Thor entered the throneroom with a perfunctory bow to his father and then stopped. There was a man standing behind the throne, arms dangling over its back so his hands could rest on Odin’s shoulders, and Thor couldn’t place him. It wasn’t just that he didn’t know him, it was deeper than that. At first he thought this was an elf, slender limbs, fluid grace and the pale skin that almost glowed, as if there was too much vitality beneath it to contain, added to the impression. But those eyes, green and bright as a cat’s eyes, were too sharp and hard to belong to an elf. The look he got as he walked in was so piercing it was like having a knife run across his skin.
‘This is Loki,’ said Odin, taking one of the man’s wrists and drawing him out from behind the throne. Loki almost floated after the tug on his wrist, unresisting. ‘He is my sworn brother. Loki, this is Thor.’
‘I know,’ said Loki. His voice startled Thor, it wasn’t unpleasant but it had a slight roughness to it, a smokiness, and Thor had expected it to be as light as the rest of him. ‘You’ve grown since I last saw you,’ he said to Thor, measuring out the size of a baby between his hands like a fisherman showing the size of the fish he failed to catch.
‘Ah,’ said Thor, not sure what to say to that. Loki looked young, certainly no more than Thor’s age. ‘I had no idea my father had blood-brother.’
It was the wrong thing to say, he realised, as Loki shot a look at Odin that should have drawn blood. Odin’s hand tightened around his wrist. ‘I didn’t wish to speak of you when I thought you wouldn’t come back,’ Odin said. ‘And the stories of our time together would hardly make Asgard respect its king.’
‘Well,’ said Loki. ‘I’m here to tell them now.’
Odin chuckled, hand slipping from Loki’s wrist. ‘I daresay I’ll survive.’
‘Oh, don’t be so sure,’ said Loki.
Thor shifted, feeling uneasily that he was the intruder here, and uneasy for some other reason he couldn’t name. ‘I’m pleased to meet you,’ he said. ‘But if I am not needed…I have duties…’
‘Very diligent of you,’ said Loki, eyes laughing. He sprung into a handstand, tumbling over easily to land by Thor. ‘But I am the guest here. Perhaps one of your duties could be showing me around.’
‘Yes. Perhaps he should introduce you to his wife,’ said Odin. His eye tried to pin Loki, who seemed to somehow slip aside while remaining under it.
‘Oh, yes. That sounds just wonderful,’ he said.
Thor looked between them, feeling like a child with adults talking over his head, and gestured for Loki to precede him out of the hall.
Sif had dreamt of flame the night before, a fire she couldn’t see the edges of as she lay in the middle of it with her long hair burning to ashes. Thor had been there too, she thought, stumbling around in the flames out of her sight, bewildered and trying to find her while she felt only calm. So today she wove reds and oranges, the stones at the bottom of her weighted loom clicking together as she tried to bring a pattern to her visions as well as her cloth.
When Thor walked into sight with a man she’d never seen before by his side it was like finding the perfect colour among her hanks of wool. This was the fire from her vision, although she didn’t know yet what it had meant.
‘Loki, this is my wife, Sif,’ said Thor. ‘Sif, this is my father’s blood-brother.’
Loki bowed to her and smiled, moving over to the loom. ‘Your weaving is beautiful,’ he said. ‘But I can’t make out the pattern.’
‘Neither can I,’ said Sif.
Loki caught up the weft and ran it through the warp for a few lines as naturally and easily as if he’d been a woman. Sif looked at the cloth after he’d finished, somehow sure he’d have brought out the pattern that had eluded her, only to find chaos, any tentative intimations of a design utterly destroyed.
‘You shouldn’t,’ said Thor. ‘My wife is a seer, she uses the loom to understand her visions.’
‘He knows,’ said Sif, looking at the smirk on Loki’s face. She wondered whether it pleased him to destroy portents or only to see what he could get away with. ‘Come inside and let me find you some mead,’ she offered, like any good host.
Glancing back from the doorway to the pantry she saw Thor and Loki sitting side by side in the firelight, their hair an echo of the flames with Thor’s only a shade darker than Loki’s. Their faces were gilded in red-gold and their eyes were bright, Thor’s like banked coals and Loki’s shining with a more febrile light. Loki perched on the edge of the bench like a bird about to take flight, while Thor sat beside him with a slightly wondering look as if unsure what this strange creature was doing in his house. It was a beautiful sight and Sif pulled the door closed behind her with a blush blooming on her cheeks.
Sif paced across the pantry, hands tugging at her headscarf. Marriage was still new enough that she wasn’t used to it yet and it grieved her in a way she hadn’t tried to explain to Thor to cover up her greatest beauty. She pulled a lock of hair out from under it, at the side of her face where it might have worked its own way loose, and arranged it over her shoulder, then, impatient with herself, pulled her headscarf off and re-tied it with all her hair tucked firmly underneath. The mead she fetched out was their honeymoon mead and shouldn’t have been shared with guests, but it was the finest they had and she wanted to make Loki feel welcome. Bringing it out she kept her eyes down, for fear they might reveal too much if she met Loki’s, and handed the cup to him to drink from first.
‘The finest mead I’ve ever tasted. Or am ever likely to taste,’ said Loki after drinking his fill.
Thor looked up at her, surprised, after recognising the taste but he said nothing.
Loki settled back onto the bench slightly, as if he might not take flight after all. ‘Let me tell you one of those stories Odin was so worried about you hearing,’ he began.
‘You’re going to Jotunheim,’ said Loki. Thor glanced up from harnessing the goats, sure Loki hadn’t been there a second ago. Loki put his hands on the sides of the chariot and swung himself up to stand on them, holding the pose for a moment before swinging down, somehow folding himself so that he landed seated in the chariot. Between the tumbling antics and the lack of a beard he seemed at times impossibly young, and then you met those strangely knowing eyes. ‘But not to fight,’ he added.
‘I might be going to fight,’ said Thor, standing up and looking at Loki.
‘You don’t stand like someone going to fight,’ said Loki, running his eyes over Thor who inexplicably felt like blushing. Despite all the time Loki had spent at his house lately Thor still couldn’t say he felt comfortable with him, but did anyone feel comfortable with Loki? He climbed into the chariot without asking whether Loki intended to come or pointing out that he hadn’t invited him and started the goats with a flick of the reins.
After they had gone a little way Loki yawned and curled sideways, pillowing his head on Thor’s arm. He felt warm against Thor’s side and smelled of woodsmoke and spices, and with his eyes closed his face was strangely vulnerable as if all his power rested in his gaze. It stirred protective feelings in Thor, a pleasant desire to keep Loki close, and he realised with a jolt that he was reacting as if Loki was a woman, as if he might really dishonour his father’s brother in such a way.
‘Get off!’ he snapped, pushing Loki away roughly. ‘I can’t drive the goats with you being a dead weight on my arm.’
Loki blinked at him, looking puzzled and almost hurt before a grin slid into place. ‘I thought the great Thor was stronger than that.’
Thor looked down, below them great grey mountains were poking through the forests and fields like elbows poking through worn clothes. ‘Strong or not it’s distracting. You’re older than anyone I know but Odin, so must you snuggle up to me like a child?’
‘Well, if I’m distracting you,’ said Loki, curling the other way instead so that Thor was afraid he’d fall out if he did go to sleep and hauled him back in by his collar.
‘I didn’t mean you to risk falling to your death. Must you be such a fool?’
Loki stood up and smiled down at Thor, seemingly unruffled by his anger. ‘You don’t want me this way and you don’t want me that way. Seems you’d prefer me out of the chariot altogether.’ And with that he stepped over the edge and fell.
‘Loki!’ Thor pulled the goats to a halt and leant over the edge of the chariot, trying to see what had happened and fearing he’d be too late to do anything at all. Loki was standing a little way beneath the chariot, head tilted to one side and smiling as if he’d done something clever. Thor’s heart was pounding like the tide on cliffs. ‘Get back in here,’ he said, furiously.
Loki ran up a few steps as if he were climbing invisible stairs and sat down on the edge of the chariot with his feet dangling over the side and his body twisted around to face Thor. The goats, perturbed by having one of their passengers suddenly jump out and by Thor’s shouting, were bleating and restive; Thor leant forward to pat their rumps, calming them and somehow calming himself with the action enough not to try strangling his friend.
‘What was that?’ he demanded.
‘I thought you wanted me out of your way.’ Loki’s expression was innocent and he kept his eyes veiled behind long auburn lashes.
‘I wish I hadn’t brought you in the first place,’ said Thor. ‘In fact, since you can fly, you can go home. I didn’t invite you and you’re nothing but trouble.’
Loki’s lashes raised, eyes flashing from beneath them a look incomprehensible but strangely pleased. ‘I’ll see you when you return,’ he said, and once again he stepped over the side of the chariot. Thor told himself he wouldn’t look, this time, to see if he was safe, but had leant over before he completed the thought. Loki looked up at him from below and waved.
Sif was weaving again, still the reds and oranges of her dream, when someone knocked on the door. It was late, she’d been weaving by candlelight, and she thought at first it must be Thor returning sooner than expected. Instead it was Loki. He looked tired, as if he’d walked a long way, movements languid with it. In the moonlight he was little more than a silhouette, a hint of silver outlining his nose and chin, two silver crescents at the corners of his eyes.
‘What are you doing here so late?’ she asked. ‘Didn’t you go with Thor?’
‘He didn’t want me there,’ said Loki. He moved inside, slipping past her easily but stopping to lean against the doorframe, gone from silver to red in the candlelight. ‘Are you going to tell me you don’t want me here, either?’
‘I’m always glad to see you,’ said Sif, aware there was too much honesty in her words. ‘Why don’t you sit down?’
She fetched him mead, although not the honeymoon mead which was gone now, and sat with him while he drank it, drinking herself when he handed her the horn. The hall felt smaller that night, no bigger than the extent of the candlelight that illuminated it, and she and Loki could have been in a world where only the two of them existed.
‘Your hair is beautiful,’ he said, softly. Sif’s hand went to her head in a startled, jerky motion, feeling her unbound hair slide beneath it. There had been no reason to bind it spending the evening alone, and she’d forgotten. ‘I wish I could see it in daylight.’ Loki’s hand touched the edges of her hair, sliding through it and sending a soft thrill across her scalp. Suddenly she knew the pattern her weaving should have taken, the pattern that she would never weave now since portents are no use after the fact.
‘You should never have seen it at all,’ she said regretfully. ‘And some things belong in candlelight.’
Loki’s eyes met hers and she saw that he knew as much as she did that she was already seduced, that the rest of the night would only be slowly heading towards something as inevitable as the pattern on a loom.
The rainbow bridge, glass and fire, passed shimmering beneath Thor, a beautiful and fragile thing that was useless to him since it could never bear his weight. Heimdall stood at the head of it, its colours reflecting on his skin and making him appear almost a part of it, and then Thor was in Asgard. Travelling between the houses covered with gold in a happier time, when gold had only been a pretty thing to play with long before Thor was ever born, he found himself looking for Loki. But he reached his own hall without seeing even a flicker of red hair and sharp green eyes.
Sif answered the door with a tired smile, her eyes red rimmed. There was something wrong about her, Thor knew, beyond the fact that she had been crying. The dislocation of something almost familiar but not quite - was her headscarf tied differently today?
‘What happened?’ he asked, reaching to pull her into his arms. She came to him easily, the weight of her head against his chest carrying that same awkward wrongness.
‘Come inside,’ she said, her hands holding his jerkin as if it might be the last time she touched him. Yet she pulled back to usher him in, her hands clutching at her own apron instead in uncharacteristic agitation.
Thor followed, mystified. Somehow it was Loki he looked for, expecting to see him injured and laid out on a bench, irrationally afraid he had hurt him after all. But Sif only turned to face him, head held high like a warrior facing battle for the first time, and pulled away her headscarf to reveal the shorn stubble beneath.
‘Loki,’ said Thor, like a curse, certain of the culprit before he knew why.
‘He said he wanted to see it in daylight,’ said Sif, her gaze not wavering from Thor’s. She was beautiful like this, not defiant but not attempting to avoid blame, facing down the consequences of her choice with as much courage as Thor had ever seen. It hurt, the realisation of her betrayal, yet he couldn’t be angry with her. Only with the one who had first seduced and then shamed her, shaving her head in punishment for adultery he himself had drawn her into committing.
Thor blundered from the hall, half blind with fury, ready to hunt Loki down through Asgard, through the nine worlds if necessary. But Loki was standing there, in front of Thor’s hall, as if he had some intention in being there at that exact moment, as if it had been his plan from the first. Yet he looked small, for the first time since Thor had seen him, standing quiet and waiting without the sharp, graceful movements that leant him so much life. When Thor grabbed his shoulders Loki swayed into the motion, being pulled forward and pushed back as easily as if he had been made of straw. Thor shook him, viciously, snapping his head back and forth on his shoulders, until he felt something change. Where before Loki had been pliant as a reed now he trembled and tried to resist each sharp push only to fail.
‘I’ll kill you,’ said Thor.
‘No,’ said Loki, his voice high and breathless, broken by the shaking, but not pleading. He said it like a correction.
‘Why not?’ asked Thor.
‘I can undo it. I can get her new hair, just as beautiful,’ said Loki.
‘And that will undo it?’ asked Thor. He stopped shaking Loki but his hands were tightening, digging into Loki’s shoulders until he could feel the bone creaking beneath them.
‘It will be as if it never happened,’ said Loki, and now he did sound pleading, perhaps because he was lying.
Thor closed his eyes and let go. ‘Do it.’
They gathered at Urd’s well, the place for judgements, twelve Aesir and twelve Asynjur and every one of them knew what lay under Sif’s headscarf. How could they help but know, when Loki had made a public spectacle of restoring it? It was some comfort that not all of them cared, Freya regarded it as nothing while Frigga smiled the knowing smile of the old to the young.
Brokkr and Loki stood before them, the small pale dwarf with his oversized head and hands and Loki, with his less bloodless pallor, standing taller than the dwarf although still smaller than everyone around him. In front of them lay wonders.
Sif was called forward first, holding her head up although she wanted to cry or to rail at Loki for doing it this way. She pulled her headscarf off without hesitation and Loki quickly lifted up the fine spun gold, brighter even than her hair had been before, holding it into place against her scalp. She felt it take root there, growing as naturally as her own hair, as if truly nothing had happened. Loki, his hands still buried in it, stroked one through its fine strands, and for once she met his eyes with a glare sharper than his own. He dropped his eyes, cheeks flushing pink, and Sif could hardly move for bewilderment that she had startled a blush from Loki.
He turned away to pick up the ship, fumbling it for a moment to give himself time to regain his composure, and stood up holding it in his hand like a little golden toy. ‘This is for Freyr,’ he said, walking over and presenting it with a bow. ‘It can carry all the Aesir when you need it to, yet still be small enough to fit in your pocket.’
Freyr picked up the ship and turned away from the council, throwing it into the air in a golden arc. As soon as he let go of it it started to grow and soon it had landed among Yggdrasil’s roots, caught in them at an angle as if it was sailing a stormy sea of gnarled ash. Freyr reached out for it and it returned to his hand, shrinking as it did, until it was indeed small enough to fit in a pocket.
The Aesir and Asynjur were murmuring among themselves. Sif wondered whether she should return to her seat among the judges or remain on display as one of the treasures. No, she knew her place, and, with a smile at Loki that didn’t reach her eyes, she walked easily back to take her seat next to Idunn.
Next Loki lifted a spear, and this was steel not gold. ‘For my brother,’ he said, and knelt before Odin with the spear held out on his flat palms. Odin reached, not for the spear but for Loki’s shoulder, touching it gently.
‘Thank you,’ Odin said. ‘I shall treasure it.’
Loki smiled up at him and Sif thought it was the least complicated smile she had ever seen him wear.
‘My turn,’ said Brokkr, looking so balefully at Loki that Sif wondered what he had done to offend the dwarf.
‘For Freyr, this boar,’ he said. Sif had taken the sleeping boar to be a statue, but when Brokkr swatted it with his palm it rose to its feet with a squeal, causing amazed laughter from all around. ‘It can run tirelessly day and night, and its bristles will light the way in darkness.’
‘The ship was better,’ murmured Idunn.
Freyja shrugged. ‘The boar can be ridden into battle.’
Freyr put a hand on the boar’s head when it reached him and it calmed at once, standing beside him easily and snuffling at Yggdrasil’s roots. Brokkr nodded and crossed back to the other treasures. ‘This ring for Odin. It will drop eight more of the same weight every ninth night.’
The whispering this time was furious as Brokkr walked over to Odin and held it out. It was widely known that the dwarves had ways of making gold, but they kept them to themselves, and while Brokkr’s presentation lacked any of the grace Loki’s had had there was no denying the value of the gifts.
‘Finally, for Thor,’ said Brokkr, struggling to lift the hammer across his chest and hook the head over his shoulder. It was a strange hammer, looking as if it had been designed as a double-handed warhammer but with a handle too short for anyone to fit more than one hand on the grip. ‘It will shrink when you need it to and when you throw it it will always come back.’
Thor reached out and plucked the hammer from its place on the dwarf’s chest as soon as Brokkr staggered within his reach. The short handle didn’t matter, Thor was holding it in one hand as if he didn’t even notice the weight while he examined it and Sif felt her heart flutter at her husband’s easy strength. Thor stood up and threw it, almost as Frey had thrown the ship, but the hammer went in a straight line so far that Sif wasn’t sure whether she was looking at it anymore or had confused it with some other distant speck. And then it came back, twice as fast it seemed, dragging a wind with it that whipped Sif’s new hair over her face, before smacking into Thor’s hand. For a moment Thor grinned, fierce pleasure in his new weapon showing on his face, and then his eyes caught Loki’s and he scowled again.
The heads of the Aesir and Asynjur bent together, whispers of judgement passing up and down the table. Sif looked up at Loki who was watching them as if he was waiting for an inevitable answer, lips not quite curving into a smirk. He was, she realised, he’d orchestrated this to bring them gifts and now he thought they would repay him with a false judgement if that was what it took for things to go his way. It was too foolish to pity her tormentor, but she did, how could he know so much and be so blind? Yet when the judgement reached her she judged in his favour, even knowing nothing else lived up to the promise of Thor’s hammer.
Thor held Loki still through every stitch, Loki rigid beneath his hands with outrage as much as pain. Thor wondered whether he was enjoying this, seeing Loki get what he deserved, but all he felt was hollow. When Brokkr had pulled the leather thread tight and knotted it and turned to go the whispering started, even a laugh at seeing Loki’s silver tongue stilled. But Loki stared them down, all the power of his voice concentrated into his eyes. He didn’t need to explain his outrage, his pain, or his betrayal, just let them all bleed into his eyes and cut at everyone who met them. Before long it was silent, and no one either laughed or stopped him when he walked away.
Thor had to walk home, as usual, wading across the rivers. To his surprise Sif asked to walk with him, even though it was a longer and harder way and she could have used the Bifrost. He carried her over the first river, holding her bridal style in his arms so that she wouldn’t get wet, and set her down easily on the bank. She smiled up at him, but there were shadows lurking in her expression and, as they crossed the mossy fields on the way to Asgard, she said quietly, ‘He didn’t believe we’d hurt him.’
Thor snorted, still angry now the hollow feeling was fading away. ‘I came close to killing him earlier.’
Sif sighed. ‘Did you vote against him?’
‘…No. I feel like I’ve dishonoured my weapon before I’ve even used it.’ The hammer, Mjolnir, had been reduced to the size of Thor’s palm for travel but was still a reassuring weight at his belt.
‘I didn’t either,’ said Sif. ‘We should tell him.’
The roots of Yggdrasil were still looming over them, although they were steadily climbing. It created a strange landscape of ragged curves, with fields nestled in pockets of earth between them. The sunlight was cold and distant here, with Sól’s course so far overhead, yet Sif’s hair seemed to pick up every distant glint. Thor tried to remember whether her hair had always done that or whether it was just this new hair and found he couldn’t.
‘Tell the wretched wight we put him before our honour? It was more than he deserved and more than he deserves to know,’ said Thor. Sif didn’t answer, her gaze fixed on the uneven ground, and Thor stopped, halting her with a hand on her arm. ‘Do you love him?’
‘Do you?’ she asked.
‘He was my friend, it’s not the same,’ said Thor. But the memory of woodsmoke and spices, Loki curled warmly against him in the chariot, rose to his mind. He had told himself then he wouldn’t entertain such thoughts, wouldn’t dishonour his friend. But Loki had dishonoured him, his wife, with no thought at all. Sif had slept with Loki, would it not be fair for him to do the same? What honour did Loki have to save? He shook the thoughts away angrily.
‘It’s the same when the question is whether we want to hurt him or not,’ said Sif.
‘He hurt you,’ said Thor.
Sif gave him a pained smile. ‘Nothing to be done about that now.’
It was several days before Sif saw Loki again, and then he knocked on the door and smiled when she opened it. Things might have been the same as always except for the lines of scars above and below his mouth and the fact that her hair now glinted more like metal than like honey where it escaped the very edges of her headscarf.
‘Come in,’ she said, so unfairly, irrationally, glad to see him. ‘I’ll fetch some mead.’
It was when he caught sight of Thor that she realised there had been a change in him. A shadow fell across his face and he stopped, hovering warily in the doorway, while Sif waited to see what would happen before leaving them alone.
Thor looked up. ‘Come in and sit down,’ he said. And then, when Loki didn’t. ‘Neither of us voted against you.’
Loki took a few steps towards him, a smile, now slightly twisted, turning up the corners of his mouth. ‘You held me still.’
‘Once a judgement’s decided it has to be carried out. You know that,’ said Thor.
‘That’s just a way to avoid responsibility for your own actions,’ said Loki, settling gracefully onto a bench across from Thor, and sounding less like he was accusing him and more like he was arguing for the sake of it the way he so often did.
‘And what would you know of responsibility?’ said Thor.
Sif slipped away into the pantry before letting the grin bubbling up inside her onto her face. What was wrong with her to be so happy to have Loki back in their home, acting the same way he always did? But she felt like singing as she fetched the mead and a drinking horn to take through to their guest.
Loki took the mead with a smile and drank before offering it to Thor. The way he offered it, leaning forward further than he needed, making sure Thor’s hands couldn’t help but brush his in taking it, made Sif stare. Loki was always like this, she’d told herself before it was just his manner, especially when he treated both of them just the same, that he didn’t mean anything by it. But with her he had meant something by it and now she wondered whether he meant it with regards to Thor as well.
‘You can’t come,’ said Thor. Loki was sprawled across his chariot, hands toying idly with the reins, as if he might be the one to drive off and leave Thor. The goats were turning to eye him with their slitted yellow eyes, not liking the touch of a hand on the reins that didn’t intend to command them. ‘I’m going to fight.’
‘You’re not,’ said Loki. ‘Maybe an unlucky troll or two, if you find them where they shouldn’t be, but you’re not even going to Jotunheim. Just to the forests of Midgard to get away from everyone.’
‘Which would include you,’ said Thor. He didn’t ask how Loki knew, just pushed him over so he could place the pack and the blankets in the chariot. Loki yielded easily, somehow bending both away from and into the touch at the same time, turning it into something too gentle.
‘I’m not anybody,’ said Loki. His tongue darted out to lick the scars around his lips. ‘And I know the forests well. I’ll show you where there’s good fishing.’
‘If you’re going to be useful,’ said Thor, climbing in beside him, knowing it was the scars and not the promise of fishing that had swayed him. Even though they should have been all the more reason to refuse.
Loki leant over the side as they went, pointing out features of the patchwork farmland below. As they reached the forest the farms started to break up, newly claimed freeholdings sometimes entirely surrounded by trees like patches fallen from the edge of the quilt or not yet stitched in. It was not until they were someway beyond the last of them that Thor asked, ‘Where were you going to take me?’
Standing up, Loki set one foot on the edge of the chariot to get a better view of the surroundings and pointed to what looked like a clearing in the trees. ‘There’s a lake there,’ he said. ‘In among the leafy isles.’
It was a kenning for trees, though not a common one. ‘So you’re a poet now?’ said Thor.
‘I’m a little of everything,’ said Loki. He stepped out onto the traces and walked along to stand on the back of Tanngrisnir, who snorted and swung his head back, making Loki jump off and stand on air rather than have horns slammed into his ankles. Thor pulled the chariot to a stop, concerned Loki wouldn’t keep up walking, however walking worked in the air, and offered him a hand back in. Loki’s hand was smooth and soft but calloused hard at the fingertips, like a woman’s, as if he spent his time weaving or spinning, and when it closed around Thor’s there was the sudden certainty that he wouldn’t be able to pull free until Loki released him. Loki stepped easily back over the side of the chariot and sat down, then he let go of Thor’s hand, his fingers sliding over the palm as he did so and leaving it tingling with sensation.
The lake was deep and blue, the sun shining up from its depths as if Sól had found a twin under the water. Thor had thought Loki would bother him while he fished, but Loki vanished into the woods so swiftly Thor didn’t see him go, and Thor wondered whether it had been the forests Loki wanted after all, unsure whether to be hurt or relieved if it was. Around him the trees rustled and murmured, singing their timeless, tuneless song, joined at intervals by birds almost as tuneless but joyful in their determination to live their short, fragile lives so loudly.
When Loki returned he’d taken his shirt off to gather mushrooms in and his pale skin was glowing in the sunlight, when he bent to set them down Thor could see his slender back was as lithely muscled as a wildcat. He stretched, head tipped back to let the sun fall on his face after so long under the trees, and all the lines of his body were clear and beautiful so that Thor had to make himself look away.
‘I’ll start a fire,’ Loki said. ‘Shall I clean your catch?’
‘If you don’t mind,’ said Thor.
Out of the corner of his eye Thor couldn’t help but watch Loki go about the business of preparing their dinner, fetching stones to make a hearth and then brushwood to set in it. He didn’t see how Loki set the fire though, one moment the hearth was empty, with Loki crouched down beside it, and the next it was ablaze. The fish were gutted with easy, practised motions, a flick of the wrist and a flash of the knife and done. Loki peeled green sticks, looking at them intently as he did while his hands picked the bark away delicately, and impaled the fish through the mouth with them so he could set them in the fire without the sticks catching. Much the same was done with the mushrooms, six to a stick, and soon the smell of hot food was drifting around the lake and overpowering the scent of sap and water that had been there earlier.
They ate by the fire, adding bread from the packs to make a meal, and Loki was graceless in eating as he was in nothing else, almost inhaling the mushrooms from the sticks and taking such large bites from the fish Thor worried he’d swallow a bone. It was as if he hadn’t seen food in weeks, and there was something fascinating about that voracity. Afterwards, though, he seemed satisfied, licking his fingers contentedly before sprawling down by the fire as if he meant to sleep like that with no blankets. Thor fetched a blanket anyway and threw it over him, watching Loki smile and curl around under it after it landed.
Later that night Thor woke, disoriented to find a warm body pressed against him while he was outside, the trees still singing overhead through the dark. The scent of woodsmoke and spices, the feel of a man’s flat chest beneath his hands, was enough to wake him up although he still felt hazy, not entirely sure this wasn’t a dream.
‘What are you doing, Loki?’ he asked.
‘I was cold,’ came the murmured response, Loki pressing against him as if to confirm his claim.
‘It’s not a cold night,’ said Thor.
Loki laughed, tuneless and joyous as the birdsong. ‘Isn’t it?’ His hands were winding around Thor, settling in the small of his back, and his head had come to rest where every one of Loki’s breaths would warm the hollow of Thor’s throat and make the pulse there flutter. ‘But I was cold, all alone over there. And you’re shivering now.’
The lake was a silver line at the edge of Thor’s vision, above it was a sky full of the brightest stars he’d ever seen. Loki was in his arms, intentions entirely clear, and it seemed as if they were in another world where such desires could be fulfilled without consequence. ‘Loki…I won’t dishonour you like this.’
‘I have no honour, don’t make a fool of yourself trying to protect something I never had a use for,’ said Loki. His hand stroked through Thor’s hair, as if Thor needed comfort. ‘Let me choose what matters to me.’
Thor swallowed, hands moving to Loki’s hips, eyes resting on Loki’s delighted smile, and could find no reason to refuse.
The light in Fensalir was green and wavering, casting strange reflections over Sif’s hands. Frigga, her host, brought out horns not of mead but of pear cider that she had recently brewed and said she wanted Sif’s opinion on. The taste went with the reflections, light and crisp, yet strong with hints of deep hidden things. Frigga was the same; with her neat headscarf and apron she looked like the goddess of motherhood she was, yet she was a seer far more powerful than Sif and Odin’s opponent at some of his darker games.
‘It’s beautiful,’ said Sif, wondering afterwards whether that was the word to apply to cider.
Frigga smiled though, a neat, crisp smile, as she came to sit across from Sif. ‘I’m glad. You’re the first besides me to taste it.’
‘I’m honoured.’ Sif took another drink, feeling at peace here. It had been too long since she last talked to Frigga.
There were a few moments when they both simply sat, enjoying the moment and the cider, and then Frigga said, ‘Does it worry you that Loki is in Midgard seducing your husband?’ Her tone was conversational, but when Sif looked up sharply she could see the wicked glint in her eyes.
‘I don’t know that I’d call it worry,’ she managed, at a loss for anything else. Of course, she’d suspected, but what could she do? What right did she have to do anything? Her hands tightened around the horn as she stopped them from going to her headscarf.
‘You could both have him,’ said Frigga, tone still conversational. ‘I slept with Vili and Vé together for a time, it solved the situation nicely.’
Sif nearly choked and then stopped herself from asking what situation sleeping with both of her husband’s brothers could have solved for Frigga. It would be improper, and she wasn’t sure she wanted to know. ‘Is that what Loki wants?’ she asked, instead.
Frigga shook her head. ‘What Loki likely wants is to continue to seduce the both of you in turn, sowing as much confusion and jealousy as possible. But what Loki wants and what would make him happy are rarely the same thing.’
‘He’s a terrible person,’ said Sif, not sure she believed it, not sure whether she wanted Frigga to confirm or deny it.
‘He’s uncivilised,’ said Frigga. ‘He and Odin met when they were both wanderers without a land, and Loki never forgave him for becoming king.’
‘Were he and Odin…?’ That question was truly improper, but it slipped out before Sif could think and then she wanted the answer too much to take it back. If his interest in Thor and her was only a way of getting back at Odin she’d rather know.
‘No,’ said Frigga, smile oddly sad. ‘They were everything to one another, but never that.’
Sif finished her cider with shaking hands, her mind flooded with the image of Thor and Loki in the firelight, so perfect together in their different kinds of beauty. Could she ever have them together, the way she was starting to admit she wanted them?
‘It wouldn’t be fair to Thor,’ she said, quietly, hearing the regret in her voice. ‘It’s different for a man to take a lover, but he deserves to know his wife’s children are his.’
Frigga looked at her seriously, holding her eyes until she was sure Sif was listening closely. ‘If you do this the first child will be Loki’s. Any others will be Thor’s.’ Then she stood up, holding her hand out for Sif’s empty horn, which Sif handed over unthinkingly, her hand moving almost by itself. Frigga saw all the future, but she never told, and her decision to break that now frightened Sif too much for her to manage thanks.
When Sif came out to welcome Thor home he could hardly look at her, and he knew everything he had done must have shown on his face. Hiding his feelings had never come easily to him and Sif knew him too well for that besides, although he wished he could have hidden it rather than hurt her.
‘I’m not angry,’ she said, arms closing around his waist. ‘Truly. But we need to talk.’
‘It won’t happen again,’ he said contritely, holding her close against him. ‘I -’
But she hushed him with three fingers pressed lightly against his lips. ‘Hear me out before you make promises,’ she said softly. Thor did meet her eyes at that and where he’d expected pain he saw hope and nervous anticipation, as if this was still their wedding night. Her hand closed around his, not so warm as Loki’s and a little thinner, but strangely with the same callouses on the tips. Thor followed her in and took the mead she fetched him, watching as she came to settle on a bench across from him, her hands folding into her lap as she leant forward, cheeks flushed and eyes bright.
‘I spoke to Frigga,’ she said. ‘And she thinks both of us should lie with Loki. Together.’
The desire to accept Frigga’s solution was obvious in her. That was why she looked like a bride, anticipating having the man she wanted in her bed. ‘If he’s the one you want we can divorce,’ Thor said, voice heavy and empty. He’d known she loved Loki.
Sif darted across the gap between them like a bird, hands on his shoulders and lips dancing across his face, kissing his brow, his cheeks, his lips. ‘No,’ she said. ‘No, no. I want the both of you. And I know that I shouldn’t but you want him too, and me. Sometimes the two of you sit side by side and it’s so beautiful I can’t believe you both exist.’
Thor kissed back, opening his mouth to hers, and then set his hands around her waist and drew her down into his lap where he could hold her close, tuck her up against him and feel her beating heart against his chest. Sif laid her head on his shoulder, the knot of her headscarf rubbing his ear. Like this it was impossible not to believe in her love for him, even as she didn’t deny her love for Loki.
‘Can we really do that?’ Thor asked.
‘It would be better than carrying on the way we have been. To have him without betrayal or jealousy,’ said Sif, breathlessly. Then she pressed her head into the crook of his neck, as if she wanted to muffle her next words. ‘If we do it though, Frigga told me the first child would be his. Only the first, but you are my husband, and I know that isn’t fair.’
Thor closed his eyes and tried to imagine what kind of child Loki would have. Someone as strange and wild as himself, perhaps, but it would be Sif’s child too, with her own small strangenesses and her acceptance of things, and Thor thought he might like to raise a child like that. ‘A child from you and Loki would be a rare and special thing,’ he said, and blushed to realise how strange the sentiment was.
Sif kissed him again. ‘Say you love us both,’ she said. ‘If you do then I know this will work.’
‘I do,’ Thor said. And then he laughed, startled and relieved at how strange and easy the solution had been after all.
They waited for Loki’s next visit with eyes alight and laughter near the surface, no longer confused or frightened by his seduction but planning to catch him in his own web for once. Anticipation spilled over into their responses to one another, they touched often and kisses would lead to more, their nights often ending with them tangled together on a bench, Sif’s hair spread over both of them.
Loki arrived after a handful of days, standing in the doorway with sunlight catching his hair and bringing out as many shades in it as in a forest in autumn. Sif smiled at him, and saw his own smile widen at what he saw in hers. Was it her turn, in his mind? If so he must be anticipating an easy win.
‘Come in,’ she said, and stepped aside for him. It was too early in the day for them to need the fire and it was banked down to embers, light shining in through the chimney hole instead and landing bright on Thor’s face while his back remained in shadow. His hand moved from shadow to light as he held it out to gesture at a seat beside him. Sif saw the look on Loki’s face as he took the seat, an uncertain smile as he saw that both of them were willing, and then twisting into a smirk, the thought that he could make them compete for him showing on his face as clearly as a fish darting in shallow water. Sif went through to the pantry quickly to hide her laughter.
Her fingers fumbled ridiculously at the knot on her headscarf, but she soon had it off and set on a table, hands nervously fingercombing her hair as if Loki hadn’t seen it before it was ever on her head. The mead she fetched was of the same brew as their honeymoon mead had been, one of Beyla’s, and between nerves and laughter she spilled a little on her fingers as she filled the horn.
In the hall Thor’s arm was around Loki, who was leaning into him, and Thor’s eyes met hers over Loki’s head, dark with the knowledge that she liked them like that. Loki reached for the mead without moving away from Thor, and it was only after his hand was stretched out that he seemed to notice the waves of golden hair. Sif bowed and handed the horn over, as if there was nothing strange about standing there with her hair unbound like a maiden while doing the duties of a wife. Loki tilted the horn but the first sip seemed to freeze him, his face going blank, and Sif saw that he knew he was being played with but not why.
Thor shifted so that he could get both arms around Loki and said, ‘It’s about time we made you nervous for a change.’
Sif placed a hand on the side of Loki’s face and slid it slowly into his hair, feeling the slightly springy curls wrap around her fingers like uncarded sheep’s wool. Loki laughed, pressing his face against her stomach so that she could feel his laughter running through her body as much as hear it, as he realised what they wanted, what they were doing. When he looked up at them again mischief had been replaced, at least temporarily, with wonder and delight.