His sacrifice would be a footnote for a line of text in ancient legend one day, but Loki, disguised as a fleet-footed gray mare, had only survival in mind as he led the stallion Svadilfari deeper into the forests, away from the walls of Asgard. In the distance, Loki could still hear the swindler who'd been driving Svadilfari calling out, trying in vain to bring his horse back around. It seemed Loki's great beauty and silver tongue were not lessened as a mare, however, and the stallion gave no notice to the hrímthurs, but instead continued to follow the mare into the depths of the wood.
Finally, the frantic calls faded into the distance, then fell silent all together. Loki slowed, and turned to glance at Svadilfari. The stallion was as remarkable a horse as he'd demonstrated himself to be while hauling the builder's stones, and despite having kept pace with a god for this long, he was only minutely showing any signs of tiring. Loki could have continued to run, could have run the stallion to death and disappeared into the farthest reaches of the world, but the horse was not his concern. There was no place in the world or outside it where the gods who'd threatened his life could not reach. His duty now was to keep the work horse distracted for the duration of the night so the hrímthurs builder could not finish his work on time; anything less would mean Loki's life would be forfeit. Loki stopped, and waited for Svadilfari to come up alongside him.
Svadilfari ducked his head and nuzzled the front and side of Loki's face. Loki returned the gesture, then gave a gentle push with his nose to embrace the stallion's face. He felt a momentary relief that Svadilfari was eager but good-natured; this ordeal would have been that much more difficult to endure if Svadilfari had been as boorish and clumsy as some of those who thought themselves the civilized people of Asgard.
When all was said and done, however, Loki found himself surprised how quickly such relations passed for them. He'd not given it much attention before; he'd courted others, of course, including his fellow jötunn, Angrboda, but the ways of the gods involved ceremony and drama and tit-for-tat exchanges. Loki found this simpler relationship almost refreshing; while he rested on the dewy grass of the clearing, Svadilfari grazed nearby. The scattered moonlight peeked through tree limbs and dappled the dark gray hide of his back, giving him the look of heavy storm clouds. Loki didn't dare fall asleep, in case the stallion grew bored and wandered back to the work camp, but he discovered Svadilfari was content to linger nearby, silently watchful over the new mare he'd found, occasionally cropping some soft grass. The night sounds of the forest slowly returned, the creaking of insects and frogs mingling with the blinking lights of fairies who passed by, and Svadilfari drifted off to sleep. Loki waited until the first rays of the sun were peeking above the trees, then he, too, finally slept.
The peace was shattered by a sudden crash of lightning and an accompanying roll of thunder. Loki, awake in an instant, knew it was no ordinary thunderstorm. The very ground shook with the force of the thunder, hailing the approach of Thor. Loki carefully turned his attention to the storm's direction, his tall, gray ears and green eyes following the barest movements of wind. Thor was not coming for him, he realized, and he exhaled slowly in relief. This was likely a doubly-good sign; the hrímthurs worker had surely failed, and in his rage revealed himself to the gods. Thor, of course, was called in to put an end to the fool.
Loki made to shift back into his usual form, but as his consciousness rippled through his body, he discovered a change had taken place over the course of the night. His relations with Svadilfari had been more successful than he'd anticipated. He glanced at the stallion in question, and discovered him nervously trotting back and forth across the clearing, uncertain where to shelter from the storm and alarmed by the streaking flashes of light overhead. In only a moment, however, the thunderstorm died away and the clouds cleared. Svadilfari looked to the sky for a moment, then back into the clearing toward Loki.
Loki nickered quietly and nodded his head toward the path they'd followed the night before. Svadilfari's master was certainly dead, and Loki secretly hoped no others would claim the fine horse. Svadilfari looked over his shoulder once more toward Loki, then trotted into the forest. Loki watched him disappear into the distance then began to make his own way back to the walls of Asgard.
As he approached the newly-built fortifications, however, he paused. He had no desire to return in this condition and take the verbal, possibly even physical, abuse he knew he would get from those who recognized him. Most in Asgard would not only not lament his absence but would rejoice in it. He turned and made his way instead to the lush fields at the edge of the Bifröst.
Here, Loki passed his days in peace. The abundant fields were home to many others, those who in life were considered pets or companions to humans, whose loyalty was rewarded with this blissful existence until they were reunited to cross the Bifröst together. These people did not ostracize him. There were no bones or mugs of beer thrown at him while he ate, no taunts or threats lodged at him to interrupt his sleep. Sometimes a dog would approach and try to engage him in a playful game of chase, but a firm “no” was all it took to decline the game. Once, another mare wandered near when a pup was nipping at his hooves; he'd barely turned to look at the young dog when the other mare called over.
“Can't you see she's with foal, Pup? Hassle someone else for a game of chase.”
The pup paused and heaved a sigh, then tumbled away to find another playmate.
Loki found himself uncertain how to respond to kindness from a stranger. He looked at the ground for a moment, then back up at the other mare. “Thank you.”
“You're welcome,” the mare replied. “I know how it goes this far along – that foal must be seeming to grow larger by the day now, right? I've had two, myself. I think my owner said it would be too costly for any more.”
“Can't say I know how that is,” Loki replied. He sighed and shifted his weight, noting the uncomfortable sway underneath him. “I just know this foal will be born soon; I take it a day at a time.”
“Yes, yes, that's the best for your first time,” she agreed. “And get plenty of rest. If any more of these silly dogs bother you, just send them my way – I'll give them a run they won't forget.” The mare nodded at him and wandered off.
It was thankfully quiet when the time did come to welcome the foal. Most of the others were asleep; the stars shone brightly overhead. The sun would be rising soon, but for now, darkness and dampness encompassed the field. Mercifully, the pain of labor did not last as long as Loki feared it would. Time was not an issue for gods in most respects, but at times like this, it could drag on just as surely as it did for mortals. He lay on his side and breathed heavily, focusing only on the movement of the foal and the whispers of breeze that heralded morning. After minutes that seemed an eternity, the foal was lying alongside him on the ground, kicking free of the fragile sac binding his legs...all eight of his legs, Loki realized.
Loki sat up and looked more carefully at the colt. The colt, in turn, nuzzled his face and neck, then turned interested eyes to the rest of the world. He was already struggling to his feet, the additional legs lifting him more quickly than other foals, and Loki quickly stood to guard him. He didn't know where the sudden maternal instinct came from, but he wasn't interested in fighting it; all he was interested in was the safety of his foal – his son – Sleipnir.
Sleipnir wobbled on shaky legs for only a moment, then swiftly moved to Loki's side to nurse. As the colt's lips parted, Loki caught a glimpse of glimmering runes on the white teeth, and a premonition entered his mind: a vision of a future bard singing praises to his son amidst pounding music. Eight legs and magic runes carved upon his teeth; thunder and lightning sound beneath his feet.
Loki put off returning to Asgard with the colt for a long as he could, but as Sleipnir grew, his powerful heritage and his destiny could not be denied. He ran swiftly and easily between worlds and across the Bifröst; before long, Loki was unable to keep up with him. The very sky crackled with energy as Sleipnir crossed it, and it would not be long before he drew the attention of everyone in all the worlds. It pained Loki to realize the sacrifice he'd made to save the sun, the moon and Freyja from the hrímthurs would soon be doubled; though it now seemed long ago and of little note to Loki, the god knew the other gods would not have forgotten or forgiven.
Loki stood and returned to his natural state; his body remolded to be upright and proud, his visage clear and comely once again, silky hair falling loosely into the folds of his emerald-colored cloak. Sleipnir startled momentarily at his sudden change in appearance, then cautiously approached and nuzzled Loki's face. Satisfied that this was indeed the mother he'd known since birth, just different in look, Sleipnir snorted and trotted away again.
“Sleipnir,” Loki called.
The horse stopped and looked back, then returned to stand by Loki's side.
“Come,” Loki said. “We return to Asgard – your rightful home.”
Sleipnir followed Loki across the Bifröst and into the halls of Asgard. Loki noticed suspicious glances sent his way by other gods as he and Sleipnir made their way down the gilded corridors. At last he made his way to stand before Odin, warning the guards not to interfere with a silent look.
“Loki,” Odin began. “It's been some time since you've been in these halls.” He carefully looked over Sleipnir. “What is this you've brought before me?”
“A gift, Allfather,” Loki said. He inclined his head in respect. “For one such as yourself, only the best – the best horse that is or will be: Sleipnir.”
Odin considered the horse a moment longer, then nodded to Loki. “He is a fine horse, indeed. I thank you for the generous gift.”
Loki bowed, then turned to leave. Sleipnir made a small noise of confusion and started to follow Loki, but the god of fire stopped and rested his hand on the horse's rich, gray coat. “Your life and future is here,” he said simply. He wanted to say more, but a sudden rush of emotion in his chest made him turn away and walk quickly from the room.
The halls of Asgard were suddenly stifling, and Loki's steps quickened. He did not look at or speak to any others as he exited the halls and he did not stop until he was well beyond the fortifications. When he paused to rest, he realized it was in the same place where he'd first lured Svadilfari from his work, and he laughed bitterly at himself. He couldn't afford to be overcome with sentiment; sacrifice was part of his fate. This was but a footnote in the grand scope of history; even when recorded in human legend it would simply read, “But Loki had such dealings with Svadilfari, that somewhat later he gave birth to a foal, which was gray and had eight feet; and this horse is the best among gods and men.”