and jammed deeply into the earth. Marduk looked around wildly, trying to drag them free, and Loki stepped out from the shadows at the far side of the ring and flung a single blade haft-first, which struck Marduk upon the temple and made him recoil, startled, and step just over the line.
The roaring audience fell silent, dismayed, and Loki yawned elaborately and leaned against an ice pillar on his side. "I am sorry, I must have dozed off somewhere along the way. I promise I won't use any more doubles—unless the bout is really unbearably boring. Who's next?"
There were no more frivolous challengers. Jotunheim's faint dim star was low on the horizon, and now the challenges came for true: the greatest lords and warriors of the realm, and they ordered themselves deliberately by skill. By the time the third moon rose, halfway through the night, Loki was fighting for his life every minute of every bout. Thor could see now the signs of real fatigue: Loki did not smirk or taunt his opponents, did not stage long and complex chains of maneuvers to make them look ridiculous in defeat; he fought cleanly, hard, and without a wasted movement. It was glorious fighting, the kind men made songs of and recited by campfires to their comrades in arms. Thor would have rejoiced in every battle if he hadn't known what was coming: the truly great of Jotunheim, not her warriors but her heroes. Loki was not going to survive to see the morning: and it had been in Thor's power to save him.
Perhaps might be, still—Thor didn't let himself think too hard on what he would have to do, but turned and said, "I wish to speak to my brother," to the deep-voiced frost giant, the chief of their Council, a lord named Grandur.
But Grandur shook his great ponderous head and said, "If he leaves the ring, he yields, and you may not enter." He looked at Thor and said abruptly, "In the law of Jotunheim, to stand in the ring and meet all comers for three days and three nights, without slaying any one of them, cleanses any crime. If it comforts you, he dies without a stain upon his name or house."
"It doesn't comfort me!" Thor said, his stomach clenching in desperation: there was nothing even remotely like doubt of Loki's fate in Grandur's voice. "Listen to me—you must know of the shining ones by now, of the enemy Asgard faces; you must know what Loki has done to defeat them."
"We know," Grandur said.
"Then know also that their numbers twice over again wait to make a fresh invasion, mere weeks from this day. If Asgard falls to them, so too will Jotunheim," Thor said. "And if your warriors slay Loki, you destroy our greatest weapon against them."
Grandur snorted through his nose, like a bull. "You mistake us as your father did, when you think death or even the destruction of our world is enough to bend our necks. You can beg our aid if you want it, after Laufey's son has paid for his crimes."
A roar went up around them: the warrior in the ring, a giant covered with crystalline spikes of ice and wielding a wheel of ice and spiked iron that looked a part of his body, had just managed to catch Loki up and trip him: and when Loki rolled to his feet again, he left blood black upon the snow. The giant flung the wheel after him, spinning, and Loki had no time to evade: he raised a hand. Sorcerous fire blazed out blue-white-hot and melted a swath down the middle of the wheel, so either side just barely flew past Loki's face and droplets of hot iron sizzled upon the ice before his feet: even Thor could recognize it as a profligate use of magic. Too profligate: there were another twelve challengers waiting.
The round ended: the spiked giant was helped limping from the ring, and Loki took one of his knife-bandoliers and wrapped it around the wound on his leg. He wiped his knives in the snow and thrust them bare-blade through his belt instead. "Next?" he called.
He fought four more challenges, and was wounded again twice; his steps left blood on the ice now as he fought, and every bloody mark felt to Thor like a step he himself took on a long road. It was yet two hours until dawn. And then Rrath rose to enter the ring: Rrath who had single-handedly slain the black wyrm of Prondren, and had killed nearly threescore Aesir warriors in skirmishes. Thor had marked him a century ago as one of the most dangerous Jotun warriors alive. He was carrying the terrible double-bladed sword that Thor had seen him use to disembowel a man, and he smiled sharp-toothed at Loki across the ring. The audience were settling in, ready, waiting.
The first three passes were mere lip-service to caution. Rrath had been watching Loki's fights from the sidelines all this time. The fourth, a spinning overhead stroke, nearly carved Loki in two at the waist, and the fifth caught him diving desperately sideways and opened a long red-mouthed gash along his ribs that showed a pale gleam of bone. Loki didn't break the movement: he sent a thin lick of fire along the wound to cauterize it shut, and with his other hand he caught Rrath at the ankle with one of his long-bladed knives and twisted, sawing up, and Rrath collapsed to one knee with a roar of pain as the tendons severed.
Loki finished rolling out of reach and pushed back up to his knees and stayed there, panting and watching: Rrath spat at him and flung the blade as a javelin, though it was too slow in the air and Loki only had to lean out of its way. Loki caught it mid-flight instead and said, "Oh, for me? Most generous," and used it as a prop to stand up again. "I'll be sure and put it to good use. You do yield, I presume?"
"Never!" Rrath hissed, and Loki shrugged. "Ah, well." He raised a hand and flung a spell that locked Rrath into paralysis, went over to him, and began to push him towards the edge of the ring. Since Rrath was fourteen feet tall and weighed probably six hundred pounds, it took a good deal of time and effort. After about half an hour, Thor realized it didn't need to take quite as much time as Loki was pretending it did; fifteen minutes later the crowd realized it too and started to mutter restively. Loki didn't betray by so much as the flicker of an eye that he'd noticed; he kept on pushing Rrath a few inches along, stopping to elaborately catch his breath and check his wounds, bending over to put his shoulder to Rrath's paralyzed side, pausing for several deep breaths before heaving him once more.
Several of the waiting challengers started yelling protest at the Council as Loki went on eating up time: evidently there were many arcane rules that the battle had to keep progressing towards a conclusion, that an enemy had to have a chance to yield, that no more than five minutes might go by without contact between the opponents: but it seemed Loki was perfectly in line with all of them. The Council hastily convened to debate adding a new rule to cover the circumstances, but there was some argument over the terms: by the time they had finally settled on the wording, Loki had Rrath at the edge of the circle, and he nudged Rrath's body over the line even as Grandur stood to call out the proceedings.
Thor could have laughed aloud for joy. Loki had made the single fight swallow nearly all the remaining time: an hour remained to dawn. Six bouts at most, and the remaining challengers were now arguing amongst themselves for the right to step into the ring. Loki was still using every moment they gave him: he had opened his armor and was about to heal the gash along his side, fingers on either edge of the wound. His hands glowed, and the flesh began knitting itself together visibly.
The audience was watching him intently, and a low murmur ran around when they saw what he was doing; Thor had seen the trick of it in the healing halls often enough, but he knew the Jotuns had disdained the healing arts as work beneath warriors, and had lost them in the ruin after the war: many of them were scarred not merely in a prideful way, but with wounds which would hamper them in battle. Loki stood with his eyes shut as the magic worked; then the wound was closed and he let his hands drop, breathing hard. He looked at the wound on his leg, glanced at the sidelines where Fethnir and Prag were nearly at blows over who would take the next place, and went in on healing it also.
Thor watched him, thought of calling to him, tried to think what he would say. It still wasn't enough, not with the giants yet to come into the ring. Any one of the last three could easily look to be Loki's death in a fair fight, with both of them fresh and equally armed. And this was anything but fair, with Loki's magic and strength and blood spent against nearly forty challengers before. It hurt to watch him closing his own hurts, to see the rents in his armor and the wounds he could not even spare the strength to tend, and Thor shut his eyes and tried instead to conceive of himself yielding. Of going again to Loki and saying, try; of lying down with him even in the dirt of the ring, before the assembled eyes of Jotunheim, and—and—surrendering himself: Loki's mouth cool and demanding, drinking in his strength; Loki thrusting into him, a mere reflection of the mastery he would be taking over Thor's mind.
Loki in his arms, wounded and spent and safe, and the right to step into the ring for him again. The power to know his thoughts, and to turn them from madness and malice—unless, of course, Thor thought grimly, Loki drove him mad, instead.
Thor hardly knew what to do, what he could bear to do: and meanwhile Prag won the argument and came charging into the ring full-tilt; Loki still had his leg armor open and was kneeling on the ground. "Loki!" Thor shouted, but Loki didn't seem to hear. The wound had closed, but his eyes were still shut and his fingers on his leg—And then as Prag came flying at him, Loki reached down and yanked up Rrath's double-bladed sword, lying on the ground beside him, and braced: Prag ran his thigh onto the blade, and Loki rolled out of the way of Prag's enormous club as it came smashing down where he'd been.
Loki dragged the rest of the fight out as long as he could, but when Prag had missed another four blows, he roared in fury and resentment and lowered his club. "I yield," he growled, and limped from the ring still bleeding and with bowed head to let Fethnir step in after him.
"Did you all swear to give over after five blows?" Loki said in amused tones. "How very sporting of you." He took a step sideways, blurring, and stepped again—or a double stepped, and Loki remained where he was; they both stepped once more, in opposite directions, and again, and again, until there were two dozen shadows in a ring around Fethnir, all with arms outstretched, a perfect target, if only he chose the right one.
"Of course," Loki said with many voices, "it might lead to some difficulties."
Fethnir snarled wordlessly in fury, and paced the ring trying to provoke Loki into action, even feinting a swing of his blade at the heads of a few of the shadows; but none of them flinched away even a little, and finally he took five enormous flailing blows, each one passing through three shadows at once, and stormed from the ring without even yielding formally. The shadows coalesced again into Loki's body, and he shrugged and looked deliberately across the ice plain at the horizon: there was the faintest pink shadow to the distant sky.
The next challenger Gordhan spent ten minutes building a chain of ice, and he swung it around the circle slicing all the doubles in half. Loki stepped out of the shadow of the ice pillar at the far end of the ring and caught the end of the chain as it slapped against the pillar. He sent it lashing back at Gordhan's knees and ankles: though Gordhan was six feet the taller, the pillar's leverage was enough for Loki to haul him off his feet. Loki pointed at the surface of the ice as Gordhan slammed down, and a quick cantrip melted a long runway to the ring's edge; a yank on the chain sent Gordhan sliding out of the ring.
But there were three left, three great lords of Jotunheim: Darvok, Traskagg, and Prouweth. They had waited to the last; the arguments among the challengers for the final places had not included them, by silent agreement. Darvok stepped to the ring now and said in a low rumbling voice, "I call for five minutes respite, in honor of the warriors who have entered the ring."
Five minutes: a gesture only, not enough of a rest to make a difference, unless—Thor shut his eyes and breathed out his last free breath. He'd hoped for one last opening like this. Or he'd decided to use it if it came, at least: he wasn't going to sit here and watch Loki die. He put his hand to the collar. He'd tell Loki to try, and if he could yield, he would; if Loki could go this far, so could—
"Generous of you," Loki said, "but no. And as you've called for a respite less than an hour from dawn on the third day of challenge before you've even started fighting, I do believe that by the judgement of the Council at the challenge of Jorsknallin in the Fourth Age, that gives me the right to throw you out of the list of contenders."
There was a flurry of muttering and consultation among the Council members before Grandur raised his head and grudgingly admitted that Loki was in fact correct. Darvok looked furious, but stepped back and waved Prouweth into the ring; the great warrior stumped into the ring, swords in hand, and there would be no respite: no break in which even to try the binding. "Loki!" Thor shouted at him across the ring; he put both his hands on the collar and thought it, furiously: Loki! But Loki only turned and waved at him, jauntily as if he didn't face his death, and then turned back to Prouweth.
"I fought under your father ten ages of our realm, Laufeyson," Prouweth said. "He would be glad that you have cleansed your name this day."
"Well," Loki said, "I can't have that, can I?"
And he hurled a single small throwing knife arrow-swift across the ring, blazing fire, and it plunged into Prouweth's right eye where the Jotun stood, his guard not yet up. Prouweth stood a moment, flames gouting from the socket, his mouth open; then his mammoth body toppled over to the ice with a crash like thunder, his swords still in his hands. Loki looked around at the utterly silent stands, the faces gone blank with surprise and horror. "Why, what made any of you think I was trying to cleanse my name?" he said.
Thor stared, open-mouthed, and wondered what madness had possessed Loki: Traskagg, last standing challenger, was already stepping into the ring, and he would carve Loki into pieces in vengeance. A group of warriors were bearing Prouweth's body with honor from the killing ground.
"You spit on those who would do you honor," Traskagg growled as he watched Prouweth carried away.
"Honor, do you call it?" Loki said. "How interesting; to me it smacked rather of pity. And you see, Traskagg, I find the taste intolerable."
"Then be assured you shall have none from me," Traskagg said, drawing his own great two-handed blade from his back: the sword was bigger than Loki, carved with runes for speed and death; poisoned, also, by repute.
"No," Loki said. "Traskagg the Pitiless, isn't that right? Tell me, has your son's sight ever returned? Or does he yet live in your house—never to be a warrior, never to be a man—"
Traskagg's hands flexed upon his sword-haft. "Save your breath, dog of the Aesir," he hissed, stepping towards Loki.
Loki said gently, "It's a shame the healing arts of Jotunheim are so backwards. Of course, Asgard hasn't had much luck in healing such injuries, either. But now I think about it, there's a spell I myself created, trying to get back into Odin's favor—ah, well. How unfortunate I haven't had a chance to write it down." He shook out his shoulders and smiled up at Traskagg, blithe as summer. "Are you ready?"
Traskagg stood still as if rooted at the far side of the ring. "You are a liar, a liar known in every realm," he said hoarsely.
Loki tilted his head. "Lie, about such a little thing? I'm insulted. Why, I swear upon my life and any kingdom I might hold that I will heal your son's sight—tomorrow."
No one spoke; all heads turned to Traskagg. Who looked back at none of them, only at Loki. And inch by slow inch the tip of his blade descended in an arc towards the ground, and struck upon the ice with a noise like glass breaking, as the cold white disk of Jotunheim's star crept at last into the sky.
The Jotuns all looked dazed with horror and confusion even as they went through the preparations: Loki had demanded an immediate coronation on the spot. Thor didn't feel much less confused. He had been wildly proud of Loki's hopelessly brave battle, enough to surrender himself body and spirit to save him, and then in the space of ten minutes Loki had committed rule-lawyering, murder, and bribery; and had only won thereby. Thor hardly knew whether to congratulate him or reproach him. Reproaching him was of course harder when Thor had put him in the desperate position to begin with—Thor's eyes narrowed suddenly.
He caught Grandur to the side of the ring. "Is there a way you can determine with certainty whether a pair are bonded?" he demanded. "If I had not said so, could you have learned—"
Grandur looked at him under frowning brows bristling like the frosted needles of a pine in winter. "We would have demanded that you remove the collar."
"Damn him," Thor muttered under his breath, and went to find Loki.
"Must you always make a fuss at the most inopportune moments?" Loki said airily. "Cut that larger, if you please," he called out to the unhappy craftsmen assembling the blocks of the throne dais. "I want the whole thing nineteen cubits high. It's a shame I can't make them all just come to Asgard's throne hall," he added to Thor, "but I think it would send the wrong message at the moment, don't you agree?"
"You mean that they are ruled by a dishonorable trickster who will stop at nothing to gain his ends?" Thor said.
"No, no," Loki said. "They already know that. But I wouldn't want them thinking I'm just going to make them vassals of Asgard. Speaking of which," he added, "go and bring me a white-banded ice falcon. Alive, please. I'm sure one of the warriors will be glad to show you the way to the Dragthna Mountains, but do hurry; I wouldn't want you to miss the coronation."
There were any number of miserable Jotun warriors ready for the least excuse to get out of the hall, and the mountains weren't far. The ice falcon, with a wingspan of thirty feet and savagely furious, spent the entire journey back alternately clawing and biting off pieces of Thor's ears and arms, depending on what part of it he was holding on to at the time. Ghanrath, from a safe distance, told Thor they ate infants when they could get them, and evidently it liked the taste of Aesir flesh as much as Jotun.
They got back to the hall in the middle of the coronation, and Thor dragged the ice falcon still shrieking and flapping down the aisle to where Loki lounged upon the throne with a cup of ice wine in his hand and using the casket as a footrest. The assembled ranks of Jotunheim were united in their murderous looks. "Here's your damned hawk," Thor said through his teeth.
"What a wretched noise," Loki said. "Wring its neck, please, there's no reason to have brought it back alive."
"You said to!" Thor roared.
"Why would I want it alive?" Loki said. "It's not a very tractable creature."
"What do you want it for at all?" Thor said, and then looked at its great blood-red eyes. "You need the eyes?" He stopped: he had no idea how he'd guessed that, nor why.
Loki's gaze narrowed, and he made no answer, which was as much to say that Thor had guessed right. Loki turned his head. "Traskagg, your son is here by now, I trust?"
Even the violent mood of the hall quieted when Traskagg led his son Hrathnag, a hulking Jotun even taller than himself, down the hall: when Loki commanded him to remove the blindfold he wore, his eyes were dark empty sockets pouched into his skull, under sagging lids. Loki tore the eyes from the ice falcon one after another with his bare hands, and pressed them bloody into the holes, whispering the words of the spellcasting as he worked. Hrathnag grunted once, which by usual Jotun standards meant that he was in agonizing pain; and then he jerked back and blinked over the red, red eyes, and then he blinked again.
"Carefully," Loki said. "Can you see anything moving?"
"A blur," Hrathnag said after a moment, gravel-softly, as though his voice were long unused; Traskagg's hand clenched tight upon his shoulder.
"Splendid," Loki said, sitting back down and inspecting his bloody hands with a moue of distaste.
"A blur is not sight!" Traskagg said, taking a step towards him.
"How impatient!" Loki said, with a sigh. "It's going to take him a little while to learn how to see with its eyes. But you'll be able to see well enough to march with us in four days, if you like," he added to Hrathnag, "when we go to Skinaheim."
The prospect of a bloody war did a great deal to reconcile the Jotuns to their new king. So also did Loki's amendment to the coronation: when Grandur finally intoned in deep dejection, "And I now do crown you king of Jotunheim—" Loki interrupted the proceedings.
"And Bralund," he said.
"What?" Grandur said.
"Oh, perhaps I didn't mention," Loki said. "The world of Bralund has been given to the deep ice, so as king of Asgard, I'm ceding it to the throne of Jotunheim. We'll have to establish a permanent rift, of course, and there will be a lot of tiresome handing out of estates and so forth, but that can wait until after the war. For now, just put it in the oath."
The younger sons of the nobility in particular were now prepared to tolerate Loki on their throne for at least as long as it took him to dole them out enormous stretches of territory—of Asgardian territory, Thor noted pointedly as he marched after Loki into his bedchamber. Estates or not, he plainly needed a bodyguard again.
"It's covered in ice," Loki said. "And below that, it's covered with shining ones. What does any Aesir want with it?"
"It's the principle of the thing!" Thor said. "You can't simply give away an entire world of Asgard's domain."
"If we'd come here to negotiate an alliance with them, we'd have been delighted to get away with Bralund as the price of it," Loki said.
"— and," Thor added, not ready to be done, "a permanent rift between Jotunheim and Bralund means they can leap for far less power to any other of Asgard's worlds!" He paused and frowned. "How in the damned hells do I know that? And how did I know about the eyes?"
Loki was scowling at him. "Did you do anything particularly stupid while I was fighting, like try to seal the binding?"
"Of course I did!" Thor said. "I thought you were going to be slain! It hadn't occurred to me you'd planned out an entire campaign of deceit."
"Well, we'll be having interesting dreams for the next few years," Loki said. "Come here: I'm taking the thing off before you can get us into any more difficulties."
"Before I can—!" Thor said, stepping in to him: and then Loki put his hands on the collar and they were tearing frantically at their armor, falling to the bed. Loki's hand was buried painfully in Thor's hair, pulling his throat bare to bite and lick, and Thor groaned aloud and broke the straps on his own breastplate to get it out of the way.
"Loki," he said, seizing Loki's doublet in his hands and ripping it open, "Loki, damn you, what are we doing?"
"Shut up!" Loki said, and suckled Thor's earlobe into his mouth: a vast shudder of pleasure made Thor clutch at him, unable to move again until it passed. "This is your fault, not mine—"
Thor snarled. "My fault!" He flung Loki down onto his back and swung his leg over astride. Loki groaned and his hips rose, his cock sliding urgently between Thor's legs. "My fault, you wretch, if ever you bothered to share one word of your insanely convoluted scheming—"
"Shout at me later!" Loki said. "Much, much later." He snaked his hand between them and caught hold of his own cock, pressed the head to Thor's body, and Thor gasped and let himself sink down: so much easier than he'd thought it would be to yield, to let go of everything, to hand himself over to Loki for anything he desired, a thousand secret shameful glorious things.
He hadn't had sex in all the long years of the war; even the simple physical satisfaction might have been enough to break him now. Loki's hands were gripping like iron upon his thighs, rhythmic clench and release in time with Loki's hips as they jerked gently upwards, helping; together they worked his cock deep into Thor's body, and Thor groaned with the magnificent ache of it as he settled down kneeling.
"Oh," Loki said, and then just lay there staring up at him with a vaguely astonished expression. Thor tried to decide whether he was more pleased to have put a look like that on Loki's face, or more annoyed that he was being left to do all the work; but his body decided for him: another shudder ran through him, and he rolled his hips in reaction.
Loki made a small faintly whimpering noise, and oh, that was good to hear; and even better when Thor rocked upon him and Loki trembled all over and shut his eyes. Thor grinned and did it again, and again, riding Loki's cock, and then inspiration struck, almost blinding in its perfection, and he stopped. "Shall I keep going?" he asked, brimming with delight.
Loki made an inarticulate noise and scrabbled at Thor's thighs frantically.
"Come, brother, I can't understand you," Thor said.
"Please," Loki said. Thor sighed in satisfaction.
Afterwards—several hours of afterwards—lying spent side by side, Thor gazed up at the vaulted ceiling of beams of deep translucent ice; they were huddled into the thick furs heaped upon the Jotun bed, a slab of ice. "When will I start to hear your thoughts?" he asked; he had gotten the occasional stray jolt of what he'd thought might be borrowed lust during the sex, but he wasn't even sure those had been Loki.
"Never," Loki said. "I told you, sex doesn't make the binding, it's the consequence of the binding."
"Skeggi said—" Thor began.
Loki rolled his eyes. "Which of us is the Jotun? Are you going to trust him, or me?"
"To tell me the straightforward truth?" Thor said, propping himself on an elbow and eyeing Loki.
"Well, if I were lying now, you'd be hearing my every thought and then you'd know I wasn't lying," Loki said.
Loki put an arm out of the covers and waved it. "Thanks to your ill-advised attempts to poke the binding repeatedly," he said, "we do now have something of a mental connection, so long as you keep wearing the collar. And judging by recent events, you're going to keep wearing it indefinitely, since touching it seems to distract both of us a little too effectively. We're still not going to bond."
"I don't understand: if all it requires is the will, then why didn't it work during the challenge, when I tried?" Thor said, and then frowned. "Wait—did you ever really want to bind me? You didn't!"
Loki didn't say anything; Thor could almost feel him trying to coil his thoughts back up into their secure little vault, and prodded him to talk.
"Do you have any idea what Mother would say to me if I brought you home as my sex slave?" Loki said, which wasn't quite right. A step sideways from what he was really thinking: what Father would say, if Loki had bound Thor so.
"Do you think he would rather have seen you dead?" Thor said.
"Rather than see you my bound servant?" Loki said. "Of course he would."
He didn't say it or even feel it with particular violence: a calm certainty rather, as if he'd been asked the sum of two numbers. When Thor said nothing, but only felt his instinctive protest, Loki sat up among the furs and raised an eyebrow at him. "You forget, dear brother," he said. "You were raised in the lie as much as I was, so to you I was and am your brother. Our father has never labored under any such illusion. He's always known I was a Jotun foundling, lucky even to have my life by his generous gift. Of course he has never valued us equally. Really, it's been a relief to have an explanation." He smiled thinly. "Otherwise I was starting to believe I was simply inadequate through my personal failings."
He lay back down and curled over onto his side, giving Thor his back; his mind had closed up around his thoughts like a box shut tight. "We've an early morning," he said over his shoulder, "and a short time to prepare after; you'd better get some sleep."
Sif met them at the Bifrost, the warriors of Asgard already deployed upon the now-barren plains of Dorenn. Loki refused to inspect the troops and instead went to inspect the oak saplings: he'd had all the acorns planted in fertile ground, watered on a strict schedule by the light of the full moon, and had ordered Idunn and her maidens to sing to the tiny plants and encourage them along. They had put forth an impressive effort: most were already knee-high, and a few waist-high; Loki looked over these last one by one, inspecting every leaf above and below, and finally settled on one without a blemish: then he uprooted it gently and carefully, and brushed the dirt from its roots as he carried it back to his chambers.
Trailing him, Thor tried to get into Loki's head to find out whether the whole business was just for show or not. Loki said over his shoulder, "Stop that: we don't have time to lie around all day."
"I'm not thinking of—!" Thor said, although of course now he was.
"Well, I will be, if you keep trying to poke into my thoughts without an invitation," Loki said. "Mind your own business."
As far as Thor was concerned, it was his own business, and Loki had done a great deal of inviting; but Sif was already eyeing him doubtfully. Thor didn't really wish to parade his state of temporary madness before her and all of Asgard, particularly not in a hallway, and the smooth pale nape of Loki's neck was already looking worryingly toothsome. And his hands, streaked a little with dirt, which Thor could pin down to the sheets as he—
"Lady Sif," Loki said calmly, putting the oak sapling down on his work table, "you will excuse us."
"You said you wanted to hear the—" Sif began, then paused, looked between them oddly, and left. Thor didn't have time to wonder what she'd noticed: before the door was even shut he had Loki face down on the bed, his wrists pinned under one hand while with the other Thor ripped away the clothes between them.
"You—are—always—" Loki said, squirming maddeningly beneath him, "—always so—wretchedly inconvenient—" He groaned as Thor pressed into him.
"Yes," Thor said, paying no attention to the words; Loki's mind and body were one whole vast yearning towards him that he longed equally to answer.
Prudence would have kept the ancient enemies apart until the final moment, and have deployed the armies of Asgard and Jotunheim from their separate worlds; so of course Loki insisted on their assembling together on the plains of Mount Dorenn, at great inconvenience and for no apparent purpose, and then interleaved their ranks by troop, breaking apart battalions long practiced at fighting in company, and putting Aesir veterans shoulder to shoulder with grizzled Jotun warriors they had faced in the last war. There were three score skirmishes broken out on the ground before half the men even were deployed, and Loki refused to do anything about them, leaving Thor to settle every one of them.
By the third day, he was grown annoyed enough to give over trying to speak with the quarreling warriors, and instead merely landed and knocked all of them down before going to the next squabble; that night he stalked into Loki's enormous and luxurious pavilion, flung him on the bed, and fucked him until at last, in the third climax, he managed to perceive Loki's intent. "You want them as ready to strike one another as the enemy?" he demanded. "So—so they'll be more difficult to predict?"
"Mmrg," Loki said into the pillow, as resentfully as he could manage while limp with radiating contentment.
Thor sighed and went to tell Sif to stop quietly trying to rearrange the ranks; then he went back to bed and curled around Loki for the rest of the night, letting the quarrels break out where they would.
The power of the Bifrost cared not if the warriors it took were fighting as they were flung across the stars. On the dawn of battle, Thor stood with the front ranks and heard their voices roaring with his own as the light seized them and sent them—elsewhere: the glare faded from his sight and left him standing on a barren scraping of glittering rock beneath a strange and hazy sky, thick loops of nebular gas glowing violet and yellow and pink from one edge of dark horizon to the other, and shining ones everywhere around them, leaping at once for their throats.
He had come across with a thousand prime warriors, Jotuns and Aesir both; before the Bifrost opened again, half of them were dead, and Thor was fighting savagely for his own life. Sif was beside him in the next wave, and Volstagg after that; he could not spare even a moment to nod them greeting, every motion required by the battle. But more warriors were coming, quicker even than the shining ones could kill, and soon they had established a bulwark and opened a space for the deployment to continue.
Loki had given only one direction: to have none. "Decide your strokes only at the last minute," he said. "Make no tactical plans, no sequence of moves. If you can, change your mind even as you strike, and don't be afraid to do stupid things. They'll serve you as well as clever."
It was a strange and difficult way to fight; Thor had to struggle against himself as much as the shining ones, his body used to patterns, remembering the right order of things—which was the wrong order, against an enemy who could see the strokes come before they fell. But he began to find the way of it as he fought on and on, letting go of training and of skill, instead brawling away as though he were a drunken youth picking quarrels in the back alleys of the universe. There was even something of play to it, if the matter had been anything other than desperate: there were so many of them.
Too many, he thought, at the close of the first week of battle; and with a strange gnawing fear in his belly fought his way to a high place over the wasteland battlefield to see. The shining ones were an ocean without end around the small dark continent made of Jotun and Aesir warriors. The army had all come across now, and they were fighting with all the passion and ferocity at their command, but it would not be enough; it could not be enough. Still more of the shining ones were creeping out from between the rocks, out of canyons and deep caves, as though they had slept long hungry ages beneath the surface of the world and now came to join the feasting.
It hurt to think that all might be for naught: that they might have come so far, and done so much, and still would fall; Thor wondered if they would even do enough here to slow the onslaught on Asgard, when at last it came. The calm certainty of defeat was a hard knot in his throat, and then Thor realized after a moment it was not his own. Neither was the smooth feel of polished wood beneath his fingers. Thor slew another three of the shining ones and turned to look for Loki: and saw him standing on a raised hill amidst all their forces, alone but for one warrior at his side—
Hothur, Thor recognized suddenly, and he flung himself into the air as he saw Loki kneel down upon the ground, and open his armor over his chest.
Loki had given the knife, smooth-carved of new oak, into Hothur's hand; upon a low stone altar he had poured out a ring of ichor so potent that it hissed green smoke into the air, and within the ring a bed of coals lay waiting, the size of a man's heart. Loki had his hands out over the altar and was chanting spell-words as Thor flung himself down in hot rage and knocked them both to the earth. Hothur sprawled at his feet, the knife tumbling from his hands, and Thor seized him by the throat and shook him and threw him down into the ranks of the warriors.
"I would have spared you," Loki said, already back on his feet as Thor turned on him. "It might as well have been someone who would enjoy it."
Thor shouted at him, "What do you think you're doing?"
"Saving Asgard," Loki said calmly. "And Jotunheim, and Midgard, and all Yggdrasil, for that matter: they'll devour it all, dear brother, in the end. Do you think we can win this war? And keep in mind that I can tell if you're lying."
"And this is your answer?" Thor said.
Loki shrugged and spread his arms. "If I'm to die anyway, I may as well die in a suitably dramatic and heroic fashion. I've grown rather bored of scurrying and hiding in dark holes the last few years. Do let's skip the tedious farewells: the spell won't hold for much longer. Tell Father—" He paused, and smiled a little. "No, perhaps not." He held out the knife across both his hands.
Thor looked at the knife, Loki's calm readiness to die a smooth impenetrable wall in his mind. He reached out and took it in his hand, and then he put it upon the altar and brought Mjölnir down upon it: shattering blade and altar both into splinters and rubble. He took Loki by the arm and thrust past the mental wall even as he did, to the tumult of fear and regrets beneath.
"No," Thor said softly. "You will not die either to spite our father, or to hide from him. If he answers all your fears, and when he rouses does not meet you with whatever praise or honor would satisfy your heart, if you cannot yet believe in his love for you again, then you will content yourself with mine.
"And brother, if we should lose this battle and this war, together we will fight them until our death. We will set fire to all our ground as we retreat, and at the end, if they should drive us to the very roots of Yggdrasil, then still we will be together, and as we fall we will bring down the World Tree with us, that they shall never again spread out among the stars to feast."
Loki was staring at him as he spoke; when Thor finished he said nothing, only stared and stared, until Thor uneasily said, "What?" and followed Loki's gaze turning to the battlefield, where the shining ones were breaking off the fighting. They were fleeing, all of them, into cracks and crevices and holes in the barren earth; burying themselves away even as the warriors of Asgard and Jotunheim gave pursuit.
The army returning to Asgard was diminished by nearly a quarter, and they bore each and every one of their dead away: the giants carried great biers piled with warriors of both realms, and the Aesir guarded their retreat from the few small scuttling shining ones who dared to risk death for a last taste of flesh. Loki stood cloak-wrapped at the point of the Bifrost and watched over the withdrawal, spinning between his hands a new spell: an alarm, which would sound in Asgard and in Jotunheim if ever a new rift were opened from the shining world.
"Can they truly be defeated so?" Thor said, still wary of the reversal. "If we withdraw, surely they will begin to harry us again—"
"Oh, a few of them, now and then," Loki said. "We'll have to deal with one or two sneaking across the dark to one of our worlds, and occasionally there may be a larger raid. But they'll never come against us in force so long as we remain determined to destroy Yggdrasil if they defeat us, any more than you would deliberately run yourself onto a pike you could see aimed at your belly."
Three days passed, the Bifrost a steady flash like a beacon-light swinging around taking battalions away; and then when it spoke again it brought a messenger from Asgard, from Frigga: Odin stirred, and they were bid to his side at once.
Thor put his hand on Loki's shoulder in wordless reminder, but as they crossed the long span back to the citadel, his own neck and shoulders felt as though they had been forged from one solid piece of iron, clenched in misery. Thor could not even withdraw from the too-strong sensation: since the battlefield, a second heartbeat seemed to shadow his own in his breast. The low inchoate murmuring of Loki's thoughts was ever in the back of his mind, a constant stream into which he could cup a hand and drink with only a little effort, and some came through whether he willed or no.
But that murmuring went deep and silent as they came closer to Odin's chamber, and stilled entirely as they parted and went one to either side of the bed. Frigga smiled at them weary and sad from the foot of the bed, and reached forward to part the golden light for them.
Odin's eyes opened half-blind and seeking, and he put out his hands; Thor reached and took the one, and after a moment Loki the other; and Thor felt Odin's grip upon him like a phantom. Holding both their hands, Odin smiled briefly; his eyes drifting heavy-lidded shut again. "All is well with Asgard," he whispered.
"Yes, Father," Thor said. "You were right."
Odin smiled again, and said nothing more. It was not like his usual awakenings; his strength ought to have been returning swiftly now. Thor looked at Loki, and back at their mother, who shook her head. Odin's clasp tightened on his hand. "Do not fear for me," Odin said, soft enough to strain after. "Long have I desired the deep rest, the sleep of my ancestral kin. I am ready to leave Asgard in your hands."
In whose hands? Thor wondered, or rather Loki did, with a taste like bitter herbs upon the tongue.
Odin held both their hands clasped; he turned his head a fraction, to look on Loki. "So you have united the thrones after all."
"Have I?" Loki said, after a moment: longing and fear for a clear answer bright in him as a blade.
Odin did not give it. He only smiled again, with a great effort it seemed. Then breath sighed out of him, and his eyes closed once more. The hand in Thor's grip went slack, and he laid it gently down upon the coverlet.
Thor left Frigga, her maidens draping round the bed with fine curtains: he stepped out upon the wide balcony, and went to Loki where he stood hands clenched upon the railing, thoughts struggling around within him in furious circles, devouring themselves and bearing themselves anew.
"Now what more do you want?" Thor said, looking at the curve of the back of his neck, regret and exasperation mingled. "Will you not be content unless he awakens once more, proclaims you dearer to him than all Asgard, and crowns you with his own hand a second time?"
"Easy for you to say," Loki said, savagely. "When have you had cause to fear for your place, or doubted your worth in his eyes?"
Thor sighed. "You would not have believed anything he had said, now or before, had it met all your hopes."
Loki roused, pushed off the rail and rounded on him. "And you seem remarkably complacent," he spat, "considering that you've been denied the throne. Or have you decided you don't want it, after all?"
"Ah," Thor said blandly, "but surely I need merely wait for you to make me a magnanimous gift of it."
Loki glared at him. Thor laughed despite his sorrow, and laughed again to feel him prickling up like some sharp-needled hedgehog, and laughed once more at Loki's rising fury in return for the image Thor did not scruple to share. Thor caught Loki by the neck and drew him close when he would have wrenched away, and kissing him told Loki all, easily, without words: his love and trust, his sense of the rightness of things. Of Loki stepping in to Odin's place, of Thor yet the shield and weapon of all Asgard and also Loki's shield against himself, a reservoir of bright strength when Loki's twisting mind descended along dark paths.
Loki broke away after a moment. "Enough, or we'll be coupling on the balcony, and that's more of a show than the army really needs to see," he said, but a reluctant thread of gladness was weaving through his tangled thoughts like a single golden line, bright as Thor's own joy.
Thor turned with him to watch the army returning still over the Bifrost; he put his hand on Loki's back and raised the other to the warriors below, who looked up and cheered them both.
Loki sniffed. "I am keeping the throne, though," he said. "It makes it much easier to look down on everyone."
"You may as well," Thor said cheerfully. "You'll have to attend at all the feasting, of course. And do honors to the warriors who died well. And drink the health of every man who slew an enemy—"
Loki's eyes narrowed at him. "At least I'll have the consolation of giving you orders."
"I may even obey some of them," Thor said, and deliberately thought of taking Loki to bed and asking him for one command after another—
Loki's cheeks flushed a little with color, and he scowled. "I don't think you're feeling well," he said sulkily. "You're behaving very peculiarly."
"I feel splendid," Thor said, and kissed him once more.
= End =