“Why won’t you just admit that we are lost, brother?” Loki muttered, huddling deep into his fur-lined cloak. “It would certainly save us some time.”
“We are not lost,” Thor growled, his gloved hands clenching tightly around his horse’s reins. “I know exactly where we are.”
“Then may I ask, o great wanderer,” Loki said sarcastically, “why we have not yet made it home? I am afraid I will catch a chill.”
Thor scowled and did not reply. He whipped the reins and kicked his horse into a cantor, pulling ahead of his brother on the snowy trail. Loki, hiding his smile in the shadowy recesses of his hood, urged his mount forward, as well, easily drawing even with Thor. He said nothing, though, knowing that Thor could not stand silence between them and would break it on his own eventually.
Sure enough, Thor heaved a gusty sigh, the sound all too loud in the wintry air.
“My apologies, Loki,” he said. “I just know that Father will be angry with us for taking so long to return. I had hoped to be back by now to avoid another scolding, that’s all.”
Loki shrugged. “If he is angry, at least he will be angry at the both of us. And have you not enjoyed these past few weeks of freedom?”
That drew a warm smile from Thor, and he reached over to clap a hand on Loki’s shoulder.
“Of course I have,” he said, and it was the truth.
What had begun as a simple ambassadorial expedition to Alfheim had rapidly devolved into little more than a road trip for the young Asgardian princes, who had rarely been able to get away from court in the past few years due to an increase in their royal responsibilities, let alone spend much quality time together.
In fact, Loki suspected that his mother had a hand in forcing her sons to go to Alfheim simply because she had noticed them beginning to grow apart. Perhaps not much, but it was noticeable to anyone who had known them in their youth. They argued more than they had as children. Loki had a new tendency to use sharp words aimed to hurt, to hold silent grudges, to push Thor’s buttons with relish and ease. Thor, meanwhile, grew steadily shorter in temper, and was less likely to put up with his brother’s sly smiles and barely-veiled mockery.
But despite their growing differences and frequent bickering (or, more likely, because of them), Frigga had volunteered both of them to undergo the mission to Alfheim, and – to the brothers’ mutual, unspoken relief – it had proven to be a wonderful trip.
Away from the eyes of the court, Loki relaxed, and resembled once more the quiet child he had been in his youth. He was still fiercely clever – something he rarely let his brother forget – and although he could not always resist a cunning insult or a sarcastic comment, they were usually spoken with a smile, and Thor found them easier to ignore.
Thor, for his part, was less likely to lose his temper when he did not have to worry about everyone at court watching his little brother nettle him. His confidence remained, but it was quieter, easier, as though he had less to prove. He did not have to worry about defending his pride when it was just the two of them, so he forgave more of Loki’s teasing, and would even return with a taunt or two.
It felt just like old times.
The talks with the elves had gone as well as could be expected, and now Thor and Loki were traveling back to Asgard with a report that very little in the treaty had changed, and none of it for the worse. The only problem was that Thor – convinced that he knew the way back to the Bifrost site – had forgone asking for directions from their hosts, and had so gotten them utterly lost.
“I think we’re traveling in circles,” Loki said quietly, staring into the woods.
“We are not traveling in circles,” Thor grumbled.
“How would you know?”
“Because none of this looks familiar.”
Loki glanced at his brother and saw that Thor was smiling slightly; it was the only admission he would give that they were, indeed, lost.
“Maybe we could call to Heimdall,” Thor suggested.
Loki scoffed. “And what, have him open the Bifrost and hold it until we get there? It could be miles away. Who knows what would cross between the worlds in that time.”
“Well, what do you propose, then?” Thor asked, clearly frustrated.
“The same thing I proposed three hours ago,” Loki said. “We follow our own trail back to the Council and have them point us in the right direction.”
Thor’s face fell. “That would be humiliating.”
“True. But at least that way we won’t freeze to death.”
“I would never let you freeze to death, Loki,” Thor said.
Loki looked sharply at his brother, but Thor was gazing distractedly at their surroundings, apparently heedless of his words. He had said them so matter-of-factly, so simply, as though all of their fighting over the past few years had been forgotten. It was Thor simply being Thor, falling into his old position of protective older brother. A strange, not unpleasant emotion curled in Loki’s stomach at that notion, and he huddled deeper into his cloak.
They lapsed into a comfortable silence, still riding into the forest despite Loki’s advice, and Thor let his mind wander. He glanced at his brother, riding silently beside him. Loki’s face was mostly hidden by his cloak, but he seemed content. There was still an elegant watchfulness about him, a gleam of mischief and sometimes even cruelty in those penetrating eyes, but he seemed calmer, more pliant, and that was how Thor loved him best.
This Loki was Thor’s Loki. This was the brother he remembered from his childhood, when they had run rampant through the palace halls, never parted, always laughing. And Thor suspected that once they were back in the Realm Eternal, under their father’s eye, this Loki would disappear once more, replaced by the sharp-tongued, devious little brother with whom Thor could do nothing but fight.
He was loath to admit it, but a large part of him wished they did not have to return to Asgard at all.
“So,” Thor said reluctantly, after they had ridden in silence for another mile or so. “When should we turn back?”
Loki hummed deep in his throat, thinking. “It does not matter to me, particularly. We have quite a bit of daylight left.”
Thor almost beamed, but he kept himself to a small smile. “Shall we amuse ourselves with a little race, then?”
Loki raised his eyebrows, slanting Thor a mischievous glance. “If you think you can handle it.”
Thor laughed and was about to reply when he heard something shift in the trees to his left. His laughter died, his eyes narrowed. He shot Loki a warning look before turning his sharp gaze to the surrounding forest, but that brief exchange was all that was needed: Loki was immediately on edge, having learned long ago to trust his brother’s instincts. He quietly checked that all of his knives were in place beneath his cloak, and flexed his hands around his horse’s reins, coaxing mobility back into chilled fingers.
Thor caught his brother’s subtle preparations out of the corner of his eye, and could not help a small smile. Just like old times, indeed.
The princes did not stop riding, despite their wariness. They knew that any would-be attackers would be more careless if they thought their victims did not suspect an ambush.
Loki’s horse shied slightly, sensing his rider’s agitation and the unseen presence in the woods, but a gentle hand on the horse’s neck and softly murmured words brought him back under control. Thor spared his horse only a small pat, and then a twig snapped on the left side of the path, and the ambush fell.
One of them dropped from the branches directly onto the back of Loki’s horse, making the animal scream and rear. Thor’s heart leapt into his throat when he saw a flash of steel aimed for his brother’s neck, but then both Loki and his attacker tumbled off the terrified horse and into the snow. Steel flashed, a ragged and thankfully unfamiliar cry rang out, and the attacker fell, bleeding, to the ground.
Thor could watch his brother no more. Two black-cloaked attackers appeared, trying to pull him from his saddle. The horse dipped and reared, and its powerful hooves struck the attacker reaching for the reins with a sickening crack. The man fell back with a scream, clutching a broken arm.
Thor gripped Mjölnir tightly, the hammer already thrumming at his side, and swung with all of his might at the other attacker, who was still trying to pull him from the saddle. The hammer connected with the man’s temple and Thor felt bone crush and give, and the man crashed to the ground.
Grimacing, Thor turned away from the dead man and back to his brother. Loki’s hands were wreathed in emerald light, and apart from a scratch on his cheek, he seemed uninjured. Two men lay in the snow at his feet, and a third and fourth were circling him, seemingly hesitant to attack a magic user.
Thor kicked his mount over to the group of fighters, but a previously unseen attacker dropped onto his back and, within an instant, had wrestled him from the saddle.
Thor felt the air rush from his lungs as he slammed into the frozen ground with his attacker on top of him, and Mjölnir tumbled from his hand. He reached desperately for the hammer, but dark-gloved fingers locked around his throat and began to squeeze. Thor bucked and clawed at the hands around his neck, trying to break the man’s hold, but his attacker merely grunted and bore the pain, pressing down harder until dark explosions peppered Thor’s vision.
He heard Loki yell his name, and then the man throttling him choked and toppled forward, a green-glowing knife embedded in his throat. The fingers around Thor’s neck went limp and Thor gasped for air, shoving the dead man off of him. He grabbed Mjölnir and struggled to his feet just in time to watch another attacker – this one dressed in white, to better hide in the snowy forest –appear behind Loki, and deal him a swift blow to the head with the hilt of his sword. Loki collapsed into the snow and stayed there, motionless.
Thor bellowed in rage and let Mjölnir fly. The hammer struck the white-clad man in the face. His head snapped back at an unnatural angle and he went sprawling.
Thor caught Mjölnir upon its return and was about to run to his brother’s side when four more men surrounded him, herding him away from Loki while still keeping a wary distance. Thor growled and spun Mjölnir once, readying his attack.
“If you do not let me pass, I will kill you all where you stand,” he warned.
“If you do not stand down, I will slit your brother’s throat,” countered a soft voice from beyond the circle of attackers. Thor’s blood turned to ice. The white-clad man – miraculously alive – was crouched beside Loki, one hand twisted into the mage’s dark hair, the other holding a thin, deadly blade to his exposed throat. Blood seeped through the man’s white cloth mask, but his eyes glittered dangerously against his pale skin. “Put down the hammer, or the magician dies.”
Thor’s pulse throbbed in his ears. His vision began to tunnel, his fingers tightened painfully around Mjölnir’s hilt, and he could feel the familiar rage – the white-hot fury of a riled berserker – starting to course through his veins. Thunder rumbled above them, and the attackers glanced nervously at the sky.
The white-clad man tightened his grip on Loki’s hair, jerking his head back. Loki’s lips twitched briefly into a grimace, and Thor saw his eyes flutter just barely before he went still again, feigning unconsciousness.
Patience, brother. Loki’s voice echoed in Thor’s head, and Thor fought not to flinch at the strange sensation. It was a technique Loki had recently mastered, and Thor was still unused to it. It felt too much like his brother was stealing upon his thoughts. I would know what they wish to gain from this.
But still Thor hesitated, and the white-clad man lost his patience.
“Now,” he snarled, pressing harder with the knife, and Thor held up a hand. He stooped slowly, gritting his teeth, and let Mjölnir drop to the ground with a resounding thud. The white-clad man gestured for one of the men to take the hammer, and Thor allowed himself a twisted smile when the man was unable to lift it.
“Leave it,” the white-clad man snapped. “Bind him, and make sure he does not fight.”
Thor did not take his eyes from his brother as his attackers jumped him, wrestling him to his knees. Even as he felt his own arms wrenched behind his back and bound, the white-clad man began tying Loki’s wrists together, wrapping thick, dark fabric around his slender hands.
“If you separate us,” Thor said lowly, leveling a deadly stare at the man tying his brother, “or harm a single hair on his head, there is no power in this world that will save you from my wrath, do you understand?”
A crack of thunder punctuated this statement, and one of Thor’s attackers clubbed him in the temple, making the world go dark. But Thor thought he saw the white-clad man pause for a moment, contemplating the threat, and the last thing he heard before unconsciousness was his brother’s wry voice, echoing in his mind:
Peace, my brother. They would not dare.
Thor woke to a jolting bump in the road. His head throbbed and his arms were sore, bound firmly behind his back, and all he wanted to do was roll over and go back to sleep. But he forced himself to breathe, to push all thoughts of discomfort away, and concentrate on where he was. Soon enough he remembered the trip to Alfheim, and subsequently the forest and the ambush and –
“Loki,” he murmured, and finally opened his eyes.
It was dark, and very cold. From the look of things, he was lying on a thin layer of hay in a rattling wooden cart, completely penned in by thick iron bars. A dark figure sat slumped against the bars beside him, watching him with gleaming eyes, and Thor panicked for a moment before he recognized his brother.
“Loki,” Thor said again, keeping his voice low. “Are you all right?”
Loki nodded. Thor rolled into a sitting position near his brother, a feat made rather more difficult by the rope cutting into his wrists. His head pounded, furious at being upright, but Thor clenched his teeth and ignored the pain. He had more important things to worry about.
“How long have we been out?” Thor asked, trying not to shiver. They both still had their cloaks, but the Nine only knew how long they had been locked in this cage. The night air was freezing, and each breath misted in the darkness.
Loki shrugged. Frowning at this lack of response, Thor peered more closely at his brother and saw a dark cloth wrapped tight around Loki’s mouth, gagging him.
“Why did they…?” Thor muttered. Loki made a muffled noise that sounded vaguely like “mahhirgh,” and Thor stared at him blankly.
Loki sighed and rolled his eyes, and then his voice sounded in Thor’s mind, exasperated and weary.
Magic, you oaf. They know I am a sorcerer. They were taking no chances.
“Right,” Thor said, then scooted closer to Loki. “Turn around so I can get it off.”
Loki obeyed, and Thor leaned forward toward the nape of Loki’s neck so he could catch the knot of the gag with his teeth. Loki flinched as Thor’s warm breath gusted against his bare skin, and Thor grinned.
“Don’t get excited,” he joked, biting down on the thick fabric, and Loki jabbed a well-aimed elbow into his ribs, making him wheeze and laugh.
It took a few moments to loosen the gag, but finally the fabric slid down around Loki’s neck and they both breathed a sigh of relief.
“That took you long enough,” Loki grumbled. “Do you know how exhausting telepathy is?”
“My apologies,” Thor said. “So what have you heard?” They turned back to back, pressing their hands together, and Thor began to work blindly at the knots binding Loki’s hands, his fingers fumbling and trembling with cold.
“Not much, unfortunately,” Loki said, keeping his voice low in case any guards showed up to ride beside the cart. “All I know is they’re taking us to someone they call ‘His Lordship’ so they can get a share of our ransom.”
“Frey will not be pleased,” Thor said, thinking of the stern ruler of Alfheim.
“No, indeed.” Loki’s voice was amused.
“And you have heard no name for this ‘Lordship’?” Thor felt the knots slide free beneath his fingers, and the fabric slipped from around Loki’s hands. Thor heard his brother shift so he was facing Thor’s back, and then cool, deft fingers began to work at the knots binding Thor’s wrists.
“Not yet,” Loki said. “But I can only assume this is some rebel lord hoping to receive payment from Asgard in return for the All-Father’s sons.”
“He will never get it,” Thor said. Loki’s hands paused in their work.
“You do not think Father would pay?”
“I do not think he will have to,” Thor said, turning to grin at Loki as he tugged his hands apart, letting the rope fall to the ground. Loki laughed lightly, then winced, pressing a hand to his head. Thor’s smile fell and he crawled over to his brother, taking Loki’s head gently in his hands.
“Let me see,” he said, and Loki reluctantly lowered his head, allowing Thor to card his fingers through Loki’s dark hair. Thor’s expression hardened as he came upon dried blood, and Loki hissed when Thor prodded tenderly at the wound on his scalp.
“The bleeding has stopped,” Loki murmured, his voice muffled against Thor’s cloak. “I will be fine.”
“They will pay,” Thor growled, hugging his brother briefly to his chest and rubbing his hands over his back, trying to chafe some warmth back into Loki’s slim frame. Thor was still shivering despite his heavy cloak, and he assumed his brother must be just as chilled. He was surprised and pleased when Loki allowed the contact, but only for a moment.
“We should move,” Loki said softly, pressing a hand against Thor’s chest. “It will be sunrise soon.”
“What is our plan?” Thor asked, pulling away and huddling into his cloak. “Do we fight our way out, or try to escape now into the darkness?”
Loki sighed and slumped against the bars once more, absently tugging the gag off his neck and letting it fall to the floor. “I am weary, and they have taken my knives. I may not be much use in a battle right now.”
“Then I will take them,” Thor said. “You rest. I need to pay them back for what they have done to you, anyway.”
Loki flashed him a sardonic glance. “Do not forget, dear brother, that I am not the only one whose head they bashed about.” He gestured toward Thor’s temple. “Your crown has seen better days. Not to mention the fact that you are currently freezing, and without Mjölnir. Unless you plan to take them all on barehanded?”
“Perhaps I should,” Thor grumbled. He stretched out his hand to summon Mjölnir, but just as he felt the hammer’s answering call, an arrow suddenly thudded into the cart beside him, narrowly missing his leg.
Loki sat bolt upright, eyes wide, and Thor had just enough time to grab his brother and tug him close before the world devolved into chaos.
Arrows flew out of the trees like deadly rain, thudding into the wood of the cart but never striking Thor or Loki. They could hear yells and death cries of the men who had captured them, coming from a short ways up the road. Horses screamed and plunged in fright and pain, throwing their riders and making the cart buck wildly. Thor held Loki tight, trying to shield him from any stray arrows, and he stretched his hand out once more. He could feel the thrum of power, could feel Mjölnir singing through the air toward him. Thunder rumbled overhead, drowning out the sounds of battle and panicked flight as their kidnappers began to realize that they were outnumbered by the unseen archers in the woods.
Two of their original attackers hurried to the cart, obviously ordered to keep the prisoners under guard, but an arrow struck one down, piercing him through the throat, and the other blanched in panic. He spared one wide-eyed glance for Thor and Loki, and then fled into the snowy woods in the opposite direction of the archers.
Mjölnir whipped into Thor’s hand, shattering the back door of the cart as it came. Thor and Loki slipped out of their prison and were about to run into the woods after the guard when a pale face peered out from behind a tree on the archers’ side of the road and beckoned to them.
The brothers exchanged glances. Thor shrugged and Loki sighed, and they ran into the woods.
“To the river,” the pale-faced man said, pointing deeper into the forest, and then he turned back to the road, loading another arrow into his longbow. “We will hold them off.”
“Thank you,” Thor said, gripping the man’s shoulder. The man’s eyes widened and he stared at Thor’s hand in wondrous awe, then turned teary eyes to the thunderer’s face.
“It was nothing, my lord,” he said, bowing quickly once, twice. “Thank you, my lord.”
Thor stared at the man, baffled, until Loki grabbed his arm and tugged him forward.
“Come along, brother,” he whispered.
“That was passing strange,” Thor muttered as they hurried through the woods, slogging through snow banks and ducking low-hanging branches. “Some Asgardians do not even speak to me so reverently.”
“Maybe it was his first time meeting a prince,” Loki said absently, trying to peer through the snow-covered trees to catch a glimpse of the purported river. The sounds of battle faded behind them, leaving them alone in snow-dampened silence.
“I do not like this,” Loki said, his voice as soft as their muffled footsteps. He had drawn his hood up to keep warm and all Thor could see were his eyes, gleaming in the shadows. “It is too coincidental. We do not know who these people are, or how they knew to ambush that caravan, and yet we are supposed to trust them. And they seem to know us…” He trailed off, shaking his head. “It makes me nervous.”
“I am not sure we have any better options, at the moment,” Thor said. “At the very least we can ask these people where we are.”
Loki hummed thoughtfully, but said nothing. His face was drawn and weary, his eyes dull with fatigue, and Thor dared to place a hand at the small of his back, silently supporting. He expected Loki to pull away, or worse, to scold him, but Loki did not even acknowledge the hand, which Thor considered a victory.
They reached the river within fifteen minutes of being saved, and found a group of warriors – all cloaked and hooded and carrying longbows – waiting for them on the frozen banks.
Thor immediately stepped in front of Loki, placing himself between his brother and the group of strange warriors. He raised Mjölnir in one hand, keeping the other planted firmly on Loki’s waist.
“Who are you?” he demanded with a glare.
The tallest of the group – clearly their leader – stepped forward, his arms outstretched. He was a barrel-chested man, with laughing eyes and a bright smile, and he seemed completely unfazed by Thor’s threatening stance.
“All hail the mighty gods!” he pronounced, then knelt at Thor’s feet and bowed low, his forehead brushing the snow. The rest of the group echoed his call and followed suit, and soon the whole band of warriors was stretched out before them in obeisance.
Thor blinked and lowered Mjölnir. Loki snorted, letting his head fall to his brother’s shoulder. When he spoke, his voice was low and dark with exhaustion, and Thor caught only one acerbic word:
At last, an update! Expect these to come monthly(ish), if all goes well.
Thanks to all for the reads and kudos and bookmarks on the first chapter - I hope you enjoy!
The leader introduced himself as Pelal, Headman of the village of Gimle. He then proceeded to introduce each of the warriors accompanying him, although not a single name registered in Thor’s mind. His head was throbbing and he wanted nothing more than to simply lie down and go to sleep.
“We are grateful for your assistance, of course,” Loki said, stepping forward once Pelal had finally stopped talking, “but we are not–”
“We are not yet ready,” Thor interrupted, clapping a hand to Loki’s shoulder as inspiration suddenly struck, “to, ah… demonstrate our true power. We need rest, and sustenance.”
Thor could feel Loki’s scowl like a flame on the left side of his face, but he ignored him, keeping his eyes focused on the headman.
Pelal inclined his head and pressed one broad hand to his chest. “Of course, my lords. Forgive me.”
“But first, Headman,” Loki said, without taking his darkly flashing eyes from Thor, “I would have words with my brother.”
His grip on Thor’s arm was vice-tight, fingernails digging through the thick fabric, and Thor barely suppressed a wince as Loki jerked him around.
“What in Hel’s name do you think you are doing?” Loki hissed once they were out of hearing range of the bowmen.
“I’m playing along,” Thor said.
Loki’s fingers tightened painfully, and he demanded through gritted teeth, “Why?”
“Why not?” Thor growled, starting to lose his temper in turn. “We need these men. We do not know where we are, and we have no shelter, no supplies. We could use their help.”
“But we are not their gods, Thor,” Loki snapped. “They are elves. They have never before worshipped us as the Midgardians have. Why should they start now? And did you not even pause to consider how they knew about that caravan?”
It was Thor’s turn to scowl. “You worry too much. Can you not just trust me?”
Loki’s eyes narrowed. “One can never worry too much, brother, especially when you are the one making the plans.”
Thor did not rise to the bait, instead stubbornly staring his brother down, and Loki finally sighed, running a weary hand through his hair.
“Fine,” he said. “We will do it your way. But please try not to go too far with this ruse, all right? I do not like this.”
Thor positively beamed. “I will control myself, I swear. Trust me, Loki.” He slung an arm around Loki’s shoulders, hugging him close for a moment, and then they turned back to the waiting warriors.
“Headman,” Thor called, and Pelal stepped forward. “I must know. How did you know to help us?”
Thor could almost feel his brother’s eye-roll, his irritation at such a blunt question, but Thor shrugged it off; if Loki wanted to know the answer, Thor would make the headman give it.
“Why, it was foreseen,” Pelal said, apparently surprised that Thor did not know. “We knew that this was the night of the ambush, and so your lordships would need our assistance to escape the hold of the Dark Ones.”
“Dark Ones?” Thor asked, but Loki jerked to attention, his eyes glittering excitedly.
“You know one with the gift of foresight?” he asked.
Pelal nodded, but his face went rather pale. “But of course, my lord. Our high priest, Elyan, has known of your coming for many months now. We have been preparing.”
“I see.” Loki subsided, allowing his brother to step forth once more. Thor glanced at him curiously, but Loki was already far away, gazing at the snowy ground with a sly gleam in his eye, a devious smile on his lips. Thor frowned; he did not trust that look.
“Hear me, Headman,” Thor said, sounding every inch a god. “My brother and I are exhausted and hungry. We would be glad for your hospitality.”
“Certainly, my lords,” Pelal said. “We will escort you to the village now. We have rooms and food waiting, as you commanded.” He turned away and spoke with a few of the warriors, who sprinted off into the darkness ahead of the rest of the group.
“Commanded?” Thor muttered, not loud enough for Pelal to hear, but then the headman was grinning and beckoning them forward. Loki was just about to follow when Thor grasped him gently by the arm, startling him from his thoughts. Loki blinked as though coming out of a daze, and fell back to his brother’s side.
“I cannot believe we are going through with this madness,” Loki muttered, keeping a sharp eye on the warriors surrounding them.
“It is only for a short while,” Thor said. His eyes, too, never left the bowmen, and if his grip on Loki’s arm was just a bit too tight, neither of them acknowledged it.
Loki stayed silent for a few steps, eyeing the jocund headman walking before them, then whispered, “I said it before and I will say it again: I do not like this, Thor. It does not feel right.”
“I am not asking you to like it, nor even to trust them,” Thor said quietly, leaning close. “I am only asking you to trust me. We will rest, replenish our supplies, and leave as soon as the opportunity presents itself. Agreed?”
“… Agreed,” Loki said after a moment of deliberation, and Thor smiled. Because even if Loki had not noticed that he had just admitted to trusting Thor implicitly (which Thor suspected he had, knowing his brother), it was still nice to hear.
The village of Gemle was surrounded by fifteen-foot walls, with the frozen river running right through the middle. Two great wooden doors swung ponderously open to let in their party, and while the warriors marched directly into the city, Pelal fell back to hover near Thor’s elbow.
“I apologize, your lordships,” Pelal said in a hushed voice, “but there may be a bit of a crowd gathered for your welcome. I understand that you are weary, so my men and I will do our best to ease your way through the streets.”
Thor tightened his grasp on Mjölnir, his eyes narrowing, and Pelal – noticing this – hurriedly continued.
“It will be perfectly safe, my lord,” he insisted. “They merely wish to look upon their gods.” With an encouraging smile, he stepped forth to direct his men, who could be seen beyond the gates creating a barrier between the jostling crowds and the main road.
Thor studied the adoring faces carefully as they passed. Children in nightshirts peered through the legs of the warriors, rubbing their tired eyes, straining to get a glimpse of these new “gods.” Women smiled from tear-stained faces, holding their hands to their lips, or attempting to fix hair still mussed with sleep. Cries and shouts and laughter came at them from all directions, and Thor felt as though he were in Asgard again, when the warriors returned from a great and glorious battle and were greeted in the streets before a victorious feast.
“All hail the Destroyer!” A male voice suddenly rang out above the din. “All hail the Enchanter!”
The crowd soon took up these cries, and Thor and Loki exchanged baffled glances, but Pelal was as good as his word, and the brothers found themselves ushered rapidly away from the crowds.
They were led to a large temple in the middle of the village, hundreds of feet above the main road. Thor glared at the long staircase, silently cursing every step. He was already exhausted, and he would much rather have settled at an inn on ground level, but Pelal and their escort of warriors were already climbing and Thor was reluctant to show any sign of weakness.
He heard Loki sigh beside him, and then they started to climb.
By the time they reached the top, Thor’s feet were dragging and his head was pounding with a vengeance, but Pelal was approaching with a smile on his face, so Thor schooled his expression into a bland (and pain-free) smile.
“Right this way, my lords,” Pelal said, stepping aside and gesturing toward the open doors leading into the temple. Thor could see the flickering glow of a large fire burning inside, shimmering off of what looked like gold-gilded walls. Six warriors stood near the doors, three on each side, stiff-backed and straight-faced as any Asgardian honor guard.
Loki caught Thor’s gaze, raising a single elegant brow, and Thor shrugged and strode inside.
The ceiling was domed, and so high that it was lost in shadow, unlit by the fire crackling in the giant grate on the left side of the room. A large rectangular altar stood on a dais on the far side of the room, decorated with candles and flowers, and on another dais to the altar’s right was the sleeping area, furnished with two candle-lit tables and a massive bed, luxuriously dressed with sumptuous white blankets and pillows.
The bed looked heavenly, and Thor found himself eyeing it with longing even as Pelal started talking once more.
“There is food on the table there,” Pelal said, indicating a large banquet table laden with savory-smelling dishes that Thor had not even noticed before, his attention firmly latched on the beautiful bed. “Please help yourselves. We will let you rest, of course, but our high priest would like to meet you tomorrow, if that is all right.”
Loki frowned and opened his mouth to answer, but Thor quickly said, “That will be fine, thank you.” He ignored Loki’s deadly look, and continued: “Give us ample time to rest and recover, and we will meet with your priest.”
“Very good, my lord,” Pelal said, grinning widely. “And the day after, we will host a magnificent feast to celebrate your lordships’ arrival.”
“That sounds satisfactory,” Thor said, pitching his voice to an authoritarian boom. “Thank you. Now leave us.”
“Of course, my lord.” Pelal bowed low and backed away from Thor and Loki, heading for the doors and the warrior escort, who were still standing at attention. The doors swung closed with a clang, and Thor and Loki were left in silence.
“We will meet with their priest?” Loki hissed, sweeping his cloak from his shoulders and flinging it over a nearby chair. “Thor, you are mad. We should be avoiding these people, not encouraging them. Who knows what will happen when they discover the truth?”
“Are you, of all people, suggesting we tell the truth?” Thor asked, cocking an eyebrow as he settled into a chair to remove his boots and cloak.
Loki’s eyes narrowed dangerously. “I do not enjoy angering unfamiliar gods.”
“We do not even know if there are unfamiliar gods at work here,” Thor said. “Perhaps their high priest really did foresee our coming, and merely assumed we were gods because of our power.”
“Perhaps,” Loki said, but he did not look like he believed it.
Thor reclined in his chair with a grin. “You worry too much, Loki. Everything will be fine.”
“I worry the exact right amount,” Loki muttered, then heaved a sigh and dragged his chair over to Thor’s. “Hold still,” he said, reaching up to cradle Thor’s head, his sharp green eyes fixed on the wound on Thor’s temple.
Thor did as he was told, for once. Loki grasped his chin in a firm but gentle grip and turned Thor’s head so that he could look at the gash. Thor could tell from the familiar sticky feeling that it was clotted with blood and probably rather messy, but Loki’s expression betrayed no disgust. Thor kept his eyes fixed on his brother’s face as Loki leaned toward the buffet table, grasping a cloth napkin and dipping it into a clean pitcher of water. Then he focused all of his attention on tenderly drawing the damp cloth over Thor’s wound, trying to clean it without reopening it.
Thor was not used to having his brother’s undivided attention. It was something that had not happened since their youth. He found himself hypnotized by the look of concentration on that pale face, by the slight furrow between Loki’s brows, the shadows under his eyes.
Loki – sensing his scrutiny – quirked his lips. “What?” he asked, still dabbing gently at the wound.
“Nothing,” Thor said, blinking out of his daze. “Thank you.”
Loki paused and met Thor’s gaze for a moment. His eyes softened, just briefly, and then he resumed his work. “You’re welcome.”
Once the wound was cleaned, Loki tossed the cloth onto the table and got to his feet.
“I am going to sleep,” he said. “Be a dear and do not wake me before noon tomorrow.” He toed off his boots on his way to the bed, leaving them strewn before the dais, and fell gracelessly onto the sheets.
Thor climbed up to the dais, his arms crossed. “Why did they only provide one bed?” he wondered.
“Does it matter? It is large enough to fit us both.” Loki wriggled under the covers, not even bothering to remove his trousers or tunic, and closed his eyes with a contented sigh.
“We have not shared a bed together since we were small,” Thor muttered.
Loki opened one eye to peer at him irritably. “Are you so averse to sharing that you would stay up all night to mope? Because if so, you may do it on the other side of the room so that I may get some rest.”
Thor flushed. “Of course not. It is just that we are much larger than we were, and–”
“Thor,” Loki interrupted, “get in the bed.”
Thor, grumbling, climbed into the bed beside his brother and pulled the blankets over both of them.
“There, see?” Loki smiled drowsily and closed his eyes once more. “No harm done. Now go to sleep.”
Thor scooted closer, close enough to share Loki’s heat; the temple was fairly warm, but the winter nights were chilly, and Thor refused to sleep cold. He absently hooked an ankle over Loki’s under the covers – an old habit from when they were young, so Thor would know if his brother stirred in the night – and closed his eyes.
“Good night, Loki,” he said quietly, his voice rumbling low in his chest, and the last thing he heard before falling asleep was his brother’s soft voice.
“Sleep well, brother.”
Thor woke the next day warm and cozy and completely oblivious to his surroundings. He breathed in deeply and curled his arms tightly around the lean body at his side, burying his face into soft hair at the juncture of neck and shoulder. A long-fingered hand pressed against his chest, pushing ever so slightly, but Thor only mumbled inarticulately and did not budge.
The voice was soft, achingly familiar, and only made Thor want to snuggle closer. His arms tightened and he heard the voice curse quietly, and then the body in his arms tensed, and vanished in a flash of light and dust.
Thor jerked back, coughing and blinking away the fine dust that covered his face. The hairs on his arms and neck were standing straight up – the static effect of being in close quarters with magic; a familiar effect, if not a welcome one – and the rumpled covers clung to his chest as he scrambled into a sitting position.
Loki was watching him from across the room, perched cat-like on the edge of the banquet table, his eyes gleaming in the low light. The fire had burned down to embers some time during the night, and the air was cool outside of the bed’s warm confines.
“You have not changed, I see,” Loki said quietly, his lips curved in a small smile. “Still as needy as ever.”
Thor settled back against the pillows, a lazy grin on his face.
“I was cold,” he said, and Loki smirked, turning away to look over the banquet table.
“We probably should have eaten this last night,” Loki said, picking a grape from the fruit plate and popping it into his mouth.
“What time is it, do you think?” Thor asked, stretching. He felt wonderfully refreshed, and – as much as Loki may tease – completely unembarrassed by his inadvertent cuddle.
“Late afternoon, judging by the light,” Loki answered absently, still looking over the food.
Thor glanced toward the doors and saw a thin beam of golden sunlight peeking through.
“They let us sleep so long undisturbed?” Thor asked, running a hand through his tousled hair.
“We are gods,” Loki said dryly. “Who would dare disturb us?”
Thor grunted and got out of bed, heading for the table. Loki watched him, his eyes bright in the dim room.
“How is your head?” he asked.
Thor automatically pressed a cautious hand to his temple, feeling the achy tug of dried blood and scabbing.
“It will heal quickly,” he said. “And yours?”
Loki’s lips curved. “Much better, thank you.” He idly rolled a cool slice of chicken between long fingers. “We should start preparing for our first official appearance before the people. What is our plan for fooling the high priest, o great Destroyer?”
Thor scooped up an apple and took a large bite. “You think we need a plan?” he asked, mouth full. Loki fixed him with a wry look, and Thor swallowed, his brow furrowing. “I… had not yet thought through the specifics.”
“Shocking,” Loki drawled.
Thor flushed, bristling. “I thought we were not going to go along with this ruse for long, anyway. That we were only going to use the village for supplies and shelter. Should we not just act like ourselves?”
“And what are we supposed to do when we meet with the high priest, and know nothing about our own mythology, or the culture to which we are apparently sacred?”
“I don’t know, Loki,” Thor said, exasperated. “What do you suggest?”
“I have nothing to suggest,” said Loki airily, walking away from the table. “You told me to trust you, and trust you I shall. We will just have to fumble our way through this meeting with the priest and hope for the best. Now, I am going to bathe. Please refrain from leaving the temple without me.”
“Right,” Thor grumbled, but he did not think Loki heard him; his brother had already disappeared behind an ornate screen at the rear of the room. Thor finished off the apple, tossed the core almost petulantly back onto the fruit plate, and stepped over to one of the high windows at the front of the temple.
Gemle was a pretty little town, in the fading afternoon light. Wintry sunlight flamed against metallic rooftops and shining windows, casting a golden glow over the snow, and long shadows through the streets. Thor could see cloaked elves hurrying about in clusters, in pairs, in families, going about their evening business. It was the kind of domesticity Thor never knew he missed until it was right in front of him.
His own family never shopped for groceries, never went to market, never ran errands. He and Loki had never fought over chores when they were younger, had never been sent out early in the morning to pick up milk, or bread, or cloth. Rather they spent the majority of their childhoods pent up in the castle, being raised as princes, as far from a normal life as possible.
Perhaps that was what had led to their eventual quarrel.
Perhaps that was why this trip to Alfheim was the first time in years that Thor had been able to hold an extended, non-hostile conversation with his brother.
Thor leaned against the window, his forehead pressed to the frosty glass, and wondered at the amount of envy he felt for the scurrying people below.
A brisk word with one of the nervous guards standing outside their temple fetched Pelal quickly, and the headman – beaming all the while – led them down the temple stairs, across the darkening town, and up another, shorter set of stairs to the high priests’ home.
“He has been ill, as of late,” Pelal explained quietly as they climbed the stairs, “which is why he was unable to come to you in the temple, but he very much looks forward to your meeting.”
“As do we,” Loki said, glancing mischievously at Thor, who just glared.
Pelal knocked twice before a soft voice from within bade them enter. The room was dark, lit by a few guttering candles, and smelled heavily of incense and old blood. The smell made Thor recoil, but only briefly, as Loki stepped right in, completely composed. Pelal, Thor noted, did not enter, but rather closed the door behind them so they were alone with the priest.
A frail white-haired man reclined on a small bed, shoved into one corner of what looked to be a smaller version of the temple Thor and Loki shared. His skin was ashen, his hands shaky, but his eyes were sharp and his smile kind.
“Welcome, my lords,” he said, inclining his head and spreading his arms. “It is an honor to finally meet you. My name is Elyan, and I am the High Priest of Gemle. I must apologize for not being able to pay you proper homage, but my health…”
“Think nothing of it,” Loki said with a gracious smile. “It is no trouble.”
Elyan inclined his head. “I hear the headman is preparing a great feast for tomorrow night. Is there any way in which I, personally, may serve you? Tribute? Sacrifices?”
Thor scowled and opened his mouth to deny the sacrifices, but Loki placed a calming hand on his arm and stepped forward.
“Perhaps later, when your health allows it,” Loki said. “But for now, I would like to know of your power of foresight.”
Elyan’s expression was bland, but there was something sharp in his smile that reminded Thor of… well, of Loki.
“My power allows me to see certain visions of the future, my dear Enchanter,” Elyan said. “But the future, as you know, is mutable.”
“Can you see into my future?” Loki asked, his voice very quiet.
Elyan nodded, his eyes abruptly somber. “I can, your lordship.”
Thor stepped forward. “Loki, I am not sure–”
“Peace, brother,” Loki said, holding up a hand without even looking at Thor. Thor stopped in his tracks. “This is my decision.”
“Yes,” Elyan said, sounding resigned. “If you truly want to see what awaits you, I will show you.” He beckoned for Loki to come closer, and the mage went forward eagerly, kneeling at the old man’s bedside. Elyan placed a withered hand on Loki’s forehead. “This will be a bit disorienting.”
“Just do it.”
Elyan’s lips pressed together in a flat line, and he closed his eyes. Power gathered in the room. Thor could feel it pressing in on him from all sides, thicker than the combined scent of incense and blood, coiling around him like a dense fog. He watched nervously as Elyan’s hand began to glow, as Loki’s eyelids fluttered shut, as his head lolled back and his shoulders slumped. Thor clenched his fists, fighting the urge to save his brother from a power he did not understand.
The spell took only a minute, maybe two, and then Elyan opened his eyes, his expression grim, and removed his hand. Loki’s eyes opened a moment after, and Thor’s heart clenched at the horror he saw in them. Whatever Loki had seen in the future, it had terrified him. His slender hands shook and his breath came in shallow gasps and his eyes were wide and wet and transfixed on something no one else could see. They shined with a strange crimson light in the dim temple, and his skin was so pale it looked almost translucent, almost blue.
Loki whimpered softly and reached out, seeking comfort, but before Thor could take two steps over to him, Elyan passed his hand over Loki’s eyes, and the horror gradually turned to dazed confusion.
“I… what did I…” Loki breathed, blinking slowly, and Elyan’s lips curved into a melancholy smile.
“Sleep, young mage,” he said, and passed his hand over Loki’s eyes once more. “Sleep now.” Loki slumped to the floor, and Elyan motioned for Thor to approach.
“He has seen his future,” Elyan said as Thor gently gathered his brother into his arms. “And it has… disturbed him. But fear not. He will remember only a few scattered images of what he saw, and he will be as he was when he awakes.”
Thor glanced down at Loki’s face, untroubled in sleep, but he could not banish the horror he had seen in his brother’s eyes.
“Tell me, old one,” he said carefully, rising to his feet. “What did he see?”
“I am afraid I cannot tell you that,” Elyan said, “although I dearly wish I could. Now, I am tired. Tell your brother I will see him in the morning.”
Thor frowned. “What do you mean, in the morning?”
“I saw.” Elyan closed his eyes and reclined. “He will come to me tomorrow morning. To learn.”
“And he will be all right by then?” Thor asked, clutching Loki tightly to his chest.
Elyan’s smile was tinged with sadness. “He will be fine.”
Thor sat up with Loki for a long time that night, just in case he awoke from nightmares of whatever he had seen in the future, but Loki slept soundly and eventually Thor fell asleep in a chair beside the bed. When he awoke, he found his brother gone, and a small scrap of paper on the empty bed. Thor grabbed it as he rubbed at the crick in his neck and rolled stiffened shoulders, and he grinned when he read the message:
You cannot possibly be comfortable, you oaf, but it is your own fault for worrying. Be sure to get some real sleep before the feast this evening. I will return at noon. –L.
And finally, an update! Enjoy, guys!
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
The morning passed peacefully, albeit sluggishly. Thor slept for a few hours, sprawled and snoring on top of the covers, fully expecting Loki to return before he woke. The wintry sun was already dipping toward the horizon by the time he arose, but the temple was still empty.
A strange, dark emotion curled uncomfortably in his abdomen as he scanned the silent room. Thor brushed it aside and went to bathe.
Still Loki did not return.
Thor began to pace, his hands clasped behind his back, his brow stormy. He tried to convince himself that there was no reason to worry. He knew where Loki was, knew he could take care of himself. But that did not change the fact that Loki was at least – Thor glanced out the window – four hours late returning.
A small part of Thor wanted nothing more than to storm through the village and into the high priest’s temple, demanding to see his brother, if only to make sure Loki was all right and to scold him for making him worry, and maybe even – if Thor was being completely honest with himself – to drag Loki bodily back to their own chambers. But Thor could practically hear Loki’s acerbic remarks, could picture his wry, mocking smile as he teased that Thor apparently could not spend even a single day alone, and that was enough to make him stay put.
Still, Thor could not banish from his mind’s eye the horror on Loki’s face when he had looked upon his future. He kept wondering… just how far into the future was that horror? Would it come in days? Years? Centuries?
And – most importantly – how could Thor prevent it?
Thor heaved a sigh and rubbed a hand over his beard. He had tried so hard to put last night from his mind. His dreams that morning had been mercifully untroubled, but immediately upon awakening he had seen again Loki’s terrified eyes, dark and shining in his ashen face. A face so pale it had seemed almost blue in the darkness…
The door to the temple slammed open, and Loki strode in, grinning.
“I know who we are,” he sing-songed, flopping gracefully into a chair.
Thor gaped at him, startled from his thoughts. “You what?”
“I know who we are,” Loki repeated, emphasizing each syllable as though addressing a child. “Elyan was more than generous in his offering of certain religious texts.” Loki frowned. “By the Nine, Thor, where did you think I’d been all day?”
“With the priest, of course,” Thor said.
“Ah. Good,” Loki said. “You seemed very confused for a moment there. I thought perhaps you had completely forgotten where we were.” Thor flushed and was about to deny this, but Loki breezed on: “Apparently our ‘glorious coming’ was foreseen almost three years ago, as the beginning of a new age. We are both Life and Death, brother. You – as the Destroyer – have been sent to rid this realm of all of its evil, after which I – as the Enchanter – shall use my magic to build it up once more.” Loki spread his hands, smiling beatifically. “Life and Death.”
“And we are expected to do this now?” Thor asked.
Loki shrugged, linking his hands behind his head. “Now, in a few years… it does not matter. We gods are not ruled by mortal time, you know. Our arrival alone is a miracle that will sate these villagers for a lifetime.” Loki’s lips curled into a sly smile. “They will be so disappointed when we leave.”
Thor sighed and sank into a chair opposite his brother. “What else did you learn?”
“First of all – thankfully – nothing more than our presence is expected at the feast this evening. But eventually we will be expected to work some miracles, punish some evildoers, that sort of thing.”
“And what of the men who ambushed us?” Thor asked. “Did you find out anything about them?”
Loki made a face. “Unfortunately, no. Every time I tried to bring it up, Elyan would just wave it off and say something vague about how we were safe now, and they were the least of our worries. His reluctance to speak about it was strange, to say the least. But I will try again.”
“You’re going back?” Thor asked, although he was unsure of why the thought so unsettled him.
Loki gave him an odd look. “Of course. Elyan has offered to help me figure out the powers locked within my ‘mortal form’” – Loki grinned as he said this – “so that I may master my magic before the Reckoning comes.”
“When you destroy everything.”
“But do you understand what this means, brother?” Loki asked, leaning forward excitedly. “He is going to train me. To teach me everything he knows. And apparently his foresight is not as rare as I had originally thought. There are schools of magic here, Thor. They train certain chosen children in the art, as they would train a child meant for priesthood. It is a way for mortals to become closer to their god, to become more like the Enchanter. They…” Loki broke off and shook his head in wonder. “They revere magic here. It is a gift, and those who do not have it desperately seek it in any way they can. And the schools…”
Thor watched Loki carefully as he explained more about the schools. There was a strange light in his eyes as he spoke, an almost manic excitement in his manner that made Thor anxious. He leaned forward suddenly, catching Loki’s wrist mid-gesture.
“Are you all right?” he asked quietly, and Loki just blinked, thrown off by the interruption.
“Of course,” he said. “Why do you ask?”
“Do you remember nothing from last night?” Thor asked. He paused, reluctant to bring back the terrible memories, but he had to know; something did not feel right. “Do you remember what you saw? Of your future?”
“Oh.” Thor could not tell if it was a trick of the fading light, or if Loki’s face really did turn a shade paler, but he definitely slumped a bit in his chair, and his lips quirked into a strange, weak smile. “To tell you the truth, I… I don’t really remember much about it. Nothing specific, certainly. Only glimpses.” A crease formed between Loki’s brows and his gaze turned distant as he tried to remember. “Just glimpses…”
He drew a shaky breath and his hand began to tremble in Thor’s grasp. Thor reached out with his other hand and pressed his palm firmly against Loki’s neck, his fingers curling into dark hair, his thumb resting lightly on Loki’s cheek. Green eyes – still hazy and slightly confused – met Thor’s, and Thor tightened his grip.
“Know this, brother,” he said fiercely. “Whatever horrors you have seen in your future, I will be there to face them with you. I swear it.”
Loki stared at him a moment, his eyes wide and shining, and then he let out a breathless laugh.
“Don’t be ridiculous, Thor,” he said. “The future is mutable. It changes with every move we make. There is a very good chance that whatever I saw last night will never come to pass.” Loki patted the hand pressed to his throat, still smiling. “Do not worry so. Now, we must prepare for the feast.”
He rose to his feet and Thor let his hand fall, watching as Loki walked away.
The feast was a lavish affair, held in the central square of the city, snow and cold be damned. Tall, intricately-carved torches lined the square, casting warmth and light over long tables laden with all manner of delicacies: freshly-caught fish, slow-roasted game, warm and flaky loaves of bread, piles of fruit and pastries, and enough wine to slake the thirst of any warrior.
Headman Pelal made a short speech of welcome once Thor and Loki deigned to make an appearance (fashionably late, which was Loki’s idea; gods, after all, showed up in their own time), during which there was much cheering and even some crying and so many adoring eyes on him that Thor – even used to all of the attention due the crown prince of Asgard – started to feel uncomfortable.
But then he glanced at his brother, who was looking out at the crowds with his head held high, his eyes haughty and his mouth fixed in a smile both cold and serene, and Thor felt his shoulders straighten with pride as he allowed the charade to take over.
None shared the high table with them, but both Pelal and Elyan hovered nearby – the old priest apparently recovered enough to leave his temple – eager to keep their lords satisfied and impressed with their offerings. As such, the wine flowed freely, and Thor soon felt himself floating a bit, more intoxicated than he had been in quite a while. Luckily, Loki excused them both before Thor could say anything he would later regret, and once they were out of sight of the crowds, Loki slung Thor’s arm over his shoulders and allowed his brother to lean on him.
“You did not drink much tonight,” Thor said, keeping a bleary eye on Loki’s profile. It was a rather nice profile, Thor decided, even if it was a tad blurry.
“I believe you consumed enough for the both of us,” Loki said dryly. “One of us has to keep our wits about us.”
“Why do you never spend time with me anymore?” Thor asked.
Loki frowned. “I am spending time with you right now, you buffoon. Just as I have been the past few weeks.”
“No no.” Thor shook his head. “I mean at home. We used to play together and spar together and drink together when we were younger, do you remember? And now I’m lucky if I see you for supper.”
Loki hefted Thor’s arm higher up on his shoulders. They were about halfway up the temple stairs now, and Loki kept glancing back to make sure they were not being observed; it would hardly do for a god to be seen drunkenly stumbling to his chambers. Thor knew that – he did, he was not so drunk he could not think rationally – but at the moment all he cared about was the pained expression on Loki’s face, and the fact that the seconds kept ticking by without his question being answered.
So he dragged his feet to a halt, almost sending Loki tumbling, and looked his brother straight in the eye.
“Answer me, Loki,” he said, his voice low, and Loki sighed.
“I do not know what you want me to say, brother,” he said. “Are you really so surprised that we’ve grown apart? After all, we no longer have much in common.”
“That cannot be the only reason,” Thor said. “Do you no longer enjoy my company?”
“If I did not enjoy your company, I would have already heaved you down these stairs,” Loki snapped. Thor just stared at him, and Loki sighed again, tightening his grip on Thor’s arm as they started climbing once more. “Of course I enjoy your company. This journey been very enjoyable, apart from the whole ordeal of getting captured.”
“I have enjoyed it, as well,” Thor said, beaming. “We should make it a habit.”
Loki cocked one elegant eyebrow. “What, getting trussed up by brigands, rescued by strangers, and mistaken for gods?”
Loki let out a surprised laugh at that, and Thor – still grinning – considered it a success.
They had finally entered the temple to find a fire crackling in the grate, and their bed freshly turned down. Loki helped Thor stagger over to the bed, then dumped him inelegantly onto the sheets. Thor could already feel himself falling asleep, but when Loki began to move away, he reached out and snagged Loki’s sleeve, drawing him up short.
“Where are you going?” he muttered, mostly into his pillow.
“To change,” Loki said, and Thor could hear the smile in his voice. “Not all of us are willing to collapse into bed fully clothed.”
Thor just grunted and let go, but he forced himself to remain at least partially conscious until he felt the familiar dip of the mattress as his brother settled into bed beside him. They laid in silence for a moment, and then Loki whispered, “Perhaps I tire of always being in a shadow.” But Thor was already more than half asleep and had long since forgotten his original question, so the comment went unnoticed, and vanished into the night.
Loki returned to Elyan early the next day, leaving Thor to his own devices once more. Thor refused to remain alone in the temple for another day, despite Loki’s warnings, so he donned a dark cloak and descended into the village.
He managed to pass unnoticed for a good portion of the morning with the hood tugged low over his face. The village went about its business around him, and he wandered the streets aimlessly, listening to conversations and arguments and haggling in the markets. The constant buzz of conversation reminded him of the streets of Asgard, and for the first time since his departure for Alfheim he felt pangs of homesickness.
Late in the morning Thor stumbled upon a small open yard near the city wall, in which a dozen young elves were drilling with swords and – Thor blinked – large iron hammers. Thor’s hand automatically went to Mjölnir, resting firmly against his right thigh, and he could not help but wince as he watched one boy – shorter than the others, and much scrawnier – stumble through what should have been a powerful side-swing.
A tall, dark-haired elf stepped over to the boy and barked a reprimand, roughly adjusted the boy’s stance, then demonstrated the swing himself with his own well-worn weapon. Even his stance was not perfect, however, and though the boy nodded as though he understood the difference, his nervous eyes said otherwise.
With barely a thought, Thor hopped over the fence and strode across the yard. The dark-haired elf watched him approach with narrowed eyes that widened almost comically once Thor shoved back his hood, and soon all of the elves were prostrating themselves before him, mumbling praise to the Destroyer.
Feeling distinctly uncomfortable – and cursing himself for not properly thinking this through – Thor stepped forward and tugged the older dark-haired elf to his feet.
“We will have none of that right now,” Thor said gruffly, clapping the man on the shoulder. “I only wish to watch and assist in your practice, if I may.”
“Yes, of course, your lordship,” the dark-haired elf said, bowing. “We would be honored.”
Thor turned his gaze to the smallest boy, who looked like he might be sick. Thor smiled at him encouragingly. “Why don’t you show me the attack you just learned?”
“Y-yes, milord,” the boy said, and shakily took his stance. He raised his hammer to shoulder-height and swung it in a broad arc, but instead of ending with his arm steadily across his body, his momentum carried him in a small circle, and he almost fell. The other boys chuckled, until the dark-haired elf snapped for them to be silent.
Thor approached the young boy and settled his hands on his shoulders, holding him steady. The boy went rigid.
“Relax your shoulders,” Thor said, “and widen your stance, and remember that the end of your swing should not be the strongest part.” He gently gripped the boy’s arm and guided it until the hammer was straight in front of him. “This is where you want the power to be. In battle, this is where your opponent will be. The power in your swing should be concentrated in this spot, and no further. Now.” Thor stepped back, and the boy let out a shaky breath. “Try it again.”
The boy nodded, still looking pale, but determined. He widened his stance, bent his knees, and swung his hammer in a smooth arc – not as powerful as it could be, but he did not topple.
“Much better,” Thor said, and the boy broke into a grin.
Thor spent the remainder of the morning and a large chunk of the afternoon helping the young warriors, who he eventually learned were actually “his” – or, more accurately, the Destroyer’s – acolytes in training. They would become warrior priests of the Destroyer, sworn to protect their village and serve their god in any way possible. The young elves marveled at Mjölnir, and the bolder ones even asked to be permitted to touch it. Thor allowed this, which surprised the boys, but also earned him their regard.
“You are not what I would have expected,” said the dark-haired elf – whose name was Járngrímr – once the boys had been dismissed for a break. He and Thor were leaning against the fence, watching the boys laugh and shove as they left the yard.
“What do you mean?” Thor asked.
Járngrímr shrugged, casually twirling his hammer in one hand. “Nothing, milord. It’s just that the stories we heard of your coming differ quite a lot from the reality.”
Thor hoped Járngrímr did not notice the blood rush from his face; he pretended to be unperturbed by the comment, instead keeping his eyes fixed on the boys. “Is that so?” he asked.
“We expected more fire and brimstone, for one thing. More destruction, more wrath.” Járngrímr’s smile was crooked as he glanced at Thor from the corner of his eye. “Not that I mind the change, milord. I care not what the legends say. I am simply glad you are here.”
“Not all legends are true,” Thor said, pitching his voice low and firm, and Járngrímr inclined his head slightly, still smiling.
“Of course, milord,” he demurred. “And if some turn out to be even less true than others, well…” He glanced at Thor, his eyes glittering. “Let us just say that would be perfectly all right with me.”
With that, he pushed away from the fence and went to retrieve the boys, leaving Thor baffled in his wake.
“We have a problem,” Loki announced that evening when he returned, his long fingers working furiously at the fastenings of his cloak. He swept the garment from his shoulders and flung it onto the bed before collapsing on top of it, glaring up at the domed ceiling.
“The villagers” – he practically spat the word, clearly disgusted – “have noticed my interest in the magic schools and your apparent interest in their warriors, and so have decided that there shall be a tournament in our honor, in order to test the two sects’ might.”
Thor frowned. “Okay…?”
“Against each other.” Loki turned his head just enough to fix one darkly glaring eye on his brother. “In a battle royale.”
“Ah.” Thor stepped over to the bed and sat beside Loki’s hip. “And will we be forced to participate?”
“But of course,” Loki said. “It is only right that we should lead our ‘troops’ into battle, as only one of us – either Life or Death – can triumph. Please tell me, brother, just why you felt it necessary to take it upon yourself to train these little urchins? If you had just stayed put as I had asked, this would never have happened.”
“Why should I have to stay put while you are allowed to spend all day at the high priest’s side?” Thor snapped, his temper flaring. “I just wanted to explore, that’s all. Do not blame me for the villagers’ folly. I did not know they would plan this.”
Loki shook his head, looking to the ceiling once more. “No, no, of course you didn’t. No sane person would.” He sighed and covered his eyes with one hand. “Right. Well. Do not worry overmuch, Thor. I will figure something out.”
“I know,” Thor said. “It is only…” He fidgeted slightly, strangely unwilling to broach the subject he had been pondering all day. “We have been away from Asgard for six weeks today, did you know?”
“I did not.”
“I only realized it this morning,” Thor said, staring down at his hands. “It has been a long time. Much longer than we had originally planned. And I cannot help but wonder if perhaps Father has contacted Frey about our absence. If perhaps they search for us even now.” He watched Loki carefully, but his brother made no movement. They sat in silence for a while, listening to the comforting crackle of the fire across the room. Thor stared into the grate and thought wistfully of his own bedroom back in Asgard, of his own bed, his own clothes, his family and friends, people with whom he had not spoken for almost two months.
“I think…” Thor said finally, his voice loud in the quiet room. “I think we should start planning our trip home.”
Loki removed his hand from his eyes, but he did not look at Thor, instead staring blankly into the shadowy recesses of the ceiling. Frowning, Thor nudged his leg with his own.
Loki hummed, but still said nothing.
“Do you not wish to return home?” Thor asked, his voice hushed, as though reluctant to even put forth that possibility.
Hooded green eyes finally met Thor’s, and there was something in them – something dark and melancholy and unfamiliar – that made Thor’s heart clench. He reached out and pressed a firm, gentle hand to Loki’s shoulder.
Loki breathed in deeply and closed his eyes. “Yes, Thor. Perhaps we should think about going home. We will discuss it later, after I have had some time to rest.”
Relieved, Thor squeezed his brother’s shoulder and rose from the bed, but there was something in Loki’s voice that left him feeling queerly empty, and his relief was not as great as it could have been.
Thor rose early the next morning. He slid out from beneath the covers without disturbing Loki, dressed quickly, and headed out into the chilly gray light of morning.
The village was just waking, and the roads were almost deserted. One old woman carrying two steaming loaves of bread bowed to him as he passed, but Thor barely acknowledged her; his mind was racing with more important matters.
He reached the high priest’s temple easily enough, despite only having entered it once, and he climbed the steps two at a time, eager to get this impromptu confrontation over with. His heart raced as he pounded on the heavy doors, and he shifted impatiently from foot to foot as he waited for them to open.
One of the doors creaked inward and Elyan peered out into the dawn, squinting. His expression cleared almost as soon as he caught sight of Thor on his doorstep, and he rubbed his eyes as he sketched a small bow.
“Milord,” he said, “to what do I owe this honor?”
“I must speak to you about my brother,” Thor said firmly, and Elyan’s face went carefully blank. He tugged the door open wide and bowed, sweeping one arm out in welcome, and Thor stepped inside.
“I assume by your expression you know why I am here?” Thor asked.
“You wish to speak of his training?” Elyan ventured, bustling over to the fireplace to poke at the embers. He mumbled something and flames burst to life in the grate, warming the room with unnatural rapidity. “He progresses quickly, as I thought he would, given his natural gifts,” Elyan continued, setting the iron poker back with a clang. “His mortal form will be ready by the time the Reckoning comes.”
“And when do you expect that to be?” Thor asked.
Elyan shrugged. “Months. Perhaps years. I do not foresee exact dates, you understand. Only glimpses. Images.”
“And did you see glimpses of Loki’s future, when you showed it to him?” Thor asked, taking an eager step toward the priest. “What did you see?”
“I cannot tell you his future, my lord,” Elyan said, his voice hard. “It is not my place to tell, and it is not yours to pry.” His eyes glinted oddly in the firelight, and Thor had to fight not to step back. There was power in the old priest’s withered frame, the same sort of power that Thor always felt from Loki; at times like a low humming sound, barely audible, but pressing and constant until it would flare in warning; Thor could sense the barely leashed power lurking behind the mage’s uncanny eyes.
“Then do not tell me specifics,” Thor pressed. “Only tell me what I can do to help.”
Elyan’s eyes softened, and he turned away with a quiet sigh. “Do not worry so about the future, my lord. It has a way of coming to be no matter what measures we take to avoid it.”
Thor lowered his head, his hands clenching at his sides.
“Is there anything else you wished to ask of me?” Elyan asked. “I must begin my morning prayers, you see.”
“No,” Thor said. “No, I suppose not. And I am sorry to bother you so early. I only wished to tell you that the Enchanter and I may depart for a time after the tournament.”
Elyan’s brow furrowed. “Depart? No, no. That cannot be right. You are supposed to remain for a few years, at least.”
“Oh really?” Thor asked. “Did you see that, as well?”
“I did,” Elyan said, his expression turning stormy. “And it is also what the Enchanter told me.”
Thor’s blood went cold, shock spreading slowly through his veins. He stared at the high priest, not quite believing what he had heard.
“He… he said we would stay?”
“Well, more specifically, he said that he would stay.” Elyan cocked his head, his face twisting into a mask of feigned, condescending surprise. “You mean he has not spoken to you of this?”
Thor glowered, gritting his teeth. “No, he has not. Are you certain of his intent, old man?”
“I am, milord. There can be no mistake.” Elyan smiled, and the expression made Thor’s stomach churn. “The Enchanter has decided to remain among us.”
Loki was awake by the time Thor returned. Thor found him seated in one of the throne-like chairs in their temple, his legs swung gracefully over one arm, his spine curved so that his head rested against the back of the chair. It looked both uncomfortable and elegant at the same time, a feat only Loki could accomplish. He held a leather-bound book in one slender hand, and did not look up when Thor approached.
“You’re not coming home?” Thor’s voice was quiet, and it echoed oddly in the great room.
Loki barely glanced up from his book. “You have been speaking with Elyan.”
“Then you know the answer to that question.”
“Loki…” Thor took a step forward, but stopped when Loki fixed him with a deadly look. Thor’s hands clenched into fists at his sides. “Loki, you cannot be serious.”
“Why not?” Loki let the book fall, keeping his place with one long finger. “I am more appreciated in this realm than I ever have been in Asgard. Elyan has offered to teach me magic that would give me power beyond my wildest dreams.” Loki leaned forward in the throne, his eyes bright. “Thor, this is a realm that reveres magic. In Asgard, I will always be looked at sideways, never trusted. But here… here I can be a god. “ Loki sat back, spreading his hands. “Why shouldn’t I stay?”
“Because you belong in Asgard,” Thor said, his voice rising in desperation. “Because you are my brother, Loki. You are a crown prince of Asgard, and a son of Odin. It is your home.”
Loki scoffed. “Home? I have not felt at home there in years. And why should Odin need another son when he has you? You are the heir, Thor. You are the golden child, the firstborn, whereas I… I am merely an extra.” Loki raised his book again. “Odin has no need of me, and neither does Asgard,” he added bitterly. “I will barely be missed.”
“I will miss you!” Thor yelled, his voice ringing off the gilded walls; Loki barely flinched. “And what am I supposed to do while you stay here? How am I supposed to go home alone? This was never the plan, Loki. We…” Thor choked slightly, and he hated himself for it, but he barreled on. “We have always been together. We are supposed to be together. You cannot leave me now. Not like this.” He paused, and when he spoke his voice was barely louder than a whisper, though it echoed through the room like a roar. “I need you.”
Silence reigned after this pronouncement and Thor felt himself hope, if only for a second, but then Loki spoke.
“My mind is made up, Thor,” he said, his voice cold, final, and Thor felt his hands start to tremble. “The tournament is set for the day after tomorrow, but after that you are free to go. Let me know when you are leaving and I will make my farewells, but that is all.”
Furious and heartbroken, Thor stared at his brother for a long, bitter moment before spinning on his heel and stalking out of the temple. He did not hear the tremulous sigh that followed him out into the wintry dawn.
Thor spent the entire day wandering the village and training with his warrior acolytes, trying not to think about his brother. The sky was already dark by the time he returned to the temple. He paused just inside the door, his eyes automatically going to his brother, already asleep in their bed. A lone candle burned on the bedside table, guttering in the darkness, casting strange shadows upon the gilded walls and limning Loki’s silhouette in soft golden light.
Thor watched Loki in silence, measuring the rise and fall of his chest. His hands clenched and unclenched at his sides, tempted to reach out for his brother, to just shake him awake and bundle him off to Asgard, magic or no magic, tournament or no tournament, everything else be damned.
Instead, Thor toed off his boots and shucked his cloak and shirt. He crept quietly to the other side of the bed and slipped between the sheets, then closed his eyes and determinedly tried to avoid thinking about his brother.
He succeeded for almost two whole minutes. But he could not drown out the sound of Loki’s breathing, and so could not ignore the fact that his brother slept soundly – apparently unperturbed by their earlier quarrel – a mere arms-length away.
So Thor gave up on sleep and instead stared up into the shadows of the domed ceiling, listening, and lost in thought.
Thor was reminded inexorably of his childhood, when he and Loki had been allowed to sleep in one room, and Thor had spent many a night lying awake listening to his little brother breathe. Loki had always been prone to nightmares, and Thor’s mind had always been too active for him to get much sleep, anyway, so it had worked out well that when Loki screamed himself awake, reaching with trembling hands and wild eyes for someone to chase away his imagined monsters, Thor was there to gather him into his arms and whisper reassurances.
“I will never let them harm you, Loki,” Thor would say, over and over again, until Loki – still wide-eyed and quivering, like a frightened deer – would relax and, exhausted, fall asleep in Thor’s arms.
Thor turned his head to look over at his brother, wondering what he would do without him. Asgard would not feel like home without Loki’s quiet presence at his side, without his sharp wit and soft advice and quicksilver smile. Thor had never been without his brother. The thought of leaving him here and traveling the long way back to Asgard, alone, to spend a life without him… it made Thor cold.
He reached out a hand – just close enough to feel Loki’s warmth, but not close enough to touch – then rolled slowly onto his side, his back to his brother, and stared into the darkness.
He did not sleep.
Small Disclaimer: I have no idea how to fight with a giant hammer. Thor's advice on how best to swing one is completely fabricated and may be entirely inaccurate. Many apologies if that is so.
Update the fourth. Enjoy, guys!
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
It was dark. Sharp eyes watched him—familiar eyes, despised eyes, unseen and yet sensed, from all around. Withered fingers pressed at his face and tangled in his hair, jerking his head around so that he could see. What he was supposed to see, he was not sure, because the darkness was absolute and empty. He did not know how he knew this, but he did, and the knowledge terrified him.
Barely leashed power thrummed around him, and finally light burst in his vision. Thor tried to turn his head, tried to shield his eyes from the sudden glare, but the withered fingers tightened painfully and forced him to watch.
He saw what looked like a city—a strange, foreign city, full of massive stone buildings and flying monsters—and it was burning. Screams echoed through the streets. Some battled for their lives, others fled in panic, but the destruction was absolute. At the center of it all was a dark figure—a laughing figure, a familiar figure, and the sight of that beloved face twisted with such malice made Thor want to scream. His own voice choked him and the figure turned his way, and Thor caught a glimpse of mad crimson eyes and scarred blue skin before both city and figure faded away.
Darkness returned. The scene changed. Colors swirled all around. Stars wheeled above, then below, then so close Thor felt he could almost touch them. He heard laughter again, and smelled blood—his own—and then something shattered, and Thor’s entire body resounded with the blast. His stomach heaved as the world dropped away, and then there was that face again, tear-streaked, desperate, frightened. Thor reached as far as he could, his lips forming that beloved name, his heart aching, and then slowly—so slowly, so teasingly slowly that Thor knew he could have stopped him, knew he could have prevented this, knew he could have saved him—long, slender fingers released their grip and Loki fell, into swirling chaos and out of sight…
Thor woke with a start, gasping for breath. His cheeks were wet and the bed sheets clung to his sweat-soaked skin. The gray light of dawn was just beginning to seep into the temple, and Thor took a moment to let his eyes adjust to the dimness before he turned to look at his brother.
Thor closed his eyes in dizzy relief when he saw Loki sleeping soundly beside him, and he wasted no time in sliding up against his brother’s back and gathering him close, consequences be damned. Loki grunted in groggy protest and turned slightly in Thor’s arms, glaring blearily.
“Thor, what are you—?”
“Please,” Thor murmured. He clutched Loki tighter to his chest and buried his face in his brother’s neck, reveling in the firm warmth of him, the assurance that he was safe and right there beside him. “Please just… just let me. Just this once.”
Loki snorted and muttered wryly, “Once?” But even as Thor braced himself for an attack or for Loki simply to vanish, Loki paused, and let out a small sigh, and settled once more, arranging himself so that he could pillow his head on Thor’s arm.
“Fine,” he said. “Only let me sleep.”
“Of course,” Thor said, smiling against Loki’s neck, but the pleasure did not last long. The longer he lay there, clinging to his brother’s comforting warmth, the more he came to remember from the previous day, and the realization that this may be one of the last times he would ever hold his brother made his stomach turn. His arms tightened, and he breathed in Loki’s familiar, clean scent, and he tried not to think about the future.
Thor was alone when he woke, and the sheets beside him were cold. He reached out, splaying his fingers over the cool fabric. He did not wish to consider the implications of that empty space.
He had just closed his eyes to catch a few more minutes of sleep when a heavy fist pounded on the temple doors. Thor jolted awake and stumbled out of bed, hand instinctively outstretched to receive Mjölnir. The knocking started again as Thor approached the doors, and he made sure to create an imposing sight—shoulders back, jaw set, Mjölnir humming at his side—as he opened the door.
A young elf-boy stood outside, swathed in a cloak so large it dragged in the slush behind him. The boy bowed as soon as the door swung open, his face pale, dark eyes wide.
“I am so sorry to have bothered you, my lord,” he said, “but your presence is requested at the training yards.”
Thor rubbed a hand over his beard and nodded, forcing a smile for the petrified boy.
“Right,” he said. “Thank you. I will be there soon.”
Thor expected the boy to leave then, his message delivered, but the boy hesitated, fidgeting beneath Thor’s gaze.
“Is there something else?” Thor asked.
“Yes,” the boy said, then he squeaked, “No! I mean…” His feet shuffled, and small hands fiddled with the voluminous folds of his cloak. “It’s just… I have a question for you, my lord. If I may.”
Thor nodded, and the boy swallowed audibly, steeling himself before finally meeting Thor’s eye.
“Is it true that you are going to destroy our village when the Reckoning comes?”
Thor’s hand clenched automatically around Mjölnir’s hilt. The boy must have seen, because his eyes went wide and he took a stumbling step backwards, almost tripping over his cloak before Thor caught him gently by the shoulder. The boy stared at Thor’s hand like it was a snake, then looked nervously at Mjölnir, but Thor set the hammer down with a resounding thud and crouched before the boy.
“You listen to me,” he said, pitching his voice low. “I will destroy nothing that does not deserve to be destroyed. Pure destruction is not my purpose. I am sure that whatever legends you have heard have been greatly exaggerated in that vein.”
“But Elyan said—”
“Elyan’s word is not law,” Thor said fiercely, his hand tightening on the boy’s shoulder. “The things he has seen can be changed. His word is not absolute.” Even as he spoke, Thor could feel rage at the high priest boiling in his chest. He believed what he was saying, as well; he could change the future. He could change Loki’s future. And perhaps he could change Loki’s mind, as well.
Perhaps he could yet bring his brother back home.
“I swear to you,” Thor continued, holding the boy’s wide-eyed gaze. “The innocent will not be harmed. You will not be harmed. You have my word. Do you understand?”
The boy nodded, and he smiled for the first time, a crooked smile that Thor could not help but return. He patted the boy’s shoulder once more and got to his feet.
“Now go,” he said, jerking his chin toward the village. “You have delivered your message. Tell the impatient Járngrímr that I will be there soon, and that he should not make a habit of ordering around gods.”
“Yes, my lord,” said the boy, still smiling as he bowed low. “Thank you, my lord.” He gathered up his cloak and hustled down the steps.
Thor looked out over the snow-covered village, watching curls of smoke float into the sky, and the scurrying, bustling throb of elven life. His eyes lit upon the high priest’s temple, the second highest point in the village, and he scowled. He would not let this priest lure his brother away with promises of power and false adoration.
Not without a fight.
Thor breathed in deeply, letting the cold air sear his lungs. Then he spun, snatched up Mjölnir, and went inside to dress.
He had work to do.
Thor left his acolytes after only a few hours of intense training. He had known they would be preparing for the next day’s tournament, but the young acolytes seemed far too eager to battle their magic-wielding counterparts, and their excitement and constant need to strategize made Thor uncomfortable. He still wanted no part in this ridiculous tournament, especially when it meant that he would be pitted against Loki. But Járngrímr had insisted that they train, and the boys were more than willing to drill endlessly, so Thor had acquiesced, if only to keep up morale. It would not do for him to appear reluctant.
So he had led the boys in their exercises, pausing only to correct their stances and to offer periodic encouragement, and he had let them come up with strategies to beat the Enchanter’s acolytes. By the time the sun began to dip in the sky, Thor determined that he had been there long enough and that his “troops” were as ready as they were going to be, and so he departed.
Thor strode through the streets like a god on a mission, and each villager let him pass with only a bow and a murmured prayer. Normally Thor would have at least acknowledged them, but his mind was fixed on what he had to do next, and how little he was looking forward to it.
The high priest’s temple soon loomed before him, and Thor scowled up at it. He briefly rested one hand on Mjölnir, slung securely at his waist, then mounted the stairs.
Thor did not knock before shoving the door forcefully inwards, and balked for only a moment when he saw only darkness within. His hand went once more to Mjölnir, thrumming at his side.
“Loki?” he called, hoping his voice did not sound as tentative as he felt.
Something shifted in the gloom, and a match struck with a hiss, flaring for a moment before guttering into life. Thor saw Elyan’s ancient face illumined briefly by the dim orange glow, and then the flame moved, lighting first one candle, then another and another, before it was shaken out.
“Lord Loki is not here,” Elyan said quietly, standing just outside the circle of light cast by the candles. Only his eyes gleamed wetly in the darkness, and Thor felt something brush against the nape of his neck, something formless and eerily familiar. Every muscle in his body was tensed for an attack, even though he knew that the only thing at his back was a flight of stairs and the rapidly approaching twilight. He curled his fingers firmly around Mjölnir’s hilt anyway.
“Where is he?” he demanded, forcing his voice to remain steady.
“He grew weary in our practice, so I sent him home to rest.”
Thor frowned. “What magic are you practicing, that he would tire so quickly?”
Elyan shrugged. “Nothing too strenuous, do not fear. It is only… “ Elyan paused, and Thor saw his hands twist together, somehow both eager and anxious. “It is this mortal form he holds. It is rather restrictive, you see. Flesh and blood does nothing to help sorcery, and one cannot truly master magic while still a slave to the needs and longings of the flesh.” Elyan paused once more, his glistening eyes oddly bright in the candlelight. Thor fought not to shudder. “It is fortunate, then,” Elyan continued, his voice almost inaudible, “that he will soon be freed from that mortal shell.”
Thor’s blood turned to ice, and his grip on Mjölnir tightened.
“What do you mean?” he asked.
“Why, the tournament, of course.” Elyan’s lips spread in a small serpentine smile. “What better place for a god to bleed himself free of the shackles of mortality than in a battle to the death against his natural enemy?”
In an instant, Thor had Elyan slammed up against a wall in the darkness, one hand fisted in the robes near the priest’s neck, the other holding Mjölnir dangerously close to the priest’s face. Electricity danced and crackled over the hammer’s head, lighting the priest’s wide-eyed expression with ghostly luminescence.
“Cease your threats, priest,” Thor growled. “You will not touch him.”
“Such anger,” Elyan said, his voice calm despite the beads of sweat forming on his wrinkled brow. “Why should a god be so worried about shuffling off the mortal coil? Besides…” Elyan’s lips quirked, and Thor growled and jerked him up higher on the wall, eliciting a small squawk of pain. “I will not be the one to harm him,” Elyan continued, his voice hoarse. “That, my friend, will be your job.”
“I will do no such thing,” Thor snarled. “Damn this tournament, and damn you.”
“Oh no,” Elyan choked out with a little laugh. “I should think the damnation will be yours. And, of course, your dear brother’s. Have you not seen his future? Your future?”
The formless touch brushed against Thor’s neck once more, and this time Thor recognized it as the priest’s power, the same power that had invaded his dreams the night before. Thor’s jaw clenched, and his vision went red. His blood throbbed through his veins, lit white-hot with a berserker’s fury. He lifted the hammer, ready to smash this insolent priest’s head against the wall, but then… he stopped.
“No,” he said, his voice suddenly quiet. He let Elyan drop, and the priest sagged against the wall, gasping for breath. “No. You are not worth the effort.” Thor took one step back and held Mjölnir at arm’s length, leveling the still-sparking head a mere hairsbreadth from Elyan’s nose.
“You listen well, priest,” Thor said. “I will not play along with your games, nor give in to your threats. If this is the way you treat your gods, then you can expect that my brother and I will be gone within a day, ne’er to return.”
“But Lord Loki—”
“Is no longer your concern,” Thor snapped. “I will not allow him to be swayed by your false promises and dark sorcery. I do not know what plans you have for him, but I will not allow him to come to harm, and so we will depart. Both of us. But know this, priest.” Thor leaned forward just slightly, so that Elyan could see his face in Mjölnir’s flickering glow. “Know that I could kill you here, without a qualm, but—in my mercy—I will spare your life. For now.”
Elyan rubbed his throat and fixed Thor with an oddly pensive look. “Will you, O Great Destroyer?” he asked. “Will you indeed?”
“Do you wish to test me?” Thor glowered at the old man, his brow darkening, his eyes fierce and unblinking, until Elyan eventually coughed and looked away.
“So be it,” Elyan said. He waved his hand. “I beg you, my lord, leave me in peace. I must rest.”
“You should be more thankful that I have let you live, old man,” Thor growled, then turned on his heel and left the temple.
Behind him, barely audible, he heard Elyan murmur, “So I am. The first life ever spared by the Destroyer. This is an historic day, indeed.”
Thor found Loki slumped in his throne-like chair in their temple, staring into the fire.
“You’re still here,” Loki said dryly, his voice low.
“Of course,” replied Thor, caught rather off guard. “Where else would I be?”
“Halfway to Asgard, I assumed.”
Thor set his jaw, irritated, and moved toward the fireplace, crossing his arms over his chest.
“No, brother,” he said. “I am not leaving here without you.”
Loki fixed him with a dark glare. “Thor, please do not start that again. It has been decided.”
“No, actually, it has not.” Thor turned so he could lean his shoulder against the mantle and meet his brother’s eyes directly. “I will not go back to Asgard alone, Loki. Either we both go home, or neither of us do.”
Loki let out a harsh laugh. “Oh, you’re not going to allow me to stay now, is that it? The great and mighty Thor, so unused to being defied.” Loki looked up at him, a sardonic smile twisting his lips. “Tell me, brother. Will you truss me up and carry me over your shoulder like luggage? Or do you assume you will be able to use your shining intellect and powers of persuasion in order to convince me to return home?”
“Elyan is playing you,” Thor said. “Whatever he has promised you, it is a lie. He means you harm. He will kill you if you stay.”
Loki scoffed. “You are not as skilled at lying as I, my brother.”
“It is no lie, Loki,” Thor hissed. “I just came from his temple, he may as well have spelled out his plans for you. He is not who you think he is. He will kill you.”
Loki eyed him in silence for a moment, his brow knit. “I do not believe you.”
“Damn it, Loki.” Thor struck the mantle with his fist, making the whole wall shudder. “Do you hate me so much that you believe I would lie to you about something as important as this?”
“No,” Loki snapped, “but I do believe that you are selfish enough to deny me what I want so that you can get your way. As always.”
“Admit it, Thor,” Loki snarled. “The only reason you do not wish for me to remain here is so that you won’t feel alone!”
“Perhaps that is a part of it,” Thor growled, lunging forward to drag Loki from the chair by his collar, “and if so, I apologize, because as selfish as it may seem, I do not wish to see you dead!”
“Thor.” Loki’s voice was icy calm, his eyes sharp. His hands curled slowly around Thor’s wrists. “Release me.”
“No,” Thor growled, tugging Loki closer, one of his hands straying up to clasp Loki’s neck. “I will not release you. And I will not let you go. If you must stay, then I stay, as well. Because I would rather die than see you harmed. Do you understand me?”
Loki did not speak. His skin began to glow, and then to burn, and Thor—wincing—was eventually forced to remove his hands. He stumbled back, holding his reddened palms away from his body, and Loki silently turned and walked away.
“Loki…” Thor said quietly.
There was a shimmer in the darkness, followed by the slight static sensation of magic, and then Loki was gone.
The entire village gathered for the tournament the next day, in the arena on the west side of the village. It was a long oval field of dirt and dead grass, the snow all swept away, surrounded on all sides by walls and wooden risers. Headman Pelal, High Priest Elyan, and the rest of the high councilors sat at the northern end of the arena, watching over the proceedings, while the acolytes—both warriors and sorcerers—trekked into the arena.
Thor stood apart from his warriors on an elevated platform, Járngrímr at his side. He eyed the excited crowds, the anxious young men waiting to fight, and—far across the arena, standing silent and motionless on his own platform—Loki.
“So,” Thor said quietly. Járngrímr grunted. “Has anything like this happened before?”
“Not in years,” Járngrímr said gruffly. “The last time was when High Priest Elyan claimed that the gods required a blood sacrifice, about thirteen years ago. Eight boys went in. One came out.”
Thor closed his eyes briefly, trying to contain his anger, then turned slowly to look at the northern end of the arena. He could see the priest, chatting pleasantly with Pelal, clearly at ease despite the battle that would soon claim the lives of at least half of the young elves present.
Unless Thor’s plan worked.
“You’re sure he’ll try something?” Járngrímr asked, his voice hushed.
“Positive,” Thor said, still glaring at the priest. “He must. This is his best chance.”
“Let’s hope you’re right,” Járngrímr said, then nudged Thor and jerked his chin toward the south, where a cloaked figure was just stepping up to the large iron bell hanging there. The cloaked figure struck the bell once, twice, three times, the clear clarion sound echoing through the chilly air.
Headman Pelal rose to his feet, spreading his arms.
“Welcome, my friends,” he said, “to the Tournament of Ages! The battle that was always meant to be: The Great Destroyer vs. The Mighty Enchanter. A battle of magic, a battle of strength. And only one will triumph.”
Thor looked across the arena at his brother, but it was too far away to see if Loki was looking at him, too. He gritted his teeth and looked down, one hand brushing over Mjölnir’s head.
“Let the tournament…” Pelal continued, his voice cutting loudly over the murmur of the crowd, “… begin!”
The bell struck again, there was a roar from the crowd, and both warriors and sorcerers surged forward to meet each other in the middle of the arena.
Spells and hammers flashed. Pained cries rose from the melee. Thor watched, one hand resting solidly on Mjölnir’s handle. It was part of Járngrímr’s plan for him to stay out of the main battle until they really needed him; he could not be risked. So instead he was forced to watch as the boys fought each other, as Járngrímr shouted orders to those close enough to hear. Thor’s heart was racing, and he kept sneaking glances to his brother, who also had not moved.
This went on for five minutes, then ten, before Thor realized that there was something strange about the young sorcerer acolytes. Thor stepped back for a moment to better study them, his eyes narrowing, and then he realized:
The acolytes were completely silent.
The hair on the back of Thor’s neck prickled. His own acolytes were grunting with exertion, sweating and yelling and calling to each other across the arena. The sorcerers, meanwhile, were unnervingly quiet. They said nothing. No incantations, no curses, not even a cry when one of them was struck down.
Unsettled, Thor risked a look at his brother, but Loki had vanished.
Thor grit his teeth, gripped Mjölnir tightly, and strode into the fray, ignoring Járngrímr’s harsh yell for him to come back. Two young sorcerers stepped in front of him, and even as Thor lifted his hammer to deal with them, he realized that their faces were completely expressionless—there was no fear, no determination, no emotion at all. And their eyes, upon closer inspection, glowed with faint power that did not belong to them, nor did it belong to his brother.
Thor scowled as he swung at the first acolyte, making sure to pull back a bit so he would not break the poor boy’s ribs. He then thrust the other acolyte out of the way and stepped forward, heading for the other side of the arena. Another sorcerer stepped in front of him; he felled him with a single blow.
“Loki!” he roared. He searched the field for a flash of familiar iridescent green and barely managed to duck a gout of flame aimed his way. One swing of his hammer leveled the attacking sorcerer, and Thor called again: “Loki!”
“There, my lord!” yelled one of his own acolytes, pointing, and Thor nodded his thanks to the boy before shoving his way through the battling crowd. Thor could tell he was close when he caught sight of three of his own acolytes writhing on the ground, fighting for breath cut off by livid green magic. He clenched his jaw and continued, trusting that his brother would not kill them.
Loki was standing slightly apart from the main fight, his eyes gleaming with magic, knives twirling at the ready in his hands. He was flanked by two of his acolytes—older boys, clearly meant to serve as guards—but their faces were just as dull as all of the others’, and Thor’s blood boiled. He hefted Mjölnir and struck down first one, then the other, sending them sprawling. Loki barely blinked as Thor stepped up to him; he was too far lost in his power.
Thor grabbed him roughly by the collar and jerked him close.
“Loki,” he growled. He shook him, trying to release him from his trance. “Loki, come back.”
Green-glowing eyes turned slowly to him, still unfocused, and Thor let Mjölnir drop to the ground so he could fist both hands into Loki’s collar, shaking him again.
“I need you right now, brother,” Thor said, shifting one hand to grip Loki’s neck. “Come back to me.”
The power began to fade from Loki’s eyes, and elegant brows twitched together in annoyance.
“Thor?” Loki’s voice was hoarse. “What are you doing?”
“I am putting an end to this,” Thor said. “Elyan is controlling your acolytes.”
Loki blinked, his eyes rapidly clearing. “What?”
“Their eyes, Loki,” Thor hissed, shaking his brother once more. “Look at the power in their eyes. It is not yours. Elyan is manipulating them. And I think he is trying to manipulate you.”
Loki glared and tried to wrench himself out of Thor’s grip, but Thor held on tightly and continued in an urgent whisper: “He has been sending me dreams, brother. Telling me things. I do not trust him, I never have, and this only proves it. He is not who he says he is. He will not help you. He means to do you harm, even to kill you, and I will not allow that.” Thor paused, forcing Loki to meet his eyes. “Trust me in this, Loki. Please.”
“Why?” Loki hissed. “Why should he turn on us?”
“I do not know,” Thor said. “Only look at your acolytes. Are they truly yours?”
Loki glanced over Thor’s shoulder, and his expression turned dark as he watched the battle going on behind them. Sensing a victory, Thor clasped both hands to Loki’s face, forcing him to meet his eye.
“Trust me, Loki,” Thor said. “I need you to trust me.”
Loki opened his mouth to reply, but then something over Thor’s shoulder caught his attention and his eyes widened. He shoved Thor roughly away and shouted an incantation, and Thor recovered from his stumble in time to watch as a young sorcerer staggered back into the crowd, consumed in flickering green flames, his face contorted in soundless agony.
Thor lunged forward and caught Loki’s arm, jerking him around. “What in Hel—?”
“He was going to kill you,” Loki said simply, his eyes fixed on the burning acolyte. “And his eyes…” Loki trailed off. Slowly, deliberately, his gaze moved from the writhing acolyte to the northern part of the arena, where Thor knew Elyan sat.
Thor’s blood ran cold; he recognized that look.
“Loki, no,” he said. “Wait, we can’t—”
Loki extended one hand, slim fingers flaring, and spoke a word like a thunderclap. Immediately, every sorcerer on the field collapsed, leaving the warriors standing alone and uncertain. The flames receded from the acolyte at Thor’s feet, as well, and Thor was relieved to see that the boy was not truly burned.
“Loki…” Thor began, reaching for his brother, but Loki vanished beneath his hand, transforming into a thousand tiny shadows that flickered like moths before dissolving into midair. For a moment the only sound was a murmuring hum of confusion, coming both from the warriors and the crowd of spectators. Then—as Thor had expected—the quiet was broken by a scream.
Grimly, Thor spun Mjölnir in small, rapid circles and lifted into the air, heading for the northern part of the arena. He landed with a solid thud beside the high table, where Headman Pelal sat with his village council and the high priest. Pelal and his councilors were on their feet, eyes wide, hands groping for their swords, but Elyan had already been dragged from his seat. His chair lay toppled on the ground, upset by his thrashing, and he and his captor stood a few feet back from the table.
Loki had one wiry arm locked tight around the old elf’s neck, and he held a razor-sharp knife against the priest’s jaw, pressing just hard enough to crease the skin, yet not enough to draw blood. He was hissing furiously in the priest’s ear and Elyan’s face was ashen. Thor breathed in deeply and took one cautious step toward them.
“Loki, do not do this,” he said quietly. “He is not worth dulling your blade.”
“Stay out of this, brother,” Loki spat, jerking Elyan’s head back. “It would take more than his frail flesh to dull this blade, and I want the satisfaction of watching him writhe.”
“No,” Elyan muttered, trying to wriggle away, but Loki tightened his grip and the priest choked.
“Loki, think,” Thor said. “We cannot kill their priest, they will rise against us.”
“Not if they know what he’s done,” Loki snarled, pressing harder with the blade.
“Oh, they will know,” Elyan said suddenly, and all eyes turned to him. His lips spread in a terrible smile. “They will know soon enough. That, I can promise.”
Thor opened his mouth to speak, but then horns—hundreds of them, chorusing like a hunting troupe—sounded from outside the village walls. Pelal and the other councilors looked toward the distant gate, the blood rushing from their faces.
“Those are war-horns,” Pelal said quietly. “From the east.”
“What do they mean?” Thor asked slowly. All around the arena, the villagers were getting to their feet, some already screaming, all of them clearly disturbed.
“Reckoning,” Elyan said, and with a great wrench, he tore himself away from Loki. The knife drew a long, deep gash across his throat, and Thor took an aborted step forward, his stomach clenching, before he realized there was no blood gushing from the wound.
Loki stared at Elyan, his lips parted, knife held loosely in his hand. Elyan laughed—a horrid, strangled sound—and lurched for him, but Thor stepped between them, Mjölnir raised threateningly.
“Such a stalwart protector,” Elyan hissed, grinning. “Tell me. Will you choose to die before him, when you are offered up as blood sacrifices to the true gods? And do you remember what I told you, O Great Destroyer?” Elyan cackled, his eyes gleaming wildly. He drew his hand across his throat, tracing the already healing gash. “That a god must be bled of his humanity? Do you want to know why that is?”
The horns sounded again, closer now, and the marching of hundreds of feet could be heard beyond the walls. Elyan spread his hands, laughing.
“Because gods,” he said, as his robes began to shine and his eyes glowed golden and his fingers danced with power, “true gods, my dear boy… true gods do not bleed.”
And so ends the penultimate chapter... Thanks for your patience, guys!
(See the end of the chapter for notes.)
Afterwards, Thor would remember the screaming.
The entire arena was in a panic. Children shrieked, women sobbed, soldiers called to each other over the chaos, and everywhere was the guttural thunder of an army on the march. Thor would only notice these things in hindsight; at the moment he was too intent on keeping a firm grip on Loki’s arm to prevent his brother from leaping forward to attack the so-called “priest” hovering before them. Power surged through the air, coalescing around Elyan’s glowing form, so pervasive it became hard to breathe. One of the councilors attempted to grab Elyan’s outstretched arm but drew back with a scream and the stench of burnt flesh, smoking hand clutched to his chest.
“They are nearing the gates!” called a soldier from below, fighting through the hordes of panicking, fleeing villagers. The cry startled Headman Pelal into action. He spun away from Elyan and grabbed Thor’s arm in a steely grip, drawing him near.
“My men will fight, but we are unprepared for an assault of this magnitude,” he hissed, his voice low and fierce. “Grant us your aid?”
“Of course,” Thor said, his brow furrowing. “But I am not—“
“Not a god, yes, I know,” Pelal snapped. “I don’t give a damn. It seems we have all been duped these past few days—” His eyes slid briefly Elyan, hovering far above the arena, his body completely veiled by saffron light. “—and frankly, we could use your strength. And your brother’s, if he is willing.”
“I am willing,” Loki said, his eyes fixed on Elyan.
“Go to the gates,” Pelal ordered. “Assist the guards in holding them for as long as you can. I must prepare the village for siege.”
Thor nodded and clasped the headman’s hand. “I am truly sorry about our deception, Headman. I will make it up to you.”
“I’m sure you will,” Pelal said. The corner of his mouth quirked in a grim half-smile. “Worse things have happened, I assure you. Now go.”
With that, Pelal turned back to his councilors, who had begun to collect themselves at last. Thor nudged Loki, finally forcing him to turn his attention from the glowing god above them, and the two of them jogged down the stairs and into the arena proper, heading for the front gates.
Silence lay heavy between them. Thor snuck a glance at his brother only once, noting the clenched set of his jaw, the fire in his eyes. Thor could sense the power simmering just beneath Loki’s skin, as alive and ready for battle as the adrenaline slowly building in Thor’s veins.
They were almost upon the gates when Loki suddenly stopped, holding up a hand. Thor flashed him an annoyed glance; they were close now enough to hear the anxious calls of the soldiers guarding the front gates, the horns of the army just outside the walls, but Loki remained frozen, his eyes distant, his brows drawn together.
“The men outside…” Loki said quietly. “They are the ones who attacked us on the road.”
Loki favored Thor with a fleeting annoyed glance, and that familiar expression—so missed over the past few days—was almost enough to make Thor forget the battle looming before them.
“You do remember being trussed up and almost delivered to some mysterious Lord, do you not?” Loki asked. “It occurred almost a week ago, admittedly, but even your memory cannot be so bad.”
Thor couldn’t hold back a grin at that, and Loki’s eyes rolled slightly. They resumed their trek to the gates, and Thor believed the air between them felt a bit clearer.
“The man in white,” Thor said, his grin falling as soon as he called up the memory of the man who had held his brother hostage. He flexed his fingers around Mjölnir’s hilt, trying to control his anger. “I remember him. This is his doing?”
“It would make sense,” Loki admitted, his eyes going distant again, this time as he surveyed the men milling anxiously near the village gate. “Perhaps Elyan—” Loki spat the name, iridescent green flashing briefly in his eyes. “—is the Lord his men spoke of, the one to whom we were to be delivered.” His lips twisted into a humorless smile. “It seems the man in white was successful after all.”
“No,” Thor said firmly. “We are still alive. He has not sacrificed us yet.”
Before Loki could say anything in reply, Thor strode forward and began barking orders at the nervous guards. He ordered the spearmen into rows, the bowmen to the walls, the hammer-wielding brawlers (including some of his own exhausted acolytes, who had run from the arena in order to defend their village) to the sides, to take any invaders by surprise.
“These gates will not hold forever!” Thor called to the men gathered before him, gesturing broadly at the wooden doors. “But you can. These invaders will have to go through you to get to your city. Make it a challenge for them. This is your home. These are your families.” Thor stopped, thrust Mjölnir into the air, and bellowed, “Protect them!”
The warriors—more than six score by now—raised their weapons and roared in reply.
That was when the battering began.
It took the greater part of an hour for the invading army to break down the gates of Gemle. Thor spent a good portion of it on the walls, directing the archers to aim for the men working the battering ram and surveying the enemy ranks. The invaders easily had them outnumbered three to one, but Thor spotted non-uniformed mercenaries in their ranks; if the tide of the battle swayed in Gemle’s favor, there was a good chance those warriors, at least, would not overstay their welcome.
All the while Thor watched the man in white, conspicuous amidst his black-clothed brethren.
“What do they call him?” he asked Loki once, as they waited between volleys for the bowmen to reload. Loki had been using his magic to listen in on the enemy; his eyes glowed faintly, and he barely blinked when Thor questioned him.
“They call him Attala,” he said distantly.
Thor frowned. “Attala…” he muttered. The name, he knew, meant “wicked” on Midgard; he wondered if there were any correlation. “Do you believe that is his real name?”
Loki only shrugged, and Thor left him to his work.
When the gates burst, Thor was down below to lead the forward surge of Gemle’s warriors, and they managed to push the brunt of the fighting just past the wall, easily holding the gateway. Swords flashed, blood sprayed, men screamed, guttural and terrible, and Thor soon lost himself in the melee. He thought of nothing but the rush of fighters around him and the sweet hum of Mjölnir in his fist. He could feel the berserker blood rushing through him, somehow both wild and coldly controlled at once, like the deadly rush of a river in midwinter. He could sense his brother somewhere among the warriors, a familiar, cool pulse of magic spreading through the enemy warriors like an infection. He could sense the men at his back, defending the gaping gateway. He could sense the archers on the walls, the constant press of the attackers, the weariness of those who had already fought one battle that day.
It was only because of this great attunement to the tide of battle that Thor noticed when the village’s warriors began to fall back.
He paused for a moment, eyes scanning the fighters around him. A boy fell with a choked cry, an arrow protruding from his eye. A black-clad enemy fighter overtook one of Gemle’s spearmen, bearing him to the ground. Soon Thor was the only warrior left in the rush of enemy soldiers.
With a roar, Thor thrust Mjölnir into the sky, calling down a single blazing bolt of lightning. His blood sang with exhilaration as the electricity coursed through his veins; his hair prickled, his clothing crackled, his skin hummed. He let the power surge through him for one drunken moment, then two, and then he slammed Mjölnir to the ground with a reverberating thoom. The ground around him rippled and cracked into a spidery design, felling every warrior within a fifty-yard radius and sending even more staggering for balance. Thor caught a glimpse of Loki across the field, just long enough to catch his brother’s wolfish smile, and then they both turned back to their own battles.
The tide turned; the gateway held.
Thor allowed himself a brief respite. He stepped back slightly from the front lines and took one deep breath, then another, and another. Mjölnir sang at his side and his blood sang in his veins, and he felt so inexplicably right that he did not at all expect to look up through the crowds to find the man in white—Attala—slowly approaching.
The calm shattered in an instant. Thor bared his teeth and hefted Mjölnir, spinning the hammer once, and was about to charge the man when Attala simply lifted a hand toward him, flared his fingers, and spoke two, deafening syllables.
The blow hit Thor like a battering ram. He flew backward through the crowd of fighters. Mjölnir slid from his fingers during the chaotic tumble, and he hit the ground with bone-breaking force, skidding for a few yards before rolling to a stop at the feet of a few very shocked elven warriors, who spared him only a brief glance before leaping once more into the fray.
Thor coughed and struggled into a kneeling position, doubled over and gasping for breath, one arm curled across his stomach. He forced himself to breathe and take account of his injuries: at least four ribs were cracked or broken, there was blood in his throat, and he was having trouble inhaling, but he had no time to recover before Attala suddenly appeared before him, fastened an iron-strong hand around his throat, and started squeezing. Thor let out a ragged growl and clawed at the man’s hand, but it didn’t budge.
“As much as I would enjoy killing you, little princeling,” Attala said, his voice eerily calm against the battle raging all around them, “Lord Elyan insists on using you and your brother as blood sacrifices, so I believe I will just… prepare you for him, and leave you here, for now.” His fingers tightened, cutting off Thor’s air completely, sharp fingernails digging into Thor’s skin. Attala flashed a shark-like smile, his eyes glinting with barely contained glee. “Hopefully you will not die in the meantime.” Thor choked and his fingers scrabbled at Attala’s hand. Dark stars danced in his eyes, but the man’s grip was like steel. Blood throbbed in Thor’s temples and he had just enough time to consider how inconvenient it would be to be choked to death by an unknown enemy in Alfheim before Attala abruptly let him go and he tumbled to the ground, gasping and retching. A swift kick to Thor’s side stole what little breath he had left, and he both felt and heard a few more ribs crack.
“Meanwhile,” Attala drawled, “I’m off to prepare your brother for his death. Ta.” And then he vanished into the crowd.
Thor blinked, trying desperately to clear his vision. He knew he had to get up—knew he had to find Loki—but Attala’s magic had done more than just stun him and break a few ribs. Thor felt inexplicably heavy, as though all of the life had been stolen from his limbs. He couldn’t move, could hardly think, and it took an enormous amount of effort for him to simply turn his head, but he forced himself to concentrate, to overcome the pain, and to focus on the issue at hand.
Attala had defeated him with barely any effort, and now he was after his brother.
Thor would die before he allowed him to lay a hand upon Loki.
Gritting his teeth, Thor braced his hands on the ground and heaved himself to all fours. His muscles screamed and he gasped in pain, which only made his broken ribs twinge agonizingly. His vision began to tunnel and he forced himself to breathe until he could turn his head without collapsing again.
The crowd surged in his vision, making him dizzy. Bloodied faces swam in and out of focus. Thor scanned the battlefield, searching desperately for Loki, and his heart seized when he caught sight of him.
Loki was standing motionless on the field, a lone point of serenity in the midst of all the chaos. Thor panicked for a moment, sure that he would be forced to watch his brother die in a moment of distraction, but even as he watched, an arrow shattered in a burst of dark light at Loki’s back, and Thor realized that his brother was surrounded by a shield of magic.
Then Loki stooped, slowly, and Thor realized that he was staring at Mjölnir, lying abandoned on the field. Loki reached out and gently touched two fingers to the hammer’s hilt. Thor felt the small, warm spark of contact—that wonderfully strange connection he had with the hammer, like a brush against a phantom limb—and then Loki straightened, his eyes wide and searching.
“Thor!” he roared, taking a single step away from the hammer, and—terribly—away from Thor. His head turned in all directions, still seeking his brother, but there were too many warriors between them, and Thor was too low to the ground. Thor saw Loki’s fists clench, saw his shoulders tense, and he cried out again: “THOR!”
Thor tried to call out a reply, but his attempt resulted only in a rasping cough and shooting pain through his chest and throat. He retched and spat blood onto the ground between his hands, then looked to his brother once more.
Loki was panicked. His eyes were blown wide in his pale face, and he kept falling back to Mjölnir, circling the hammer protectively. Thor felt a surprising warmth in his chest as he watched his brother search for him, but then his stomach dropped as Attala suddenly appeared in front of Loki. Loki tensed, automatically defensive. Thor could not hear what was said, but Attala’s relaxed posture and haughty grin made it apparent that he was gloating. Loki listened, warily at first, and then with increasing rage. He glanced once more at Mjölnir, then focused a withering glare on Attala. Loki’s hands curled claw-like at his side, his lips thinned, his eyes grew stormy. Power shimmered in the air around him, and Thor watched in satisfaction as Attala took one small, prudent step backwards.
Loki’s eyes began to glow. Dark power gathered in his hands, and the air around him began to swirl in a gale-force wind. Attala stumbled once, lifting a defensive hand, and the other warriors in the area turned to flee, but it was too late: Loki spread his hands, threw back his head, and pulsed, sending pure, destructive power shrieking through the air, flattening everyone around him. Thor had to turn away from the show of power or else be blinded, and he bit his lip against a scream.
When he finally looked back, breathing heavily through the pain in his chest, there was not a man left on his feet, and Loki hovered above them all, silent and still and terrifyingly deadly.
Thor struggled to his feet. He almost fell, throwing out a hand to steady himself, and it was then—when he was regaining his balance, blinking away stars—that he saw Attala climb to his feet. The man was covered in blood; it streamed from his eyes, from his ears and nose, and even as Thor watched, he spat a thick stream of it onto the ground, splattering his white armor in the process. He sneered at the stain, wiping at it with an unsteady hand, and as he did so, he almost toppled.
This was Thor’s chance.
Silently, slowly, Thor held out his right hand and waited for the answering thrum. Mjölnir came to him readily, still humming, and before Attala could steady himself, Thor clenched his fingers around the haft, lifted his arm, and heaved the hammer towards him.
There was a sickening crunch, followed by a damp thud, and then Mjölnir returned to Thor’s hand, and it was over.
An inhuman screech soared over the battlefield, and Thor turned his eyes skyward. Elyan—or what had once been Elyan—hung over the field like some infernal star. Golden magic coursed through the air around him, making it impossible to look directly at him. Small flashes appeared where his magic met Loki’s, and the air trembled. Grim-faced, Thor prepared to throw Mjölnir again despite his aching muscles, but then Loki shifted for the first time in minutes. It was only a slight lift of his head, too smooth to resemble a natural motion, but it was enough to fix his unnerving, gleaming stare on Elyan.
FOOL. Elyan’s voice thundered from above, loud enough to shake Thor to his very bones. Thor gritted his teeth and clapped his hands over his ears, falling to his knees from the onslaught. YOU ARE ONLY A BOY, WHEREAS I WILL BE A GOD. I WILL TAKE YOUR BLOOD, YOUR POWER. I WILL BE IMMORTAL!
Thor tried to stand, tried to regain his senses, but the power throbbing though the air was too great. The sky trembled as Elyan’s power clashed with Loki’s. No longer were they merely gauging each other; they were searching for weaknesses in each other’s defenses, prodding, poking, testing. The surge of power displaced the air around them, and Thor gasped for breath, straining his cracked ribs and already tortured lungs. He fell to his side, hands still clapped over his ears to dispel the constant, soul-deep thundering, and watched with half-blind eyes as his brother fought off a would-be god.
It could have taken anywhere from five minutes to fifty, but Thor was too disoriented to keep track. It was only when the ground began to heave and the air began to shriek and the wind began to howl that he realized Elyan was losing. Then Loki tilted his head, almost birdlike, to one side. He lifted a hand, palm out, and when he opened his mouth, no audible sound emerged, but Elyan screeched and the golden light writhed and collapsed inexorably upon itself, and then burst forth in a wave of heat and smoke, bringing with it the smell of charred flesh and blood.
Loki never moved.
Silence followed. Deep, stunned silence, broken only by the breath of fallen warriors, and the after-echoes of the explosion.
Thor staggered to his feet, fighting back a wave of dizziness. Loki’s magic pressed in on him from all sides, stifling; it was like standing in the middle of a lightning storm, surrounded by barely leashed power that could at any moment erupt into something sharp and beautiful and deadly.
Thor limped past the ranks of fallen warriors surrounding his brother. Most of them lay motionless, overwhelmed by the sheer sudden rush of magic, but some were struggling to their knees or to all fours, their limbs shaking, their faces drawn.
Thor ignored them all. His eyes were focused only on Loki, still hovering just off the ground, surrounded by a corona of darkly glittering viridescence. Magic dripped in molten green droplets from his fingers. It shone through his pores, blazed from his eyes, danced in his hair. He was transformed, no longer merely Thor’s mischievous, brilliant, beloved brother.
He was a god.
The power grew thicker as Thor neared Loki, until he felt that he was battling his way through an unseen gale. Power surged against Thor’s skin, throbbing in time with Loki’s heart. The familiar static effect of Loki’s power made Thor’s hair stand on end, but the magic did not seek to destroy him, as it had Elyan, nor did it drive him to his knees. Rather, it pulsed over his skin in waves, familiar and comforting and somehow warm, like a sea tide, yet at the same time terrifying, because Thor knew that the undertow of that magic could just as easily steal his life as it could protect him from harm.
“Loki,” Thor said as he drew near his brother. His voice came out as little more than a rasp, and unsurprisingly, Loki showed no sign that he had heard. Thor cleared his throat with a wince, then spat blood onto the ground and took one more determined step forward. He was close enough now that if he reached out, he could touch Loki’s hand. He tamped down on that temptation—the Nine only knew what it would do to him with Loki in this state—and instead tried to speak again: “Loki.”
The power suddenly shifted, and Thor fought not to tremble as he felt it center on him. Loki’s head turned slightly, the movement alien and far too controlled, and eyes still blazing with power focused on Thor’s face. Thor gulped down the instinctual terror that came from having that much raw power focused on him (This is Loki, he told himself. This is your brother.), and he forced himself to take another step forward, his arms outstretched cautiously before him.
“Loki, stop this,” he said quietly; somehow, he knew Loki would hear him. “The day is won. I am here. I am alive.” He took another step forward, mere inches from touching his brother now. “Please, I need you to come back now.” Loki never wavered, never blinked, and Thor swallowed down his panic—what if he couldn’t talk him down?—and forced himself to meet those blazing, brilliant eyes. “Please, brother,” he said. “Come back to me.”
And then the power stuttered once, like a heart skipping a beat, and Loki’s brow furrowed ever so slightly.
“Thor?” he said, and his voice was a deep, dark chorus, throbbing with ancient magic, but it was Loki’s nonetheless. Thor acted before he could talk himself out of it; he closed the distance between himself and his brother, gripping Loki’s shoulders tightly. He could feel his brother’s skin thrumming beneath his armor, but he was not repelled, and Thor pressed his advantage.
“I am here, Loki,” he said, his voice barely above a whisper. He moved one hand from Loki’s shoulder to Loki’s jaw, his fingers splayed over pale, humming skin. “I am here. Be calm now, my brother. It is over.”
Loki blinked twice, his eyelids closing ponderously over eyes still ablaze with power, and his expression grew more and more confused.
“You… you are dead.” His voice was lighter, still echoing and fraught with power, but more frightened than anything, and Thor leaned forward until he could rest his forehead gently against his brother’s.
“No,” Thor said. “That was a lie, Loki. We won, and I am here, and I am not going anywhere.” Loki closed his eyes, his expression pained, and Thor could feel the power beginning to drain from his body, could feel Loki’s feet once more touch the earth as the stifling energy all around them began to wane. On impulse, Thor pressed a soft kiss to Loki’s forehead. “I am here,” he said again, his lips brushing warm skin.
Shaking hands clutched at Thor’s arms. Thor held Loki close as his power drained, and his relief was dizzying, stealing his breath almost as surely as had Attala’s spell. Thor pressed gentle kisses to Loki’s brow, to his cheeks, to the corners of his eyes. Loki trembled in his grasp, and Thor—so wearily pleased to have his brother back, to be done with the battle, to be able to hold him without fearing for their lives, to finally, finally, be able to consider going home—suddenly could not help but press a firm kiss to Loki’s parted lips.
Loki froze in his grasp, his entire body going rigid, and Thor abruptly pulled away, his neck and ears flushing.
“I—I am sorry,” he stammered, his voice hoarse. “I do not know why—mmph.”
His apology was cut off as Loki surged forward to capture his lips again. Deft, warm hands threaded through his hair, holding him firmly in place, and Thor allowed himself this moment. His hands drifted down to capture Loki’s waist, and he tugged him close, closing his eyes, letting Loki kiss him hard and deep, well enough to make his blood sing.
They could have this. The day was won. Thor would let himself have this.
Loki was the one to pull away, his sharp eyes finally back to their normal gleam, his lips swollen and red. His mouth curved in the barest smile, apparently enjoying whatever expression was on Thor’s face (if Thor were to be honest with himself, he would guess it was probably somewhere along the lines of dizzy contentment), and then he slowly slid his arms around Thor’s waist and tucked his face into Thor’s neck, just holding him.
Thor turned his head, burying his nose in Loki’s dark hair. He smelled of sweat and smoke and ozone. Thor pressed a gentle kiss into his hair, then cupped the back of Loki’s neck with one hand.
“It is over,” Thor said quietly, for the last time. The men in their proximity were only just beginning to stir after the sorcerers’ duel, and Thor watched as they slowly helped each other to their feet, gauging wounds and regaining their bearings. As he had suspected, two mercenaries spotted Attala’s corpse and began to walk away without another word. Thor hugged Loki even tighter, rocking him slightly. “We can go home.”
Loki huffed a weary breath against Thor’s neck. “Home,” he said, and Thor’s hand clenched against his neck at the soft bitterness in Loki’s tone. “Yes, brother,” Loki continued. “It may just be time to head home.”
The steady clomping of their horses’ hooves on the dirt road was the only sound. Thor risked a glance at Loki riding beside him and was unsurprised to find his brother distracted, green eyes fixed firmly on his horse’s mane. They had spoken little since the battle two days previous; all they had discussed were their travel plans, Thor’s injuries, and how they would repay the village of Gemle for their deceit (an offer that the headman, red-faced and triumphant after the battle, had brushed off completely, stating the village could never have defeated such an invasion if not for their assistance).
The few hours Thor and Loki had spent thus far on the road to the nearest Bifrost site had been filled with uncomfortable silence, and Thor was at his wit’s end. He wanted to talk to Loki so badly he could barely stand it. He wanted to ask if his brother were weary after his show of power, if he had been injured on the field, if they were allowed to discuss their spur-of-the-moment kiss. But Thor knew that any such conversation would fail even before it had begun, and that knowledge was close to driving him mad.
“How long until we reach the site?” he asked finally, fed up with the silence. Loki blinked at him, dragged from some deep introspection.
“At least an hour,” he said. “Why? Are you tired already?”
Surprised, Thor glanced at his brother to find Loki’s lips curved in a teasing smile. Thor laughed, feeling some of the tension between them disperse into the morning air.
“This is ridiculous,” he said. “We have faced worse things than would-be gods, and we are returning home alive and in one piece. There is no reason this trip should not be victorious.”
Loki’s smile fell. “I think we both know that is not entirely true.”
“Why, because of the kiss?” Thor asked, and Loki sighed, rolling his eyes skyward.
“No, that was…” His brow furrowed. “Inadvisable, I suppose. But not the reason for my silence.” His eyes shifted briefly to Thor and then back again. “Thor, back in Gemle… I said some things that can never be taken back.”
“—and I would not wish to take them back, anyway,” Loki finished, as though Thor had not even spoken. He refused to meet Thor’s eye. Something bitter and cold twisted in Thor’s stomach.
“Oh,” he said, recalling their bitter conversations in the temple before the tournament. “Is that how you truly feel, then?”
Thor turned his eyes to the road before them, letting that sink in. He had assumed that their quarrel had been based on stress, or possibly even Elyan’s meddling, and so had written off Loki’s comments as merely an angry outburst. But to know that his brother truly felt such things…
“Will you tell Father?” Loki asked. He was staring at his horse’s main again, his long fingers curled tightly around the reins.
“No,” Thor said, even before he had time to think over his answer. He knew it was the right one when he saw Loki’s shoulders relax.
Thor pressed his lips together tightly, unsure of what to say. He kneed his mount closer to his brother’s and reached out to clasp a firm hand to Loki’s shoulder, eliciting a reluctant smile from his little brother.
The rest of their ride was quiet, but not uncomfortable, each of them lost in their own thoughts. Thor allowed himself to dwell only lightly upon their kiss—inadvisable, Loki had said, but not wrong, and there was something very important about that distinction that Thor intended to take full advantage of someday—and although memories of their argument in the temple kept replaying themselves over and over in his mind, he still found himself feeling light at the prospect of going home to Asgard after so many weeks. Loki’s bitterness was an issue that would need to be dealt with in the future, Thor knew, but for now they were together, and that was all that mattered.
And it's finally done! So sorry this last update took so long, guys. Life got in the way, as it does.
Thanks for putting up with the delay, and thanks so much for reading!