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Dáinsleif

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Asgard celebrated the Feast of the Fallen with a night of bonfires and song and toasts to the warriors who had passed down the shining road to Valhalla. In the palace, bards recited the Lay of Áegirr, the warrior whose silver spear had slain a thousand Jotun before they managed to freeze him in impenetrable ice. Odin himself spoke of Ingólfr of the Golden Helm who had fought with him against the giant Baugi during Odin’s quest to win the mead of Suttungr. And when each cup had been thricely drained, they called upon the sons of Odin to demonstrate their prowess to the assembly. It was rumored that Odin considered his sons upon the brink of manhood and that any day he might send them forth upon their vegr to prove their strength and courage. All wished to see their princes and cheer the promised future of the kingdom.

Thor stepped forth, resplendent in a tunic of deepest blue, the pelt of a white wolf (that he had killed with his bare hands by all accounts) around his shoulders. He did homage to the All-Father, shouting his name in a voice that resounded to the spangled thread of the Bifröst. Then he called for five javelins and sent each one hurtling clean through the door of the hall, a two foot thick span of Midgard oak. Then he lifted the massive battle axe of Sörli in one hand and nicked the stems off five of Idun’s golden apples, leaving their ripe flesh unscathed.

Odin’s eldest stepped down amidst applause and acclamation for his strength, while the younger son took his place.

Loki waited until the cheering had died away, and then bent his lithe body in a deep bow to Odin before standing straight once more. Loki did not speak, and yet the Aesir knew that he was practicing his spell craft. The hall grew colder, and the torches flickered before going dark, leaving only the fire on the wide hearth casting its glow around the room. Softly at first and then growing louder came a sound like a deep bell, ringing ceaselessly. In counterpoint, a shiver of high notes slipped through the air, almost painful in their sharpness.

Loki announced in a soft voice that they listened to the dreams of stars. He had caught them one evening, fishing with an enchanted net off the edge of the Bifröst.

When the sound ceased at last, the torches sprang back to life, and the assembly stirred. A ripple of applause gave way to calls for more mead and to build the fire higher. A diverting play of magic it had been, but what good were star dreams in a battle?

Loki slipped away soon after, and only the eyes of his brother followed him.

*

Thor found Loki sulking in a cave by the shores of the sea.

“Why do you sit in this damp and gloomy place, brother, when the mead still flows and the night is young?” he demanded.

“I doubt any shall notice my absence,” Loki replied, gathering his cloak about him and shooting Thor a glare. “But I’m sure they already lament your departure. I did not ask you to follow me here. Go back to your drink and tales, if you find them so pleasing.”

Thor frowned and sat next to him. “You are like an ígull with your spines prickled. What has upset you?”

“Only the boorishness of our people,” Loki snapped. “Now leave me be.”

“Your magic was most impressive,” Thor began, but Loki leapt up, whirling to face him.

Impressive? I hardly think so. It didn’t destroy any of the furnishings, which seems to be a necessary condition for judging merit in Asgard.”

“But I have seen you wield mighty spells in battle,” Thor protested. “Why did you not show off one of those?”

“Because, unlike some, I do not have the urge to constantly hack and smash at things.” Loki crossed his arms, turning to stare moodily out at the waves. “Creation is a far headier and intoxicating art than destruction, brother. Not that I would expect you to understand.”

“I don’t destroy things,” Thor argued, heaving himself to his feet and weaving a bit unsteadily to Loki’s side. “Well, I do, but only to protect this realm and our people.”

“And because you enjoy it,” Loki added.

He scratched his beard. “I wouldn’t put it exactly that way.”

Loki huffed irritably. “Don’t dissemble, Thor, it doesn’t suit you.”

“But you enjoy the heat of battle, too! You are ever at my side, in the thick of the fighting.”

“Because you’ve dragged me there. And if I wasn’t, you’d be smashed flat by some giant’s fist.”

Thor laughed and slung his arm around Loki’s shoulders. “Hardly. Now come back to the hall and join me in a toast to all our victories.”

Loki shook him off. “I shall not. I am content here where it is peaceful and quiet—or it was until you appeared.”

“I am not going to let you spend the feast shivering out here.” He planted his feet. “I won’t leave unless you come back with me.”

Loki rolled his eyes, waggled his fingers, and a huge wave suddenly surged up and crashed down on Thor’s head, drenching him.

“Now don’t be cross, brother,” he said, regarding Thor’s reddening face with amusement. “You needed a bath.”

Thor growled and pounced, seizing Loki around the waist and heaving him over his shoulder.

Loki yelped, surprised. “What—Thor—no—no—”

Before Loki could shift into a snake or play another of his little tricks, Thor had strode the three paces to the water’s edge and tossed him in with a satisfying splash. A second later, Loki emerged, spluttering indignantly.

You—”

Another wave crashed over Thor. He dashed the water from his eyes, jumped into the sea and dunked Loki under once again. He suddenly found his arms full of a wriggling ball of fur, which resolved into an otter that slipped his grasp, sped away, and led Thor on a merry chase through the cave until he finally gave up, collapsing onto a rock and laughing.

The otter gave a sort of barking laugh in reply and then turned back into Loki, who grinned down at him.

“All right you irritating lump,” he said, nudging Thor with his boot. “Lead the way to a fire and some dry clothes.”

They ended up in Thor’s chambers, sprawled in front of the hearth. Loki stared into the flames for a while, and Thor watched the light flickering over his face, half-hidden in the spill of Loki’s dark hair. Whatever Loki might claim, he could not give credence to his brother’s belief that their people did not value his skills. How could they not see the grace and power, the cleverness and delight of Loki’s sorcery?

“They say that father is going to send us on our vegr soon,” Loki said, drawing him out of his thoughts.

“Good.” Thor stretched out, letting his eyes close. “I grow tired of being thought a boy still.”

“What do you think will be our quest?”

He shrugged. “Whatever it may be, you shall be at my side.”

“You don’t think father will make us go separately?”

The thought made him frown and open his eyes. Loki was lying next to him, leaning on one elbow. “I won’t allow it. Why should he make us be apart?”

“And you always get your way, don’t you?” Loki murmured, and Thor couldn’t place his tone, so he settled for rolling closer and giving him a pleading look until Loki caved in and brought him a pillow.

*

A fortnight later, the All-Father called them to his throne room. They knelt on one knee before him, right hands clenched in a fist over their hearts.

“Do you know why I have brought you here?” Odin asked.

“You judge us ready for the vegr,” Loki answered in a slightly breathless tone. Thor sneaked a glance and found that he looked pale and nervous. Why, Thor couldn’t imagine. There was no doubt that they would succeed.

“Your brother, yes,” Odin replied. “But you are younger than Thor, Loki. I do not know—”

“I am ready,” Loki said quickly.

“I agree, father,” Thor put in. “And I would not want to go forth without him.”

Odin hesitated for a moment but then nodded. “Very well, although I fear Frigga will not be best pleased.” He leaned back, arms resting loosely on the throne. “I sense that you already have a quest in mind.”

Thor looked at his brother in surprise. “What is this, Loki? You did not speak of it to me.”

“It will be dangerous—very dangerous and—”

“Good!” Thor exclaimed. “Did you think I wanted something soft and easy? I seek to prove my fitness to rule Asgard.”

“I am aware of that,” Loki murmured before facing Odin again. “I propose that we go to Álfheimr to fight the dragon Fafnir.”

Thor’s blood rose within him at the name. Long had they heard of the dragon’s incursions, its ravenous hunger for gold and flesh. Many mighty warriors had fallen to its fiery breath.

Odin looked troubled, and Thor spoke swiftly. “To defeat Fafnir would prove our worth beyond any doubt. It shall be a great victory, father, that will be sung throughout the ages!”

“To face a dragon is no light matter,” Odin replied. “I should rather that you wait until after your vegr, when you will be armored and fitted as true warriors of Asgard. Neither of you have come into your full powers yet.”

“All the more reason to face the dragon now,” Thor persisted. “Our victory will be even more glorious.”

“You know that I cannot help you once your quest begins,” Odin said.

“We shall not need help,” Thor returned.

“Your confidence does you credit, but every man has his limits,” his father reminded him.

Loki stirred and spoke. “If you truly think that this task is beyond us,” he began, “we shall of course seek something simpler—”

“He does not think so,” Thor said, cutting him off. “Do you, father? You have never doubted me before.”

“I do not doubt your courage, my sons,” Odin said and sighed. “Very well. I can see that your hearts are set on this course. You shall set out on the morrow and not return until the dragon lies dead.”

*

Night had settled on the realm, and Loki had at last left his brother to his boasting about their coming triumphs, retiring to his chambers. He gathered a few items that might prove useful and then paused, his hands falling onto the tattered cover of a book. He had found it in a dusty corner of the library while searching for a treatise on the soporific qualities of eel skin. Something about it had caught his eye, and he had pulled it out, only to find it a dry history of metalworking. Disappointed, he had been about to put it back, when the page turned, and he found himself looking at a picture of a sword. A formidable blade indeed, inscribed with runes and set with valuable gems. The Dáinsleif it was called. Whatever wounds it made, even the barest scratch, could not be healed.

He knew immediately that with such a weapon, he would be the equal of Thor’s strength.

It had taken him a tiresome while to discover what had become of the sword, but at last he had tracked it to its current resting place: the lair of Fafnir. And now fortune had presented him with the ideal opportunity—their vegr, through which he could take advantage of Thor’s strength and his own cunning. All it had taken was the mention of danger, the slightest suggestion that Thor might not be up to the challenge, for his brother to become the most vociferous proponent of killing the dragon. Father never could say no to Thor’s impetuous desires.

He looked at the picture of the sword again before carefully hiding the book amidst the many others scattered about his chambers. Thor could not find out about the sword or he would want it for himself. But his brother didn’t need it, showered with accolades as he was, his strength already legendary. No, it was Loki’s by right, and when he wielded it in battle, he would at last be considered a true warrior of Asgard by the fools who were too dimwitted to appreciate the subtle arts of sorcery.

Settling himself by his window, he waited for the dawn, spinning out the alluring promise of his hopes into a waking dream.

Chapter Text

Odin permitted only himself and Frigga to send them off on their journey. They stood at the end of the Bifröst, waiting, while Thor and Loki walked to them.

“A little quiet compared to your usual departures,” Loki said, matching his pace to his brother’s. “Not even the Warriors Three to cheer you on your way.”

Thor flushed. “I am not so vain as to feel the lack.” He glanced at Loki. “Do you not want to bring a spear at the least?”

“I am not defenseless, as you well know,” Loki returned. In truth, he had several daggers concealed on his person but saw no need to go barging into Álfheimr with any more obvious weaponry, like the hefty battleaxe strapped to Thor’s back. Better to appear unassuming—at least until he clasped the Dáinsleif in his hand. Then there would be no need for pretence.

Frigga drew them both into a hug when they reached her. “I cannot believe this day has come,” she murmured. “Loath am I to admit that you are no longer children, yet how can I deny the evidence before my eyes?” She smiled and touched their cheeks. “Verily are you princes of Asgard, and I know you shall make us proud.”

“We shall return before you have missed us,” Thor promised, kissing her cheek, “and bring you dragon scales to adorn your mantle.”

“Do not assume success,” Odin cautioned. “Best to advance with prudence and caution. Fafnir will not simply fall beneath your axe like a sapling.”

Thor clasped their father’s hand. “You have taught me well, and I will heed your words. Yet do not be surprised to see the dragon’s head upon your doorstep within the fortnight!”

“Do not make light of your father’s warnings, Thor,” Frigga scolded fondly. She turned and lifted a small casket, handing it to Loki. “The Bifröst will take you to the palace of Svana, queen of the Ljósálfar. Give her this gift and our greetings.”

“And tread warily within her domain,” Odin added. “The elves are masters of shapes—even more so than you, Loki.”

“Do not worry, father!” Thor exclaimed and stepped towards the portal. “Bid us on our way with a proud heart and know that we will return triumphant.”

Frigga put her hand on Loki’s arm. “Do not let Thor insult the Ljósálfar,” she whispered. “Their wine is potent, and you know how he can be when the drink goes to his head.”

“I will not let him out of my sight,” he promised, squeezing her hand.

“Go forth with our blessings, Loki,” Odin said gravely, and he bowed his head to his father before joining Thor.

Thor met his eyes. “There is none I would rather have with me in this moment, brother,” he said, and his voice grew softer, his next words meant for Loki alone. “I swear that no hand shall strike you if it is in my power to prevent it. If any do you harm, I will seek vengeance upon them until my last breath is spent. By the roots of Yggdrasil do I swear it.”

It took him aback, to hear Thor speak such an oath. For a moment, he forgot the siren song of the Dáinsleif and thought only of the warm companionship that Thor had always offered him. “And I swear that if any foe should seek to do you harm, no distant star, no hidden cave, no miserable hole will hide them from my vengeance. By the light of the All-Father do I swear it.” His heart stirred, inclined to forgive the slights and hurts that he knew Thor caused him unknowingly.

But then Thor spoke again. “When I take the throne, you will be ever at my side,” and Loki flinched even as he kept a smile on his face. For all his fine words, that last struck to the truth of the matter—Thor saw him as a lackey, a dimmer star to his sun! You think none can be your equal, brother. He glanced back at Odin, whose eyes were fixed on his firstborn. And neither does father.

Well. A good thing, then, that he had not explicitly included his own hand in that oath.

*

The Bifröst left them in a moonlit glade on Álfheimr. It smelled of rain and decaying leaves and a humid warmth. Tall trees surrounded them, and as they stared into the forest, trying to discern a path or any sign of direction, an owl winged by, its feathers scything through the air in a humming twang.

“And what chance brings not one, but two princes of Asgard to my door?”

The voice was quiet and mellifluous, and a moment later a woman stepped into the moonlight.

Her form was exquisite—no poet’s tongue could hope to capture her beauty. The moonlight mantled her shoulders—and Loki realized with a blush that she wore nothing else. Thor was staring, his mouth hanging open, and Loki elbowed him sharply in the ribs before bowing deeply.

“Your majesty,” he said. “Forgive this unexpected intrusion into your realm.”

“No forgiveness is needed,” Svana replied, stepping closer. Loki kept his eyes firmly on the ground. “It is not often two gods choose to spend an evening with us.”

Low laughter echoed her words, and Loki realized that other elves stood around them. They all held candles, the flames cupped in their palms.

“We are not here for idle amusement,” Thor said, straightening from his bow. “We have come to slay the dragon Fafnir and rid you of his scourge.”

“A brave and daring quest indeed!” Svana exclaimed. “Yet I do not recall requesting such aid from Odin, and you shall need my permission to traverse these lands.”

“Forgive us, your highness,” Loki said quickly. “We have been rude. Before settling to tedious matters of business, we should have presented you with the gift that we bring.” He held out the casket. “Our mother bids you receive this with all due honor.”

Svana gestured, and two elves took it from Loki’s hands and opened it. She drew out a heavy piece of cloth, weighted in gold and silver thread with emeralds caught in the weft.

“Ah! A lovely gift indeed from Frigga’s loom and more than enough to excuse the brashness of her sons.” Svana held out her hands. “You will accompany me to my palace. There we will feast and toast your bravery, fair princes, and morning shall see you on your way.”

“And will there be an asking price for travel through your lands?” Loki asked, hesitating.

“I think that Fafnir’s death will be sufficient,” she said, but when she smiled he caught the gleam of sharp teeth and a hidden purpose in her eyes.

“Be wary, brother,” he murmured to Thor as they followed the elves.

“Why? They seem harmless enough,” Thor replied, his gaze following one of the shapely maidens who walked near them.

“Just as I might seem harmless to one who did not know of my magic.”

“A fair point.” Thor wrenched his eyes away. “But I do not see how we can evade her invitation without further insult.”

“No, we must do as she requests. But do not let a pretty face distract you. Remember, they can take any form they choose and have clearly picked ones that they know will please us and set us at our ease.”

*

Loki could not tell how they entered the Elf Queen’s palace. One moment they were in the depths of the forest, and the next a lighted hall sprang up around them. A long table stretched down the center, filled with fruits and meats, and the song of harps rippled through the air. Svana now wore a dress the color of honey and a crown nestled in her hair. They blinked against the lights and let themselves be seated, one on each side of her. An elf poured them goblets of wine, and Svana gestured for them to drink.

The wine bore a heady fragrance and slipped easily down his throat.

“Now, tell me how Asgard fares,” Svana commanded.

Loki shrugged. “There is not much to tell, your highness. The realm is at peace and our people prosper.” He took another drink of the wine.

“Do not be so dull!” Thor said, gesturing for a servant to refill his cup. “Our own adventures are a tale worthy of the telling. The story of how I won this axe, for instance—I faced down three giants and called the thunder to my aid. And my brother—he sits modestly but I wager he could put on a display of magic worthy of this court.”

Svana turned to him, her eyes lighted with interest. “The sorcerer! Why yes, I had heard that one of Odin’s sons was skilled in magic. Come, let us see what enchantments a prince of Asgard can weave.”

Loki shot Thor a sour look before smoothing his face into a smile. “Please, do not ask it of me, my lady. My magic pales in comparison to your spells. I should be embarrassed to perform such trifles in your presence.”

Svana regarded him silently for a moment and then smiled. “A quick and fair tongue you possess. Flattering even as you evade my command.” She waved away Loki’s protest. “It is of no matter. Turn your thoughts instead to the pleasures of my hall—more wine and succulent delights. Perhaps some dancing as the night wears its way to dawn.”

Loki allowed a servant to top off his goblet, taking a drink to soothe his nerves. He could feel the magic drenching every particle of this place. What might happen if he unleashed his own, he could not tell but was not sure he wanted to find out. The legends about the Ljósálfar ensnaring men and keeping them in a pleasured stupor while draining away their life looked to have a firm basis in truth, in his opinion. And while he did not think Svana would dare to do so with either Thor or him, he was not about to let them get a taste of his magic.

“I have never seen an Asgardian before,” a voice said. He turned to find a fae sitting next to him, her form that of a young woman. Her eyes were striking—a deep blue like the endless well of Uroarbrunnr.

“And I had never beheld an elf,” he returned, swimming out of the depths of her eyes and managing to find his voice.

“But you are not really seeing me,” she said, grinning with a cat’s smile. “I do not show my true form to just anyone—certainly not to strange princes who arrive unexpectedly in the night.”

“Yet if I may not see your true form, will you at least give me a name to call you by?” He laid his fingers lightly on hers. “Else how can I tell you of your beauty?”

“Eylaug will suffice,” she replied. She tilted her head. “And now the praises?”

He laughed. “You are the loveliest creature I have ever seen, Eylaug, and I have wandered from the highest peak in Asgard to the deepest roots of Yggdrasil. Yet what are stars compared to your eyes? Or the song of birds compared to your voice?”

“Our queen is right about your silvered tongue.” She turned her hand so that their fingers entwined. “Dance with me, Loki, and perhaps I will give you a kiss.”

He stood, swaying a little as the wine went to his head. He had a vague thought to look for Thor, and the memory of some promise to his mother, but then Eylaug’s eyes caught him again, and he slid back into their blue depths.

“Come, Loki,” she insisted, pulling on his arm. He stumbled after her, and they twirled across the floor to music that seemed to invade his body and bring the elf magic with it. He felt clumsy and overheated, tongue heavy with the wine. Eylaug laughed at his fumbling steps and suddenly twisted out of his reach. He tried to grab her hand, but his fingers passed right through her, as though she was neither woman nor elf but a shade of the dead.

“What—?” He stared in confusion and then turned, startling, at a hand on his shoulder. It was Eylaug—it must be her—and yet she also still stood in front of him. Even as he watched, two more copies appeared, surrounding him, all of them laughing at his open amazement. And then she waved her hand, resolving back into one body, and pressed close against him.

“How did you do that?” he asked, clutching her lest she tried to slip from his grasp again. “I have never seen such a spell.”

“Did you like my magic, Loki?” She smiled and spun them around, the hall dissolving into a golden shimmer. He kept his eyes fixed on her.

Yes,” he hissed. “Tell me the spell.”

“Such knowledge has a price,” she murmured, and her magic seeped out into the air around them.

He breathed deeply and then kissed her roughly, jealous of this spell that she claimed as her own. “What do you want for it?” he demanded.

She moved against him, an undulating stretch that dragged her breasts across his chest. “Lie with me.”

He fought to think past the lust and the wine. “You must let me go at dawn. And Thor, too.”

“Do not fear. Much as it tempts me, I would not dare to trap a god.” She kissed him again and breathed softly, “The Dökkálfar have no such scruples.”

He could not spare a thought for what she might mean. All he could think of was the arousal and magic raging inside him and that captivating bit of spellcraft that she dangled in front of him. “I agree then.”

She gave a low, rolling laugh of delight and grasped his hand, leading him away. He vaguely registered the fact that the hall had disappeared, along with Svana and the feast and the music. They were back outside in the warm night, walking down into a shadowed glen. Suddenly two other elves appeared, speaking to Eylaug in words that gurgled and bubbled like a waterfall. Then one twined her fingers in his hair, and the other slid a cool hand under his tunic.

“I hope you do not mind if my friends join us,” Eylaug said. “It would be so greedy to claim you to myself for an entire night.” She picked up her pace, approaching a bower in the hollow of the glen. It was covered in vines and white flowers that filled the air with their fragrance. He followed eagerly, his earlier reservations forgotten. Only his desire for Eylaug’s spell outweighed his passion for her body. The other two elves had begun removing his clothes, finding the laces of his tunic even as they led him through the leaves of the bower. Petals caught in Eylaug’s hair, and he tried to touch them, but she caught his hand and raised her mouth for a kiss.

It was only as she pushed him down onto the grass that he realized they were not alone. He had been so captivated by Eylaug that he hadn’t noticed that two others had arrived before them, already given over to a wanton coupling. One, an elf in the form of a woman, her head tipped back in pleasure, her legs wrapped around the man thrusting into her. And that man—

It was his brother. Naked, eyes squeezed shut, sweat darkening his hair as he moved, his arms braced to either side of the woman’s head. Loki shivered and couldn’t tear his eyes away.

Eylaug followed his gaze and smiled. “Ah! I can smell the lightning on him,” she murmured. “Perhaps I shall have you both before the night wanes.”

He felt the two elves who had divested him of his tunic and coat shift, hard muscle replacing their soft breasts as they took on male forms, crowding closer.

“I can see you find the thunder god pleasing, too,” Eylaug said.

“N-no—I—I don’t,” he stammered, but Eylaug laughed at him, and at the noise, Thor’s eyes flew open.

Loki,” he groaned, eyes wide, stilling his thrusts.

Loki did not look away. The blood rising in his cock pounded in counterpoint to his heart. He jerked Eylaug against him, rolling one of her nipples in his fingers.

Thor shuddered and surged forward, arms shaking as he spilled.

Their breaths sounded loud in the quiet glade, and for a moment Loki thought to flee. But the spell waited for him. And he could not help his eyes that roved over Thor’s body, drinking their fill.

Eylaug moved down Loki’s body, ripping his breeches open and pulling them off. She suckled the head of his cock, and he drew in a rough breath, letting his legs spread wider.

Thor pulled out of the woman, his cock lying against his thigh, wet with her sap and his seed. He watched while she crawled over to Loki, taking his hand and putting it between her thighs. Loki dug his fingers into her body, feeling the thick rivulets of Thor’s spend. Whimpering, he tried to drive his cock into Eylaug’s mouth, but one of the male fae held his hips down and the other joined Eylaug, lapping at Loki’s cock with his tongue while she continued to suck the tip.

“Please, please,” he gasped, writhing under their ministrations, shutting his eyes. “I can’t.” He felt as though he might burst into pieces if he dared to look at Thor again and see his steady gaze and sweated, sated body.

But he didn’t need to look for suddenly Thor was there, his broad arms sliding around Loki’s chest, lifting him so that he could move behind him. Loki fell back against him, clutching at his hand. One of the elves pushed a finger inside his body, and he whimpered again, jerking. Thor held him tighter.

“You moan so prettily,” Eylaug said, gathering some of his sticky precome on her fingers and holding them out for another of the elves to lick clean.

“Enough of your play,” Thor growled. “Mount him and give him what he needs.”

“So forceful,” Eylaug purred, and she straddled Loki’s hips, pushing the others out of the way. His cock drove into her heat as she pushed down, taking his entire length. She sighed in satisfaction, rubbing her hand down her belly to where they joined together.

When she began to move, he strained upwards to meet her. “Yes,” Thor whispered, a hot breath against his ear, and he gritted his teeth, trying to stave off his climax. He reached out and clawed at Eylaug’s thigh.

“You promised,” he panted. “The—ungh—the spell.”

She rocked faster, mouth open, eyes slitted. One of Thor’s fingers grazed his nipple, and he couldn’t stop it—his orgasm hurtled through him, driving a shout out of his throat. Chest heaving, he trembled in Thor’s arms. Eylaug leaned down, her body still clenched around his spurting cock. She pressed her lips to his and breathed out, and he felt the magic enter him in a bright swirl, sending him falling into a dark oblivion.

*

Thor opened his eyes to sunlight and a cold wind. What felt like rock pressed against his back, and he noted that he was dressed again, which was more than he had expected, given the events of the previous night.

Speaking of which—he lifted his head to find that the warm weight resting on top of him was indeed his brother, still fast asleep. Sighing, Thor wrapped his arm more comfortably around Loki’s shoulders. He remembered Loki crying out something about a spell, and then the other elves had moved in to either side of him, whispering enchantments that sent him to sleep.

The entire night was a jumbled mess in his mind, but the image of Loki, lean and aroused, and the sweaty heat of his skin remained clear.

Before he could begin to prod at the tangled knot of feelings lodged somewhere near his heart, though, Loki stirred. Thor felt him tense as awareness returned, but then he relaxed again, not moving but simply breathing quietly. He rubbed a cautious thumb between the dip in Loki’s shoulder blades.

Loki allowed it for a moment, but then he pulled away and sat up, not looking at him. Thor followed suit, grimacing at the stiffness in his back from the hard rock. Couldn’t the elves have left them in a more comfortable spot? They certainly had nothing to complain about.

He noted that his axe was near to hand and then took in their surroundings. They were on the side of a hill overlooking a steep, wooded valley. In the distance, he could make out a swath of blackened trees, stark against the surrounding green.

“I guess that is as good a signpost as any,” he commented, gesturing to them.

Loki nodded. “Yes, although we’ve a long way to walk to reach them.” He scowled. “I suppose horses were too much to ask.”

“I do not believe the Ljósálfar approve of giving away anything that has not been bargained over,” Thor agreed.

Loki’s eyes flitted over him, and a flush stained his cheeks.

“Brother—” Thor began, but Loki cut him off.

“It was the wine,” he said. “That’s all.”

“Yes,” Thor said after a moment. “But—”

Loki did not remain to listen, leaping down to another rock and then starting to climb down the slope. Thor picked up his axe and followed, all he wished to say flying around his head like a swarm of butterflies, deceptively bright as they crowded against his mind.

Chapter Text

They walked a long while in silence, sun-shadows lengthening before them. The woods were still and quiet, and Thor counted only three birds and the slinking rustle of a fox. He had overtaken Loki, who fell back to let him walk in front. Loki would not look at him and ignored all of his halting attempts to start a conversation. Thor finally resorted to tossing aside the fallen trees that blocked their path, taking out is frustration in the cracking of branches and loud thuds.

“Must you always make such a racket?” Loki said waspishly after the demise of a particularly strident oak.

“Why not?” Thor demanded. “We’re going into battle—let all around us tremble at our coming!”

“Don’t be a fool,” Loki said, grabbing his arm and then letting go swiftly, as though burned. He took a step back but continued, his voice low and urgent. “The last thing we want to do is alert Fafnir prematurely. We must approach with stealth and study his weaknesses before striking.”

“His weakness will be the head of my axe crushing his neck,” Thor replied with a laugh. He had never been able to fathom why Loki delighted in making the simplest tasks so complex. “You will lure it forth with some of your magic, and I shall kill it.”

Loki’s eyes narrowed. “Have you ever even seen a dragon?”

“It is like to an overgrown lizard,” Thor said, brushing the matter aside.

“You forget the fact that it breathes fire. Not to mention fangs and talons that could skewer you like a piece of meat on a spit.” Loki scowled. “Do not take this lightly, brother.”

Was Loki actually afraid? Surely he knew that whatever they might face, Thor would protect him. He opened his mouth to voice the thought and then paused, recollecting other times when he had implied that Loki could not handle an opponent by himself. Loki had never taken the insinuation well, despite Thor’s attempted explanations that it was not that he believed Loki incapable but was simply stating the fact of being shield-brothers, in both blood and honor. He would be there for Loki just as Loki would be there for him.

Now was perhaps not the time to say such things, however. He thought of how Loki had flinched away from touching him. He did not need Loki even more at odds with him, not until they had sorted out what had happened last night.

“Very well,” he said instead. “I shall be wary. And I will stop throwing trees.”

Loki gave him a suspicious look, as though he doubted his words, but he did not press the matter.

“How do you think it will feel when we come into our full powers?” Thor asked as they continued. The tension between them had eased slightly—hopefully Loki would answer instead of muttering some spell that made bubbles come out of his mouth whenever he tried to talk. Sif had not stopped laughing for weeks.

Loki shrugged. “I do not know. But we shall all pray that you receive a measure of wit to equal your strength. You certainly do not need more of the latter, and the former is sorely lacking.”

“Loki!” Thor chided, shoving him a little and feeling pleased when Loki simply glared and did not shy away from him. “Perhaps father is even now having our armor prepared,” he continued, picturing it in his mind.

“Whatever happens, you shall still not have the power to catch me,” Loki taunted, a teasing smile lightening his face.

“I will let you keep your delusions, brother,” Thor began and then lunged, as quick as he could, grasping Loki’s arm.

Only to have it dissolve under his grip like mist.

“What—?” He gaped at the place where Loki had been a moment before.

“You were saying?” Loki said, and he turned to find that the clearing had become filled with a throng—every person wearing his brother’s face. “Not so easy now, is it, Thor?” They all laughed at him.

“You have never made it easy,” Thor said grudgingly. “And I have never seen this magic before.”

As quickly as the throng had appeared, it vanished, leaving Loki standing next to a tree, a smug grin on his face. “That is because I just acquired it.”

“Do you mean that those elves taught you this?”

A slight flush colored Loki’s face. “In a manner of speaking.”

Some of his memories of the previous night filtered back, tinged with lust and wine. “Is that why you were there, then?” Thor demanded.

Loki’s eyes slid to some point past Thor’s shoulder. “I made a bargain with Eylaug.”

Then all the time Loki had been in his arms, those wild, feverish minutes when Thor had been consumed with the desire to kiss that clever mouth, his brother had merely been playing a part. What must Loki think of his—his wantonness? Shame flooded him, and then anger overrode it. “So you traded your body for this piece of spellcraft like a wh—”

“I would not finish that thought,” Loki interrupted, his voice cold.

Thor choked down the words, guilt mingling with the shame and anger. “I did not mean—”

“The day wears away while you stand there fumbling with paltry words.” Loki stared at him a moment, face unreadable, and then began walking again.

Thor followed, cursing his brother’s inscrutability and his own reckless tongue.

*

They spent the night by the banks of a river that tumbled over dark rocks in an eddying rush of foam. Thor built a fire, and Loki spat a twisted word, setting the wood alight.

Thor did not feel in the need of sustenance, and he suspected that were he to try and sleep, the remembered sound of Loki begging for release would keep him awake. So he hunched over the fire, thinking bitter thoughts about the Ljósálfar and their treacherous wine.

Loki wrapped himself in his cloak and retired from the firelight, although an occasional spark of blue illuminated his pale face, brows drawn in concentration as he played with his magic.

Magic. Thor snorted and tossed another log onto the fire. His brother let it consume him—always searching for a new spell, always playing his little tricks. He wanted—well, he wanted Loki’s eyes turned in his direction instead.

Shifting uneasily, Thor glanced quickly at Loki’s shrouded form and then away again. He thought of the lean planes of Loki’s chest, the slender bridge of his nose, the tight muscles of his thighs. They had been spread out before him like a fevered vision, and he had wanted to touch every centimeter of Loki’s body, to learn to know his flesh as well as he knew Loki’s quicksilver moods.

Why had those damned elves awakened this desire in him? It would have slumbered on, unnoticed, without their interference.

But perhaps—perhaps it had just been the wine, as Loki said—the wine, and Loki’s unfortunate playacting. Perhaps these feelings would subside, and he could once more look at his brother without wanting to gather him in a tight clasp and feel Loki’s heart beating under his fingertips like the wings of a valkyrie, speeding down to the battlefield from Valhalla.

He was startled out of his reverie by Loki settling to the ground next to him. “Such a frown on your face, brother,” Loki said, a smile lurking around his mouth. “Are you actually thinking?” He feigned wide-eyed surprise.

You,” Thor growled, glaring, but his ill humor dissipated in the sound of Loki’s familiar laughter.

*

The next day drew them deeper into the forest. The ground felt spongy and mossy beneath their feet, and a mist sometimes swirled out of the hollows, chilling the air and veiling the sun. Loki seemed ill at ease, always glancing over his shoulder and startling at the smallest noises.

“What is it?” Thor asked at last. “There is no sign of anything behind us. I have seen nothing but birds and a few small animals.”

“It reeks of magic,” Loki muttered.

“This is Álfheimr,” Thor pointed out. “All the elves possess magic. Doubtless it has penetrated the very fabric of their world.”

“But this magic has a foul taint. Not at all like Svana’s spells.” Loki grimaced. “The taste of it clings in my mouth like a piece of rotten fish.”

“Is it the dragon?”

Loki considered, but shook his head. “I do not believe dragons possess spellcraft of this sort. This is more like my own magic, only—only not.” He shivered.

“Of course it is not like yours.” Thor frowned at him. “Your spells are like the weavings on mother’s loom—finely crafted and fair to behold.”

“You truly think so?” Loki asked softly after a moment.

“How could I not?” Thor replied, and Loki shook his head but said no more, lapsing into silence.

The ground began sloping downwards and grew rockier, with many large boulders lying tumbled about, covered in moss. At last they came to a narrow defile strung between two steep hills. It was so choked with vegetation that what little sun came through the mist could not lighten the shadows inside. Thor started forward, prepared to hack a way through with his axe if necessary, but Loki stopped him.

“The magic has grown even stronger,” he whispered. “It feels like it emanates from this place.”

Thor listened intently but could hear nothing. “Well, if there is some elf hiding here,” he began, starting forward, “it shall become acquainted with the sharp end of my axe and—”

It happened faster than thought. One moment he was looking at an ordinary—if particularly verdant—thicket, and the next the tangled vines in front of him seemed to come alive, rippling outwards like a nest of snakes. Before he could raise his axe, they wrapped around his limbs and jerked him off his feet, dragging him across the ground. The vines pulled him under their leaves and then stopped as suddenly as they had begun. He found himself on his back, vines binding his legs together, others wrapped around his wrists which had been wrenched painfully behind him. His axe lay at least a foot away, useless.

He had heard Loki shouting his name and now blue light arced into the vines—only to vanish harmlessly. Thor strained his muscles as much as he could but to no avail. The vines held him fast.

“Thor!” Loki’s voice drew closer, and he craned his neck to see his brother warily approaching.

“Stay back,” he ordered, but Loki paid him no heed. Cautiously, he knelt at Thor’s side and gripped the vines, trying to pull them away. At last he gave up, panting.

“The vines are imbued with some magic that is stronger than any I have met before.” Loki drew a knife from where it had been hidden in one of his boots. The blade simply slid over the vines as though they were made of glass.

Loki’s eyes met his, and Thor could read the worry there. “Eylaug spoke of the Dökkálfar,” Loki said. “Dark elves that would have no scruples about trapping a god.”

“We do not know what this is,” Thor said, trying to break the vines once more. But they only grew tighter, and he choked as one squeezed around his neck. He took the hint and relaxed, wheezing.

“I shall try turning you into a mouse,” Loki announced and before Thor could protest at the idea of the God of Thunder being a puny rodent, even if only for a few moments, Loki had cast the spell.

But the magic melted away upon touching the vines.

“Try the knife again,” Thor said, but before Loki could do so, they heard the sound of rustling leaves.

“Something is coming!” Loki hissed and darted away, concealing himself in the lee of a boulder.

Thor’s pulse had quickened, and he twisted, trying to see what it was that approached. If Loki was right and this was the work of a dark elf, he expected someone like Svana only more sinister. But the thing that emerged at last—Thor swallowed, feeling sick.

It had a vaguely humanoid form, but at the joints of its elbows and knees, its limbs had split in two. Four legs, each ending in a set of sharp claws, skittered rapidly over the ground. Four arms, ending in three-fingered hands, reached towards him. It had huge ears, curved and angled like a bat’s, and a broad, flat nose. Its whole body was covered in leathery hide, and blind, milky-white eyes somehow still managed to stare at him.

“What have we here?” it whispered, and Thor shuddered as its fingers touched him. For the first time since he had been caught, he felt the stirrings of panic. He longed to have his axe in hand so that he could cut down this—this monstrosity.

“If you value your life,” he said, managing to keep his voice steady, “you will set me free this instant.”

“You smell of Asgard,” it murmured, ignoring him. It chuckled. “One of Odin’s sons, I guess, fallen into my trap! An auspicious day, indeed.” It bent closer, and the stink of its breath practically made him swoon. “You will make a most delicious meal, little god.”

Thor bristled at the moniker, and opened his mouth to tell this thing exactly how much pleasure he would take in ripping every one of its limbs off, when a dagger suddenly thudded into the monster’s side.

It shrieked and whirled around to face Loki, who had sprung from his hiding place and now stood there, gripping Thor’s axe in his hands. Thor felt a surge of hope, and he tried once again to break his bonds. The vine around his neck started strangling him again, though, and he was forced to subsist.

“If you kill me, he will be trapped for eternity,” the monster said, voice gurgling from pain. “I am the only one who knows the spell to free him.”

“Then I suggest you speak the spell now,” Loki said, eyes glittering. “Cutting off one of your legs would not kill you, but I doubt you would find it a pleasant experience.”

The monster laughed again. “You speak to me, Hreidmar, of pain? I have spent thousands of years spinning out the lives of my prey, feasting on each drop of their agony.” Sharp talons—small but deadly—emerged from its fingers. It set them against Thor’s neck. “Take one step forward, and I shall rip out his throat.”

Loki’s eyes flickered to Thor’s and then back to Hreidmar. His knuckles were white where they clutched the axe haft. “If you dare to hurt him, the wrath of the All-Father will fall upon you.”

“No!” Thor said, despite his growing fear. “If Odin intervenes, we will have failed.”

“And if he does not, you will be dead!” Loki snapped.

“I am not a weak mortal to fall so easily to this thing’s threats,” Thor said, trying to project an air of bravado into his words, though their inability to break the binding spells had shaken his confidence.

“Indeed you are not.” Hreidmar turned his blind eyes on Thor, and his talons dug deeper into Thor’s neck. “You will last for a hundred moons in my care. The pain that you shall endure…”

“You will let him go,” Loki snarled, and he raised the axe.

Hreidmar crouched low over Thor’s body. “Did I not warn you?” he hissed. To Thor’s alarm, he opened his mouth, revealing a pair of fangs. Hreidmar gripped his hair, pulling his head back, and then bit the side of his neck, fangs plunging into Thor’s skin.

He felt the venom instantly—could sense it spreading through his veins, paralyzing his limbs and clouding his mind. “Loki,” he choked out, “don’t—” Don’t let him take you too. Don’t let yourself get hurt for my sake. But he couldn’t force the words past his numb lips nor fight the darkness dragging him into unconsciousness.

Chapter Text

Thor went limp in his bonds, the nightmare shape of the dökkálfar crouched over his body. And all of Loki’s reason, his vaunted cleverness, cascaded from him on a cold wave of rage. If Thor was dead—

The axe felt light in his hands as he ran towards Hreidmar. He would crush this abomination that had dared lay its hands on his brother. Its death-scream would sound all the way to Asgard.

Hreidmar turned, yanking Loki’s dagger out of his side, and hurling it towards him. It would have killed a lesser creature, but Loki swung the axe in a glittering arc and knocked the dagger aside. Snarling, Hreidmar once more set his claws against Thor’s throat.

“He is not dead. But he shall be if you do not stop!” Hreidmar shouted the words, and they slammed into Loki, shattering the icy slivers of his anger. He staggered to a halt. Not dead. Not dead.

“Stay your wrath, magician,” Hreidmar said, “and listen to the bargain I propose.”

“I will not treat with you,” Loki spat. “You are a loathsome, treacherous thing, not fit to crawl under our table, begging for scraps. Yet you dare to touch my brother’s flesh. You dare to challenge gods of Asgard.”

“Curb your spiteful tongue.” Hreidmar trailed his fingers down Thor’s body in a gloating parody of a caress. “I hold the Thunderer in my power and your words mean nothing.”

Furious at the monster’s gall but grudgingly admitting the truth of what it said, Loki forced his anger down. “Then speak. But quickly.”

Hreidmar scuttled closer to him, and Loki raised the axe in warning. Spreading his arms in a placating gesture, Hreidmar said, “None of us want Odin to interfere in this quarrel. I know that if I tried to keep his son, no matter the sweet taste of an Æsir’s terror, Odin would come and kill me. And so I propose a trade. You will bring me something that I greatly desire, and in return, I shall free your brother.”

Loki considered, his eyes straying to Thor’s unconscious form. It was true what Thor had said—if they called on Odin’s aid, they would have failed their vegr. All on Asgard would know that he had not been able to save his brother. Their taunts about his magic—that it was only good for tricks and silly games—would be proven true. And he would lose his chance at winning the Dáinsleif. “What is it that you desire?” he asked Hreidmar.

“Half-a-day’s walk to the south lies a lake,” Hreidmar said, pointing one of his grotesque limbs into the mist-drenched woods. “By that lake lives Andvari, a dwarf that possesses great skill in magic and metalworking. He has crafted a ring, the Andvarinaut, that can make gold. I want this ring.”

“And if I bring you the ring, you will free my brother, alive and unharmed?”

“I swear that I shall free him,” Hreidmar promised. “And he shall be alive.” His mouth stretched into a grin. “But I must have some way to pass the hours until you return. So I suggest you make haste, magician.”

To leave his brother to Hreidmar’s sadistic torments—Loki looked on Thor’s face, and his heart burned within him. But what choice did he have?

“I will bring you the Andvarinaut,” he said. “But know this—I shall always remember what you have done here. Every pain that you inflict upon my brother, I will one day revisit a hundredfold upon you.”

But Hreidmar only laughed, and Loki was forced to turn away and stumble into the mists, while Hreidmar dragged Thor into the reeking darkness of his lair.

*

The forest all looked alike to him—rank upon rank of trees and tangled thickets, tumbled logs that blocked his way, and a persistent cloud-cover that hid the sun. To his shame, Loki panicked and spent at least an hour crashing blindly through the woods, breath searing his chest, branches scratching his face and hands. At last he tripped and fell, and the momentary pause brought a modicum of rationality back to him.

He needed a way to find this lake. It could take days if he went on as he was now, with only a vague direction in which to head.

The answer came to him suddenly. Of course—better to assume a shape that would be at home in these surroundings. It was but the work of a moment to shift his bones and muscles into a more suitable form. And he called it chance that he became an otter, one of his favorite guises for aggravating his brother.

As an otter, his senses were magnified and, more importantly, instinct tugged him in the direction of water. All it took was a few deep sniffs, and then the scent of muddy banks and weedy shallows wafted to his nose. He set off immediately. He was able to move more swiftly, too, squeezing under the fallen logs and wriggling through brambles.

It still took until early evening for him to reach the lake, but he finally crested a hill and found it spreading out before him. The water gleamed as the sun fought its way free of the clouds at last, casting a pale light. Loki snuffled along the bank, paws sinking into the mud. He could not resist the pull of the water and dived in, swimming through the murky depths before surfacing and scanning the shore line. The lake was quite large—he could not even make out the opposite bank—so he began paddling along the shoreline, scenting the air in hopes of picking up a clue towards Andvari’s whereabouts.

A frog croaked from the rushes, and a few small fishes swam past. Loki restrained himself from pursuing them. Raw fish appealed to him in this form, and it had been some time since he had partaken in any sustenance.

As he neared the southern shore of the lake, the banks became rockier. A chain of hills, extending to the west, pressed close, their stony roots delving into the water. A rushing sound filled his ears, and he spied a waterfall, pouring down the cliff. He dived underwater again and swam towards it.

The sun had almost set, and little light penetrated into the depths. Slimy weeds choked the lake bottom, making it even harder to see far. He should have been more on his guard. Instead, he assumed that nothing here could harm him, forgetting that in this form, he was much more vulnerable.

When the pike barreled out of the weeds, it took him completely unawares. Some sixth sense saved him. He turned just in time to see its jaws open wide, ready to rip out his throat.

Loki twisted sharply, barking in alarm and inhaling a mouthful of water. He had a vague impression of a mouth full of sharp teeth and then the giant fish had disappeared again, sliding soundlessly into the murky weeds. Propelling himself as fast as he could, Loki broke the surface, coughing and spluttering. He swam for the bank and hauled himself onto the shore, imagining every second that he would feel sharp teeth closing on his tail.

It did not pursue him, though. The ripples of his passing subsided, and the lake returned to its unruffled calm.

Spitting out the water he had swallowed, Loki shook himself vigorously and then hurried further into the shelter of the cliffs. Meeting the pike had shaken him, and he wanted to get out of the open. He no longer trusted the still waters and quiet air.

He was grooming his coat—an action that he found calming—when a splash at the water’s edge disturbed him. Peering out from the rock he was lying under, he watched in surprise as the giant pike that he had just lately become acquainted with flopped onto the bank. It really was monstrous—at least five feet long, with massive fins and tail. Yet even as he wondered what in Odin’s name it thought it was doing, it began to transform. Scales fell away, and a man appeared, standing up and peeling away the fish skin as though it were a cloak. The man was short in stature, with gnarled fingers and a dark beard. Loki had no doubt that he was looking at Andvari.

Andvari did not seem aware of his presence, for he strode unconcernedly towards the waterfall. Loki crept after him. Ducking through the spray, Andvari disappeared, and Loki guessed that he must have entered a cave, hidden behind the waterfall.

If Thor had been there, he would have gone charging after Andvari, whirling his axe and shouting. And then discovered that Andvari kept a pet manticore to guard his gold or some other unpleasant surprise. No, Loki preferred to discover as much as he could before confronting Andvari. If the dwarf had indeed made this ring, then he possessed powerful magic. And most dwarves were quite handy with an axe as well. Much better to learn Andvari’s weaknesses first and devise an appropriate plan.

He retired to the shadows along the cliff and settled down to wait.

The night hours passed slowly, marked by the moon crawling across the sky. Loki’s fur coat kept him warm, but he could not sleep. He felt Thor’s absence keenly and could not help dwelling on what tortures his brother might be suffering at Hreidmar’s hands. It was not the physical pain that concerned him. Thor did not flinch at wounds of the flesh. But being trapped and helpless—these would lie heavily on Thor’s spirit. And he did not like the thought of Hreidmar’s venom—it should not have been able to act so swiftly, not in the divine, battle-hot blood that ran through Thor’s veins.

What if Thor did not survive? He pictured it for a moment—the mourning, their mother’s tears, his own bitter sadness. And then—well, he would be named heir to the throne, would he not? He would be there to support their father; he would rule when Odin fell into his deep sleep. His father would speak to him of kingship, and they would ponder the secrets of Yggdrasil together. And Thor would be but a shadow in Odin’s mind.

But no—Thor could never be a shadow, whether alive or dead. No, he would be a painfully bright memory, and all of Loki’s deeds would be measured against it and found wanting.

Baring his teeth, Loki growled at the stars. Even now, Heimdall must be watching them and reporting to Odin how Loki lay hidden in the dark, wrapped in magic, while Thor bore his pains bravely and longed for battle.

Let them think what they would of him! But he would save Thor and win the Dáinsleif and prove himself his brother’s equal in every way.

With one last snarl, Loki curled into a ball, resigned to waiting until morning and Andvari’s reappearance. He tucked his nose under his tail, but stretched out one paw, unable to reconcile the empty spot beside him with the steady warmth his body expected to find.

*

Loki was watching the next morning when Andvari emerged from his cave. The dwarf pulled his fish skin on and slid into the water. Loki waited a while longer and then, satisfied that Andvari would not reappear, resumed his own form. He stretched, relishing his height even as the smells around him faded in intensity. Straightening his tunic, he walked towards the waterfall.

A narrow passageway extended behind the waterfall. Loki edged along it and found himself in a dark alcove. He groped along the wall until he located a torch, lighting it with a simple word. He held it aloft, wiping spray from his face. A tunnel led deeper into the rock, but Loki had only gone a short distance before it opened into a wide room.

A forge stood to one side, and a crude table and bed occupied one wall. But much of the space was filled with piles of gold. The wavering light of the torch flickered over the shining ore, and Loki was impressed despite himself. Few coffers in Asgard could boast a more impressive display. He could feel the spells covering the gold, though, and did not try and touch it. Instead, he poked around Andvari’s few other possessions. But there was no sign of the ring. A search of the rest of the room—the crannies in the rock walls, the jagged edges of the tunnel—turned up nothing.

It had been a long shot, anyway. If it had been him, Loki would have kept the Andvarinaut on his person, and the dwarf had evidently followed a similar line of thinking. It was safe with him on the bottom of that damned lake.

Irritated, Loki left the cave and stalked to the edge of the water. It would be best to confront Andvari while he was a pike—no chance that he could cast a spell or fetch an axe that way. But Loki did not care for his chances as an otter against the fishy monstrosity that had practically taken his head off yesterday. But if he could catch Andvari and trap him on dry land…

He had once woven a net to catch star-dreams—this would be a simple matter in comparison. But it would take time. Raising his head, Loki stared northwards. I will come for you, brother. I swear it. Hold on for me. Hold on.

*

Each heartbeat labored in his breast. Forcing open his eyes took every ounce of willpower Thor possessed. He had never felt so weak before, like even breathing was a struggle.

When he at last managed to pry his eyes open, he found himself in a musty darkness, lit only by a few feeble candle flames. He was tied to a stone slab by more of those damnable vines.

“Loki,” he whispered, his brother’s name rasping against his dry throat.

Instead, Hreidmar materialized out of the darkness. Thor flinched away and struggled against the vines. They did not ease even the slightest. He felt nauseous and dizzy, cold sweat coating his brow.

“I have often wondered if my venom would subdue an Æsir,” Hreidmar said, looming over Thor, his bat-ears twitching. “But none have been so foolish as to venture into my lair. Until now.” He dug his claws into Thor’s tunic and then ripped it open, shredding the fabric. “It seems to be most effective. Perhaps I shall give you a bit more.”

Hreidmar fastened his mouth to Thor’s wrist and then bit. The poison filtered into him, and Thor wanted to scream against the fear that choked him. Yes, he was afraid. Trapped like a rat in this filthy hole, his power leaching from him with each drop of venom—he thrashed weakly, trying to dislodge Hreidmar.

“Your terror is as delicious as I anticipated,” Hreidmar murmured, breathing deeply.

“What have—what have you done to my brother?” Thor gasped.

“Nothing. He fled.”

“You lie,” Thor growled. “Loki is no coward.”

“But he is ambitious, yes?” Hreidmar disappeared for a moment and when he reappeared he held a long, slender needle made of bone in his hands. Thor tried to ignore it.

“What do you mean?” he demanded. “If I find that you have hurt him—”

“You are in no position to make threats,” Hreidmar said calmly. “I am merely suggesting that your brother may have seen the potential in this situation. The chance to seize glory for himself. The chance to become heir to the throne of Asgard.”

“You know nothing of my brother,” Thor growled.

“We shall see.” Hreidmar raised the needle. “Now. I thought we would begin with this.” He stroked a finger across Thor’s chest. “I have heard that Æsir heal swiftly. Will you still do so with this in your flesh? And if so, imagine the agony when I rip it out again.”

Thor gritted his teeth and turned his head away. Loki must have escaped. But Hreidmar was wrong—his brother would not leave him here.

As the hours passed, though, Thor could not help the doubt that began creeping over him. He could not tell how long he had been here—the venom clouded his mind, and he lapsed in and out of consciousness, each awakening more painful and difficult than the last. Hreidmar tired of the needles and turned to other, worse devices. The venom kept him from completely healing, and the stone underneath him grew wet with his blood. He longed to escape the fetid air and breathe freely.

And still Loki did not appear, and his hope dwindled.

*

The sticky threads of a spider’s web; a sunbeam, caught swirling in a pool; the viscous slime of a snail’s path—Loki gathered and wove them into a lustrous net. The web to entrap, the sunbeam to dazzle and confuse the senses, the slime to slow reactions to a snail’s pace.

It took him four days and nights, but at last he finished. The net slid through his fingers like silk, but not even the sharpest blade would be able to cut its fibers. He took a moment to admire its golden sheen. What might it look like wrapped around Thor’s limbs, gently restraining him so Loki’s fingers could wander over his skin?

Scowling, he shook himself free of the net’s allure. Such thoughts could not be permitted. Not for the first time, he wondered if the magic he had gained from Eylaug had been worth the price. The discovery of what Thor’s sweaty, bare skin felt like as it pressed against his own—it had proved a dangerous piece of knowledge. And that Thor had not seemed disgusted, had indeed held him so carefully the next morning, only made it worse.

But what would the All-Father think if he should find them entwined together? Loki could not bear the censure that would fill Odin’s eyes, the accusations that Loki had seduced his brother into his bed, selfishly stealing Thor from the duties of a king.

Besides, after falling prey to Hreidmar’s spells, Thor would probably never consent to being bound again, even in the pursuit of pleasure.

Pushing away his imaginings, Loki climbed down from the hills where he had hidden himself. It was mid-afternoon, and Andvari should be swimming in the lake. Jumping onto a rock that jutted far out into the water, Loki gathered the net in his hands and then cast it out. It settled into the water, swaying with the current.

It had taken him all night to lure the star-dreams to him. Hopefully Andvari would be more heedless.

Many small fish swam into the net, and he let them go. Once he snared a turtle. But nothing that felt like the massive bulk of the pike.

And then, just as the sun was beginning to disappear behind the hills, the net jerked in his hands. Swiftly, Loki began pulling it in. Something strong resisted him. It pulled desperately and almost had him in the lake. But at last he yanked it out of the water and onto dry land. It was the pike, speckled green scales heaving as it tried to escape. The enchantments kept Andvari from shifting, and his gills fluttered madly.

Keeping a tight grip on the net, Loki knelt next to him. “I know what you are, Andvari. My net will keep you in this form until you suffocate unless you grant me what I ask for.”

The pike’s movements had slowed. But its jaw remained stubbornly shut.

“I suggest you make up your mind swiftly,” Loki said. “I doubt you have longer than a minute to live.”

The pike thrashed again, and then it broke, gasping. “Very well. I swear I shall give you what you demand.”

Loki unwound the net, setting it free. Andvari transformed instantly, struggling out of his fish skin and slumping to his knees, taking deep breaths. He peered up at Loki.

“What are you to invade my home with your deceitful spells?”

“I am Loki Odinson,” Loki returned proudly. “And I desire your ring, the Andvarinaut.”

“What need has an Asgardian of gold?” Andvari demanded, slowly getting to his feet. His face was dark with anger and frustration. “You have the nine realms at your fingertips. Does your greed know no bounds?”

“I do not seek the ring for myself,” Loki said, stung. “The dökkálfar, Hreidmar, has taken something of mine and demanded the ring in exchange. Now give it to me—time grows thin.”

Grudgingly, Andvari drew forth a chain hanging around his neck and unclasped the ring dangling at its end. The ring was made of gold and bore a single dark red stone. Loki held out his hand.

“What business does an Æsier have wandering about these forests?” Andvari queried, clutching the ring tightly.

“My brother and I have come to slay the dragon, Fafnir,” Loki replied impatiently. “Give me the ring.”

Andvari spat on the ground and then dropped the ring into Loki’s hand. “Perhaps the dragon will give me my revenge upon you, then. Your crafty spells will be no match for his fire. It will roast your flesh and blacken your bones. And if your brother is what Hreidmar has taken, I think your hopes will be disappointed there as well. One night in Hreidmar’s clutches is enough to strip away one’s sanity. He will leave naught but mangled, gibbering flesh for you to find.”

“You know nothing, fool,” Loki hissed. “Be thankful that I have no time to spare or I would teach you not to underestimate my powers.” Perhaps once he had won the Dáinsleif, he would return and make Andvari cower before him. Gathering up the net, he prepared to leave.

“I may be a fool,” Andvari called after him as he walked away. “But I recognize the fear in your face.”

Loki’s anger surged, but he kept walking. For a small part of him could not help but acknowledge the truth in the dwarf’s words.

*

Loki halted when he reached the northern edge of the lake. He would travel through the night to reach Thor, but first he must see to the Andvarinaut.

Lighting a small fire, he peered at the ring in his hand. Beautiful indeed, and quite magical. If he had been Thor—or any other of Asgard’s warriors—he would have brought it to Hreidmar as promised and handed it over in good faith. Such would be the honorable path.

But Hreidmar had taken his brother, and Loki was in no mood to abide by the niceties of the warrior’s code.

Bending over the ring, he called to mind a spell. A dark spell. A spell that would bring death to any who touched the Andvarinaut.

Carefully, he set the ring on the ground. Then, gathering all his anger, he cursed it. The spell settled into the golden circle, invisible, but deadly. Loki tore a piece of fabric from his cloak and picked it up, tucking it away.

Perhaps he did not have honor. But he would not allow anyone who hurt Thor to escape his vengeance.

Chapter Text

Loki’s voice found him deep in a cavernous well of pain. Thor clung to it, though he half-expected it to be a hallucination. He could no longer tell the difference between poisoned dreams and waking agony.

Were his eyes open? Yes—yes, that was the pitted ceiling of Hreidmar’s lair, lit by a guttering candle.

“Hreidmar! Come forth!”

Again Loki’s voice sounded. And perhaps he was not imagining things, for Hreidmar laid aside his knives and moved away, his ears twitching. A second later, Thor felt a cool breeze touching his skin. It brought the clean smell of grass and trees.

He heard Hreidmar’s voice now, and then Loki’s again, raised in a demanding tone. And suddenly light flooded into the darkness. Thor blinked against it, eyes watering. He dimly felt Hreidmar severing his bonds.

“Your brother wishes to see you,” Hreidmar rasped, and he jerked Thor upright and dragged him forth. Thor tried to gain his feet, shamed that Loki should see him so reduced, but he could barely keep his eyes open, let alone walk.

Hreidmar pushed him to his knees when they exited his lair. Thor managed to raise his head and caught a brief glimpse of Loki, but then Hreidmar’s claws dug into his shoulder, and he dropped his eyes, trying not to cry out. He had screamed so much—deep, ragged cries that made his chest ache. He could not believe Hreidmar could drag any more out of him. But in front of Loki, exposed to the harsh light of day, he felt every wound more keenly.

“Here is your brother,” Hreidmar said to Loki. “Alive, as I promised. We have had a most enjoyable time together.”

Loki was silent for a long minute. “I will kill you for what you have done to him,” he said at last, and his voice brimmed with a cold rage.

Hreidmar clicked his teeth. “Let us not retread this ground, magician. Did you bring me what I asked?”

“Yes,” Loki said, reining in his fury. Thor looked up to see him take out a piece of cloth and open it, revealing a ring.

“I am impressed,” Hreidmar said. “Andvari would not give that up easily.”

“I warned you not to underestimate me,” Loki replied.

“Indeed. And how do I not know you have done something to the ring?” Hreidmar drew in a deep breath, his ears quivering. “With your professed desire to do me harm, I find myself hesitant to accept anything from you.”

“We had a bargain,” Loki growled.

“And have you broken the terms?” Hreidmar pressed.

“No. And if my word is not enough, I shall give you further proof,” Loki said, his voice contemptuous. He drew away the cloth. “There. I am not afraid to touch it, and as you can see, it is harmless.” He held the ring in his bare fingers, letting it glint in the sunlight.

A greedy noise rumbled in Hreidmar’s throat. “Give it to me, then.”

“Release my brother first.”

The claws on Hreidmar’s feet clacked impatiently. “Lay it on the ground.”

Loki did so. Hreidmar shoved Thor forward and dove for the ring, gathering it into his covetous hands. Thor struggled to rise, but then Loki was there, putting his arms around him.

“Brother,” he whispered, worried fingers skimming over Thor’s bloodied chest, hissing as he found the deep gashes in Thor’s stomach, and the crushed fingers of his left hand.

“You are truly here,” Thor managed, letting his head rest on Loki’s shoulder, too drained to move.

“Yes. You’re safe.” Loki’s palms cradled him protectively. “I won’t let that thing touch you again.”

“A flimsy promise,” Hreidmar said from where he crouched a few feet away. “You could not best me before. Now I hold the Andvarinaut and have two Æsir at my feet.” He stroked the golden ring, clasped tight around one of his fingers.

“You would break your word so easily?” Loki’s hand strayed to the dagger sheathed in his boot.

“Our bargain said nothing about letting you go free.” Hreidmar began moving towards them, venom glinting on the tips of his fangs. “This time I shall take you both.”

Thor tried to gather his strength—to run or at least make a last, desperate stand. He would not let himself be taken alive. He would not go back to that miserable hole. But Loki stilled him. “Wait,” he murmured.

As Thor watched, heart pounding, Hreidmar suddenly faltered. A shudder wracked his twisted body. The breath squeezed in his throat. “What—what is this?” he gasped.

And then, to Thor’s horror, Loki disappeared from his side, vanishing as though he had in truth been only a hallucination. Before he even had a chance to cry out, though, his brother stepped forward from the shadows of the forest and strode towards them.

“A trick I learned from the Ljósálfar,” Loki said, and his eyes were darkly satisfied as he gazed on Hreidmar, who was now collapsed on the ground, clawing at the ring which refused to leave his hand. “The Andvarinaut is cursed—any who touch it will die.” He knelt by Thor and drew him close, his arms warm and familiar.

“But—but you held it in your palm,” Hreidmar gasped. A howl ripped out of his throat, and he thrashed, limbs seizing.

“An illusion—I never touched it,” Loki replied. “I judge that you have a minute to live, perhaps less. Did I not tell you that I would take revenge for every harm you did my brother? My only regret is that your suffering will be so short.”

They watched as Hreidmar convulsed, shrieking. Blood and venom frothed at his mouth. Slowly, his struggles grew fainter, and at last they ceased.

Thor shuddered and turned away, pressing his face into Loki’s chest.

Loki held him for a moment and then drew slightly back. “What has he done to you?” he murmured, feeling Thor’s sweat-drenched brow.

Thor tried to answer, but the venom still coursed within him. He shivered, wanting to press close to Loki’s warmth and sink beneath the swelling darkness. Loki was calling his name, but the effort to respond was too much. His brother would care for him, Thor knew. He no longer needed to be afraid.

*

“Thor. Thor.” Loki cursed as his brother slumped in his arms. He had never seen Thor hurt like this before—had never believed that Hreidmar could do such damage. Laying Thor down, he scanned his injuries. Ragged cuts covered his arms and thighs, as though something had been embedded in the flesh and then ripped out. Deep wounds bled on Thor’s stomach, and Loki could picture Hreidmar’s claws digging into him. All the fingers on Thor’s left hand were broken, crushed in some sort of vise. But all of these, although grievous, should have healed swiftly. They would never have brought Thor to this state alone.

Thor’s wrist and neck bore the marks of Hreidmar’s fangs. Loki guessed that here lay the true reason for his brother’s agony. The venom needed to be cleansed from Thor’s body—and quickly. But how could he do so? He knew little of the healing arts.

Glancing at Hreidmar’s corpse, Loki grimaced and stood. At the least, they must move away from this place. The dark magic coating the air and ground might well hinder Thor’s recovery. Of course, moving Thor was easier said than done. But after much cursing and sweating, Loki managed to drag him a distance away, back to where the air felt more wholesome. He settled Thor in a small clearing, open to the blue of the sky and the sunlight.

Thor looked even paler here, skin covered in blood and bruises.

Loki hesitated and then sent a tendril of magic creeping towards him. It touched Thor and—

Choking, Loki fell back. He had never felt such a sense of wrongness before. His stomach heaved, and he fought not to vomit, forcing away the terrible sense of pain and sickness that streamed from Thor. When he had gained control of himself, he reached for his brother once more, although his hand still trembled. Thor’s breathing seemed weaker, and his pulse was a thin flutter.

“Thor,” he whispered. “Brother, you must fight this.” He put his hand on Thor’s face, bending closer. “If any possess the necessary strength, it is you.”

Thor did not answer. His pulse seemed to slow further.

If Thor should die—

Such a future held a thousand possibilities—and a wail of loneliness that left Loki gripping Thor desperately.

It could not be allowed.

He was gathering his magic for another attempt when he felt the patter of raindrops against his cheek. A moment later, a rumble of thunder sounded.

Loki gasped in relief. “Yes—yes—call your thunder to your aid.” He pressed his forehead to Thor’s, breathing in the storm-scent and coming crackle of lightning. “Let it fill you and drive out this poison.”

He was so close—it required no effort to let his mouth drift down and revel in a kiss. And then he drew away, moving to the other side of the clearing and hunching under his cloak as the rain saturated the earth and the lightning caressed Thor’s body.

*

A tickle of sunshine across his nose woke him. He blinked up at a blue sky; humid air—weighted with a recent rain—covered him like a blanket. He could not tell where he was and had no memory of how he had arrived here, but such a sense of well-being infused him, that it did not matter.

Not to mention that he smelled the delicious odor of roasting meat. His stomach growled, and he sat up.

A small fire burned near him, and Loki sat there, turning a makeshift spit. “So, you rouse yourself at last,” he said, and his eyes looked softer than Thor had ever seen them.

“Where are we?” he asked.

“Álfheimr,” Loki replied. “We set forth upon our vegr. Do you remember nothing?”

The memories leeched into his mind. Their father’s face as he bid them farewell, Svana’s honeyed laugh, an agony of darkness that would not end…

Shivering, he moved closer to the fire. “My recollection returns.”

“All of it?” Loki asked, a seeming casualness in his tone.

Thor’s eyes wandered from the slender crook of Loki’s fingers to his pale throat and the glimpse of skin through the laces of his tunic. “All of it,” he admitted, feeling himself flush.

And just like that, the openness in Loki’s eyes melted into their usual calculating regard. “Then you know that our greatest challenge still lies before us.”

“The dragon.” Thor waved a hand. He felt renewed and strong and would not let Loki turn him aside again. “We shall tend to him later, brother. Now we must speak of what occurred between us while we were among the elves. You claimed that you only played a part, but I doubt that even you could feign such ardor.”

“Then you do not know me,” Loki said coldly.

“I know you better than any other,” Thor returned. He pointed to the crushed grass that bore the impression of his body. “I said I remembered everything—even the brush of your lips against mine as I lay there, fighting Hreidmar’s poison.”

“Your memories serve you ill,” Loki snapped and stood up. “Tend to your own food. I am not some thrall at your command.” He started to walk away.

But the lightning still thrummed in his veins, giving him a speed that none could match. He strode to Loki’s side and grabbed his arm. “You are no thrall,” he said. “You are my brother and dearest to my heart.” He looked into Loki’s unwilling eyes. “And cannot you say the same?”

Loki wavered, and for a moment, Thor thought he would agree. But then passionate tears filled Loki’s eyes, and he tried to tear from Thor’s grip.

“What would father say?” he demanded harshly. “And do not pretend that you would be content with me in your bed. I will not be another one of your conquests that you laugh over with the Warriors Three!”

“I would have none other!” Thor refused to let him go, unwilling to let Loki think such things of him. “How could I grow tired of you? A thousand times a thousand years, and I would only have begun to measure the sweet flickering of your moods.”

“And what then?” Loki’s laugh was an angry spark of fury. “When you take your throne, what then? Must I always be second to you in all things?” He yanked against Thor’s grip. “Do you really think I would be content to fawn at your side like a—a mistress?”

“Do not speak nonsense,” Thor said, beginning to get angry in turn. “Nothing will change between us when I become king.”

The fury abruptly drained from Loki. “Exactly,” he whispered. “Nothing would change.”

And before Thor could unravel what he meant, Loki had managed to slip from his grasp, going to the opposite side of the fire and sitting down. “Your meat has been burned,” Loki muttered. “And do not think that it was easy to catch the damned deer.”

Thor knew that Loki would turn aside any other words and would not stand for his touch, not now. “It is not burned—merely a little crisp,” he said. “Just as I like it.”

“You and Volstagg will shove anything into those bottomless maws you call stomachs, won’t you?” Loki commented acidly, but he did not move away when Thor sat next to him.

*

“Tell me what happened while I was at Hreidmar’s mercy,” Thor said after a while. “What was that ring that brought his death?”

Loki gave him a sidelong glance. “I did not anticipate that it would take me so long,” he said softly. “Nor could I see any other path open to me. Hreidmar offered a bargain, you see—your life in exchange for the Andvarinaut.”

He told Thor the full tale, pausing now and again to collect his thoughts. Thor listened silently, and laid his hand on Loki’s shoulder when the recounting ended. Loki had lied to Hreidmar, and cursing the ring had been the work of a dark magic that Thor did not like to associate with his brother. But Loki had saved his life, and Thor had no right to offer a rebuke.

Loki allowed the touch for a moment and then shook him off. “I hope at the least it has taught you to be warier before charging headlong into a trap.”

“I did not ‘charge headlong,’ as you claim,” Thor protested. “I was ready to fight whatever we might encounter. And I would have prevailed had it not been for Hreidmar’s magic—which defeated you as well, I might add.”

Loki chose to ignore that last. “We should turn our thoughts to other matters, for we still have not accomplished our true purpose here. Fafnir still awaits us.”

“Yes, though I am poorly clad to face a dragon,” Thor said ruefully, gesturing to his tattered clothing.

His lightning had scoured away the wounds underneath—not even scars remained—but Loki’s eyes still darkened unhappily. Loki put out his hand as though to touch, but then drew back and huddled in on himself. “You look suitably barbaric and uncivilized,” he snapped, hiding his discomfort behind abrasive words.

Thor did not think Loki looked much better, in truth. His cloak was torn and stained, his hair tangled, and his face drawn with weariness.

“When was the last time you slept?” Thor demanded. “The night in Svana’s palace?”

Loki shrugged.

“Then you need rest,” Thor declared. “Lie down and find ease—I shall keep watch.”

It was a measure of Loki’s exhaustion that he did not protest Thor’s ordering him about. He curled next to the fire, and as Thor watched, the tension eased out of him until his muscles relaxed into sleep.

Thor resisted the urge to lie next to Loki. He resisted the desire to whisper that he did not care what their father thought or anyone else for that matter. They were gods and had no use for mortal restraints!

But Loki might take it ill. Now was not the time to press the matter. Later, when they had returned to Asgard, he would try to pin down Loki’s quicksilver nature and get him to admit to the bond that ached restlessly between them.

*

The sun had just set when Thor detected a diffuse light growing in the trees. At first he thought it the waxing moon rising into the sky, but it kept growing brighter. Uneasy, he reached for his axe and moved to stand in front of Loki’s sleeping figure.

The light resolved into three Ljósálfar. Thor recognized one as the elf who had…seduced Loki. He scowled, fingers tightening on his axe.

“Peace,” Eylaug said, raising her hands and smiling. “We did not come to steal your dark haired shield-brother. We bear gifts from our queen.”

The other two elves stepped forward, and Thor saw that they carried finely woven tunics, mail shirts, and hard-edged shields.

“They are in gratitude of Loki’s defeat of Hreidmar, who has long plagued these forests,” Eylaug continued.

“Set them down,” Thor said, not willing to let these elves draw close to Loki, who remained asleep. “And thank your queen for her generosity.” There. Let it not be said that Thor Odinson did not possess manners.

Eylaug looked amused, but motioned for the others to do as Thor ordered. “Tell your brother that if he should ever wish to be among those who appreciate his talents, my queen would welcome him to her court.”

“Loki is a prince on Asgard and well-respected by our people,” Thor retorted. “Why should he ever want to sully himself among the debauchery of your court?” That last strayed the bounds of politeness, but one could not always be well-mannered.

“And I have no doubt that all on Asgard will praise the trickery and deceit that are his favored weapons,” Eylaug murmured, unperturbed.

“He saved my life. Do not cloud his deeds with your lies.” He checked anxiously to make sure Loki still slumbered.

Eylaug ran her tongue along her lips, smiling.

“Your errand is done. Be gone,” Thor said. Manners be damned.

“Fafnir makes his lair in that direction,” Eylaug said, pointing to the east. “Do try not to get yourselves killed. I should hate to see such, mmmm…loveliness wasted.”

The elves disappeared, although Eylaug’s laughter lingered.

Scowling, Thor sat by Loki again. If he never had to visit Álfheimr again, it would be too soon.

*

Loki woke to find the Ljósálfar’s gifts and a very grumpy Thor, who refused to touch said gifts.

“Put them on,” Loki told him, exchanging his own bedraggled garments for a tunic of deep green. He did not tend to wear armor, but he pulled the mail shirt over his head. After all, when they returned to Asgard, father would have prepared a warrior’s armor for each of them—he must get used to it. He imagined how it would feel to have the Dáinsleif in his hand, his armor wrapped about him.

Invincible.

“They are not enchanted, if that’s what you’re worried about,” he continued impatiently as Thor continued to stay stubbornly still.

“Didn’t you say that the Ljósálfar never give anything without expecting something in return?” Thor asked, slowly reaching for the other tunic.

“I already gave them Hreidmar’s death,” Loki reminded him, taking the moment to gloat over the fact that Thor was receiving these things thanks to his actions. “Svana is merely balancing the scales. But you will tip them again if you refuse her gift. She would take it as an insult.”

When Thor at last stopped prevaricating and dressed, they set off in the direction Eylaug had told Thor to follow.

“Perhaps,” Thor began, sounding strangely unsure of himself. “Perhaps we should keep the details of the past few days to ourselves.”

“Why? Because they demonstrate that you cannot solve every problem by hitting it with your axe?”

“No,” Thor said, although he did not sound at all happy about that revelation. “Because father would not approve of what you did with the Andvarinaut.”

A wash of cold anger flooded him. “So you seek to deny my victories, is that it?” Loki demanded, rounding on his brother. “I think you are merely jealous—jealous that for once father might praise me above you.”

“That is not true!” Thor protested. “And I have no quarrel with your methods. Hreidmar deserved his death for daring to trifle with us. But…” he trailed off.

“Yes?” Loki prompted. “I am eager to hear your reasoning—if indeed such a thing exists.”

“It is only something Eylaug said,” Thor muttered. “That perhaps Asgard would not look favorably on your methods.”

“Ah.” Loki laughed humorlessly. “It becomes clearer. It is not I that you are jealous of, but her. Because she got to have me. Isn’t that what torments you?” he taunted. “The thought of her lips on my skin? Of my cock buried in her heat?”

Thor flushed. “Do not say one more—”

“You want to be the one to take me, don’t you?” Loki arched his brows. “Or perhaps it is the other way—you want me to fuck y—”

“Stop!” Thor roared. “Why must you be like this? You treat this matter between us as though it is nothing more than a coarse desire of the flesh.”

“Isn’t it?”

Thor shook his head and looked away.

Loki wanted to gently turn him back around and taste his mouth once more. But Thor was right. Odin would not look favorably on the way he had cursed the Andvarinaut. And he would look even less favorably on Loki bedding Thor in the wilds of Álfheimr. But when he had claimed the Dáinsleif and killed Fafnir—that would set him in his father’s favor. Perhaps he would even supplant Thor’s place at his father’s side. Loki did not want Thor dead—and any who laid a hand on his brother would meet Hreidmar’s fate. But that did not mean he would fall in line with the rest of the sycophantic fools who fell over themselves to praise his brother’s name.

“Come,” Loki said aloud. “Fafnir awaits us. And I would not be without your strength.”

Chapter Text

As they walked east, they began encountering swaths of burned forest again. The blackened bark of the trees crumbled under their hands. Only a few, frightened blades of grass had begun to reappear, and the air still possessed a smoky tang.

One morning, just after they had arisen, a shadow blotted out the sun. Loki raised his head, thinking it a cloud. A glance convinced him of his mistake, and he grabbed Thor by the arm, dragging him down behind the meager cover of some shattered tree stumps.

“What—” Thor began, and Loki motioned for him to be silent.

“The dragon,” he whispered.

Fafnir glided above them like a menacing storm cloud, his black-scaled hide soaking in the sunlight and turning it into a reddish glare. He was at least one hundred feet in length from the tip of his snout to the end of his barbed tail. Loki caught a glimpse of one slitted eye, and then Fafnir heaved his wings and sped past them. They had gone unnoticed.

“Overgrown lizard, brother?” Loki murmured, knowing that he sounded shaken.

Thor swallowed. “Perhaps that was not an apt description.”

“He must hunt during the night,” Loki guessed, standing up and peering in the direction Fafnir had gone.

“Then he will sleep during the day. That is when we should attack,” Thor said in a decided tone.

Loki stared at him. “And try to sneak up on a sleeping dragon? We’d have to get within a foot for you to be able to wield your axe.”

“What do you suggest then?” Thor demanded.

Loki’s own scheme involved finding the Dáinsleif while Fafnir was away hunting and hiding themselves in the dragon’s lair until he returned. Then he would have Thor distract the beast while he drove the sword into Fafnir’s heart. That was the plan. But Thor couldn’t know about it or he’d demand the sword for himself. I have defeated giants and battled for twenty days in the deserts of Muspellsheimr, Thor would say. I have the strength to wield such a blade. Stand aside, brother, and let me claim what is rightfully mine.

“I think we should scout out Fafnir’s lair while he is away hunting,” Loki said carefully. “We may be able to devise a trap of some sort.”

Thor snorted. “You would need a rope woven of the hair of Weth herself to hold that beast,” he muttered, but after some more persuasion, he agreed grudgingly to wait until the dragon departed on his hunt before slipping inside Fafnir’s lair to see what could be found.

*

Fafnir’s lair proved to be a gaping tunnel bored in the side of a mountain whose slopes had once been covered in vegetation but now bore only rank upon rank of dead, barren trees. A sulfurous smell pervaded the air. The land around it looked like a wasteland, filled with ash and lumps of rock, fused together by the extreme heat of dragon-fire. They remained behind a small hill that provided some cover, waiting for nightfall.

Thor took out his axe and began sharpening it. The scrape of the stone against the blade made a thin, whistling noise that made Loki think of the birds piping on the shores of the Asgardian sea.

“Do you remember our first adventure together, brother?” Thor said softly, already smiling at the memory.

“I thought such a recounting was saved for the fireside, when mead is plentiful and one’s battles done,” Loki replied.

“True, but the hours until dusk are long, and we have little to occupy us.”

He gave Thor an amused look.

“What?” Thor asked, frowning.

“You’re nervous.”

“I am not,” Thor protested. “What need have I to be nervous? Have I ever been defeated in battle?”

“Well, there was, as you just happened to reference a minute ago, our first adventure.”

“That is not the one to which I was referring,” Thor said, a trifle stiffly.

Loki let a politely incredulous smile slip over his face. “Oh, so you meant the trip to Svartálfaheimr when you fought Sörli and won your axe.”

“Naturally.”

“Yet I think we must consider the first—truly the first—time we ventured forth to win glory.”

Thor grunted and did not reply.

Loki grinned. “Let’s see—I believe it was in the height of summer—or was it after the harvest?”

He paused, but Thor, who was already beginning to blush, refused to comment.

“No matter, I suppose,” Loki continued. “For I clearly remember how you determined that we must challenge the warrior Agmundr, who could not be bested in contests of strength.”

“I was but a child,” Thor muttered.

“And yet how little has changed,” Loki mused. “For first you decided that we needed to drink a toast to our inevitable victory before beginning.”

“And you were the one who stole the mead from the cellars,” Thor interjected. “Which proved to have been set aside at father and mother’s wedding and was strong enough to muddle the heads of men many times our age.”

“How was I supposed to have known that?” Loki protested. “The cask was unmarked, as I recall.”

“Yet you did not drink.”

“I drank.”

“You had a small sip—scarcely enough to wet your tongue,” Thor grumbled, “while I drained the entire cup.”

“So you did, and then proceeded to the armory to find a sword and become entangled in a shirt of mail.” He laughed, remembering the picture Thor had presented—the mail shirt practically trailing on the ground, and the heavy sword, which did trail on the ground because Thor could not lift it. “I think you were stumbling into walls at that point.”

“I was drunk,” Thor growled. “Thanks to you.”

“I think we have established that I was blameless in the matter,” Loki reminded him. “But the best part was yet to come. For you said that the sons of Odin could not walk to battle like peasants. At least you had the sense to stay away from the stallions, but the alternative…” He had to pause to laugh again. “I still cannot fathom why you thought the goats would be admirable steeds.”

They had spent ages chasing the goats around the barn trying to get them into halters—Thor falling down every two feet. At last they had managed to get the goats harnessed to a small chariot. Thor had climbed aboard, hay stuck in his hair, and yelled at the goats to charge.

“And then,” Loki continued, “then it transpired that you had forgotten to open the barn door. The goats veered off, but the chariot did not make the turn. A good thing there was plenty of hay around to cushion your fall.”

“I have always maintained,” Thor said, definitely blushing by this point, “that I did open the door but that someone closed it again.”

“You couldn’t remember your own name at that point,” Loki said. “And such a headache the next day! You swore to never drink again.”

Thor raked a flustered hand through his hair and cleared his throat. “Seeing as we never actually reached the battle, I do not think that it can be counted as a defeat.”

“If we had reached it, Agmundr would have laughed in your face. You could never have beaten him. At least this way, I was the only one to witness you make a fool of yourself.”

“I could have defeated him,” Thor maintained, as he always did.

“Your delusions are unshakeable, brother,” Loki murmured. And you will never appreciate all that I have done for you.

*

Night fell with an uneasy suddenness, the sun vanishing in a blink and leaving them in a darkness they could not risk breaking with a light. They lay quietly, straining for the sounds of Fafnir emerging on his nightly hunt.

“Do you hear it?” Thor whispered at last, and Loki nodded. The scrape of claw on stone came clearly to his ears, although he could not see the dragon. Fafnir’s black scales and the surrounding night possessed the same crepuscular quality.

And then a brief glint of something in the sky—perhaps a far-off star had touched upon the dragon’s wing. It faded almost immediately, and silence descended.

“It is gone,” Thor said, getting swiftly to his feet, but Loki stopped him.

“Let me send my magic first.” He created a copy of himself, and they both looked at Thor. “I will make sure the dragon is gone.”

Thor chafed at the delay but nodded.

It was a strange experience, to exist in multiple forms simultaneously. His copy could neither taste nor smell, but it could see and hear. Having to comprehend both the sights and sounds of his own senses, as well as that of his double, was challenging. He enchanted a few moths that fluttered near, causing them to glow with a dim light, and sent them fluttering ahead across the plain and into the cave, his double’s footsteps following close behind.

A high and drafty tunnel stretched out before him. He could see little beyond the ground immediately in front of his feet. But then he caught a glimmer out of the corner of his eye. A quick word sent the moths hurrying in that direction. He passed through an arched entryway—it had been carved by someone, in the long ago, no dragon could manage such stonecraft—and stepped into a wide chamber.

The glimmer he had seen proved to be heaps of gold, piled along the walls and spilling carelessly onto the floor. Far more than Andvari had possessed. Many fine gems and metalwork lay there, too, all gathered in by the dragon and brooded over during the march of years. Loki strained his eyes in the dim light, trying to catch a glimpse of a sword. He saw a battleaxe, much finer than the one his brother wielded; a massive goblet studded with rubies; a silver crown that had once graced a woman’s head; a hammer, carved with delicate runes; a shield bearing the graven image of a running horse—but no sign of the Dáinsleif.

He pressed farther into the chamber, ignoring the faint sound of Thor’s insistent questions about what he was seeing, all of his attention concentrated in directing his other self.

There—shining on the top of a veritable mountain of gold—was it…?

Yes. A sword. The sword. There could be no mistaking it. Its blade seemed edged in frost, so sharp was it still. He set one foot on the golden coins, preparing to climb.

A weird shiver wracked his body. Confused, he looked down.

The tip of a dragon’s claw protruded from his chest.

If it had been his true form, he would have been dead. As it was, he had a dizzy glimpse of rippling scales, and then the magic dissolved. He came back to himself with a gasp.

“What?” Thor demanded, gripping his arm.

“Fafnir—returned,” Loki managed, still disoriented. “Another entrance. There must be another entrance. To his lair. He—he knows that we—”

A thundering roar made further speech unnecessary. Fafnir indeed knew that they were there, and now that Loki’s trick had been revealed, he was coming for them.

Thor stood, readying his axe, but Loki grabbed his arm. “Are you mad?” he shouted. “We’ll be burnt to death. Run! Run.”

Thor wavered, and then with another ground-shaking roar, Fafnir hurtled out of the cave. A stream of fire poured from his mouth, searing the ground. Loki could feel the heat of it.

They ran.

Fafnir had seen them. He gathered himself and sprang into the air, wings unfurling.

“It’s no use!” Thor cried, glancing over his shoulder. “There’s no cover. He’ll catch us in seconds. We must stand and fight!”

He stopped again, staring up at where Fafnir had disappeared into the night sky.

Loki thought frantically. They’d forgotten the shields Svana had given them—left behind in their rush to escape the dragon. He was not going to meet his end now. Not with the Dáinsleif so close. “To the cave!” he cried. “The dragon cannot maneuver so easily there. We might stand a chance.”

Thor growled but broke into a run again. Fire billowed past where they had been standing, and Fafnir sped past. The wind of his passing buffeted against them, and Loki stumbled, but Thor caught him, hauling him upright.

They reached the cave on the edge of a licking flame, and Loki gasped in pain as it touched his leg. Thor pushed him further inside and paused. Fafnir thudded to earth, and a moment later his long snout appeared in the tunnel entrance. The dragon’s eyes were luminous green orbs—blazing brightly enough to throw shadows on the wall. Thor raised his axe and brought it down, gashing Fafnir’s skin.

The dragon snarled and withdrew. Thor made to follow, but Loki snagged him by the collar. “The flames will be next!”

Sure enough, fire chased them as they ran deeper down the tunnel, making for the treasure chamber. They rushed inside. Before the light from the fire died, Thor grabbed the shield that Loki had seen earlier, wheeling around to face the door. Loki looked up to where he knew the Dáinsleif rested. But if he started climbing, he would be in full view of Fafnir when the dragon came into the chamber. He started edging his way to the side. He could not find an easy purchase on the gold coins, his feet slipping out from under him.

Fafnir approached slowly this time. The lurid green of his eyes proceeded him, and the doorway grew brighter and brighter until at last he appeared, looming above them. His snout curled back to reveal sharp, jagged teeth. Quicker than a snake, his taloned foot struck towards Thor, who managed to get in another hit with his axe before the dragon’s claws connected with the shield. The force of it flung Thor to the ground. He barely got the shield back in place before Fafnir breathed another spout of fire. The golden coins around Thor began melting from the heat.

The flames stopped abruptly. Thor remained crouched behind the shield, coughing and trying to get his breath. The dragon’s eyes turned towards Loki.

Heart pounding, Loki groped for a weapon, unwilling to tear his attention from Fafnir. His hand found a wooden shaft, and a quick glance showed it to be the haft of the hammer his double had espied. He grasped it and pulled.

The hammer would not move. Frantically, Loki tugged, caught in the dragon’s gaze. But it was as though the hammer was fused to the ground. He could not lift it. Fafnir extended his claws.

A yell and the sound of axe meeting scales showed that the dragon had been unwise to disregard Thor. Shrieking with rage, Fafnir snapped his jaws, but Thor danced backwards, his axe dripping with the dragon’s sticky blood. Abandoning the hammer, Loki began climbing again, striving for the Dáinsleif, which he could now see with his own eyes. He could sense the sword’s magic, too, a thrumming hollowness that reminded him of the Andvarinaut after he had cursed it.

Climbing the golden coins was like walking through sand. He kept slipping backwards, coins spilling over his fingers. The roars of the dragon and Thor’s yells resounded through the chamber, but Loki remained focused on the sword—his sword. A few more feet and—

Like a scythe carving through wheat, Fafnir’s long, spiked tail suddenly sheared through the piled treasure. It sent the Dáinsleif sliding downwards and Loki tumbling backwards with a cry. Another howl and Thor went sailing through the air, batted by the dragon like a cat chasing a ball of yarn. He thudded into the golden coins, rolling down until he came to a stop near Loki. Thor’s breath caught painfully in his chest, and he groaned as he struggled to rise. They had fallen behind a mound of treasure that hid them momentarily from the dragon’s view.

Loki looked wildly for the Dáinsleif. There—so close. He could reach it. His fingers strained for the hilt. An inch or two more—

“Loki!” Thor shouted.

With a wrench that set his muscles screaming in protest, Thor yanked him backwards. A second later, fire blossomed as Fafnir appeared. The flames raced towards them, turning the treasure into rivulets of molten gold.

“No!” Loki screamed, fighting against Thor’s grip.

But it was too late. The flames reached the Dáinsleif, and as Loki watched, powerless, the hilt melted into a shapeless lump. The blade folded in upon itself, dripping into a spreading pool that reflected the mingled light of the flames and Fafnir’s green eyes.

Thor dragged him a few feet back before they collapsed again. Loki felt numb. He could only stare at where the Dáinsleif had been. The sword was gone. All his planning, the trickery, the winning of the Andvarinaut, his defeat of Hreidmar—all of it had been for nothing. Nothing.

Thor struggled back to his feet, panting. He had lost his axe, and he clenched his bare hands into useless fists.

As though sensing that they were helpless against him, Fafnir had slowed his approach. He would toy with them first. Let them run in fruitless circles until he decided to crush them in his iron jaws.

At that moment, Loki could not bring himself to care.

But Thor had not despaired. He cast about for a weapon, and his eyes landed on the hammer that Loki had tried to lift earlier.

“It is useless, brother,” Loki said tiredly as Thor reached for it. “You cannot—”

His words died, for Thor had lifted the hammer as though it weighed nothing.

A wind stirred, and then all went silent. Loki felt stricken dumb, caught like a fly in honey. A great power was pressing down upon them. The light in Fafnir’s eyes dimmed. Only Thor seemed untouched, standing straight, staring at the hammer in his hands. He touched a reverent hand to it.

And then, with a rush like a whirlpool, all the gathering power was sucked in towards Thor’s body. A bolt of lightning ripped open the ceiling of the chamber, letting in a wild rush of thunder. Thor shouted something and raised the hammer to the sky.

Fafnir bellowed, and Thor began whirling the hammer in his hand. He struck, and the dragon was sent flying backwards, a piece of driftwood caught in a galloping river. Laughing, Thor strode towards Fafnir, gathering the lightning into the hammer that shone in his hand. He struck again and again. Each strike was like a lightning flash, searing itself into Loki’s eyes.

The dragon tried to escape, but Thor grabbed his tail, muscles straining but holding firm. He let the hammer fly from his hand. It crashed into Fafnir’s head, and then spun back into Thor’s hand. The dragon slumped to the ground and lay still. Dead.

The thunder purred. The lightning settled. Thor stared down at the hammer, and then raised his head, blinking, as though waking from a dream.

Still sprawled on the ground, Loki stared up at him. He had no doubt that he was in the presence of the God of Thunder. Thor’s full power had come to him.

And then the moment passed, and Thor was the brother he knew so well once more. But the power slumbered within him, ready to be called forth at Thor’s command.

Trembling, Loki dashed a hand across his eyes. So it had come to this! His own hopes had crumbled to ruin while his brother once again found victory. Thor now possessed a weapon to channel his strength, magnifying it a hundredfold. And Loki was empty-handed, the Dáinsleif gone forever. He had failed.

“You are unharmed?” Thor asked, kneeling next to him, and Loki wanted to recoil from the concern in his voice. What a tale this would make—how Thor Odinson killed the dragon Fafnir while Loki cowered in a corner.

He mastered himself with an effort. “I am unharmed.”

Thor nodded and then swelled with pride, lifting the hammer and showing it to Loki. “Her name is Mjölnir,” he said. “The name just—came to me, as though I had always known it. Is she not a weapon worthy of a king?” He laughed again. “We have done it, brother! Our vegr is done, and the dragon lies dead.”

Before Loki could protest, Thor had dragged him up into a hug, slapping him on the back.

Loki untangled himself, glaring. “I hardly need you to state the obvious,” he snapped, trying to gather his thoughts, trying to stop himself from screaming in frustration.

“Think of the celebration when we return!” Thor continued, oblivious to his anger. “They will toast us a hundred times.” He twirled Mjönir in his hands. “Let all enemies of Asgard tremble at my name!”

Thor walked over to Fafnir’s body, and Loki watched in distaste as he hacked off the dragon’s head. Turning from the sight, he could not help looking once more at where the Dáinsleif had been. Perhaps…

But no. Only shapeless lumps of metal remained. He could not even feel its magic. His fingers twitched, remembering how close he had come before Thor pulled him back.

“A fine trophy for the feasting hall, yes?” Thor said, breaking his thoughts. He held up the dragon’s head, gripping its tangled and bloodied mane.

“Must you bring that with us?” Loki asked sourly. “We have a long walk back to Svana’s palace and the Bifröst. I’ve no desire to smell a dead dragon the entire way.” He would have claimed the Dáinsleif. If Thor hadn’t stopped him—

“Do not be concerned, brother,” Thor said, amused. He pulled Loki close against him, and for a startled moment, Loki thought Thor was going to kiss him. But Thor just smirked, started whirling Mjölnir above his head, and said, “Hold on.”

They suddenly rose into the air, shooting through the sky. Loki gave an undignified yelp and grabbed Thor’s shoulders. Thor laughed. “The son of Odin does not walk like a peasant!” he bellowed.

Dimly, Loki had the thought that Thor had become even more insufferable—a development he would not have believed possible. But the rest of his mind remained locked on the smoking, shattered stone of the mountain, disappearing rapidly into the distance. If he could only have claimed the Dáinsleif. If he had for once been able to win a battle with a sword in his hand and a shield on his arm. What Norn had cursed his birth, to make him suffer so?

Pressing his face against Thor’s shoulder, Loki tried to compose words that would impress their father when he greeted them at the Bifröst. Words that would convince Odin that his own deeds had been as courageous and honorable as Thor’s. But without the Dáinsleif, without the dragon dead by his hand, he could speak only of trickery and magic and lies. Deeds that would make the All-Father turn from him in shame, seeking solace in the brightness of Thor’s glory. Thor, who now wielded a weapon that must be counted among the most powerful in the nine realms.

The irony of the fact that it was his suggestion that had led Thor to this mighty hammer did not escape him.

Shutting his eyes, he let the roar of the wind in his ears fill him, trying to drown out the ignominy of his defeat.

Chapter Text

Ten days of feasting and celebration awaited the princes—youths no more—when they returned triumphant from their vegr. All in Asgard marveled at the hammer Mjölnir that rested so easily in the hand of Thor Odinson. When he summoned the lightning and made the very halls of the palace shake, even the doughtiest warrior trembled in awe. They clamored for the God of Thunder to once more recount his victory against the dragon-fire of Fafnir.

At times, Thor spoke of another monster they had encountered. He told of a strange, magic ring and said that he owed his life to his brother for finding it. But when pressed for details, he would fall silent. Many believed that Thor only spoke thus to allow some glory for his younger brother. In all likelihood, Thor’s life had not been endangered, but it was noble of him indeed to seek to laud his brother’s name, for clearly Loki’s magic had been little use on a quest that required the strength and skills of a battle-hardened warrior.

On the tenth day, word went out that Odin had completed the armor that would garb his sons as they defended the realm from all enemies. That night the All-Father would hear the princes swear their oaths to him. Rumors also circulated that he would name the heir to the throne, and that it would be his firstborn son, Thor.

*

Mjölnir had been with him but a scant few days, but already he missed her weight when she was absent from his side. Thor rubbed his thumb over the runes that bespelled her, remembering again how it had felt to hold her for the first time. He had known instantly what she was—knew that she had been waiting for him, and that it was no mere chance that had set his hand upon her.

Laying his hammer reluctantly aside, he turned his attention to the armor that the servants had brought to his rooms earlier. He picked up the helmet, all of silver with wings curving up the sides.

“You have striven long for this day,” a voice said, and he turned to find his mother standing there, smiling.

Thor kissed her cheek. “None shall dare attack Asgard now that I stand foremost on the field. Though I confess that I hope some are foolish enough to try. Else I shall have to go forth to seek battle. Think not that I am content to rest upon my laurels—nay, by the time I ascend to the throne, my name will be among the most renowned, second only to the All-Father.”

Frigga looked amused, he thought, but she said nothing, picking up one of the gauntlets instead and fastening it to his arm.

“Thank you.” He cleared his throat. “I do not know where my servant has gotten to, but I should not be late to the ceremony.” In truth, he had dismissed his servant because he had thought—hoped—that Loki might come to dress him in his armor, as a shield-brother should.

When at last he stood before her, arrayed as though for battle, her eyes brimmed with a love that had always been a warm counterpart next to his father’s sterner affection. Thor settled the helmet on his head and picked up Mjölnir. “Now go fetch your brother,” Frigga said, squeezing his hand one last time, “or you really will be late.”

He went to Loki’s chambers and knocked on the door before opening it. “Brother, we must go,” he began, and then stopped, taking in the sight before him.

Gold framed Loki’s face, sweeping past his cheekbones and coming to a point on his forehead. Two horns curved back from the helmet, and Thor was struck with the desire to trace his fingers along their sinuous path. Nay, he was struck with a desire to do far more than that. Every feeling that he had kept submerged since that night on Álfheimr had suddenly surged to the fore, snatching his breath away.

Perhaps Loki read it in his eyes, for he took a step back.

Quelled, Thor let his gaze fall. “The All-Father commands our presence,” he said.

“Yes.” Loki settled his shoulders, shaking out the long green cape that he wore. “Although I do not think he expects a seagull in his court.”

“A seagull?” Thor laughed, glad to suffer his brother’s mocking tongue. Loki had been so cold and withdrawn ever since they had returned. He had not spoken ten words to him in all this time. But perhaps the celebration tonight had lifted his mood. “I should be more concerned about the cow that stands next to me,” he teased in turn.

“Ah, is that how it shall be?” Loki chuckled. “I should not touch your wine this evening, brother.”

“I shall switch my cup with Hogun—or perhaps Fandral,” Thor said, slinging his arm around Loki’s shoulders and pulling him out the door.

“A…fair compromise,” Loki replied.

*

The hall swelled with people, cheering them as they walked down to their father’s throne. Thor knelt by Loki’s side, and together they swore to uphold the laws of the realm and to protect Asgard with their lives.

“And you, Thor Odinson,” the All-Father continued. “I name you heir to my throne, guardian of the Nine Realms. When Yggdrasil has thrice shed her leaves, and new blossoms garland her branches, then the Sleep will come upon me, and you shall be King of Asgard.”

Thor bowed his head, accepting the burden. Three hundred years in the lives of mortals, but he would fill each with a deed worthy of renown. The heat of battle swelled within him, and he had to grip Mjölnir, letting her steady weight cool him.

*

He deliberately did not drink his fill of mead at the feast—and not just because of Loki’s threat. No, Thor was determined to speak to his brother that night, and he would need a clear head if he hoped to get past the first exchange. He wanted to know why Loki looked so downcast when they had achieved all they had set out to accomplish. And he must know if desire crept through Loki’s blood, as it did through his own. If so, he would not stand Loki’s equivocations any longer. Why should they deny themselves such a sweet passion?

Thor cornered Loki outside the hall, just as the moon has slipped drowsily over the horizon. “Let me help you remove your armor,” he said, thinking that it would at least get him into Loki’s chambers, where he might have a chance at other words.

Loki regarded him in silence for a moment. “You truly have no skill with lovers’ speech,” he said at last. “I trust you have not been so blunt with the women you have taken to your bed. Or perhaps that is the attraction.”

Thor flushed. “I did not mean—that is not—” He took a breath, gathering himself. “Rather, that is one thing that I wish to speak with you about.”

“How you wooed hapless serving girls into your arms?”

“Do not be deliberately obtuse,” Thor growled and grabbed Loki’s arm, dragging him down the corridor.

“I am not some bit of plunder to be carted about as you please,” Loki snapped, fighting against him.

Patience breaking, Thor pushed him up against a wall and rested Mjölnir against his chest. “I wish to speak to you. And since you are quite skilled at avoiding me if you wish, I am taking the only road open to me.”

“Brute force. How true,” Loki muttered. “Very well. If you unhand me, I shall talk with you in the privacy of my chambers.”

“And you will talk to me now. Not two years hence.”

“Very well.”

He released Loki and followed the annoyed swish of his cloak as Loki stalked ahead of him. When they were in his chambers, door locked, Loki leaned against a table and folded his arms across his chest. “Now, pray tell me what pressing matter has caused you to forgo your usual drunken stupor.”

Thor rested Mjölnir by the door and sat down in one of the slender chairs scattered about the room, which creaked under his weight. “I wish to know what is the matter with you, brother. You have been unhappy since we returned from Álfheimr.”

Loki was silent for a long minute. “That hammer—father says that it was forged from a dying star. How does it feel to hold it in your hand?” he asked softly.

“As though I had found a part of myself that I did not even know was missing,” Thor told him, giving Mjölnir a fond smile.

“There was a sword,” Loki said, and his voice shook for a moment before he steadied it again. “A sword kept by Fafnir. I saw it, during the midst of the battle. It would have been for me what Mjölnir is to you.”

“But how could you know that?” Thor asked. “I did not recognize the hammer for what it was until I grasped it in my hand.”

Loki hesitated. “I could feel the sword’s magic,” he said at last.

“Perhaps, but—”

“Do not doubt me!”

The words burst forth, filled with anger and pain. Thor fell silent, startled.

“I almost had the sword in my hand,” Loki continued, and he pointed a trembling finger at Thor. “And then you—you pulled me away.”

“Because you were about to be burnt alive!” Thor said, standing up.

“So you say!” Loki spat a bitter laugh. “So you say. But if I had claimed the sword, I would have been the one to kill the dragon. It would have been my name that people shout, not yours!”

Thor shook his head. “This is nonsense, brother. If we must tally such particulars, we need only look to your triumph over Hreidmar to level the field. You saved me from certain death, as I did you.”

“And yet you spare little breath to recount that tale,” Loki retorted. “And is that not because you dislike the thought of people knowing how weak and helpless you were?”

Thor paused but discarded the notion. “No. It is because of the dark magic that you used. I have kept quiet only to protect you.”

Loki stood abruptly, pushing past him to go stand by the window. “A convenient lie. I hope it helps ease your conscience.”

Thor trailed after him. “It is no lie.” He put a hesitant hand on Loki’s shoulder. “What then? Would you rather I had let you pursue this sword unto your death?”

Loki shut his eyes. “Yes,” he whispered.

Thor’s heart ached to hear him say such a thing. “Then you ask the impossible.” He let his arm slide around Loki’s chest, leaning close. “I should gladly give my life to save yours. And I will protect you from any seeking to do you harm—even yourself.”

Loki shuddered, and he sagged against the window, finally sliding down so that he knelt on the ground. Thor gave in to temptation and stroked his fingers along the curved horns on Loki’s helmet. “I need you by my side, Loki,” he whispered. “I am to be king one day. I must have those near me that I trust…and love,” he added.

Loki turned, pressing his face against Thor’s stomach, his breath fogging the armor. “I only wished—”

Thor pulled him gently upright. He tugged off Loki’s helmet, freeing his dark hair. “Be with me,” he murmured, kissing the side of Loki’s face, just by his ear. “Please.”

He did not truly expect Loki to agree—even he could not get all he wished for in one evening. But then Loki’s breath eased, and he sank into Thor’s embrace.

Thor's armor now became a barrier between them that he attacked with clumsy fingers. Loki grew ardent, abandoning his precious words in favor of wrapping strong fingers in Thor’s hair and mouthing at his neck before biting, just hard enough to sting.

“So you do want this.” His own armor discarded, Thor tussled with the straps on Loki’s breastplate, finally resorting to ripping them, heedless of Loki’s displeasure when he discovered it.

“Yes,” Loki hissed, and he pushed Thor backwards until he tumbled onto the bed. Loki stripped off the rest of his armor and then straddled Thor, his blue eyes wide, framed with tangled strands of hair.

Thor tried to roll him off. He wanted to get Loki under him where he could lick his way across the smooth curves of Loki’s back at his leisure. But Loki resisted, gritting his teeth, putting all of his strength into keeping Thor still. Thor allowed it after a moment, grappling with the rest of Loki’s clothes instead. And then he fisted his hand in his brother’s hair, pulling him down for a kiss.

Teeth, sharp on his lips. But Loki relented, giving Thor a few seconds to taste him. He pulled away a second later, pawing at Thor’s tunic and raking his fingers across Thor’s chest, twisting one of his nipples. Thor grunted and held Loki’s arms, bruising his pale skin. He kept him in place while he thrust up his hips, seeking friction to ease the hard length of his erection.

“You have no care for foreplay, then?” Loki murmured, cruelly holding his body away, denying Thor what he sought.

“This—this is not foreplay,” Thor said, panting, getting an arm around Loki’s waist and shoving him to the bed.

“It is for us,” Loki whispered fiercely, wriggling a hand past constricting fabric and finding Thor hot and ready for him.

Thor could not deny the truth of that. What else could their love-making be but a constant, glorious fight? The jests and taunts, the tricks and contests translated into sweat and teeth, straining muscles and bruising, loving fingers.

And if this time he let Loki gain the upper-hand, if he let himself be wrestled to his hands and knees, groaning at the feeling of Loki’s cock slippery between his thighs—well, a skilled warrior knew that there were many ways to win a battle.

After their peak, they called an unspoken truce and lay quietly together. Loki even allowed Thor to rest his head against his chest, rubbing cool fingers along the back of Thor’s neck.

And then Loki spoke, and Thor’s contentment shattered.

“This will not happen again,” Loki said.

Thor raised his head, frowning. “What do you mean? I grant you that we may be rather sore tomorrow, but in a few days—”

“No.” Loki pushed at him and kicked his legs until Thor retreated from the bed, angry and hurt at this sudden change of heart.

“This was a moment of weakness,” Loki continued, remaining on the bed in an unfairly tempting sprawl of limbs. “I will not fall to it again.”

“You will not—” Thor shook his head. “And what if I wish you to?”

“You are my brother,” Loki said quietly, drawing himself together and bending his head over his knees. “And you will be my king.” He sighed. “I will not risk the honor of our family, no matter my feelings.”

“Lying with you—I do not think it shameful,” Thor told him and he held out his hand, hopeful.

But Loki turned away, drawing the blankets around his shoulders. “You will be king,” he said again. “We must look to our kingdom—to our people. Our hearts, our lives—they are not our own. Asgard comes first.”

“You are right, of course,” Thor admitted. “But I do not think this would make us weaker—only stronger.”

Loki did not reply.

Sighing, Thor slowly dressed and gathered his armor. But he paused at the door. “You said once that I always get what I desire,” he said. “Do not think I shall let you deny me forever.”

“Far be it from me to doubt your stubbornness,” Loki returned softly, and Thor took the affection that laced the words as a suitable token. He would keep it like new leaves, green with spring, in his mind. It would see him through the countless frustrations and confusions that awaited any who dared pursue such a one as Loki.

Departing, he found his way to a balcony, high on the palace walls. Standing there, breathing in the smell of the sea and the stars, he thought on how it would be to become a king.

*

The door shut behind Thor, and Loki rolled over, stretching his arm across the pillows that still bore Thor’s scent. It was ridiculously easy to play Thor—his emotions so open, so obvious. True, he had not meant to confess as much as he had about the Dáinsleif. And fucking Thor—to use a crude phrase that hardly encompassed the rush of power and tenderness that had filled him as Thor groaned under him—that had been as much about his own wants and needs as any scheme for the future.

He must get better at controlling his emotions. Thor would be hopeless, probably panting after him like a callow, lovesick youth. He would have to balance this carefully—never letting Thor lose hope, indulging their needs every so often, but never letting anyone else gain proof of what had passed between them.

Bad enough that Heimdall had probably seen everything. Loki shivered and cursed the golden-eyed guard silently. Thankfully, Heimdall had his own code about what he would and would not reveal to Odin and seemed to think private affairs should remain so unless the kingdom were endangered. Still, the thought disturbed him. And posed a problem for any future endeavor that involved things the All-Father and Heimdall might find objectionable.

Not that he would ever do anything to harm Asgard. No, he would protect it to the last sliver of his magic. Certainly he would do a better job than Thor! His brother thought only of battle and glory. Loki would have thought that Thor’s time in Hreidmar’s clutches might have taught him some humility, but no. Instead, Thor had won that damned hammer and thought nothing could touch him.

And their father—Loki swallowed, his chest tight. Odin had named Thor his heir, cared only to hear Thor tell of how he won Mjölnir, had not even asked about Loki’s own actions that had saved Thor’s life. No, Odin had only squeezed his shoulder and said softly, “It was well done,” before going to praise Thor for his prowess.

Pushing aside the blankets, Loki rose. He poured himself a cup of wine, spilling some in a dark splash against the floor. Angered, he knocked the entire pitcher over in a fit of pique and then strode over to the window, resting his head against the glass and gazing out at the last stars, about to be swallowed in the growing red of dawn.

Enough childish displays. He took a deep breath. The loss of the Dáinsleif still burned, but he could not dwell on it forever. No, he must think ahead. Three turns of Yggdrasil—that was how much time he had before Thor ascended the throne and their father descended into the Odinsleep. Time enough to show Odin that he had misplaced his trust in Thor. Time enough to prove to his father that he, Loki, was a worthier son.

And he could count on an unwitting ally in Thor. Yes, Thor loved him, desired him, and was far too dense to ever see the hidden meanings that Loki twined into their words together. Thor would always shield him, would always speak for him and follow whatever suggestions Loki might plant in his mind.

First, though, he must find a way to hide himself from Heimdall’s gaze. He turned his eyes to the many spellbooks that lined the shelves. Surely somewhere there was a means to create such an impenetrable veil. And if not, he would invent one himself.

As he pondered the dilemma, his attention was caught by a glint of silver. Walking over, he discovered that it was Thor’s helmet, forgotten where it had been lying behind a chair. He picked it up and held it for a moment before setting it carefully down on the table, permitting himself a small smile.

He could not tell what thread Skuld had spun for him as she sat by the Well of Urðr. But he did know that wherever he might chance to wander, a storm-wind and the growl of thunder would always follow close behind.

~Fin~