Adventuring between the Nine Realms often made one thirsty, even one such as Thor, son of Odin. As such, he and his companions, the Lady Sif, the Warriors Three, and his brother Loki, found themselves on a drifting outpost and the hall therein. Tankards were raised, songs were sung, and Sif out-drank them all. Loki sat at another table, engaged in a game of chance with some dwarves and undoubtedly using his magic to gain the upper hand.
The night wore on and soon a man found his way to their table. He was a master builder and boasted of his skill, even claiming he could build a defensive wall around Asgard in a season. Thor could not meet this boast unchallenged, and soon a bet was wagered.
The builder had one season to construct his wall around Asgard, he would have the help of no man. If he could not complete the wall by the appointed time, he would receive no payment for his services. But if he succeeded…
"We'll give you Sif!" Loki said, appearing at Thor's side and wavering slightly, his winnings tucked under an arm.
Thor would have laughed at the proffered winnings save that the builder's eyes lit with sudden lust as he regarded the warrior. Her eyes, in turn, lit with something entirely different.
"Deal," the man said, and thrust out his hand. Loki leaned over Thor and shook it firmly. Sif lunged for him across the table, but was held back by Volstagg. When the builder excused himself, Thor turned on Loki.
"What have you done? We cannot give him Sif!"
"We're not going to," Loki explained, lowering himself unsteadily into the nearest chair. Dwarves could drink with the best of them. "Regardless of his supposed skill, there is no way one man can build a wall to surround the whole of the city in one season. The fool was drunk. Trust me."
"You intend to go through with this?"
"A deal's a deal," the master builder said, laying out some of his tools and machinery; far simpler in design than Thor would have expected. "Are you backing out?"
"I am the son of Odin, and I gave you my word."
"Good." He gestured behind the two brothers, to a stallion nibbling at a tuft of grass growing between the rocks. "It's all right if I use my horse, of course."
"That was not part of the deal."
"It doesn't go against the deal, either. Svadilfari could hardly be considered a man," the builder added dryly.
"Thor, let him use the horse," Loki said, barely speaking loud enough to be heard over the surf, "Look at the enormity of his task, he couldn't do it even with a team of horses."
Thor nodded to the master builder, who promptly began to hitch up the stallion.
"You talked me into this."
"I didn't realize it was a magic horse."
The sons of Odin watched with growing trepidation as the stallion dragged the enormous building stones across the beach with ease. The builder was indeed working at an impressive speed, but it was Svadilfari who was doing most of the work. The wall was already begun, rising upward to impressive heights.
"So, my sons," Thor and Loki winced as their father approached, "just under who's authority did you decide to begin this…undertaking?"
Loki spoke first, words falling easily and sensibly from his mouth. But his silver tongue never worked on their father and Odin, disappointed, turned to Thor.
"We were drunk, Father." Thor wasn't like his brother, capable of spinning a lie on a whim, even if it was to protect himself, and so spoke plainly. "One thing led to another and we made a bet."
"I see." Odin knew he should be angry, but had he not done such things at their age? In truth, he was a little amused, but he would not allow his sons to see that and stood firm. "And just what was the wager?"
Odin watched, fascinated, as his two powerful sons suddenly regressed into children caught in the pantry. Thor couldn't quite seem to get his throat cleared and Loki found a rock by his boot particularly interesting.
"Sif," Thor managed to cough.
Odin was taken aback. Odd that his sons were so willing to offer up a friend, especially Thor. "And what are the terms?"
"To build a wall to encompass Asgard by the end of the season."
Odin merely nodded, and then looked beyond his sons to the ever growing wall. "Best get started then," and with that, the All-Father turned and walked away.
"Father?" Thor queried.
"It seems you have one season to figure something out. Sif's freedom is not an option," Odin called back, mounting his horse and riding off.
The two young Aesir returned to their vigil over the builder's progress in silence, minds spinning.
"We could always give him you," Thor muttered to his brother.
"Why? You clearly have the better figure."
The days went by as the season began to shift in favor of another, and the wall surrounding Asgard stood nearly complete. Word had spread throughout Asgard of the bet, and the price to pay should the wall be completed within the next few days. As usual, Loki's involvement was also included in the rumor, and he had begun to grow tired of the dirty looks he was getting when people thought his back was turned.
He climbed down the rocks to the beach and perched there, watching the builder finish his work for the day. It wasn't until after the builder had unhitched his horse that he noticed Loki.
"Come to talk me out of my well-earned prize? I'm sure you've all realized by now that I will win this bet," the man called.
"Wouldn't dream of it," Loki replied. It was then he realized something was off. Watching from afar, he'd always focused on the stallion, the machinery, or even the stones themselves, trying to find a weakness, a way out of this bet that wouldn't go back on the deal and thus shame his father's name. He was looking at the man now, and up close, he could see all the signs of the magic the builder was wearing like a cloak. He'd been too drunk to see it the first night when he'd made the deal.
Shape shifting spells, especially those used by the common masses, often left obvious signs to those who knew for what to look. Now that Loki could see them, he could peer past the magic and see the truth beyond the illusion. A powerful spell, if imperfect, to conceal such a large body in that tiny form.
"You're a Jotun," he said.
The builder whirled sharply and regarded him a long moment, then smiled. "So what? That changes nothing."
"It changes everything," Loki snapped. His first thought was to go and inform his father of this trespass, or better yet, deal with it himself. How easily even he could kill a lone giant in their own realm, and wouldn't his father be so proud of him for uncovering this deceit?
No. The deal had been made beyond Asgard and the Jotun brought within. For all intents and purposes, he had been invited. For what other reason had Heimdall let him pass without a word? What a useless guard.
Loki reclined back on the rock, gazing outward over the water. He heard the giant move and tensed, preparing for an attack, but remained in his position of repose. He was almost disappointed when none came. It would have given him all the excuse he needed to kill the thing. But the giant was too secure in his victory to bother.
This was bad, a man could be reasoned with. At worst, they would have had to hand Sif over to him, but a counter deal could then be made; all men had a price. But a giant would have entirely different motives, and whatever price he would want…
The game had changed entirely.
The sun set beyond the sea, heralding the end of the third day. Only two remained, and Thor was no closer to a solution to this season-long problem. Even if Sif wasn't infuriated with him and Loki both, he would have avoided her. He couldn't meet her eyes and admit his failure. Of all the times to do so, to fail a friend, he could not bear it. Why had he let Loki reach past him to seal that deal? Why had he let his brother speak at all? There was more serpent than silver in his tongue, and for whatever reason Thor always seemed to forget that at the worst moment.
No more. He would not surrender Sif to that man for any reason. He would indeed offer up Loki instead if he had to, a poor substitute though he be.
He stalked passed an open door to a grand balcony looking out toward Bifrost, and there spotted the focus of his ire. Loki stood, his arms resting on the elegant railing, watching the builder and his horse. An old book was in his hands, not fully opened, and he thumbed through it absently, sparing its pages a glance only now and then. He looked back as Thor approached, then returned to the object of his focus. Even from this distance, it was impossible not to see past the illusion to the hulking form of the giant that was attached to the man like a shadow.
"It's the horse," Loki began, "Svadilfari is the fulcrum on which the builder relies. Remove that, and the speed to which he moves his loads is compromised, and thus the rhythm of his construction lost. Remove the horse, and a day's work, and completion of the wall in time is impossible; we'll have won."
Thor sighed and leaned against the rail beside his brother. "It took you all season to figure that out? You're slipping."
Loki ignored him and Thor figured he had been talking mostly to himself.
"If we take the horse, then what? We hide it in the city, it will be found and our sabotage known. If we try to take it from Asgard, use of Bifrost will be noticed. Either way, we'll dishonor our names."
"Yes, no man or woman of Asgard will be able to take the horse without suspicion," Loki agreed. He closed the old book with a soft creak of its spine. "I'll take care of this."
There was something in Loki's voice that made Thor uneasy, a finality of sorts. "What are you planning?"
"The same as always, brother. One trick and a lie to counter another," he smiled and turned to leave, "Trust me."
"Trust you," Thor spat, fire in his voice, "That's what you told me at the start of this mess! Why did I listen? We have agreed that no man or woman can steal that horse without revealing our sabotage. What could you do? But I swear to you, brother, if you endanger Sif…"
"I do not do this without some risk to myself," Loki cut him off, his voice soft and so damned reasonable, "do not tempt me into thinking it not worth it."
It took all of Thor's effort not to take a swing at his younger brother. It was no secret that there was no love between Loki and Sif, and his brother would hardly lose sleep over any misfortune to befall her. But Thor would make him lose something. Blood, sweat, and tears, every night until Ragnarok…
Loki sighed and tried to placate his brother. "I clean up my messes, Thor." He then walked back inside, his strides confident.
Loki's preferential use of magic was illusionary. Tricks and lies he could weave as fast as he could speak, but was the changing of flesh from one thing to another so different? It all depended on how one viewed the sense of self, he supposed. Still, the spell was complex but hardly difficult, and once mastered could be done as easily as he breathed the air.
No man or woman of Asgard could steal away with that horse. That was the problem, the only obstacle standing between him and victory over the Jotun. The solution was so simple.
Be neither man nor woman.
The giant, clad in his spells and clothes of a man, strapped his tireless horse into his tackle. Svadilfari pawed the ground with his foreleg, eager to start work. Two more days, and the giant would be finished, a beautiful woman of the Aesir his to possess. The insult to these weak people would be insurmountable.
The sound of hooves on stone and a soft whicker made him turn and the stallion's ears prick forward. Not too far from them stood a mare, dark and beautiful. She tossed her head and whinnied, practically prancing about where she stood.
Svadilfari's nostrils flared as he took in her scent and knew. Then primal instinct, instilled deep within as far back as the beginning of time, overtook him. The stallion reared, kicked and thrashed until he broke free of his straps and tore after the mare, who turned and fled, hooves pounding through the surf. The giant, in sudden panic, pursued them, shrieking for his horse.
The people of Asgard gathered and watched, both in fascination and amusement, as the builder chased his stallion all around the shore. The mare led the chase, always just out of reach of Svadilfari, who in turn was kept just out of reach of the Jotun. The day in its entirety had ended when he finally fell to his knees in defeat, his plan falling in tatters around him.
The mare watched in satisfaction as the giant beat his fist into the sand in fury, and then turned away. She nickered softly and Svadilfari followed. Out of sight of the Jotun and Aesir both, far from Bifrost, she led the stallion into the secret passages that led out of Asgard that she had discovered long ago, unseen even to Heimdall. It was a secret she alone knew, and intended to keep that way. But it was not as though Svadilfari would tell anyone.
And so the mare and the stallion vanished from Asgard without a trace.
The final day of the season passed and the wall stood incomplete. The builder screamed and cursed the Aesir, but Odin would have none of it.
"You have lost the wager. Finish your work and leave in peace."
"I was robbed! Tricked! You liars knew I would win and stole away my horse!"
"You dare accuse us?" Thor yelled from his place beside the throne, "You yourself participated in the search throughout the realm. Was there not a place unsearched?"
"You took him away, beyond Asgard…!"
"Have you seen Bifrost activated at all these last few days? Where else could he go?"
It was truth, in a sense. The stallion had simply vanished that day, along with Loki. Thor hated to lie at all, but it was to save a friend from he and his brother's foolishness. He was still angry with Loki, but the anger was slowly being tempered by worry. The search through Asgard had been genuine, Bifrost had indeed remained unused, and there was no sign of Loki. Afterwards, then, surely his brother would appear with a smirk to rub his personal victory in Thor's face. But the night came and went and his shadow remained absent.
The builder continued to sputter and shout, but Odin was out of patience. He rose from his throne, Gungnir in hand and all pretense of a tired old man gone. Power emanated from the All-Father, terrifying to behold, and the still-hidden Jotun shrunk from him. But when Odin spoke it was not without a twist of wryness.
"Perhaps the universe saw fit to reward Svadilfari in your stead. After all, I recall he did far more of the work than you."
The completed wall of Asgard stood tall and beautiful. The master builder, compensated despite the wager, was escorted from the realm, cursing under his breath the whole way.
In the grand scheme of things, little had changed. Tensions had mounted some in the citadel due to the mischief of its princes, but things settled again quickly back to the norm, save one thing. The second son of Odin had yet to return home.
As time past, even this fact seemed strangely forgotten. The daily lives of the royal family moved on. This was not the first time Loki had vanished on some personal sojourn, after all, though it was swiftly becoming the longest. Still, some nights, during the late hours when thoughts often become stretched beyond their normal contortions, Thor would wonder on his brother. What if something had gone wrong? What if he was hurt somewhere, unable to return?
Then the time came for his father to pass into the Odinsleep, and Thor aided his mother in maintaining her vigil for a time. But duty called him elsewhere, and he spent the days of Odin's slumber assisting in and learning the affairs of the realm or out in the expanse of Yggdrasil, his friends beside him.
It was tradition for the royal family to be present when Odin woke, and this day should have been no different. Thor watched as his father opened his eyes, sat up slowly, extricating himself from the grip of a dream, and smiled at his family.
"Thor," he said, acknowledging his eldest, and then received the embrace of Frigga. Eyes scanning the room, Odin returned his attention to his firstborn. "Your brother has not yet returned." It was more of a statement than a question, weighed down by heavy disappointment.
And fury flowed through Thor anew, sparked by his absent brother. How could Loki be so thoughtless, so cruel, to do this to his family? All this time, not even so much as a short message, leaving them to wonder. Thor had had enough.
Light and color streaked beneath the fleeting hooves of his horse as he road across Bifrost to its end, and the imposing figure standing there.
"Heimdall," Thor said, dismounting and approaching the stoic sentry, "your eyes see all, tell me where Loki is."
"He is not here," Heimdall replied simply.
"I know he is not here! I would have found him were he here but he is not! I implore you, where is my brother?"
The Guardian regarded him a long, infuriating moment, then said, "He is where he believes he should be."
Thor's shoulder's dropped in defeat. It was a vague answer, but it said all it needed to. Loki had no intention of returning anytime soon. But what Thor could not figure out was why. With nothing more to say, he mounted his horse and rode back to the city.
Heimdall stared after him, waiting until he departed the bridge before he returned his attention to the cosmos. It was out there, across the expanse, that he then heard a familiar voice call out for the Bifrost.
Servants scattered as Odin's elder son tore down the corridors of the citadel. The message had been brief, delivered by a girl who worked in one of the many courtyards.
Your brother wishes you to meet him in the royal stables.
Loki had come home, and as Thor thrust aside the doors to the stable and saw him standing there, casual as you please, he didn't know whether he was going to strangle his brother or embrace him. Both would result in asphyxiation, honestly.
Loki was leaning over the wall of one of the smaller stable stalls used to train foals, brushing the grey coat of a colt. He clearly had yet to go to his chambers; he was wearing clothes that could have been pilfered off some peasant's line, his hair was unkempt, and he had several day's worth of beard on his jaw. Thor always wondered why he didn't keep it and insisted on having a face smooth like a child's.
At the sound of his approach, Loki looked up. He ceased his ministrations on the colt and gave a frighteningly sincere smile.
"Hello, brother. It's good to see you."
Thor could think of only one response to that. "Where have you been?"
Loki continued brushing the colt when the animal leaned forward and began nibbling at his shirt. "Here and there. That's hardly important, brother."
"I think it is. You vanish without a trace for so long and don't even send word…"
"Didn't I say there might be some risk? Thor, understand that when one shape shifts you must maintain a strong sense of self or otherwise be lost to that shape. Something went wrong and for a stretch of time I…" he sighed in frustration, "let's just say that, for a little bit, I truly was a horse."
Thor thought back to the events of that day. He'd never really considered Loki's methods in removing the stallion, he was just satisfied in knowing his brother was involved and had there let it rest. "That was you?"
"No, brother," he snapped, "I asked one of our friendly local mares to do me a favor and then took a lovely holiday in Niflheim."
"You know, someone with as much wit as you're supposed to have shouldn't have to resort to sarcasm," Thor said wryly.
His brother had a point, though Loki wouldn't admit it. He was already surprised with himself that he'd even mentioned his loss of self to Thor at all. It was embarrassing. The truth was, when he'd finally regained himself from the mind of the beast, he'd realized his situation and became very frightened. Of this, he would never speak to anyone.
"Is that what took you so long?" Thor asked, leaning on the wall opposite his brother.
"No, I had to wait until Sleipnir was old enough to travel," Loki said, gesturing to the colt he was brushing, "He didn't take too well to the Bifrost, but he'll learn."
"Sleipnir," Thor said the ridiculous name slowly.
At this, Loki smiled again. He opened the gate to the colt's stall and stepped back. The colt, Sleipnir, stretched his neck out after Loki and then followed. He didn't move with the gait of an awkward foal, but smoothly, as though he was floating on air. The reason became all to obvious when Thor saw its eight legs.
"Amazing!" he laughed, kneeling beside the foal for a better look at its legs, "Where did you find him?"
"Oh, he just…popped out one morning." Loki's tone was dry.
Sleipnir turned to Thor, nostrils quivering, to inspect him. The warrior smiled and couldn't help but scratch behind the colt's ear. He'd been around horses all his life and could tell this one was going to be a magnificent stallion, one he wouldn't mind having himself. Sleipnir returned to Loki, bumping his head against the man in affection.
A sudden thought crossed Thor's mind. "Does Father know you're back?"
"Not as yet. He'll know tonight when I present Sleipnir to him. As a gift."
"I'd recommend cleaning up before then. I can smell you from here."
As they spoke, Sleipnir moved off a little ways, gliding, to explore his immediate world. An old mare stood nearby, head drooping over her stall, and was in no mood to tolerate the curious wanderings of a foal. When he got too close, she snorted at him, blowing air into his face, and Sleipnir jumped and scurried back to Loki, standing on his opposite side away from the offending mare. Much like any frightened child, running back to his mother…
Thor's conscious thoughts stopped dead. His eyes remained on Sleipnir, the miraculous colt, as strange, perverted concepts entered his mind. Could it even be possible? No, surely not…
"Are you all right, brother?"
He then looked at Loki, who resumed brushing Sleipnir's soft baby fur. A sick feeling trickled down into Thor's stomach.
"Loki," he began, gesturing to Sleipnir and his voice not quite as steady as he would prefer, "did you…?"
His brother paused, brows raised and suddenly playing dumb, and waited. By Valhalla, Thor realized, Loki was going to make him say it!
But he couldn't, so he simply left.
As promised, Loki entered the hall that night, clean-shaven and wearing his finest, a beautiful colt with eight legs trailing behind. He presented Sleipnir to Odin, along with his apologies on his "thoughtless absence." His father accepted the gift happily and Loki shot his brother a look of such triumph that Thor could not recall what they were competing about this time to deserve it.
Sleipnir grew into a powerful warhorse and Odin's favorite steed. Highly intelligent, the stallion indeed learned to withstand the Bifrost and became the only horse within the All-Father's stables who entered the Rainbow Bridge without fear. He seemed to understand their speech and would obey any order given by his master. So loved was he by Odin, that the All-Father was often heard referring to Sleipnir as the best of all horses. What Odin was to the Aesir, so Sleipnir was to his own kind.
And while Loki had no ownership of Sleipnir, nor participated in his care, Thor couldn't help but notice that, for every one of these praises heard, Loki would suddenly look quite smug.
Adventure beckoned and Thor, his brother, the Warriors Three, and Lady Sif, prepared for their journey. The stables were loud and filled with the rushing about of stable hands and servants as their horses were saddled and their provisions supplied and secured. Thor preferred to do such things himself, but somewhere in the depths of history a mysterious unknown figure decided royalty should never saddle their own horses. It was annoying, but it was one of the few things in life to which he'd learned to surrender.
Loki stood beside him, casually tossing one of Idunn's golden apples in his hand. Thor didn't want to think about how he'd procured it since Loki had long been banned from her orchard.
Loki noticed his look. "What? Idunn holds grudges for far too long."
"Yes, brother. By the way, there's a kettle I would like to introduce you to."
Loki actually laughed at that before wandering off. He'd been in a good mood lately and that meant he undoubtedly had something nefarious planned. Business as usual, then.
Tired of the din, Thor moved off from the crowds and made his way to where his father's horses were kept. Sleipnir's stall was enormous for just one occupant with all the comforts a horse could possible want. The great stallion preferred the spacious pastures, but as winter approached a chill permeated the air and he was brought indoors. It was a useless gesture; Sleipnir was never bothered by the cold.
Loki was already there. At his arrival, Sleipnir had come forward and thrust his big head over the gate, butting him with affection. For his attentions, Sleipnir received the golden apple as a treat and a pat on his thick neck, then Loki left.
Thor watched the exchange in silence, unnoticed. How often did this happen? It was only after Loki was no longer in sight did Sleipnir look to Thor, ears pricked forward. He raised his head in question; was Thor going to come closer or not? He stayed where he was, even from this distance, Sleipnir's overly intelligent eyes unnerved him, sometimes. Sleipnir swung his head around towards where Loki departed, and then back to Thor. His eyes' meaning were all too clear today.
I know something you don't.
And, were Sleipnir only capable, Thor could have sworn he would have smirked at him now.
And then he knew.
Adventuring between the Nine Realms often made one thirsty, and so the young Aesir found themselves on a drifting outpost and the hall therein. Tankards were raised, songs were sung, and there was much drinking in excess. Loki sat at another table, arms around some equally inebriated dark elves and voice raised in an old song from Svartalfaheim.
Thor, though well in his cups, just sat at their table, watching his friends have fun. His mind spinning and making connections that lead to irrefutable conclusions he had been avoiding or denying until now. Strangely, he just accepted the conclusion.
Fandral staggered and flopped into the chair beside him, still laughing at a joke long ended. "Thor," he chided, grabbing his friend by the arm and trying very hard not to fall out of his seat, "The music is lively, the drink plentiful, and the women fine! Why do you sit here? What's on your mind?"
And with this strange, drunken catharsis, Thor could finally say it.
"My nephew's a horse."