Lying, like many things, becomes easier with practice.
Sometimes Thor claps his arm around Loki’s shoulder and claims Loki for his brother. On another day, Loki might smile and say Thor is his servant. On some days, tired of those tales, they are strangers who have happened upon each other, or Thor is an OutLander lost in these woods (fine jest, if their audience knew Thor) and Loki is helping him on his way. They might be friends on a journey, or cousins on their way to a clan gathering.
At times it’s a new lie every day, at others days pass that allow them to shape the next story, the next tale, the next reason to be where they are, their next selves, for their next unwitting audience.
Sometimes it’s easier to tell a story than to tell the truth.
There are times when even Loki does not think it will work, but there is something in Thor’s good humour and bluff honesty that convinces more effectively than the subtlest of lies .
By the time it is the summer leaves’ turn to fall, Loki is even comfortable enough to joke about it, telling Thor he’s made an honest man out of him. He doesn’t need to look at Thor to know that he’s smiling.
Still, none of their lies can be more dangerous than the truth of who they are: the Queen’s renegade huntsman and his fugitive quarry, on the run from the Queen’s eyes and ears. Staying alive, staying free, requires every trick either of them has, several they learn from each other, and a few they devise together.
“You were never such a liar before you met me,” Loki says, one day, after Thor has not only convinced a miller and his family that they are brothers (this, it seems, is Thor’s favourite lie), but also won from them the promise of shelter from an oncoming winter storm.
Thor’s eyes are laughing when they meet Loki’s. “Before you, there were many things I was not.”
“Eloquent as always,” Loki mutters, but the corner of his mouth tips upward against his will.
There are also many things Loki was not, before Thor.
Loki has always been suspicious, and quick to think the worst of everyone he meets. It is an instinct that has served him well, both in the halls of the Queen’s palace, and here in his new life as a runaway in the Dark Forest.
Thor’s arrival is a revelation in more ways than one.
He knows Thor is coming long before the huntsman finds his tracks. The Dark Forest speaks to those with the ear to hear it, for while these woods are thick with the Queen’s spies, many are those within the woods who owe her nothing, least of all their allegiance. And because Loki has hardly survived so long by being a fool, he has learned to listen to the forest when it speaks.
Thor is not the first the Queen has sent for him. Loki did not expect him to be. It is not for nothing that he fled the palace. It is not for nothing that the Queen will not suffer him to live. Loki wonders if their shared history is what has stayed the Queen’s hand so long. Were he any anyone else, Loki has no doubt that Thor would have been the first she chose for the pursuit.
There have been many before Thor, many since Loki slipped through the Queen’s grasp like smoke, cast off his identity as prince of the realm, took up the mantle of fugitive in the Dark Forest.
But Thor is the first that Loki has allowed to come so close.
Loki knows that the Queen’s huntsman is special. The huntsman knows no law but the Queen’s own, and this makes him unique amongst all the faceless men the Queen has sent after him. So when the forest tells him that Thor has finally crossed the borders of the Dark Woods, he waits, watches, and finally lets Thor find him.
He has marked how Thor sidesteps his traps with ease; how Thor, too, listens to the forest; and most of all, how Thor has come alone, and seems to be in no hurry at all to find Loki.
This will not be the first time he meets Thor. They met a long time ago, when Loki was new to the Queen’s palace, as was a savage, wild-eyed orphan boy. They were not friends – how could they be? – a prince, even if he was from the OuterLands and no blood relation of the King, could not be friends with a foundling.
But they had an understanding, of sorts.
For his pale skin and his OutLander origins (which the people of the realm knew as a place of snow and ice), Loki earned the name by which the Queen’s court came to know him – no small insult in a court full of warriors for whom the greatest honour was falling in battle. To such men, Loki bore the marks of those who spent their time hiding amongst books, unable or unwilling to lift a sword. They named him after the snows of his country and called him princess, whispering when he came near, drawing their circles close around them even as they drew away from him.
Loki’s presence was purportedly to ensure that the OuterLands would have a voice in the Palace, but even as a child, he knew that his true role was that of hostage, to ensure the continued obedience of the OuterLands. The folk of the Palace bore no love for the OuterLands or their people, and least of all for the OuterLands prince who had come, as treaty and custom demanded, to stay among them.
When Loki needed refuge from those who mocked him for his OutLander blood, he would seek sanctuary in the huntsman’s hut, was one of the last places in the palace they would think to look. Often enough, Thor would be there. They were often silent, for there was little of which to speak, and even then, Loki was careful to say nothing which could be used against him.
But Thor would look at him with wordless understanding, make room for him, and keep the secret of where he was. Sometimes Loki sought out Thor’s silent, comforting presence, simply because it was enough to know that there was one person in all the realm who did not hate him.
Eventually, the passage of time saw Thor assume the post of the Palace’s huntsman, by virtue of his knowledge of the Dark Woods and his talent at keeping their monsters at bay; just as it saw Loki survive the schemes and intrigues of his childhood.
When Loki fled, he wondered what Thor thought. He did not wonder if the Queen would send Thor after him, because he knew she would. The Queen’s huntsman, after all, was the best tracker in the realm.
Loki wonders if this is why he trusts Thor now. Thor has kept the secret of where he is before; he might yet do so again.
He decides the time for hiding is over and steps out from behind the tree.
“Greetings, Huntsman,” he says, without preamble. “Let us not pretend we do not know why you are here.”
Thor turns around. He does not look surprised.
“It is good to see you well, Loki,” he says.
He does not look as if he is in any hurry to cut out Loki’s heart. Or to take him back to the Palace. Or, as if he is anything but a man in the woods who has by happy chance run into someone he knows.
Loki is not quite sure what to make of Thor addressing him by name, but he knows better than to let his uncertainty show.
Loki knows that Thor responds best to honesty, so he asks why Thor has sought him out.
Thor responds, as Loki knew he would, with equal candour.
“She said you were a monster,” he remarks, meeting Loki’s gaze without fear. Both of them know of which she he speaks. “I thought that did not sound like you.”
“Surely you must have heard the rumours,” Loki says.
“There were whispers enough about me when I arrived,” Thor returns. “I know how much truth there was in them.”
“How kind of you,” Loki says.
“Not kind,” Thor says. “I know how far to trust rumour.”
Loki surprises himself when he smiles.
“I know what brings you here,” he says, expertly steering the conversation, like a skittish horse, back to where it began. “What I do not know is what you intend to do.”
Surely Thor does not mean to kill him or he would have already made the attempt.
“Who says I intend to do anything?”
Loki laughs. It is not a happy laugh. “Don’t tell me she promised you nothing for securing my return. Why else would you be here?”
Thor levels a strangely disarming gaze at him. “I am here because she said you were a monster. And I am certain you are no such thing.”
“Then you are a fool,” Loki says, the words out before he can stop them. Had he practised blind trust in the manner Thor is so foolishly doing so now, Loki would have died in the Palace long ago.
Thor smiles for the first time. “Not a fool,” he says, seemingly not insulted at all. “Only a man who thinks he knows you better than she does.”
To that, Loki has no answer.
He wonders if Thor realises that this is the longest conversation they have ever had.
Thor’s arrival has been (to say the least), a surprise, one that makes Loki hesitate. He knows as well as any other that a man on his side is worth more than yet another corpse to feed to the forest (it is always hungry, and often grateful), and it keeps him guessing. He has been so very, very bored, after all, and he welcomes the challenge that calls itself Thor.
When they exchange their tales, Loki finds that the Mirror, and the Queen’s bidding, has brought Thor to the Dark Forest in pursuit of him. He smiles as he tells Thor that the Mirror, too, has driven him to the Dark Forest, although he does not tell Thor how, and he certainly does not tell Thor why.
Loki soon discovers that Thor knows no more than the bare bones of his story: that Loki was a prince of the realm until he fled for crimes the Queen refuses to disclose, crimes for which the Queen has vowed that he will be punished.
At first, Thor gives Loki reason to think he knows more than he lets on, particularly when they speak of the men the Queen sent to find him.
“They never found the bodies,” Thor says, easily. His eyes meet Loki’s, and if Loki didn’t know better he would have thought Thor’s gaze far too knowing. “It was… convenient.”
“Too convenient for you?”
Thor laughs. “Perhaps,” he says, and that is the end of it.
Loki is certain Thor has always known more than he will ever let on when Thor shows Loki that he knows one of Loki’s greatest secrets.
They are shivering after being caught out in a hard rain, and the damp tinder Thor is trying to build a fire with stubbornly refuses to spark.
Thor glances in Loki’s direction. “A little assistance,” he says pointedly, “would not be amiss.”
Loki shivers. “I am not sure what that would accomplish. I could hardly light this fire faster than you.”
Thor is soaked through – he certainly looks as miserable as Loki feels – but he smiles at Loki suddenly, and the look in his eyes then warms Loki better than any fire would have. “We both know that is not what I mean,” he says.
He continues with his work, and neither of them remark on it when, moments later, the tinder sparks and catches, flaring brighter than the damp should have allowed.
It is the first time since Loki has set foot in the Queen’s domain that he has worked his magic with someone there to see it.
In moments like these, moments when Thor pulls him close and calls him brother, Loki feels a shiver run down his spine , and he thinks of how they could be more than this, and of everything he is willing to risk to find out.
Thor smells of woodsmoke and fires waiting for a spark, and Loki thinks he knows how to kindle the inevitable blaze.
Many days later, Loki asks what changed Thor’s mind. What Thor considered reason enough to forsake the Queen’s service and turn from huntsman to hunted. What was in in him that Thor found worthy of protection. Why it is that Loki is still alive.
Thor only smiles, and says that he made up his mind long before he left the Palace.
This, naturally, leaves Loki distinctly dissatisfied.
Loki is unsurprised to find that Thor is a good man to have on his side. Thor knows the woods better than any other in the realm, and Loki finds many a reason to appreciate a huntsman’s skills, not only when the winter storms set in, but in simple tasks like lighting a fire and running game. And Thor’s talents are at their most valuable when they are evading the Queen’s men and the strange beasts of the Dark Woods.
Loki has always been good at being unnoticed whenever he wishes, but there is much Thor knows about the Dark Woods that Loki would never have learned from the books in the Palace’s vast library.
There are other things Loki is surprised to find himself grateful for: the absence of the need to dissemble, , for not needing to pretend to be anyone, or anything else, when he is with Thor. In some ways they remain the outsiders who found their way into the Queen’s court, and that which set them aside from the Court in their childhood has only served to unite them now that they are grown.
Many are the days that pass in the Dark Forest, and many are the narrow escapes that the Queen’s huntsman and the Queen’s quarry have had. Their ability to elude the Queen’s grasp has brought no respite from the hunters she sends after them. Even as they run, the forest brings them tales of the Queen: how the kingdom fears she has lost her mind, of the toll the search is taking on the army, as men are sent, at first one by one, and then by the score, to find them. Gradually, too, come whispers of discontent in the furthest provinces, as the Palace begins to conscript their people for the hunt, a quest which many have begun to see as madness.
If the Queen’s madness ended only with the hunt, it might still have been well enough. The stories that drift into the Dark Woods do not end there, for they say she spends days shut away with her Mirror, that she has changed beyond all recognition. Fear stalks the Palace as the Queen sees spies in every corner, doubting all, trusting none but her Mirror. Advisers, men-at-arms and servants alike are put to the sword for treason it seems only the Queen can see. She cares for nothing but to find Loki, and both the Palace and her realm suffer for it.
Soon enough the rumours become tales of simmering rebellion both within the capital and the Palace, and as the season turns towards spring, the paths of the huntsman and the hunted divide.
Loki wants them to return. There is no better time, he says, with the kingdom on the edge of chaos, while fear rules. The realm needs but the slightest spark for the ignition of open revolt. They can do something, he argues: together, they can make a world where there will be no need to run, no need to hide.
Thor wants them to stay. It is too dangerous, he says, too uncertain, and he would not risk Loki now.
Loki knows a man who will not be moved when he sees one, and accepts Thor’s direction more easily than it seems Thor had expected.
Thor seems happy enough, and so it is that he expects nothing, least of all what happens, when Loki offers him the apple.
Loki thinks to himself that, as wise to the ways of the woods as he is, Thor should have known better than to trust him.
The apple holds only a sedative, but Thor, it seems, is tired enough that it puts him to sleep. Easier, then, for Loki to secure him and bind him to an ash tree; and make his preparations for his return to the Palace. It would be easier, of course, if Thor was with him, but Loki has risked too much already.
When Thor wakes, he looks around wildly until he finds Loki; and it seems to Loki that he calms when he sees that Loki is unharmed, paying little heed to his own restraints.
Loki finds this strange, but the time has come for the end of all the dissembling, and Loki cannot put it off any further.
Loki sighs and says, “If you refuse to believe that I can take care of myself, it seems I will need to prove it to you.”
Loki looks at him and whispers something under his breath, and as easily as that, Thor cannot move. His startled eyes meet Loki’s, and Loki gazes back at him with every appearance of contrition.
“I had hoped it would not come to this, Thor,” Loki says, closing the distance between them, looking for all the world as if he truly means it. “I hoped you would understand.”
Thor makes as if to speak, but finds that the very air seems to steal his words from him.
“Not now, Thor,” Loki says, by way of an answer to the question Thor cannot ask. “Not when I have so much to tell you.”
There is something dangerous in Loki’s voice now, something very much like the crack of frozen ice over the Black River in the heart of winter, hiding all the promise of the dark, endless waters below.
“I’ve been lying to you, Thor,” Loki says, and the words spill out of him like a torrent, “I have been lying to you all along.”
“And now you won’t believe anything I say, I can tell you everything.”
The Mirror is Loki’s, now. It was the Queen’s at first, her wisest advisor and her closest companion, but Loki whispers to it every day, bends its mind to his own, and now the Mirror says what Loki wants it to say, does what he wants it to do. Loki wanted the Mirror to drive the Queen mad, to whisper to her the way Loki has whispered to it, to turn her against herself, against her own people.
And this the Mirror has done.
With the Mirror’s ear, it was easy enough for Loki to force the Queen’s hand. Easy enough to give the palace guards the slip. Easy enough to find the woods, and then easy enough to wait, because Loki knew that the Queen would send her best after him, one by one.
It was easier yet, when her soldiers came, to trap them in shadow and beguile them in smoke, to lose them wandering in the woods. Slowly, surely, Loki wore them down, wandering ever deeper into the forests and drawing them in. One by one, he wrote them all out of the pages of their own stories.
When Loki and Thor both leave the clearing in which they meet alive, Loki had not expected Thor’s inexplicable decision to keep him in the world of the living, and he does not expect Thor’s equally incomprehensible drive to keep him safe.
And to Loki’s own surprise, Loki himself is not ready when he finds that the heart that the Queen meant to cut out of him has betrayed him after all.
“At last,” he says, “Truth among our lies. I am almost sorry to do this to you, brother,” he says, as he smiles, using Thor’s favourite lie, “But you cannot change my mind.”
Loki shifts, and Thor tenses, thinking that Loki means to end it – end him – now.
“None of that now,” Loki says, and it is not necessary to counterfeit the weariness in his voice. “I do not mean to harm you, though I doubt you believe that.”
Loki leans over him.
“You will hate me for this,” Loki says, so sure, so very sure, “But I would rather have you alive, and angry. I know you will try to stop me; and you cannot stop me. So much of what you have done is founded on your mistaken – and very foolish – belief in my innocence, and I cannot risk not knowing what you will do now that you know the truth.”
Loki rests his forehead against Thor’s.
“When this is over,” he says, quietly, “Come to me, if you still want to. I know you can find me. You found me once, you can find me again, just as easily. Be my brother. My champion.” Loki pauses, then. “My consort, if that is what you wish. But be by my side.”
Loki laughs. “We both know that I could use the magic to do all this, but if I need a spell to keep you with me, that is not worth anything at all.”
Loki touches Thor’s face then, and his fingers feel so very, very cold.
“Sleep now, brother,” Loki whispers, using Thor’s favourite lie for the last time, “Escape the war I have begun.”
Then Loki kisses him, and Thor knows no more.
As Loki leaves the clearing where he has left Thor sleeping, he wonders if he should not have let Thor speak, after all.
There had been no fear in Thor’s eyes at Loki’s words; only the shadow of resignation and strangely enough, what seemed to Loki like patience – as if Thor had been waiting for him to finish so that what came after could begin.
And at the end, before Thor’s eyes closed –
Loki could almost have sworn that Thor had been smiling.