(Arashi no Umi, Iro no Hashi)
Sea of Storms, Bridge of Colors
Once Asgard had been a province in the kingdom of Lo, famed for its brave warriors. But they were not well-represented at the royal court, preferring the honesty of battle to subtle pricking politics, and for their coarse manners they were often disregarded. So when the emperor wished to reward one of his chosen nobles, he thought little of granting him Asgard's fertile farmlands, and all the horses and tamed kijuu in their stables besides—"Those brutes could use a firm hand."
But the Asgardians refused to bow to a noble who should be considered their chief the All-Father's equal. In reprisal, the emperor sent his royal army to drive them from Asgard, and outnumbered ten to one (eight to one by the battle's end) they were defeated. The lands were divided among more favored nobles, so that nowhere, not the least village or smallest field, still bore the name of Asgard. All that remained was the people, a tribe of honorable warriors reduced to wandering, wielding their blades to win their meals.
The Asgardians had their pride still. They did not scatter among other villages; their sons did not join the royal army. Instead they fought for those who paid them, wealthy merchants and warring nobility; but never for the holy emperor. Until they were not even thought of as mercenaries but barbarians, like ogres in the wood, lower than the half-beast hanjuu, scarcely better than the monstrous youma.
Still, despised as they were, there was employment for the Asgardians. Lo's emperor was debased, decadent, ever calling for more taxes to feed his profligate habits and ignoring his political duties. The more ambitious nobles of the kingdom took advantage, currying the court's favor with extravagant gifts while scrabbling for power over their neighbors. Until a few grew so great as to declare themselves kings, ignoring imperial mandate in favor of their own supremacy.
Floods came, then droughts and fires, the land wracked by the emperor's corruption. The turmoil only made the nobles more eager to guard their claims, attacking their fellows to feed their own people, and the Asgardians were called upon to wage or defend against such campaigns.
At last word eked from the capital that the emperor's kirin had not been seen in over a season. Rumors spread that she had fallen ill, punished by the heavens even as the kingdom was. The Asgardians laughed to hear it, cheering the fall of the hated court, and the kirin who had chosen the emperor and so damned their land.
But Odin, the All-Father of the Asgardian tribe, knew the dreadful chaos this news portended. He sent his ravens to the capital. When they returned to tell him that Lo's kirin had died and the emperor bound to share her fate, the All-Father bade his people to gather all the treasure they had earned.
They bought what they could of livestock and seeds and grain, whatever sparse sustenance could be gotten from Lo's troubled people. Then Odin led his tribe up into the northern mountains, the furthest reaches of the kingdom, outside the bounds that any lord cared to claim. There they made camp in the highland caves.
The winter following the kirin and the emperor's passing was harsher than any before. By mid-autumn snowfall had cut off all the passes, leaving the Asgardians secure in their mountain home, with no way for anyone from the kingdom below to reach them.
Or so they believed, until late into the winter, just after the worst blizzard, a hunting party went out and was lost.
Odin All-Father rode out to find them on his great steed Sleipnir, a kijuu whose eight strong legs and broad hooves could carry him over all but the softest snows. When he led the party back, they had lost two men to the cold, but gained another: a foundling child, a tiny infant babe.
Frigga, wife of the All-Father, came out in the snows to welcome them back, wrapped in furs. She started to see the tiny black-haired bundle cradled in her husband's arms. "Husband, how—where—"
"In the copse of pines, before the northern pass," the All-Father said, hoarse from the arctic air.
Tyr, leader of the lost party, further supplied, "We came upon it on the way back—victims of a youma attack, it seems. One of the creatures was there, dead, shot with arrows—like no breed I've ever seen, with a face and torso almost like a maiden's, but furred; and a snake for the rest. The creature was clutching that in its dead frozen arms, and the All-Father insisted..."
Frigga took the bundle from Odin. The babe within was silent and still, almost blue with chill, spattered blood frozen to its cheeks. The tears welling in Frigga's eyes froze too, when the wind touched them. "Beloved, I do not think this child lives..."
"Take him inside," the All-Father commanded. "Bathe him, warm him—his heart was beating yet, when I picked him up."
Tyr shook his head. "Better for him to be dead, with all his family lost. We should be more concerned with what slayed them—there must have been other youma that carried the parents off; if there's a pack of those things..."
Frigga paid him little heed; she was hurrying back into the cave, calling for water to be heated and blankets brought. But while the water washed away the blood and warmed the infant's skin, and she could feel the fluttering beat of his heart under her hands, his eyes and mouth stayed closed and he lay still and quiet, as if the grave had already claimed him.
"Mama?" Thor, young son of Frigga and the All-Father, came toddling over, reaching to clutch at her arm as he leaned over the basin. She caught him back from toppling into the water with automatic instinct, her attention on the still infant.
"What 'zat?" Thor lisped, extending a chubby arm to paw at the babe's fine black hair, curling daintily in the warm water.
And though he had not moved in Frigga's hands, at that clumsy touch the infant blinked open jade green eyes, opened his mouth and gave a little gasping whimper. Frigga wept herself as she lifted him from the water, patted him dry and swaddled him in soft blankets. Thor watched, small round face puckered with worry as the babe continued to fuss, for all those cries were quieter than Thor's at his most content.
Thor was not quite weaned, so Frigga's breasts were still heavy; she nursed the babe, who first tried to turn away, piteously whimpering; but hunger overcame his fear and finally he accepted the stranger's milk. At the babe's suckling silence, Thor beamed.
Odin, having shed his ice-crusted furs and seen to the hunting party's condition, joined them. "The child?" he asked.
Frigga showed him the infant on her breast, and Odin sighed, long and deep. "Papa?" Thor asked, tugging at his father's trousers, and Odin picked him up. "What 'zat?" Thor asked again, craning his neck to look at the little black-haired babe from the better vantage of his father's arms.
"That," Odin told him, meeting Frigga's eyes over the top of their son's blond locks, "is your new brother," and Thor laughed and clapped his hands.
Odin named the babe Lopt, meaning 'air' in the ancient and mostly forgotten tongue of Asgard. It was an oddly weak and ephemeral name for a warrior boy, and Frigga eyed her husband askance for it. But Thor never called him that anyway; he only ever called Lopt 'Brother.'
Odin told all who asked, as well as the boys as they grew, that Lopt was his son—that he had found the infant's ranka fruit, torn from its village riboku tree by the blizzard's fury and cast into the mountains. So while he and Frigga had not tied the ribbon themselves, clearly fate had blown it to them, to answer their prayers for a second child. And Lopt was small enough that no one doubted the story; no one but Frigga and the hunting party knew of the youma the child had truly been found with.
Hidden up in the mountains, the Asgardians had no riboku tree of their own, so Lopt was for a while the youngest child in their camp. Even given that, he grew slowly, small and sickly compared to the other children, black-haired where they were golden and sallow where they were tan. He was often ill; when they first tried to wean him he spat up half the food they fed him. Lopt liked best fruit and other sweet things, though such was hard to come by in the mountains, and had to be scolded to choke down a bite of dried jerky or even freshly cooked meat.
When they were still small, Thor started to put aside portions of his own sweetmeats, say he was not hungry for them and give them to his brother instead. As he grew old enough to leave the caves, he would come back with pockets full of berries and nuts for Lopt, until the other children called him a squirrel for spending his playtime gathering.
Even when Lopt became bigger, he was rarely well enough to leave his bed. So Thor would go out, even in the deepest winter, to find berries under the snows; such gifts were sometimes the only thing that would make Lopt smile.
Most of the Asgardians agreed the boy would not live until adulthood, though they did not to speak of such in front of the All-Father or Frigga. But their children overhearing them were not so discreet. Thor's first real fight was when he had just turned six, tackling a boy almost eight and half a head taller, and pummeling him until they had to be grabbed and pulled apart. Freyr was bawling, his eye blackened; but Thor was crying harder, even though he had taken no injury. "He said my brother would die!" Thor wailed, and was inconsolable even when Freyr was made to apologize.
He would not stop sobbing until Lopt, roused by the commotion, got up from his pallet by the fire and wandered over to put his arms around his brother. Thor clung back, sniffling, as Lopt told him, "See, I'm not dead, don't be stupid."
"But I'm not stupid," Thor said, after Frigga had brought them both back to the pallet and tucked them in for a nap. "You are sick, brother—and Freyr's grandpa was sick in bed a while, and then he died—"
"But he was old, and I'm not," Lopt said.
"But you won't eat meat or anything to make you strong, and Freyr's grandpa wouldn't either—"
Lopt was quiet, thinking; then he said, "If I promise to eat more, will you stop crying?"
"I'm not crying!" Thor denied, snuffling loudly as he wiped his sleeve over his eyes.
But at the supper feast that night Lopt sat with the rest of the camp, between his brother and mother, and managed to eat almost all of a roasted fowl's leg, as Thor grinned hugely.
Lopt did not get less pale and his hair stayed black; but he became able to join the other children playing outside. This was not always to everyone's benefit. Lopt was still the smallest and quietest, and so the easiest to tease, especially when he was a stranger to much of their habits, after being abed so long. And while Thor would tussle with anyone who insulted either him or his brother, Lopt knew better than to try to fight with larger opponents.
At first he would not respond to the taunting except to go even quieter, not tearing up but turning away, curling into himself. As he became stronger, he started to reply with scathing insults worse than those laid upon him. Lopt had stayed in the caves with the women for so long that he had seen and heard much, and remembered all of it.
So when Fandral called him a weakling layabout, Lopt returned, "At least I don't still wet my bed when I lay in it, so your mother has to wash your blankets every afternoon."
"That's a lie!" Fandral cried, but with Lopt one could never tell if he was being honest or not, and enough of what he said was truth that the rest tended to be believed as well.
Usually Lopt only said such things when adults were near, but sometimes he miscalculated, and the boy he returned offense to would thrash him for it. And sometimes they were so outraged that they would strike him even in front of the grown-ups. Thor always made sure he was close by to defend his brother, because Lopt would never defend himself. However quick he was to return a verbal strike, when jumped he only would ever raise his hands to shield his face; he would not even slap another child back.
Thor tried to teach him how to fight, but Lopt always refused. When Thor tried to wrestle with him, his brother would wrap his arms over his chest and crouch down low on the ground, like a snow-rabbit kit hiding under a drift.
"Come on," Thor would say, poking the smaller boy, cuffing him lightly around the ears. "You're strong enough now, even if you're small—Sif can fight better than you, and she's a girl!"
But Lopt would only sit there curled up in his little ball, until Thor finally would sit down next to him, shoulder to shoulder, and say, "I'm sorry, brother." Lopt wouldn't answer, but he would lean against Thor's shoulder, and Thor would know he was forgiven.
When Thor was eight and Lopt seven, the winter was the worst yet, the snows coming earlier and piling higher, and the winds blew achingly cold. Hunting, always hard, was nearly impossible, and what game could be found was stripped down to the bones. By the time the snows finally melted, their food reserves were entirely gone. The Asgardians were all pinched with hunger, those who had lived through it, and many were ill.
The All-Father Odin led a party of the heartiest young men down the mountain to the village at the foot, where they occasionally traded. They came back with little to show for the journey; they had brought tanned hides and carved wood, but the villagers had few spare supplies to barter for the goods.
They had brought weapons as well, being warriors; but the All-Father had forbidden a raid. "They have nothing to take," he said, "lest we steal rice from their childrens' mouths; and we are Asgardians, not nobility."
So all they brought back were a few sacks of moldy grain, and stories, soon spread around the camp. "The villagers say no new kirin for Lo has been born from the shashinboku on Mount Hou, that Loka still has not budded in these past seven years. They say Lo is a cursed realm, that the heavens have forsaken this land, and will not grant it another emperor..."
"What care we of emperors?" the older warriors asked in return. "What have kirin to do with us? We Asgardians have always been too rough for their delicate courts, too sturdy and strong. The emperor, while he lived, would not even let one of us come before him, too fearful was he of our might; he claimed the stench of blood and sweat on us would make his kirin faint! So why should we give them any regard, when they never gave us any?"
But the All-Father said, "Whether we regard the heavens or not, this land will only become harder, with no one on the throne; the conniving nobles ruling now will never be so just as to please the heavens."
"If the land is so hard," said Volstagg, a strapping young man only just proved a warrior, still robust but much thinner after the winter, "then why should we stay here? If we crossed the mountain border..."
"Leave Lo? But Lo has always been our home among the kingdoms—"
"But we no longer have any lands to call our own in Lo—"
"—And what would we do with dying lands—"
The argument lasted long into the night, until the fire had burned down to ashes. Only when everyone had fallen silent did the All-Father speak, "So it is decided: the Asgardians will leave Lo and seek our fortunes elsewhere, as our ancestors had done when their ships first brought our people to the Twelve Kingdoms, all those centuries ago."
Crossing the mountains took the better part of the summer, toiling slowly over the dangerous passes. The children walked when they could, to keep the burden off their starved and wasted horses and kijuu; when they grew tired they were carried or put in the carts. Lopt walked beside Thor, as long as he could manage, though Thor had to make himself walk slower, so his smaller brother could keep up.
Finally they reached a valley, with more and more vivid green than either Thor or Lopt had ever seen in their lives. "It's brighter than your eyes!" Thor said in awe when they came over the crest of rock and saw the land, and Lopt only stared in speechless wonder.
A river ran through the valley, its blue brighter than Thor's own eyes. The Asgardians watered their beasts and drank themselves, cupping the cold clear water in their hands. It was warm in the sun, and the children waded in the shallow riverbed, splashing one another and screaming with laugher, while the adults watched them and smiled.
They made camp by the river. That night Thor and Lopt sat with their father before the fire and asked him, "Why is it so beautiful here?"
"Because," Odin said, setting one son on each knee, "this valley is in the kingdom of Kei. And Kei's empress is a meikun, a great ruler."
"Rulers can be great?" Thor asked, frowning; all he had ever heard anyone say of Lo's dead emperor was to curse his name.
Lopt stuck his tongue out at his foolish brother. "Of course they can," he said. "Father's a ruler!"
"He is?" Thor blinked in surprise.
Odin chuckled. "Of a sort—a ruler is a leader, Thor. And any leader can be good or bad, depending on how much they care for their people, how much they are willing to listen to them, and do for them."
"Though no leader is as good as Father," Lopt said surely, and Thor nodded in sure agreement.
But Odin said, "I don't know about that—Thor someday will be better than me, perhaps."
"You will be the leader of the Asgardians, after me," Odin reminded.
Thor frowned again. He had known this already, of course, being the All-Father's first son; but it was not something he had given much through to until now. "Bu what about my brother, if I'm the leader?"
"Your brother will help you lead," Odin said, "advise you in what you should do, and remind you to look to your people—won't you, Lopt?"
Lopt, leaning against Odin's strong arm, nodded with solemn responsibility, promised, "Yes, Father."
Kei was a prosperous realm, and it was said that Kei's empress held particular compassion for exiles and those displaced from the lands of their birth. The Asgardians were not the only refugees from Lo, and the people of Kei were sympathetic to their plight, welcoming them to their villages. Though a few times there was trouble, when Asgardian warriors happened to speak ill of the court or crown; Kei's people did not take kindly to affronts to their beloved ruler.
The Asgardians earned their way, though most of the available work was farming or building; there was little call for battle skills, with most of Kei at peace, hard-earned and thus more valued. The most jobs for warriors were found along the kingdom's border, where they were needed to protect against both the wild youma of the mountains, and those who crossed the border to fight. Some of the greedy lords of Lo still sought to expand their borders, even as their lands crumbled from within; while Kei's royal armies patrolled against this threat, richer villages were willing to pay for greater protection.
A few Asgardians departed, marrying villagers, or joining the nobles' militias, where they could get regular housing and a salary. But most continued to follow the All-Father, loyal to the pride of Asgard. They lived in Kei, but they were not of Kei; they kept their own customs and did not allow themselves to grow soft, even buried in Kei's softness.
Some villages generously granted branches on their riboku trees to Asgardian couples, so there were new infants and toddlers among the tribe. At nearly ten, Lopt was no longer the youngest Asgardian, and though still small for his years, he was of the age to learn to hunt and fight.
He had little interest in either, however. While he was better than most of the older children at reciting the old stories or doing figures, when Tyr drilled the boys in swordwork, Lopt would only listlessly hold his wooden practice weapon. When called to spar he put more effort into dodging and dancing away on light feet than blocking blows, much less striking back. Tyr's hollering would only make Lopt grin sharper and dance faster, until Tyr himself would take up a practice sword and step into the ring to give him a lesson.
But while Tyr was terribly strong, Lopt was very quick, and small and nimble enough to avoid the large man's strikes. The other boys would laugh at Tyr's flushed face, until it became so red that Lopt would realize properly the trouble he was in, and run for it, fleet as his fast feet could carry him.
Sometimes he was too slow, and Tyr would catch him and give him drubbings that would make Lopt sob and sulk afterwards for hours. When he successfully escaped, he would disappear for even longer, often not returning until Thor went and looked for him.
Every time Lopt ran further, until one day he went as deep into the forest as Thor had ever gone alone—but his brother's trail went on, so Thor continued following it. Until it seemed to disappear entirely into the thick underbrush—but no, there was a scuff on the tree-bark before him, and Thor looked up, between brown branches and green leaves, to see a pair of eyes as bright-colored as the leaves staring back at him.
"Come down, brother," Thor said.
"No," Lopt refused, so Thor jumped to catch the lowest branch and climbed up to join his brother, sitting on the broad tree limb with their legs hanging down. "How did you find me?" Lopt asked, glaring.
"You're light-footed, but foxes are harder to track," Thor said.
"Of course Odin's first son is good at fighting and hunting," Lopt said, sullenly chipping at the bark of the branch with his fingernail.
"If you were good enough at hunting," Thor remarked, "then no one would care if you didn't like fighting."
"Who says I don't like it?" Lopt said.
"Do you?" Thor asked doubtfully. "You don't seem like you do. Tyr's not so bad; he'll let you win, when you're first learning, if he thinks you're trying."
"I don't..." Lopt dropped his chin down to his breast, muttered, "What if I don't want to be good at fighting or hunting?"
"Then what are you going to be good at?" Thor asked.
Lopt glared at him again, then grabbed the branch and cautiously lowered himself down the tree trunk. Thor climbed nimbly after him, catching his brother's hand when his boot slipped on the bark and helping him the rest of the way down. Once they reached the forest floor, Lopt pulled his hand away, his ears red.
"Come, brother," Thor said, clapping him on the shoulder. "We can go hunting now, bring back a grouse or coney for dinner! Then Papa won't scold us for running from Tyr."
Lopt looked at his brother sidelong. "You didn't have to run away, he wasn't mad at you."
"But you hadn't come back!" Thor said. "What if you got lost? Or eaten by a youma?"
"This is Kei," Lopt said. "There aren't any big youma in the woods."
"But you couldn't climb down the tree," Thor said blithely, ignoring how his brother's ears turned brighter red. "So you would've had to stay there overnight, and it would get cold, and Mama would fret—"
"All right!" Lopt said. "We can hunt a stupid grouse."
"Or a coney! They're young now, and tender..."
In the end they found one of the small antlerless deer, not much larger than a cat, grazing in a peaceful clearing. Lopt proved not so bad at hunting after all; he moved near-silently between the trees, creeping around to frighten the little doe and flush it towards the snare Thor had set. As soon as the rope entangled its feet, Thor leapt out with a shout of triumph, and with his knife swiftly slit the deer's throat so it died quick and painless.
Lopt came running from the long grass, calling eagerly, "Did you catch it?" Then he skidded to a stop, smile dropping away as he stared down at the limp little body and the blood pooled on the fallen leaves.
"We did it!" Thor said, flush with triumph. "Here, you can carry it back, so everyone will know it's yours!" He did not think Lopt had ever caught anything before; when sent to check snares he would come back empty-handed, or sometimes get distracted by an interesting flower or insect and fail to return at all.
Lopt shook his head to refuse, but Thor picked up the deer and made to sling it over his brother's shoulder. "No, I don't want it!" Lopt shouted, shoving Thor away from him. Then he stared down at his hands, at the red blood smeared across his palm, and trembled, paled to ghost-white. His eyes rolled back and he collapsed, falling to the forest floor as limp as the dead deer.
"Brother!" Thor shouted, dropping their catch to go to Lopt, baffled and terrified. He reached out to his brother, then noticed the blood on his own hands and rubbed it off in the ferns, before he took Lopt's shoulder, shook him.
Lopt groaned faintly without awakening. Thor took a cleaner corner of his tunic to wipe the blood off Lopt's hands, then prodded him again. "Brother, brother, please wake up—"
Lopt groaned again, blinked open his eyes. He rolled onto his side, away from Thor, sat up on his elbow and retched into the leaves. Thor put his hand on Lopt's back as he shivered, asked, "Are you feeling all right now?"
"Yes," Lopt lied, not sounding well at all, but ill and miserable.
"Brother," Thor asked slowly, "are you afraid of blood?" A couple of the girls said they were—not Sif of course, but the more girly ones. And even they didn't mind cooking a skinned rabbit, much less eating it—more than Lopt ever enjoyed such a meal, really.
"No!" Lopt said. His ears were red again, though his face was still pale. "I just...I don't like how it smells. That's all."
Thor could have said that he didn't like how cooked fish smelled, but that had never made him fall over. But Lopt did not look cheerful enough to tease, so Thor simply picked up the deer and hung it over his own shoulder, then reached down his hand to help his brother up.
When they returned to the camp, Thor proudly told everyone that they had caught the deer, he and his brother together. They were scolded anyway, but not as loudly as they might have been. And Lopt did not talk back and get slapped, but bowed his head and apologized. Also the venison strew was delicious, and Frigga made Thor a pair of winter mittens from the deer hide, so in the balance it was a good day.
After that, Lopt quit running from Tyr. Though he was not much more enthusiastic at the fighting lessons, he would at least raise his wooden sword to defend himself, if not often strike back, and too weakly to get past a block if he did. But then, he was still small; he could not be expected to be evenly matched with boys larger than himself and more used to fighting besides.
The others teased him for it, of course. They said Lopt hit like a girl (or did say it, until Sif had thrashed them all, after which they agreed that girls hit much, much worse) and that he should be learning cooking or sewing instead of fighting. They also said his black hair had been stolen from a raven, and that his green eyes would curse them and made the sign against them, and blamed him when they slipped or dropped their swords.
Sometimes Thor would make them stop with his fists, though Tyr if he caught them would chastise them for scuffling like children, and make them bring their conflict to the dueling ring, like men. Thor could defeat even boys older than him; but they did not learn their lesson so well, when Tyr was watching.
Lopt for his part no longer cried back insults the way he used to. Instead he favored more subtle retaliations, pretending like he was deaf and did not even hear their offenses, only to later slip sour milk into the food of those who slighted him, or drop a wad of stinking manure in the toes of their boots. Not that anyone knew it was Lopt—even Thor never saw his brother doing it, though he did see him collecting the milk, and the manure, and once a great fat creeping spider which Thor never learned exactly where he put.
Not everyone earned Lopt's disfavor. Sif did not tease him—Sif teased no one, too seriously bent on proving her own strength. Thor really did not think she needed to try as hard as she did—she was a bit older than him, at the age that girls are taller than boys, and she hit hard. Thor thought she was the best of all the youngest warriors (save himself, of course.)
But Tyr was harshly critical of Sif, even though she listened to him better than any of the boys. Once when she happened to trip on rough ground, he remarked, "Watch your feet, girl—the one thing I would expect a woman to have is grace," and though Tyr did not shout it angrily, this still made Sif's eyes brighten suspiciously, so that she ducked to rub her face against her shoulder and was more clumsy than before.
A couple of the boys giggled and pointed and said she was crying, Sif yelled back that it was only sweat, and Lopt from his position in back watched silently. He did not speak much to Sif, that Thor had ever seen, except when they were put in the dueling ring together, and then only the disciplined phrases of challenge accepted and fight forfeited.
Lopt did not say anything to Sif now, either. But the next day, all of Tyr's trousers somehow disappeared from his tent to end up bundled in a tree; he had to climb up to retrieve them wrapped in one of his wife's skirts, to the great merriment of the rest of the camp. Even Sif smiled a little at that prank.
After that Thor would sometimes see Sif talking with Lopt. "I don't see why they should tease you," Lopt told her. "Women can become rulers and generals, same as men—Kei is ruled by an empress, is it not? Even if only Asgardian men fight."
Tyr was not as enamored of this argument, saying that Kei was Kei and Asgard was Asgard (even if Asgard was no more). The other boys jeered both Sif and Lopt, saying that they should just swap their sexes—since Lopt was more delicate a girl than Sif would ever be. Lopt only narrowed his eyes, but Sif snapped, "Maybe we will!" and then dueled the three loudest jeerers, one after the other, taking them all down handily.
The next day at training, Sif's golden hair was as raven-black as Lopt's and cut even shorter. Everyone stared at her, but Sif only flipped the ebony fringe defiantly out of her eyes and said, "I am not an Asgardian man anyway; why should my hair be yellow?"
And Lopt smiled, trying to hide it, like Sif had smiled when Tyr had run be-skirted through the camp.
Something similar happened with Fandral. Though he had mocked Lopt when younger, Fandral grew up into a sweet-natured, silly boy, with little interest in anything but fighting and flirting with girls. He had a habit of thanking Lopt when they dueled, for making him look good—which should have been an insult, had he not always said it with such affable sincerity.
Lopt was there when two young warriors grew angry with how Fandral was talking with their sister. The girl did not mind at all, to tell from her giggling; but they dragged Fandral from her and challenged him to a double duel, for all they were some half a decade older and far bigger, and proven warriors besides.
Fandral fought bravely, but he was still limping a week later. Lopt had no sympathetic words for him, that Thor saw. But a week after that both the young warriors found their swords and knives mysteriously tarnished and rusted into their scabbards, so that they had to take them to a smith to be polished, and were thoroughly castigated by Tyr and Odin for mistreating their arms.
No one suspected Lopt of that mischief—he wasn't even present for those lectures, hiding himself away in the woods, as he did whenever there was no training. But afterwards Fandral joined Thor and Lopt on their hunts sometimes.
Fandral made no issue about how Lopt helped track and flush prey, but would not make the kill, and Thor never asked him to. Lopt would watch Thor or Fandral dress and skin the animals, pale-faced but staring determinedly at the knife's work, as if to prove that it was only the smell of blood he disliked after all. Thor took care not to spatter any on him, and would always mention his brother's help when presenting their catches to the camp.
Though as they grew Thor had less chances to hunt with his brother. When Thor neared thirteen, almost old enough to be given a true steel sword, the All-Father began to bring him along when he met with the village elders and merchant caravan bosses, so he could learn about the various contracts they took.
Thor asked his father why his brother did not join them, when he would one day be helping Thor with such negotiations; but Odin said, "You will be the leader, Thor, not he. And Lopt is younger anyway, and has his own lessons to learn."
Thor wondered what lessons Lopt could be learning. He still did not care for swordplay or dueling, and avoided the dueling ring whenever he could. While once he used to sit with the women, helping with their weaving and listening to their stories, these days he seemed to spend most of his time hiding away in the woods by himself. He didn't even hunt—maybe he was berry-picking or braiding grass or catching beetles; Thor didn't know. As Lopt became better at tracking, so too had he become better at hiding his own trail, so Thor had a harder time following him.
When he and Odin returned to the camp, Lopt was gone again. Thor walked through the woods, calling for his brother, but if Lopt heard he didn't answer, and it both frustrated and saddened Thor, that his brother had gone so far away, or else was pretending to be.
When Lopt appeared that evening, Thor tackled him in a rough hug. "There you are! Where have you been?"
"In the forest," Lopt said, squirming, but Thor would not release him. "Where else would I go?"
"What were you doing there?"
"Nothing important—not hunting and not fighting, so what matters it to you?"
"Can I come with you tomorrow?"
"Tyr will yell if you don't practice—"
"Let him! I miss playing with you, brother."
Lopt stilled, quit trying to extract himself from Thor's clutch. "Maybe we can hunt," he said after a moment, and Thor beamed happily and let him go.
In the mountains of Lo, autumn had meant gray frost and early snows; but in Kei's bountiful lands the fall was crisp but not yet cold, and the woods exploded with fiery colors, blazing reds and oranges. They caught a quail and two squirrels so plump they could be mistaken for tailed rabbits, all found by Lopt, who could by now track animals as if he could speak their wary hidden languages, even if he would not slay them.
It was a pleasant day, even knowing the scolding awaiting when they returned to camp. Though Lopt was so quiet, even when not hunting. Thor remembered how his brother used to talk when they walked in the woods together. Lopt always seemed to be noticing things, and wondering about them—why was this bird's song melodic while that one's raucous, why did ferns grow under trees where no sunlight touched them, why did the dangerous youma only venture out of the wilderness in some cursed places. It had always amazed Thor, that Lopt's head could hold so many odd thoughts.
He wondered if his brother had forgotten all his questions now, or if he had somehow found answers to them. Or maybe Lopt didn't want to waste his breath asking them aloud, when Thor couldn't answer them anyway.
They returned to the camp for supper, avoiding Tyr as they presented their spoils to the women at the cooking fire. Though Odin found Thor and hauled him off by the ear to stand before him and Frigga and be lectured from both sides. Lopt did not get scolded; he was nowhere to be seen.
"He's never at the dinner feasts, lately," Sif told Thor when he asked her. Sif had sharp eyes, and since neither the boys nor the other girls cared much to talk with her, she often had the chance to see what others missed. Thor thought that someday she might become a sentry like her brother Heimdall. He would like her in his warband, Thor decided; she wouldn't let anyone ambush them. "Lopt always takes his food elsewhere to eat."
The next few evenings Thor watched his brother closely but couldn't determine where Lopt went, once he was out of the firelight's circle. Before he disappeared he always stacked his platter high, with meat as well as bread and tubers, which Thor was glad to see; maybe his wandering stoked Lopt's paltry appetite.
Sif disagreed. "He's still skinny," she said. "Maybe even skinnier, now. I don't think he eats all that food he takes."
Thor frowned. "Then what does he do with it?"
Sif shrugged, but she was curious, too. And Thor knew better than to ask his brother outright.
The next night they attempted to tail Lopt, but he noticed and lost them in the shadows. The night after that they enlisted Fandral's aid. During the feast he and Thor had a noisy mock argument to draw the eye, while Sif slipped away to conceal herself at the edge of the camp, and mark by what path Lopt entered the woods.
It was too dark to see their way clearly, and they couldn't light a torch for fear of revealing themselves, but they managed not to raise too much of a racket stumbling through the forest. So that they got close enough to see, in the shred of shine from the crescent moon, Lopt with his platter of food enter a small clearing. At the clearing's edge a silhouetted figure detached from a tree trunk to reach toward him, pulled from the shadows like a piece of taffy.
"It's a wood-spirit!" Fandral hissed in shock, too loudly; Lopt and the figure both jerked around, paler faces showing through the shadows. Fandral stumbled back making signs against curses, but Thor and Sif ran forward, Thor going for his brother, while Sif bravely leapt to grab the shadowy figure before it could melt back into the tree trunk.
This proved to be an unlikely risk; her fingers met not ephemeral magic but a rough woolen cloak, which she managed to tangle around the figure's legs to knock him down. Thor meanwhile threw himself to the ground and snagged Lopt by the heel. Lopt shouted in panic and kicked Thor in the gut with his other foot, but then stopped at Thor's groan, squinting down at him as he asked, "—Brother? What are you doing here?"
"What are you?" Thor gasped in return, sitting up.
"Nothing!" Lopt said crossly.
"Nothing? You're stealing food to feed a youma!" Fandral cried, leaping into the clearing brandishing his hunting knife, the short blade's steel glinting in the moonlight.
Lopt didn't shy back but crossed his arms. "I'm not stealing; it's my meat!"
"Also I don't think he's a youma," Sif said. "Are you?" and she poked the black-cloaked figure she was sitting upon. The figure gave a hacking cough in response.
"If not a youma, then what is it?" Fandral asked, deeply mistrustful, knife pointed towards Sif and her seat.
Lopt sighed, and the figure muttered something, muffled by the cloak. Sif frowned in the moonlight. "He says he's a boy...?"
He was a boy, of Fandral's age, a year and some odd months older than Thor, though no taller. His hair was as black as Lopt's, but he was tanned where Lopt was pallid, and his eyes were dark. His name was Hogun and he also hailed from Lo, from a province far south of where Asgard once had been. His family had fled their dying land, seeking safety in Kei, but they had been attacked by ferocious youma in the crossing. His father and mother both had been warriors, strong enough to fend off the beasts so Hogun could flee; but they had been killed in the doing, and he had made the rest of the journey alone.
This sad story came out in fits and starts, as they sat in the clearing under the moonlight, shivering in the brisk night. Hogun was not much given to speaking, but Lopt filled in what he left out. They had met in the forest a month before; Hogun had jumped Lopt to take his cape, needing a blanket to ward off the night's chill. Lopt had given it to him, then gone back and borrowed—"Stolen," Sif said—"Borrowed," Lopt repeated—the woolen cloak that Hogun had now, that let him hide so well in the shadows.
"You've been giving him food as well?" Thor asked.
"I can find my own food," Hogun said grimly, then coughed and hunched into his borrowed mantle.
"He's sick," Lopt said, folding his thin arms over his chest to ward off the cold. "He needs meat to get stronger, so I'm giving him my share."
"But aren't you hungry, then?" Fandral asked, confused. Hogun coughed again and curled in more, ashamedly hiding his face in the hood's shadow.
Lopt sniffed as if Fandral was barely worth answering. "Not very. And I don't like meat much anyway."
"You don't like meat?"
Thor put his arm around his brother's shivering shoulders, said, "If we all took a little more at dinner, then we could all give Hogun some, and none of us would be hungry for it."
"No," Hogun said, shaking his head under the hood. "I'm getting better now; I should leave here—"
"It's all right," Thor assured him. "We have enough—Kei's a rich land, it's completely different from Lo."
Hogun shook his head again. "I told you, Asgardians can be generous," Lopt said quietly. "They're not all like me."
"Stay here, friend Hogun, and tomorrow we'll bring you as much food as you can eat," Thor urged. "I don't like vegetables anyway, so you can have lots of those."
"I don't like tubers," Fandral put in, "so you're welcome mine."
"And I don't like sweetmeats," Sif said.
"—So my brother can have those!" Thor said, and they all laughed, even Hogun snorting beneath the cloak, and Lopt's shoulders quivering under Thor's warm arm.
They successfully managed to sneak food out to Hogun for all of two evenings. On the third day Thor became worried by how cold it had been the night before—there was morning frost on the grass—and Hogun had been coughing still. So at midafternoon he took a couple of apples and crept to the clearing where Hogun was hiding.
As it turned out Lopt was already there with their new friend, as well as Sif, who had brought a scarf (the only thing Sif had ever learned to knit, so she had a number of them, all lumpy and unevenly edged and prone to curling the wrong directions; but they did keep the nose warm). Both Sif and his brother gave Thor sour looks, which he felt was most unfair since they had also come—though that did not stop him from frowning as well when Fandral came crashing through the underbrush, noisy as a wild boar and bearing an entire steaming teapot.
"Mother always gives me tea when I have a cough," he explained.
Hogun looked shyly touched, but Lopt rolled his eyes. "And how is he to drink it? Cup his hands under boiling liquid?"
"Ah," Fandral said, looking down at the teapot. "I didn't think of that..."
"I did," said a voice behind them, and all the children jumped to their feet as a man emerged from the woods—not Tyr as they first feared, but shorter and rather broader, and with a beard more fiery red than the autumn leaves: the camp's quartermaster, Volstagg.
Thor stood up in front of Hogun with his brother beside him, and was pleased when Sif and Fandral bravely flanked them. Though he knew they had little chance against Volstagg, who was a full warrior and quite old—not of an age with Tyr or their parents; but he was married, even.
But Volstagg did not draw his sword; instead he looked down at them over his barrel chest, asked, "So what's this? I thought you lot might be hosting a secret picnic, with all the food you've been pilfering, and maybe needed these," and he held up two clay tea cups. "But it seems a somewhat larger and less-bushy-tailed squirrel than the usual has been raiding our stores."
"He hasn't been raiding—" Lopt began to protest, but Hogun stopped him with a hand on his shoulder, stepping out from behind their blockade.
The boy stifled a cough, drew himself up straight and said stoically, "I don't mean to steal from you; I swear I will repay all I've eaten."
"Will you, now?" Volstagg said. "And how will you be doing that? Your pockets don't look large enough to have much in them."
"I can hunt," Hogun said, and drew a knife from his belt, short but with a wicked blade. With a quick motion he flung the dagger across the clearing; it flew arrow-straight, to embed in the knot of a tree trunk.
Thor, Sif, and Fandral all looked to their new friend, impressed; he had not shown them this trick in the previous nights. Only Lopt did not seem surprised. And Volstagg arched his shaggy brows, said, "Well then, you might be able to, at that..."
Volstagg and his newlywed wife took in Hogun as a fosterling. By the old traditions, this made Volstagg the boy's master and mentor; but with not even ten years between them, Volstagg was more like an elder brother. He was forever teasing Hogun to try to make him crack a smile. This failed most of the time, but Hogun's cough stopped within two days of him sleeping in Volstagg's warm wagon. By the winter solstice his face had lost the pinched hungry look, although he remained lean, unlikely to ever catch up to his foster father's volume.
Hogun did his part to increase that; he proved an able hunter, and by the winter's end had paid back his debt of foodstuffs and then some. Lopt took to hunting with him—or rather tracking, and Hogun was always the one to carry the catches back to camp. But Hogun did not tease Lopt about this, that Thor ever saw—not that Hogun spoke much anyway, but Lopt seemed to appreciate his quiet company, and they spent many long afternoons alone together in the forest. Thor was a little jealous of it, but happy, too, to know his brother had another friend.
Hogun also proved himself adequate to Tyr's standards in the dueling circle, as good with a practice sword or axe as he was with his knives. The boys who at first mocked him for his dark hair and different accent eventually learned respect. And when Hogun turned sixteen, the All-Father allowed him to accept the challenge of Asgardian manhood, to prove himself a true warrior.
Hogun went into the woods alone, and returned in only four days, bearing the tiger-striped pelt of a Bafuku youma—not quite a fully grown beast, but its fangs were two hand-spans long. All the camp cheered when Odin had him repeat the warrior's oath to Asgard; even Hogun himself deigned pull up the corners of his mouth in what Fandral swore had to count as a smile. As per Asgardian tradition, Hogun mounted the Bafuku's fangs on his helm, over a band of fur in the style of his former people. Though he was still not very tall, he made a formidable sight, marching off with Volstagg's warband.
Fandral's challenge came the next month, to some concern; while an able fighter, he was not much for hunting, and disinclined to venture so far into the wilderness that he couldn't return to the Asgardian camp to sleep. Also he was determined to slay a winged youma, as their feathers were much prized by Asgardian maidens, and so spent several weeks walking with his head tipped back to scan the skies, tripping over branches and running into trees. Thor and Sif took to following him—at a discreet and unobserved distance—to make sure he did not do himself worse harm than a black eye.
So when Fandral disappeared one morning and then failed to return to the camp for two nights running, even Hogun's grimace turned down more than usual. On the second night Lopt vanished himself—only to return early the next morning, before any but his brother knew he was gone. And half an hour later Fandral himself appeared, pulling on a litter a slain Kingen, with its broad wings and poisonous barbed tail dragging behind it. Its darkly iridescent feathers made a dashing ornament to his helm, as well as many a girl's headdress.
Sif's sixteenth birthday arrived half a year later, in early spring, and was cause for much contention. She was already a woman of Asgard, by the secret female traditions Thor knew little of (Lopt knew more, he suspected; but Lopt liked secrets too much to give them away cheaply.) But Sif wanted to be a warrior as well, and though some of the warriors protested it, at Lopt's prompting she reminded them that they had legends of a whole troop of shield-maidens, back when Asgard was a province in more than their hearts. And the All-Father finally decreed, "If you succeed at the challenge, you will be a warrior; such is our way."
Lopt and Hogun as well as Thor and Fandral hoped to join her when she set out, but Sif refused their company, insulted. "You think me too weak to do this by myself?"
"Why would I think you weak, when you've beaten me in the dueling ring?" Thor said. "Besides, weren't you right along with me when we followed Fandral?"
"—You were what?" Fandral squawked, as Lopt spoke over him, "It's not that we don't trust you to manage this, Sif, but rather we do trust you."
"Exactly!" Fandral said, "we know you can take down a monster; we want to see it!" and Hogun nodded agreement.
"....Oh," Sif said, somewhat mollified.
"Even so," Volstagg told them, herding them back to the camp to let Sif depart alone, "she speaks rightly; let her take her prize, and tell you all afterwards the legend of it. That's as much a warrior's right as anything else of this trial, to win oneself a story that no one else can tell."
Still, they were all disappointed to have missed it, when Sif eventually returned with the hooves and head of a Gouyu, its curving horns so great that with the skull strapped to her back, the horns knocked against her heels. Her brother Heimdall had taken the same breed as trophy fifteen years before; but the horns of Sif's slain beast were half an arm-length longer than her brother's.
Even the most hidebound Asgardian warriors had to admit that Sif had shown remarkable fortitude, and her celebratory feast was as long and loud as any of the other young warriors'. In deference to her brother (and because Heimdall's own horned helmet already approached impractical), Sif did not mount the horns, but had them carved into a winged coronet. It was a prettier piece than was her usual wont to wear, but having seen the head that ivory was taken from, not a man among the camp dared tease her about its delicacy. And it did frame her face most attractively, Fandral pointed out (carefully out of her hearing, though when Thor mentioned it to her later, Sif smiled, and not even like she was about to kick your shins.)
Thor's sixteenth birthday came at the end of autumn, later enough in the season that there would have been no shame in putting off his challenge until the spring equinox. But Thor refused. All of his friends but his brother were already proven warriors, though he was supposed to lead them someday . And he was as good as hunter as any of them, and even better a fighter; his pride would not stand for the delay. Beside, a leader should be the strong, and a winter hunt would prove his prowess.
So before sunrise on his birthday morn Thor took up his sword and his pack and set out, before his friends were awake to follow him.
He didn't mean to wake his brother, either, but as Thor readied to leave, Lopt on the other rush bed opened his green eyes, watching. "When I see you again, brother, I will be a true warrior," Thor whispered to him in farewell, and pushed out of the tent before Lopt could wish him luck he would not need.
Thor took his bearings from the rising sun as he walked through the woods. At first he took care to not leave obvious tracks. Once deeper, he blazed a more evident trail; this was to be a long journey, and it would help him find his way back.
The browning autumn underbrush rustled noisily underfoot, so it wasn't until evening, when he stopped to camp by a brook trickling down the steepening foothill slopes, that he realized he was not alone. There was no particular sign, no sound or smell, just a prickling of the back of his neck. Thor grabbed his sword, called into the quiet twilit woods, "Who's there?"
And somehow he was not surprised when Lopt emerged from the bracken, to stand across his fire like a summoned spirit. Thor sighed and sheathed his blade. "What are you doing here, brother? This is my quest."
"Am I not supposed to help you and advise you, as Father tells me to?" Lopt asked. The pack on his back was as large as Thor's; he must have had it prepared already, to have caught up so quickly.
"Not in this," Thor said. "Warriors aren't supposed to have other warriors help them; this is how we prove our own skills!"
"But I'm not a warrior," Lopt said, sitting across the fire and setting down his pack.
"Neither were Sif and I, but we didn't help Fandral or Hogun," Thor said. "Nor did you and I help Sif—"
"But Sif and Fandral didn't go to Lo," Lopt said.
Thor looked at him sharply. Lopt rolled his eyes. "Oh, come now, you've been planning it for weeks, obviously. I saw you studying the maps—you who never studies anything that isn't made of sharp metal. And you brought enough food to last you a month."
"Only a week," Thor protested. "...More would have weighed me down." He'd brought a map, too, to be sure of the way to the mountain pass into Lo. There were not enough youma on Kei's borders to be worthy trophies, especially when he must trump his friends' prizes.
"Can you even read a map properly? It will take a week just to get to the border, by this route," Lopt said.
"Only five days, if the weather stays clear," Thor said. "And don't you think it will be a grand triumph, to bring back a beast from the mountains where we once dwelled?"
"I think you are a fool," Lopt said, cold as the crisp autumn air. "What sort of youma do you hope to slay?"
"It must be something great," Thor said. "A worthy beast! I will be the All-Father someday, you know; I must show my strength to the tribe—our friends are strong warriors all, but you know I am the best of them."
"I know," Lopt said, shaking his head. "So you want to hunt something better than a Bafuku, a Kingen or a Gouyu? What are you expecting to find in Lo, a Toutetsu?"
Thor grinned, because of course his brother would say exactly what he was thinking, even if he meant it as a jest. Lopt's eyes widened across the fire and his scornful tone fell away. "Brother, even you aren't so arrogant as to think you can conquer a Toutetsu—"
"But what if I did!" Thor laughed. "No warrior anywhere in the kingdoms, Asgardian or otherwise, would doubt me if that were my trophy! Besides, they can't be as bad as the stories say. You know how legends grow, like gossip spread around the dinner fire. I bet some drunk traveler saw a Toutetsu amidst a pack of Kogou, and started all the talk of shape-shifting and many limbs and claws..."
Lopt did not try to argue further, but put his arms around his knees and glared at Thor in silence through the fire's flames, green eyes glinting in the firelight. "You can camp with me tonight," Thor told his brother firmly as he spread out his furred bedroll, "but tomorrow you must go back," and he sighed when Lopt did not answer.
The next morning, cold mist fading around them as they broke bread over the fire's embers, Lopt said, almost sullenly, "I am coming with you, on this crazy hunt. If the Toutetsu has many limbs after all, you'll need more than one blade against it."
Thor shook his head. "Brother, you have no blade to offer—you didn't even bring your wooden one."
"Don't I?" Lopt asked, and smiled, the wicked daring smirk he got when he thought no one was watching, when a deserving party had fallen victim to one of his pranks. He moved his hands, and a bit of silver glittered between them, too quick to follow with the eye.
Thor frowned at that glitter—then flinched, as Lopt made a sharp gesture, and something shot past Thor's face, almost brushing his cheek. He turned to follow that trace of silver, and saw a small dagger, like one of Hogun's throwing knives, sticking out from the bark of the tree behind him, still quivering from its flight. Impaled on the blade was a single yellow leaf, a late-falling drifter plucked neatly from the air.
Thor looked back to his brother. Lopt grinned more widely back at him. He had two other small blades in his hand, flashing in the rising sunlight as they twirled between his fingers. "I had them made the last time we visited a smithy, in exchange for writing up a few letters. They are not swords or axes, and I doubt Tyr would be much impressed—but they suit me well, I think."
With such knives, Lopt could strike from a distance, and not get any blood spattered on him. Though to throw so well—Thor had never seen even Hogun make so accurate or fast a toss. "You learned from Hogun? How long has he been teaching you?"
"Since we first met," Lopt said. "He pinned my cloak with his knives, and I told him I would bring him food if he would show me how he did it. Whenever we hunt I practice."
"But why did you say nothing of it, all this time?" Thor asked, astonished. "You do so poorly with a sword—the others wouldn't laugh, if they knew you could do that," and he nodded at the pierced leaf.
Lopt went to the tree, pulled free the blade and wiped it carefully on his tunic. "They laughed at Hogun anyway," he said. "Called him a circus acrobat, until he showed he could also use a sword. I didn't learn this to stop their laughing."
"For this." Lopt lifted his reclaimed knife and pointed it at Thor. "I must succeed at the warrior's challenge myself someday, if I am to stand beside you when you lead us into battle. Even if I can only slay a small youma with these, that will still prove me worthy."
"...But how will you bring it back, if you can't even pick it up?"
Lopt's eyes narrowed. "I'll find a way!" he snapped. "But in the meantime—I won't be able to stand beside you in battle or anywhere else if you get yourself killed becoming a warrior. And since you will not be sensible and take on some lesser challenge, I will come with you. No one will question it; I'm your brother, after all; and they all know I can't even hunt a squirrel by myself. Let them think I only followed because I fretted about my brother, and you kindly protected me—even as you hunted, as a leader can."
Thor looked at him closely, asked, "...Brother, can you hunt a squirrel? Have you slain anything but falling leaves and seedpods? A mouse? Even a beetle?"
Lopt's green eyes slid away from his brother's. "I could, easily; they're not so fast..."
Thor sighed. "All right," he said, "you can come with me. But," and he grasped his sword's hilt in promise, "if we find a Toutetsu, it's mine to slay!"
They crossed over the pass into Lo on the sixth day. Thor was expecting to see a transformation, the border between Kei's prosperity and Lo's desolation clearly delineated; but as high as they were in the mountains, there was little but lichen and brown scrub pines growing among the rocks on either side.
It was freezing cold, so high and this late into autumn, morning frosts lingering wherever the sunlight did not directly fall, scattered white on the shaded stone. Walking kept them warm enough under their furs, though their breath made mist in the chill air. At nights Thor and his brother unrolled their bedrolls side by side and slept curled up together, like they used to share a bed when they were little. Lopt was small and skinny but warm, and Thor would have been glad he had come just for that.
In truth he was happy to have his brother's company, even if it was irregular for a warrior's challenge. It was not like Lopt helped that much, anyway. He found them easier trails up the mountain, but destination was not the purpose of the journey. And he tracked game for their meals, but could not kill, even with his knives. Birds and squirrels might not move much faster than leaves, but more erratically, and the few times Lopt tried to throw he missed, occasionally catching a feather or a tuft of fur but never the whole beast. Thor had to capture their supper himself with snares and hands, and hooks when they reached streams. And of course dress and cook them himself as well, as Lopt still grew shockingly pale at even cold fish blood.
Still, it would have been a lonely journey, by himself. And after walking a day under the cool autumn skies, Lopt found some of his old tongue again, musing about the pure blue expanse overhead, and how the hawks circling through it found their way with no landmarks but the changing clouds. Thor laughed and confessed not to know, and Lopt sighed and said of course he did not expect Thor to know much of anything at all.
"What need do I have to know any of it—that's why I'll have you with me, right, brother?" Thor said, and thought that his brother turned his thin face away to hide a smile, even as Lopt said in a burdened tone, "I suppose."
But once in Lo, Lopt became quieter, though his eyes still searched the sky and stone around them as they walked. Thor too was hushed. The land might look mostly the same, but there was a different feeling to the air, a sense of danger—or perhaps it was the awareness that the ferocious youma which were rare in the kingdom of Kei were a common threat here in Lo. Every crackle of dry leaves or rattle of falling pebbles made them jump and seek the source, Thor grabbing for his sword and Lopt slipping a dagger from his sleeve.
But the whole day they saw almost no creatures, and even fewer youma—a couple small Hiso bounding between the rocks, and a flock of Kingen flying high above, that was all. Thor was disappointed as they sat around the fire that night, a small smoky smoldering thing fueled by what sparse bushes they could find. Lopt regarded him with some asperity. "Did you think a dozen youma would all leap to devour us, as soon as we stepped foot into Lo?"
"No," Thor said, meaning yes, and Lopt rolled his eyes. Thor poked the sullen flames with a branch, making them cough up another clot of gray smoke. "There must be some youma, though, right?"
"Don't worry," Lopt said, pulling his cloak tighter about his shoulders as he glanced up at the rocks looming over them. "I'm sure something will attack us, sooner or later."
The next day they went downslope instead of climbing, and reached the treeline where the forest started, gnarled and barren, the trees leafless and wind-stunted. It seemed empty, quiet but for their crunching footsteps, and no tracks showing in the carpet of dead leaves.
They had only just passed between the first trees when it began to snow, at first only a few flakes drifting in the breeze, but by afternoon it was falling in earnest, fat wet clumps building on the bare branches and sliding to the ground below. The clouds made it gloomy under the black netted canopy of tree branches, and Thor hunched his shoulders to bury his face in his coat's fur ruff, wishing he had thought to bring one of Sif's lumpy scarves.
"Thor," Lopt behind him said suddenly, breaking the chill quiet. Thor stopped, looked back at his brother. Lopt was turned away, frowning at the silent woods behind them. "Did you hear—"
Leaves and snow exploded up to shower over them, as the air trembled with a ferocious howling roar, and a great huge shape charged from the woods' shadows. Thor had a confused impression of fangs and talons, black and gray and gleaming scarlet eyes—leaping toward Lopt.
Thor had no time to think, was acting before he was consciously aware. He barreled into his brother, knocking him to the ground as the youma pounced. One curving razor claw sliced Thor's cheek, and then Lopt grabbed him by the shoulders and rolled them both over, away from those slashing claws. Thor shook his head and kept rolling, back to his feet, yanking his sword from its sheath.
His cheek was burning and his arm was shaking—with excitement, Thor told himself, as he stared at the youma crouched before them. A Kyuuki, ferocious and enormous even for that huge breed, its shoulder as high as Thor's head, black and gray striped hide mingling with the black and gray tree trunks behind it. Though the crimson spattered across those stripes didn't match—not markings but blood, dripping from its shoulder—but I hadn't even drawn my sword, Thor thought confusedly—
The beast snarled, lashed out with its huge paw to bat Thor's sword from his hands. He moved instinctively, ducking under the talons to slash at the monster. The Kyuuki roared again, flexed its massive haunches and charged, trying to pass Thor to reach Lopt behind him. But Thor stood his ground and stabbed his sword forward with all his might, and his aim was true; he pierced the youma's blazing red eye. The beast yowled, jerked away to wrench his sword from his hands. It thrashed its great head around, fangs gaping, as Thor stumbled back, groping for his hunting knife at his belt—
Then with a rattling cough the monster collapsed, bowling him over. For a moment Thor lay on the cold ground, snow melting under him to soak his clothes and icy pinprick flakes settling on his face, panting for breath over the massive shaggy weight on his chest. His gasping sounded loud as thunder in the again silent forest.
Thor looked up to see his brother bending over him, white-faced, eyes huge and round and too tearfully bright. "No, don't!" Thor stopped him, as Lopt reached toward the fallen Kyuuki. "Get back, it's bloody. And don't cry, I'm all right." He wriggled to free his arms and shove himself out from under the youma's heavy corpse.
"I—I'm not crying," Lopt said, retreating a few steps. Further from the blood and with Thor talking to him he sounded better, though he was still pale. He scrubbed his eyes with his sleeve, said, "So you have your trophy—even if it's not a Toutetsu, no one will laugh at you for bringing back a Kyuuki."
"No," Thor said regretfully, shaking his head. "It wasn't my kill." He started to stand, only to have his ankle give way with a pang that made him wince.
Lopt started for him again but Thor put up his hands—they were bloody from the Kyuuki and from his scratched cheek, and Lopt froze in his tracks. Instead Thor grabbed the mane of thick black fur ridging the Kyuuki's back and pulled himself to his feet, then limped over to take his sword, with difficulty yanking it out of the dead youma's skull.
"What do you mean, no?" Lopt asked, watching him. "You killed it—with no help from me," and his irritated snapping Thor knew was more shame than anger.
"Not from you, but from someone," Thor explained. "The beast was already wounded—look," and he pointed at the Kyuuki's bloody shoulder, where the wooden shaft of an arrow was embedded in its hide. Somebody else had been hunting the youma first, and not too long ago; the wound was barely crusted over.
Lopt glanced at it, then back to Thor. "No one needs to know about that," he remarked, the quiet words carrying through the woods' silence. "If you only bring back the claws and fangs and tail—we could hardly be expected to carry the whole beast with us over the mountains..."
"Brother," Thor said reproachfully, "I would know, and you as well—no, I'll take a real trophy, myself! Perhaps this one has a mate..." He took a step towards his brother, forgetting his injured ankle. It twisted out from under him painfully and he nearly lost his balance, had to lean on his sword in a way most undignified for the weapon.
Lopt made a tsking noise, shaking his head, and came over. Thor put his hands behind his back, that he might not get the distasteful blood on his brother, as Lopt carefully pushed him to sit on a fallen tree trunk, then knelt at his feet and unlaced his boot. Thor winced, biting his lip to stop himself from whimpering, as Lopt bowed his head over his ankle, prodding the injury with cold careful fingers.
"It's only sprained, I think," Lopt said after a moment, and tied up the boot again tightly, as Thor hissed. Lopt stood and crossed his arms, frowned down at Thor. "But it will be a hard walk back...perhaps we can find whoever else was hunting the Kyuuki, and ask them for help."
"We're not going back yet!" Thor insisted. "Not until I've taken my trophy, and I don't need help for that—"
"That's well enough, since we're not offering any," growled a rough voice behind them, and Thor jumped back his feet, wincing, as three men came through the trees into the clearing. The still-falling snow muffled their tramping boots. They looked even rougher than they sounded, grizzled and bulky under their thick leathers, dark-haired and dark-eyed like Hogun, and pinch-faced as their friend had been when first they had met him. One of the men held a heavy bow, one a war-hammer, and one a sword longer and broader than Thor's. You could tell a man's pride by how he cared for his weapons, Thor remembered Tyr saying; and pride of these men was chipped and stained with old blood.
Thor gripped his sword's hilt. "Greetings to you, men of Lo," he said firmly. "If you were hunting this youma, I apologize for stealing the kill; it attacked me and my brother."
The man with the hammer gave a raucous bark of laughter that made Thor twitch, not understanding it. The man with the sword asked, "Brother?" and stared past Thor to Lopt, standing silently at his shoulder. "Ah, I took him for your little wife, with no weapon of his own to defend himself..."
Thor flushed at this insult, bringing up his blade. "He's no girl—and I'm not old enough to be married besides—"
"Thor," his brother said, putting a hand on Thor's arm so he lowered the sword. Still as pale as the snow from the lingering stench of blood, Lopt looked at the men and said, "We have supplies enough to have no need of the beast—we'll depart now for our camp, and leave you to the prize—"
"Such a fair voice—are you sure he's not your sister?" said the man with the bow, leering.
As Thor stepped forward to put himself between Lopt and that look, the man with the hammer reached out to grab his shoulder, hold him in place. The man with the sword moved in closer on their other side. "How close is your camp?" he asked, his smile even more unpleasant than his breath. "And are they all so unneedful as you?"
"May be that we need those supplies more," said the man with the bow, sounding almost lazy, but his eyes gleamed hungrily. The man with the sword reached for Lopt's pack, and Thor twisted free, raised his own blade to them with a defiant shout.
"Ah-ah," the bowman chided. He had an arrow drawn on his bow, aimed not at Thor but Lopt's head. "Don't move," he said, "if you want your brother to keep both his pretty eyes."
Thor froze, and Lopt too, as the other men took Thor's sword from his hand, then ripped the packs from the brothers' shoulders, spilled out their contents on the snowy ground. They kicked aside the bedrolls to seize the few remaining bits of jerky and dried fruits—"
"Peaches?" exclaimed the man with the hammer, tossing one in his mouth. "I haven't tasted one in ten years—these must come from over the mountains—"
"Those are ours!" Thor shouted angrily, not daring to move otherwise, not with the bowman's arrow pointed at his brother. "We might share if you asked, but—"
The man with the sword had sheathed his own blade, holding Thor's instead in one hand in a casual sure grip. He glanced over from where he was biting off a strip of jerky. "But you'll have no need for them," he mumbled around the mouthful. "You sweet brother, now, might be tamed—my friend here would take him in, and put that pretty mouth to better use—but you're big enough to be trouble." He swallowed and stood as the man with the hammer scooped up the rest of the fallen food, nodded at the bowman and said easily, "Kill the yellow-haired brat, and we'll take his—"
He got no further, for as the bowman turned from Lopt, before his arrow aimed at Thor could be released, he gagged suddenly—there was a knife in his throat, the blade embedded up to its handle. The bowman dropped his bow, clawed with both hands at his neck, then crumpled in the snow.
The other men and Thor as well all stared at him, and then at Lopt, gray-faced and trembling, and another throwing dagger in either hand. These he flung, one at the man with the hammer and the other at the man with the sword. The man with the sword dodged, the knife only tearing his breeches. But the man with the hammer was too slow; he caught the dagger in the arm, and the hammer fell from his hand.
Thor dove for it desperately. The man with the sword was coming for him with his own blade; Thor grabbed the heavy hammer in both hands and swung it around, crunching against the man's knee and felling him with a shouting bellow. He brought up Thor's sword, but Thor smashed it and his hands too aside with the hammer, and the man's bellow became a scream—abruptly silenced as the hammer met the side of his head with a wet thump. He dropped to the ground, lifeless.
Thor whirled about, but the third man had fled—running through the trees, clutching Thor's half-empty pack to his chest. Thor took a step after him, but his twisted ankle folded under him, dumping him to the snowy ground with a cry of pain.
Over his own groaning he heard a terrible keening noise, the wheezing, strangled whine of an animal mortally wounded but not quite dead—he looked and saw Lopt, kneeling in the trampled snow, arms wrapped over his chest and shaking so hard that Thor could see him trembling. "Brother," Thor gasped, dropping the hammer and pushing himself up to limp to his side, "brother, are you injured—"
There was no blood on him, no wound that Thor could see, for all his crying. The men had not touched him, but Lopt's green eyes were staring, wide and unseeing, blind gaze fixed before him, in the direction of the dark lump in the snow that was the fallen bowman's corpse. Thor moved between his brother and that sight, crouched down in front of him to try to meet his staring eyes. "Brother," Thor said, taking him by the shoulders—careful not to let his bloodstained hands touch the cold white skin of his neck under the furs—and giving him a shake. "Brother, can you hear me?"
Lopt swallowed and the keening in his throat stopped. He blinked, said faintly, as soft as if he were speaking from another mountaintop, "...Thor?"
Thor couldn't smile; his face felt frozen with cold, for all he could feel warm blood trickling again from his scratched cheek. He brought up his sleeve to wipe it away before any could drip on his brother. "We have to go," he said. "The last man fled; if he returns with comrades—I don't know if I could protect you—"
"I—" Lopt gulped again, finally blinked his eyes into focus, meeting Thor's. "I can—I did—protect you—"
"Yes," Thor said, "yes, you did, brother, but we must run now—come on," and he tugged at Lopt's arms, grasping his wrists over his coat's cuffs though he dared not take his hands, drew him up standing.
Thor was hardly steady on his own legs, his ankle throbbing; but he managed to pull Lopt one step along, then two, bringing him away from the bodies on the ground, now frosted with snow, bright white against the red blood. After a few more steps Lopt drew a shuddering breath, straightened up and put his arm around Thor's waist to let Thor lean on him, acting as a crutch as they hobbled through the snow.
The further they walked, the easier it became, as the warmth of the exertion unstiffened their legs, and Thor's ankle numbed; it would not bear all his weight, but at least it didn't hurt any more. Night was falling, the woods growing darker, and the snow was falling faster now, whirling around them in sporadic gusts of wind. Thor hoped it was heavy enough to hide their trail, if more men came searching for them.
He worried about this greatly at first, though the further they went, the less urgent it seemed; his legs were tired and he was cold, and surely no one was following them. "S-stop, b-brother," he said, stammering; his teeth were chattering, hard enough that he nearly bit his tongue.
Lopt lurched to a halt in the snow—the drifts were nearly to their knees now—and for a moment they stood there in the dark snow-draped forest, swaying in the bitter wind. "We shouldn't s-stop," Lopt said, "it's t-too—"
"But we cannot see our path," Thor said; he was not even sure now if they were going uphill or down. "Or do you know the way?"
Lopt didn't answer, and Thor nudged him, said, "If you d-don't know—"
"I'm thinking," Lopt said, frustration giving his voice a little more strength.
"Think sitting down," Thor said, tugging his arm, and they limped over to the nearest tree, sat under the meager shelter of its branches—or fell, more like; Thor's legs collapsed under him when he tried to bend them, and when he toppled he pulled down Lopt with him. Thor laughed at this—he was not really sure why, since it was not so funny as that, yet he found it hard to stop, even though gasping the cold air made his lungs ache. Lopt frowned at him, mouth folded in a pout, and that made Thor laugh more, until he ran out of freezing breath.
When finally he quit, Lopt, sitting nestled against his side, said, much aggrieved, "You are an idiot."
Maybe it was how Thor's frozen cheeks hurt when he smiled, that made that not very funny after all. "Maybe I am," he said. His teeth were chattering less now, as if the laughter had warmed him. "Brother, I am sorry. If we had not come here—if you had not followed me..."
Lopt did not answer, for long enough for Thor to forget what he was waiting for his brother to say. He watched the snow fall through the darkness around them, feeling as if it were piling up inside his head as well, his thoughts buried like the forest floor. The snow drifts were comfortable, if you couldn't feel their chill, soft and quiet. Even under the tree they were becoming blanketed, coated in soothing white. It made him want to hold stiller, to preserve that cover.
Then it was brushed aside—shaken off; Lopt had sat up, was pulling at his coat with his white hands. "Thor," he said—had been saying, Thor vaguely realized, only he hadn't noticed, muffled as everything was by the snow—"Thor, wake up! You've rested, now we must get up, keep moving—"
Thor pushed Lopt's hands away, though it was difficult, with his own arms weighted down by the snow and his hands like blocks at the end of them. Clumsily he grabbed his brother, tried to pull him down again. "No, rest now...walk in the morning..."
"Brother, please," Lopt said, half-sobbing it, a thin and helpless whine, and Thor suddenly recalled Lopt staring at the bowman's corpse, the man he had killed with his knife, to save Thor.
He made himself sit up, with Lopt's help clambered to his feet. His feet felt like numb wooden blocks like his hands, but leaning on one another they managed to take one step through the snow, and another, and another.
"Shelter," Lopt was saying, his voice cracked and wavering, pulled away by the wind and muffled by the snow, but he kept talking, as if it helped his legs to move, "up the mountain, we can find a cave—build a fire and warm up. Like the cave we used to live in—do you remember it, Thor? It was so warm, even when the wind howled outside. I remember when I first was brought to it—Mother bathed me in warm water—and you were there—do you remember, Thor? You held me, though you weren't much bigger than me—your arms were warm, like Mother's—strange arms then, and I cried; I missed the first arms that held me, the first breast I was held to—but they had been so cold, and yours were warm—"
Thor did not remember—did not think Lopt really could, either. They had often been told the story of how Lopt had been found, but they had both been too young to remember it now. Besides, their mother had been the first breast Lopt had been held to; Odin had found him in his ranka on the mountainside. But Lopt drew strength from talking, and Thor drew strength from hearing him, and together they staggered on through the snowy night.
Though every step they took was slower and shorter than the one before, through the ever deeper snow; and Lopt's thready voice was faltering, and Thor realized with sudden sharp clarity that when it gave out, when Lopt lost his last strength, that they would both stop, and be buried. "Brother," Thor said, stumbling to a halt. "Brother, you must go on, without me."
Lopt stared at him, his eyes dark holes in his white face. Thor spoke before he could protest, saying, "You must go on ahead and find a cave—when you find one, you can come back and bring me to it, once you have built a fire to warm us—"
"A...a fire," Lopt mumbled, dazed like he was dreaming it. Thor could not imagine it himself; he could not remember what warmth was, except that it was something he once had wanted. Now he did not care, as long as his brother found his way to it, found his way out of this storm. Lopt had followed him, but this was not his quest; he could not stop here, not when he wasn't even yet old enough to be a warrior.
"Brother," Thor said, "if I am your leader—" or would have been, someday; but they were alone here—"then I command you—go, find shelter, as fast as you can."
Lopt blinked at him, swaying and bewildered. Then he sighed, his thin shoulders moving under Thor's arm, and nodded. He helped Thor to sit under a tree, gripped his cold numb arms and put his head to Thor's, told him, "Wait here, brother—I will come back for you, I swear it."
Then Lopt bounded away, moving quickly over the snow now that he was freed of the burden of his brother. In seconds he had vanished between the trees and swirling snow.
Thor tried to wait, he did; but he was so very tired, and the snow covering him was soft, gentle as it kissed his cheeks, like his mother's lips as she tucked him into bed when he was small. He fell asleep as easily as a babe, heavy eyelids slipping closed as he tumbled down into the welcoming darkness.
Sometime later Thor awoke to someone nudging his side, to a voice shouting his name, crying it—"Thor, wake up—get on, hold on, Thor, you must hold on—" He was shoved and prodded—a shape moved against him, dark against the white snow, pushing under him. Tilting motion and instinctively his numb hands gripped—then the world lurched and they moved—
The wind was rushing in his ears, in his eyes when he tried to open them. Thor ducked his head against the gale, squinting, trying to see through it. The white streaks in the darkness he took at first for snowflakes, but no; they were stars. Over the wind he heard deep breaths pumping like bellows; under him was the heat and rhythm of working muscles. His hands were tangled in a black mane; he was on the back of a horse, draped over its neck—no, not a horse; more slender, and faster, much faster. Some sort of kijuu, like his father's Sleipnir, but with a black coat instead of gray, and not so broad, and swifter even than Sleipnir's eight hooves, running silently on the wind itself. Far, far beneath them the white-capped mountains rolled away.
"No," Thor tried to say, to tell whoever had rescued him, kicking his heels against the kijuu's sides, "stop, please! We must go back—my brother—"
"I'm here with you, brother," Lopt answered. "Do not worry, I am well—"
"Brother?" Thor gasped out, trying to turn, to see who else rode with him on the kijuu's back, but the howling winds blinded him. He shut his eyes, wound his cold-chapped fingers deeper in the silky mane and held on as they galloped through the dark sky, on and on, until he did not know if he was really awake, or only dreaming everything, under the snow...
When Thor awoke again he was in his father's tent in the Asgardians' camp in Kei, sweating from all the furs piled over him and the fire burning in the corner. The first thing he saw when he opened his eyes was his mother's face, streaked with tears as she said his name.
His throat was so hoarse that he could not speak, until she tilted a cup to his lips and let him sip warm tea. "Where's my brother?" he asked when she took the cup away. "Is he all right?"
But Frigga only shook her head. "The children found you this morning, when they went to check the snares—you were lying in a clearing, alone; your brother was nowhere to be seen."
"No," Thor cried, shoving off the blankets, tried to get up though his ankle throbbed and the tent warped and tilted dizzily around him. "No, he was with me—"
But his brother was not with him now. And Thor watched and hoped and waited, but Lopt did not return, later or ever, to the Asgardians.
Come the spring equinox, Thor went into the forest alone, and by his own hand slayed and brought back a Kochou, a rare albino youma, white-feathered and red-eyed. The camp feasted for a day and a night to celebrate All-Father's son becoming a warrior, and Thor's helm was decorated with cropped pinions from the Kochou's great wings.
A month later Thor went to his father with his four friends behind him, knelt at their leader's feet and said, "The snows over the border passes should nearly be melted—we are going to Lo, to seek my brother."
The day after Thor's return, the All-Father had sent a hunting party to Lo, flying on kijuu for haste. After the solstice they had returned, finally driven back by the blizzards, cheeks pinched from hunger and with nothing to show for their weeks-long search. They had found the remains of a hunters' camp, but it had been deserted. They had discovered no corpses under the snow.
With no body as proof, the Asgardians did not hold funerary rites for Lopt; but Thor's mother wore her mourning in her face, and Odin seemed older now, his hair grayer than it had been the autumn before. "Thor," the All-Father said, "five moons have waxed and waned since your brother was lost to us; and even the strongest warrior would struggle alone in Lo's wilderness."
"But he was not alone," Thor said, as he had been saying all along. "Someone found us—someone brought me back here, and my brother with them. They must have kept him, for some wicked purpose." Do not worry, I am well, Lopt had told him, and in his memory Lopt sounded certain, not falsely brave but calm, even after all that had happened. Perhaps, Thor thought, Lopt had made a bargain for Thor's life, giving himself to them as servant or slave? Or else Lopt had managed to escape—or fallen off, as they rode over the mountains, but no, no, he could not have—
"Thor," his father murmured, a strange kindness in his eye that Thor had seen too much, these past months, "you cannot put all hope in a fever-dream..."
"I was frozen, not feverish," Thor said, "and I was brought from Lo in one a night, what took us seven days to walk—I did not dream that!"
"Or else you miscounted the day," Odin said, "for even the fastest kijuu could not travel so swiftly."
"Even so, someone rescued us both, and wherever they are now, in Lo or Kei or any other kingdom, I will find them; I will find my brother," Thor vowed.
His father gazed at his elder son, a long and heavy study, then regarded the four standing behind him, Sif, Fandral, Hogun, and Volstagg. "You all mean to join him on this search?"
As one they bowed their heads. "We do," Hogun and Volstagg said together, and Sif added, "Lopt is Thor's brother and our friend both."
"Yes," Fandral said, "if he's anywhere in this world, we'll track him down!"
Odin looked them in the eye and saw their mettle. He raised his spear in benediction. "So be it," he declared. "And may fortune favor your quest."
They traveled on foot to Lo, taking the same mountain pass he and Lopt had crossed the autumn before. Though it was spring, half the trees of the forest still were barren of leaves, while in Kei they were already flowering.
On their third day in the forest, they were attacked by a Kyuuki, the mate Thor had thought to seek before. The five of them slayed the beast without great trouble, but searching the woods found no camp, no sign of anyone. Thor tried to retrace the paths he and Lopt had taken, but could not; the land looked too different without the falling snow.
They descended the mountain. The first village they came to, the people ran inside their homes at their approach, shouted through their closed doors, "Leave! Go back to the mountains, bandits!"
At the next village, the villagers were tilling the hard-packed fields, and were too weary to run from them, though they watched with suspicious eyes, and turned their backs without answering their greetings. When Thor tried to question them about a boy named Lopt or a black kijuu, the youths and the elderly spat at their feet with the daring of age.
Accustomed as they were to the welcoming people of Kei, it was difficult not to get angry at such poor treatment. When Thor lost his temper, Sif or Hogun would calm him, while Volstagg and Fandral made apologies; but as they traveled further sometimes it was Sif who was enraged, or Fandral.
At the same time it was as difficult to hold onto that ire, seeing the hunger in the villagers' eyes, the desperate fear. If they were suspicious, it was not by nature but by harsh lesson. With the nobles hiding behind their walls and no law to speak of in the land, some forsook trying to eke a living out of the barren ground in favor of taking what they needed from those weaker.
The first time Thor saw a man hit an elderly woman and steal the mostly empty basket off her back, he bellowed a warning and charged the ruffian, heedless of the shocked stares of the villagers who did nothing to stop either the thief or Thor. The thief was fast, but Sif was faster, cutting off his escape so Thor could lay him out with his fist. When they brought the basket back to the woman Fandral was helping up, she took nearly a minute to utter quavering thanks, as if she had all but forgotten how to say it.
They came across similar scenes over and again as they traveled. Thor stopped shouting to save his throat, but he and his friends did not stop striking the thieves down. They rarely did more; the thieves' cheeks were usually as pitifully sunken as anyone else's.
Not so for the bandit gangs who were employed by the nobles, meagerly rewarded for what they stole. With so little goods or riches in the land left to rob, their thieving was darker yet. Thor and his friends entered one village to find its people gathered in the central court, praying under the riboku tree's branches. Their children had been taken that day—two sons and three daughters, all under ten, snatched away by a gang to be made slaves in some distant lord's hall.
Hearing this, Thor drew his sword from his belt. As the villagers cringed back, he growled over the hot blood throbbing in his ears, "Which way did they go?"
The gang was on foot; Thor and his friends tracked them down before nightfall. There were a dozen of them, but against five Asgardian warriors the battle was violent but short.
None of the slavers wielded a hammer. But when Thor felled the last, he put his blade to the man's throat, demanded, "Did you ever take a boy, pale, with green eyes and black hair?"
The man shook his head frantically, crying desperate denials as Thor turned away to let him bleed out on the ground.
The children were sobbing, terrified, hurt and exhausted from the forced march and their empty bellies; but none were seriously injured. Thor and his friends carried them back to the village and put them in their parents' arms. The villagers celebrated that night, a scant and paltry party, more rationed than any feast ought to be; but what little food and drink they had was freely shared with the Asgardians.
It was here they first heard the rumor that there was a new kirin on Mount Hou—that Lo at long last might again be granted a ruler. The shashinboku had finally bore Loka, and the kirin was already grown enough to choose the emperor. On the summer solstice, the Reikon Gate would open to allow pilgrims from Lo to go to Houro Palace and present themselves to the kirin, to see if they would be chosen.
Over the next month Thor and his friends encountered processions of nobles on the roads, journeying to Sai to enter through the gate. Villagers joked of making the trip themselves, for the chance at the throne. For wasn't it the case that a kirin might choose anyone, the least peasant as soon as the wealthiest lord, if the heavens decreed it?
Such jests aside, excitement sounded in the voices and brightened the faces of those who spoke of the kirin, and the possibility of an emperor on Lo's empty throne. In a city tavern, listening to such talk buzzing around them, more cheer than they had heard in all their weeks in Lo before, Volstagg shook his head. "Why do they want a ruler so badly? Don't they realize it was one who brought all this misery on them?"
Thor and his other friends looked at one another. Volstagg was old enough to remember the death of Lo's last emperor, while the rest of them had been only infants. "Not all rulers are so terrible, are they?" Sif asked. "Look at Kei."
"A good ruler can bring hope as much as a bad will bring misery," Thor said. "If the leader listens to those he leads, and is well-advised..." Then he stopped, swallowed his ale and spoke no more that night, while his friends conversed boisterously to cover his silence.
The kirin on Mount Hou did not find a ruler among the summer solstice pilgrims, nor those who came through the Reison Gate on the autumn equinox. No more than Thor and his friends had any luck finding his brother. They visited every town and village by the mountains, but no one had ever seen a green-eyed, black-haired Asgardian boy, and they laughed at the fairy tale of a black-maned kijuu that could gallop as fast as lightning across the skies, until Thor stopped mentioning that fever-dream.
Before winter fell on Lo, Thor and his friends made their way back to Kei, to travel again with the Asgardian camp. Everywhere they went and everyone they met, Thor asked about Lopt, hoping that perhaps whoever had taken his brother hailed from Kei. He visited noble houses as well as farming villages, introduced himself to the lords and ladies as the Asgardian All-Father's son and was treated well for it; but nowhere did he learn of any news of his brother.
Come spring they readied to return to Lo. The eve before they departed, Volstagg came to Thor, told him he must stay behind—"Hildegund and I tied a ribbon on the riboku in the last village, you see—perhaps once the babe is older, I can rejoin you, but for now you'll walk faster without me anyway..."
"Faster but not as well," Thor said, "but congratulations, my friend, I am glad to hear of your coming family," and the four of them celebrated with Volstagg that night, then set out the next morning for Lo.
No emperor yet sat on Lo's throne, and the hope with which the people spoke of the kirin was now tinged with bitterness, that four pilgrimages had gone by with no ruler chosen. The pilgrims who returned Houro Palace claimed they had barely gotten a glimpse of the creature, as if the kirin considered them all unworthy. The heavens were mocking them, they said, giving them a kirin, but no emperor to be found.
"It seems a bit unfair to blame the beast, doesn't it," Fandral remarked. "Surely it's not its fault, that Lo's hard-up for decent rulers..."
Even committed as they were to their quest, it was impossible not to feel for Lo's beleaguered people. Among the Asgardians there were warriors who spoke of someday leaving Kei and taking back the lands that once had been theirs, that when Lo had entirely fallen to ruin and all the nobles were gone, the Asgardians could again carve out their place in the wilderness. But Thor could not help but regret such wishes now, seeing for himself the suffering of the kingdom's downfall.
Shortly after the next autumn equinox passed with the ruler still unchosen, they met a party on the road, most of a village driven by fires from their homes, traveling together for protection. They traveled with the villagers for three days, and when the road forked, Fandral and Hogun spoke with Thor. "They mean to go to Kei," Fandral said, "and we have promised to go with them, to guard their passage over the mountains."
"You both will go?" Thor asked, and Hogun nodded, his face set impassively against the memories of his own family's journey. Thor told them, "Then I wish you the best fortune; may you bring them all safely to new homes," and his friends thanked him, promising to rejoin him and Sif as soon as they had fulfilled this vow.
They did not, however. Fandral and Hogun returned to Lo before the first snows, but on the roads they encountered more refugees trying to flee to Kei, and with the winter coming the journey was more treacherous still. So honor left them little choice but to guide the people on the safest way. Then the snows blocked the passes, and come spring they led more Asgardian warriors into Lo, so that more people could be brought to safety.
Thor and Sif continued to search for Lopt. In a desolate canyon in Lo they saved a pair of Gyuuma kids, rare winged goat youjuu, notoriously difficult to tame, but hand-raised they proved loyal mounts, accepting saddle and bridle. On Tanngiost and Tanngrisnir's backs, Thor and Sif traveled across Lo and Kei and then the other kingdoms. They met many people across the lands, farmers and scholars, lords and beggars, hanjuu and kaikyaku stranded from Hourai; but not one of them had ever met a boy named Lopt.
The next year Thor and Sif wintered again with the Asgardian camp, hunting and questing and playing with Volstagg's toddling daughter. Thor led a few warbands on shorter missions, and found it as exciting as he had once dreamed it would be. In his years traveling he had grown, so he now found himself as tall or taller than the older warriors who once had handily defeated him in the dueling circle; and he had fought bandits and slain youma they had never even seen—if never a Toutetsu, though he was old enough now to be grateful for that omission. The warriors respected his fighting skills and pressed him for tales of his adventures, and in return he enjoyed their accounts of hunts and battles.
Yet come midnight, when the campfire had died down to embers, Thor would be left in solitude, awake and listening to the snores around him. Years of rough travel had made him wary of sleeping too deeply in the open, but even in the Asgardian camp his rest was uneasy, his dreams troubled. And no one ever broke the night's peace to speak to him, when he brooded so.
Sitting before a fire in the late night, with Sif or with the warbands, Thor always had to keep pulling his eyes down to his hands. Otherwise they would drift up to the space across the flames, and it made no difference who sat there, Sif or his father or another warrior, or no one at all—whoever was there, it always was jarring not to see the green-eyed, pale-faced shadow he somehow expected, even after more than three years.
Come spring, Thor went to Sif, told her, "You should join a warband, now that you are twenty, and have a kijuu besides. Tyr would have you for his sentry."
"Tyr would?" Sif said. "Was my brother Heimdall twisting his arm?"
"Heimdall would rather have you in his own band, I think," Thor said. "But Tyr has seen your skill for himself."
Sif looked pleased, but said, "I can swear an oath, but I can't fight alongside the band now, of course, since I am with you—"
"—But you should fight with them," Thor said. "You can show them all how fierce a fighter you are—you're stronger now than most of the warriors twice your age. You should serve all our people, not only me and my selfishness—Lopt is my brother, after all, and you've already forfeited three years to this search—"
Sif put her hand to her sword's hilt, said steadily, "Say that again and I will challenge you in the dueling circle. Lopt was my friend, too," and then she saw Thor's face, recanted hastily, "Lopt is my friend...and you're going to keep searching for him, are you not?"
"Father has told me that come my next nameday, when I turn twenty, I must return to the camp, to take the oaths of the All-Father and command a band of my own," Thor said.
Sif lowered her eyes and her hand from her sword, asked softly, "Thor, do you truly believe that you can find him—in three more years, or thirty, or however long? You know I never doubted that your brother escaped the mountains with you, but if something befell him since..."
"He lives," Thor said. "I would know it, if he didn't," and he did know it, as surely as once he had known Lopt was hiding in the forest, even if his brother did not answer when he called.
"If you are so certain he lives," Sif said hesitantly, "have you ever wondered if he has not returned because he does not wish to? Lopt was never entirely content to be a warrior, and he was not of our blood; perhaps he has found himself a place he prefers more..."
Thor stared at her. "Ever wondered it? I pray for it, Sif; with all my heart I wish it to be so!"
"But in that case even if you found him, you would not have your brother back."
"No." Thor shook his head. "I gave up the hope of getting him back as once we were a long time ago." In truth, since the mountains of Lo—since his brother's knife had taken a man's life and Thor had heard him cry from the pain of it. Though he had never told anyone of that, even his dearest friends.
Sif looked at him, sorrowful and confused. "But if you don't hope to get him back...then why have you sought him for so long?"
"Because I don't know!" Thor said. "What if I comfort myself thinking that he's found a better life, and abandon him to suffering? I hope he does have a home; I pray he's happier now than he ever was as my brother. But until I know he is, wherever he is, I must search for him."
"And you will find him," Sif said, absolutely confident; but she joined Tyr's warband, and wished Thor good fortune and farewell when he left for Lo.
The talk in Lo was more dispirited than ever, mutters in the dry taverns and desiccated fields saying that Lo's kirin was cursed, even as their land was—-a mad kirin, who served neither the kingdom nor the heavens. Rumors spread that it had fled Mount Hou, for all that the priestesses who tended the kirin would deny it.
The kirin had fled before, it was said, and that was why Lo had gone so long without one—the creature had slipped its caretakers and escaped for years, and now having been recaptured it sought to run again, leaving Lo's ruler unchosen. Some even claimed they had seen the kirin running, galloping across the kingdom, brilliant gold as the sun, as kirin were said to be.
Far from any village, on a little plot of land less infertile than the rest, a grandmother took care of her granddaughter. Thor, flying over their farm, saw a pack of Kiki threatening their scrawny chickens, and descended to slay the beasts. In thanks the old woman offered his kijuu a place in their empty stable for the night, and shared their meager supper with him.
"I saw the kirin once," the little girl told him, as they sat on the porch under the stars. Her small arm described an arc that cut like the Milky Way across the entire sky. "From there to there, I saw it, swift as a falling star—"
Thor smiled at her, accustomed to this story. "And golden like the sun?"
But the girl shook her head, frowning at him, and her grandmother laughed. "No," she said, "it's only those who've not truly seen him who say that. Lo is blessed with a Kokki, a black kirin."
"A black kirin?" Thor asked; he had never heard of such a thing.
"They are the rarest," the grandmother said. "The last was in Tai, before I was born. They're luckiest of all—that's why it will all work out in the end, that we have such a kirin; Loki will choose a meikun, a great ruler, for sure."
Thor stared at her. "The kirin," he said, "the black kirin can cross the sky, so swiftly—"
"Yes, kirin are the fastest creatures in all the kingdoms."
"Fast enough to cross in a single night, what takes a week to walk?" he asked, and the old woman said, "I suppose?"
"Grandmother," Thor said, taking her by the arms, "Lo's kirin—Loki—when did it first appear in Lo?"
"The first stories that I heard were after the first pilgrimage, the summer solstice, three years past, now."
More than half a year after Thor had been returned to Kei; and his hopes fell. But still, if there was a chance—if it had been the kirin's back he and Lopt had ridden upon...
The next pilgrimage was the autumn equinox, when the gate in Lo itself would open, but that was still more than a month away, and Thor could not bring himself to wait. Kirin were magical beasts, something greater than youma; they could talk, and even sometimes take human form like hanjuu, so he had heard. If Lo's kirin knew of his brother—if Lo's kirin had saved them, for some mysterious reason—
Even if it had not, perhaps in its travels across Lo it might have seen Lopt. Thor had to know.
With the four gates closed, the journey over the seas and mountains to Houro Palace was difficult, even on his kijuu's back. It took Thor days to find his way, and when he did, the walls of the palace were barred to him. "No pilgrims may enter to see the kirin, except during the festivals," the nyosen priestess behind the gate told him, sympathetic but firm. Even when he told the nyosen the reason for his quest, that he had no desire to be chosen as ruler but only wanted to talk with the kirin, they apologized, but still turned him away.
So Thor camped outside the palace's walls for three weeks. At first he ate what game he could hunt, prepared with his own supplies. After a few days, the priestesses who left the palace to pick herbs and tubers and to shepherd their small sheep flocks began to bring him meals from their kitchen, delicious and exotic dishes, with spices he had never tasted before, and fruits from any season, for the heart of Mount Hou had no seasons, but always a mild growing climate.
From the priestesses he learned it was not only heavenly law that blocked his quest; even had he been allowed entrance to the palace, Lo's kirin was not there to meet with him. The priestesses sounded concerned as they spoke of it, though not as if their pet had run off and needed seeking; rather they were saddened, almost lamenting. "Is the kirin lost, then?" Thor asked, and they hesitated before replying.
At last one of them said, "Yes, Loki is lost—but he will return for the pilgrimage; he has every time before..." Though she did not sound entirely sure, as she said it.
But the night before the equinox, as Thor lay on the grass, leaning against his mount Tanngiost's winged shoulder and watching the night sky, he saw moving between the stars a glimmer of light, like a comet. Only it did not fade, but grew, until he saw it clearly, high overhead, the streaming banner of the kirin's tail as it galloped on the wind. Against the black sky the creature did not look black itself, but rather made of silver starlight, shining like a mirror of polished onyx.
Thor watched the kirin cross over him, breathless and his heart aching as if his chest were too small to hold it. He found himself thinking that his brother might once have had a hundred questions, watching it run; his head felt hollowly empty, that he could not think of any himself, but only wonder at its beauty.
When the kirin descended and disappeared behind the walls of Houro Palace, Thor continued to stare up at the sky, trying to remember his old fever-vision—the warm velvet hide under him, his fingers tangled in a silken mane. But could he have grasped such starlight? Or had he dreamed it after all, and looking at the kirin now only saw his dream reflected...
The kirin bore on its shoulders the hopes of an entire kingdom; Thor knew it was cruel to add his own to that burden. But he could not help but think of Loki streaking like a shooting star across the sky, and wonder. Kirin were said to be the most compassionate of all creatures; if Lo's kirin had seen him and his brother, dying in that forest, and taken pity on them...
The next day the Reison Gate opened, and the pilgrims entered. Those wealthier ones who owned kijuu—not so many now, when most of the nobility of Lo had already stood before the kirin and been found wanting—flew to Houro Palace, to make their camps in the heart of the grounds, nearest to the kirin. The other pilgrims walked the winding paths up the mountain to take their turn.
Thor was one of the first within the walls, but did not push himself to the front of the line; he had no wish to quarrel with the nobility arguing who had the first right, and besides the priestesses had advised him to delay—"Loki will be sleepy at first, and therefore sullen," they told him; "but as the day wears on he will grow bored of the pilgrims, and be more disposed to speak with you, out of wish for the distraction."
So Thor waited outside the temple where the pilgrims entered one by one, to present themselves before Lo's kirin, and one by one leave disappointed.
It was nearing evening, the sun dipping low between the mountains, and Thor's belly was grumbling from not having eaten all day, when one of the priestesses came to him. Her name was Shuuri; he had met her several times outside the wall. Though she seemed only a girl, Thor knew she was in truth over a century old, already at Mount Hou when Keiki was born. Now she told him, "You may enter the temple, Lord Thor; you are the last pilgrim Loki will receive today."
Thor followed Shuuri up the steps into the temple. Crossing the ornately carved and painted threshold, he was suddenly aware of how rough his stained traveling clothes were, compared to the finery of the noble lords and ladies he had seen enter today. The priestess said nothing of his shabby appearance, however, as she led him further within.
The air of the inner temple was heavy with silence and sweet perfumes. Shuuri gave him three incense sticks and told him softly, "Kneel and burn them, then face the screen and ask your question, and see if Loki will answer."
Thor nodded and strode into the silk-draped hall. While the priestess's slippers pattered softly on the tiled floor, his boots stomped; hunting in the forest he could walk near-silently, but not in this fine chamber. He was not made for such delicacy.
The hall was not so long, but it seemed to take forever for him to clomp to the altar at the end. Thor knelt before it, placed his incense in the ash-filled pot and bowed his head, then turned to the golden screen to his right. He kept his head lowered, but peered up through his hair at the screen. Through the mesh he could make out a shape, but only a faint shadow, impossible to identify if it were even a beast or a man.
He put out of his mind the shining memory of the kirin passing overhead, and spoke as he would to a lord. "Honorable kirin, I am Thor Odinson of Asgard, son of the All-Father, leader of our people. I come to you not to petition for Lo's throne, but because I have a question—"
Thor paused a moment, for he thought he had heard a sound past the screen—a whisper, or perhaps only a caught breath? But when he raised his head, the shadow behind the screen had not moved, so he went on, "In your travels over Lo, I wish to know if ever you have—if you have seen—" Thor had spent all this day and weeks before that thinking over his question, but kneeling before the kirin now his tongue stumbled over it, so he ended up stammering out, "—my brother was lost, you see—I wonder if you were in the mountains between Lo and Kei, four years ago, and saw two boys, dying in the forest—"
"And if I did?" The voice that came from behind the screen was low, even, as refined as any lord's, if the speech was not so formally courteous. A handsome voice, though not what Thor would have thought a magical beast would speak like. He wondered if the kirin had taken human form to talk to him. "If I were in those mountains, four years past, what would you know of what I saw?"
"I would know what became of my brother!" Thor said, his voice too loud in the temple's incense-laden stillness, but he could not tame it. "If you saved him—as maybe you saved me—if it was you, why did you not return him with me? Where did you take him—I've searched and searched, but not found him anywhere—"
"You searched?" and the kirin's level voice sharpened slightly, like a steel blade whispering under silk.
"For four years I've searched," Thor said, "and have found no sign, no trace of him anywhere across the kingdoms; but he told me he was well, I remember that—"
"If he told you not to worry about him, then why do so?" the kirin asked. "Why continue to search all these years, when you only fail?"
"Because he is my brother—I don't know if kirin have brothers? Or are you all brothers and sisters to one another, since you are birthed from the same tree—either way, Lopt is my brother, and so I must find him."
"To bring him back to the Asgardian camp? To life among warriors like yourself?"
"Only if he wished to come back, and he may not," Thor said, startled that the kirin could recognize him as a warrior, out of armor as he was; and speaking honestly in his surprise. "But I would ask him—I would ask him whether he is well, whether he is happy, wherever he is; that is what I want to know."
The kirin did not answer right away. Thor looked and behind the screen saw the shadow move, rising—to walk away, he thought, and his heart sank; but then there was a scraping sound, and the woven screen lifted up.
The kirin behind it stood looking down at Thor. He appeared as a man, a young man near Thor's height but slender, dressed in black robes trimmed with emerald silk. His thick black hair fell loose past his shoulders, framing a thin pale face and green, green eyes; and Thor could only stare, because he knew those eyes. Even four years older, he knew that face.
"Lopt is nowhere in the Twelve Kingdoms or beyond," the kirin said softly. "You will not find your brother anywhere, no matter how long or far you search. But if it will ease your heart, Thor, know that Loki is well."
And Thor could not think, or stand, or breathe, lost the last air in his lungs to ask one word, "Brother?"
"To this day, we have not learned which lord was responsible," the senior priestess explained, as they shared a supper. "Or lords—however great a conspiracy it was. But somehow the nobles of Lo sent a thief to Mount Hou, stealing into the inner sanctuary, and the moment Loka dropped from the shashinboku, Loki was taken." Her anger briefly seemed too much for her lovely face to show, but she calmed herself, continued, "No one here can suppose to understand such evil plans; but I think they believed they could hand-raise a kirin like a youjuu, tame him to bow to them, apart from the heavens' mandate.
"We thought his nyokai would lose her senses; she went out to search for Loki ceaselessly throughout the lands, until at last she did not return to Mount Hou. We never learned what became of her, though we knew there had been no shoku, so she must still be somewhere in the kingdoms. But eventually enough time passed that we knew we must mourn her. And Loki, too, we feared—but no new ranka budded on the shashinboku. Though we heard no word of him, anywhere in Lo or beyond."
Thor looked at Lopt—at Loki, kneeling across the table, picking pieces of spiced fruit from the plate before him. "We did not mean to hide him," Thor said, softly in light of the priestess's evident grief. "We didn't know..."
The priestess nodded, her face composed. "We understand," she said, absolution in her kindness. "Loki told us how you raised him, as if he were one of your own people—"
"As if they could make me one of them," Loki said. He was not looking at Thor but at his plate, chopsticks poised in his long fingers, debating which delicacy to next select. "Remake me, into a warrior—I might have done it, too, taken their challenge, slain—"
"Loki," the senior priestess said, no louder than he had spoken.
But Loki raised his head, his eyes bright and glittering, as Thor remembered them flashing when he was truly angry. The chopsticks chimed as he dropped them on the ceramic plate, loud in the temple's hush. "How long did it take, to wash away my impurities? How many months before any of you nyosen could look at me without tears of pity welling up in your eyes—how long before my fellow kirin could even bear to be in the same room with me, without their stomachs turning from the stench of blood on me? When the first pilgrims came, you dared not tell them what had become of me, lest they doubt I was still pure enough to be the heavens' messenger, and my choosing only bring further ruin upon Lo—"
"Brother," Thor breathed, horrified.
Loki's green eyes fixed on him. "I'm not your brother," he said. "I never was. I was a lost prize, a stolen relic, picked up only by chance—and better for Lo if I had not been! If I had died in the snow, then another Loka would have grown, a new kirin born, and Lo's ruler would already be chosen—"
"Loki," the priestess said again. Her eyes were filled with tears, though whether from pity or some greater sadness Thor could not say. She went around the table, knelt beside Loki and folded her arms around him, long gauzy sleeves trailing over his black robes as she rested her head atop his—like Frigga used to embrace him when he was small and sickly, and Loki shut his burning eyes, took a shuddering breath and leaned against her.
The rich odors rising from Thor's own plate made his stomach twist. He pushed the dish away, got up and stumbled from the table, to leave Loki to the priestess's gentle comfort and hope it might soothe some of the hurt Thor caused, just by being here.
He was a reminder, Thor realized—in these beautiful sweet-smelling halls, Loki might have been able to forget some of what he had endured; but not with Thor before him.
He wondered if his clothes stank of blood—it had been a long time since he had been in battle; but he hunted still, and however he washed, he could never make himself as clean as this perfect place.
"Lord Thor?" The priestess Shuuri approached him as he stood on the stairs, her robes brushing softly on the floor. He flinched when she touched his arm, tried to pull away, before he dirtied her soft hand; but she did not withdraw. "Lord Thor," she said, "Loki does not mean it. He was hurt, but in his heart he knows you never intended to hurt him."
Thor shuddered. "But we did hurt him, intending it or not. My family and I, we—we did not know what he was, we didn't understand—I don't know much about kirin, but they're not meant to be warriors, are they?"
The priestess exhaled. "No, they are not."
"He didn't like to fight," Thor said softly. "He hated blood, even the taste of meat—I knew that; but he hated to fight as much, I think, but learned it anyway...made himself learn it, or we made him..."
"Lord Thor," Shuuri said, gazing out over the temple gardens, the silhouettes of trees and grass softened by moonlight. "You and your people, you camped in the forests, did you not? And sometimes when Loki was upset or scared, he would run away and hide up in a tree, and you would come looking for him, climb up after him, to talk with him?"
"Yes?" Thor said, confused.
The priestess smiled. "I thought so. Loki speaks of you sometimes, and when he does it is with love."
"He speaks of me...?"
"Of you, and your mother and father—his mother and father. And your friends—there was a girl, who dyed her hair black to match his?"
"Yes, that's Sif."
"And a silly boy sweet on the girls, and a man with a large appetite and larger heart, and a serious boy who was the first to really speak to him of Lo, his kingdom?"
"Fandral and Volstagg and Hogun," Thor said.
"Loki never told us their names," Shuuri said. "But he told us of them. Are they well, his friends?"
"All of them, yes," Thor said. "They searched for him with me, for years—they'll be so happy, to know he's here, and well..." And a kirin...he wondered how they would take that. Especially Volstagg, who never had respect for the emperors or those that chose them; and or Hogun, who had lost his first family to the chaos of Lo. Sif and Fandral at least had no hatred of kirin, if no particular love either.
"Loki will be glad to hear they're well," the priestess said. "But you, Lord Thor—he spoke of you most of all. His brother....it's an unusual thing, for a kirin to have a brother. But then, Loki is unusual in so many ways—and that was one of the few differences to bring him joy instead of sorrow."
Thor felt a prickling heat in his eyes, blinked it back. "So he—he remembered us..." And not always with anger, for all his rage before. Thor looked down at the priestess beside him. "If he talked of me—did you guess who I was, when I spoke to you of my brother? Is that why you brought me to see him today?"
Shuuri shook her head. "No—I thought he might have sympathy for your plight, but I did not imagine..." She drew a breath, considering, then said, "Almost four years ago, one morning just past dawn, we found Loki standing outside the palace gate, shivering and with ice still caked in his mane. For the first month he would not take human shape; he wouldn't even speak to us—we thought perhaps he had been living like a feral hanjuu in the wilderness; we feared he might be so ill in spirit that he had lost his reason.
"When finally he did speak, he told us of who had raised him—but he told us as well that you were dead. All of you, all who had cared for him—he told us your camp had been set upon by bandits in the night, and he and you, his brother, barely escaped with your lives. But you became lost in the winter forest, and told him to run as fast as he could, to save himself. And so he ran—ran all the way to us."
"We were—we were attacked," Thor said. "Not the camp, but my brother and I...it was my fault, my quest; I insisted on going to Lo, and he followed me, though we both knew how dangerous it was. Our escape was narrow, and only thanks to him—but he knew I lived; he came back for me. He brought me back to our people, before he came here—he knew we all were safe, he knew where we were...I don't understand why he wouldn't tell you."
"The fault was ours, I fear," Shuuri said, bowing her head. "When Loki first returned...we were upset. I've never seen Lady Teiyei furious before, not like that. And Loki... he may have feared that if we knew who you were, that we would seek to punish you for what he suffered."
"I think you would have been right to," Thor said grimly, thinking of Loki's anguish, remembering his keening cry in the snow on the mountains of Lo.
The priestess lifted her head to meet Thor's eyes. "No," she said firmly, taking his hands, grasping them tightly in hers. Her fingers were slender but strong, calloused not by a sword hilt but a century of kinder labors. "It would be wrong to punish you for what you did unknowing, and out of love for Loki. And besides, to take vengeance in a kirin's name only hurts them all the more, in the end; their compassion is too great for them to enjoy suffering, even of those who wronged them."
Thor frowned, thinking of all Lopt's many pranks. "But my brother...I do not know if that's true of Loki." Though most of those pranks damaged only pride, no one's person...
"It's true that Loki has more of a...sense of justice than most kirin," Shuuri said. "He knows more of the world than most of his kind do, before they find their master...still, Loki is special, but he is a kirin yet; he has a kirin's true heart. I know the ruler he chooses will be worthy—the ruler to save Lo. Especially with Loki supporting them—he is brilliant, you know; his mind is as bright as his kirin's heart."
"I know," Thor said, smiling slightly through his guilt. "That was always true. When we were growing up—I am the All-Father's elder son, and Lopt was my brother. We—I always thought that someday I would lead our people, and he would advise me, be my second..."
"He will be second to all the kingdom," the priestess said, smiling. "And a great one. Even if in many aspects his upbringing was...unconventional—in that, your people raised Loki as all kirin are."
"One right, amidst a multitude of wrongs," murmured a voice behind them.
Thor turned to see Loki standing in the doorway in his black kirin robes, hands folded in his sleeves before him. His face was as calm as his tone, but his eyes were hidden in the shadows. "I know you did not mean them, however," Loki went on, before Thor could find the voice to respond. "I am sorry for my reaction before. In honesty I forgave all of you long ago. But seeing you here...stirred up feelings I thought I had at last put aside. I beg you please excuse my ill disposition."
As painful as his anger had been, Thor found this even more painful, the carefully spoken courtesy, so formal, as a lord would address an opposing nobleman he had lost to on the battlefield. And Loki's low smooth voice was not his brother's voice, not the boy's voice Thor still clearly remembered.
Loki turned to the priestess, took her hands in his and lowered his head to hers. More warmly he said, "And I must apologize to you, Shuuri—to all the nyosen. That I lied to you about my foster family's fate—"
"It's all right," Shuuri said. "We should have guessed, I think; you always told us how strong your family was, but not how bandits managed to defeat them. It should have been obvious."
"You weren't expecting a kirin to lie," Loki said, and Thor felt it like a slap.
But the priestess only said, "No—but most learn to, eventually, as they must, to serve their master. That you learned more, faster, than you should have, does not make you any less." She rose on her toes to kiss his cheek, told him in a voice that reminded Thor again of their mother, "Now sit you down and talk with your brother—he missed you as much as you missed him, I think, and you will both be happier for the reunion."
She glided off, her robes whispering on the floor, leaving them alone on the temple steps. Loki was silent, looking at Thor, and Thor said awkwardly, "You do not—you do not need to speak to me, if you don't wish to. I understand how it must pain you, that I am a reminder of what you endured..."
"Do you really?" Loki asked. "Can you understand it? You love our—your people. You were born to them, born the best of them; you could not be a more perfect son of Asgard. You always loved the hunting and the fighting, sitting around the campfire eating roasted meat and boasting of valor in battle, and you are old enough now to drink mead with the other warriors—you are a warrior, are you not? You took a trophy?"
"I did," Thor said. "A white Kochou."
Loki inclined his head to study him through the shadows. "Where is your helm?"
"I left it outside the gates," Thor said. "I didn't think a warrior's dress would be welcome in a kirin's sanctuary..."
Loki snorted at that. "Haven't you seen the generals presenting themselves before me? They pour whole bottles of oil on their armor to make it shine and invent new honors so they might have more medals to wear—an emperor must be strong as well as wise; they are expected to war for the kingdom, even if I would not."
"Will you choose a general then, instead of a lord, to be ruler?" Thor asked, then broke off as Loki's expression changed, his momentary humor again darkened. "I'm sorry, if you're not allowed to speak of how you choose—"
"It does not matter if I speak of it; it won't change anything," Loki said. "I do not choose the ruler."
"But..." Thor stared at him, confused. "I thought the main purpose of the kirin was to select the emperor—"
"The purpose of a kirin is to be the pointed finger of the heavens' mandate," Loki said, his voice once more coolly formal. "I make no choice; I simply obey my nature as the heavens dictate, by responding to the ouki, the aura of the ruler. The one I bow to, they will be Lo's ruler, and I can bow to no other, whether or not I would wish to."
Thor frowned. "So when you receive the pilgrims, you just sit there, waiting to feel the right aura to bow to?"
"Were you expecting greater wisdom, from the heavens which misplaced one of their own messengers among barbarians?"
Thor flushed with a shame so fierce it could be taken for anger. "Broth—Loki—I am sorry—" He bowed his head, but that did not seem enough, not to a kirin who would be of the emperor's court, and trained in all its magnificence. So Thor lowered himself to his knees, put his forehead to the floor between his hands, as he had seen petitioners make obeisance in royal courts. Barbarian though he might be, he could offer at least this much respect. "I am so sorry for the wrongs we did you, for all the hurt and harm you took—"
"You don't need bother with that," Loki said above him. "I already forgave you, as I said—"
"But you are angry still, and hurt still," Thor said, keeping his head down, as much now to hide the water burning in his eyes, though it filled his throat as well. "And as your brother I should have understood, even not knowing what you were—I knew who you were, and that should have been enough—"
"Get up!" Loki said, "I tell you, there's no need," and he grabbed Thor by the shoulders to pull him up off the ground, crouched before him. This close, the light from the garden's lanterns fell across his eyes, so Thor could see their green, sparking now with renewed ire. "It was only a bit of fun," Loki said, "only a joke—or have you forgotten I used to make those? You are no more barbarians than I am—and maybe I am still; but that's yet better than being a noble, is it not? Either way you don't need bow to me, Thor—you never did anything to me but treat me as your beloved sibling, and that I was ill-suited to be him was no fault of yours. I should rather be the one apologizing to you, that I could not be the brother you ought to have had—"
"But you are—you were," Thor said, his throat still thick. "If ever you felt that you were not, that was my fault, a mistake of my youthful pride—I made many, and make them still. If I hadn't insisted we go to Lo, if I hadn't demanded the trophy I did—"
"Then I might never have known what I am," Loki said.
"Then I would not have lost you," Thor said, "and you would still be at my side—and I am sorry for that, too, that I'm so selfish. Because even knowing what you are for Lo, knowing what hope you bring to that poor land, and how badly it needs such hope—I would still wish you were my brother, as we used to be."
Loki shut his eyes, rocked back on his haunches as he ran both his hands over his face. "Oh," he said between them, scarce above a whisper, "Oh, Thor, sometimes I would wish that, too."
He reached out or Thor did, or else they both did, meeting in the middle to embrace, kneeling together on the temple's polished tile floor.
They sat there for long hours afterwards, looking out over the gently moonlit gardens and talking. Thor told Loki of their family and friends, of Volstagg's daughter and how Sif still kept her hair black, and all the places they had traveled in Kei and in Lo and beyond. And Loki told Thor of living in Houro Palace, the peace and the lessons he had learned, the nyosen and the other kirin he had met, who had taught him what it meant to be what he was. Keiki the kirin of Kei was one of Loki's teachers—"He is stricter than Tyr, and less given to smiling than Hogun—but he has the patience of—of our mother. If not the wisdom of our father; really he is most entertainingly naive..." and Thor was gladdened to see how Loki smiled, speaking of his home now.
When the sky began to lighten, Loki stretched with a yawn, said, "I must retire; I need to take a little rest before tomorrow."
"Could I sit with you, as you view the pilgrims?" Thor asked him. "To keep you company?" It sounded like a terribly boring duty, to sit behind a screen all day and watch people kneel before you, hoping to be crowned.
But Loki shook his head. "I do not think it would be appropriate," he said, mouth twisting in what might have been a scowl or else a smirk. "Go back to your tent, Thor, and we can speak later."
So Thor embraced Loki again in farewell and returned to his tent in the corner of the palace grounds. No sooner had he tended his kijuu and crawled into his bedroll, however, when there came an anxious voice asking over him, "Lord Thor?"
Thor snapped awake with a warrior's instincts, rolling over to grab for his war-hammer—then stopped when he saw the priestess Shuuri staring at him with wide fearless eyes. "What is it?" Thor asked, rubbing sleep from his eyes as he pushed off his furs.
She blinked once at his sleep-disheveled and nude body, then said, more perturbed than ever he had heard her, "Loki—Loki is gone!"
It took Thor's kijuu Tanngiost most of a day's flight to cross the Blue Sea to Lo, and two more days to fly across the land, over the spine of mountains to Kei. Thor was following no evident trail, yet he traveled surely. Once over Kei's border, he went along the main trading road through the forests, until, near sunset, he reached the valley where the Asgardians presently camped.
He guided Tanngiost in a wide circle around the camp, until he spotted his quarry on a craggy clifftop overlooking the valley. As they glided down, however, ferocious youma emerged. A giant serpentine Jyoujou crackling with static rose up to snap at them with jaws big enough to swallow Tanngiost in two bites, far from the sea it should call home; and a wind spirit swirled around him, clawing at Thor's face with spectral skeletal fingers. Thor's kijuu squealed in fear and veered away, as on the cliff below, a wolfen Shouhi sprang to snap at its wingtips.
Then a voice sharply commanded, "Fenrir! Hela! Jormungand! He is not my enemy." The black kirin on the cliff stamped a cloven hoof on the rock, silken tail whipping like a banner in the wind.
At once the three youma withdrew, the air spirit seeming to dissolve away like a ghost, while the Jyoujou and Shouki backed behind the kirin with their heads obediently dropped, bellies low to the ground as if they could hide in his shadow. Thor brought Tanngiost down in the space they made. The kijuu bleated nervously as it landed, shaking its horned head as Thor dismounted and tied its reins to a tree.
The kirin stood before the youma, watching Thor. Specks on his back glittered like mica set in black granite. His ivory horn was bifurcated, split almost at the base into two prongs, curving back, with his ebony mane tangled about it and flowing down his neck. Even without that horn, he could not be mistaken for any animal, nor a kijuu nor youma. Those great green eyes were not a beast's.
Thor felt awed, standing before this being. Watching the kirin gallop overhead, he hadn't properly seen how beautiful he was. He almost extended his hand, as one might approach an unfamiliar horse, just in time aborted the gesture in shame; but he could not stop himself from staring.
The kirin snorted, deep in his chest like a horse but with a sardonic tone, then stood up—not quite like a hanjuu changing to their human guise, an easier gesture, almost graceful. Loki turned partly away as he shifted his shape, taking from the ground a mantle and drawing it over himself, so Thor saw only a glimpse of pale flesh and then Loki was standing before him, simply but modestly clothed in the green cape.
Thor was staring still. Loki pushed his hair back from his face, said, "I am sorry for the reception. They will not harm you."
Thor peered past Loki to the two great youma, curled yet in his much smaller shadow. "But youma cannot be tamed...?"
Loki inclined his head. "And they are not; they are vowed to me, as my shirei. They serve as my daggers now, that I need not throw weapons with my own hands."
He said it calmly, but Thor shuddered, remembering too clearly the last time he had seen Loki throw a knife. "Brother, I..."
Loki gestured to silence him. "That is forgiven with the rest." He heaved a sigh, soft in the twilight. "But why did you come here—and how did you find me?"
"I thought..." Thor frowned; the truth was he had not thought. As soon as the priestess had told him that Loki had vanished, leaving the nyosen to make his excuses to the anxious pilgrims, Thor had left to find his brother, sure of where he would go. "You've traveled over Lo these past years, but never to Kei, that the priestesses ever heard—you were hiding from us, or else you sought to hide us still. But now you do not need to, and I thought, once I mentioned our friends, and Mother and Father, that you would want to see them again..." He looked down over the cliff's edge. Through the dark masses of the trees, their leaves not yet turned for autumn, he glimpsed the yellow spark of the camp's main fire. "Have you gone down to meet them?"
"Not yet," Loki said, and looked away, out over the mountains that hid Lo from their view. "I've only been watching, these last two days..."
"You came here in a single night?" Thor said, thinking of how fast he had driven his kijuu, and still the journey had taken three days. "Truly kirin are as fleet as they say!"
"You should have known that already," Loki said. "How else did you think you were returned from Lo? Or did you fancy you managed to walk back over mountains, injured and frostbitten as you were?"
"No, I knew I had been brought. But how did that happen, brother? Or could you always change your shape, and never told anyone that, either?"
Loki shook his head. "No—that was the first time, since my infancy."
He drew a breath, long fingers clutching his green cape closer to his throat. "You told me to run, so I ran. And as I was running, the cold, the snow, the mountainside, all seemed familiar, as if I had made such a journey before. I remembered...I cannot properly explain it. A hanjuu might feel something like it? I remembered being other than myself, yet still myself. My same self and yet entirely different—and recalling it, I changed, so that I ran on hooves instead of feet, so fast the trees blurred around me. I knew what I was—maybe I remembered or maybe I only guessed it; but I knew. And I knew too that I could bring you to safety. So I returned to you—you were so cold and still, I thought at first...but then you woke, enough for me to nudge you onto my back, and I carried us over the mountains and back to the camp.
"But as I stood in the clearing, and saw the sun was rising behind the trees, I realized everyone would soon awaken, and see me—see that I was not one of you after all. That I was scarcely different from the emperor you all so hated. And I was cold, and tired from the running, and so sick with fright and blood that I was not sure I remembered how to be a boy again—was not sure I even wanted to be. So I left you where I knew you would soon be found and tended, and I fled to the one place I knew the kirin were welcome."
"To Mount Hou," Thor said.
Loki nodded, finally glanced back to him. "But you remembered me carrying you? I did not think you were aware enough to recognize me..."
"I didn't, exactly; I thought you were riding with me, not that I was upon you..." Thor stopped himself from admitting that he had assumed Loki to be some sort of mysterious kijuu. "But I remembered you speaking to me, enough to know that you had escaped with me, that you had survived. So that I knew my search was not hopeless...though I was beginning to fear..."
In the twilight Loki's green eyes were sharper even than Thor remembered. "You really...for the last four years, you've been searching for me?"
"In Lo and Kei and everywhere else in the kingdoms," Thor said. "Though Father declared that I should stop when I turned twenty, later this very season, to take the All-Father's oaths."
Loki nodded in understanding, and Thor smiled, his heart lightening. "I am glad I found you now, brother—I should not have liked to disobey Father!"
Loki answered Thor's smile with a frown. "Disobey? You mean, you would have still—?"
"You are my brother—until I knew you were safe and well, how could I have stopped?"
"Is that why you followed me here?" Loki asked, turning back to look down at the camp. "But now you know that I am safe—wherever I go, they'll protect me," and he waved at his shirei, the watchful eyes of the youma gleaming in the shadows.
"Safe, yes, but are you well?" Thor asked.
"You saw how I live in Houro Palace," Loki said. "How the nyosen coddle me—"
"But you cannot stay there always, can you?" Thor said. "You'll choose the ruler and go to live with them in Lo's palace...or is that why you haven't chosen anyone? Are you fearful of leaving Mount Hou?"
"No," Loki said sharply. "Not that. And I told you, it's not my choice anyway—"
"Not who you pick—but is it your choice to bow to them?" Thor asked. "Or could you decide not to, even if you met the rightful ruler?"
Loki stared at him without speaking, face blank in a way Thor remembered, when Lopt was thinking so hard about something that he had no attention to spare to showing his feelings. At last he said, slowly, "Yes, I could decide not to. Though a kirin who fails to fulfill their purpose, who does not choose a ruler and ascend with them above the Sea of Clouds—a kirin who does not ascend dies after thirty years, so another can be born who will more rightly serve the heavens and the land."
Thor's eyes widened. "Thirty years—but you've already lived more than half that! You must find someone, Lo's ruler has to—"
"—Why do you care?" Loki said. His eyes were wide, his face no longer impassive but screwed up with something like anger or frustration, but more desperate. "Four years, and you knew not where I was—but I could have found you, you realize, had I cared to—"
"But you had other concerns," Thor said. "All of Lo depends on you—and you knew me safe and thought me well. Did you not?"
"...I did," Loki admitted, halting and hesitant, as if confessing some grave sin. "I assumed—I thought, with all your friends, with all the Asgardians, your people who you would someday lead—how could you not have been happy? I thought that over time you would forget me, when we had never even been brothers by birth—that you would have the life you were born to..."
"And so I will, or most of it," Thor said. He made himself smile—he did not think he could have, but that Loki needed it. If Loki wanted him to be happy, then he would be, as long as it would keep his brother safe and well. "A life with my brother, even if you'll not be by my side. But you will be in Lo—and you and the ruler you find will make well that poor land, I know you will. And then we Asgardians could return—perhaps even be granted lands again, since you'll have the emperor's ear. Or would that be inappropriate for a kirin, to show favor to old acquaintances...nobles do, but you are greater than any nobility...but even if we have no lands, if the people of Lo are rich like Kei's then we could make our living among them..."
Loki was staring at him again. Thor profoundly wished that he had become easier to read as he grew, instead of more difficult; whatever thoughts weighed on Loki's mind must be heavy indeed, that his quick tongue was silenced under them. Thor swallowed back his wandering words, said, "So you see, brother, if you can just find the ruler, then all will be well. I know it will be. I'll help you however I can—so why don't we return now to Mount Hou, and you can receive the pilgrims again; maybe this time your emperor will be among them—"
"No," Loki said.
"No? But brother, you must want Lo saved even more than me—you've traveled over it; you've seen the suffering there, and even if you weren't a kirin I know you couldn't bear to see such pain, when you might help heal it. If you can only find the ruler—"
"No," Loki repeated, shaking his head, slow and ponderous, undeniable. "No, I won't receive any more pilgrims; it will do no good. I could meet all the people of Lo, and still I would not find the ruler among them."
"But how can you be sure—"
"How—how else?" Loki said. Thor thought he might have rolled his eyes, as he used to as a boy, though in the falling night it was hard to be sure. "Because I've already found the ruler, of course; and there can ever only be one chosen at a time."
"You—" Thor blinked. "You know who the ruler is? Then why haven't you chosen them?"
"Because I cannot be sure they are the heaven's rightful choice!" Loki cried. "Because I was tainted, corrupted, impure; and so too might my candidate be impure, despoiled. An unrighteous ruler—and the heavens punish those unrighteous. I would die, and so would my emperor die with me. For my fault, for being chosen by a poisoned kirin—"
"But you've been purified," Thor said, "the nyosen said—"
"Not when we first met—the emperor was chosen long, long before I knew what it meant, or what I was."
"Long before—you mean you met Lo's ruler when you were with us?" Thor frowned, considering. Most of Lopt's life had been in Kei, and Lo's ruler ought to be from Lo. And Lopt had not met so many people anyway, not hiding as he so often had in the woods.
"I've tried," Loki said, "I've searched across Lo—I thought I must be mistaken, that there must be another, my proper choice, somewhere. I've crossed the kingdom over and again, and seen so many, many people below me—so many people suffering, so many people looking to me and hoping, not for their own glory but for their realm's—but there is only one I will ever bow to, only one who my corrupted heart finds worthy—"
"Then they are worthy," Thor said, taking Loki by the shoulders, setting his hand on his neck to hold him when he would turn away. "You might not have lived as pure and cleanly with us as a kirin should—but your heart is strong, brother. It was strong enough to save me, even at the cost to yourself; whoever you choose, they'll be the right choice. I am sure of it."
Loki shuddered, trembling under Thor's hands. "You—you may not think so, if you knew—if you knew my choice, and what you could lose..."
"Then tell me," Thor said, though he was shaken himself—what he could lose? Had Loki chosen someone he knew, then? Hogun, perhaps, Hogun of Lo, Hogun who Lopt had spent all those long hours training with in the forest—
Thinking as hard as he was, he almost missed the change that came over Loki's features, a strange resigned peace as his brother stepped back, slipping out from under his hand. For a moment he gazed into Thor's face, and Thor stared back at him, confused by what he saw—
Then Loki closed his eyes and lowered himself to kneel on the ground at Thor's feet, bent over to put his head to the stone.
Thor stared at him, as Loki slowly uncurled, moved back to his feet with the kirin's smooth grace, his green eyes level with Thor's, dark with their calm, like stilled seawaters.
"I—I don't understand," Thor stammered. "I cannot—brother, I cannot be Lo's ruler! I am Asgardian; we're not even of the Kingdoms, not from the first—"
"And I am a mad kirin," Loki said, "so too would my choice be mad, corrupted, wrong. But you need not fear—I do not have to pledge to you, and if we're never bound, if you never swear the ruler's oath to the heavens, then they'll not punish you. And Lo's next kirin will choose rightly—"
Thor stopped and looked at his brother in dismay, at Loki's pale face and wide desperate eyes. "No," he said, more calmly. "No, you aren't mad—what do the nyosen say? Do they think your choice would be wrong?"
Loki made a tremulous sound too pained to be a laugh. "No—no, the priestesses say I cannot be wrong; that a kirin cannot be wrong. That a poisoned kirin would perceive no aura at all, would be unable to choose a ruler."
"So—so then it's all right," Thor said. He did not know how that made him feel, as if his own heart were as hard to read as Loki's face.
But Loki's face now was breaking. "Or else they're wrong, as wrong as I am—"
"—But you are not wrong," Thor said. "I was born from a riboku in Lo, after all. And you met me before you were corrupted, before any meat passed your lips. If I am your right choice—if I were made Lo's emperor..." He thought of the dying, broken land he'd traveled in the last years. If he could help it, if he could make that barren soil fertile, so that the villagers could again feed their children; if he could bring the bandits and slavers to justice, not only the few he found, but all of them... It would be hard labor indeed; but to make Lo as glorious as Kei, as strong and beautiful and proud a land. And Asgard in that land again, the Asgardians not barbarians but warriors, fighting in the emperor's name; and the lords who had disregarded them and disregarded their own people censured for their sins, rendered powerless...
Alone, Thor knew he could not do it—knew he proved that just thinking of Asgard. That he could put any people above another, made him unrighteous.
But he would not be alone; he would not make those decisions by himself. And Loki would not let him make poor ones; no matter if he commanded Loki, his brother would yet find a way around any misguided orders, Loki with his kirin's heart and brilliant mind. Together Thor and his brother could save the kingdom; Thor knew this, as clearly as ever he had known anything—as clearly as Loki knew it, for all he tried to deny it.
"Brother," Thor said, taking him by the shoulders again to meet his green eyes, "Loki—Lopt—pledge to me. Name me the emperor, and we will ascend together; and if we are unrighteous, we will fall—but we will fall together."
In the All-Father's tent, Frigga embroidered by candlelight, a sash for Thor's coming nameday, though she wondered as she sewed when she would be able to gift it to him.
She knew Thor had returned; she had seen her son's winged kijuu fly overhead, late this afternoon. It did not surprise her that he had yet to come to the Asgardian camp. Thor kept a distance from his family as his twentieth birthday approached. This did not trouble her husband; he was confident that Thor in the end would decide to do what was right.
To Odin's eye, that was to swear the oaths to become the next All-Father of their people. He wouldn't take that office yet, not while Odin was still strong enough to lead the warriors in battle; but it would not be so much longer now, when Thor would be first to command them. That was what Odin believed, and he had seen that Thor's time journeying had tempered his pride and anger, forged him into a blade worthy to lead the Asgardians.
Frigga knew that her son was worthy, and believed in him as much as her husband; but she was not so certain that taking the All-Father's oath would be Thor's right decision. She only hoped that her husband would realize this before they clashed and their mutual stubbornness broke their people apart. For Thor had many friends, some loyal enough to stand by him against the All-Father. Thor was a natural-born leader, like his father; but he was a different sort of leader, and would take a different path than Odin's strength and tradition. Frigga had known this from the first, and known, too, that her son would lead their people back to their former glory, if not something greater still.
—Her sons, she had thought once, for Lopt had been even more different than Thor, and his sharp wit and reserved empathy would have served to moderate the Asgardian arrogance—but she did not often allow herself to dwell on her lost child, and stopped herself now before the grief rose too high in her heart.
"Frigga?" an anxious voice called from outside her tent, and Frigga called back, "Yes, Sif?"
The young warrior woman lifted up the leather flap to peer inside. Under her ivory coronet she was wide-eyed with shock. "You should—you must come at once!"
"Has Thor returned?" Frigga asked, setting aside her needlework and rising hastily, but keeping her composure over her rising alarm. He should have come to the camp at once, if he were injured—
"Yes," Sif said, paradoxically shaking her head, "and no—he's here, but that's not why—please, come!"
Frigga hurried after the younger woman, to find the entire camp turned out, men and women alike, all gathered around the main fire. In their midst, Odin faced Thor, their son now taller than his father, and his shoulders nearly as broad. His hair gleamed golden in the firelight, and he was smiling, as Frigga could not remember seeing him smile in years, beaming like a ray of sunshine through the night.
At his shoulder, like second shadow cast by the flame, stood a young man wrapped in a dark green cloak, nearly of Thor's height but slender where he was broad, black-haired where he was golden. His eyes were familiarly green, but it was not that hue Frigga recognized, but the way he gazed upon Thor, the sardonic twist of his mouth unable to erase the brightness of his eyes, the smoothing of his anxious brow, never quite so content at any other time as when he was beside his brother...
The soft cry that escaped Frigga's lips was neither dignified nor composed, but she did not care. The warriors parted like water around her, and she rushed forward to throw her arms around her once-lost second son.
Lopt returned the embrace, but when he said, "It's good to see you, M-mother," he stumbled over the address, as if he had forgotten how to say it.
He looked well—better than he once had; maybe it was the maturity of manhood that lent his face a peace Frigga had never seen in him before. She studied that face, learning all the new details of the man her beloved boy had grown into, while Thor said, unsubtly, "See, I told you, you were sorely missed, brother."
"I am convinced," Lopt said, and shot a look at those standing on Thor's other side, Volstagg and Fandral grinning broadly, and even Hogun smiling, as widely as Sif was. Lopt rubbed his chest, said, "My bruised ribs offer testament enough."
"Sorry about that!" Volstagg boomed, not sounding sorry at all, as he reached out to ruffle Lopt's black hair, long enough now to fall past his shoulders. It was not the first time, to judge by its tangled state, even as Lopt made an effort to smooth it down with one hand, Frigga still clasping the other.
"But won't you stay longer?" Fandral asked. "Four years, it's been—"
"I am sorry, my friends," Thor said, "but we cannot." There was a gravity to his words, a resoluteness that made Frigga examine her first son more closely. He had grown much, more than four years would usually allow; but some of that had been the grief of loss, weighing on him as heavily as time. Now that burden was gone, but something even more meaningful had replaced it. Not yet twenty years of age, but he was no longer a boy.
She glanced to her husband to see if he had realized it. Odin stood silent, watching both his sons and letting Thor continue uninterrupted, "There is much to tell you all, of course—how I found my brother, and what became of him, these past four years. But you will hear those stories eventually, I promise you. They will be told for years to come, I think."
His friends around him frowned, puzzled, hearing in his tone the same weight Frigga had already noticed. Thor left their silent questions unanswered, to boldly meet his father's gaze. Lopt looked at Thor, his chin tilted up in quiet defiance, such a familiar look that Frigga felt her eyes burn again. Thor did not match his brother's subtle insolence; if there was something of a challenge in his squared shoulders, his expression was calm, not a boy's over-confidence but a man's certainty in his path.
"Father," Thor said, but he turned to regard all the camp, his voice raised to address the men and women standing at the firelight's flickering border, "you are the All-Father, our leader, and all of us would follow you into the fiercest of battles." He raised his war-hammer high and the warriors all cheered in agreement, then quieted as he lowered it again, went on, "But I would ask us to march to a different fight now.
"Twelve years ago, you led us from Lo. You had little choice; our people were in grave need, and were another burden on that over-taxed land. But we Asgardians have had a dozen years in Kei to grow strong. Now my brother brings word that Lo's next emperor has been found and will soon take the throne, and the nobles in power will fall. So there would again be a place for us in Lo."
Murmurs and mutters swelled around them. There was not a warrior or wife in the camp who had not thought of returning to Lo at one time or another, for Kei was not and never would be their kingdom; Frigga's own heart beat harder at the thought of seeing again her birthland. But the All-Father had led them here, and his wisdom was not easily countermanded. And Lo's new ruler might well drive the kingdom to further ruin, even if the nobles fell.
Even Thor's staunch friends seemed uncertain. But Lopt's gaze remained steady on his brother. And Odin's eye too was on his eldest son, as the All-Father said, "Even if a new emperor ascends, Asgard is no more."
Thor faltered, and Frigga saw his throat work as he swallowed—a boy again, before his father; but only for a moment. Then he glanced at Lopt, whose green gaze never wavered, and once more faced Odin, said, "Asgard can be rebuilt, as our ancestors first built it, if the Asgardians fight for Lo which is their kingdom, too—fight for Lo's new emperor, against the lords who will rebel."
The murmuring surged, broke in a confused outcry—"The emperor?" "Even against the nobles, we'd never serve a stinking—" "Won't bow to any corrupt ruler—"
Odin raised his spear, but it took a shout to quiet the warriors. "Silence! We will hear out my son, who will one day be your All-Father—"
"No," Thor said. Odin's blue stare fixed upon him, and Thor swallowed again, reached to clasp his brother's shoulder as he declared, "I do not mean to take up the All-Father's spear."
"Then who shall lead us?" Tyr demanded from beside Odin. His eyes fell on Lopt, as did the gazes of the other warriors, peering accusingly at the angular shadow beside Thor. Sif and Thor's other friends looked mostly puzzled, but the rest glared as they took in Lopt's plain green cloak, not the armor of a warrior; and nor was his narrow stature fierce or imposing. The Asgardians might follow Thor, but not Lopt who had been lost to them before proving himself.
But Frigga looked at her sons and was not afraid, for they were not. Thor went on surely, "Nor will my brother. He was never meant to be All-Father—but now he's back at my side, and we would lead our people, if you all will follow us. And I beg you to, for I know not how we can do this without your strength."
"Do what?" Fandral asked.
"Save Lo," Thor proclaimed, and his thundering voice resonated as Odin's did. "Save our realm—fight for our home, as true warriors do!" He swept his lightning-blue gaze over the crowd, tall enough to meet eyes over the shoulders of those in front. His hand still rested on his brother's shoulder, though whether it was to draw strength from him or lend it to him even Frigga could not say, as Thor went on, "I know you are strong, Asgardians; I know you are brave, and more honorable than any nobility, here in Kei or in Lo. I do not ask you to bow to any lord or ruler, but to march with us, to save our land. Though we won't carry the All-Father's spear, I ask that you follow my arm and my brother's wisdom back to Lo—to fight again for our kingdom, to make Asgard's realm the greatest of all the Twelve Kingdoms. So will you follow us?"
The watching warriors were silent, stirred but unresolved. Some looked to Odin, but the All-Father said nothing. He could not command his people to follow another; Thor must gain this on his own.
But Frigga was not the All-Father. She locked eyes with Sif and nodded. Sif elbowed her comrades, then stepped forward into the center to the circle, the firelight gleaming on her armor, to pronounce clearly, "I will follow you, Thor."
"And I," Hogun said immediately.
"And I," Volstagg said, interrupted by Fandral yelling over him, "And me, of course—!"
The echo of his allegiance had not yet faded when Tyr came forward. "Hel, the fighting will be more exciting in Lo than ever it is here—I'm with you, Thor!" and then there was a tumult of agreement from all the warriors present, some out of friendship, some prodded to it by their wives and daughters, some like Tyr eager for the battles promised.
Thor smiled at the shouts swelling around them. Lopt under his green cloak looked stiff-backed, pale-faced in the fire, but Frigga saw Thor shoot him a look, the same 'I told you so' as before but now unspoken, and Lopt's mouth quirked in answer to his brother's confidence.
When the uproar finally subsided, Odin again spoke. "So it is decided," the All-Father stated. "We will return to Lo and reclaim the lands once given to us."
"They will be granted to you—Asgard made once more, by imperial decree," Lopt said, his voice lower than Thor's, but pitched to carry beyond the fire. "And Lo's emperor will take the throne with the Asgardians behind him."
Angry and insulted mutters broke out again, with more glares leveled at Lopt. "Even if we help this new ruler out," Volstagg said, "it will be for the sake of our land; whatever he pays us, we'll never be the emperor's men—"
Lopt smiled, a small sharp thing. "But you've already made your vows to him; will you take them back so soon?"
"Hey, now," Fandral said, "we're pledged to Thor, not—"
He got no further; Lopt raised his hand, and looking to Thor asked, "Now, then?"
Thor glanced to his closest friends amidst all the camp's warriors, his face only now betraying his anxiety. "You will follow me, won't you?" he asked again, low enough that Frigga barely heard it. "And my brother?"
"Of course," Sif spoke for all of them. "As we always would and will."
Thor's sun-bright smile broke once more across his face; he nodded at his friends, then turned back to his brother, said, "Now."
Lopt loosened his cloak around his shoulders, then took a step back—a single step, but something in the care of it, the measured poise, drew the eye.
He made no gesture, but stood quietly waiting for silence, and silence fell as he waited. All the camp's eyes were upon him, every Asgardian warrior and woman attending him, as Lopt said, "I was raised among you, as one of you; but all of us knew that I was not of you, however I tried or might have wished to be. But though I am not of you, I swear now to always be with you—to be by the side of Thor, to assist and advise him, and call him my master, as faithfully as once I called him brother."
He looked at Thor as he said this, and no one close enough to see his face could have denied the sincerity of that vow. Frigga, looking at her sons, knew that Lopt was trying to make it so sincere, with all the art he possessed for performance—but that effort did not make it untrue.
And even Lopt could not have dissembled his next act, as he went on, "I swear this as Loki—as the saiho of Lo, bowing to his emperor," and then with a motion the cloak slipped down his shoulders, and Lopt under it changed—from pale to dark, black satin shimmering in the firelight. He bent forward, and when his hands met the ground they were cloven hooves, and his raven hair was a silken mane, falling over lean black shanks and liquid emerald eyes.
Gracefully oblivious to the cries of confusion around them, to the warriors reaching for swords and axes even as they stumbled backwards, the black kirin lowered its head to touch its bisected curving horn to the ground at Thor's feet.
Thor paid the shouting no more heed. He was not surprised himself, and did not step back or even blink, as the kirin once more became his brother, kneeling with his hands spread on the ground and his head curled over them, the cloak falling loosely over his bare shoulders. Thor watched without a word as Loki said, in the ringing tone of an unbreakable oath, "I will never abandon you; I will never disobey your royal command; I pledge my loyalty to you, Thor Odinson of Asgard—this I vow."
Frigga tore her eyes from her sons to look to her husband, to Odin watching, silent as the crowd was loud. She moved beside him, took his hand. His fingers were dry but cool, folding around hers.
Thor waited until the shouting quieted enough for everyone to hear him say, clearly and in the same rigid tone of rehearsed ritual, "I accept your vow, Loki, kirin of Lo. And in turn I pledge my loyalty to Lo and all her people, Asgardians and all the rest, that I will rule them as best as I can."
By the time he spoke the kingdom's name, the hush that had fallen was absolute. Even the fire dared not snap to interrupt the rest of his promise, as Thor reached down his hand and Loki, pulling the cloak around himself, let himself be drawn back to his feet.
"Thor," the All-Father spoke into that silence, "you intend to declare yourself Lo's emperor, and ascend to the Cloud Sea above Mount Hou?"
"I do," Thor said
"And you believe they will accept you? You, a bloody fighter of Asgard—a barbarian, born of a people not native to these kingdoms?"
"They will have to—" Thor began to say, hot-blooded to his father's calm, only to be stopped by his brother's hand on his arm. Loki could still cool his temper all these years later, Frigga was glad to see.
And Loki had the wisdom, too, to understand where Thor did not yet, saying, "I tried to tell him so—tell him that no one would trust the choice of a kirin raised among rough warriors instead of soft nobility. But Thor said that it mattered not, if he had those warriors' support—that the lords would have no choice but to accept him, were the Asgardians with him."
"And aye, we're with him!" Volstagg pronounced, and the rest of the camp took up that defiant cry, more determined than ever to support Thor, knowing that Lo's lords would be against him.
As Odin had intended, Frigga knew—and Loki as well, as her son met her eyes and smiled, a green-eyed, crisp-edged shadow in Thor's beaming. He had grown, even as Thor had; she never would have thought the pale, whimpering babe she had nursed so many years ago could look so calm, so sure of who he was. Though she mourned for the boy she would never know again, her heart felt like it would burst to see him now.
"So," Fandral remarked amidst the tumult, "if you're the emperor—does this mean we all must bow, like Lopt—Loki here does?"
Thor's laughter boomed as he threw a friendly arm over Fandral's shoulder. "No, my friend! No Asgardian should bow to me, no more than if I were the All-Father—and anyway that was just to make a point; my brother never needs bow to me again."
"Don't speak so soon," Loki interjected. "There will be many wanting proof of the kirin's loyalty, and we'll need to give it."
Thor slung his other arm over his brother's shoulder, replied, "Only if you're willing, brother; I'll never demand it of you."
And Loki smiled slightly as he leaned in, black hair dark against shining gold, close enough that Frigga could not hear his voice, but read the whispered words his lips shaped, "You never need demand it—even were you not my emperor, you would be my brother still, and so would have it, all the same."
In the fall of the forty-first year of the troubled era of the Corrupted, Thor the thunder king, son of Odin of the people once of Zuiden and evermore of Lo, accepted the oath of Loki and ascended to the throne, and so began the golden era of Asgard, that continues in Lo to this day.