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The Ballad of the Hall of Iss

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The horse is unfamiliar. She is tied up in the stall that once belonged to Ydimir the One-Eyed, before Loki gave Ydimir away. This new mare is skittish and small, and as he runs his hands down her forelegs to feel out her bones and joints, he hears Loki come in.

“You’ve brought home another stray, Loki,” he says over his shoulder. “This one will never run like my Dram, or even Sif’s Gremna. She has barely any muscle on her.”

Loki moves to his side. There is a piece of hay in Loki’s hair and he smells like saddle oil. A brief shard of sunlight lands on the tip of Loki’s chest-plate, lighting him up, though he still looks tired.

“I’m not planning to ride her into a war, brother. She is not a battle-horse.”

“She looks like she’d topple if you breathed on her.”

Loki laughs, reaching out a hand to smooth down her mane. “Then don’t breathe.”

Ydimir, he remembers, was a gift. A great, golden horse, with a flank that rippled in the sun, veins that stood out against lines of hard muscle. One-eyed, true – but intelligent, fast, loyal. Not even Dram could run so well, though Loki often teased him that it was because Dram had to carry twice the weight.

He wonders how Loki found this mare. Her orange eyes are still panicked, darting and wild.

“How was Traang?” he asks instead.

“Flat. Dead. Not a breath of wind to cool the face.”

“Then why did you go?” he says curiously. Loki rolls his eyes, which means that Loki does not wish to speak about it. “Come, brother, you can tell me. I can keep a secret.”

“The last time you told me you could keep a secret,” Loki says, “the entire palace knew the news before the sun was down. I have learned my lesson.”

“Was it a spell you were seeking?”

“There are no magicians in Traang. There is nothing in Traang.”

He watches as Loki strokes a soft palm down between the mare’s ears. This is not the first time Loki has disappeared for days to a strange land, though it is the first time Loki has brought anything home with him.

“Except a horse,” he says at last. “Traang is empty of everything but a horse.”

“Do not tax your abilities thinking about it, Thor,” Loki says, voice as dry as the sands of Minn. And then Loki smiles. “I went to Traang to be alone for a while. But now I am back.”

--

Simdaal, thin and crooked and holding a carefully-bound scroll, does not even look up.

“Odinson, I am occupied,” Simdaal says before he has even opened his mouth. “I have no time to humour your trivialities. Wreak mischief with your brother elsewhere.”

“My brother is not with me.”

Simdaal waves an impatient hand. “Then wreak mischief elsewhere by yourself.”

“I would have you tell me all you know of the land of Traang,” he says, holding his ground. Simdaal is halfway to the library’s roof, perched on a rickety ladder that glimmers with magic; he is forced to bend his neck back to an uncomfortable angle just to see, half squinting. “Simdaal, will you not come down?”

“There is nothing to know about Traang,” Simdaal says. “It is a planet flattened many times by battle.”

“Which battles? Who made them?”

“The Jotuns won a battle against the Rasch there once, and the All-Father won another against the Jotuns. But we did not stay. The Vralgor lived there for many millennia – but a meteorite flew into it and polluted the waters, blotting out the sun, so that the fish and the crops the Vralgor relied upon disappeared. The Mira mined it for ore and oils once, sucking its marrow dry, but they too left.” Simdaal’s joints creak as loud as the ladder. “It is a place of ghosts now.”

“There must be a great magic in the lands, then,” he says.

“If there is, it is a dead magic. The planet has been empty for so long no power could possibly survive.”

“None at all?”

Simdaal finally looks at him. It is a narrow, sharp gaze that pins him to the floor.

“Why do you ask, Odinson?” Simdaal says, suspicious. “You have no interest in magic.”

“I have interest in battles.” The back of his neck turns hot with embarrassment. Frigga, also, has scolded him for inattention to lessons. “And you are always telling me I should learn more of foreign lands, so that I may grow to be a wise king.”

Simdaal watches him for a moment longer. Simdaal has eyes the colour of moss, a deep green that is almost black; but when the light strikes them at the right angle, they turn a bright shade of gold.

There are some who say that Simdaal can see as well as Heimdall – that they are related.

“Very well,” Simdaal says finally. “There are many books on Traang and her battles. Come tomorrow in the morning, young prince, and I shall give them to you.”

--

He sneaks into Loki’s room at night.

Loki has fallen asleep over a book, askew on the pillows, the book’s heavy cover digging into his cheek. Loki sleeps silently – not like Volstagg, who sleeps like an earthquake and throws his limbs about. The drapes around Loki’s bed shift slightly in the breeze.

Loki blinks awake muzzily when he takes the book away. “Thor?”

“I could not sleep,” he says. He puts the book gently on a table. “You should not be reading in bed, Loki. If Mother came upon you like this, she would rebuke you. As would Cressida.”

“I am not afraid of Cressida,” Loki says, which is a lie.

They settle together under the sheets. Loki’s skin is always cool to the touch, smooth and pale as marble. His own room is blunt-edged – heavy, solid tables, thick beams of gold and metal, a mess that puts an open despair into the eyes of maidens who come to sweep up his hearth. But Loki’s room is careful and mysterious. There are shadows in each corner, inky-dark in the night; and in the day, the soft whisper of fabrics and jewels. Perfume, earthy and pleasant in the air. On his working desk, Loki keeps a small basin in which lie precious stones from other worlds, submerged beneath still water. There is an intricate little contraption that tells the time, with a golden beetle trapped in its heart.

“You are thinking of something,” Loki mumbles into the join of his neck and body. They have lain like this ever since they were children. Close and comfortable. “What is it?”

“Is Traang very far away?”

“Very. An hour, even by the Bifrost, and then two days of riding. It is a small, lonely place.”

“Is it beyond even Adrovir, the Fourth Realm?” Adrovir is the furthest he’s ever been.

“Further even than Ungavash,” Loki says.

He thinks of distance, and of the space between silent stars. He thinks of the small black mare; her unshod hooves of bronze; the flighty fear in her eyes. “Did you like it there very much?”

“It was peaceful. It allowed me to think.”

“Can you not think here, in Asgard?” he says, shifting to look at Loki’s face. “In the palace?”

“The palace is too loud. You are too loud. I can barely escape you for a minute but that you will come hunting for me, shouting and carrying on.” Loki hasn’t opened his eyes. “I cannot even sleep, without you shouldering your way into my bed and beginning a conversation in the middle of the night.”

A strange emotion bubbles underneath his skin. He cannot work out how to say it properly: I wish only to know you.

“You were away for a long time,” he says finally.

“And I will be away for longer,” says Loki, quiet, barely awake. “You will learn to bear it – we all must. For such is the way of the world.”

--

“In the land of Traang,” Simdaal says, as they move through the chambers underneath the library where the oldest scrolls and documents are hidden away, “there was once a gilt hall full of warriors.”

He is holding a lamp that throws flickering shapes over the shelves. He has never been here before – Simdaal seems to think he’d destroy it. But Loki is down here often, and he can imagine Loki’s long, slender fingers, tracing their way down the cracked leather spines in a caress.

“I thought you said that Traang had no people of her own.”

Simdaal gives him a distrustful look, before motioning for him to move faster. “She did once, before the Jotun turned the soil to ice. There are many songs about her beauty before the wars.”

“I have never heard them.”

“That is not because they do not exist, Odinson. That is because you have not been listening.”

Simdaal tells him of the Hall of Iss, where Hlar and his queen Hera held court over a city twice the size of Asgard. They were a fierce, mighty people, fond of horses and of the hunt; and even their maidens were trained in war-craft and could wield a sword or a spear as well as any man. Before the Jotuns came, they were feared in all the satellite planets on the fringes of the Realms.

“But if they were so mighty,” he breaks in, cutting Simdaal off mid-sentence, “how come they were defeated by the Frost Giants? The All-Father has battled Jotunheim so many times – ”

“When the Jotuns came, Traang had already lost her king. She was easily conquered.”

“The king had died?”

“The king had disappeared,” Simdaal says. “In the winter prior to her fall, a beautiful horse was seen in the fields of Traang. It is said that she was coal-black, with eyes the colour of topaz, and she ran faster than the wind. She was by all accounts a glorious creature.”

He pulls up to a stop as Simdaal pauses beside a shelf, the dust stirring. “Did the king tame her?”

“She would not let anyone tame her. She ran wild. But many men disappeared following her into the mountains, trying to catch her, until eventually even the king set out to do so and vanished.”

“My brother brought such a horse back from Traang,” he says, eagerly. “Do you think – ”

“I went to see the beast the moment I heard the news,” Simdaal says. “It is not the same horse.”

He takes the scrolls that Simdaal gives him. He is strangely disappointed. All afternoon he wanders the corridors of the palace, caught up in dreams.

Frigga’s maidens are weaving tapestries. He watches their lithe fingers moving on the loom, the bright threads of gold and silver and cobalt and rust, cinnabar and scarlet, deep ochre and slate and moss. The laying down of stories, shard by careful shard. A face materialises where nothing was before; and then a smooth, white neck; the collar of a gown; a maiden’s gesture of welcome in the bend of an ivory arm and hand. Names that he cannot pronounce, lost in the tumult of history. Tales. Legends.

“Are you searching for something, my son?” Frigga asks him.

He shakes his head, backing out of the room.

He goes onto a balcony and Loki is in a corner of the courtyard below, practising spells. The delicate bones of Loki’s face are lit up with a fierce green magic, his lips moving soundlessly, tongue tracing out the patterns of ancient runes.

He understands none of it but still he watches, transfixed. He loses track of time.

--

“Have you given her a name yet?” he asks Loki that night. “It is bad luck to leave a steed unnamed for more than a few days.”

Loki hums, tracing a finger absently over the hilt of a knife. It is late but neither of them are asleep.

“I have called her Feifnir,” Loki says.

“Feifnir,” he repeats, weighing the name out on his tongue. “It is a good name. Has she healed yet? I would that we go riding sometime. It has been weeks since we did so last.”

“I am leaving for Lorna tomorrow.”

The old feeling comes back – something that is not quite fear, but tastes similar. There once was a great catastrophe that happened on the land of Crygnal, a giant chasm that opened up in the ground without warning and swallowed up a whole town in its mouth. Two plates of the earth, drifting apart.

“I wish that I knew magic,” he says, and Loki’s spine stiffens on the bed next to him.

“You cannot possibly mean that.”

“But I do! I wish that I could call up powers into my fingertips, like I have seen you do, and cast them into the air. I wish I could know the things that you know – about spells, and magic, and ballads of the past – ”

“Believe me you,” Loki interrupts harshly, “it is better that you are a warrior.”

“Do you think me not clever enough to be a sorcerer?”

“I think you too well-fortuned.” Loki tosses the knife to the floor carelessly, the blade bouncing off the tiles with a sharp clatter. “You are skilled with things that I will never master. Would you give up the admiration of the city, Thor, for a few musty scrolls? Would you give up Mjolnir?”

He hesitates. “But, Loki – ”

“You will be king one day. Put mage-craft out of your mind.”

He lies fitfully on the bed, even when Loki’s breathing turns soft and tidal with rest. In Nlieth, two brothers once stood on either side of a battlefield, and each slew the other; their blood fell into the sea.

--

Sif discovers him trying to sneak out of the palace. “Where are you going?”

“I am going nowhere,” he says, feeling clumsy and stupid. “I am only – where are you going?”

“Why are you dressed in your armour? Are you going to the stables?”

“I might ride. It is good weather.”

She narrows her eyes before prodding him sharply in the chest. “I know that look in your face. You are trying to steal past Heimdall, aren’t you? You do remember that the last time you made the attempt without Loki to cloak you, the All-Father – ”

“Yes, yes, I know. Will you let me pass?”

“Where is Loki? Is he not privy to your schemes this time?”

“Loki has already left.”

Her mouth turns down. He thinks, Sif will never grow to love Loki, no matter what happens.

“If Loki is not with you, then I would not hold much hope of using the Bifrost without Heimdall’s notice. It is being held open for the princes of Triven, whom are arriving with their retinue today.”

Despair twists into his stomach. “I had forgotten.”

“Evidently,” she says. She hooks an arm through his, tugging him back towards the palace. “Come. Hogun has told me of a trinket he found in the city the other day, which he is eager to show us. He has promised me that it is new, and shiny, and sharp.” She gives him a playful thump on the chest-plate. “I would spar with you.”

Sif is not in her armour yet so early in the morning. Her hair is loose about her shoulders, a silver circlet with a white gem settled high on her head. He has made the mistake of calling her out on her beauty in the past – as has Fandral, but that is a mistake Fandral has made towards many women – but he has only ever received a sharp, level glare in return. Sif, he has learned over the years, does not barter on her beauty. It angers her.

He thinks of the warrior-women of the land of Traang, before the Jotun turned their veins to ice.

Sif lands a square blow over his ribs with her spear. “Thor, are you awake?”

Mjolnir hums, calling him back to the ring with her song. Loki must be in Lorna now. He stops thinking on the way of other people’s hearts, and what fuels them. He blinks the ghosts from his eyes.

--

He is first made aware of unrest in the corridor that afternoon, when Cressida comes rushing past.

Cressida’s face is bone-white. The moment she sees him she ducks her head and slows to a walk, flustered. “Thor. I thought you were still outside.”

“We have taken a break,” he says, catching her arm. “What is the matter?”

“Nothing is the matter. You should be making ready to receive the princes from Triven, your mother – ”

“You would not be so urgent if that were all, Cressida,” he says firmly. A suspicion grabs him by the heart and he is suddenly, terrifyingly, afraid. He barely stops himself from shaking her by the shoulders. “Something terrible has happened, I know it from your face. You must tell me. Is it Loki?”

Cressida is trembling. “He has returned from someplace, nobody knows where. But he is injured.”

“Badly?”

“There are rumours, but – I do not know. I am going there now.”

He is filled with a dread heavier than any armour he’s ever worn on his shoulders. “I will go with you.”

The healing halls are in another wing of the palace. By the time they reach it, his heart is wedged high in his throat and he can barely force out a single word; he has cycled through endless possibilities, wounds that he has seen in men returned from battle, split sides, spears thrust clean through men’s chests.

He is walking blind. Cressida has to steer him through the doors of the hall so that he will not knock people over. There are maidens with armfuls of white linen, running back and forth.

“Thor,” Frigga says, rising from Loki’s bedside. “You should not have come.”

He does not understand what she means at first. Loki is lying on the bed, his eyes closed, and there are a few scratches and scrapes on his face and neck. They have taken him out of his armour.

Nothing seems to be amiss. Loki’s hands, pale and clever, are folded over his chest.

“We are afraid that he will lose the leg,” Frigga says.

--

He falls asleep.

He wakes. Frigga is running soft fingers through his hair, her face tight and strained.

The room is hot. There are sorcerers crowded around his brother; they are all whispering, heads bent. Steam gathers in the air from pans of hot water scented with Wrengrass. A maiden peels away from the bed with bloody bandages in a basket, the sleeves of her dress pushed up.

“He was in Lorna,” he tells Frigga. “I wished to go with him, but he snuck away in the early morning. He would not tell me why he wanted to go.”

“It is not your fault,” she says. “Your brother’s heart is a place very few have travelled.”

He says nothing; he tucks his face into her lap like a child.

--

When Loki finally wakes, they are alone. The healers had tried to move him earlier, once the danger was over, saying that he needed to rest. But he would not leave.

The warm light from the fireplace drags shadows down Loki’s eyelashes. “Is that you, Thor?”

“It is.”

Loki closes his eyes.

There is a cool sweat beading along Loki’s hairline. He dabs it away with a cloth, avoiding the small cuts scattered amply over Loki’s pale skin. There is a heavy bruise on Loki’s jaw, curling away in greens and yellows like an unfurling flag. His lip is split.

Loki speaks without opening his eyes: “You are looking at me as if I shall break in two, brother.”

“You nearly died!”

“It was but a fall from a horse,” Loki says, sounding put-upon. “Feifnir took fright at a snake in the grass two steps from the Bifrost, and threw me off. I have fallen from horses before.”

“I saw the wound, Loki – it was no trivial thing. They were worried you might never use your leg again.”

“All that was needed was a simple healing spell, I could’ve cast it myself.”

“Then why did you not do so?”

Loki sighs, cracking an eye open. “Because I was unconscious, Thor. I have not yet mastered the ability to cast magic while unconscious, as surprising as that may be. I assume the only reason I’m back here, instead of on a plain in Lorna, is because my cloaking spell fell away and revealed my location to Heimdall.” Loki tips his head, considering. “It is something that must be fixed before the next time.”

A hard noise wrenches out from his throat; he throws the cloth away.

“This is not a game,” he snaps, furious. “This is not the same as when you put insects under Cressida’s pillow, or pour milk into Fandral’s shoes, or persuade Lyriam to set all the falcons loose. We were all afraid for you.”

Loki looks at him suddenly, all the play gone from his voice. “Were you afraid?”

“You know the answer.”

“I would have you say it aloud. Were you afraid for me?”

There is a strange intensity in Loki’s eyes, sharp and dagger-like. Boring into him. It is so unexpected that all his anger departs in a confused rush, leaving him awkward and perplexed. “Yes, I was afraid for you.”

Loki relaxes back into the pillows with a satisfied hum.

They stay silent for a long while, watching as the fire dies down. The steam is slowly clearing. It is well into the night already, crisp and clean with summer.

“What were you seeking on Lorna?” he asks at last. “Mother says it is a desolate place.”

“It is. It is as desolate as Traang.”

“Then why – ”

“Will you not leave me some of my mystery?” Loki says, the corner of his mouth turning up. “I have my own reasons for seeking the quiet, as you have your reasons for seeking company. It is not so different, except my search requires me to be in distant places. While your search leads you to home.”

“I do not like distance,” he says.

“You mean that you are afraid of distance. That is not one and the same.”

“I am only afraid of you being led away from me,” he says, struggling. “I am – I do not want anything to come between us. I have been in your heart for so long that it frightens me to be anywhere else. We knew each other as children, Loki, and I am sure that you know me now, but sometimes I feel – ” His hand stutters to Loki’s arm, then away again. “I do not know how you think anymore, or what you seek. When before I knew everything – when before, you shared everything. That is what frightens me.”

“We are still as we always were,” Loki says. He seems surprised, the green of his eyes leaping in the firelight. “You are still within my heart. I still love you as much as I always have, if not more.”

“Then why do you hide your mind from me? Why will you not be plain with me about your travels?”

“I have hidden nothing from you, I have always been honest – ”

The emotion claws into his chest; he reaches out before he’s had the time to consider it, taking hold of Loki’s wrist, bringing it up and pressing his mouth to the pulse-point.

Loki cuts himself off with a sharp breath. “Thor.”

“I want to know you,” he says against skin, suddenly helpless. “I want to learn you, brother.”

“There is nothing to learn. You already know everything about me that matters.”

All of you,” he insists.

Loki stares at him. They are caught in time, between one gesture and the next; his heartbeat shudders. Loki’s hand shifts within his grip, turning to cup the line of his jaw, and then Loki is running a thumb unsteadily across his cheek. The fire spits and dark shapes flicker into the hollows of Loki’s eyes.

“You would protect me from all things, wouldn’t you,” Loki says, with soft wonder. “In your love, you would protect me from even myself.”

--

The princes of Triven have come for diplomacy. On the second night of their visit, feasts are held all throughout Asgard, and fireworks are lit.

“Come here, my son,” Odin says to him. “I would speak with you.”

They stand on a balcony overlooking the city. Word has spread that the princes of Triven are otherworldly, their skin the colour of lapis and their eyes a fierce and biting green. They are sombre and slow to laugh. They cannot lay their hands on metal, or their skin will burn.

“Did you know of Loki’s travels?” Odin asks him, not looking away from the fireworks that splinter in the sky. “I am told this is not the first time he has left Asgard without permission.”

He sets his hands on the rail. “I knew. But I did not make move to stop him.”

“The penalties are serious for such an act.”

“For using the Bifrost without your knowledge, Father?”

“For seeking the secrets of the universe.” Odin sighs. “They are many, Thor, and terrible; and Loki is still so very young. It is easy to forget all else in the quest for knowledge.”

There is a sudden commotion in the hall. The Triven princes, upon much begging from the maidens of the court, have conjured up a snowstorm of golden flakes that melt upon touching the ground.

“I would ask that you do not punish Loki,” he says finally. “He has suffered enough from his wound. The healers say that he will not be able to move for weeks yet. And after – it is impossible to dissuade Loki from anything, once he has set his mind upon it.”

“I will not punish him,” Odin says. “There are worse things to seek than knowledge.”

“Then what will you do?”

“I will not have him seek in secrecy. I will have Heimdall open the Bifrost to him, and watch where he goes so that he may not come to harm again.”

Sif is looking on the dance with a tiny smile on her lips, clad in full armour. Softened. Only earlier in the day, she’d broken Hogun’s arm – the healers had to set it. He watches now as Fandral drags her into the dance, watches her head tip back with surprised laughter, gold flecks in her hair.

“I wish that he would tell me what he knows,” he says; “I wish only to understand him.”

“We cannot always understand the things we love,” says Odin. “Sometimes, in this world, we can only trust.”

--

On the icy plains of the planet of Traang, there are ghosts that shiver through the alien marshes and the grottos where no living soul has trod.

In the night, there are whispers across the fields – of a past once golden; of a world once free and glorious; of the songs that rose once from the Hall of Iss and carried across the Realms to the Final Sea.

There are tales of her maidens, gold in their ears and in the flash of their eyes; tales of her men, tall and wrapped in furs, the echoing call of their bugles through the wilderness.

There is a terrible beauty in the past, he thinks. In the slow uncovering of it, in its discovery.

“I am going to Ridden,” Loki says.

He nods. He does not wonder what his brother will do there.

He walks by the tapestries newly hanging in the halls. He thinks of mystery, and the slow yearning of a human heart. In the mountains that border the land of Traang, a lost king is searching for a great black horse; and in Asgard, as the Bifrost lights up, he knows this as truth: that in the secrets that travel the space between stars, in the distance between worlds discovered and new, in the inconstant terrain in between two souls, there is a story.