The part of her that was still Loki was astonished, after the long months of clumsy, heavy pregnancy, at how quickly the birth occurred. She should, of course, have remembered that: mares in the royal stable tended to foal at night, preferred no one to be watching, and by the time the two princes arrived in the morning, still in their night clothes, to admire the new foal, it was generally up, dry, and wobbling about.
Of course this was the way, for, despite generations of domestication, a horse was still a prey animal, and its babies vulnerable. Swift birth and the ability to run soon after were vital to the species, as well as vigilance. Loki had seen perfectly gentle, sweet mares become monsters of maternal anxiety, seeking to drive away anyone but their most trusted grooms: curious princes. The stable cat. Anyone who might pose a threat to their foal.
She had also seen the reverse happen: shy, reserved mares become welcoming, approaching the stall door as though proud to show off the new arrival. See how beautiful my baby is!
Loki, lying upright on her breastbone, looking at the wet, confused little creature beside her, rather suspected she would choose the second option, were there anyone around to see. The little dark head had lifted, ears crumpled sideways and eyes unfocused but deeply curious, wavering but already strong. Loki turned her graceful head toward the foal, a sudden swell of warmth filling her heart, filling every part of her. Welcome. Welcome, little one.
That was what she would have said, had she still possessed the power of speech. What came out, instead, was a deep, chuckling, tender whicker. Words, it seemed, were not needed.
There were no serious predators left on Asgard and the part of her that remained Loki knew that. The rest of her, being a mare, knew far more deeply that she must get up, move away from the scene of the birth, from the afterbirth that would attract scavengers, must take her baby somewhere… grass. Water. Others.
With great care to avoid stepping on her new child, Loki unfolded her forelegs, stretched them out before herself, gave a heave and a scramble and was on her feet. Then she nosed her baby again, all over, a wet, trembling little creature, dark coat fuzzy, tiny startled face whiskered. She whickered again, encouraging. The baby-- Sleipnir-- raised his head again, scrabbled with his forelegs. Somewhere deep inside, Loki was there to count them, to see four forelegs where only two should be, and Loki would have been concerned, perhaps horrified, certainly deeply worried, if the mare had not been so powerfully content and proud. It was impossible to argue with her, and so she simply watched as her beautiful new little one scrambled, spreading his forelegs before him like the fingers on a hand, bracing himself as he untangled the four long hindlegs behind him.
Hooked the middle two together and tipped over sideways with a tiny grunt of frustration. Loki lowered her head to touch him, offer encouragement, urge a second effort.
This time he made it halfway to his feet before his treacherous forelegs, all of them, skittered off in divergent directions and he tumbled forward onto his chin.
He rested a moment this time, as though the effort had winded him. Loki took a step away, to give him room. Once again, Sleipnir spread out his forelegs, but this time he was clever, this time as he lay canted over on one hip, he used only the outside, underneath hindleg to push with, twisted it neatly under himself and pushed while the other three and the forelegs scrabbled for purchase. He wobbled dangerously for a moment, tilting to the left, both left-side forelegs stilting under him in an effort to save the situation…
And then he was up, looking as much startled as proud, oversized ears swiveling and tiny brush-tail whisking in surprise. Loki lowered her head, and Sleipnir reached out to touch his muzzle to hers.
Lost his balance and tumbled onto his side once again.
Nearly as soon as he hit the grass, however, he was flailing his long legs, wriggling until he lay upright, and demonstrated that he understood the trick now, hind legs for pushing, forelegs for support and balance, and almost immediately was back on his feet. Had Loki had hands, she would have applauded. Instead, she whickered, and Sleipnir began to nose at her, instinctively knowing what he needed. Her udder had been tight and stretched these last… days? Hours? It did not much matter to the mare, but the feeling of the foal's whiskery little muzzle nudging under her belly, then his rubbery lips tightening on her teat, produced a feeling of relief, of contentment. Loki reached down to crop the grass beneath her front feet while her baby drank his vital first milk. They would have to move on soon, but first he needed to gain strength.
He drank with vigour, snuffling and whisking his tail, butting at her impatiently when the milk seemed to come slowly, a proud and strong colt foal who would be a great stallion someday.
Finished his first breakfast, blinked at his mother out of unfocused eyes, licked his milky lips and fell over onto his side, fast asleep.
Loki rested one hindleg and kept watch.
Now that he had learned the trick of controlling his eight legs, Sleipnir wanted to use them constantly. When Loki set off in a purposeful walk, Sleipnir scampered after her, close as her shining bay hide. But he was brave and greatly daring, so when his mother stopped to crop grass he would set out on great adventures, so far from her he was out of range of her whisking tail as she lazily brushed away flies. He circled her in great circles, just outside her shadow, in a hopping, scrambling canter, brush-tail raised over his back in excitement and wonder.
Loki stood patiently, eating grass, watching her great explorer as he circumnavigated his world in the other direction, so daringly far away that his mother would have had to take a step forward to touch him.
And then, because all great explorations end safely at home, he nuzzled into her flank, dipped his head under her belly, and drank a long comforting draught of milk. Then he folded his many legs and tumbled almost gracefully to the grass, secure in the knowledge that mother was there to protect him.
Eight legs were more than most foals had to learn to contend with, but Sleipnir did not know how to count, did not know any other foals, and so he had no idea there was anything strange about his complement. He learned quickly, became confident, over-confident, even, venturing forth to investigate the broad-winged creature resting on a bush and then, when it fluttered into the air, he gave a great leap, lowering his head and twisting his body, hind legs kicking up and always with an extra foreleg to catch him if he put himself off-balance.
Loki knew her job was not only to provide and protect, but to teach. Their play was to run, Sleipnir as fast as his newness allowed, Loki fast enough to stay at his flank, providing someone to race against. Sleipnir was fleet, though not much faster than most foals, but when he changed direction, bucking and shying at great monsters-- a shadow, a leaf, the wind on a flower-- he was quicker, was steadier, had learned to catch himself and use his spare legs as spare balance. He learned to gallop, to change direction, to run in great sweeping strides changing leads for the pure delight of the thing.
He learned to spread his forelegs, two on each side, knees buckled, to reach down for grass, sweet and fresh. He learned to dip his muzzle into cool streams, spluttered as he dunked his nostrils into the water, learned to pull it into his mouth and down his throat. Soon he was eating grass nearly as often as he drank milk.
Soon he only drank milk when he was tired, worn out by adventure and wonder, wanting comfort more than nourishment.
He was growing quickly, ears no longer squashed and oversized, bulging forehead beginning to grow into proportion, baby fuzz of his coat shedding as he scratched himself on trees, rolled in sandy places with all eight legs kicking delightedly in the air. He would be black, like his father, except for the inside hind foot on the right side.
Loki watched, and saw, and thought. She thought there was a decision to be made, until she realized there was none: her son, her beautiful, strange, wonderful son, was a horse. There was magic in him, yes, but it was the magic of a horse.
There were no wild horses on Asgard, and on the realms where wild horses lived, there were no horses with eight legs. That being the case, there was no question of leaving Sleipnir here alone, or even staying in mare-form and living with him. He was a horse, and horses require other horses.
Horses, as Loki knew perfectly well from experience, from the raised head and pleased step forward of his own charger, do not exactly need men and women, but when they have them, they learn to appreciate them.
There was no question of abandoning her son to live alone and lonely, or of turning him into a shy strange creature with no companion but his mother.
One day, when Sleipnir was cropping grass a short distance from his mother, she lay down in the meadow and rose again in a new form: on hindlegs only, with a strange and hairless hide.
He was very startled, but really not as startled as he made himself out to be, because it was such fun to snort and puff and leap into great sideways shies. He bolted, but in a circle around his mother, who smelled different and yet the same. His mother, in her strange new shape, turned calmly in a circle until Sleipnir was calm enough, and devoured by enough curiosity, to approach her, head extended, nostrils wide and quivering, ears cocked tightly forward.
His mother reached out a long naked foreleg, with long slender things instead of a hoof, and scratched him in the very place where she usually used her lips and teeth, right at the withers where his neck joined his back. Sleipnir stretched out his neck, wiggled his upper lip, offered to scratch her in return but she used her other not-hoof to gently turn his head aside, so he wriggled and twisted his neck and flapped his lip at the air.
After that his mother spent nearly equal time in both forms, which soon was not puzzling to him anymore. In her usual form she provided milk, chased him, let him chase her. In her other form, she use her clever not-hoofs to scratch him more thoroughly than lips or teeth or even rolling could do. There was a place at the base of his jaw that was lovely.
She rubbed his legs, which was startling at first-- the legs must be protected, he did not want his legs to be touched-- but he grew used to that, because of course his mother would do him no harm. Soon she was touching his hoofs, picking up his eight feet, just to lift at first and then to hold, and it became a game, to balance on seven feet while she held the eighth.
She made strange noises, a great many noises, more than a horse would make, but he came to be used to them, almost to find them soothing.
One day, when Sleipnir was still shaggy, still leggy, but not a baby anymore, nearly as tall as she, his mother set out purposefully and Sleipnir followed. He galloped ahead, making great sweeping circles around her, for he was old enough now to be independent, did not really need her, not in the same way.
The left the familiar meadows and woods where he had grown up, and now he came back to walk with her, then to trot along purposefully, mother in the lead, obviously knowing where she was going.
And then he smelled them. Then he saw them:
Other horses. Many of them, young like himself, in a great grassy meadow, all together. Sleipnir hesitated, head up and every muscle in his body tense with fascination. He whinnied shrilly, unable to control himself, though indeed he did not want to. In the meadow heads came up, and other young horses came trotting toward them, tails up, filled with the same delighted curiosity as he was.
He hardly noticed his mother changing into her other shape, walking along next to him, until they came to a barrier between him and the other young horses. Sleipnir reached out, long black neck stretching, nostrils quivering, and the other young horses spun away and galloped off, then stopped and looked back as if unable to understand why Sleipnir was not chasing them.
And then there was an opening in the barrier, his mother had opened it with her not-hoofs, and Sleipnir plunged past her into the meadow. Before him, a dun colt rose on his hindlegs and boxed, so Sleipnir slewed sideways to aim a great and powerful kick very carefully nowhere near the dun. Then two chestnuts and a bay galloped up and all five young horses bolted off together.
Loki was leaning on the fence, watching the weanlings gallop and chase, part of him wishing he was still a mare and could join them, part of him wishing his transformation back to a man included trousers, when he heard someone walk up next to him.
"Hello, Thor," he said, without turning his head.
"Welcome back, brother," Thor replied, and there was a restrained and trembling note in his voice that was very near the deep chuckling whicker Loki remembered from those months ago. "We have missed you."
"Yes, the sounds of the search constantly disturbed my sleep," Loki scoffed, but half-heartedly.
"You know Heimdall watched. Had there been any danger near you or-- "
"Sleipnir, we would have come to protect you." Thor paused. "Heimdall also saw your return. I have been waiting for you."
There was a sensation of something draping over the fence rail beside him, and Loki looked down to see clothing, his own clothing, laid out for him.
"I did not bring your helmet, I felt it might startle… Sleipnir," Thor explained. "But I thought you might like to make your return to court-- "
"Clothed? Yes, thank you, Thor." There was sarcasm in his tone, but affection, too. "That was thoughtful of you. And will you accompany your nephew and myself to speak to Father?"
"Certainly," Thor replied. "I am delighted to finally make my nephew's acquaintance."
"Your nephew is a horse," Loki informed him.
"I can see that. You can usually tell by the mane and tail."
"Not a shapeshifter, not a being under enchantment. He really is a horse."
"That is not surprising, since my brother was a mare when my nephew was born." Thor looked at Loki, head tilted slightly. "Why do you make such a point of it?"
"I would not have it said that I abandoned my son," Loki mumbled. "But-- " He gestured toward the meadow, where now Sleipnir cropped grass contentedly, while the dun colt's chin rested on his withers, and the bay's nose was buried in clover next to his.
"But he is a horse, and needs other horses," Thor finished the thought.
"Yes," Loki mumbled. "Though he is accustomed to men as well. I have been careful about that. Sleipnir!" he called, gently, and the colt's head came up, ears pricked forward, before Sleipnir blinked and went back to his grass.
Thor leaned on the fence beside his brother. "And what will you have his fate be?"
"I had thought to present him to Father." Loki's mouth twisted, though not in bitterness. "He is a good horseman, Father. He will ensure… "
"Yes," Thor agreed. Thor was being very agreeable. "You are being very agreeable," Thor said.
"It must be the last vestiges of mare," Loki shrugged. "Pleasant creatures, mares. Had there been a wild herd to join I might have remained her." Thor patted his shoulder, scratched teasingly at the base of his neck. Without malice, Loki kicked him, and Thor laughed.
Sleipnir was scratching the withers of the dun colt with his teeth when his mother walked away. He did not look for her.