Chapter 1: the opening
“Is it much further, Heid?” Thor dug his spiked boot deeper into the ledge. The chasm dropped away on his side, a yawning void that was more terrifying than any berserkr foe.
She had paused, looking back down the steep incline. The hood of her cloak made her look like an oversized raven. Volstagg was panting like a bellows, little jets of steamy breath puffing around him in a cloud. Hogun, Sif and Fandral eyed every corner of the compass, each fingering their favorite weapon. Even their deep exhaustion could not check their vigilance; they’d learned to be wary of the silence of Jötunheim.
The ice was so thick that Thor had begun to doubt there was any earth at all beneath it. This realm was more benighted than any he had yet known. Now that he’d seen it, he could begrudgingly comprehend their voracious lust to conquer Midgard. If he lived here…he’d have sought greener pastures too. But that was over now. Odin’s army had washed over the land in a tidal wave of giant blood.
“Five hundred steps will see us there.” Heid said quiet, but sure. She was too slight to have much voice but somehow her soft answer came to him over the wind. Thor nodded and offered her his arm up over the cliff’s edge. The way ahead was shrouded in an ugly, dark fog.
“Have they no guardian?” Fandral muttered.
“Would you not say…” Heid was slightly breathless herself, but Thor could hear the wry grin in her voice. “That the mountain was guardian enough?”
There was a groaning assent. The jötunn word for this place appeared to translate into simply ‘The Mountain’. The jutting peaks pierced the indigo sky like a shattered dagger. With the ability to craft and shape the ice, it would have been a challenging climb, without such magic, it was an almost-certain death sentence.
Thor’s blood was still pounding from the last near miss, his forearm still burned from Sif’s clutching hand. The terror in her eyes as she’d scrabbled him back up onto the solid ice made him feel unexpectedly grave even in this moment of triumph.
It was no light undertaking his father had tasked him with. Recovering this relic would surely be a long verse in the saga of the war, if they lived to tell the tale.
Heid paused again after what could only be 100 steps, gazing up at the still mist. She uncurled her right hand and fluttered her fingers gently.
“I would carry you, cousin, if you grow too weary.” Thor tried to sound as gallant as he could, even as he hoped she would refuse.
She flashed a quicksilver smile and reached to flip her hood back. “It’s nothing. Simply that…”
She spread her hands again and closed her eyes. She was working her seiðr and he re-settled the strap of his sword to hide his shiver.
“What is it, cousin?” He murmured, running one thumb down Mjölnir’s haft.
“May be a guardian, after all…” she said simply and there was a light, a pulsing glow between her hands that she flung up into the lowering cloud. It carved a rift that seemed to push aside the darkness for a moment. Thor blinked as a figure resolved itself from the mist, a silhouette that retreated abruptly.
Thor growled and raced forward, heedless of Heid’s warning shout. These thrice-accursed frost giants were like ants, swarming up out of nowhere. The long climb had left him tense and loosing his pent-up rage felt delicious.
There was a cave ahead, revealed in Heid’s witchlight. Curls of mist were retreating, leaving the ridges of the peak exposed, a craggy, angry face with a black yawning mouth. A single figure stood braced for battle in the gap and Thor hefted Mjölnir in anticipation. He could see that the creature was armed, just a cudgel to be sure, but…
A cudgel, not ice. Thor slowed his frantic rush. In the odd, bewitched light, the frost giant glowed pale.
Sif and Hogun ran up on his heels with Volstagg and Fandral just steps behind. They fanned out around him and Thor could hear Heid’s light tread crunch on the thin snow.
“Be careful.” She called and her summoned light flared brighter.
Thor sucked frigid air through his teeth. They faced a youth, perhaps a child and it…he was Aesir. He blinked as they all panted plumes of hot breath uncertainly. Thor wondered if this were some kind of enchantment, some spirit or ghost conjured out of his head to befuddle them and keep them from the Casket.
But the way the youth seemed to take them in, five battle-hardened warriors brandishing a mace, a sword, an axe, a halberd and a hammer with a muttering witch stalking up behind them…Thor watched his throat work while he squared his slim shoulders. That was real, he was no shade. Their opponent was scared, but determined.
“Who…” Thor started.
“You can’t have it.” His voice lacked the deep resonance of the giants. It was an incongruously pleasant voice, spoken low.
“What are you called?” Thor continued. “How came you here?”
“You can’t.” The youth raised his stick a few handbreadths. “Have it.”
“Who’s going to stop us?” Fandral asked, not in a nasty way. “Put that down before you get hurt.”
The youth almost seemed to smile, perhaps he did smile and Thor realized quickly that he was older than he appeared and his stick was glowing green and…magic.
He had just time to duck and shove Volstagg out of the way before a shattering, shuddering blast roared over his head. The youth was speaking again, a snarling bark of words that defied the Alltongue and Thor brandished Mjölnir trying to recapture his former purpose. Mjölnir responded to his will but he couldn’t quite muster the resolve to crush their unexpected opponent’s skull, even as a hail of rocks rained down on him.
He noted at once that open clearing in front of the cave was the base of two ridges that formed a low defile. It was a natural-born trap if he’d ever seen one and he’d run straight into it. The earth was rumbling, they would be tossed down the mountain in an avalanche if he didn’t…he crushed a tumbling rock before it walloped off his head.
A resonant thrum, like the tolling of an enormous bell seemed to shudder up from below while unnatural light poured down on them. And then silence.
He looked for Sif, for Hogun, Volstagg and Fandral and found them all shaken and bruised, but largely unhurt. Heid was striding for the cave with her hood thrown back. Thor smashed a boulder that had landed on his foot and followed her. She paused right before the entrance and Thor realized that she hadn’t simply blasted the strange youth off the mountain.
“How dare you?” Thor had never seen Heid genuinely angry before, “You would stand against me, the Phoenix of the Vanir, with your paltry ice magic?” She reached out as if to slap the youth who was now struggling in the snow as if taken by a fit. He was oddly silent now but for a few low moans that he muffled in his hands. He flailed away from Heid’s outstretched hand.
“What have you done?” Thor wondered if he’d ever become accustomed to her casual displays. Vanir magic always seemed to have a sting in the tail.
“I disarmed him.” She said absently; she was focused on the cave now. With her hands spread wide, she sought warding spells. “You should probably bind his hands as well.”
“You sewed his mouth shut.” Hogun wasn’t prone to state the obvious unless he felt it a matter for reproach.
Thor swallowed. It was true, the young not-frost-giant was pressing trembling fingers to his lips and jaw and Thor watched the youth’s eyes grow larger and larger. He was breathing too fast now through the thick dark threads that marred his face. Blood would have been dripping down his chin, but the cold made it sluggish and it pearled up over his bottom lip.
“You were too far apart for me to shield you properly and he was speaking a spell that would have left both our souls and bodies ash.” She frowned around at their somber expressions. “It was a simple solution, if not an elegant one.”
Thor shifted uneasily while Sif made a face.
“But…”Thor grabbed at the youth who twisted away from him. “He’s Aesir…probably some…” He groped around for some plausible explanation that would leave an Asgardian out on the most far-flung point of Jötunnheim.
Heid blinked at him twice which he knew was her usual stratagem for not rolling her eyes at the crown prince. He flushed under her sardonic gaze. “Thor will you always only believe the evidence of your eyes?”
“Know your place, cousin.” He started angrily.
“There’s a powerful spell on him.” She made a clicking sound with her teeth and Thor fancied that it echoed from deep inside the cavern. “But I can assure you that he’s quite frosty underneath.”
She conjured up more witchlights and sent them hurtling into the cavern. “Set someone to watch him, Thor and let’s go get this casket for your father.”
Thor was recalled abruptly to their purpose. “Is it much guarded?”
Heid turned to look at him and made a face. “There are some old wards, yes, but…”
“Then go, Bright One, I will watch the prisoner.” He waved the Warriors Three along. Sif was already craning her neck inside the cavern, poking at something with her halberd. Thor turned back to deal with their captive who had floundered up onto his knees and was savagely clawing at his own face.
“Stop.” Thor snatched at his wrist and held him. “You will do yourself an injury.”
This creature, whatever he was, was older than Thor had first assumed. And larger…at a distance he had simply been dwarfed by the scale of Jötunnheim, but now Thor felt the weight and strength in the pull under his hand. The creature’s eyes weren’t crimson but they were still scorching with hatred.
The man stumbled up from his knees jerkily, using Thor’s grip as counterweight. He turned about to the four points of the compass for a moment looking like he was communing with the darkening sky even as he left little ruby drops across the snow. He glanced at Thor and then back up at the stars. His eyes were huge in his pinched, bony face and Thor found himself feeling an uncomfortable mixture of pity and shame. Thor was bone-tired; this war would sap even the most prodigious will...
Unexpectedly, the creature jerked his wrist free and raced for the edge of the precipice.
Thor didn’t spare a thought but yanked his cape free of his pauldrons and cast it around the man like a net as he tackled him to the ground. It was a wise precaution because the not-frost-giant writhed like an injured serpent and one of his elbows caught Thor under the chin hard enough to make his head ring.
Thor gritted his teeth and fought to settle his weight evenly. His knee was grinding into the ice and he realized his prisoner’s chin must be as well. They struggled fiercely all the way to the cliff’s edge before Thor managed to regain control. He had to grab a fistful of hair and jerk his captive’s head back impossibly hard before the man stilled his furious resistance.
“Please.” Thor panted. “Please don’t.”
Finally, the man went limp. Thor slowly snaked his arms around his captive, trying to keep him wrapped up tight while he crawled back onto steadier ground. After an ungainly, sweaty battle, Thor finally managed to face his prisoner. His face was all angles and sharp points but he didn’t lack for a pleasing symmetry.
“Of all the monsters that this realm has vomited up.” Thor mused to himself. “I never expected to find such a comely one.”
His nose promptly burst in pain as his captive head-butted him. Thor cursed aloud as he fought to hold him down again. They tussled into the lee of the ridge until Thor could roll over and call Mjölnir to his hand. He finally ended by setting the hammer onto his captive’s mane of long, dark hair.
Thor wiped the blood off his face and then gingerly did the same for his prisoner. Swallowing too much blood wasn’t healthy as he well knew. The man flinched from his hand until Thor grabbed his chin. Thor had to force himself to swab at the stitches, but he figured it was the least he could do.
“I hold no grudge for this ferocity, my….” Thor cut himself off and began again. “Certainly, if I were in your shoes, I would…”
He trailed off again, noting for the first time how very close to naked his captive was. He wore the usual loincloth wrap of the jötnar and he’d lost another fur that had been wrapped around his shoulders but he was almost barefoot. Surely Heid must have the right of it, however galling that might be. There was no way one born to the Aesir could survive in this deep chill dressed like that.
Thor had a thousand questions for this mute and enraged creature, but he realized that even if he’d had full and free use of his tongue his captive wouldn’t be doing anything but cursing him back to some long-dead generation.
“I’m sorry.” Thor said without meaning to. “I would have this otherwise, if I could.”
The creature’s eyes, which had narrowed when Thor began speaking, widened again and he tilted his chin down to make an expression both winsome and pathetic. He fluttered his dark eyelashes, looking at Thor sidelong. He spider-crawled his long fingers over to Thor’s leather braces and up his wrist to his elbow and just when Thor was leaning forward, expecting that the man would squeeze his shoulder in soldierly camaraderie, the man slapped him across the face.
“As you will.” Thor rubbed his cheek. “I probably deserved that.”
The creature grunted at him and blood started pearling up out of the sides of his mouth again.
“My comrade…she’s Vanir and they’re…practical.” Thor explained lamely. “I would not have acted thus, but you did try to kill us with your sorcery.”
The creature rolled its eyes and folded its arms like a petulant child.
“By Ymir, I will be glad when this war is over.” Thor said, almost to himself. “I thought fighting the Vanir was bad, but this has been…”
The creature left off tugging at its trapped hair to stare at him.
“I should not complain.” Thor continued, unthinking. “At least your people have valor and there is no guile in them, but they battered us like waves and there was no reasoning that would stop them.”
The creature tried to speak and winced as the stitches pulled. He raised his hands to scratch at his wounds and Thor grabbed his captive’s wrists as gently as he could. “Please, I know this means little to you, but I have come to the end of my appetite for blood and I would not see yours spilt so unfairly. When she returns, I will…”
He trailed off because the creature was staring at him intently. Thor had a moment to wonder if he’d ever seen one of the Aesir up close; the creature was examining him like it would memorize his face for ever after. In the blue light of Jötunheim’s dusk, the creature’s eyes were almost silver and Thor wondered vaguely what color they’d be in the golden light of Asgard.
“If I take this off.” Thor touched the haft of the hammer. “Will you try to run?”
The creature looked away and seemed to be seriously considering the issue. Finally, he turned back to Thor and shook his head. Thor shifted Mjölnir and helped his captive sit up. He tried to wrap his cape a little tighter around the pale, bruised shoulders, but the creature gave a muffled snarl and shrugged free.
“Come now.” Thor wheedled. “You are so cold, it cannot be agreeable.” He pressed his hand into the creature’s shoulder, wondering if it would be like the other frost giants whose very blood ran like glacial melt-water. But after a moment, the flesh beneath his palm was warm.
The creature was staring at him in a way that made him suddenly remember that he was Thor Odinson and he had manners. “My name is…”
“Thor!” Sif strode from the cavern, flanked by the witch and the warriors. “We have it!”
“Let’s be gone.” Fandral rubbed his hands together. “Before this mountain succeeds in killing us.”
If they thought it strange that he was huddled so close to the captive sorcerer, they did not say. Heid just frowned at the prisoner’s unbound hands, but she seemed a bit distracted by the casket which looked awfully small to be worth such copious blood and sweat. But that was the way of magic, Thor thought to himself. Size didn’t matter.
“Are we taking this unfortunate down to the Allfather?” Fandral tugged at his gloves impatiently.
“Well we cannot leave him here.” Thor looked pointedly at Heid. “We cannot leave him in this state.”
Heid grimaced and sketched a little salute. She handed off the bag with the casket to Sif.
“Do you have honor?” Heid ducked her head so she could face the captive. He narrowed his gaze at her, but finally deigned to nod.
“Then hear me well. I am going to lift this spell, but I want your word on your honor for your parole that you will not raise either your voice or hand or any other part to hurt or thwart us.”
The creature sighed through his nose and nodded. Heid gazed at him for one long moment and then he gasped as the thread unraveled from his injured mouth. Fresh blood welled up over his fingers as he touched his lips to reassure himself. Watching him, Thor swallowed the unpleasant, fleshy taste in his own mouth.
“Who are you?” Thor asked, trying to quell the pity that this creature would not thank him for. The man turned to glare at him and remained silent.
“Perhaps he is one long lost to Asgard, banished perhaps!” Fandral was always one for a good tale.
“Aye, how long has it been since you’ve eaten, sorcerer?” Volstagg asked practically.
“He is a frost giant.” Heid said in the tone of a person who was losing patience rapidly. “Here, let me…”
She grabbed the captive’s wrists and if Thor hadn’t been almost cradling the frost giant in his lap, he would have been halfway to the precipice. The frost giant struggled until she began speaking her words of power and then he stilled. Thor stopped breathing as well because where Heid gripped his wrists the most extraordinary blue color was spreading outward like elaborate vambraces. This close, Thor could see the intricate scarification, feel the cold burn of the creature’s skin as the color spread like rime over his hands and up to his elbows.
She let go with a gasp and the frost giant choked back a sob as the color retreated and he was left pale and unmarked again. Heid rested her hands on her knees, panting and squinted up at Thor. “It’s a very powerful curse.”
“Extraordinary.” Fandral breathed. “Why would someone do such a thing?”
“Whoever did it, they did not love him overmuch.” Sif drew the fur around her neck a little tighter and shivered.
“Indeed, it leaves his magic crippled as he cannot draw upon the ice.” Heid’s breath was coming a little slower.
“But still strong enough to almost pull the mountain down.” Hogun said quietly.
“But what shall…” Thor started when the creature spoke.
“What?” Fandral was helping Heid to her feet; the cold left them all quite pale but now she looked almost bleached.
“My name.” the creature tilted his head until a flowing lock of his hair tickled Thor’s cheek. “It’s Loki.”
“And I’ll wager that it ends ‘Laufeyson’.” Heid scrubbed a hand over her face.
The…Loki flinched hard enough for Thor to feel it. The witch grinned at him meanly. “That’s not hard to deduce. One so young doesn’t have enemies so skilled and so powerful unless they’re royalty. Was it your father…oh, I mean your ‘sire’ who cursed you and banished you?”
The erstwhile frost giant remained silent.
“Or did Laufey-King bear you himself? Is that why you still live, little one?” Heid taunted.
“Enough. We go.” Thor felt that his own curiosity was a bit unseemly after listening to Heid’s jeers.
The…Loki submitted to being bound. Loosely, for Thor would not have him risk tumbling down the steep descent. Of course, it was a vain gesture. Loki moved more gracefully with his hands bound than the Aesir fully free. He seemed if not perfectly suited to his habitat, perfectly adapted. Soon he and Thor were forging the trail in silence.
“Are you going to kill me soon?” Loki spoke as if the only matter for concern was the timing.
“I had not planned to.” Thor returned warily.
“You’ve been speaking to me very unguardedly.” Loki continued in the same flat tone. “It’s been my experience that a loose tongue eventually leads to a tight noose.”
“We are going to take the Allfather this casket and allocate the tribute from Jötunheim.” Thor checked the progress of his comrades. “Then we shall return to Asgard.”
“Ah.” Loki slid down a defile on light feet and Thor jumped. “Does Laufey still live?”
“He was alive yesterday.” Thor ventured. “Will he be…”
“He’ll kill me if he can.” Loki did not sound scared or even sorry.
“For failing to guard the casket?” Thor balked. It was odd but he felt the injustice of it keenly.
Loki huffed a quick laugh. “No. That’s not why.”
“Who did this to you?” Thor thought for a second that Loki would tell him until Loki looked back up at the mountain and his eyes shuttered.
“One long dead.” Loki fell into a deep brood thereafter.
When they rode in sight of the large congregation gathered in the ruins of Utgard, Thor felt strangely split in two. He was so delighted by the prospect of leaving this accursed place that he felt slightly drunk with it, but yet…leaving the mystery of the altered frost giant unsolved kind of rankled.
Loki crouched tensely against the pommel of Thor’s charger. Loki had tried so hard to seem nonchalant about riding the spike-shod beast while he was quite obviously terrified…Thor couldn’t help but find it endearing. Loki’s hair was thick and matted, but it didn’t smell unpleasant and he had finally relaxed enough so that they could ride double somewhat comfortably.
Thor found himself wondering what would happen to Loki, if Heid’s deductions had any merit. Was he even now bringing Loki to an ignominious death at the hands of his countrymen who had never been as savage and resentful as they were at this moment? Odin was full aware that the capture of their casket must be the final indignity and that they could take not one more.
Loki did not act as one who was about to be torn to pieces, but then all Thor really knew of Loki Laufeyson was that he didn’t seem to think his life worth much concern. Loki did not make a move, did not shudder or shiver once as they rode in to the acclaim of the Asgardians and the silent regard of the vanquished.
Thor dismounted quickly. It was no great sacrifice to be gracious. Let them draw the conclusions they would, he had no need to impress the thoroughly beaten frost giants and the…Loki had fought valiantly. Thor brooded for a moment on the memory of Loki’s slim, bare shoulders as he’d squared up against the fiercest of the Aesir. Five on one and he hadn’t hesitated a moment.
So when Thor strode to his father to hand over the casket, he didn’t do anything to hide his exhaustion. He might even have limped a little.
“My son returns victorious, I see.” Odin’s even voice held no sentiment, but he could see his father’s pride in the gleam of his eye. They were all too exhausted to stand on ceremony.
“The mountain has been conquered, father, but it was a near thing.” No one commented on how unlike his usual boastfulness this measured statement was.
“Who is your prisoner?” Tyr rumbled in a tone that clearly asked why is his blood not pooling on the ice as we speak?
“A son of Laufey and a sorcerer.” Thor gestured and Hogun pulled Loki further forward. Loki didn’t cringe, even as there was a muffled rumble from the assembled frost giants. Thor watched as their impassive faces seem to set in even deeper lines. Laufey himself looked blank like his face had been scoured of all possible expression.
It was ever as Loki had said. He stood alone encircled by his people like a pack of enormous wolves. Thor was struck again by how Loki did not quail under that heavy, crimson scrutiny. He had drawn his lips back in what was a sneer from one angle and a smirk from another. He did not even seem to note the presence of the Allfather and the assembled might of the Aesir.
“Another heir, Laufey King?” The Allfather beckoned and Loki raised his chin. “I had not known you so gifted.”
Byleistr had died on Midgard. Thor had slain him with aid from Tyr, leaving his bones to puzzle the mortals. There remained another, less vicious than the crown prince. Thor couldn’t remember his name. And now yet another potential heir. Three sons had made Laufey profligate enough to throw one away. Thor tried to imagine what it would feel like to have the eyes of his own people so inimical and repulsed by him. He wondered if he could muster the same defiance.
The Allfather had locked his gaze on Loki and Loki returned it unflinchingly. There seemed to be something passing between them, some exchange that Thor could only guess at. Odin nodded after a time and murmured softly. “Gifted indeed, and this branching seems…” He did not finish his thought.
Thor found himself wanting to crowd close to his father, to bear him up subtly as he seemed so weary. His father’s frailty was disquieting and it left Thor longing for something, he knew not what. Thor pushed to stand a little closer beside him and Odin rested a hand upon his shoulder. Odin’s voice resounded against the glacial cliffs once more.
“Telling it is, this magic.” Odin cast his eye at Laufey and his generals. “Speak to its purpose, Laufey.”
“His sire gave him the form of a liar, murderer and thief.” Laufey rumbled slowly. “All know the perfidy of the Aesir.”
“And yet not perfidious enough to garb our people as jötunn.” Odin was not goaded. Thor felt he might be imagining it, but his father seemed oddly pleased. “They say Fárbauti was fire-maddened, Laufey, but madness often conceals deep-laid purposes that tug at the threads of the Norns themselves.”
“As you will, Allfather.” Laufey bowed his head. “I have not thought on his fate since I declared him outcast. Now that he comes before us captured like the Casket of Ancient Winter, I can readily tell you which loss I will feel the greater.”
“He was a more ardent guardian than you.” Thor was moved to say. The giant behind Laufey snarled in rage.
“It is of no moment.” Odin lifted a hand to the casket and spoke his intentions much to the dismay of his bitter, aggrieved audience. Tyr had already begun moving troops back to the Bifrost.
Thor noted that Loki had not once looked at the Aesir since he’d broken gaze with Odin. It was as if his stare was his shield, as if the jötnar could not lay hands on him if he could only hold their eyes. He was going to need eyes in the back of his head; already a few of their number seemed to jostle closer hungrily.
Thor was at a loss of how to speak his mind until his gaze wandered to Heid. The war with the Vanir had been just as awful and longer, but the hostage-taking had left Asgard much strengthened in the end.
“Do we not require a blood tribute, father?” Thor muttered. “In that the casket will have a guardian.”
Odin turned to look at him very slowly. Thor tried not to appear transparent under that dark, hollow gaze. “That is a prudent counsel, my son. But it signifies a great turning to allow a frost giant into Asgard, into the very depths of our stronghold.”
“I will bear the responsibility.” Thor tried to sound wise and unmoved. “The son of Laufey is not liable to offend the eyes of our people and otherwise he would remain outcast with no other outlet but to make mischief.”
“Perhaps they only feign leaving him outcast, perhaps he is groomed to be the worm in our apple.” Odin demurred.
“The one who made him thus is long dead.” Thor reasoned. “It becomes all the more reason to keep him close. I would not leave such a one to foment resentment and rebellion behind my back. Heimdall will aid me in checking him.”
Odin remained silent and Thor cast about for another argument.
“He is bound to learn much of us, that is true.” Thor paused. “But perhaps that is for the best that he may be steeped in the example of Asgard and bring our wisdom back to this unenlightened realm. That they might rebuild instead of vainly pillaging abroad.”
Odin was silent for so long that Thor despaired, but when his father spoke again it was both certain and simple. “So be it.”
He turned to the assembled crowd and boomed. “We require a peace pledge of Jötunheim.”
“Is it much further?” Loki asked as they passed through the portcullis. He seemed to make a habit of keeping his head very still and straight while just moving his eyes. He didn’t gawk like a bumpkin. Thor was so glad to see his home that he felt a little dizzy with it and he hadn’t been paying attention to aught else. He realized that Loki must be very nervous if he had been moved to speak.
Thor opened his mouth to explain before Heid forestalled him.
“This is where we strip you naked and chop off that horsetail of hair.” Heid said breezily, pushing up her sleeves. “Then we’ll pass through into the great hall and have you lashed until it no longer amuses us to hear you shriek.”
Loki kept walking but he straightened even further if that were possible as if he were a puppet and someone had jerked hard on his strings. Fandral made a sound somewhere between a snort and a chuckle, but Loki looked so cool and blank and wary that Thor was horrified to realize that casual public torture was just about what he expected.
“Pay no attention to our Vanir witchling.” Volstagg snorted.
“Indeed,” Thor regained his voice. “Her little joke.”
Loki nodded slowly. “It was funny.”
He said it so ironically that Fandral and Volstagg guffawed and even Hogun jerked a nod.
“Come.” Sif took charge of their hostage prince, shaking her head. “You should meet the Queen, Frigga.”
The Warriors Three expressed their intentions to repair to the baths at once, so Thor was left to glare at Heid.
“Why did you say that, cousin?” Thor snapped. “That was cruel.”
“Frost giants aren’t known for their subtlety, my prince.” Heid started innocently. “They’re either at your throat or at your feet. And that one’s too clever by half, so I’d keep your boot on his neck if I were you.”
“You’re not me.” Thor folded his arms. It seemed like the Vanir witches did nothing but revel in his displeasure. “And while you are in Asgard, you must adhere to our customs and that means…”
“I should have told him that Asgardian custom dictated you bend him over the high table and take your war bride then and there.” Heid returned and grinned wickedly at his flustered huff. “I noticed how you seem to want either one hand or both eyes on him at all times.” His glower seemed to delight her. “You can think he’s pretty all you like, just don’t start thinking that makes him good.”
“You would know.” Thor said sourly. There was no response that would leave him feeling anything but foolish. And there was no use protesting that he didn’t think Loki was pretty in the least…
“Luckily in this instance your duty is also your pleasure.” Heid chuckled and flipped her red hair over her shoulder. ““In your shoes, Odinson, I would keep a very, very close eye on him. He’s probably plotting something disastrous, plus these hallowed halls aren’t exactly prepared to play host to such a barbarian.”
“I’m sure we will get used to him, as I have gotten used to you and your strange Vanir habits.” Thor replied testily.
Heid arched one eyebrow and practically cooed. “Indeed. Perhaps you’ll find that frosty austerity more to your taste than our louche, wayward ways.” She sidled close enough to brush his hip and he could feel her tiny fingers under the edge of his breastplate. “That is if he doesn’t try to kill you at once.”
“He seems cleverer than that.” Thor said wryly and plucked her fingers free of his armour. “Likewise I feel sure he can get used to us.”
“Oh, I’ve no doubt, Thor.” Heid grinned and flapped away to her quarters up under the eaves of the west wing. “But I don’t think it will be painless.”
The Asgardians fancied themselves urbane, so there was no collective gasp or titter when Loki was presented at the lavish feast to welcome the returning warriors. Rumors had been buzzing for hours that the army had returned with a jötunn envoy, a prince no less. There was a great deal of subtle neck-craning and sideways glances until the doors opened and then they goggled openly.
Thor had made sure that he arrived at the great hall well in time but he was disconcerted when Loki first appeared next to Frigga. Loki was still wrapped in furs in the jötunn style. Fresh, clean furs to be sure, but to the Aesir he still looked shockingly underdressed with his chest and legs mostly bare. After a moment, Thor saw the wisdom in it; his people were expecting a savage Jötunn. Loki thus arrayed looked both startlingly exotic and beautiful, as if to ridicule the bigotry of Asgard. This was certainly his mother’s doing.
“Could you not have…” Thor trailed off gesturing at Loki’s head but his mother seemed to know his thoughts, as always. Loki now wore a plain gold circlet, but his hair was still a tangled nest of snakes.
“There wasn’t time enough.” Frigga smiled and unself-consciously stroked Thor’s own golden locks. “It suits this pageant, dear one, and the prince does not wish to be over-adorned.”
Indeed even now Loki was shooting Thor a quelling look and then he looked back at Frigga with an unreadable expression. Sif and the Warriors Three joined the coterie, already laughing with pleasure, and they swept into the hall together to a great roar of acclaim.
Loki followed them to the high table and stood still for Odin’s introduction but did not even deign to raise his hand to the assembled court as they bid him a hesitant, if cheerful welcome. These people had seen nothing of the war, had only gossiped about the scourge of faraway Midgard. They were willing to be charmed by the jötunn emissary, particularly such a striking one, but Loki remained stiff and silent.
Thor would have liked to be a better host, but his attention was besought by all and sundry. There were myriad tales to be told and retold. Countless songs and poems to be heard and judged, but Thor was never allowed to completely forget himself with the pale, mute presence on his left side. Loki sat and watched everything closely and after a while, Thor observed that he wasn’t eating.
“Is it not to your liking?” Thor suddenly realized he wasn’t sure that he’d actually seen a bite pass Loki’s lips. As he was nominally the host, he felt his discourtesy keenly.
Loki threw him an unhappy look, but he didn’t speak.
Thor wrenched a leg right off the haunch in front of him and took a large bite. “It’s not poison, you see?”
He proffered the meat almost teasingly, expecting that Loki would turn his face away with a cool grimace. But Loki’s eyes flashed and he leaned in to snatch a bite of meat with his sharp white teeth. Thor felt it almost like a touch, like pain, as if it was his finger that Loki had savaged instead of the roast.
And thus were the floodgates opened.
It hadn’t occurred to Thor that Loki might have literally been starving but then, that was foolish surely, stupidly unobservant. Loki’s skin was drawn so tight over his bones and indeed, it had been a great labor to victual their army in Jötunheim, game had been scarce. And Loki had been relying solely on his own resource, perhaps for years.
Loki chewed slowly at first and then his eyes got brighter until they seemed to gleam as if with unshed tears and he had pulled a full handful, two handfuls of meat off the bone. Thor became conscious that Loki had not been fearing poison or that the food would not be to his taste. Rather that it was too much to his taste and now that he had started, he would eat until he burst. Loki had been so cool, so controlled in the face of what must have been deeply overwhelming circumstances but Thor had just carelessly pushed the limits of Loki’s restraint. After a moment, Loki seemed to be barely reining himself in from frenzy and his eyes were growing more desperate as he swallowed bites that were barely chewed.
Thor looked away quickly, but fascination drew him back after ten heartbeats.
Loki managed to stay rather neat but like a fastidious great cat that didn’t want to waste a drop of the blood of its prey. This close, Thor witnessed several moments where Loki tried to stop himself but was unable. Thor felt he was losing appetite for his own meal, but that would be so deeply, deeply unkind to bring Loki to this state and leave him to suffer alone. Already a few people were staring.
“This, try this.” Thor reached and grabbed a platter from a serving boy. “Volstagg, come and tell us the story of those three sisters in Alfheim.” He took an enormous bite from a roast fowl, tore it clean in two and handed half to Loki. Volstagg obliged quickly, declaiming through his own mouthful of venison. Thor roared for more ale and demanded an array of dishes fit for heroes and can you not see that our guest still hungers, is the hospitality of Asgard grown meager in my absence?
After a few tense minutes, it was almost fun, stealing bites off of other platters, finding new, daintier morsels to press on his guest, watching Loki’s face flush with mead and ale. Set against Volstagg’s greed and Thor’s own gluttony, Loki’s insatiable hunger became nothing to remark on.
Finally, Loki paused to inhale…a breath, not food. Volstagg offered him some sweet trifle and he dug two fingers in to taste it. By now there was no one now to point or titter, the Asgardians were all either too deep in their cups or pursuing other sensual pleasures. Thor watched Loki lick his fingers and mopped his own brow with the edge of the tablecloth.
“There will be more tomorrow.” Thor said, almost under his breath.
Loki looked at him sidelong and nodded.
The following night’s feast was more subdued. Loki now possessed handsome Asgardian garb and someone had untangled the mats from his hair with a liberal application of oil and patience. Thor found himself idly considering how long it must have taken to work all the knots free. Now it gleamed like a raven’s wing and flowed almost to his waist.
A few plentiful meals already appeared to be doing him good; he no longer looked so gaunt and ill. His pallor suited the wash of black hair and poison green of his eyes. Thor felt an odd sort of pride, as if he had pulled a diamond from the muck of Jötunheim and now saw it set in a sumptuous diadem.
Loki remained silent through three courses, and then gestured down at Heid. “Why does she not sit with you?”
“The high table is for the house of Odin.” Thor started, surprised. “Honored guests and…”
“Warriors.” Fandral finished. He raised an eyebrow at Sif who laughed into her chalice.
“But you call her ‘cousin’.” Loki pointed out. “And is she not a warrior?”
“It’s an old joke she shares with the Odinson.” Fandral explained. “She is not truly his cousin.”
“And she be no warrior, not like our Sif.” Volstagg grinned across at Heid who blew him a kiss. She didn’t look any more devious than average, Thor was glad to note.
Loki nodded, nibbling on his lower lip.
“Vanir are…strange.” Thor had drunk a little too much, that wasn’t quite the word he wanted. The others spoke up at once in demurral.
“Not strange, strange as such.” Sif said. “Different, certainly.”
“I rather like them.” Volstagg put in.
“They certainly have some attributes to recommend them.” Fandral added with a lascivious wink. He turned to look down past Frigga to where Freya sat and Freyr leered back at him.
“It is just that they are not…plainspoken.” Thor tried to explain. “I would love them better if they did not twist and turn so, always so full of guile, and their motives so opaque.”
“I wouldn’t call the Bright One’s desires ‘opaque’, would you?” Fandral elbowed Hogun in the ribs. “Heid loves gold more than a cat loves cream.”
“True enough.” Thor conceded.
“We need them, I think.” Sif said. “The AllFather always speaks so highly of accord between us. Just because they love things we scorn or differ in their strengths, it does not make them less than we.”
“I see.” Loki said. Thor did not doubt it; Loki’s eyes seemed to be everywhere. He fancied that Loki’s gaze followed him as Freya called him to her side.
It was hours before he bethought himself of his guest again and by that time Loki had left the table. Thor scanned the room for him and grinned. Loki was practically getting chased around the floor by a determined cadre of Asgardian maidens who didn’t seem put off by his stubborn silence. They twittered at him like birds, not waiting for an answer to one question before posing another.
That was inevitable, Thor guessed. One of them reached out to finger a lock of Loki’s hair and Thor snorted at the incredulous expression on Loki’s face as he eased away from her casual touch.
“Has anyone explained the concept of an outrageous flirt to him?” Heid appeared at his elbow and clinked her tankard against his. “Does he even understand male and female?”
Thor blinked. It was possible he was drunker than he realized. “Why should he not?”
Heid looked up at him and he had to quell the urge to rest his elbow on her head. She was so…tiny.
“Oh, Thor.” She shook her head, smiling indulgently. “You were talking of me earlier, were you not?”
“Aye, Loki was wondering why you did not sit at the high table.” Thor gulped his ale.
“I wonder that myself sometimes.” Heid said archly.
“I think he must rather like you.” Thor went on. “Seeming strange as you are faultlessly unkind to him.”
Heid raised her finger. “He respects me, which is far better than being ‘liked’ by a frost giant. You really have no idea, do you Odinson? Consider what he’s come from and that he’s known nothing else. I confess myself rather astonished that he’s not already done something quite unforgiveable.”
A thin scream cut over the babble of conversations and Thor unconsciously grasped at Mjolnir.
“And so it begins.” Heid snickered. “Best go rescue your pet Jötunn before Sigrid claws his eyes out.”
But Sigrid was flittering out of the great hall, crimson-faced. Thor caught up to her in the receiving room, before more than a couple of tears had time to dampen her sleeve. She wouldn’t tell Thor quite the whole story but it seemed she’d done something that Loki had taken awry and he’d snarled at her most fearsomely.
He reassured himself that Sigrid was more shaken than hurt. He did his best to smooth her ruffled feathers before striding to the balcony where Loki had retreated. Loki was pacing back and forth angrily but when he saw Thor he seemed to deflate.
“What’s this all about?” Thor tried to sound tolerant and even-tempered.
“I thought…she was going to…” Loki scowled and hunched in on himself. “She put her face so close to mine!”
“She probably just wanted a kiss, Loki.” Thor had the urge to shake him. “And you act like she tried to bite you!”
Loki pursed his lips and glowered mulishly. Thor could see the remnants of the scars where Heid’s threads had been cut away and he reflected suddenly that perhaps frost giants didn’t kiss.
Thor wanted to ask if that were so and yet some odd, giddy feeling held him back. “She wasn’t going to hurt you.” Thor explained carefully. “It is something we do to indicate approval and affection for someone and it doesn’t hurt.”
He rather hoped that Loki didn’t ask him to demonstrate. Best to keep it vague. If Loki were very curious he could ask Freya. She was the expert.
“Well it seems foolish.” Loki protested, looking very defensive. “Why not declare such intent? As I have no desire for the approval and affection of particularly silly Aesir.”
Thor tried to stifle his chuckle. Considering tonight’s debacle, Loki wasn’t likely to get kissed again for a while. Loki turned away from him and gripped the marble ledge, looking out over the sea and the road to the Bifrost.
“I’m sorry I didn’t give you fair warning about our gentle maidens here. They’re very…determined.” Thor advised. “Best to be careful.”
“What else must one be wary of here in Asgard, Odinson?” Loki turned his face back to the torchlight and Thor’s mouth went dry. He must be imagining that the mocking tone was tinged with some dark allure.
Me. He didn’t say. “Bilgesnipe. Gambling. Hogun when he’s hungover. In the western mountains there are dragons.”
Loki looked at him sidelong and nodded.
The third day Loki vanished. Thor had gone to the chambers that Frigga had set aside for Loki’s use with an invitation to go hawking on his lips only to find a confused squire who confessed he hadn’t seen the prince since sun-up and then only from a distance. He’d been in the eastern courtyard.
Thor went down to that courtyard, ascertained that Loki had most definitely been there, but was there no longer. An old woman thought she’d seen him out through a lower gate and a guard confirmed the story, but he wasn’t sure.
Thor tried to be very subtle about the fact that he was now actively looking for Loki. It did not speak well for his stewardship that Loki had absconded in slightly less than three days.
Thor made his way down to the treasury and idly asked a guard to show him the plinth where they’d set the Casket of Ancient Winters. The guard was only too pleased to oblige and Thor regarded it unhappily.
East. Thor went down to the stables. The problem was that Asgard had rather a lot of ‘east’.
He made some excuse to Sif and the Warriors Three and then rode out alone. Loki might just be out exploring on his own. The wiser thing to do would be to go back and wait for his return. The bramble on the high plain scored his horse’s flanks leaving shadows on the velvet nap of its pelt.
The sun was now almost overhead. The most vexing thing about all of this was that the plains that spread out in front of him were open, empty and almost featureless. If Loki had not changed himself into one of the circling hawks, Thor was at a loss to think where he might have gone in such a short time. He would have to return and speak to Heimdall and then conceivably his father and then…
His horse’s hoof squelched into a boggy patch. Thor frowned at the mud. He was quite sure that it hadn’t rained here for a while and if the Ifingr was overflowing its banks, he really should investigate.
The ground got soggier as he shoved through the thicket down to the river’s edge. It was curious: the Ifingr seemed oddly swollen, choked up somehow like someone had rolled a boulder into its flow.
Thor picked his way a few steps downstream until he came to the resistance. Loki sat at the base of a small waterfall; the water swelled in waves over his shoulders and gushed around him almost up over his chin. He had left most of his clothes on the bank. Now he looked like some mostly-submerged water spirit. He started when he saw Thor and a few of the river stones around his feet shifted heavily.
For a brief moment, Thor was tempted to wade in and grab Loki from the river’s clutches. He discarded the thought as quickly as it came; the idea of wrestling with Loki when he was already slippery seemed beyond foolish.
They stared at each other for a while. Thor was at such a loss for words that he knelt and plucked a grass stem to chew on. Loki seemed to relax when Thor did not immediately speak. Thor could feel the chill of the water radiating up to him, soaking up with the damp. It must be icy-cold where Loki sat submerged.
“Is it too warm here?” Thor was finally moved to ask.
Loki might have wanted to sneer at him, but it was hard when he had to spit out water to do so. “Is that your theory, Odinson?”
Thor shrugged. “Legend says that this river flows down to Jötunheim.”
“Does it.” Loki said tightly.
Thor closed his eyes and let the sun turn his eyelids scarlet for a moment, soaked up the warmth, listened to the chirping birds. It was hard to fathom this homely pleasure ever being alien and bizarre, but he remembered what Heid had said last night.
“I imagine it does feel too warm here.” Thor leaned back on his haunches and regarded the sun. “Too bright, probably too smelly. It is passing strange for me to be back as well, after so long away.”
Loki just looked at him and his lips twitched.
“And if you stay there much longer, you’ll certainly turn blue, if that is your wish.” Thor mused. “But then I think you will die.”
Loki did not smile, but his eyes glittered.
“And then float down with the current, is that your plan? To go back to your people as a corpse-king?”
Loki shrugged and the water babbled in protest. “You persist in thinking I must have a reason for what I do.”
“Do you not?” Thor made his disbelief plain.
“Perhaps I am mad.” Loki mused. “How would you know?”
“You are not mad.” Thor scoffed. “At the moment you are just bathing eccentrically.”
Loki turned his face away but not before Thor caught his tiny grin. “A smile! Rare currency indeed from the exiled jötunn prince.”
Loki shook his head and pursed his lips which had gone an odd shade of purple. Thor picked up a river stone and cupped it in his fist.
“You are not what I expected.” Loki said, tilting his head up to speak. “I had heard that the Odinson was like unto his hammer.”
Thor couldn’t help but feel a small bloom of fondness. He ran his finger along the carved runes on Mjolnir’s head.
“Thick, brutish and unsubtle.” Loki said sweetly.
Thor felt rather nettled.
“Well, I would tell you how well you matched the legend of Loki Laufeyson.” Thor returned. “But I have never heard such legend or aught of you.”
“Indeed.” It was not a smile, just a baring of teeth. They fell silent. Loki closed his eyes.
Thor tapped his stone against his hammer before bursting out. “So you are just going to freeze to death on a whim?”
“I do have a reason, Odinson.” Loki’s lips curved, as predicted they were turning blue. “But you shall not know it.”
Thor squeezed the stone until it cracked into six pieces and he flung them downstream into the stiller water. Time to employ another tactic.
“You know my father is renowned for his seiðr” Thor said absently, as if he didn’t care two ways about it. “If you wish to have the curse upon you lifted, you have only to...”
“Ask Odin Allfather?” Loki snarled. “He has no reason to aid me.”
“He has no reason not to.” Thor returned, startled. “There is no need to fear…”
“I am not afraid.” Loki snapped. All at once, he pushed himself almost clear of the water and promptly lost his balance. Thor managed to snag his wrist before he fell and the look Loki gave him was openly murderous. But Thor waited until Loki had set his half-frozen feet again between the river stones before letting go.
“Well, I shall…” Thor shifted his weight back gingerly. Loki’s skin was now blooming from a purple-blue back to a hectic pink and Thor was finding it very uncomfortable to look upon him. Loki was also holding himself in such a way that suggested that he would not shiver in the sight of Thor Odinson. “Leave you to your next caprice.”
“Why do you call that Vanir witch ‘cousin’?” Loki squeezed the water out of his hair as Thor turned to retreat.
“It’s an old…” Thor paused. “I’ll tell you if you walk back with me.”
He glanced back at Loki who shrugged wryly as if to say well played.
“We fought the Vanir for an aeon.” Thor plucked another grass stem and played with it. “It went on and on and it was like grappling with mist.”
They walked very slowly. Loki had probably stayed in the icy water long enough that his every muscle was cramping and his skin was on fire but he made no complaint. He just set his feet very carefully and Thor ambled beside him, leading his horse.
“And Heid helped you to victory?”
“She did.” Thor shrugged. “Which was odd or perhaps fitting because she’d started it. After years of grinding our bones on their whetstone, she could sense the direction of the tide and she came to believe an Aesir victory was better than more rivers of blood. They can shape-shift, you know. Their fiercest warriors would put on the forms of women and children and they’d strike just when we’d try to protect them.”
Loki nodded and gestured for him to continue.
“So.” Thor sighed. “When your enemy starts doing something like that, it leaves you with a rather unpleasant choice, does it not? You can turn your back on what you think is a harmless refugee only to have them slice at your hamstrings and kidneys or you can pre-emptively hack into what may, in fact, be a child. I didn’t relish it.”
“So Heid at long last…she’d been our hostage from the beginning, you understand…spelled a sword for me, that it would glow in the presence of a warrior. So I would know what I was up against, a genuine crying child or a bloodthirsty soldier. And that was that. We took their surrender a fortnight later.”
Loki squinted at the horizon where the palace was gaining shape. “Do you still have the blade?”
“Indeed.” Thor gestured vaguely. “I did not use it on the…ah, last campaign. I confess that I was grateful that the Jötnar keep their vulnerable ones well-hidden.”
“In a tribal conflict, a warrior who fell pregnant would be untouchable.” Loki acknowledged. “To slay one would be quite taboo, but it’s not unheard of.”
Thor blinked. He opened his mouth and then closed it. Loki continued before he could formulate a question. “When the Jötnar speculate about what the Aesir do for leisure, it’s usually quite obscene. I presume that’s just base chauvinism?” He cocked an eyebrow at Thor and gestured at the palace.
Thor was still pondering the ‘pregnant warrior’ idea and he could not muster up much wit. “We hunt…we have tourneys and …feasts.”
“I see.” Loki said dryly.
“When the moons are full.” Thor cast about for entertainment. “Iðunn will wed Bragi, it should be…amusing.”
It took ten days to weave Loki into the warp and weft of Asgard. For the first four days he’d been content to walk around and watch Thor have a hundred drinks in a hundred taverns and a thousand conversations to catch him up with the doings of his people and their concerns. Then Thor had made a significant tactical error and thereafter Loki had scorned his company.
On the fourth day, Thor had shown him the library.
It had been momentarily worth it. He’d had the inspiration while breaking his fast, but had gone on a general round, showing Loki the stables and the lower gardens which stood far enough away to make a picnic luncheon worthwhile. There were two towers down the east wing that Loki had not seen; one of them was an observatory. They did not trek to the library until the sun was lowering.
Loki had just blinked once and taken a deep breath, but he could not seem to twist his lips into their usual sneer.
“Do you like it?” Thor himself thought it rather fine, with the afternoon light limning the leather and parchment with a golden glow.
“Like it?” Loki had repeated as if he was learning a new language. He had walked down the first row of books and even though Thor could still see him, Loki was for all intents and purposes, gone. Loki now had all he needed of Asgard and Thor could not craft an invitation that would shift him.
But Thor would continue to find him in odd corners and strange places. He once found Loki in the kitchens when he was seeking a mid-meal snack, Loki deep in discussion with a scullery maid. He found Loki perched on the wall on the lowest edge of the lower city, watching children play at war with sticks and shuttlecocks. He found Loki outside the city walls, chatting with a crone as she fed her chickens. Loki would tilt his head to acknowledge Thor and sometimes that was all he got. Acknowledgement.
It would be unseemly to simply demand Loki’s company, as if he were some thrall. He was a prince of Jötunheim, a royal hostage to their treaty and no slave. And Thor had plenty of friends to claim his attention; he should not feel the lack of one haughty, sneering, bespelled frost giant. But it didn’t feel good to be abandoned so easily in favor of dusty tomes which had never done anyone an ounce of good as far as Thor could see.
The only thing that kept him from feeling completely hurt was that Loki was somehow almost always present when he sparred with his fellow warriors. In the early morning before the warmth grew heavy, Loki would sit high above their arena and watch, cocking his head like a clever raven.
Loki watched every match very closely, but it did not seem to amuse him in the slightest. Thor did his best to be unself-conscious under that piercing green gaze but Loki’s hard, assessing scrutiny made it difficult to preen after his inevitable victories. While other spectators would cheer or gasp at particularly well-fought or brutal moves, Loki remained silent, hunched over his bent knees. It made Thor feel oddly brutish, like an animal bred for blood sport.
Well to be sure, Loki was accustomed to that ice magic. Perhaps he thought the hammer a ‘thick and unsubtle’ weapon. Thor spent a fortnight honing his blade work with Fandral, Hogun and Sif until he was as smooth and deadly as a striking snake and still Loki said not one word. Just watched and twisted a lock of hair into a petulant coil. Thor would have thought that Loki would have left over watching as it seemed to make him so glum, but Loki never missed a bout. He watched every move avidly even as it appeared to fill him with something that might have been contempt.
One morning Loki did not show up to observe. Thor kept glancing unobtrusively to where he usually perched until Hogun managed to slide a sword over his shoulder for his lack of attention. It stung like a wasp.
“You’re awfully slow this morning.” Sif jibed. “Your mind on absent not-friends?”
Thor snorted and went to take a dipperful of water.
“I’d have thought you’d be glad to have him gone.” Fandral panted. “His eyes make me… It feels like he only seeks to find our weaknesses.”
That brought Thor up short. It had not occurred to him before, but surely that was what Loki was doing. But Loki didn’t watch them, Loki watched him. It was…
“Hey ho.” Volstagg rested his spear on the ground. “What’s that ruckus?”
Thor hefted himself up onto the parapet and the shouting clamor sounded clearer. It sounded more exultant than fearful. Hogun was already taking a look through his glass, after a moment he shrugged, puzzled and handed it to Thor. From here it looked like a jubilant crowd of ants on the edge of the city.
Children. A pack of schoolboys frolicking and…Loki was dragging a dead bilgesnipe through the lower gates. He’d rigged some kind of travois-sledge that wrapped the enormous carcass and kept it safe from flies, but Thor could still recognize the antlers.
“What is he about, our frosty not-friend?” Fandral laughed in disbelief.
“Did he hunt that by himself?” Sif was shaking her head. “This I must see.”
They found Loki between the tanner’s yards and the slaughterhouses, apparently haggling with some butcher’s broker. The Asgardian was trying to convince Loki that the antlers weren’t all that impressive.
“Quit this nonsense, my good man.” Thor felt infected with the schoolboys’ jubilation; it was such a feat! “The antlers alone are worth a hundred gold pieces. I have seen many of these beasts and this one is exceptionally fine.”
“And delivered right to you!” Volstagg tugged at one of the claws. “How ever did you manage it, Loki?”
“With much stealth.” Loki looked a bit haggard, he had a glowing red scar seaming down from his collar and his clothes were splashed in multi-hued blood. Thor wanted to urge him to the healers, but Loki was far more interested in the pouch the broker finally handed over. It looked heavy and Loki’s eyes gleamed with tired satisfaction.
“Will you not take one trophy from your kill?” Thor asked.
Loki looked puzzled for a moment. “No, that…no.”
“Do you have any plans for that gold?” Volstagg looked significantly at the swinging sign of the nearest tavern.
Loki nodded. The clink of his pouch seemed to give him new energy. He turned down a street that opened up into the livestock market. “I’m going to buy some goats.”
Thor, Sif and the Warriors Three exchanged sixteen glances between them.
“Goats?” The Warriors Three said in unison.
“Why?” Thor asked, falling into step with Loki’s long strides.
Loki looked at him sidelong and curled his lip. “I shall buy some remarkably fine ones and have a chariot made as a gift for my most gracious host, so that the thunder god might travel in exceptional style.”
Volstagg burst out laughing and after a second everyone else did too. Merriment overcame them. Fandral could not stop himself from patting Loki on the back and Loki did not even flinch.
“Fairly spoken, Loki Laufeyson.” Thor choked back a snicker. “What beast will see you so well mounted, so that I might reciprocate?”
“You need not trouble yourself.” Loki gave a slight, sardonic bow. “I will secure my own.”
They joined Loki at the marketplace, lending their voices to his when it came time to bargain. It was surprisingly diverting sport for the warriors and it was not long before Loki owned a small herd of surpassing heftiness and fecundity. Volstagg seemed prepared to spend the day gossiping with farmers and butchers and only agreed to go when Thor expressed his intention to stand the first round in honor of Loki’s hunting prowess.
“I might’ve guessed that you would be an accomplished hunter.” Thor slammed down his second tankard and called for another. “But I never would have guessed that you consented to come to Asgard to become a farmer.”
Loki sighed and played with one of the coins he’d earned, flipping it back and forth between his fingers. “This is not the game, Odinson, it is just the first move.”
“What is the game then?” Thor took a gulp of fresh ale, trying to wash down a sense of foreboding.
Loki glanced at him sideways and took a sip of his own, and said softly, “a long one.”
Loki hunted bilgesnipe twice more, once in Thor’s company, though Thor naturally rejected Loki’s offer to split the money that the liver, antlers, pelt and claws yielded. Thor took two claws as a memento of the sport. Loki refused any token but gold.
Loki bought no more goats, but he visited his charges every so often in their corral down below the royal stables. Thor was surprised to learn that Loki had made arrangements for their care days before he’d successfully brought down the bilgesnipe.
And he was more than a little curious about Loki’s plans for the coin he was amassing. After hunting for prize money, Loki turned to games of skill in the coarser taverns, then games of chance in slightly nicer taverns and it was not long before most residents of the Golden City refused to play him for any stake.
Thor sought him out in the library one evening and found Loki and Heid hissing at one another like cats.
Loki cast one startled glance at Thor before striding away deep into shelves of maps and astronomy charts. Thor was too conscious of his dignity to call out after him. Heid greeted him rather churlishly, “And what can I do for you, my prince?”
Thor canted his head toward the retreating Loki, “What were you discussing with…”
“…the tight-fisted Jötunn?” Heid rolled her eyes. “The price of a few lessons in spellcraft. ”
Thor was taken thoroughly aback. “Do you think that’s wise?”
“Well I certainly don’t think it’s wise to sell my expertise cheaply.” Heid scowled down at her parchment and began rolling it up peevishly.
“I mean do you think it’s good for Asgard to teach him…” Thor gestured vaguely. He tried to think of a nicer way to say ‘Vanir trickery’.
“The good of Asgard is your concern, not mine.” Heid returned with impeccable logic. “And the state of my purse is my concern, not yours.”
Like a cat loves cream, thought Thor and sighed. “I only mean…”
“Thor, I would gladly teach you my fearsome skills if you professed even the slightest interest.” Heid tucked a book under her arm and walked away. “For the right price, of course!”
Thor steeled himself and went to visit his father. He found Odin carving a knot of wood into a pipe on a balcony outside a lesser banqueting hall.
“Heid may teach Loki seiðr.” Thor had tried to think of several ways to address the issue more gracefully or diplomatically, but it proved beyond him. “If they agree on a price.”
The Allfather nodded down at his wood shavings. “And this troubles you?"
“Well, no…not as such. Yes.” Thor reflected miserably that he really should have composed his thoughts a bit better. Odin was not one to disapprove of seiðr ‘just because’. “He is not frank with his intentions.”
“Has he been behaving suspiciously?” Odin asked, wiping the shavings off his blade.
“He bought some goats.” Thor said finally.
“Hmmmm.” Odin examined his pipe. “Clever of him.”
“…” Thor chewed on that. “Truly, what might he be using them for?”
“Milk, meat…” Odin’s eye was piercing. “…some breeds have hair that can be spun. Surely you know this, my son?”
“He is always doing things that seem strange.” Thor complained, feeling very childish.
“Do you consider, my boy,” Odin said gently. “That Loki is trying to make his own way in this world without the benefits and resources that you may take for granted? That he is accustomed to being alone in a harsh realm and has therefore made plans on top of plans, should some go awry?”
“Yes, and I would like to….” Thor thought about it. “…forestall him, if he’s plotting something underhanded.”
“Well, then.” Odin stuck the pipe in his mouth and took a tentative practice draw. “You will have to keep watching him.”
“Loki, did you forget the wedding was tonight?” Thor shifted his weight uncomfortably. “You’re not dressed quite...”
“Then how?” Loki clenched the tunic he had been about to draw on and hurled it to the floor petulantly. It looked like several outfits had already been sacrificed to his temper. A servant cowered just inside the doorway and Thor waved him away. Loki was snarling and pacing in front of his barren wardrobe half-dressed and Thor paused a moment to regard him.
“How am I to keep track of these blasted rules that you’ve been steeped in since your birth, Odinson?” Loki snapped. “Forgive me, for while I have devoted countless hours to your history, law, philosophy and art, I have not yet made an exhaustive study of your fashion!”
“Calm yourself.” Thor plucked an embroidered tunic from the floor. “This will serve.”
Loki was not mollified and he snatched the clothing from Thor’s hand.
“And you keep saying that word as if I should know it.” Loki continued testily.
“Which word?” Thor was thoroughly taken aback.
“Wed-ding?” Loki spread his hands in aggravated inquiry. “Is this some new game or tourney that will surely scale fresh heights of tedium?”
Thor gaped at him. And then abruptly felt a fool. “You don’t have weddings in Jötunnheim.”
Loki folded his arms and visibly clenched his teeth.
“Uh.” Thor opened his mouth for a quick explanation then realized that there were bound to be awkward questions attached to the issue and he shouldn’t run the risk of a revealing blush. “Will you come with me?” He was a journeyman in need of a master.
“Where are we going?” Loki still looked mulish, but he fell into step with Thor obligingly.
“To visit Freya.”
Freya was so delighted to be asked to explain Aesir wedding rituals to a foreign dignitary that she actually left off the arranging of her golden curls. She opened a bottle of delectably scented liqueur and led them to a comfortable private nook in her quarters and then expounded on all aspects of the Asgardian marriage contract with such wisdom and aplomb that Thor found himself enthralled, even though he could have sworn he understood this part of his culture perfectly.
Loki had so many questions that eventually Freya advised him that he should bear witness to the ceremony and come to her the following day with any remaining queries. Thor took the cue that it was time to leave her to complete her toilette. He sent Loki on to dress in order to pose some questions of his own.
“You have my thanks, Lady.” Thor nodded a bow. “I’m only sorry we didn’t come to you earlier.”
“It’s of no consequence, my prince.” She swept a curtain of hair off her shoulders. “How were you to know the depths of his ignorance? We consider the rites so fundamental that naturally he wouldn’t find the details in any book.”
Thor shrugged and asked in what he fancied was a bluff, idle tone. “Surely they must have something like in Utgard? Or are all frost giants birthed from glaciers, like icebergs?”
Freya arched one perfect eyebrow. He felt in an instant that she saw right through him, but her tone was equally nonchalant. “Well, I’m no expert, Thor, but I’m given to understand that most jötunn unions begin with the phrase ‘brace yourself’.” She grinned at him cheekily. “They’re not very formal.”
“So how do they…” He cleared his throat. “No courtship rituals at all, truly?”
“They’re a warrior race, even sterner than the Aesir.” She examined her pearlescent fingernails. “I imagine that they battle for the privilege of mating, winner takes all.”
He had nodded, shrugged and turned to go as she continued casually. “Probably why your enchanted prince is still untouched.”
Thor gripped the edge of the door to keep from flinching. Of course, Freya could probably smell virginity at fifty paces and was among the few who thought it a fit topic for conversation. Thor grimaced as a hot surge of lascivious want made his fingers tighten into claws and his eyes screw shut. He half-turned and took refuge in his reputation for being deliberately obtuse. “Is that what they’re calling him now? ‘The enchanted prince’?”
He tried to chuckle but it came out as a kind of strangled caw.
Freya had lounged back in her chair to toy with her mirror. “Why…” Her tone was just as studiously idle as his, but he caught a flash of her eye’s reflection. “Don’t you find him enchanting?”
Thor snorted and left to a peal of her laughter like ringing bells.
It seemed so strange; so hard to fathom that there was something so very basic that Loki was ignorant of. More than anything Loki projected an air of knowing all kinds of secrets. But then he’d seen plenty of evidence that Loki had huge blind spots in all his hard-fought knowledge.
It was exciting.
No, Thor thought, tilting his tankard up quickly at yet another toast. That was not the right word. It was interesting. Culturally.
It was important to keep Heid’s words foremost in his mind: that Loki, despite his Aesir appearance, was not one of them, would never be one of them, he was a cold, unfeeling frost giant, a glacier-prince. That Loki likely only watched them to mock and sniff away at their weaknesses.
And yet, it was more complicated than that. Perhaps it was because Loki made every token of friendship so hard-fought, for one as accustomed to fighting as Thor was…it was strangely intoxicating. Thor watched Loki out of the corner of his eye, telling himself it was both a command from the Allfather and Heid’s sound advice.
Loki seemed to find the whole long ritual intensely interesting. After the fifth toast, he seemed almost…jovial.
When Thor recovered from his wedding-feast hangover, the sun was setting on the day after. Or rather he believed it to be the day after. It might have been any number of days after. But he was awake with a purpose in mind. He left Sif and Fandral to make sure that Volstagg did not fall asleep in his porridge, gave Hogun a wide berth and used his best hunter’s stealth to slink into the library.
Loki and Heid appeared to have put aside their differences for they were bent over an old book so close that their hair was nearly tangling together, Heid’s red looking even more brazen against Loki’s coal-black. The sight might have pricked him if Heid hadn’t been declaiming in her most hectoring tone. Thor backed away slowly. Like spiders, he thought. Better when you can see them.
Once in the rows, it became very obvious that he had no clue what he was doing. He was now in a section that seemed to be largely devoted to elven lore, but whether it was their poetry or poetic renderings of their history he could not discern. There was a great deal of runic script that he found completely unintelligible.
He supposed it was too much to ask to find a hefty book with large lettering proclaiming it ‘On Frost Giants’. He sighed and found a stack of maps and sorted through them until he found one of Jötunheim. It was both worm-eaten and bloodstained. On his way up to an unobtrusive table, he found a small parchment in a holder that named itself ‘A Chronicle of Utgard.’ Upon unrolling it, he discovered it was a genealogy.
Or…he thought it was. The spiky, oddly-formed script made a chart of names which varied in color. But the names were conjoined in odd swooping lines that seemed to list heirs on a diagonal. Thor squinted and saw that what he’d assumed was a slashing line was actually script. He leaned closer to try to decipher it. The only names he recognized were ‘Laufey’ and ‘Farbauti’ and they were at the very bottom.
“This seems out of character, Odinson.” Loki’s voice cut through his absorption.
Thor glanced up quickly to where Loki now sat across from him. Loki seemed quite settled as if he’d been sitting for some time. Thor flushed, wondering if he’d been mouthing the words as he read.
Loki tilted his head to the side. “Fancy meeting you here.”
“I was coming to find you actually.” That was true in an extremely roundabout manner of speaking. “Would you like to sup with me?”
Loki shook his head. “Not tonight.”
Thor consoled himself with the thought that his invitation hadn’t been completely sincere.
“What have you got there?” Thor asked quickly to deflect attention from his grimy parchment. Loki rolled his eyes.
“I do believe Midgardians may be the thickest sentient race ever to blight the Nine Realms.” Loki wrinkled his nose at the spine of the book he carried. “But they have surprisingly good poetry.”
“I will take your word for it.” Thor attempted to pull a map over his own reading.
“Indeed. My blood is quite pure, you know.” Loki said, completely out of the blue.
“Ah…yes?” Thor blinked.
Loki leaned forward. “You appear to be examining my antecedents.”
Well, fortune favored the bold. “What do the colors mean?” Thor pointed at a name in scarlet and then at one rendered in a dark indigo.
“Died in battle.” Loki said simply. “Went back to the ice.”
“Went back to the ice?” Thor repeated.
Loki scratched his chin. “Natural causes?”
“Aha.” Thor noted how very few names stood in dark purple. He pointed one of the many diagonal lines. “What does this phrase mean?”
“Out of.” Loki was frowning down at the vellum now, shaking his head gently.
“What, like a horse?” Thor replied without thinking and then bit his tongue.
But instead of getting angry, Loki almost chuckled. His eyes flashed a wicked humor back at Thor. “Yes, Odinson. As in ‘Farbauti begot Loki out of Laufey.”
“I see.” Thor said and he was beginning to, even as his mind boggled.
Again, Loki seemed to be infused with a sudden, unexpected good humor. “Are you so set on stuffing your face at table right now?” Loki gestured to the darkening sky.
“Do you have a better proposal?” Thor said and hoped that it sounded innocuous.
Loki raised one eyebrow. “I’m going to the observatory.”
Loki stood up and was five steps away before he turned and said stiltedly, “If you…”
Thor couldn’t help but grin as he stood up, leaving the map and parchment where they lay.
“What is that?” Thor jerked his chin at the heavy book that Loki had hefted on their way to the hall.
“Astronomical calendar.” Loki was cradling it like a babe. “And star map.”
Thor nodded and stayed silent until they came to the far end of the East Wing. The sun had truly set and the stars were shimmering into view.
“What are we looking for?” Thor squinted up at the sky while Loki fiddled with lenses for the glass.
“There are some auspicious signs.” Loki frowned around for a table and finally ended up arranging his book in Thor’s arms. He found the page he wanted and checked the glass. He stood back and indicated Thor should do the same. While Thor was unsure of what he was supposed to be seeing, he took a moment to admire the beauty of the spangled sky. He came back to himself to discover that Loki had been talking all this time.
“…and I don’t wish to share. They may not wish to journey so far for such a slim chance of glory.” Loki shrugged one shoulder. “More than a few meals might be skipped which might be too much to ask of doughty Volstagg, just going on my whim.”
“What are we talking about?” Thor craned his neck to see if he could read the book upside down.
Loki blinked and scowled. “Dragon hunting. Western border. I am going. I am not asking your friends.”
Thor nodded and then the idea caught fire in his heart. He squeezed the book a little tighter to mask his enthusiasm and spoke very carelessly.
“It occurs to me that you must have some purpose in telling me this.” Thor ducked to take another look through the glass. “Otherwise I would not know about it until you were successful or dead.”
“Well.” Loki looked him up and down. “You were marginally helpful with that bilgesnipe. I figure you might wish to lend your talents to my dragon hunt.”
“Then by all means, lead on.” Thor said acidly. “How could the god of thunder pass up the opportunity to be ‘marginally helpful’?”
Loki almost smiled.
Chapter 2: en passant
Warning: hunting a non-sentient dragon and attendant gore.
“You know, Heid has a different story about why you call her cousin.”
Loki’s mount nuzzled at Thor’s charger and then bit his rump making the beast whinny unhappily. Thor stroked his side to soothe him as he pulled off the saddle, reflecting that it was about bloody typical. “Oh, yes?”
Loki was staring into the fire he’d made. He shifted his gaze up to Thor and raised his eyebrows expectantly. Thor pushed the pack horse’s halter back to scratch its nose.
Thor considered what Heid might have said and felt a little warm even though he was nowhere near the fire.
“Ah.” Thor twisted the leather reins in his hands. “This is about that Midsummer feast, isn’t it?”
Loki pursed his lips as if he was trying not to laugh.
“First, you must understand that I wasn’t too drunk, whatever she said.” Thor hooked his bridle over the pommel and said in a rush. “I truly just don’t fancy her like that. She’s lovely, yes, but…she has no great love of me, she was just bored. I didn’t feel like being her plaything. It seemed the most diplomatic thing to say. That we were close as cousins.”
Loki was still looking at him, eyebrows raised.
“We made it something of a joke, to salve her pride. And it worked.” Thor returned defiantly. Even years later, contemplating the fury of a Vanir witch scorned could make him shiver. “I don’t see why she’s telling you I refused to bed her anyway.”
“Well.” Loki rocked his head from side to side. “She didn’t.”
“What?” Thor stopped petting his horse.
“I only said she had a different story.” Loki said. “I didn’t say she told me.”
“Oh…you…are as bad as they are!” Thor pulled a twig out of his horse’s mane and threw it on the fire.
“Odinson.” Loki was actually grinning now, little flashes of white teeth revealed in the firelight. “I am sure that many, many people have insisted that you must never do anything so foolish as trust me.”
“Perhaps.” Thor hunkered in front of the fire as his pique deserted him. “But truly, you would think that the many I have slain for Asgard would outweigh the gossip if it came out that I had snubbed one of the Vanir beauties. But you would be wrong.”
“Life truly is not fair.” Loki said so blandly that Thor dissolved into a hearty laugh and dropped down beside him.
“I trust you don’t think less of me for being discerning?” Thor asked idly and when Loki made no answer, Thor poked him with his foot.
“Believe me, Odinson, it would be impossible for me to think less of you.” Loki said, but something in the way he said ‘believe me’ made Thor not feel the insult.
After they ate, Loki let the fire die a quiet death. He had found a large smooth stone to lean against as he raised his face to the sky.
“What are you thinking about?” Thor didn’t feel very sleepy, but he was calm and relaxed. He didn’t even really feel the need for conversation, but Loki’s voice was so pleasant.
Loki took a deep breath and then looked over at him. “The stars are different here.”
“Isn’t that only natural?” Thor wrapped his cape a little tighter around his arms. It was deep into spring but this altitude was still chilly at night.
Loki spoke so low, Thor almost couldn’t hear him over the crackle of the dying fire. “I was accustomed to making up stories about the stars on Jötunheim.”
Thor hugged himself a little tighter, imagining the ice fields bare of anything but snow gleaming under the stern stellar light of Jötunheim. And Loki making up stories with no one to tell them to. The stars had been his friends.
“Now you shall have to make up all new ones.” Thor reclined back until his head was next to Loki’s knee. “And tell me, please.”
Loki sighed again and Thor thought he would demur and conceivably stalk off. “Well, I think that one is a great king. Can you see?”
Thor tilted his head back all the way. “Yes, there? Looks more like a ship.”
“No it doesn’t.” Loki didn’t sound like he was arguing, just stating facts. “He’s mounted on one of these…”
“Horses.” Thor supplied helpfully.
“Except this horse is finer and faster than these poor Asgardian beasts.” Loki held up one finger, tracing it over the sky. “It has eight legs.”
“Then it’s not a horse.” Thor chuckled to himself. “No horse ever had eight legs.”
“Well, I have just borne one.” Loki returned dryly. “Are you telling this tale or am I?”
Thor lay back and Loki transformed the stars into strange stories of war and betrayal, great cunning and valor. And then as Thor slept, he changed them back into stars so they could slip away with the dawn.
They left the horses on the edge of the forest and trudged up the downs that rose before the mountains. The air seemed charged and heavy, scented with a hint of charcoal. When they got to the top of the hill, Loki scowled at the broad plain that lay between the grim ranges.
“Why are you stopping?” Thor scratched at his vambraces. The bare field stretched to the foothills of the mountains, scored with what looked like the marks of giant claws and scorched patches burnt black.
“I just don’t relish the prospect of picking our way across this…” Loki nodded at the plain. “Her hunting grounds. At the speed of a horse, it’s still too slow and we can’t possibly be stealthy enough on foot. Or well…you can’t.”
Loki stood up from his crouch, still pondering the problem. Thor grinned to himself and made sure all his buckles were tightened.
Loki glanced at him sourly, “You don’t seem much concerned, Odinson.”
Thor felt it wasn’t too discourteous to look Loki up and down; Loki always seemed to be weighing and measuring him, after all.
Loki shot him a very wary look.
“I’m going to ask you a question.” Thor started. “But I believe I already know the answer.”
Thor took a step toward him and Loki shied back. “What question would that be?”
Thor lunged forward before Loki could escape him and wrapped his arm around Loki’s waist. Loki bared his teeth and dug his fingernails into the edges of Thor’s breastplate but he did not attack immediately which was good enough. Thor hitched him close, “Do you trust me?”
He spun Mjölnir to the whirling force of a hurricane and in the blink of an eye they were aloft.
It turned out that even two of the mightiest heroes would struggle to slay a dragon.
It was not just the size of it, which Thor had anticipated. It was damnably quick both on the ground and in the air. It had far more cunning than a bilgesnipe and the fiery breath was hard to guard against. It had singed Thor’s cape clean off his back in the first skirmish.
But really, the worst was that its hide was nearly impenetrable. Thor had been bashing it around the skull for what felt like hours as he endeavored to keep out of the spumes of flame and that just seemed to make it angry.
Loki had proved very capable of distracting it at crucial moments, in fact once or twice Thor had been certain that Loki could not possibly have gotten out of the way in time. But they could not spring their trap. Thor’s heart pounded in the rhythm of the dragon’s earthquake steps as he drove it toward Loki again. This had sounded so simple when they’d discussed it, but now the theory was blown apart by the practice.
Thor leaped and struck when the dragon tried to turn aside and the beast shrieked in rage and huffed in the way that signaled that it was about to bury them in flame. Loki had found a single promontory of stone in the sea of churned-up earth and he stood unmoving as the dragon thundered to him. The first time it had taken to the sky, the second time it had turned on itself to snap once again at Thor. This time it reared back to blast a fiery exhalation all over Loki and Thor tensed mid-leap as he prepared to smash it away again. But Loki had drawn back his bow and loosed an arrow in perfect time to catch the beast through its thicket of teeth. The arrow sailed true to lodge through the palate of the dragon’s wide open mouth and penetrated its brain.
The dragon threw back its head and writhed, screeching, before it collapsed forward onto the rock. Thor landed hard in the dirt but he’d been thrown down about a dozen times now and he had learned the trick of it. It was important to relax the shoulders upon striking the ground.
He jumped up and brushed himself off as he trotted to the last place he’d seen Loki. The dragon lay unmoving, but Thor skirted it warily nonetheless. His back ached terribly and it felt like the back of his neck had been burned. Just at the moment he started to worry, Loki came into view. He’d been almost hidden in the shadow of the looming carcass.
“Is it really dead then?” Thor called.
“I think so.” Loki shouted back.
“I could have sworn it had you near a thousand times.” Thor stroked a hand over the smooth scales and took a moment to esteem such a worthy adversary.
“No.” Loki said absently. He had some kind of sorcerous blade, perhaps borrowed or stolen from Heid. Thor was relieved. Otherwise they might have been hacking away until midsummer. “It’s bigger than I expected.”
“Truly?” Thor braced himself and lifted the heavy, scaly head to look closer at their late adversary. Blood dripped past its frill of fangs and hissed and sizzled as it hit the ground. “I would take this, if you’ve no objection.”
Loki snorted “Just as long as you help me skin this beast.”
Thor blew out all his breath. “Somehow I thought the hard part was over.”
“We’ll take our time.” Loki conceded.
They had to wait for the blood to drain so they had more than enough time to search its lair. This particular dragon had snuffled out jewels like a pig with truffles and its hide was speckled with sparkling rubies, topaz and tourmaline. Deep in the cavern, Loki looked pleased when he found a sapphire as big as a goose egg. He picked through the piles of amber, amethyst and emerald like a crone sifting through a vegetable stall on market day.
“Why not take them all, magpie?” Thor’s aches and pains were starting to recede. He was starting to feel the glow of hard-fought victory and it made him want to take liberties.
“What did you call me?” Loki stood up straight and looked like he was about to pitch a fist-sized garnet at Thor’s face.
“It’s a bird.” Thor grinned. “Long black tail. Likes shiny things.”
Loki snorted, but he condescended to answer. “We only have six pack horses.”
“Which seems like more than enough.” Thor returned, puzzled.
“How slow you are, Odinson, how slow.” Loki shook his head sadly. “Did you think I would search the sky for auspicious signs to kill a dragon if all I wanted was its treasure?”
He shoveled the gems he’d selected into a satchel and shouldered past Thor to return to the carcass. Thor took a few that he thought might be Frigga’s favorite color and picked out a couple for Heid and Freya as an afterthought. When he emerged from the cavern, Loki had already made his first cuts.
“I thought that their blood was supposed to make one invulnerable?” Thor poked at the caustic sludge of dragon’s blood and dirt dubiously.
“Not the blood.” Loki replied absently, starting to carve out the organs. He had braided his hair into a long plait to keep it out of harm’s way.
“What do you seek?” Thor helpfully peeled the flayed skin back. It didn’t smell nearly as bad as he expected.
Loki had worked his arms and shoulders almost halfway into the body cavity. He emerged with his wry face daubed with ichor. “Can’t you pull harder?”
Thor pulled until the ribs started to crack. Loki almost disappeared into the dragon’s belly for a moment, but quickly emerged panting and cradling three gore-flecked eggs.
They finally succeeded in packing all their trophies into bundles that the horses could manage. Loki had been relatively talkative as they’d worked, but he’d grown silent and brooding as the sky darkened. He made a fire and took the food Thor gave him without a word.
“That was good sport.” Thor started.
Loki grunted what might have been an affirmative.
“So,” Thor asked casually. “Are you learning much from Heid?”
Loki gave him a sour look. “That is a poor substitute for the question you want to ask.”
“If you’re so clever then, answer the question I wanted to ask.” Thor returned, stung.
“The answer is yes.” Loki said, now overly sweet like hidden poison. “I grow more powerful daily. I shall soon tear Asgard from its tottering, vainglorious foundations and you shall cower before me as I surpass the scheming and violence of the Aesir to bring about the end of the world.”
They locked eyes for a moment. It was hard to tell in the firelight, but Thor could’ve sworn that Loki winked.
“After all I’ve done for you?” Thor returned, mock-offended.
Loki laughed then, a quick snicker behind his hand and Thor felt it a greater prize than the dragon’s head. Thor took a swig from his wineskin and girded his loins.
“I…I am likely to say this in a way that will offend you.” Thor started cautiously. Then he reflected that Loki would scorn caution and offense and he should just spit it out. “But you must know that our people have no great love for men who practice seið.”
Loki continued to stare into the fire, stretching his hand out halfway to it as if to test its heat. “Did you know the Jötnar have a word for those who don’t practice what you call seið?”
“Ah, yes?” Thor remembered Heid shouting about paltry ice magic.
“Mmmm.” Loki nodded. “We call them ‘dead’.”
Loki turned to face him and blinked slowly. “I suppose this might seem less the expected Aesir hypocrisy if I were not speaking to Thor, Son of Odin, who we name Odin One-Eye, Odin Bale-worker…who as you’ve said yourself spins sorcery more wily and terrible than any other in the Nine Realms.”
“Odin is king.” Thor said simply. “He is what he is.”
“Indeed. I thought that you might spare some thought, if not some mercy, Odinson.” Loki said with particular intonation on Thor’s patronymic. “From those of you that are…” He waved a hand at Thor and then gestured a flourish at himself. “To those of us who are still becoming.”
That was nothing more than just, Thor reflected. It pricked him a little to presume to give Loki lessons in honor when he had seen that Loki’s sheer existence required every conceivable weapon in his arsenal, even those others deemed ignoble.
“I did not say that I thought thus.” Thor said quietly. “I just thought to tell you that you might not suffer from the whispers of others.”
“You have told me.” Loki said coldly, but he did not turn away.
“It is only…we find the cunning quickly shades to the treacherous.” Thor continued, pulling out his whetstone. “Hence there is something of an antipathy toward seiðmaðr, no matter how useful their skills. And it’s considered quite…” There really was no better word for this. “…unmanly.”
“Well I suppose that might trouble me.” Loki raised his hand and conjured a flame to sit in his palm which he then flung into the dying fire. “If I were a man.”
“Indeed.” Thor relaxed back on his haunches and laughed a little, mostly at himself. A more comfortable silence spread between them.
“Oh, I…” Thor unearthed a pouch in his pack. “I keep forgetting to give this to you. I meant to do it last night as a talisman for this hunt. But then we did not need it after all.”
“You do talk a lot of nonsense, Odinson.” Loki said and stretched his arms above his head with a yawn. “What are you on about?”
“I had this made for you. Well, for us.” Thor plucked the fine leather cords free of the pouch and showed Loki the trinkets. “It’s from the claws of that bilgesnipe we hunted together.”
Loki took the necklace from him without speaking and watched Thor tie the other cord around his own neck. Thor settled the pendant claw over the hollow of his throat and looked up to meet Loki’s eyes which were unreadable.
“Do you not like it?” Thor stammered. “I don’t know, I had just thought that I’d seen a lot of jötnar wearing things like this. Hunting...or…ah, war trophies.”
Loki tilted his chin and shoulder as if he had to shrug himself awake and said slowly. “No…that is…yes, we do.”
“Will you not wear it then?” Thor asked gently. Loki seemed so puzzled, looking at the necklace from all angles like it was nothing he’d ever seen before.
Again, very slowly, Loki brushed his long braid aside so that he could tie the thong around his neck and settle it.
“It is very fine.” Loki stroked his fingers over the curved claw. “I…thank you.”
Thor grinned a little, thinking that Loki’s sheer wonder was more rewarding than any gratitude, when Loki turned and pressed his lips to Thor’s cheek right above where his beard stopped.
Thor started slightly and Loki pulled back quickly.
“Is that not right?” Loki sounded tentative for the first time in Thor’s memory. “I’ve only ever seen it done.”
“No, that’s” Thor cleared his throat. “Exactly…correct.”
“I just…” Loki appeared to be barely keeping himself from wringing his hands. “You said…’affection and approval’, is that not right?”
Thor wanted to laugh. They had just killed and butchered a dragon and Loki was getting anxious about a kiss. To explain that men didn’t often kiss each other seemed churlish at this point. And Loki had just pointed out that he wasn’t a man.
“You only surprised me.” Thor leaned forward and brushed his lips against Loki’s sharp cheekbone. “I’m glad you like it.”
It only occurred to Thor later that he had been rather foolish. After they finally got back to the Golden City, after they’d stowed their many treasures and Loki had consented to drink and look sardonic as Thor related their great triumph to his friends; after all of that, he could lie sprawled loose-limbed and drunk across his bed and reflect that he was not very clever.
Because a clever man would have said, ‘No, that’s not quite right, here let me show you.’ And traced a thumb over Loki’s lower lip, cupped the back of his neck and given him a kiss more worthy of the name.
Chapter 3: gambit
Thor had always loved Midsummer. The changes it wrought on the Golden City were subtle, but they were there if one paused to observe them. It seemed like the birds sang longer and the sunset was marginally more colorful. Everyone grew even more good-humored with the exception of their newest foreign resident.
“Loki, I know you’re in there.” Thor thumped the door. “You ignore me at your peril.”
He shot a quick glance up and down the hallway. It wouldn’t do for people to see him tapping away so ineffectually. He felt like a child importuning an irritable sibling. He smacked the door with the flat of his hand so hard the wall shook. “Loki!”
“Who is this person?” Thor spun around to find Loki looking at him disdainfully with his arms full of scrolls. “My name is ‘Loki’. I don’t know anyone named ‘Loooooookiiiiiii’.”
“Oh, there you are.” Thor’s annoyance vanished. “Come, we’re going to be late.”
Loki rolled his eyes and Thor girded himself up to argue. “You are going to be late, I am going to be reading...”
“It’s a feast, not a public execution.” Thor snapped. “Why must this always be a battle? You’ve spent enough time with your…” Thor gestured at the inoffensive scrolls. “…things, surely you can spare an hour or two to come sup with me.”
It had easily been a handful of days since he’d looked Loki full in the face, only catching glimpses of the back of his head, the side of his face as he melted away into a crowd. Loki no longer came to watch Thor practice or tourney. Thor fancied that Loki had sequestered himself with Heid in the library, but he never seemed to be able to find him there.
Thor’s heart sank as Loki frowned at him. But after a moment, Loki simply opened his door and set the parchments just inside. He fell into step with Thor as they left the hall.
“Why do you Asgardians always feel compelled to eat in bunches?” Loki asked. “It is as if a full belly is not enough proof of the repast.”
“We enjoy each other’s company.” Thor returned dryly. “Shocking, I know. I presume frost giants always eat alone.”
“I usually did. Saved skirmishing.” Loki shrugged noncommittally. “Ah, it is the blade herself. Forgive me, prince, I must turn away one moment as my eyes are dazzled. There is one who rivals the day star in our presence and I find myself prostrate to her glory.”
“And as wise as he is perspicacious.” Sif clicked her tongue. “One could labor out one’s days to hide a single iota from the wit and eagle eye of the prince of Jötunheim.”
“That may be so, but one would labor longer indeed to efface the deadly beauty of….”
Of late, Sif and Loki had taken to playing a game whereupon they gifted each other with elaborate compliments or cursed each other with equally elaborate insults, depending on the phase of the moon or whether the sparrows were flying high above the poppies or some other obscure metric that Thor could not observe. It served to heartily amuse the Warriors Three and Thor laughed along, even as he wished he knew the genesis of the sport. He had tried to play the game once but the words did not flow from him so abundantly and his attempt had left him red-faced.
“You found him!” Volstagg was already slightly in his cups due to some shameless flirtation with a serving girl. He cuffed Loki affectionately on the shoulder. “Now we must march forth to do battle with this repast!”
“Yes and quickly.” Thor urged.
“They won’t start without you, Thor.” Sif said slyly. “Neither feast, nor prize-giving.”
“Particularly as most of them are yours anyway.” Fandral added.
“Prize-giving?” Loki shot a look awry at Thor.
“How did you manage to miss all the tourneys?” Volstagg asked. “It seemed like the melee spilled to the very foot of the eastern towers.”
“Good sport.” Fandral affirmed. “Thor bested…”
“I did well enough.” Thor said hastily, feeling quite transparent. “Look, there’s Bragi.”
Luckily, Bragi had tales and jokes enough for three men and the celebration got off to a jolly start. They had a full measure of casks to drain before they could even consider the business of awards. Thor tried to keep an eye on Loki to keep him from deciding he was bored and vanishing.
Sif intercepted one of Thor’s glances and gave him a knowing grin. “It is well, Thor. Volstagg and Bragi will start flyting soon and you know your frosty one can’t seem to resist that.”
“I would beg your meaning, Sif.” Thor stalled, with a sinking feeling.
She snorted daintily. “Just between us, there have been one or two fair lads that I’ve been in a fever to impress before. I’ll make sure Loki doesn’t leave before your prizes are in hand.”
Thor opened his mouth to protest that he never…but it was lost in a general guffaw as Loki said something quiet in response to one of Fandral’s boasts.
Thor lost himself utterly in conversation and the rather simpler pleasures of the table. By the time his father stood to see the warriors of Asgard well met and measured, he had almost forgotten their purpose in being there.
Odin had his own sly wit but he appeared distracted as he declared the victors of the midsummer tourneys. His single eye seemed to focus on something outside the four walls. The assembled might of Asgard tittered and shifted in their seats as their leader paused in his speech. Thor was grinning, waiting for his prize for the melee when Freya gasped, Frigga’s eyes narrowed and Odin, Heid and Loki all seemed to draw their gazes toward the door in tandem.
Odin took a breath and said in a vacant tone. “Fire demons…”
Odin thumped mighty Gungnir on the marble and Thor leaped to his feet. Tyr was rising as well; the entire crowd went from drunk and laughing to deadly serious in the space of a breath. Odin gestured for Thor to follow him as he swept out of the hall. Thor spared a glance for Loki who looked unreadable as always, perhaps slightly paler than usual.
Someone had attacked the treasury. Odin moved at a steady pace, but Thor could hear the guards shouting to one another and he had to force himself to stay by Odin’s side. Everything seemed eerily untouched, but there was a stench of sulfur hovering over the precious relics and weapons that lined the vaults. The Destroyer stepped back to where it usually domiciled after a nod from Odin, leaving nothing but dead air and stink.
There was something deeply unsettling about the too-pointed assault. It was like a splinter buried in flesh too deep to be easily excised. Thor knelt and gently turned the body of the singular guard who had been burned almost beyond recognition. He was the only vestige of an attack except for some scorch marks on the walls and the odd, twig-like bones of the fire demons. Thor passed a hand over the guard’s seared face and felt the fury well up and overflow until it almost choked him.
“They attacked us. They came into the very heart of Asgard.” Thor made a token effort not to reveal too much of his temper to Odin who was standing serenely, looking at the Casket of Ancient Winters. “The fire demons must pay for what they have done.”
“They have paid. With their lives.” Odin said calmly. “The Destroyer did its job, nothing was taken and all is well.”
Thor gestured back at the murdered sentry. “All is well? They broke into our weapons vault. If they had stolen any one of these relics…”
“They didn’t.” Odin returned with infuriating equanimity.
“Well I want to know why.” Thor could feel anger ratcheting through his guts as if a physical force were twisting his innards into a knot.
“This was the act of but a few…” Odin began, and Thor felt that he might be a wayward child armed with a mallet for all that his father heard him. Rage as he might, Odin stayed as unruffled and obdurate as the Yggdrasil itself.
The feast tables, laden with every delicious thing the summer offered, were an unworthy object for his wrath but they would serve. Thor stalked to the balconies at the far side of the banquet hall squashing an avalanche of golden peaches underfoot. At this moment with his father’s adamant verdict to do nothing echoing in his head, he felt like a river dammed up, a seething maelstrom of impotent rage.
The words of his friends tugged on him gently as they followed in his wake. Thor barely heard them. They must go to Muspelheim. They must find someone, anyone, who could answer for this insult.
Thor came back to himself to discover that he’d paced a circle around the empty feasting hall. His eyes lit on Loki who sat incongruously in a corner of one of the abandoned tables (that Thor had not upended) reading one of his many scrolls. Loki looked cool and untouched and Thor wanted abruptly to light him on fire. Loki should feel as he did, Loki was so clever at getting what he wanted and if he put his mind to something, they could do it, they could find a way…
“We’re going to Muspelheim.” Thor said. That was the first step. If you said it confidently enough, you could make it so.
“What?” Volstagg gnawed on a pig’s knuckle anxiously. “Are you in earnest?”
“Muspelheim is…” Hogun started.
“You wish to light your own funeral pyre?” Fandral said incredulously. “Is this your father’s wish?”
“Thor…think a moment.”Sif begged.
Thor laughed in pleasure. Already he could see them straightening, shifting their weight under invisible armor, the corners of their eyes seeking their absent weapons. He could not have loved them better if they’d been his own flesh. They might test his will with objections but they were as much his protectors as his sword and shield and they would come with him to the ends of every earth.
He reminded them in detail that if being by his side was sometimes a trial, sometimes it also brought recompense. After they had grudgingly accepted the truth of this, there remained only one to secure.
“Loki, the fire demons have dared to hazard our security.” Thor said. “We will seek an answer from Muspelheim.”
“Well, that’s not how I would do it, but suit yourself.” Loki said idly, tracing a finger down the edge of a parchment. “You’re in the mood to smash something, I’m sure Muspelheim will offer something up.”
“You are coming with me-with us…” Thor’s confidence faltered for just a moment. “Aren’t you?”
Loki looked up at him, and blinked. “I am Jötunheim’s hostage to Asgard, surely it is meant that I stay in Asgard.” Loki’s blank face made him look younger.
“You will be ever in my company.” Thor said formally. “I would have your counsel.”
Loki said nothing, just rolled one corner of his lip under his teeth.
“Those sorcerous talents might come useful.” Volstagg laced his hand through his belt. “And you probably complain less than Heid.”
“Fairly said, it would be hard to complain more.” Fandral added with a wince.
Sif chuckled an assent. Loki looked from Hogun to Volstagg to Fandral to Sif and then finally he looked at Thor. He stood and turned to go and Thor despaired. “Loki!”
“For the fire realm, I need better boots than this.” Loki turned back at the doorway and said. “You mean to do this now, do you not?”
There was no better feeling than riding forth in the company of friends. Thor’s heart beat like a battle drum and he took a deep breath of the thin air that whipped up from the edge of the cascade.
It was not until he’d led them to the very foot of the Bifrost that he realized that there were more barriers to blast through. Heimdall stood like a golden pillar in his glittering rainbow room.
“Good Heimdall, we are for Muspelheim.” Thor said shortly. His very blood was thundering and he felt he must move or perish. Heimdall must see the right of this, he must.
The guardian kept his gaze aloft. “Is it Thor Odinson who now stands before me?”
“Have those all-seeing eyes gone blind?” Thor burst out. “You know it is.”
“I seek your assurance.” Heimdall’s voice seemed to cast a tremor into the floor. “As Thor Odinson is his father’s war chief and his uninvited foot set upon a sovereign realm with which we have no treaty might be construed as an act of war. Other eyes might see it so.”
Thor reflexively gripped Mjölnir’s haft and clenched his teeth.
“That is, of course, only if other eyes were to see it.” Loki muttered into Thor’s shoulder blade.
Thor repeated Loki’s words in something just short of a shout.
“Ask him if he wishes to discover who slipped his underneath his supposedly omniscient gaze and how.” Loki continued. “Quietly. Discreetly.”
Thor spoke Loki’s words, feeling his assurance flare alight again.
Heimdall stood, not acknowledging his words for a long moment. Then the Guardian stepped back to slip his sword into the lock of the Bifrost. Heimdall spoke a warning that Thor did not fully comprehend, so anxious was he to be gone. The pull of magic filled his veins and they flew into the void like comets.
They came to solid ground again in a wide plain fringed with red mountains. The sky of Muspelheim blazed yellow. It seemed like the air had fused with the light; it was all scorching brilliance that made it hard to see and almost impossible to breathe.
Thor had thought that the cold of Jötunheim sucked away at his most vital energy, but the heat…this heat was crippling. He felt that he wanted to claw his own skin off and that would barely be enough. He had a stark fantasy of digging his fingers in deep, rending his own breast open and exposing his heart to the hot winds that churned the sand up around them. But that wouldn’t cool it. His heart would roast in this miserable realm.
The ground crunched underfoot at every step. Thor strode across the valley at what he thought were a row of trees. When he stood under them, and stroked a hand down a branch he realized that they were huge sprigs of glass, cast up from the desert by blasts of even harsher fire.
Thor gripped Mjölnir tightly, drawing strength from her magic.
“We shouldn’t be here.” Hogun said. His breath came out in a wheeze. Thor strained his eyes to where the skyline shimmered. Nothing, as far as the eye could see. His rage was being charred out of him.
“You defied Odin to come here, didn’t you?” Sif asked softly, her words almost torn away on the hot sough of the wind. Loki looked as pale and bleached as an old bone.
Thor didn’t have time to respond before the fire demons were upon them. They boiled up out of cracks in the ground in wisps of smoke and attacked immediately. The vanguard defied the Alltongue and spoke in nothing but hisses and crackles. Their presence made the air even thinner and now it smelled terrible.
Thor smashed the first cluster of invaders, but it seemed like the blazing horde could rend themselves from their fire forms, dissipate and then re-form themselves larger. Spinning Mjölnir through them was like waving a fan at a flame. Very unsatisfying.
They fought to a pause at the foot of a rocky slope. Thor and Sif cornered a large demon between two great boulders. Thor shouted “What were your people seeking in the Golden Realm?”
The demon’s response came slightly garbled, not unexpected, Thor supposed, when one spoke with a tongue of flame. “I have ssssss no mind to assssssure you, Assssgardian. Thisssssss realm hasssss hotter headssss than yourssss.”
“You will tell me now!” Thor held Mjölnir aloft and the air shot sparks.
The vertical slits of the creature’s eyes made it look perpetually sly. “Sssss Assssgard issss full of ssssswords, now grown weak and…poroussss.”
There was no sense in that that Thor could divine. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw Fandral parry two blows cleverly, only to be skewered by white-hot shrapnel flung at his back. Thor gritted his teeth even as Loki threw a blade that whipped the cowardly demon into smoke. Sif and Hogun were fighting so furiously that their flashing blades seemed to blur the heavy air.
More demons streamed across the desert plain in numbers that seemed to stretch to the horizon. Volstagg bellowed as his hand was scorched up past his forearm. Fandral dropped to his knees and Sif just managed to deflect another rain of fire from pelting his back.
“We must get back to the Bifrost.” Hogun wheezed again. Thor didn’t even bother to nod; they just grabbed Fandral and ran. He took up the rear, clubbing and spinning at the roaring blaze of warriors on their heels.
The Bifrost was in sight, they were almost upon the circle of runes blazoned across the scorching sands. Sif called out to Heimdall even as Thor set Fandral down gently and they circled up around him, back to back as the flickering horde drew ever closer.
“I always wondered what Aesir poets meant.” Loki said in an even tone. “When they spoke of the heat of battle.”
Fandral coughed a laugh; there was a little blood on his lip. “Well now you know.” He was trying to draw himself up to his feet, even as blood dried in hard whorls on his armor.
Thor shouted at the sky, a wordless howl of wretched defiance. Failure was so bitter, so heavy as it cast itself over his shoulders. He looked around at his friends as they gasped and fought valiantly, fought just to take breath. He had failed them. His arrogance, his recklessness and they would die here, he could not save them.
“No sense calling for reinforcements, I suppose?” Loki was starting to look a little transparent at his edges. Thor hadn’t really considered how the all-consuming heat might poison a creature made for deep chill.
“If he were well, my father would have...” Thor panted.
Loki snorted. “Your father would ever be clever enough to lay the trap that would give him the high ground.”
Thor bellowed for Heimdall again, but the sky remained as smooth as a bronze shield. Thor grimly prepared to ignite Mjolnir even though he knew she would pull the very last bit of good from the air and they would suffocate as they laid their last blows.
“I will draw them away.” Loki spoke suddenly. “I have yet enough magic for a small spell, an illusion only.”
“No.” Thor spoke over Sif who only said, “How will you get back?”
Loki smirked. “I will make them take me. They came across once uninvited, they can do it again. I need only convince them that adding me to their company will let them prevail against Asgard. If they are so keen to invade, perhaps their avariciousness will trump their reason.”
“You cannot…” Thor started as Sif interrupted. “You must work quickly, Loki, this world suits you ill.”
“I know.” Loki glanced at Thor. “I am quite aware of my own limitations.”
Loki’s long fingers drew a flowing calligraphy of sigils through the air and the deafening roar of the fire demons seemed to abate for a moment. Loki’s skin ignited and Thor almost cried out in horror, but when Loki turned to him, his eyes were calm. “See you back in Asgard, Odinson, where glory surely awaits. Or not.”
He took a few steps toward the massing army of fire demons who seemed momentarily distracted. They rode to and fro, chittering and flickering as if they could no longer see the cluster of Aesir.
“Loki.” Thor called softly as Sif knelt to succor Fandral. Loki turned back with an air of great patience and all Thor wanted to say shriveled on his lips. After a moment, he said something completely at odds with what he felt.
“That requires that I trust you rather a lot, yes?” Thor pointed out. “Don’t make a fool of me.”
Loki grinned and Thor could see all the bones under his skin. “Do you doubt my ability to pick a fight, Odinson?”
As he trotted back toward the shimmering horizon, he called over his shoulder. “I will bring the fire to you. Be ready!”
Thor thought to call back, but the sky opened and sucked him in.
Once they were back in Asgard and Odin was not awaiting them at the Bifrost full of disappointed looks, Thor fully grasped the need for a bit of stealth. Volstagg and Hogun managed to keep Fandral upright as they lead him to the healers, leaving Thor and Sif to plot.
“Three things.” Sif started grimly. “We’ve lost two of those three for at least a day. We don’t know if your frost giant still lives and can carry out his brilliant plan of leading fire demons back to Asgard.”
“We must prepare.” Thor stripped off his armor which now reeked of sulfur. “Most who bet against Loki end by regretting it. You go find Bragi and Broddi, I will speak to Magnus.”
“Thor, you must be very discreet.” Sif said quietly. “Your father will not love the idea of a war with Muspelheim and soon we may well have another one with Jötunheim. They may not love Loki, but they might love the excuse he provides them to battle onward.”
Thor clenched his teeth. “Heimdall, can you see Loki?”
The guardian paused and inclined his head.
“If he but whispers for you, you will heed him.” Thor turned and stalked back to the palace while his mind raced.
“Lose that.” Thor tugged on Bragi’s cape. Hogun had struck his mace and was looking at it dubiously.
“Your longest swords, Sif.” Thor spoke in shorthand. “Halberds, spears…anything to keep them at arm’s length or better. And polished to their best shine.”
Sif nodded while Bragi tugged his cloak off. Magnus twisted his newly-wrought shield and frowned at his reflection. More warriors trickled in in dribs and drabs as the artisans completed their armory.
“This is curious.” Magnus used his shield to flash a bright beam of sunlight across the lower city. “What put you in mind to do this?”
“I fought a dragon not so long ago.” Thor thought of Loki. “I know what I’m doing.”
He’d been standing in front of his own mirror, cursing himself for a thrice-damned fool, when inspiration had struck. A strength could be a weakness in the right circumstances and vice-versa. He’d ordered the armory to coat his shield with mirrored glass directly and they’d taken the challenge with alacrity.
More soldiers were streaming in. Thor made sure they all knew what they were about and retreated to the Bifrost.
Heimdall was good company when Thor was in a welter of worry and impatience. He stood stoically as Thor paced.
A day passed and the second began. Thor set Mjölnir down and stared at her for half the length of another day before Heimdall growled a warning to his back.
For one moment, Thor did not realize that the Bifrost had churned alight. He blinked and realized that Loki had come through, but he wasn’t on his feet. Loki crouched on the edge of the rainbow room and he clung to the floor like he was in danger of being washed away again.
“Loki!” Thor raced to kneel beside Loki who snarled at him savagely and then seemed to realize where he was. He sagged into a heap, his fine clothes burnt to rags. Loki shrugged off Thor’s hand on his shoulder and that seemed to be enough to wind him. He collapsed onto the floor and rolled onto his back. Thor looked down into his face anxiously. Loki was bleeding and his eyes were so hollow…
“Odinson.” Loki panted heavily. “They come.”
Loki had said, ‘be ready’, but there was no way to perfectly prepare for the fire demons mounted on their monstrous, ember-skinned behemoths. They burst from the gutters of the aqueduct on the outskirts of the city, screeching and ululating until the whole valley echoed with their cries. They flowed down the hills like quick rivulets of lava and left everything in their wake scorched.
But Loki’s warning had given them an hour to array themselves and the might of Asgard boiled up out of the city, flashing like many-faceted diamonds. They met in the valley with a clash that echoed.
The fire demons were more…solid in the richer air of Asgard and they did not vanish when stabbed but their death throes were usually hot enough to ruin the sword or spear that impaled them. It took a fair few moments for the warriors of Asgard to compensate for this with greater dispatch and luckily, Mjölnir was immune. Thor fought back a battalion while his friends re-armed.
Thor’s odd plan seemed to be paying off; the myriad mirrored reflections confused the blazing-bright fire demons, seeming to destroy their perception of depth. They shrieked as they died, sending plumes of flame and smoke up into the cloudless blue sky.
The ranks of fire demons thinned and opened out and Thor faced their hero. The demon mounted was three times his size and Thor leapt with Mjölnir to knock him from the saddle. Tongues of flame seared over his armor as the demon fought back furiously. It was faster than the others and it grinned at him. The narrow slits of its pupils were as long as Thor’s face.
The great lashing tail of the demon’s mount cleared most of the south side of the field and Thor was grateful. The demon could change its form more rapidly than the others and it turned and twisted to parry each of Thor’s attacks. After a moment, Thor was on a knife’s edge between offensive and defensive.
He threw himself directly into the great demon’s head but it blurred in a whirl of flame around him and Thor landed hard enough to make the ground shake. This one had managed to retain its ability to diffuse itself and he could not make his blows matter. Over the roar of flame, Thor heard the murmur of shouts from the palace.
Thor looked back to see his father standing on the parapet. Odin’s gilded eyepatch flashed in the lowering sun and he was flanked by Loki and Heid. Thor thought he had been giving his all but discovered that he could swing his hammer yet a little harder. He had to end this quickly. He could not fail again.
As he battered at the fire demon he caught flashes of the scene behind him. Loki was deep in conference with Odin, Thor’s dramatic battle seemed to engage his attention not at all. They seemed to be arguing, even though Loki kept his mien quite respectful, his face turned down and his hands clasped.
Loki should have been at the healers. Thor aimed another furious strike at the fire demon’s breast but he burst through it like a stone from a slingshot and the creature swelled up again behind him.
Then Loki disappeared and Thor had one moment to grimly refocus his attention on the battle. And then Loki was in the field practically right underneath the fire demon as it roared. Thor roared in unison and flung himself up to rain down a fury of blows on the creature before it could scorch Loki. But Loki made an odd gesture, like a flourish and a blue light arced out from between his hands, spewing over the fire demon and hissing as it met flame.
Thor gaped and forgot to spin Mjölnir hard enough to keep himself aloft. He fell to earth hard and watched as the demon howled; its form crackling as ice suddenly rimed it. The blue light pouring from Loki’s grasp seemed to coat the demon’s flame itself in crystalline ice even as it thrashed. Blue was creeping up Loki’s forearms and he shot Thor a ghost of his usual sardonic look.
Thor couldn’t help but grin as he flung himself into the sky again. He swung Mjölnir in a perfect arc to smash down on the jagged, sparkling shell that held the fire demon. At a blow, it shattered utterly, exploding into a flurry of icicles, leaving diamond chunks scattered across the field of Asgard.
Thor raced to where Loki stood. Loki was looking up at Odin as he made another odd flourish and the casket vanished from his hands. The blue that had been creeping up his forearms slid down his wrists over his palms to the tips of his fingers, and then vanished. Loki looked at Thor wryly, shifted his weight and almost stumbled.
“Mirrored shields.” Loki coughed and choked a little. “Clever idea, Odinson, was it yours?”
Thor nodded and grabbed Loki’s elbow as Loki’s knees seemed unsteady. “Freezing them with the casket was rather inspired too. I owe you a debt, Laufeyson.”
“Perhaps you should call me ‘cousin’.” Loki was panting shallowly, cupping a hand around his bruised chest.
“Hardly.” Thor returned. “You I should call ‘brother’!”
Chapter 4: en prise
“An apology wouldn’t go amiss.” Thor snapped.
“It was a reflexive reaction.” Loki scowled back at him feebly. “I only apologize for things that I meant to do.”
“So let me understand you.” Thor winced as the healer patted the grit of a crushed stone into his wound. “The next time you’re laid low on a battlefield, I am to what? Leave you there? Because if you should regain your wits as I’m carrying you back, your ‘reflexive reaction’ is to stab me?”
Loki pursed his lips and turned to face the wall. He muttered at the tapestry peevishly.
“What was that?” Thor scratched around his healing flesh delicately as the healer frowned at him.
“I said I didn’t know it was you!” Loki tried to snarl, but it came out more like a whine. Loki ducked his head, trying to escape from the ministrations of one of the younger apprentices. “I was disoriented and….it was not well done.”
Thor’s irritation ebbed and he realized that maybe this was another cultural thing, a frost giant thing. Perhaps Loki had mistaken Thor’s intentions in being thus carried and the thought made Thor flush red.
Thor also realized that this was all the apology he was going to get.
“Warriors help each other…here.” Thor started clumsily. “You need to learn to call for aid when you require it.”
“I called to Heimdall.” Loki looked at him from under heavy lids. He appeared an odd grayish color against the linen.
“Yes.” Thor paused remembering that hadn’t been Loki’s original plan. “What changed?”
“It occurred to me that returning at the head of an alien army…my motives might be…misconstrued.”
“It is well.” Thor chuckled. “I will ensure that all know your valor.”
Loki looked at him oddly. “You may want to speak to your father first.”
The healers seemed to be done tormenting him. Thor squared up at the foot of Loki’s bed and leaned on it. The room grew raucous as more of their fellow warriors streamed in and then fell suddenly silent. Sif was there, leading Fandral who was as yet imperfectly healed and limping. Thor caught his breath, horrified.
Sif had obviously gotten too close to one of the jetting flames of the enemy. Her glorious hair had been singed off and was now a stinking charred mat that clung to her neck, sticky with blood and pus from the oozing burns on her scalp.
She shot a look at Thor that was not quite a glare and he blinked and shared a quick, desperate glance with Fandral. To acknowledge this great hurt and insult would be to declare openly that Sif had somehow lost more than any other warrior…and thus to proclaim her different from every other warrior and that Thor was loathe to do even as he felt her loss pierce him more grievously than Loki’s blade. But his sympathy she would only scorn and brood on…
“By Ymir, woman.” Loki said. “Hie back from me. The only thing worse than the way you look is the way you smell.”
Thor froze and his next move might have been to slap a hand over Loki’s mouth or perhaps just slap him.
But Sif’s charcoal-smeared lips had turned up in a wry grin and she shot back. “Is it the stench that’s prostrated you, layabout? This skirmish not gentle enough for your delicate frost giant sensibilities?”
“Indeed, I only ventured forth to show the Odinson how it was done.” Loki sniffed. “On Jötunheim, I slew such every fortnight.”
“Hah! That great thing would have crushed you like a grape.” Sif jeered. “Or rather snapped you like a twig, bloodless Jötunn.”
“Bloodless, am I?” Loki returned. “You only wish…”
After a moment, Thor could breathe again and even chuckle. Volstagg joined his voice with Sif’s as she harangued Loki with jesting abuse and the healers twittered between them all and it was over, the day was won.
“It was in my mind to banish you.” Odin said mildly.
Thor bowed his head, stunned. It was not over, the day was not won.
“Foolish boy.” Odin shook his head, sighing as he paced the length of the Bifrost. “If you do not realize how close you came to losing your own rash life, did you at least spare a thought for your friends, or the welfare of your people when you unleashed this threat upon us?”
Thor wanted to contend that the threat sprung not from him, but on the best day of his life he was not up to arguing with Odin Allfather when he was in this mood.
Odin stumped off, letting Thor trail in his wake. “You have naught but fair fortune to thank that this debacle did not end in utter disaster. We could easily have a budding war between three realms.”
Thor tried to make his expression calm, blank and not sullen, knowing it was best to remain silent until he was tasked with something directly.
“Will you never learn patience or prudence?” Odin asked. “Our peace with Jötunheim is fragile as a new-laid egg and you take our hostage on some fool’s errand in the fire realm. Between the pair of you, you bring enemies to our very doorstep. I despair of you.”
“Please, father, it was only ever all my doing.” Thor’s resentment at being scolded like a child suddenly dropped away to be replaced by a heavy, intractable guilt. He had drawn all his innocent friends into his mad scheme like some kind of…Odin was speaking again.
“The love of one’s friends is a heavy weapon indeed, my son.” Odin said. “Even you could find yourself unexpectedly vulnerable without them.”
Thor bowed his head. He could tell that Odin was just about to render some judgment and Thor could only hope it would not fall too heavy, like that dreadful time with the Norns.
“You will remain on Asgard for three moons hence.” Odin declared. “And if I have word of a hint of rebellion, you will stay until next Midsummer.”
Thor relaxed a little inside. That was not so dire, he would be well-pleased to laze out the rest of the summer, resting and helping his friends heal. They had whiled away hours in the gardens below the healing rooms in evenings past, telling stories and singing snatches of whatever songs they knew. Plus Loki had to be coaxed and shamed into letting the healers touch him, he did not bear it well without Thor’s presence.
“Go tell Loki that Tyr and I will seal the gap now.” Odin continued, leaning on Gungnir. “If he wishes to complete his scheme.”
Thor nodded, surprised. He wondered when Loki had been sharing confidences with the Allfather. Odin stumped off authoritatively, as his ravens wheeled above him.
Thor found Loki on the edge of the healers’ gardens, deep in conversation with Sif. It gave Thor a pang to see them together now. Loki had worked some magic to restore Sif’s hair. Thor had volunteered his own locks to see it done, but Sif had elected to have Loki use his. Thor still found her dark tresses kind of jarring, but he had to acknowledge that it suited her. Heid and Freya had professed themselves quite jealous.
She stood when Thor approached and excused herself on some errand for Frigga.
“You should not be so soon abroad, Loki.” Thor stifled the urge to chivvy him back into the healing rooms. Loki still looked sucked dry, his skin grayer than its usual alabaster hue.
“Leave off, Odinson.” Loki grumbled. “Did your father send for me?”
Thor walked him to the very edge of the city to the steaming canyon that the fire demons had left when they erupted into Asgard. Odin watched from the aqueduct while Tyr slowly and laboriously corralled one of the fire demon’s giant mounts down into the hole. The sulphurous reek of it made Thor’s head ache.
The beast moved sluggishly, stumbling and bawling piteously as the glowing embers of its skin dimmed. Thor grunted. “What are they about?”
Loki answered expressionlessly. “The beast is dying. As you or I would have had we lingered too long in the fire realm. Sacrifice magic makes for powerful workings.”
At some invisible signal from Odin, Tyr unsheathed a great blade and looked at Loki. Thor shifted uneasily. It was no wonder that Odin had waited for sunset as most of Asgard’s residents prepared for their evening and had no eyes for this sorcery.
“It will seal the rift, like cauterizing a wound.” Loki murmured. “Stay here.”
Loki picked his way down to where Tyr stood in the shadow of the monster. He drew something from his cloak that Thor could not see as Tyr slashed his blade over the creature’s enormous throat. The thing bled out a gush of lava that dazzled Thor. It was like trying to stare into the heart of a forge.
Odin’s magic didn’t feel like Heid’s. Heid’s magic occasionally moved the earth in quakes….Odin’s made it feel more as if the sun had risen the wrong color. Thor squeezed his eyes shut and gripped unconsciously at Mjölnir as the world rearranged itself. When he opened them again, the fire creature was gone, there was nothing but scorched earth and a pile of gray ash that Loki knelt beside as Tyr frowned at the back of his head.
Thor approached cautiously. Tyr grunted acknowledgment at him and trudged away.
Thor stood over Loki, loathe to ask just what in the nine worlds he thought he was doing. Loki was sifting through what had to be hot ash and something about the tightness of his shoulders told Thor that Loki was very anxious and trying not to show it.
Loki stood up finally. He folded his arms and knit his brow. Thor knew in his bones that a question at this juncture would get him snarled at, but he couldn’t help himself. “What are you doing?”
Loki looked at him and scowled. “Odinson, you are a…”
But Thor was never to learn what he was because just then a tiny mewling screech stirred up a cloud of ash at their feet. Thor blinked as Loki dropped to the ground again and puffed a breath that revealed three tiny dragons curled in a protective heap in the depths of the still-burning hollow. They looked up at Thor and Loki and started a chorus of squawks and squeals, uncoiling themselves to butt at Thor’s knees.
Thor laughed aloud and hunkered down to let the hatchlings smell him and gnaw on his braces. He couldn’t quite tell in the low dusky light, but it looked like one was black while the other two were a jewel-toned green. Thor chuckled at their antics as they crawled all over him and he watched as the chubbiest one attempted to crawl up Loki’s boot and failed. Loki was making the particularly grave face that meant he was quite pleased.
“The eggs!” Thor let the black one nibble at his finger until she drew blood. “This was ever your plan!”
Loki shook his head but said. “Naturally.”
He watched as Thor played and even deigned to allow one of the hatchlings to climb up and curl along his forearm.
“What are you going to do with them?” Thor asked finally as the sky darkened. The little black one mewed at him hungrily.
“I…have a…” Loki heaved a sigh. Then he turned away and snarled to himself in some jötunn dialect that Thor could not interpret.
Thor waited, sensing that Loki stood at the edge of a precipice. Loki appeared to be in the depths of some weighty internal struggle.
“Would you…take care of them for me?” Loki asked at last, looking like it cost him dear to arrange the words. “Your father sends me hence and I cannot take them along.”
“Of a certainty I will.” Thor cupped a dragon in his palms as the other two tussled on the ground. “Wait, what? My father is sending you away?”
“I am for Ydalir in an hour’s time.” Loki said simply. “I am to stay there until the leaves fall.”
“Why?” One of the dragons nipped his knuckle and he barely felt it.
“He didn’t say.” Loki tilted his chin. “And it was not mine to ask. He is not my father.”
Thor wanted to protest, to rage at the injustice. Odin had no cause to banish Loki in place of Thor…even though Loki did not seem overtly displeased, just a bit bemused. It occurred to Thor suddenly that it was not Loki who was being punished.
“I will guard them well.” Thor’s throat felt tight and hot. He was still charmed by the wee beasties and perhaps it was making him vulnerable to a hideous sense of loss as Loki spoke of leaving. These baby dragons would feel no lack if it was in his power to keep them for Loki’s sake. He would lavish them with care and Loki would return to find them thriving.
“Good.” Loki nodded. “From what I read, they can eat flesh from their hatching.”
“Flesh? No milk?” Thor was taken aback. “What shall I feed them on then?”
Loki rolled his eyes and gestured back at the stables. “Why did you think I bought the goats?”
“Somehow I sense that your heart isn’t in this.” Heid grabbed the phosphorescent river weed that had slipped through Thor’s fingers as he brooded. She threw it up on the bank and hitched her skirt up again.
“Do you think dragons would eat fish?” Thor trailed his hand through the water. He had completely forgotten the weed he was supposed to be retrieving for Heid and had lost himself in a reverie. He shivered and straightened, half in and half out of the shaded stream.
“Yes, Thor.” Heid sighed, long-suffering. “It’s my guarded opinion that your dragons will eat pretty much anything, up to and including many things that other creatures find poisonous. Like mistletoe, deadly nightshade and my spellbooks.”
“They’re not my dragons.” Thor said under his breath. Heid rolled her eyes.
“Could you perhaps watch what you’re doing?” Heid ducked as Thor flung a dripping mass of river weed up the bank. “I know you don’t find this as important as some of your other responsibilities, but…”
“What am I doing, exactly?” Thor flexed his numb toes and stomped downstream with clinking riverstones trailing in his wake. “How is it so cold here? Why am I freezing my toes off…just for the pleasure of your ill-temper and sarcasm?”
“I thought ill-tempered, sarcastic and cold were some of your favorite things, Thor.” Heid drawled, looking up at the dark, leafy glade. “As to what you’re doing, let’s say you are helping me and distracting yourself from constantly checking for the sudden frost that might cause the leaves to drop a moon out of season.”
“I don’t remember telling you that.” Thor scowled. The past two moons had worn his patience razor-thin and it was only the certain threat of more dire consequences that kept him haunting Asgard.
“Then you shouldn’t drink.” Heid returned brightly. “Or rather, you shouldn’t drink and get all maudlin with Fandral, he’s a terrible gossip.”
Thor chewed on that while she continued. “I know a spell, you know. We could have that sudden frost, if you’re willing.”
When Thor side-eyed her, she went on. “And you would not miss the coin, I know.”
“Ah, of course. Whence springs this constant hunger for gold, cousin?” Thor sighed.
“Power. Security, maybe.” Heid shrugged. “Also it looks pretty, all shining in a heap.”
Thor paused to consider that and she tilted her chin at him saucily. “That’s not why your frigid friend lusts for it though.”
“What would you know about it?” Thor crossed his arms.
“Not much, it’s true.” Heid leaned back on the heels of her palms. “Loki doesn’t exactly make me his confidante.”
Thor jiggled his head. “Astonishing.”
“I see he’s generously sharing the sarcasm, if not his gold.” Heid grinned. “I used to think your frost giant ate coins. He hardly spends any, except on lessons and not much at that. Now I think he must just have a second treasury piling up in his chambers. For what purpose, I know not.”
Thor climbed up out of the stream, thinking power. Security.
“Do you know anything about sacrifice magic?” Thor asked idly, wiping his feet on the thick moss at the river’s edge.
Heid’s eyebrows jumped up toward her hairline. “Some. I must say that for someone who has next to no interest in seið, you certainly cut right to the heart of things.”
“It’s nothing.” Thor slumped down on the river’s bank, suddenly exhausted. “Something I heard of once.”
“He’s back you know.” Heid sniffed at the air playfully. “Do you feel how the weather has gotten cooler and slightly more sardonic?”
“Ha, ha.” Thor cupped his palm over his eyes. “Truly you rival Bragi for wit.”
“Fine.” Heid started daintily plucking at the drying river weed and putting it into her basket. “Don’t believe me.”
Thor pulled himself back from a jog as he approached the leading wall of Asgard’s palace. He was filthy, soaking wet and muddy up to mid-thigh, dressed in his oldest clothes. Even if Loki was truly back a month early (and Thor fully expected that Heid was making mock of him) Thor was in no shape to impress.
He turned down a small path, intending to slip into the castle and get clean before he started snooping around the Bifrost. As he turned a corner under a portico, he nearly ran nose-first into Loki who was striding down the corridor with a stern, purposeful look.
There was a moment, a brief flash, like sheet lightning, where Loki caught sight of Thor and grinned unreservedly. Thor grinned back, even as Loki’s face set itself into its usual blank reserve. Thor caught at Loki’s forearm and to his surprise, Loki gripped him back as if he’d finally learned to shake hands properly. They looked into each other’s faces for a long moment before words came.
“It is good to see you.” Thor said finally.
Loki tilted his chin up and his eyes flashed. “I find I’d rather have you than an ice shard in my eye as well.”
“Such a sweet sentiment.” Thor snickered. “Those elves have certainly taught you to speak fair.”
“I have learned much.” Loki nodded acknowledgement. He was examining Thor’s face as if it was a problem that he was supposed to solve.
“Would you like to see the charges you left with me?” Thor couldn’t seem to make himself let go of Loki’s arm.
Loki nodded slowly. “I’d like nothing better.”
“Where are you taking me?” Loki squinted up at the darkening hills. They had left the Golden City far behind. “Why have you lodged them out here?”
“We needed the space.” Thor whistled for his charges. “They grew rather quickly.”
Loki did not exclaim, but Thor grinned to see his stifled flinch as Einmyria swept down out of the sky and thumped to the ground to squawk at Thor. She nosed the field for treats and seemed rather perplexed to find no bleeding prey. Soon they were all assembled, snapping at each other friskily. Thor had taken them on a hunt for bilgesnipe yesterday and it had put them in high spirits.
Loki did not say anything, but his eyes glittered as he admired his long-lost wards. When he craned his neck back, Thor observed that Loki’s hair was tangled and moon-ridden, as if he’d just come from the Bifrost. Loki, as fastidious as he was, had not bathed or changed before coming to seek him out…
“Which is the heaviest?” Loki asked, cutting through Thor’s musing.
“Why does that matter?” Thor returned, bewildered.
It came out that Loki had sold one of his dragons, sight unseen, to a storm giant chieftain for its weight twice over in treasure.
“Loki, do you know this Thiassi?” Thor stroked Eisa’s haunch, chagrined. “Do you think he will treat the little one kindly?”
Loki tilted his head back to look up at Eisa who snorted a blast of greenish fire up into the heavens, huffing with pleasure at Thor’s attentions. Thor could stand between Eisa’s forelegs and still have an arm’s length of clearance above his head. “You said he was the biggest!”
“He’s the biggest now.” Thor explained. “He wasn’t always.”
Eisa lashed his tail playfully and Loki threw himself to the ground while Thor chuckled.
“Yes, well.” Loki picked himself up and wiped his hands. “He’d be a fool to treat the beast as anything other than royalty, considering what he intends to pay.”
Einmyria was to be given to some elven queen. “A gift?” Thor felt even more apprehensive. “Do you think she will cherish…”
Loki looked at him in disbelief. “Do you know the value of a domesticated dragon, Odinson?”
Loki reached up a hand and Einmyria shied back for a second before coming to nose at him. “To have a future claim on the queen of Alfheim may end by being a greater prize than all the jewels of the Nine Realms.”
“Quite clever, magpie.” Thor nodded, trying to accustom himself to the idea of his babies scattered to the four winds.
Loki turned to where Thor was trying to subtly shield Jormungandr with his body. She gamely hunched her sizeable bulk into his shadow as she nuzzled his cape, bemused by his protective stance. Thor tried to look unconcerned. Loki would surely not be so cruel as to take his sweet baby girl. She tilted her beautiful, obsidian-scaled muzzle over Thor’s shoulder for a rub and Loki regarded her dryly.
Loki sighed. “You have spoiled and indulged them recklessly, Odinson.”
“Only a little.” Thor said sheepishly. They were all I had of you. “I did kill their mother.”
“Their mother would have left them to battle for dominance until only the strongest remained.” Loki pointed out. “Dragons aren’t known for their sentiment.”
“Don’t take her from me.” Thor begged. He was no dragon. Loki’s mercy was a yet-unknown quantity and Thor wondered if it would bear his weight as he threw himself on it.
Loki sighed again, more heavily. “When you ask me outright, Odinson, I can’t now make the gracious gift of her.”
“Oh.” Thor was broadsided by joy. “Truly?”
Loki conjured up some bloody morsel which he threw up to Jormungandr. She plucked it out of the air and gave him a pleased little huff which nearly set his cape on fire. Loki turned an injured look on Thor. “Your dragon almost burned me.”
“Oh, I see how it is to be.” Thor chuckled. “You will have to come to know her better.”
“In time.” Loki sighed and stretched. “Right now a bath seems in order.”
They left Eisa and Einmyria scrapping, while Jormungandr picked at her teeth with her spiky tail.
Thor had blithely assumed that when Loki got back from his sojourn in Alfheim, that all would continue as before, except Loki would be marginally more present. It turned out that he was gravely mistaken. Odin was never one to overlook a potentially useful tool and once he’d gotten the measure of Loki’s sly eyes and clever tongue, Odin freely put him to work. Loki had no royal responsibilities as Thor did but Odin seemed to have no qualms about sending him hither and yon on mysterious errands.
As more time passed, Thor realized that it was not only on Odin’s behalf that Loki ventured abroad but more and more on his own.
Thor came to prize Loki’s company even more than before, because he was never sure just how fleeting an experience it was to be. He tried not to let it trouble him. Thor was one to take every day as it came, after all. He just wished he knew what drove Loki…well, Loki drove himself obviously but to what strange end, Thor had no hope of divining.
“It seems you have been long away.” Thor said with as much blithe unconcern as he could manage as he sank into the deep water of the caldarium. Loki’s skin seemed to fit him better; he looked hale and healthy again. The steam and heat did not seem to trouble him at all. It would be a blessing if his time on Muspelheim left him with nothing more than the capacity to bear greater warmth.
“Commission from your father.” Loki didn’t bother to open his eyes. His lips curved in a wry grin, red as roses in the steamy heat. “On Midgard.”
Thor wanted to ask desperately, but a direct question might get him nothing but thwarted and mocked. “Oh?”
“Looking for an acorn.” Loki drew a deep breath. “Like looking for a needle in a needle stack, that.”
“Ah.” Thor eased deeper into the water. “Could you not find one here?”
“It was a very significant acorn.” Loki murmured.
“You found it, of course.” Thor said and Loki nodded. Success always made Loki rather loquacious and Thor settled more comfortably onto the smooth stone bench until the water covered his collarbone. “Do tell.”
“It wasn’t the simplest game. Required more cunning than you would have approved.” Loki averred. “The Allfather would test my skill along with my loyalty.” One thick lock of hair slid over Loki’s pale shoulder.
“What skill would that be?” Thor sluiced the sweat off his forehead.
Loki opened his eyes and lifted his chin. In the numinous gleam of torchlight, the deep red glow from the brazier, Thor couldn’t see the exact moment it began, but Loki’s face grew thinner while his lips filled, his shoulders shrank as his chest swelled and in the blink of a long-lashed eye he was no longer a handsome man, but a lovely, black-haired maiden.
“Uh.” Thor said wittily and coughed.
“Do you like it?” Loki tilted his chin down and pouted.
“It’s very…” Thor pushed halfway out of the water, he felt like a marrow bone in a soup bowl suddenly. “Convincing.”
Loki raised his eyebrows and arched his (her?) back and neck. Her breasts bobbed in an alabaster gleam under a few stray soap bubbles and surely this water was boiling, Thor was clean enough and he’d promised…someone, Hogun maybe, a game of hnefatafl before supper. Thor pushed himself up another step and then realized that he wasn’t in a fit state to get out of the water unless the conversation took an absolutely mortifying turn.
“Are you all right?” Loki spread her arms along the rim of the bath in what seemed a very masculine gesture that did nothing but highlight her feminine form.
“Just a…little…” Thor cleared his throat. “More steam, perhaps, if you’re willing?”
Loki obligingly turned to ladle out a dipperful onto the coals, giving Thor a good look at the dip of her waist and the dimples above her…Thor unclenched his hands quickly before he crumbled the stone bench to powder.
“Do you hear that?” Loki furrowed her lovely forehead and frowned up at the ceiling.
“No.” Thor lied, then reconsidered. “Perhaps they are shifting some banqueting tables.”
“Hmph.” Loki cupped one of her breasts, giving it an idle squeeze.
Thor tried to take a deep breath even as a sharp crack of thunder made the foundations shake. “Is it hard?”
“I rather think you would know better than I.” Loki cocked her head and looked at him archly. “Explain yourself.”
“I mean, is it difficult.” Thor tried to keep from sputtering. “To be a woman, I mean?”
Loki shrugged. “The attention is a little wearisome. But I find I can hold on to many and more various thoughts at one time, which is pleasant. Truly, it is much the same.”
“But…the…surely you….aren’t as strong?” Thor trailed off, feeling about as clever as a bilgesnipe.
He was the biggest fool in this realm, surely. He could practically hear Sif’s laughter in his head.
“Should we test that theory, Odinson?” Loki tilted her chin up contemptuously. “Shall we wrestle?”
Maybe Loki meant to sound like he…she usually did: casual, caustic, and light-hearted. Thor blinked away the sweat in his eyes. He stood and felt the water swirl from his shoulders to his waist. Loki knew him well enough by now, Loki should know that Thor could not help but take up such a challenge.
There were three strides separating them. Thor took one step, saying “As you will.”
Loki flexed and squared her shoulders as Thor made to come near her. Thor did not hold his hands out to engage; Loki was still watching him as if Thor’s slow approach was some kind of hypnotic dance. It looked like she had expected Thor to spurn her dare.
When Thor moved one inch past arm’s length, Loki changed again, swelling and morphing back to his masculine aspect…but if Loki thought that that would slow Thor’s advance, he was wrong, wrong, wrong. Thor’s clenched fingers were starting to itch for Loki’s flesh and the scent and weight of his heavy hair.
This close, Thor could see the clear whites of his eyes, which were slightly wider than usual. Loki’s mouth was open as if to suck more good from the steamy air. His pale Aesir skin was deeply flushed and he looked up at Thor as if he couldn’t decide who was to be predator or prey.
Thor had to clench his fists against the urge to simply grab Loki, pull him up onto the smooth marble, hold him with one hand in his hair and one hand under his thigh and just…taste everything. He’d been keeping this awareness of himself so deeply under wraps and Loki had now jerked it into the open air, all curious and careless. Loki’s grip on the rim of the tub was not now so relaxed as it had been. In fact it was almost white-knuckled.
“Thor.” Loki breathed and Thor could not tell whether it was a warning, an invitation or a plea.
Thor stopped short. Perhaps Loki did not know either. Perhaps Loki was apprehensive of what he had wrought. It was in Thor’s mind to be gentle even as his body seethed with lust. It would be dishonorable not to wait for a clearer summons. Thor clenched his fists and quelled himself.
“I can see that you are as strong as ever, brother.” Thor took a step back and the air seemed much cooler, even just a handbreadth away. “I yield to you.”
And Thor quitted the bath to a chorus of splashing water and Loki’s harsh, panting breath.
Chapter 5: flight square
“Thor,” Fandral gasped. “When they named you the ‘Hammer of the Aesir’, I don’t recall them naming me ‘the Anvil’.”
Thor paused and wiped the sweat out of his eyes. “That was surely not too hard?”
“That’s what she said.” Volstagg muttered to Hogun. Hogun raised one eyebrow as Sif snickered.
“What’s gotten into you?” Fandral panted, leaning openly on his cudgel. “I thought we were going to spar, not that you were planning to treat me like some kind of…frost giant.”
Sif snorted. “You just answered your own question, did you not?”
“Stop it.” Thor growled a warning.
“Ah, there were good enemies.” Volstagg sighed in an air of reminiscence. “So solid!”
“So intractable.” Hogun added.
“So strong.” Sif chimed in. “And you will surely feature in their stories down long millennia..Thor, the storm bringer!”
“Easily the greatest enemy they’ve ever known.” Fandral had regained his breath and flipped his hair back jauntily. “The monster they tell their children about at night.”
“You are all so witty, I find myself quite disarmed.” Thor said dryly. “Oh, wait.”
He swung at Fandral again, who barely managed to parry.
“Why, Thor…” Sif called, feigning dismay. “One would almost think that it bothe-mmpfh!”
Volstagg tumbled her askew, trying to duck Thor’s backswing. Thor took a quick round at each of them until they were too breathless to jape.
Loki had disappeared on a longer-than-average sojourn since their contretemps in the baths. It had had the expected effect on Thor’s temper and Sif and the Warriors Three were at great pains to tease him mercilessly. They wavered between giving him ridiculous advice about how to placate an offended frost giant (Volstagg had counseled flowers) and reminding him that having Loki at odds with him was a somewhat more natural state.
“You are preparing me, perhaps?” Fandral had jumped up onto the wall of the arena to regain his breath, trying not to get drawn back into the fray. “To stand your second when he returns to challenge you in hólmgang?”
“We have not quarreled.” Thor said for the umpteenth time.
“I should hope not.” Sif grimaced. “I find it hard to compass Loki doing aught as prosaic as hólmgang.”
Fandral shivered theatrically. “Perhaps he’ll bring one of his more prosaic kin.”
Thor was struck by a moment of memory of their last battle against the jötnar. It had been gloriously furious, a frost giant twice his size had caught him blind-side and flung him through the air and he’d bashed his wrist so hard upon landing that he’d actually lost his grip on Mjölnir. He remembered how it felt, lying flat on his back as the giant strode toward him slowly, like it had all the time in the world to punish him for Asgard’s wrongs.
It had smirked at him as he’d pushed to sit up, hands scrabbling for purchase on the ice. Thor had grinned back, feeling his blood pound ecstatically. The ground had trembled as it advanced; Thor remembered the quake in his bones as he’d reached for his hammer.
Thor tried to wipe off the odd anticipatory flush that spread over his cheeks. When that didn’t work he went and dunked his head in a barrel.
It was natural, Thor supposed, that Loki reveled in his new-wrought freedom and ranged the Nine Realms at Odin’s command or, more frequently, in search of his own mysterious ends. Yet before he always seemed to make it a point to return unexpectedly just when Thor’s yearning for a sarcastic, capricious, slightly mean-spirited frost giant was at its peak.
Thor knew somehow that he was just going to have to wait for Loki to come back on his own. Loki seemed to crave freedom and Thor would just have to bear it.
But Thor’s own unruly imagination made the passing week something of a trial. Loki might be oceans of void away from Asgard, but he made free to visit Thor in dreams. Sometimes he came as a woman; sometimes he was the form that Thor had come to know rather well from all his stolen glances. Sometimes…and these were the dreams that left Thor clutching his furs and panting…he was full Jötunn, solid, scarred and blue, hulking up over Thor with sharp teeth and ruby eyes.
Thor knew it was not fear that left him trembling.
Just this morning he had woken up in a small sea of sweat and even the gentle touch of the blankets had made him wince. What was most galling was that he didn’t even truly remember the dream, it was just a jumble of impressions, the phantom feeling of muscles straining and long, clever fingers teasing at his earlobe and his nipple.
He sparred with Sif and the Warriors Three ferociously all afternoon, determined not to let any stray thoughts chase into his dreams that night. It worked and he nodded off in the baths and had to drag himself to his bedchamber. He slept untroubled by phantasms of pinching fingers and flashing green eyes.
He woke to find Loki curled beside him, asleep.
Thor froze, mid-stretch and blinked. There was no mistaking it. Loki was real, curled in on himself with the feathers of his eyelashes dark against his cheek. He had tucked himself awkwardly between Thor and the edge of the bed platform and he slept with his hands twitching gently, tangled in the furs. Loki’s brow was furrowed, even in the depths of his slumber.
Loki had shed his tunic and loosened his breeches and Thor could see where he’d left his boots shucked haphazardly on his way to the bed. Thor noted that he himself was sleeping a little closer to the middle of the bed than was his usual wont. He’d not woken once the previous night and he wondered if Loki had pushed and prodded him to get him to shift.
Thor watched Loki doze fitfully for a moment longer and then cleared his throat.
Loki bolted awake, sitting up so quickly that Thor recoiled. Loki might have been surfacing from some nightmare because his eyes were momentarily wild and hunted. Then he seemed to realize where he was and when he looked at Thor, a complicated series of emotions washed over his face before he composed himself.
“Oh.” Loki had never, ever been sheepish in his presence before. “These are not my chambers.”
“No.” Thor agreed gently. “Though you are always welcome.”
Loki was already hunched over, grabbing at his discarded boots, but the grin he threw over his shoulder was equal parts wry and fond. “After so long away and as drunk as I was, it’s remarkable that I even found this corridor.”
Thor was brought up short as he reached for his own discarded tunic. That was a lie and not even a very good one. Loki moved too quickly, was too clear-eyed and smelled…well, he didn’t smell like he’d been drinking. Now that Thor considered him, Loki’s inability to come up with a better story was more than a little alarming.
“Loki…what happened to your hand?” Thor got a good look at him as he stood. “What happened to your hair?”
Loki blinked at him and looked down at his own hand “Oh…I…don’t…remember.”
“That’s a vicious burn.” Thor grabbed Loki’s wrist before he could escape to the far side of the room. Loki’s palm was dark and swollen with seaming flesh as if he’d grabbed something red hot or…someone had pressed a brand against his flesh. Thor was only distracted from the wound by the fact that Loki’s long horsetail of hair was gone. Loki’s hair now fell to his shoulders; it looked like someone had sawn it off with a blade.
“Ah…” Loki’s grin was a little forced. “I was so deep in my cups, I may have agreed to some odd forfeits.”
Again, that wasn’t even a good lie. Thor couldn’t help but reach out to tug the end of one of Loki’s shorn locks. Loki had been trying to pull his hand back, but at Thor’s light touch he stilled. They regarded each other for a long moment. Thor tried to hide his chagrin while Loki turned a nervous smile into a smirk.
“Why so stricken, son of Odin?” Loki murmured. “It will grow back.”
“Where have you been?” Thor scowled and drew on his tunic.
“Around and about.” Loki quickly tightened the buckles of his boots one-handed. “High places and low.”
“Hmph.” Thor snorted and scratched impatient fingers through his beard. “I don’t believe that there’s a single realm of Yggdrasil where that would suffice for an answer.”
“Did you miss me dreadfully?” Loki batted his eyelashes. “Did you pine away?”
“Indeed, I wore out the flagstones.” Thor said flatly. “Wondering what I should do without my most steady and reliable ally, my beloved frost giant.”
Loki raised his head from fiddling with his boots and his cheeky smirk grew a bit softer and uncertain. “I missed you too.”
“Huh.” Thor grunted, feeling tight around his chest. “That would tug at my heartstrings, magpie, if I thought you were capable of being sincere.”
Loki stayed silent for a long moment. He just rolled his lower lip under his sharp white teeth while Thor pulled on his boots. Loki stretched his arms over his head with a sigh, keeping his burned palm clenched into a fist. “Let’s be away…I presume you’re almost as hungry as I am.”
“Is this door…why is my door …not opening?” Thor tried to reach for the handle for the dozenth time, only to have his hand slide around it. Again.
“Oh, I…” Loki huffed out what was probably meant to be another light-hearted chuckle. “I must’ve spelled it shut. Force of habit. My apologies.” Loki spread his hand and mumbled something quick and mellifluous and the door opened itself.
Thor followed him down the corridor to the smaller banqueting hall where they met Sif and the Warriors Three. Loki was so full of compliments and questions for them that were quickly deep in conversation without once addressing Loki’s time away. Thor responded to the gaiety as best he could while keeping half an eye on the nape of Loki’s neck.
Loki had obviously stepped into something that he felt a little past his considerable capabilities. And if that wasn’t a reason to be curious, Thor was not the god of thunder. He was determined to discover the who, the how, the whys and wherefores of whatever had made Loki afraid.
Because Loki had been afraid.
Thor couldn’t think of any other reason why Loki had been at such pains to sleep between Thor and Mjölnir.
Trying to have Loki followed was a fool’s game. Thor had not yet met the Aesir who could match him for stealth. Even Hogun’s fierce tracking prowess was no match for Loki’s craftiness. Loki had explained once that it was because Jötunheim was so very still and unmoving, either extreme stealth or extreme speed was paramount as a survival skill.
So Thor did not bother with trying to work through Loki’s furtive game when he vanished again, he simply pulled rank and asked Heid and Heimdall to find Loki if he still existed in the Nine Realms.
Their answer made his heart sink.
Svartalfheim was a place that truly hewed to its creed that function should rate more than form, that substance easily trumped style.
When Thor arrived in Kiryatal, the seaport of Nidavellir, he didn’t bother asking around for an undersized Jötunn shamming as a handsome Aesir. He just set about finding the most disgusting drinking and gaming establishment in the grim port city. The dwarves did beautiful work but they did not work beautifully. He strode down streets that seemed to rise up out of scrapheaps amidst the sharp scents of charcoal fires and burning pitch until he came to a disreputable hovel hulked on the edge of the harbor. A chimney puffed away defiantly and the smoke did not rise, but crept down to caress the dark, filthy water. It smelled like a cross between a forge and a tannery where they happened to serve spirits that would send a mortal blind.
Thor shook his head and made to enter.
“Leave your weapon.” The dwarf (if indeed it was a dwarf) who guarded the door into this particular hell looked like it counted a toad back a generation or two in its illustrious ancestry. Its face had wizened beyond all expression and its squat body looked vaguely gelatinous.
“Do you know who I am?” Thor asked incredulously.
The toad-like creature looked him full in the eye, even though it was an obvious effort to raise its face past Thor’s belt. A thought seemed to pass over its bestial, obdurate countenance. “Leave your weapon, sir?”
Thor grumbled at it for a while longer, but it just sat unmoving, watching the sea batter the pilings looking like that was enough entertainment for the next half-millennium or so. Thor sighed, unstrapped his daggers and left Mjölnir resting in an unobtrusive place. There were banks of elaborate weapons; it looked like a volunteer army encampment.
Thor ducked under the lintel and let his eyes adjust. The entire tavern went silent and a hundred unfriendly eyes settled on him. Thor used the sudden stillness to scan the room. He found Loki easily in the corner at a table next to the hearth with his long legs stretched almost into the fire. Loki had stilled like the others. But in contrast to their sullen suspicion, a fleeting look of pure anxiety passed over Loki’s face like the beat of a bird’s wing. Then it was gone and Loki slouched back watching Thor approach from under heavy eyelids. “Come drink with me, brother.”
“My, my, my.” One of Loki’s companions muttered gruffly. “The Hammer of the Aesir.”
Thor eased down gently onto the low bench. It was sturdier than he’d expected, it took his weight easily. Loki sat with a trio of hard-faced dwarves who wore expressions of varying degrees of avarice and malice. While they all sat in elaborately relaxed postures, there was a distinct air of anxiety around the table. Thor could readily understand why his weapon had been held. The dwarf sitting across from Loki had not even raised his head to acknowledge Thor, so intently was he staring daggers at Loki.
Loki introduced the three with a flourish. “You’ll be delighted to meet…”
“I bid you welcome, Odinson.” The largest of the dwarves interrupted. “Though I confess myself surprised to learn that you name a Jötunn your brother.”
“Brokk. And this is Eitri.” Loki gestured and Thor nodded at them.
“Particularly, this Jötunn.” Hissed the dwarf on the end. They all looked like they’d been carved out of fire-hardened oak. As stubborn and unyielding as the roots of great trees.
“Buri,” murmured Loki. Loki had recovered his composure. He slumped forward in his chair so his knees brushed Thor’s.
“Well met.” A more effusive greeting would seem disingenuous. Thor found his courtesy much strained already. “We are only newly acquainted but you would deny me kin?”
“Of course, not, Prince Thor. We have no quarrel with Aesir or Jötnar.” Eitri said smoothly. “Or indeed anyone who…”
“…pays their debts.” Finished Buri, still glaring at Loki like he could set his hair on fire.
Loki smiled his exceptionally beautiful smile and for a second, Thor thought Buri’s bones would burst out through his skin. He’d clenched both fists so tightly that his bones creaked as they ground together.
“Brokk has great skill in metalworking.” Loki nodded at him. “As does Eitri. Buri does leatherwork, finer never seen.”
Buri did not seem mollified in the slightest by Loki’s fair words. He sat back muttering to himself. His fingernails were long and sharpened to points. Thor noticed that he’d sharpened his teeth as well.
“Ah.” Thor accepted a tankard from the silent server. It smelled like Tyr’s smallclothes after the Vanir campaign. “So you’ve accepted a commission from my…”
“Yes.” Brokk said dryly. “We were just discussing payment.”
“Hardly.” Loki said, toying with the cork from one of the many bottles. “We were discussing the letter versus the spirit of the law in Svartalfheim.”
In the long, menacing silence that followed, Thor listened to the sounds of the place. Creak of leather, chink of metal, the crackle of the fire. Oddly, he could not hear the waves washing against the pilings outside. After it had gone on long enough to be deeply uncomfortable, Eitri turned to Thor and asked, “Have you a head for games, Odinson?”
“Well enough.” Thor replied. Oddly, now it was Loki whose eyes flashed murder and the dwarves seemed to feel naught but blithe unconcern.
“Would you care to game with us?” Brokk reached up to pick his teeth with a curiously-carved sliver of wood.
“What kind of game?” Thor asked.
“We will each ask you a riddle.” Brokk held up three stubby fingers. “If you can answer three of our riddles, then you may ask a boon of us that we might say we have done aught for the Odinson.”
“Of a certainty, I shall be gl…” Thor paused because someone had just slammed a fist right above his knee in a way that made his entire leg go numb. “..ad to make a small wager with you.”
Thor raised his glass to hide behind while he glanced at Loki. Loki didn’t even look like he was paying attention. Loki was spinning a coin and tapping his finger on the oak of the table. No, he wasn’t tapping, he was tracing. Tracing a short series of runes into the table over and over. D-O-N-O-T.
“Excellent.” Brokk was rubbing his hands together; the callouses made a scratching sound. “We will, of course, need a forfeit if you answer one question wrongly or cannot answer.”
Thor bobbed his head in acknowledgement.
“I have heard of your hammer, Mjölnir.” Eitri leaned forward avidly and Thor stiffened. Surely none of these louts would have the sheer unabashed cheek to speak of ‘forfeits’ and ‘Mjölnir’ in the same breath. Before he could express his outrage, Eitri spoke on. “I have heard it was forged in the heart of a dying star.”
“Yes,” said Thor cautiously. “A difficult feat to replicate.”
For some reason all of the dwarves seemed to think that was a jest worthy of the ages. They laughed uproariously and Loki fidgeted.
“Indeed.” Eitri swiped away a tear. “I would only beg leave to admire it. To touch it once so that I might attempt to forge a baser replica with my own meager skill…”
Thor relaxed, truly this was not so dire…
“…and I wish to temper my hammer with the blood of the Odinson.” Eitri wrapped up his demand with a little smile that made the skin on the back of Thor’s neck prickle. “That it might draw strength from the great warrior.”
Thor cleared his throat. He’d seen myriad blades quenched in the forges of Asgard. That was well three or four buckets of blood. He was unsure of quite how much an Asgardian could spare before testing the edges of their immortality. But he was Thor Odinson, so: “I accept.”
“Marvelous.” Brokk rubbed his hands together again “Give us leave to compose our challenge and ready yourself.”
They turned away to huddle in a low-voiced conference. Thor slouched down and mumbled to Loki. “Making friends all over the place, aren’t we, magpie?”
“Thor.” Loki muttered tightly as if he couldn’t believe he had to explain. “They are quite in earnest, and if he bets for your blood, you can be assured he will take it or die in the attempt. You truly think yourself so well armed for a battle of wits?”
“Should I lose and it seems dishonorable” Thor said complacently. “We will simply fight our way free.”
“If you haven’t noticed by now…” Loki was making a bland face for the benefit of their hosts, but his voice had a distinct edge. “The odds aren’t exactly in our favor.”
“When have you ever cared for that?” Thor hid his question behind a gulp of sour ale.
“Did you not see the runes on the doorposts?” Loki snarled out of the corner of his mouth.
“No.” Thor mumbled back honestly. “What of them?”
Loki flashed a glance at him, pale with anger and disbelief. “Call to Mjölnir.”
With a sinking sensation, Thor flexed his fingers. He tried again and broke out into a sweat. He took a deep breath and tried to swallow his alarm. “That’s never happened before.”
Loki rolled his eyes. “They don’t hold with any magic except their own. You see what…”
“Odinson.” Brokk turned back to him; his dark, wrathful face was suffused with glee. “We would begin.”
Buri spoke first, “I have streets with no cobbles. Cities with no houses. Forests without trees and rivers without water. What am I?”
Thor blinked. He glanced at Loki and picked up his ale and set it down again. The silence lengthened. Eitri took a long swallow from his bottle and the reek of the liquor made Thor’s bile rise.
“What am I?” Buri repeated, his eyes glittering. Eitri was looking more cheerful by the moment as Thor’s brain screamed a thousand potential answers, none of them worthy.
“By the Nine, this swill is awful.” Loki scowled down at his tankard. “It’s as bad as Midgardian poetry.”
That penetrated the haze of Thor’s mind, because that didn’t seem right. Surely, Loki had said once that he rather liked Midgardian poetry, back when Loki hadn’t liked much of anything. In the library. Before the dragon hunt. Thor had been looking at…
“A map.” Thor said quickly and Buri snorted in disbelief. Brokk and Eitri shared a heavy look.
Eitri spoke gently. “Each morning I come and lie at your feet. All day I will follow you, no matter how fast you run. Yet I may perish in the midday sun.”
Thor bit his lower lip. A faithful dog. No, surely not. Not with that last part. He had no head for this, this artful doublespeak.
“I can swim in the ocean and still remain dry; I’m the part of the bird that is not in the sky.” Loki said absently, as if to himself.
“Not one more word from you!” Buri shrieked and pounded his fist so hard into the table it dented the oak. Loki raised his eyebrows as if he was astonished by the outburst. His eyes were as round and open as a child’s.
Brokk had made to stand up, but Eitri pulled him back down to a seat as Buri snarled. “You think that we shall release your debt just because you stand in the favor of Thor Odinson, well, I remind you, you black-hearted liesmith that we have friends too. You have heard, you have seen and you know that you shall not love to make their further acquaintance…”
“Are you forfeiting your game?” Loki said, sounding unmoved, even though Thor could feel his knee tremble. “I grow weary of your jabbering discursions.”
Loki made a fluttering gesture which mirrored the licking flames of the fire behind him.
“We must have your answer now, Odinson.” Brokk said coldly, while Buri seethed.
“A shadow.” Thor said. He had not known until he’d seen the silhouette of Loki’s hand on the wall.
Buri growled and then seemed to brighten as Brokk spoke. “Very well, this is the last.”
Brokk spoke low and urgently, “I am a wingless bird, but I may fly even up to the furthest clouds of heaven. I bring tears to all the eyes I meet even though there is no cause for grief, and at my birth I am dissolved into air. Who am I?”
Thor blinked. Was this a trick? The answer seemed too obvious, as it was all around them scrolling out of the pipes of at least a dozen dwarves. “Smoke?”
For a moment, Thor had thought he was lost. The dwarves at all the surrounding tables fell silent. Thor glanced at Loki to see the slight curl of his lip deepen and then Thor’s heart could beat steady again.
“Well done. What would you have us do, Prince of Asgard?” Brokk attempted to find his courtesy through his bemusement.
“Hmmmm.” Thor relaxed back and crossed his knees, pretending to think about it. “I suppose…you shall discharge my bro-Loki Laufeyson’s debt.”
The dwarves all blinked in unison, then turned their faces toward Loki.
“Absolutely not.” Brokk said incredulously. “Out of the question.”
“This is the boon I require.” Thor returned firmly.
“No! No!” Buri was shaking his head. “I will do what I love for the son of Odin, but I will not do what I hate!”
Eitri had apparently abandoned the role of peacemaker; he looked very grave. “Indeed, it would be worthwhile to have the Odinson attired in our work, just for the prestige, but none but this frost giant may speak to his own debt.”
“You said I could have a boon of you, you did not specify further.” Thor paused and collected his thoughts. Whatever debt Loki had run up, they could not let it stand longer, the dwarves were too clever and vengeful. “It is seeming strange to me that you should so love the twisted words of riddles but have no care for your own oath.”
The dwarves all went silent.
Brokk spoke in a strangled tone. “Three more riddles.”
“No.” Loki shook his head, but Thor quelled him with a touch on his shoulder. Loki turned his ferocious sideways gaze on Thor. Thor stroked his hair back and whispered in his ear. “It will be well.”
Buri spoke first again; they did not waste time discussing a strategy. “I can run but I never walk. I have a mouth but I never talk. I have a bed but I never sleep. I have a head but I never weep.”
Thor’s heart sank. He’d thought he was really getting the hang of this game, but those words seemed impenetrable. He glanced toward Loki just in time to see him shiver. No wonder Loki shivered even with his back to the fire, well he might, relying on the wit of Thor! It was a joke, ridiculous…
…it was another hint. He remembered the last time Loki had shivered in his presence, the Ifingr, freezing cold…
“A river.” Thor said simply and Buri scowled.
Eitri spoke softly, his eyes boring into Thor’s. “What is there that no one wishes to have, yet when they have it no one wishes to lose it?”
Thor tilted his chin up to look at the ceiling. Truly the trick was not to panic. If he did not grow alarmed, his mind stayed clear and he could answer without even a hint from Loki. “A bald head.”
Several other dwarves had overcome their reserve to stare openly at the game. Thor was unsure whether this would work with them or against them in the final reckoning. One on the far side of the tavern skimmed a hand over his bald pate.
“Very well, Odinson…then you will tell me one final thing. If you tell me false, we will hang you from this beam.” Brokk pointed upward and smiled, wide enough to show his sharp eyeteeth. “If you tell me true, we will take all your blood to quench our iron.”
Moons ago, Loki had told him a story like this and Thor could well remember how his eyes had sparkled as he teased. This door has two guardians, one always speaks the truth; the other one always lies.
“Then I tell you, you will hang me.” Thor said placidly.
Buri slammed his fist on the table again while Eitri sagged in disbelief. Thor did not smile, even though he wanted to. The logical conundrum was a wall and they were safe behind it.
“You are as tricksome as your cursed, shape-shifting brother.” Brokk grumbled.
“I believe I answered your questions.” Thor said coldly. “If it is such a point of honor, it should not be a game.”
“Now run along home, little princess.” Loki wiggled his fingers as if he was waving to a child.
There was a moment while time slowed down. There was a moment where those obsidian eyes all drew upon him and he could feel every fist in the place tighten. He had time to consider. They were not mighty, but many and the dwarves fought daily with the very bones of the earth, forcing nature itself to pay them tribute. What would his father think of a battle, a blood feud with the dwarves?
The berserk inside started to pound on Thor’s ribs as he readied himself for fatal affray.
And then Brokk sneered and stepped away. Buri hawked and spat on the table, but then he too shoved himself back, making a hand gesture at Loki that was rather unequivocal.
Thor blew out the breath he’d been holding and looked over at Loki who had dropped his head to chuckle wryly into his still-burned palm. Loki looked up at Thor sharply and shook his head as if he couldn’t quite believe it. “Were you truly prepared to lose that much blood on the slim chance of settling my debt?”
Thor was going to speak, to say something clever, but he’d used up all his wit on the game. He nodded.
“Bold move.” Loki leaned back in his chair, settling his legs across the bench. “None match you for bravery, mighty Odinson.”
“No fear.” Thor tried to speak lightly, as if his skin wasn’t trying to crawl right off his bones. “None match you for wit, do they, Loki…Silver-tongue?” He drained his tankard to the leas and wiped his mouth. “I was sure if it had gone against me, you’d have found some lawyering trick to set it right.”
“Perhaps I would have.” Loki looked at him sideways, “Perhaps I would have let you swing.”
“Another!” Thor bellowed to the tavern keeper, brandishing both their mugs. “For I have won not one, but two prizes this day. One against the guile of Svartalfheim and another, that the Jötunn prince finds my life is ever-so-slightly more amusing than my death.”
“For the nonce.” Said Loki archly and Thor laughed away the last of his nerves.
It came so soft that he almost missed it. They were trudging back to the clearing that Heimdall had decided didn’t threaten this realm’s sovereignty, when Loki said, almost in a murmur. “It is well that you came, Odinson.”
Thor thought about demurring, thought about laughing it away as a joke or a trifle, but something made him say simply, “I could not do otherwise.”
Loki favored him with a long look. Then he looked up at the sky where the Bifrost was starting to pierce it. He tugged his cloak tighter around his shoulders.
“All speak of their talent for making.” Loki twisted his lip wryly and shook his head. “Few speak…because few dare…of their rather greater talent for un-making.”
Chapter 6: Windmill
The mist at the horizon looked thin but Thor could still sense the bizarre heaviness of the air. Jormungandr felt it too; she snorted but kept flying doggedly onward. She pulled up at the edge of the fog bank, her broad wingspan pumping the air as she landed but the uncanny mist did not dissipate in the slightest.
Thor slid off her back and stretched his numb, tingling legs. There was nothing on the plain, simply a stand of bent, stunted trees to his left that dripped sparkling beads of condensation. A singular raven clutched one twisted bough, as still as stone. On the border here, the sun shone brightly but filtered through a veil of lighter mist, leaving the edges of everything blurred. There seemed to be a constant shushing sound, as if there was an ocean that he couldn’t see or wind blowing that he couldn’t feel.
“Loki?” He called softly, even as his heart sank. He pulled out Loki’s cloak and shook it in front of Jormungandr’s nose even as she snorted again and settled back onto her haunches. “You’re sure?” She huffed out two little eddies of flame and curled her tail around her claws.
“Then stay here girl, and wait me.” Thor squinted into the shadow lands as he hefted Mjölnir and prepared to stride into the dusky gloom alone.
“Thor!” Loki did not stomp indignantly, but rather stalked toward him in the manner of an angry cat. “You great half-wit, have you any idea where you are or what you are doing?”
Thor turned, not quite able to quell a surge of elation at finding Loki even if Loki was hopping mad about it. “Ah, there you are, brother.” Thor threw a careless glance over his shoulder. “I believe I am at the border to the Land of Mist. And…I seek you.”
Loki was never in the habit of showing his true feelings to anyone, least of all Thor. Now he was glaring at Thor like his next move would be to throw a punch. Thor tried to look artless or suitably penitent and not as if he found it exciting in any way. Loki snarled, “Did it occur to you that it might be more than a little foolish to blunder about the Shadow Realm uninvited? Or was the chance to vex me just too good to pass up?”
“I had no thought to vex you.” Thor said, stung. “Why are you going there anyway?”
“Why are you following me?” Loki snapped.
“I asked you first.” Thor shot back, reddening. He hadn’t anticipated this line of questioning and he cast about quickly for a reason that didn’t involve too much of the truth.
“Oh, that’s…” Loki broke off with an irritated sneer. “You are the most infuriating…gah!”
They stared at each other for a long moment, Thor trying to think of a way to stop looking like a peevish child and find some argument that Loki would not dismiss out of hand.
“Come now.” Thor said slowly. “Why should I not attend you? I thought we were shield brothers of a sort.”
“The way through to the Nibelung is …not a little perilous.” Loki folded his arms. “The borderland is said to strip away all magic, Thor, all. That hammer of yours may turn into nothing but makeweight.”
“You think to dissuade me or tempt me?” Thor asked, hitching Mjölnir at his waist. “It’s just a little dark and mist.”
Loki snorted. He twisted his hands through the air like he had Thor’s throat under his fingers.
“You can’t take Jormungandr.” Loki sighed finally. “She won’t be able to hunt for herself.”
Thor nodded, trying to look matter-of–fact and not delighted. He clicked his tongue and Jormungandr thrust her head down for a quick goodbye peck.
“When did you teach her to carry you?” Loki asked, sounding curious despite himself.
“Uh, I did…not.” Thor reached up absently to rub around her warm snout. “I just…grabbed hold when she took flight.”
Loki nodded with his lips pursed and he rolled his eyes skyward. “Of course.”
He turned, still shaking his head and strode to the murky gray wall of the border.
“Listen well: if you are set on this, you must heed me. We may be in this for bare minutes or it could be days. You follow in my footsteps and do not go haring off after anything. Let me know if you must stop for any reason. Follow me closely, but don’t tread on my heels.” Loki waited until Thor drew up beside him on the edge of the mist. He stepped inside deliberately. Thor followed, not more than one arm’s length behind, in fact he reached out and clasped Loki’s shoulder for a moment to get a sense of the safe distance. Loki’s hooded cloak was a dark solid shadow before him, but after a few steps they were all that stirred in the shadow forest.
It was a forest, after all. But the branches did not have leaves, just mist. If the fog were ever to lift, it might reveal a sea of bare boughs and gnarled trunks, a tree graveyard.
“What a dour place.” Thor shivered as a droplet trickled from his temple to his jaw. “Why were you so set on going alone, Loki?”
“To be spared the obligation of making inane conversation.” Loki said sweetly.
Thor was tempted to kick him, but the ground felt so strange underfoot. As if the earth was unmoored somehow. Thor trudged on for what felt like another hour and then it occurred to him that giving Loki the silence he wanted was not winning the argument.
“What draws you to visit the Nibelung, Loki?” Thor asked. “Will you befriend the great sorceress?”
Loki stayed mute, treading onward in the dim, unwavering mist. He seemed to know right where he was going, or he was pretending to very effectively.
“I have heard that their young queen is more than passing fair.” Thor continued casually. “Maybe even lovelier than Freya.”
Loki might have sighed, but it was covered by the constant shushing of the fog.
“It is said that they have treasure to rouse avarice in the most generous heart.” Thor almost tripped; his steps had gotten heavier as he thought. He had to almost skip to avoid getting stuck in a boggy patch. “That’s it, isn’t it? You mean to bargain for something exquisite to add to your collection, don’t you magpie?”
“Maybe.” Loki said in the way another person would have said ‘you’re loathsome’.
“Must be quite the trinket.” Thor squinted off into the dripping, eerie landscape. “How long have we been walking through this suburb of Niflheim to wrangle with a sorceress?”
“Her son. Gunnar is in possession of a jewel.” Loki paused. “I think it’s an opal. It has a number of qualities that I would like to...that I would like.”
Thor was tempted to ask just what qualities the stone possessed, but Loki’s tone had gotten so clipped that Thor knew that probing further would only make Loki more taciturn.
“And you plan to buy it.” Thor surmised.
“He will give it to me, he says.” Loki said evenly. “All I have to do is kill his brother for him.”
Thor was stunned into a momentary silence. “So the prince of Jötunheim would amuse himself with murder for hire, is that the way of things now?”
“Thor…” Loki started.
“And to tell me so light-heartedly…” Thor stopped, trying to keep his anger from bleeding through his shock. “You are so cold, Loki Laufeyson.”
Loki hitched a half step, a tiny pause in his inexorable stride as if he’d put a foot wrong. “Not quite cold enough, it would seem,” he muttered nonsensically.
“Do not do this thing.” Thor would have liked to believe he was commanding, not begging. “There is no honor in it.”
“Oh, I shall not.” Loki sighed as if it were all so desperately boring. “I’m sure I can find another way to the jewel.”
“You must have it then?” Thor started striding forward again, trying to appear something other than heartsick. “My dear magpie.”
“There is none like it.” Thor glanced up, squinting to make him out through the fog. Loki always sounded nonchalant, but there was the faintest tremor in his voice now. “It suits my purpose best.”
Thor plodded on feeling unaccountably troubled. The mist which had seemed only mysterious before now seemed to be concealing all kinds of tiny nightmares. “Why should he want to kill his brother?”
“Is that a serious query?” Loki snorted. “Truly, Odinson, it is rarefied air that you breathe. Perhaps you would give less thought to that hammer and more thought to your armor, if you had a sibling or two nipping at your heels.”
“But…” Thor’s mouth suddenly got so full of words that he coughed. “Surely…”
Loki’s tone grew ever more mocking. “Do you think yourselves above all that up on the Hlidskialf? Far too dignified to squabble for succession? Does Odin ever speak of his brothers and all the mischief they wrought in their day?”
“You will not make me believe that ambition will always poison both honor and love…” Thor started.
“Dangerously naïve, for one who is to rule in Asgard.” Loki was snarling now.
Thor wanted to growl back at him but then the truth clutched fingers around his heart.
“I would cherish a brother.” Thor said quietly. “Over any crown.”
Loki fell silent for a long breath and then said, “But would he cherish you?”
“Have done if you will, Silvertongue.” Thor said, suddenly feeling very weary. “I have no way of knowing all the ill your brothers visited on you.”
“Indeed.” Loki spoke in a more measured tone. “But then you were kind enough to deliver me from Byleistr’s special brand of malice, were you not?”
Thor’s mouth went dry. It had been a long while since he’d thought upon that particular truth.
It grew neither lighter nor darker, but it felt like at least a day had passed as they walked in silence. They tramped on for some inestimable time before Loki laughed. “I must make a note. Having the last word is truly not as satisfying as people seem to believe.”
It was Thor’s turn to remain pointedly silent.
“Oh, are you brooding now?” Loki asked in a tone that was tooth-grittingly infuriating.
Thor trudged in silence for another inestimable time before venturing, “Perhaps you could tell me.”
“Tell you what?” Loki asked. He was walking slower and Thor noticed that they were going slightly uphill.
“All the wrongs and slights that your brothers did you.” Thor folded his arms and chafed his shoulders. It was not bitingly cold, but the constant drip, drip, drip of the fog leaked chill into the bones.
“No I shall not. It would be wretchedly dull.” Loki said. “Perhaps I could tell you all the misery I visited upon them, which would be a far more interesting story.”
“I don’t doubt.” Thor said and Loki chuckled but did not speak further.
“Did you…ah.” Thor had never felt his scholarly lack more keenly. “I mean, how did you…”
“We didn’t grow up together, if that is what you are trying so very clumsily to ask.” Loki said. “We were fostered out as soon as we were weaned.”
“Oh.” Thor tried to formulate another, more leading, question. “Why?”
“Well.” Loki seemed to grow thinner in the fog ahead and Thor realized that Loki had pulled his hooded cloak about him more tightly. “I suppose they didn’t want us to grow up as spoiled and indulged as a certain prince in As…”
“What a subtle point you are making.” Thor said dryly. “Truly it is well over my head.”
Loki made an undignified sound that Thor chose to believe was a stifled laugh.
“And it is also possible that an alliance between siblings could threaten both dam and sire.” Loki continued as if he was musing.
“Such a harsh realm.” Thor said almost under his breath.
“Breeds harsh reasoning.” Loki’s shoulders twitched in a shrug. They were going downhill again.
“I suppose I should think the same.” Thor said dejectedly. “If I could never turn my back on my own sibling.”
“Oh, it’s not as dire as I’m making out.” Loki shrugged again. “What did you call me earlier…‘shield brother’?”
Thor perked up. “You have such?”
“Well, it would sound fairer if this word ‘sibling’ were not so…” Loki sighed and muttered halfthing nonsense. “So let us say ‘brother’ as you like it so well. On Jötunheim, we have snow brothers and ice brothers.”
“And what is that?” Thor asked.
“Snow brother is…what you would call a ‘friend’.” Loki offered the word to the murky forest which seemed unmoved.
Thor had never considered before how ambiguous and odd the word sounded on Loki’s tongue.
“An ice brother is a bit more nuanced. There are…” Loki actually seemed to be casting about for the right word. “…all different manners of ice brothers. Ice is a crystal, it can be…polymorph.”
“I see.” Thor said, trying to sound as if he really did.
“No you don’t.” Loki said, sounding almost fond. “Suffice to say that the bond is stronger, deeper.” Loki paused and said softly. “More devastating when it breaks.”
Thor nodded and then realized that Loki couldn’t see him. All this time…and it really might have been days…Loki had not once looked back to make sure Thor was behind him.
“Which am I, Loki?” Thor watched Loki’s posture carefully. “Snow or ice?”
Loki didn’t even pause as he said, “Neither.”
Thor slid into another brood as the forest spread onward in an endless gray-brown haze. He found he couldn’t even bear the sight of the hem of Loki’s cloak, so he watched the toes of his own boots for a fair good while. It was beginning to feel like this would be the rest of his life, that he would be doomed to forever walk in the wake of the coldest frost giant ever misbegotten off some thrice-cursed…
Thor shuddered as a particularly cold draft tickled across the back of his knee. In the time it took him to draw breath he realized that it was too solid to be an air current, that something had just reached up to snatch at his leg.
He tripped and nearly stumbled as another lash caught him across the shin. It was thicker and it grasped at him cruelly as he broke into a trot, trying to land lightly on the balls of his feet. It was then he realized that he couldn’t see Loki anywhere. The mist was uniformly gray on all sides and another…vine, he saw now that it was a vine…wrapped around his ankle and sent him headlong.
Thor did not hesitate to slip Mjölnir free and crush the base of the twining tentacle. It tore him free, but three others had surfaced in its wake and surged up around him. Mjölnir’s magic seemed unaffected, but the vines erupted from the earth like a nest of serpents and one grabbed his wrist before he could muster the leverage to spin his hammer. For all her power, she was not the perfect close-quarters weapon.
“Loki!” Thor shouted. The mist stole resonance as well as visibility, so it sounded muffled as if he had shouted inside a great bell. A vine twined over his thigh and Thor bellowed at the top of his lungs, “LOKI!”
The vines seemed to have some reason and definitely some malice. Eight separate vines were attempting to encircle his wrist as he wielded the hammer to smash the ones tugging at his knees and ankles. He nearly crushed his own foot and started to feel the barest hint of unease.
“Nnnnggghh.” Thor grunted as he snatched his free hand loose from a questing vine, only to be pulled onto one knee as three more flowed up his right side. One teased at his throat and he growled and twisted his head to bite it. The sap was bitter enough to bring tears to his eyes. Thor spat and groaned, “Loki, please.”
One had him fully round the throat now. They were uncannily sturdy; when he struggled to fight free with all his weight and strength they simply stretched with him. He opened his mouth to yell and found that he had no breath for it.
The vine swelling over his neck suddenly snapped and shattered. Then there was a chorus of odd brittle cracks and the pressure tugging his legs released abruptly. Someone grabbed his collar and pulled him backward and Thor felt a powerful surge of relief and…cold.
Unconsciously, he reached with his free hand to clutch at his benefactor who promptly dropped him. Another vine, broader than the others, coursed up over his shoulder to pin him to the earth and Thor instinctively rolled away from it into his rescuer who barely managed to keep from toppling onto him.
“Oh!” Thor drew in a burning, icy breath. Loki looked down at him gravely. Thor could feel the chill radiating from the hands braced on either side of his shoulders. The last of the vines froze as the ground went hard underneath him. Loki knelt over him, fully Jötunn.
“No magic.” Loki said wryly. His face had not changed its shape, but the scars over his cheekbones and chin exaggerated his features in a way that looked deliciously exotic to Thor’s eyes. “Save for my birthright.”
Thor was still panting; this close to Loki his breath came out as cloud. Unthinking, he reached up to stroke the raised scar that swept down Loki’s jaw. Loki recoiled back up onto his knees and Thor was left with a frost-burned finger. Loki glared at him, his ruby eyes incredulous.
“Why did you do that?” Loki snapped. “You knew it would hurt you.”
“I just…” Thor shrugged helplessly. There was no way to explain. He took refuge in his breathlessness and filled his eyes with the incongruity of Loki in his Asgardian garb, all blue and indignant.
Loki glared at him a moment longer and then rocked back up to his feet with grace that made Thor shiver with more than cold. Thor rolled to his side as Loki stepped away and gasped, “If I could not bear a little hurt, even an uneasy alliance with the prince of Jötunheim would be beyond me.”
“Oh, is that what this is?” Loki said. He had turned away and seemed loathe to look back at Thor as Thor got to his feet.
“Have you been…yourself this whole time?” Thor asked gently. “Is that why I had to walk behind?”
Thor had to walk around Loki to get a good look at his face. The wicked vines crunched underfoot.
Loki snorted. “Is it any wonder? We left as ‘shield brothers’, now I am your ‘uneasy…’”
“It is not your form that ever put us at odds, Loki.” Thor interrupted. “Rather it was your sire’s yearning to enslave Midgard.”
He grinned as Loki looked up at him with a grimace. “I rather like you like this.”
Loki grumbled skeptically. “Stop grinning at me like some lackwit jester.”
“And if I had any doubts that it was truly you in there…” Thor chuckled. He made as if to grab Loki’s wrist and Loki shied back, but he was smirking. “Can I at least walk beside you now? You thought to spare me the truth of you, since I am so spoiled, indulged and naïve?”
Loki made a terrifying face and shook his head. “Something like that, I suppose.”
“You wound me. I should be offended that you think me so lacking in judgment.” Thor teased as they fell into step again, tilting his chin for another sideways peek. Loki’s fingernails were a dark indigo blue and Thor fought the sudden irrational and dangerous urge to suck on them.
“Well. I guess it’s important to have good enemies.” Loki said airily. “They show you your weaknesses.”
“Usually at the most inopportune times.” Thor returned, stepping over a fallen bough that glowed white as bone.
Loki snorted a laugh. “Indeed. But then if you survive, you can at least try to turn that particular weakness into a strength.”
Loki stopped suddenly. Thor braced himself and looked around warily. He quickly noticed that the sky was lightening, the trees were thinning and the shadow that he’d taken for more fog was actually a mountain.
“Is this...” Thor started, staring round at the mist-wreathed crags and the emerald valley at their heart.
“Indeed.” Loki breathed. As the mist dissolved to puddle at his feet, the blue leached out of his skin, the red leaked from his eyes and he looked down at his hands and back at Thor with a completely unfathomable expression. “We have arrived.”
“I bid you welcome, good princes.” The fearsome sorceress, Grimhild, did not cackle or curse at them as Thor had half expected. Rather she swept a most courteous curtsy, lowering her handsome head in a dignified bow. She seemed to be in the midst of preparations that left a trace of harried sorrow across her lined face. “It is kind…and most unlooked-for that you would join us and lend us your strength in our time of mourning.”
“Ah…” Thor started, bewildered, before Loki nudged him. “We could not have done otherwise, great queen, when we heard of your sorrow.” Loki finished smoothly.
A maiden standing to his left hitched a sob and buried her face in the shoulder of the woman who was trying to spread a cloth over the table. The woman sighed and turned to stroke her hair.
“I’m afraid you will find our hospitality is not what it should be.” Grimhild sighed heavily. “The loss of Sigurd is a blow that has struck even the least of us.”
Thor cleared his throat, feeling on firmer ground. “Have no thought for our comfort, dear lady. It is ours to comfort you.”
She mustered a half-smile. “The needs of the living must ever outweigh those of the dead.” Her polite words seemed to strike a dark chord in her heart. “Truly but for my daughter, I would have more peace, for the great Volsung died no straw death and his deeds will live on until the world dies in flame and is reborn in flood.” She had moved to the arching window of her hall and she twitched the heavy brocade aside to look down upon the inner courtyard. Half a dozen women clustered there, five weaving stories around one who sat as still as if she were frozen.
“What ails your daughter, good Grimhild?” Loki asked in his most gentle tone.
“She is so overcome by grief that she cannot weep.” Grimhild heaved a sigh. “It is as if all her breath is locked inside her. I fear for her. I feared always for this love of hers, it seemed cursed from its inception.”
Loki shot a glance awry at Thor as he murmured something low and surely appropriate. They were ushered from the hall by a grim-faced retainer. The palace was smaller than that of Asgard but beautifully and cunningly constructed. Affluence seemed to ooze from the walls and Thor wondered that a people so wealthy could be so ill-fated.
“Was Sigurd the one who you were supposed to kill?” Thor muttered when they were alone in a richly appointed guest chamber.
Loki curled his lip. “Doesn’t seem that challenging at this moment, does it? …For all the praise heaped upon his valor.” He sat gingerly on a delicate-looking chaise and put his feet on the ottoman with a sigh.
Thor grunted and threw himself down to rest upon the bed for a moment.
“At least it leaves me with no temptation.” Loki continued slowly. “Nor you any cause to doubt me.”
“And he was not Gunnar’s brother, but his brother-in-law.” Thor pointed out.
Loki shrugged off the difference. “They’ve tied a complicated knot with their wooing, it seems. I have heard that he married this Brunhild many years ago and later Grimhild’s daughter, Gudrun.”
“Seems careless.” Thor started to have difficulty keeping his eyes open.
“It must have been some enchantment.” Loki mused. He tugged at the curtain until it fell to drape the whole window and Thor curled onto his side to nap in earnest. “Or I suppose that being a hero does not preclude being something of a fool.”
Brunhild was so beautiful that it was almost painful to look upon her. Sigurd must have been mighty indeed to marry such a one and then have the gall to leave. Thor spent most of their somber supper trying not to say anything horribly offensive or to gaze too obviously at her gorgeous bosom. Loki helped him by leading the conversation subtly and pinching him surreptitiously if he should gawk too much at Brunhild’s décolletage. Gudrun had been led in to sit by the fire where she gave no sign that she heard her mother’s increasingly distressed pleas. Gunnar had to be helped from the table with his arms slung over their shoulders; he was so drunk he could barely remember to breathe.
“I will lose my wife.” He sobbed damply into Loki’s neck. Loki grimaced at Thor over the top of Gunnar’s golden head. “And now my sister too.”
Loki refrained from reminding him that this had been ostensibly what he wanted. Loki must still have his mind firmly on the jewel he sought; Thor couldn’t imagine that he would normally have had any patience for soppy, weeping people. “Shhhh, if she bears her grief in silence it does not speak the less for the affection she bore her great love. Surely you can…”
“It curdles inside her.” Gunnar sniffed loudly and Loki stifled a wince. Thor grinned at him and patted Gunnar’s back. “It will poison her, I know.” Gunnar turned his wet blue eyes up to Thor beseechingly. “We are not made of such stern stuff as the Aesir or…” Gunnar gestured vaguely at Loki. “This grief will end my beloved sister who did nothing to….”
He broke off with another heaving sob. Thor kept his opinion of Gudrun’s culpability to himself and soothed, “Calm yourself, prince. My brother will speak to Gudrun.”
“She has heard a hundred tales of woe. N-n-nothing has moved her.” Gunnar wiped a hand over his face and then wiped it off on his tunic. Loki could not stifle a little moue of distaste.
“She has not heard Loki’s silver tongue.” Thor said firmly. “I ask only that you be properly grateful when he restores your sister to you for it will seem like magic.”
Loki made his face suitably grave and humble when Gunnar looked at him blearily. “I will do my best, prince.”
Gunnar patted Loki with his damp hand and the odd dignity of the deeply intoxicated. Gunnar was said to be a great hero in his own right, it seemed almost obscene to see him so vulnerable and wretched. If he had ever thought on his brother’s death, he had not thought this far: “If you save my sister, I wish...I will reward you.”
Loki nodded in acknowledgement and Gunnar tried to bow. Loki caught at his arm before he could topple. Gunnar slurred, “You are most kind, pinces…I mean…princes. You do us great…hic!...honor.”
He slid off the bench onto the floor. Loki rolled his eyes, straightened his cuffs and stepped over him. Thor ducked his head out of the room to beckon Gunnar’s squire. They left with Loki still tugging at his damp collar.
“Should I be pleased that you’re so confident of my ability to make a woman cry?” Loki asked acidly.
Thor snorted. “You could always tell her that this is all her fault. Which from what I hear may be nothing more than the truth.”
“She is telling herself that already.” Loki smiled with no humor. “Over and over again until she can hear no other words.”
Thor rolled his shoulders, disquieted. “I suppose there is more than enough guilt to go around. When we leave here, let us have no more dealings with the Nibelung, Loki, I beg you. They seem marked for sorrow despite their treasure.”
Loki looked at him sidelong and nodded.
Unsurprisingly, the day of Sigurd’s funeral was gloomy, gray and cold. The pyre had been built as high as Thor’s head and it was threaded with blooms, garlands of berries and silken bows. The people of the cloud land arrayed themselves along the route that the bier would pass. All their faces looked similar, all pinched with sorrow.
By virtue of their status, Loki and Thor were set to walk behind the royal family. Gudrun now looked quite ill, but she was obviously as unyielding as her heroic husband. She walked with a straight back, even as her lovely face had turned gray and set. Her blank blue eyes did not seem to see anything any longer. Grimhild shot her daughter hesitant glances every step, while Gunnar kept his eyes firmly forward. Brunhild rode behind the train, her hand tangled in her horse’s long mane.
They stopped as they reached the pyre and the bier was led around it three times so that the great hero could receive the full acclaim of his people. They stroked their hands over his still face, clasped his cold hands, several pressed their faces to his knees and thighs as if they could yet beg a boon of him. Thor found himself quite in two minds about the whole thing. Glad for the warrior who was now surely toasting in Valhalla, but despairing for these gray people left behind.
Thor helped them as they prepared to hoist the bier up on the pyre. At that moment, Loki leaned in to whisper briefly to Gudrun. Thor watched them as Loki’s short sentence crept inside the ear of the frozen princess and twisted. She never looked at Loki, but her eyes widened and she dropped her gaze to her dead husband. Her face slowly suffused with pink as if she were taking her first deep breath for days.
And then she wept.
She tangled her fingers into his hair tight as the thorns of a briar rose and pressed her face cruelly hard against his dead cheek. She wept quietly for a time but when her mother went to embrace her so they could complete the ritual, the princess leaned back and howled like an injured wolf. The peaks echoed with her sorrow and it prompted a chorus of answering wails in the grieving crowd.
The princess was fully alive again, her dry eyes were gushing and her cries were growing fiercer as her strength gave voice to its agony. Her brother and mother clasped her tightly as Thor made to light one end of the pyre and Loki the other. The flames caught quickly and soon the heat poured over the frozen mourners. The light turned their faces ruddy and flickered over the gleaming tracks of their tears.
Thor moved to stand beside Loki, feeling slightly chilled even in his hauberk and cape. They had both bowed their heads in respect so Thor could ask out of the side of his mouth. “You can’t have said five words to her…what did you say?”
Loki carefully regarded his clasped hands and replied finally. “I said, ‘Perhaps one last kiss, princess?’”
Thor flinched and swore under his breath to think of her hot mouth pressing her lover’s cold flesh for the last time.
“It worked, did it not?” Loki slid his eyes over to where Gudrun still raved and tore her hair. “She will not die now. At least not of unvoiced grief.”
“No, I suppose not.” Thor folded his arms and tried to look like the regal and sorrowful representative of Asgard. “Gunnar must give you that jewel if he remembers his promise.”
“Oh, he will.” Loki nodded and did not smile.
“How did you know what to say, Loki?” Thor asked, suddenly curious.
Loki shook his head in such a way that his hair fell over his shoulders and chin, blocking his face from Thor’s eyes. “I…simply…Asgardians seem to set such a store by it.”
“Yes…”Thor started, wishing it were within the bounds of protocol to snatch Loki away somewhere and ascertain if he were blushing.
“I do not quite understand the appeal myself.” Loki folded his arms in mimicry of Thor.
“Well…” Thor began but then noticed that Brunhild was watching him across the fire. Or perhaps she watched Loki. Her beautiful eyes glowed empty and red with reflections of flame. Her horse whinnied as she urged it forward.
Loki grabbed his elbow suddenly and snarled, “Thor, stop her.”
But it was too late. The warrior princess did not hesitate as she stood in the stirrups and threw herself in a great leap onto the blaze. Thor found his voice one of many crying out in horror. The woven nest of branches collapsed under her weight and the sparks showered them all. Thor grabbed Loki and pulled him back before his cloak and hair got scorched. They panted at each other, breathless with dismay.
“He said he would lose her.” Thor gasped. Gunnar had buried his face in Gudrun’s veil and closed his eyes as his wife burned with her first, truest love. Loki was silent, his eyes wide, shaking his head in mute denial.
“That one’s anguish I could never have touched.” Loki finally turned his face away from the conflagration. “This was ever her plan.”
“That is love.” Thor rasped. His throat was tight with the hot stench of the air and the loss of such a brave and noble woman. “Or madness.”
“Is it?” Loki said expressionlessly, his eyes gone black in the lowering light. Thor tried to swipe a smear of charcoal off Loki’s hand and Loki’s fingers curled around his reflexively. Loki was still watching the Nibelungs face their fresh sorrow and he didn’t seem to notice Thor’s hand in his.
Chapter 7: sans voir
Gunnar’s gratitude for Gudrun’s life had only yielded Loki a stone that he refused to show Thor for all Thor teased, cajoled and pouted. Grimhild’s gratitude sent them to Vanaheim without having to trek back through the misty borderlands and Thor nearly collapsed from relief.
“Now this is more like it.” Thor lay on his back in the middle of the field they arrived in and rolled his head happily back and forth. “Sun! Warmth! No grieving widows!”
Loki had tilted his head up to the sky and he seemed to be indulging in a quick bask. Thor noticed that his hair had grown long again. One lock had caught on his collar and Thor repressed the urge to tease it loose and tug on it. Thor stood and scanned the horizon instead.
“I forget sometimes how lovely it is here.” Truly it was delightfully peaceful; they stood at the top of a broad coastal hill looking down on a tiny crescent of beach fringed by chalky white cliffs. The sky was cloudless and the few circling birds screeched and called in a friendly way.
Loki started climbing down to the beach and Thor followed him. The sand was fine and dun-colored, and Thor picked up a rock to skip it.
“Don’t,” Loki didn’t look up from where he knelt on the sand plucking items from his pockets.
“Why not?” Thor balanced the rock on his palm and squinted one eye closed so that it looked like an island on the horizon.
“I didn’t have her send us here because it’s a beauty spot.” Loki frowned around and did something with his hands that animated a pile of driftwood. The sticks marched over to them, quickly arraying themselves in a pile and Loki set it alight with a flourish. “There’s something here I want.”
“What…here?” Thor dropped the stone and gestured at the empty landscape around them. “All the wealth and wonder of Vanaheim and you want something from here? What? The most beautiful sheep in the nine realms? The most dazzling piece of chalk?”
Thor picked up a hunk of chalk and brandished it. It was nice but distinctly ordinary.
Loki chuckled. “Not everything here you can see.” He pulled out a forked stick and a coil of twine.
Thor settled onto his knees to watch Loki.
“That is a fine cord.” Thor couldn’t help but reach out to pluck at the golden string. It glinted dully in the sunlight.
“Your mother gave it to me.” Loki looked down at it, brow furrowed. “Some time ago.”
“Yes?” Thor reached over and tickled Loki’s wrist with a stalk of sea oats. “Why does the memory make you scowl so?”
“Because I went to Fensalir and spent several hours trying to steal it.” Loki frowned. “Failed miserably. Then Frigga made me tea and gave it to me.”
“Aye…that sounds like something she would do.” Thor grinned at the thought of his wily mother. “Why would you try to steal it?”
Loki sighed. “Because I wasn’t expecting her to part with it, obviously. And I needed it.”
With a quickness that made Thor start, Loki jabbed a blade into the meat of his palm and slicked the length of the thin twine with his blood. “Here…can you hold your hands like this?” Loki demonstrated.
Thor tentatively held his palms out and Loki twisted the cords around his fingers and began plucking and weaving them. After a long minute where Thor manfully did not say a word, Loki tilted his eyes up at him slyly. “You can ask if you must.”
“You appear to be weaving a net.” Thor ventured. “Are we going fishing?”
“Not quite.” Loki squeezed one corner of the net with his cut hand and muttered some sorcery. The cord glowed faintly for a moment and then darkened. Loki continued knotting and weaving, pausing for a moment to push Thor’s hands wider apart. “Have you heard of the Ellida?”
“Who?” Thor asked.
“What.” Loki grinned. “It’s a ship. A rather legendary dragon ship. It was made by…”
Loki wove a tale along with his net. Soon Thor was sitting cross-legged by the fire, so enthralled that he didn’t notice how big and heavy the net was growing until Loki pulled it off his lap and freed his fingers.
“What a valiant tale. A shame that it was lost.”
“Yes.” Loki stood up and pulled his boots off. He laid them carefully aside then started unbuckling and unlacing himself. After he’d shed the first layer and started working on the second, Thor tore his eyes away and looked very determinedly at their small fire. Or the ocean. The ocean was big; there was a lot of it to look at…
“What are you doing?” Thor asked in a small voice.
“I have a theory.” Loki was down to smallclothes but he seemed to be stopping. “Subject to the wind speed and the currents, I think the Ellida may have hitched up right over…”he pointed. “…there.”
He pointed and then started walking down the edge of the surf. Thor blinked and regarded the water. Earlier it had been dark blue, lapping happily at the fringe of beach. Now it seemed almost black and the waves slapped the narrow spit viciously hard.
“Why do you not simply use your magic to draw it up?” Thor called.
Loki was climbing out on the huge rocks that dotted the north end of the bay. “Best to keep a low profile, I think.”
Thor swallowed, remembering how Loki had stopped him casting the stone. “What’s the net for, Loki?”
“Oh.” Loki swung it casually. “Just if Ran’s left any nixies around to guard the wreck.”
“Ran…you did not…” Thor rocked to his feet. “Loki, I would rob Odin himself before I would take aught from Ran.”
“Of course, I would not steal from Ran.” Loki placated. “But it wasn’t hers in the first place.”
He turned back and waved cheerfully at Thor. “I’ll be back before you know it.”
He dove in with hardly a splash.
“Ymir’s icy tits!” Thor thrust Mjölnir in the sand and started pacing back and forth. The water did not give any hint as to what might be going on down below. Since there was no one around to see him, Thor cracked all his knuckles and then wrung his hands for a few long minutes.
Loki would be fine. Loki was fine. Loki would laugh at him mercilessly to see him standing here, watching the tide like some maid in love with a sailor. Thor shifted his weight, torn. Loki might be angry if Thor interfered.
He started peeling off his own boots and armor. Thor climbed out on the rocks to watch the water precisely where Loki dove in. Were there more bubbles? Were there flashes of color, of white? Why would the water not just stay still?
“Forgive me, brother.” Thor whispered to himself, brandished Mjölnir and dove.
It was….dark was the first thing, cold was the second. Wet, naturally. Thor did not have to push himself down as he sank quite easily, turning in all directions to find Loki. The sea was much deeper than he’d anticipated and he lost the light of the sun’s rays almost immediately.
He caught the perfect curve of the prow of the ship out of the corner of his eye. The dragon ship seemed to hang in the water, the prow tipped up until it was almost vertical and the sea below it was muddy. Like it had been full of ballast that someone had only half removed. Thor swam toward it and caught sight of the fringe of Loki’s hair.
Loki had caught some nixies and nymphs in his net. Thor was distracted momentarily by their flittering fins and gleaming scales as they churned the water hither and thither in an effort to escape. It was silent down here, far from the roar of the waves and their many full-lipped mouths opened and shut impotently as they reached for him. Thor swam around them in a wide berth and reached out to grab Loki’s shoulder.
Loki did not turn to look at him. His hair feathered around his pale face and his hand hung in the water half-way to his net. Thor shook him a little. Loki was perched on some coral, staring into a deep hole in the reef that cradled the base of the ship.
Then the hole blinked.
Thor gasped a cloud of bubbles as the sea goddess unclenched her coral fingers from Loki’s waist. A nest of eels writhed in her cheek as she reached for Thor. Thor swung Mjölnir instinctively and cracked two of the grasping fingers off.
If her eye had been enormous, her mouth was gargantuan and when she grinned her rictus grin at him Thor felt colder than he’d ever been on Jötunheim. Tentacles shot up to tug at him, questing anemone fingers along his spine and neck.
Thor knew better than to waste time fighting when he was obviously outmatched. He grabbed Loki’s distressingly limp body and flung Mjolnir up to the faint light filtering down. He felt a tear, a deep sting along his scalp, but then they were cresting the surface and out and Thor quickly spun the hammer to keep them aloft as a maelstrom formed in the water below. They had to get to high ground; the sea goddess wasn’t known for easily giving up her prey.
Thor brought them down on the highest field he could find, trying to land gently for Loki’s sake. Loki was still deadweight. Thor laid him down slowly and swiped the lank wet hair off his face. Had Loki ever been so pale? He was not breathing and when Thor lowered his ear to Loki’s chest he could feel his heart throb but not beat.
If Loki had tried to defend himself with magic, Ran might have taken it ill. And what Ran didn’t know about life-taking you could fit into a limpet shell. Thor pressed his hand to Loki’s breastbone and willed his heart to beat. He could see too much of the whites of Loki’s eyes. He wished he had more magic of his own. Black storm clouds were massing up behind him, but Thor had never felt more helpless.
There was something…Eir had said something. Long ago, he had been healing from some long-forgotten wound and they’d been spinning tales when she’d told him her theory. It had seemed mad at the time and she’d shrugged and admitted with the kind of battles he fought, the applications were limited.
Thor pressed his brow hard against Loki’s collarbone and tried to collect himself. He rose up on his knees and raised Mjölnir high above his head, feeling the air crackle and hum with energy.
Gently. He tilted his face up and watched the lightning arc across the sky. “Gently.”
A hot static bolt reached a finger down to touch Mjölnir and Thor lowered her haft to rest on Loki’s chest. The charge drove through him like a blow and Thor felt him arch hard against it. He dropped Mjölnir and hunkered over Loki again to listen…there was a long moment where the very air seemed to stand still and every hair on Thor’s body stood erect. Then the thunder cracked and Loki’s heart started beating again. His chest heaved and a small stream of water bubbled up out of his mouth. Thor held him while he convulsed.
They were both breathing in tandem now, raggedly. The sight was returning to Loki’s eyes and he looked up at Thor as if he were newly born.
Thor kissed him.
It was preferable to his first inclination which was to crack open Loki’s chest and crawl inside it. Thor dug his hands deep into Loki’s hair and kissed his upper lip very gently, suckled briefly on his lower lip before nudging Loki’s chin up to kiss away the salt. Loki gasped into his mouth and Thor cupped his neck like he’d wanted to for seeming ever.
Loki was starting to learn the trick, his hands had tightened over Thor’s shoulders and he made a few tentative inroads with his tongue. Loki moaned when Thor pulled back to breathe so, of course, there was no respite, they were bitten and swollen and almost asphyxiated by the time Thor got a hold on himself and pulled back in earnest so Loki could breathe.
Loki was looking at him with what seemed to be both wonder and suspicion.
“Thank you. I am…quite well…now.” Loki panted. “I had not known you so gifted.”
Thor squeezed his forehead and wiped a hand over his face. “What exactly are you thanking me for?”
“I should have guessed.” Loki pressed his pruny fingers to his kiss-swollen mouth.
“Guessed what?” Thor was beginning to think that he was dreaming this whole Vanaheim madness.
“That it was reviving magic. I see the…it’s…powerful.” Loki had tilted his head back and slid his tongue along his lower lip. “Maybe once more?”
Thor couldn’t help but oblige him even if guilt made him pull back after a minute and say, “It’s not magic, Loki.”
Loki’s eyes opened comically wide. “Is it not? It feels like magic.”
Thor flopped onto his back and covered his face with his hands. He felt very bruised and raw like he’d fought and lost. Loki was still expounding. “…kind of…uncomfortably warm and tingling. My hands are numb. And I can’t feel my…”
Thor rolled over and kissed him again to make him shut up. When he stopped, Loki blinked up at him with his thick wet eyelashes and said only, “You’re bleeding.”
Loki reached up and stroked behind Thor’s ear. He remembered the burning sting as he’d jerked Loki away from Ran.
“She pulled out some of your hair.” Loki furrowed his brow and laughed a short, humorless laugh. “She is said to love gold.”
“We can count ourselves lucky.” Thor closed his eyes as Loki pressed his fingers harder and there was a deep flush of warmth and tingling. Magic. When Thor opened his eyes, Loki was still staring. After a longer moment, he let his hand drop.
“Loki, you must stop this.” Thor wanted to shake him but he contented himself with pressing his forehead into Loki’s temple. “That was just a ship, however ancient and valuable it might have been. And whatever you were planning to sell it for, or use it to bargain for, or make some alliance or gift with would not be worth it either. Whatever your purpose, it is not worth your life.”
“I’m…” Loki’s mouth stayed slightly open but he just shook his head after a long moment.
“Can we go home?” Thor wondered if his father felt like this on the cusp of the Odinsleep. He could have curled up beside Loki and slept on this gusty hillside but it was starting to rain. Tsunami waves pounded the coast below. “To Asgard?”
Loki tightened the hand that had fallen onto Thor’s shoulder and used it to heave himself up. He tilted his face up to the rain and shouted hoarsely, “Heimdall!”
A week after they got back from Vanaheim, Thor looked up from sparring with Sif to find Loki chatting with Fandral and Hogun. He straightened so fast that she had to pull her thrust up with a curse lest she nick him. “Thor!”
“Good morning!” Thor covered a moment of toe-curling shyness with a bluff and over-hearty greeting. “How fare you then, Loki? Come to watch the battle?”
“Thought I’d join you.” Loki said smoothly and Thor almost coughed. He’d not been able to address the kissing incident in any sort of satisfactory way and they appeared to have jointly decided to ignore it.
“Aye and welcome!” Volstagg had just finished putting an edge on his axe. He rubbed his hands together. “Blades?”
Loki made rather quick work of Volstagg and Fandral. Hogun fought him to a stand where Hogun’s blade rested on Loki’s neck while Loki’s tapped Hogun’s belly. Then Loki turned to Sif.
“Do I dare? Do I feel the brilliant light of fair fortune’s smile upon me?” Loki clicked his tongue. “I would die the sweeter surely by such a beautiful blade.”
“You need no fair fortune, I think, Loki.” Sif said, smiling but sincere. “You seem to be in a way to make your own luck.”
Loki tipped her a salute with the dulled practice sword. Thor had wedged himself in a casual lean between a rack of axes and the whetstone to keep from unseemly displays of enthusiasm. Loki was so quick with all kinds of clever, unexpected stances and parries…
“What brought on this sudden bloodlust?” Fandral was sketching out the move that Loki had disarmed him with and rubbing his sore shoulder.
Loki shrugged. “Just wanted to stay…sharp.” He ran a finger down his sword’s edge with such a comical expression that they all laughed.
“Will you stand against me?” Thor asked softly.
“Not today. That much luck I can’t make.” Loki pursed his lips. “Yet.”
Loki slid the sword back into the rack and regarded Thor critically. “I was just about to leave.”
“Where are you going this time?” Thor turned so quickly that Fandral nearly stabbed him.
“Just up into the downs, north of Ravnshelm.” Loki looked at him almost fondly, even though Loki was usually quite contemptuous of sweating.
“That sounds…” Ridiculous. Thor did not say. “Interesting.”
Loki cocked his head. “Are you almost finished?”
“What is this?’ Thor gaped up at the burial mound.
“You genuinely don’t know?” Loki frowned at him. “Or you just don’t believe your eyes?”
“You said we were going to retrieve some storied sword…” Thor folded his arms. “You neglected the detail about the grave-robbing.”
“You make it sound so crude.” Loki was tapping at the stone rolled in front of the dolmen. “They’re not using it. We’re grave-liberating.”
Loki stood upright and looked at him. “Your people have a long history of doing this you know.”
Thor nodded slowly. He remembered some…recent?...discussion about grave goods, but for the life of him he couldn’t remember the context.
He gestured to the low opening. “I’m not going to fit in there.”
Loki rolled back the stone and got onto his hands and knees. “Try.”
Loki had crawled about a dozen lengths of his body before he asked, “Where’s that light coming from?”
Thor scowled at the sword in his hand. “It’s the sword Heid spelled for me.”
“What?” Loki was still stopped and Thor poked him to make him move.
“The one that glows in the presence of a warrior.” Thor crawled another length gratefully. “You told me to bring a light!”
“Indeed.” Loki started crawling more quickly. “Do you think your father loves you?”
“What?” Thor blinked sweat out of his eyes. “No.”
Loki almost stopped again. “Truly, no?”
Thor sighed. “I don’t think he loves me. I know he does.”
“How?” Loki was just a disembodied voice in a very claustrophobic tunnel now.
“He…He makes himself small for me.” Thor said without thinking.
“What does that mean?” Loki asked after a pause.
“It means that…” Thor stopped. What did it mean? “I mean, to everyone else he’s the Allfather. And to me just ‘father’. He taught me all kinds of small, trivial things. So I would never be…over-awed, I think.”
“Hmmmphf.” Loki was silent for another while and Thor had to duck his head even further as the tunnel narrowed. It was starting to get damp. It was thoroughly miserable.
“I used to think that my sire hated me.” Loki spoke finally. “Insofar as a mad creature can reason to hate. He gave me this form, you know. Powerful magic and he had the gall to insist always that it was a blessing when it was so obviously a curse. But now…”
“Yes?” Thor prompted.
“Now I think it was no lie.” Loki said softly. “Hard to know it then, when all my kin scorned to even look at me that I should ever be able to walk among the Aesir, elves, dwarves and men and that they should grow to see me as more than just another barbarian frost giant.”
“I never…” Thor started but Loki spoke over him.
“It’s so odd, how it feels. To discover what you thought for so long was a lie was actually the truth.”
Thor was silent.
“Laufey will always hate me, I think. I tasked his pride too much, being too small to start with and too strange. Then cursed. Then too prideful to die of shame. I used to think he just hated his failure in me.”
Thor opened his mouth to protest.
“But now I realize that he’s scared of me.” Loki continued. “Which is a good enough reason to hate.”
“Should he be?” Thor asked, trying to make it sound casual and not like a challenge.
Loki chuckled low and it echoed. “He should be terrified.”
They finally came out into the heart of the barrow proper and Loki sent up a row of witchlights to illuminate the sizeable space. The barrow was cold on the inside, the shadows were deep. The golden torques and mummified horses were dusty.
Thor held up his glowing sword to examine the shadowy pile of silver plate when one of the shadows arched high above his head and coalesced to a vaguely man-shape. Thor could not keep from making a rather odd noise and thrusting the sword out even though he instantly realized that it would be useless against a draugr.
Loki seemed unsurprised to meet a spirit and Thor cursed him silently for a good minute. Loki started, “We would ask a boon of you, mighty king.”
“I could think of no other reason that the proud son of Odin has stooped to seek me in my lair.” The draugr twisted upon itself, the shadows of it grew denser. “And Loki, Laufey’s get, of low estate but just as proud.”
Thor opened his mouth to protest this naming, but Loki was all business. “My estate may be need, but it is not my destiny. I seek your favor, Thráinn-King.” Loki said, and his low voice had such an air of command that Thor almost felt prompted to kneel. “I would bear away your sword, Mistilteinn, for I have need of it.”
“What need you?” The shade laughed in a clicking, rasping fury. “You have said you are naught but need.”
“Look upon my heart, corpse-king.” Loki said, lifting his chin.
“Your heart? Yours that shall begrudge all and forever, this is the heart you would have me look upon?” The shade hitched what might have been a chuckle.
“I do not begrudge all.” Loki said and then he said nothing further.
In the silence that followed, Thor watched Loki stand unmoving as the shade coiled around him, sighing over his shoulder and once going through him. At long last, it chuckled again with a mean and meager sound. “You do aim high, frost fire. Twenty-one score men, I slew with that blade, it has tasted enough. You may take it. I will not stay you.”
“My gratitude is also a sharp-edged, rare and rusty thing. You have it for the next turn of the wheel.” Loki bowed low and when he rose he had a longsword wrapped in thick leather with only the hilt visible. He beckoned Thor as he ducked to re-enter the tunnel. Thor couldn’t help backing up to the entrance, holding his glowing blade. He knew it was useless. The draugr would either possess them and drive them mad or it wouldn’t.
“Well, that was lovely.” Thor started when they were well underway. “There are swords stacked to the ceiling in the armory in Asgard, but this one that has moldered out here for a millennium will trump them all?
“Sometimes you need history. The blessings of your ancestors.” Loki said vaguely.
“Is this something you read about in some book?” Thor asked acerbically.
Loki took a moment to reply. “Do you know what else I learn every time I look in a book?”
“How to be a bigger pain in my…?” Thor started.
“No, that comes naturally.” Loki dismissed him. “What I learn is trust. Every time I look at a map and then find something, every time something in a book proves true, that means that my trust in someone…the person who wrote the book or drew the map…has been rewarded.”
Thor opened his mouth to say something rude and then realized he’d never thought about it quite that way.
“This is something you probably never think about.” Loki said presciently. “You have a wealth and an abundance and you don’t even know it.”
“Trust.” Loki crawled quickly and steadily. “Is currency more valuable than any coin. Before there can be bread, before there can be gold there must be trust. ”
“Now that you say it, I see that it must be so.” Thor said, surprised. “No one ever explained it to me like that before.”
“Imagine that you had to explain it to yourself.” Loki’s witchlight seemed to be getting brighter. Thor felt a breath of outside air and sighed in relief. They crawled out to find the sun just hitting the trees.
“Ugh.” Thor shivered all over. “What are you going to do with that rusted old thing?”
The sword did look a bit pathetic in Loki’s hands. The hilt was green where the copper inlay had oxidized and smudgy brown everywhere else.
“I’m going to take it to the smith’s. Get it cleaned it up.” Loki smiled beatifically. “And give it to you.”
Chapter 8: Endgame
Thor had employed the aid of all his usual spies and come up empty. Neither the page, nor the daytime scullion, nor the outside guards had seen Loki since the midday meal. Sif was with Frigga, Hogun was at the smith’s, Fandral was engaged with his latest seduction and Volstagg had followed Thor down to the kitchens to speak to the scullion and stayed to sample a bit of what was planned for supper.
Thor did not want to go to Heimdall, but needs must…Thor brought himself up short and backed up a step.
“Oh, there you are.” Thor leaned over the window seat outside the lower banqueting hall where Loki sat. Loki held a book but he was not reading it. He seemed to be staring off into space in a kind of dreamy reverie. He smiled at Thor but did not speak.
“Not too tired from this morning, I hope?” Thor glanced at the book; it was in some elvish tongue. He flexed his shoulders. Loki had sparred quite aggressively with Sif and Hogun and Thor had found himself drawn to emulate his brutal style. Loki had a habit of exchanging a few passes like he didn’t know quite how to hold the weapon in his hands and then suddenly turning vicious and adept. It was quite amusing to watch.
Thor started, “I’ve been quite enjoying your company this past week, but it has gotten us to wondering.”
Loki raised his eyebrows and closed his book.
“Fandral has a theory…that you plan to petition the Allfather to go back to Jötunheim soon, to challenge your brother or your father…or…whatever you call them…for the throne.” Thor trailed off, feeling more than a little clumsy and tactless. He sighed. This was not the way he wanted this conversation to go. He didn’t really want this conversation in the first place but it had been troubling him for a while.
Loki was looking at him very skeptically, but he wasn’t telling Thor to go away or getting up to stalk off so Thor settled himself down to a perch on the cushioned bench.
“It occurs to me that I have not done you the courtesy I should.” Thor said and then cursed himself. “I mean only…it’s just that when he said that I thought that…well that it must be true, if not now, then on some day soon.”
Loki was looking at him with his head cocked. Thor felt emboldened by the almost indulgent look in Loki’s eyes. “And I…”
….would miss you terribly. He couldn’t say that. It was just impossible to form those words. It had been over a year since they’d returned from Jötunheim, and Thor could have hoped for a hundred more before Loki….
He took refuge in the formal nature of their relationship: prince of Jötunheim, prince of Asgard. “I have been…remiss in my duty. It is not meet that you should favor me with such lavish gifts and I should settle nothing upon you in return.”
Loki still looked at him inquisitively and Thor held out a hand to stop him speaking. “I am in earnest, Loki. The adventures alone were meaty fare but I am a dragon to the good and I will not let it be said that…”
No, no, no, this was all wrong. Thor stopped himself. “I have thought long about what our friendship is owed.” He couldn’t help one sideways look to observe how Loki reacted to the word ‘friendship’, but Loki did not flinch.
“I am not clever like you, but I have long pondered what might serve as a worthy gift.” Thor rubbed his knuckles. “And you may well laugh, but I have done some studying on the sacrifice magic which might lift the curse on you.”
He dared another glance sideways expecting that Loki would be sneering by now at the thought of Thor sneezing his head off, wrestling the weighty volumes of magecraft around the archive. “If it requires Jormungandr’s blood, or my own or both, I would give it gladly to see you free of this, if that is your wish.”
Loki frowned lightly, but still looked abstracted as if Thor was speaking slightly too low for him to hear. Thor was grateful that Loki had listened and not so far returned either scorn or demurral.
“It is not as attractive as your gifts but know that it is offered as my truest pledge.” Thor took a breath, trying to push something of his sincerity into the stilted words. “If you plan to return to Jötunheim, you must go full-armored with…”
“What are you doing?” Heid had stopped halfway across the hall to look at them strangely.
“Cousin.” Thor leaned back and tried to rein in his temper. “Perhaps all that spellcraft and studying has left your eyes weakened. This exchange concerns you not at all, so if you would be so kind as to…”
“It is not my eyes that fail, Thor.” Heid had walked to stand directly in front of Loki. “I’m sure that you’ve been having quite a scintillating conversation.”
Loki looked at her curiously as she reached down and snapped her fingers right in front of his face.
“Heid!” Thor shot to his feet as Loki winked out of existence.
Heid snorted a laugh. “I wonder where he really is.”
A shout filtered up from down below. It was joined by another voice, a sharp challenge. It seemed to come from Asgard’s ceremonial armory. The treasury.
“Guess I needn’t wonder.” Heid shrugged. “I hate to say I told you so, but…”
Thor was already running.
The staircase was marble and Thor cursed as his feet nearly slid out from under him as he rounded the corner. Of course, it might have been a lucky thing as an arrow whizzed right over his head as he stumbled.
“Belay the arrows!” Tyr roared from the end of the hallway. There was an odd fluttering sound and then a low snarl. Thor pulled himself up short and in a quick glance inventoried the hall of relics which was filling with several guards who raced up from all directions. Thor snatched the bow away from a whey-faced fellow who was usually stationed up on the parapet if Thor’s memory served.
Thor gave the man an incredulous look to signify what kind of fool shoots indoors but the guard just gulped at him wide-eyed, and said nonsensically, “It was a bird.”
“What?” Thor snapped and the guard gestured down to the far end of the chamber where Tyr was squaring up to what looked like a shadow.
“Oh, that’s a pretty trick.” Tyr almost seemed to be crooning. “Here’s a good boy now.”
Tyr had cornered…Thor blinked. A wolf. A wolf in the palace. A large wolf who snarled thinly at Tyr while it paced back and forth. Thor hefted Mjölnir. The guards were still shouting at each other but Thor ignored them as he stepped up to flank his shield brother. The wolf stilled a moment in its restless pacing and then slunk low to dart out along the far side of the hall.
Tyr was extremely quick for all his size. In a flash, he grabbed the creature’s ruff hard enough to bring it up short. He didn’t get enough purchase and the wolf writhed and bit his hand savagely. Tyr bellowed and punched the beast’s head hard enough to knock it in a sideways slide to the wall where it fetched up with a pitiful yelp.
“HOLD.” A strange gray light seemed to blaze out from all the shadows. Odin stood at the top of the stairs and Gungnir glowed in his hand. Thor blinked rapidly as spots danced before his eyes. When the dazzling light faded, the wolf was a man, leather-clad, black-haired, pale…
“Loki.” Thor breathed. Loki pushed up on his hands and knees and flashed Thor a beseeching look before spitting a stone into his palm along with a gout of blood. Tyr grabbed him by the scruff of his neck (much as he had before) but Loki did not protest being unceremoniously jerked to his feet.
“What’s all this then?” Tyr said bluntly, flicking blood off his hand. Loki rubbed his jaw which was already starting to swell and the two seemed to share a mordant look between them. Loki did not speak and while he smirked at Tyr, it seemed he could not or would not raise his head to look Thor in the eye.
As the guards mustered up behind Thor, he could feel his blood start to throb painfully behind his eyes. He squeezed Mjölnir’s haft so tightly, the leather creaked.
“Before…he…transfigured…he was…the…casket.” The senior guard caught his breath. He seemed almost incoherent with dismay. “Your Highness what shall we…?”
Thor clenched his fist and looked up at his father’s impassive face then back at Loki’s bent head. If there were no greater currency than trust, there was equally no bitterer taste than betrayal.
“Get him out of my sight.” Thor growled.
“I am sure this is all some ridiculous misunderstanding.” Volstagg sounded more hopeful than certain.
“Only a matter of time.” Heid sighed. Fandral looked worried and Hogun seemed grimmer than ever.
Thor paced back and forth trying to stuff his rage into a manageable place in his chest. It kept trying to infect all his limbs and he had to keep his jaw clenched in order not to start bellowing with furious hurt. He looked up at the stars and felt the urge to start flinging Mjölnir at them.
“I mislike this swift judgment, Heid.” Sif glared at her. “You speak without all the facts in hand.”
“Which facts?” Heid spread her hands. “The fact that Loki tried to steal the casket?”
Sif snorted. “The fact that if Loki had wanted to steal the casket, he’d have stolen the casket. Yet there it sits.”
Thor stopped and took a deep breath. At least there was that.
“I would never have guessed that a frost giant could have ingratiated himself so thoroughly with this troop.” Heid said contemptuously. “The scourges of Jötunheim? Remember that?”
“If he can forgive us what we’ve done, surely we can forgive him what he is.” Sif said quietly.
“Ah, but has he…forgiven you, I mean?” Heid’s eyes glittered. “Has he not been just waiting for you to turn your backs on him, or better…” She gestured at Thor. “To clasp him to your…”
“Stop speaking.” Thor said, as quietly as he could manage.
They all fell silent and Heid spared one uneasy glance at the sky which was starting to cloud over rapidly.
Thor couldn’t bear this for one more second. He pushed open the large doors into his father’s close council chamber. If his father couldn’t say something to quell his rage, it was at least possible that Odin might rein him in from doing something unforgivably stupid.
Odin sat comfortably at a low table with the one of the sentries who had been tasked with guarding the treasury that afternoon. Odin held up a hand to keep Thor silent as he asked gently. “So he was blue then?”
The guard seemed to have been instructed to be very exact. “Just his hands, I think.”
“Did he move?”
“Eventually.” The guard ducked his head and shot a nervous look at Thor. “What I mean to say, is that I challenged first but I had time to walk up on him…time to see his hands…before he…” The guard made an embarrassed flapping gesture.
“Turned into a raven?” Odin asked matter-of-factly.
“Yes, your Majesty.” The guard sounded relieved to have that over with.
“How long would you say it was between when you cried out and he transfigured?” Odin asked.
The guard shrugged and paused to think. “Five long steps…and I took it slow because I wanted…”
The guard stopped, flustered and Odin said smoothly. “You wished to assure yourself before you undertook any unequivocal action, quite rightly.”
The sentry nodded at him gratefully. Odin continued, “What was he doing then?”
“Nothing.” The sentry bit his lower lip and shot another glance at Thor. “What I mean to say is…he was just really still.”
“Was he looking down at the casket?” Odin demonstrated a bent head. “Or at something else?”
The guard paused to think and held his head in several different positions. “I think he was looking straight ahead. When he looked at me finally he seemed…distracted.”
“Thank you, Ragnar.” Odin nodded. “That will be all. I trust that your discretion remains absolute?”
The guard nodded at him and Odin dismissed him. “Good lad.”
“How fare you, my son?” Odin gestured for Thor to sit down.
Thor could not even set Mjölnir down. “Father, I’m…” Thor gestured helplessly.
Furious. Heartsick. I want to throw myself off the Bifrost.
“Why should Loki try to steal the Casket of Ancient Winters?” Thor burst out. “Even if he were successful, how could he ever hope to…”
“You are making several assumptions, my son, because you are angry and it never seems to aid your reason.” Odin said, crisply. “Decisions made in anger are almost as bad as decisions made in fear. All witnesses have attested to is that Loki attempted to use the casket, which he has done before with my blessing. You may remember the circumstance.”
Thor swallowed, recalling the fire demons.
“Which was his fault to begin with.” Heid called from the doorway as Sif and the Warriors Three slowly filed in.
“What are you talking about?” Thor glared at her.
Odin sighed. “Heid has a theory that Loki summoned the fire demons with some magic she taught him.”
“Men who use seið often fall victim to their arrogance.” Heid suddenly seemed to remember who she was talking to. “And apparently frost giants too.” She said less glibly.
Thor tried to rub his eyes and nearly brained himself with his hammer. “Do you have any proof of this slander?”
“We could always ask Heimdall.” Heid suggested brightly. Thor narrowed his eyes at her and Odin asked. “Has Loki been behaving strangely?”
Heid snorted and all of the Warriors Three looked uncomfortable. Sif finally said, “Strange is perhaps a bit hard to define as regards Loki.”
“He’s been putting away a mint’s worth of coin.” Heid said casually. “Maybe he wants to pay some mercenaries.”
“He’s been sparring with us.” Fandral said, sounding unwilling. “Rather a lot lately.”
“He travels a great deal.” Volstagg volunteered. “But surely you know that, my king.”
“Indeed, Loki has often been very useful to me.” Odin said without inflection. “You and he recently undertook a journey to the Nibelung, is that not right, my son?”
Thor cleared his throat. “Yes. Yes, we did.”
Odin paused, waiting.
“We attended the funeral of the Volsung hero, Sigurd.” Thor said, sticking to the facts. “I think Loki made an ally in the Nibelung queen.”
“Well, that’s useful.” Odin murmured.
“Useful place to flee to.” Heid said pertly. “Should he need…”
“We are not speculating here, Bright One.” Odin said calmly as Thor bared his teeth at Heid.
“You should tell him about the…” Fandral trailed off, looking sheepish. Thor cast him a sharp look.
Odin cocked his head. “Yes?”
“The barrow-raiding, Thor, that was…passing strange.” Fandral started, full of apologetic concern.
Thor folded his arms, feeling besieged. The problem was, of course, that most of what Loki did was easy to accept when you were with him, but probably looked deeply bizarre from the outside.
“Barrow-raiding?” It did not help that Odin’s eye gleamed suddenly; he leaned forward and spread his hand over the table. “Whose tomb?”
Thor swallowed and said. “A king named Thráinn.”
“A fierce fighter and hero of the early age. He was born of Hodr the Stone-king and a frost giant named Járn.” Odin’s eye still glinted with interest. “He did not die well.”
Thor nodded slowly. “Loki asked permission of his draugr.” Sif’s eyes went wide and Volstagg flinched.
“What did Loki take?” Odin seemed to be asking him questions carefully now, as gently as if Thor were that over-awed sentry.
“A sword.” Thor replied shortly.
“And did he say to whom he would give the sword?” Odin did not look directly at him, but Thor got the sense that this question was Loki’s fate.
Thor wondered if he was pronouncing Loki’s doom with the truth. Odin seemed so interested, yet so careful of his interest. “To me.”
Odin sat back. Heid was frowning warily and Sif and the Warriors Three just looked bewildered.
“Well, I must speak to your mother.” Odin said finally. “And we should examine his chambers.”
“I would have thought that you would interrogate Loki.” Thor straightened, surprised.
“I rather think that a charge for you, my son.” Odin replied serenely.
Thor left his friends at Odin’s command and went to moon around the Bifrost instead of doing what he was told. He briefly considered asking Heimdall to send him to Midgard or Alfheim or Nornheim or somewhere that he couldn’t easily be found. Perhaps he could go back to that horrid gaming den on Svartalfheim and challenge the whole place to a week-long brawl.
“Heimdall?” It was very difficult to ask Heimdall what could be construed as a personal question. The only thing that made it at all bearable was that Heimdall never made eye contact. “Does Loki mean to do ill to Asgard?”
Thor could not bring himself to ask any more pointed question about Heid’s accusations.
“Many of Loki’s ends are hidden from me.” Heimdall’s voice always seemed to cut through the rush of water and wind around the Bifrost. “There is a time when his threads will cross my own.”
Thor blinked. That sounded alarming. “What is he now so bent upon, can you see?”
Heimdall’s measured tones were simultaneously soothing and unnerving. “From all I witness, Loki knows not good or ill, his only scruple is what brings success to his aim.”
“But do you know aught of his aim?” Thor braced himself. “Does he seek revenge upon us?”
“No.” Thor almost sagged in relief, but Heimdall spoke on. “His object appears rather smaller and also greater.”
“Heimdall.” Thor barely managed to keep himself from flinging Mjölnir to the ground in disgust. “How can his object be both small and great?”
“Odinson, I believe you have gathered all the evidence your eyes can afford you.” Heimdall said, still maddeningly tranquil while Thor’s blood ran so hot. “Now you must look deeper.”
Asgard’s oubliette was comfortable if you could ignore the magic that almost hummed from the iron doors. The windows were also tiny and set very high, but as it was now a dark, stormy night it would not have made much difference anyway.
Loki’s face was still bruised. Thor almost winced to look at him. Thor sparred with Tyr often, and knew that his fist was rather like Mjölnir made flesh. Loki was leaning against the wall on the far side, gazing up at the window as if he could read his fortune in the shape of the clouds. He didn’t seem to be displaying any of the righteous wrath that the unjustly accused might be expected to feel. Thor wanted to embrace him and kiss him and maybe strangle him just a little.
“Do you require a healer?” Thor said as coldly as he could.
But Loki didn’t seem to take his tone awry. In fact Loki seemed to perk up a little from his wilted posture. “No, I’m…I am well.”
Loki caught his lower lip between his teeth and Thor savagely pulled his thoughts back from a gusty hillside in Vanaheim. Loki had something cupped in his hand that he cradled gently as a wounded bird.
“What is that?” Thor growled, feeling ferocious. Loki’s uncharacteristic soft-spoken shyness was making him livid. He could have borne it easier if Loki had been his usual sneering, sarcastic self. Thor wanted to bang his head on the wall. Or Loki’s.
“The opal Gunnar gave me.” Loki quickly put his hands behind his back.
“And what wicked purpose do you plan to bend it to?” Thor asked, knowing he was being unfair.
“The wickedest.” Loki said softly. He didn’t offer any other explanation even in the face of Thor’s glower.
“Heid now says that it was your doing that brought the fire demons to Asgard originally.” Thor growled. “I should have her mouth sewn shut.”
“Why?” Loki’s face was in shadow. “It’s nothing more than the truth.”
Thor was struck to silence for a full minute. “What?”
“A mistake, I’m afraid.” Loki turned his face back up to the tiny window and looked far more rueful than guilty. “I needed great heat to hatch the dragon eggs…it was a poor summoning done awry.”
“An accident then?” Thor asked eagerly.
“As you will.” Loki said, infuriatingly calm. “I would far rather be thought malicious than clumsy, if it’s all the same to you.”
“Why did you try….?” Thor stopped and reformulated the question, without assumptions. “What did you want with the casket?”
“I needed its power.” Loki stroked a finger over the seam of the brick in the wall. “To help me forge something.”
Thor cheered a bit, perhaps all was not lost. But then he bethought himself of Loki’s last acquisition and considered that Loki meant to forge another weapon to go with the storied sword. And what would he fight with such a weapon? Perhaps he planned to give Thor the sword point first.
“Why have you done this, brother?” Thor’s voice caught. “What are you about?”
Loki did not respond at once, but he slowly moved closer to the bars where Thor could see him.
“I do so wish that you would not call me that.” Loki said softly. “We are not brothers.”
Thor bowed his head and half-turned away so that Loki would not see his heart breaking. “If that is your wish, I will do so no longer.”
When Thor could bear to look at him again, he was surprised to see that Loki wore no scornful smirk. Loki wore his rarest expression, a warm and wistful half-smile that he did not bother to guard. Somehow that was worse and Thor had to choke out his next words. “Even now they are going to search your chambers.”
Loki actually chuckled at that. “I suspect they might try.” Loki’s eyes gleamed. “They will be calling for you soon, I’ll wager.”
“Loki…” Thor gripped the bars; he had to make Loki take this seriously. “Odin himself will see this adjudicated.”
“Oh, no doubt.” Loki nodded at him and Thor could not shake the feeling that Loki meant to be reassuring him. “I would have you ask him one thing on my behalf when you see him next.”
Thor leaned forward eagerly, but the question made him frown in puzzlement. “That is all you would have me ask? What do you mean by it?”
A guard appeared at his elbow and bowed before Loki could respond. “Odin-King requests your presence, your Highness.”
Thor wanted to growl at him. The cold, enchanted iron cut into his fists as he clenched the bars.
“It will be well, go on.” Loki jerked his chin toward the door and gave Thor another of his quicksilver smiles. Thor sighed deeply and reached through the bars. Loki finally moved into reach of his grasping hand and allowed Thor to squeeze his shoulder. He even reached up and patted the back of Thor’s hand.
Thor was quite familiar with the hall outside Loki’s chambers as it led to his own suite. The corridor was both broad and soared high, hung with rich tapestries and studded with columns. Now it seemed smaller than usual, swarmed with a murmuring crowd. Odin, Frigga and Freya stood before the door alternately frowning and looking bemused. Heid appeared to have been banished to stand next to a pillar where she called out the occasional suggestion to Freya. Sif and the Warriors Three caught sight of Thor and waved him in.
“They can’t open it.” Sif muttered. “Run up against some magic that’s very complicated.”
“How does Loki fare?” Volstagg asked anxiously. Thor shrugged and nodded and their shoulders all relaxed a little. Freya and Odin made an identical gesture at the door which made it glow blue for a long moment, but then the light dissipated and they both looked puzzled.
Thor walked over to Frigga. She didn’t say a word, but she cast him a rather enigmatic smile as she stroked his hair back lightly. As Odin and Freya began to confer again, she murmured softly, “I’m so proud of you.”
“For what?” Thor could barely speak now, he felt like someone had been taking a hammer to his innards. He had an intense moment of longing for the days when he might have sought Frigga out in the bowers of Fensalir and buried his head in her skirts to weep unseen by all but her gentle eyes.
“For not losing your temper.” Frigga whispered and squeezed his arm.
Thor frowned at her: it seemed as if he’d been in a welter of temper for hours. He’d been boiling like a salted pot. But still she smiled at him with an expression that seemed to comprise both joy and melancholy.
Freya beckoned him to stand beside her in front of the stubbornly closed door. “Have you ever watched Loki as he entered or left his chambers?” Freya’s magic was very powerful; she was very adept at coaxing and teasing the means to her ends.
“Aye, often.” Thor shook his head, this was such a farce.
Odin was scratching his beard as Freya continued. “Does he ever make any odd passes or…”
Thor rolled his eyes. “He does like this.”
Thor reached and twisted the lever testily. The lock clicked and the door swung open.
Odin and Freya exchanged a look. Thor blinked. Then he blinked again. It had been a fair longish while since he had been in Loki’s chamber, and he did not recall…this.
In the corner nearest the door, there remained something that had been a bed. It was still a tangle of coverlets and it was noticeable in that it was the one corner of the room that did not shine. The rest was given over to a treasure chamber that rivaled that of the Nibelungs. It blazed in torchlight; the floor seemed molten with burnished coin and sparkling jewels. There were thick velvet curtains drawn down over the windows and hooks festooned the walls up to the ceiling, each for their own rich fur or elaborately-adorned robe or filigreed weapon.
Thor caught his breath at the weapons; his heart sank as he took in the dwarf-wrought axes of cunning design and unself-conscious beauty. There were elvish bows strung with what looked like golden hair and arrows tipped with carved narwhal ivory and fletched with what appeared to be phoenix feathers. He was moved to pick up a dagger which seemed to be crafted from a large diamond. But even in the house of Odin, these weapons were too lovely to be anything other than ceremonial. This was not the engine of Loki’s rebellion.
As they moved deeper into the rooms, they discovered that everything was not merely beautiful and precious but also exceptionally rare and cleverly wrought. Stacks of coins and bracteates in every precious metal of the nine realms littered the corners. Freya stopped to admire an enormous fire-diamond that pulsed and throbbed in its casket, like a glowing, beating heart. It might have been something Loki appropriated from the fortress of Sutr before the rift between Muspelheim and Asgard was sealed.
Freya looked significantly at Heid and for some reason Heid burst into a fit of giggles. She slapped a hand over her mouth while she examined a golden figurine of an owl that appeared to be mechanical and life-sized, but snorts and chuckles kept escaping.
Frigga was leaning over an apparatus that Thor could not identify. From one angle it looked to be a musical instrument, from another it was obviously a loom. She strummed her fingers across the strings and a thrum of notes resonated that made the room fall silent. She looked up at Thor and her lips quirked upward while her eyes stayed grave.
“I did not know Aslaug had made another weaving harp.” Freya said softly. “And if she had, that she would ever part with it.”
Odin had stopped in front of a pile of books and scrolls that seemed to merit more than a little interest. Loki’s library appeared to be divided in two…practical books that he’d been using and trophy books of great antiquity or rarity. Odin lost himself in a manuscript for long minutes before he bestirred himself to look around.
“Go fetch Tyr.” Odin told Volstagg. “We require a ninth witness.”
“But we are nine already.” Thor observed, bemused.
“You don’t count.” Heid managed to choke out before dissolving into a fresh chortle. Thor glared at her, unsure he wanted to know the joke.
Odin shot her a gently withering look. “Go get Tyr and Freyr, if the Bright One cannot contain herself.”
Heid made an apologetic gesture and then tried to make her face so grave that it twisted into a scowl. She strode around the room with her hands behind her back, examining everything with a gimlet eye. Sif had stopped in front of an ingeniously designed breastplate that was made of no metal but a thick embossed hide that had been expertly cured. She could not seem to stop herself picking it up and exclaiming at how light it was. It seemed to have been made to her measure.
Hogun was fingering some knives quite covetously and Fandral didn’t seem to know what to look at first. He turned a corner and gasped and Thor sped to his side.
There was a large suit of armor made of bejeweled dragonhide, the dark crimson leather of the dragon they’d slain together. Against his will, Thor stepped closer to admire it. It was not just jaw-droppingly exquisite, but it made him think at once of their hunt, how the dragon’s skin had withstood even Mjölnir.
“Aye, that’s…” Tyr rumbled from behind them. “Quite the fine kit…have you seen this?”
He unsheathed a longsword and Thor caught his breath. The hilt was dark, carved of something denser than wood and trimmed with a bright inlay that was unusual enough. But the blade of the sword shone pale white and translucent, like it had been carved of bone or some more uncanny material. It glowed in the torchlight.
“Thráinn-King’s white poison, Mistilsteinn.” Tyr brandished it with satisfaction. “Made from the fang of a great serpent. We’ve not seen its like for an age. A true warrior’s birthright.” He sheathed it and set it back on its plinth carefully.
Thor was starting to feel rather overwhelmed, but he had not quite forgotten all his manners. “How’s your hand?”
“Bah.” Tyr flexed it contemptuously. “Just a bit of fun really. He begged my pardon very prettily. Not a bad sort is Loki, even if he is a shape-shifting, seiðmaðr frost giant.”
He nudged Thor in the ribs and went to admire some axes with Volstagg.
“Did you question Loki, my son?” Odin appeared from around a pile of gilded chests. Or perhaps they were solid gold, Thor reflected unhappily. At this moment, anything was possible.
“I did, father.” Thor turned back to the armor, feeling a yearning that he could not even allow himself to consider, much less speak. Odin was gazing at him with his face set in its usual stern lines, but there was a hint of tenderness in his bright blue eye.
“He bade me ask you….” He tried to remember Loki’s odd question which seemed to niggle at a few tender places under his armor and leather. It hadn’t made sense then; it made only marginally more sense now. “Does it suffice?’”
Odin took a breath and cocked his eye to Frigga. “Is it sufficient?”
Frigga had looked up from where Heid was exclaiming over some cloth-of-gold. “I find it is.”
Freya smiled, outshining the pearls she was fingering. “Indeed.”
Sif and the Warriors Three had drawn together in a clump in the corner with the heavy weapons. Some strange comprehension seemed to be dawning across their faces. Sif and Fandral looked rather wide-eyed and Volstagg looked suddenly elated. He clutched an inlaid drinking horn and chortled merrily. “It is amply done.” Hogun nodded and Sif and Fandral exchanged a glance and made vague sounds of assent.
“With a certainty.” Heid seemed to have put the reins on her amusement, but her eyes still glittered mischievously.
“Tyr?” Frigga prompted.
“Oh ah?” Tyr’s enormous shoulders appeared behind a delicate cabinet that seemed to have been carved from a giant seashell. “Yes. He’s a clever one.”
“Well then.” Odin twisted his hand through the air and murmured into his cupped palm. His seið shimmered in the air for a brief moment. Sif strode over to Thor and inexplicably embraced him. He hugged her back, feeling completely at sea. Fandral was patting his back and murmuring nonsense and Volstagg was practically lifting him off his feet with his enthusiasm. Hogun nodded at him gravely and they took their leave. Fandral had to drag Heid out by the wrist as Loki appeared at the door, flanked by two guards who bowed and retreated.
For a moment a trick of the light made Loki look deeply anxious. Odin beckoned him inside. Loki immediately knelt in a deep obeisance before Odin and Frigga and they bent over him in a quiet-voiced exchange. Thor had never seen Loki either shy, apprehensive or the slightest bit contrite so for a moment he suspiciously wondered if it was actually Loki or another of his doubling tricks.
Odin made an odd flourish that revealed the Casket of Ancient Winters swelling between his hands with an uncanny undulation. Loki’s face glowed in its writhing blue light and as he pressed his hands to it, Frigga traced fingers over his forehead. Ice seemed to bloom in Loki’s hands, thrusting through his fingers as he closed his eyes.
It was an inexplicably intimate display. Thor had to look away because it was also dazzlingly bright. Their combined magic seemed to suck all the air out of the room.
“Best leave you to it.” Tyr jovially slapped Thor on the back as he departed. He pulled Thor in to mutter slyly while Thor tried to wheeze breath back into his lungs. “I enjoyed a few in my day. Threw my back out something awful. Secret is to keep your feet braced.” He tipped Thor a knowing wink and then nodded dutifully at Freya.
“W-what?” Thor stammered as Freya clasped his hands and murmured a blessing before she left. Odin and Frigga appeared to have finished their odd conversation and they both embraced Thor before leaving without a word said.
Thor was left to stare at Loki with myriad misgivings clucking in his mind like a brace of doves. When they were alone it was almost a relief. Or rather, Thor found it a relief. Loki looked almost ill.
“Loki, what is…?” Thor gestured at the overstuffed rooms. “…all this?”
“My dower gifts.” Loki nudged a casket of gems back with his foot so he could walk to Thor unimpeded. “My bride price.”
“You plan to…” Thor huffed a breath quickly, startled as the revelation burst upon him. “…get married?”
“Indeed.” Loki took a deep breath to sigh. “That has ever been my plan.”
“Well, I wish you much joy.” Thor said mechanically, feeling numb and removed from himself as if he were watching everything happen from the space above their heads. His mind struggled to conjure up a vision of the comely frost giant who would accept Loki’s suit with alacrity and….
“Do you?” Loki was biting his lower lip again, looking at Thor so hard he was almost glaring. “Truly wish me joy?”
“Of c…” Thor was suddenly struck by the realization that Loki’s gifts would baffle frost giants, not leave them impressed. These gifts were created and chosen to impress Aesir. In fact Loki had managed to impress the Aesir and he had not exactly started with the stable boys.
“Is this for me?” Thor pointed at the armor, feeling that he could only cling to one thought at a time as a suspicion took root in his mind.
Loki nodded gravely. “This is also for you.” He indicated the sword, lying dormant and deadly on its pedestal. “And this.”
Loki turned over his cupped hand. A large ring made of a pale radiant metal sat in his palm, set with a pearlescent stone that glimmered with hidden fire as it caught the light. As Loki held it out, the stone sparkled with a jagged path of iridescence that almost looked like a lightning bolt.
Thor blinked at it stupidly. His first thought was simply this isn’t possible. He was the god of thunder, no maid to be wooed and won. He looked up at Loki who had found his pride again, he stared at Thor unblinking, unflinching, he did not laugh. Because Loki had slain the dragon, Loki had wrestled with the sea goddess, Loki had bargained with a dead man, Loki had made it possible.
“You mean…?” He sputtered finally. “Me?”
Loki was now actually glaring at him. “Well, I’m plagued by a few doubts now, Odinson.”
“Is this…political?” Thor grasped at straws. “Your bid for ascenda…”
At that Loki made a shockingly savage expression, pulling his lips back to bare both his upper and lower teeth. “I never…wanted…your trifling throne.”
There was a small voice in Thor’s head that scathingly observed that only the pair of them could turn a marriage proposal into a bitter quarrel quite so quickly. Thor spread his hand in a gesture of surrender, disclaiming his ill-conceived words.
“But I…I have never been sure that you favored me with even a friend’s affection.” Thor rasped. “And now you claim to…?” He couldn’t even voice the thought. “Since when?”
Loki turned away from him irritably. Loki now looked almost ghost-like, surrounded by his gleaming treasure. Loki’s shoulders drooped wearily and Thor recognized that Loki was at just as much on the back foot as he himself was.
“Stop. Please don’t.” Loki reached out and ran his finger along the shoulder of the dragonhide armor. “You will do yourself an injury.”
Thor drew in a breath and suddenly knew that his own words were being quoted back at him. “No…that’s not….no.”
“Oh, certainly, I’m lying.” Loki folded his arms and rocked back on his heels. “I have no idea whereof I speak.”
“Is this…you are in earnest?” Thor found he was shaking his head involuntarily. “If you are mocking me, Loki, I swear…”
“You doubt me now?” For a moment it looked like Loki would rage, his eyes glowed with fire. But then his fury seemed to leave him and he said almost to himself, “In truth, when have I ever fed your faith?”
Loki looked around at the vast wealth he had gathered and washed his hand over his face in a gesture that looked almost despairing.
“I am not beautiful.” Loki said slowly. “I am not…honorable. I will never be otherwise. And in truth, when you are not infuriating me, you puzzle me greatly. But I have wanted you since I first saw you and if it should cost me all I had, I would give it.”
Loki stroked a hand over the thorn hilt of the sword named ‘mistletoe’.
“That is why I wanted you to take this.” Loki handed over the sword. “All my rage, my malice, my greed and duplicity, I give it to you. I would give you the best of me, but…that is my best. You are the only one I trust with my true gifts.”
Thor automatically took the sword; the hilt was still warm from Loki’s hand. His hands felt numb and he feared he would drop it.
“You named me Silvertongue, but in this moment when I have most need of it, it is leaden. I can only say that I have never met such a one as you, Thor Odinson.” Loki said softly. “Inestimably strong and unfailingly kind.”
Loki looked desolately down at the ring in his hand and Thor thought of something that Tyr had once said at the height of the war in Jötunheim.
Frost giants shed no tears. He could imagine Tyr’s black-browed grimace. Nor do they sweat. They pay for all in blood.
Thor clenched his fist and knuckled away the silver line on his cheek that proved he was no frost giant.
“It may be the sole source of your power, Loki Laufeyson.” Thor growled. “You always assume success.”
“I do.” Loki nodded and bowed his head. At the moment, he did not look as if his success was assured. He looked pale and uncertain and his eyes had never seemed greener. “Quite foolish, I know.”
“It is well.” Thor said and took the ring.
Chapter 9: Check and mate (or en prise redux)
ooooh, white wedding.
“You have wanted to do this…for a while I think.” Loki said lazily, tracing a finger through the air to make the fire blaze.
Thor hummed to himself happily. The comb was starting to run smooth, the ivory teeth imparting their gloss.
“Is it not ‘unmanly’?” Loki stretched like a cat. “Just because we are wed, it doesn’t mean you have to give up your halfthing nonsense all at once.”
“The son of Odin will do as he pleases in his own bedchamber.” Thor combed out a handful so he could start to braid. Loki’s thick, heavy hair spread warmth all over his thigh and it smelled delicious. “Shhh, hold still.”
Loki arched his neck obligingly and let him plait both sides before turning half on his back to tickle his fingers through Thor’s beard. “What’s that faraway face about, my lovely?”
“Shhh, I’m thinking.” Thor traced a finger along Loki’s collarbone as he watched the fire.
“I know you are; it’s making me randy as a goat.” Loki shifted onto his knees and nuzzled and butted at Thor’s waist. “Lift up, just a little. That’s…mmmm.”
Thor lost a little time and when he came back to himself, Loki had pillowed his head on Thor’s belly and was idly circling one thumb around Thor’s hipbone. “What are you thinking?”
Thor cleared his throat. “That victory is sweet.”
He could feel Loki’s smile against the tender skin under his ribs. “Very.” That they could lie like this represented so many great and small triumphs, it was almost impossible to enumerate them. But it was pleasant, now, to remember.
Thor supposed he was pleased that the son of Odin, the prince of Asgard and the Hammer of the Aesir could not simply be sold like some prized cow, even for a treasure many thousand times his weight.
But the process of arranging a royal union particularly with a betimes hated foe was not exactly forthright. Luckily, Loki had known the battle to be only half-won and had planned accordingly.
Loki spent the entire following morning in the main council chamber arguing chapter and verse of ancient, obscure laws, accords and genealogy with an array of greybeards who frowned and clicked their tongues at him. Thor stood and watched as Loki slowly won them round to his way of thinking.
It may or may not have been aided by Odin’s serene silence and the fact that Thor had very carefully made subtle eye contact with each of them and smiled his most dangerous smile. When he finally managed to lock eyes with Karsi Barelegs, the most strenuous objector, he fingered Mjölnir in a fashion not likely to be misinterpreted. Karsi had gone momentarily white and then his scowl darkened, but when it came down to the final account, he curbed his protests and the thing was nominally agreed to break no laws or set no impossible precedents.
So that was done and when Loki passed into the antechamber, flushed with success, Thor had tried to snatch a kiss by virtue of jostling him hard against the door, grabbing his hair and holding his pauldron firmly. Loki was shocked into protest. “No, I…mmmph…can’t…but…”
After a moment, Loki found that he could. Thor cupped his jaw and managed to enjoy himself for a whole minute or two before Loki wrenched away and feverishly straightened his cuffs and his surcoat, then smoothed his hair. “Appreciated, but unnecessary at the moment.”
“You labor yet under some misapprehensions, Loki.” Thor managed to get another peck on his cheek. “That was well done and I must express my admiration.”
“I need to keep my wits about me.” Loki firmly stiff-armed Thor when he tried to go in for more. “The challenge is not yet met.”
“What remains to be done?” Thor’s heart sank a little. He had an idea that all they needed was a feast and some bunting.
“Your honor is Asgard’s.” Loki grimaced at him. “You really think that this will be the last objection I will face?”
Indeed, the following day Thor was strolling back from a rather pleasant afternoon making arrangements with Frigga when a chorus of outraged yells drew him to the arena at a sprint. Loki and Sif were sparring with some men he didn’t…ah, he recognized them now, Einar Volundson whose brother had been slain in the siege of Utgard and his cousins. And they weren’t sparring.
There was blood in the sand already and Einar circled Loki, spitting imprecations against his person, his people and his entire realm. Sif had squared up to keep the cousins at bay. Volstagg was hurrying in from the side gate and Fandral and Hogun were racing up from the armory. Thor leaped from the top step and landed in the arena just in time to hear Loki snarl, “I will gladly slay you all to spare you the pain of witnessing this union. Then I will take great pleasure in…” He leaned closer and muttered something that made Einar gnash his teeth and scream like a berserk.
Loki ducked when Einar slashed both his swords scissor-fashion at his head and sprang up with a dagger that fit neatly under Einar’s ribs and another that opened the large vein in his neck. In the strength of his rage, Einar managed to spit blood in Loki’s face before collapsing in a crimson heap.
There was a sudden shocked silence and then Loki turned to the remainder of the Volund clan, his teeth shining white and his hands dripping red, “Next?”
Ketill Óspakr paused before hefting his axe and Thor stepped forward quickly. “Who here stands against Thor?”
The Volunds all looked at him, stunned. They seemed to have been so deep in a battle trance that they’d focused only on Loki and the moments when Sif was actually waving a halberd in their faces to keep them back.
“Thor.” Ketill Óspakr was not clever, but as brave as any in Asgard, perhaps braver for not being clever. “We had heard that you were ensorcelled by this seiðmaðr…creature.”
Loki smiled at him, his beautiful, winning smile rendered a little less pleasing for the drying blood on his face.
“Look I to be ensorcelled?” Thor spread his arms wide.
Ketill Óspakr furrowed his brow and started, “Do you not find this union unnatural?”
“What is your grievance with my union? We fought the Vanir a long century and lost many to their witchery and treachery, but would you be battling thus if I took Freya to wife? Your cousin died honorably at the hands of an honorable foe who was that day the stronger. Wherefore then unnatural?”
Thor stood back to pierce them all with a glare. “We all sprang to life from Ymir’s corpse. We have grown arrogant and foolish indeed if we deny the frost giants their due. It took their unyielding strength to shape this world and I would have it for my own, to infuse the house of Odin afresh.”
“But if you are quite that foolish and arrogant, by all means,” Thor gestured at Loki. “He is a rock you will break your head against. But know that you do so for my passing amusement, not my honor.”
His words threw the pack of warriors into seething disarray. Thor stood back while they muttered and argued and looked awry at Loki who was frowning. “Quite the stirring speech, Odinson. Unfortunately, it appears to be working. I had quite wanted to kill that one.” Loki jerked his chin at Helgi Ósfeigr who was a good head taller than the rest of them.
“Has he done aught or said aught to you?” Thor glared at Helgi who backed up to efface himself ineffectually.
“No.” Loki shrugged. “I just don’t like his face.”
Loki looked down at his hands and wrinkled his nose. “No matter. I’m quite sure there will be plenty of killing to do back home.”
Loki was nothing other than correct in that assessment. Thor did not understand much of what went on in Jötunheim, but it started rather horrifyingly with Loki fighting a duel with one of his father’s named warriors. Loki looked in a fair way to be crushed underfoot by the giant who was large even by their hefty standards. But Loki dodged and twisted away from close combat and ended by working some spell that allowed him to rip the giant’s soul right out of his body.
Loki held the soul for a moment in his hands as the enormous corpse toppled in front of him. It shrieked as Loki looked up to stare at Odin in his seat beside Laufey. As Odin made a pass with Gungnir, the giant’s essence seemed to writhe in a cloud around Loki’s head and between his hands and when Loki looked up again, he was…himself, as Thor was inclined to think. Blue. Scarred. Red-eyed. Savage.
Thor swallowed hard and peeled his hand off his mouth. Sacrifice magic was definitely not to be undertaken lightly. The warriors around him were silent, but the silence had something of a different quality than it had before. Before it had been simmering resentment and contempt, now it was simmering uncertainty.
But then another one stepped into the snowy enclosure, ringed with the jagged fangs of the ruins of Utgard. They bestirred themselves over and over to stand up and die by Loki’s hand. Thor kept his hands clenched; he dug his toes into his boots and tried to keep still. It felt so wretched and wrong to watch Loki fight one bloody battle after another to no purpose that Thor could see. And Loki was very careful of his honor; he did not once look at Thor or his friends. He seemed to lack any malice, he killed his compatriots quickly and cleanly if he could, as if it were an unpleasant task that he hoped to finish and have done. The clashes took place in near-silence, punctuated by the occasional death-rattle.
Volstagg remarked that with all the spilt blood and panting breath it was rather more like preparation for childbirth than preparation for a wedding and didn’t that give Thor something to brood on for five or ten more duels.
“Thor.” Fandral had winced so long that his handsome face looked unnaturally cut with wrinkles. “Do you truly want this?”
“What, that?” Thor gestured down to where Loki had just sliced a giant’s head half off with a leaping swipe of an ice-spear. The giant’s head lolled sickeningly; for some reason, it would have been more palatable if it had been cleanly decapitated.
“No, you…you know my meaning.” Fandral spoke low, conscious of the fact that they were surrounded on all sides by dour frost giants and who knew what might cause them insult. “So many lovely people in Asgard…rather more in the rest of the nine realms…and surely you could have your pick of them?”
Thor folded his arms and scowled. He saw this question in one form or another on the faces of everyone he knew lately, excepting his mother and father. It almost made him viciously proud because he hadn’t realized for how long everyone had looked at him like his every move was expected and it felt oddly powerful to be utterly confounding for a change. He supposed that Loki felt like this all the time.
But he didn’t have a good answer ready for why he was freezing his ass off, watching rather hideous blood sport for the privilege of a relationship with a creature who didn’t share the first of his manners or mores and seemed to make ‘utterly confounding’ his life’s mission. The more he looked into the future with Loki, the more he realized that he couldn’t actually imagine it. But for some reason the idea of not having Loki in his future left him feeling sick and morose and bereft.
Thor was content to let Fandral have silence for an answer. Oddly, it was Hogun who spoke.
“Life is long.” Hogun watched Loki gut another challenger impassively. “You would not want to be bored.”
Volstagg had yet the strength to laugh and Sif hid a grin in her hands lapped over her spear. Fandral snorted, but Thor pulled his cloak a little tighter and thought that that answer just might do, for a while.
They lost count of the bodies as they did not pile up but were dragged away. Finally there came a reckoning, one warrior half-stood and then re-settled himself without comment. Another lifted his head and then bowed it again. Laufey had watched all with no discernible expression and after the makeshift arena had sunk back into perfect silence and stillness, he leaned down and exchanged a few quiet words with Loki before leaving with Odin.
“What was this all about?” Thor pulled the thick fur cloak more firmly around his shoulders. Loki lay on his back with his limbs spread out on an icy slab as Odin and Laufey confabulated. Naturally, Loki had shed his Asgardian garb and he lolled on the ice almost bare. He was stroking his fingers absently over the scars on his arms, looking up at the sky.
Thor was uncomfortably aware of himself suddenly. He had grown numb and thoroughly chilled watching the carnage but now, perversely, he felt the wind piercing the gaps in his chain mail and his nipples were hardening.
“They’re…stubborn.” Loki folded his hands over his naked chest. Thor noticed that he still wore the pendant claw of a bilgesnipe in the hollow of his throat. It made Thor feel slightly warmer as he stood in the frigid wind. “It’s hard to explain to a foreigner. They have no quarrel directly with my size or my …inclinations, but they would not allow me to share their form and be weak. And that means weak in either body or spirit, you understand?”
“No sentiment.” Thor returned shortly.
“Exactly.” Loki seemed pleased. “Hence the lengthy trial.”
“They’d rather a hundred warriors die than admit something that should be readily apparent?” Thor shook his head and brushed snow out of his beard. He was rather relieved to discover that Loki hadn’t been fighting for him. Though in his inmost heart, he found the thought of that strange, but not perfectly unpleasant.
“Only eighty-six, don’t exaggerate.” Loki grinned at him.
“You fought….” Thor was no good at lying and he couldn’t quite bring himself to say ‘valiantly’ or some other such nonsense. Loki had fought ruthlessly and unequivocally, seeming untroubled by either anger or honor.
“Exceptionally.” Thor said finally.
“I was prepared to fight you, you know.” Loki said casually, tilting his chin up to look up at his familiar stars. “I was ready to fight you to the edge of death.”
“Why did you never challenge me?” Thor set his feet a little harder into the ice. He imagined Loki challenging him a year ago; he imagined trying to fight Loki ‘to the edge of death’. He imagined standing over Loki while he was prone, breathless and helpless, he imagined Loki standing over him.
“Note how you have not been challenged by anyone this day.” Loki gestured around at the ruins. “They seem assured of your continued ability to exterminate them at will. I wasn’t sure that I would win in any contest with you.”
The light was faint and the wind blew steadily. But it seemed like Loki was breathing…carefully. Loki looked up at him with his red eyes half-shut and Thor wasn’t sure but he thought that maybe Loki shared his thoughts and he was also uncertain about which outcome was preferable.
“Do you think you’ve won now?” Thor shifted uncomfortably.
“I think the game has changed.” Loki said and did not smile.
Rumors of Loki’s latest exploits were already rife by the time they returned to Asgard and there appeared to be no more challenges forthcoming. So were they joined with requisite pomp and circumstances, nine days of feasting, the Golden Realm run riot in celebration. It made it easier that Loki stayed wrapped in his Aesir form, even if it did cost Thor a private pang.
The initial feast, the one he attended with his hand loosely tied to Loki’s, was a blur. The food tasted of sawdust, the ale was insipid as distilled water and the mead was vinegar. He had to wave his free hand in response to obeisance after obeisance and he could not seem to drink enough to keep himself from the realization that he was about to march down a corridor with Loki by his side in the company of all their friends and a fair few of their enemies. They would then go into a room and shut the door and…what?
He could tell that the same thoughts were weighing on Loki rather heavily. Thor caught him twice staring into his goblet like there were mysteries to be revealed within. Thor looked down at their beribboned hands and reflected dully that the only other time people bound their hands together was at hólmgang. It seemed appropriate in the circumstances.
Finally they were escorted back to their chambers with torches and songs aplenty but no ribald jokes or obscene suggestions because Loki had already passed into the collective wisdom of Asgard as someone on whose bad side one definitely did not want to be. And Thor reflected that could be said of himself. He attempted a few jests with Volstagg who just smiled at him nervously. Thor was growing more than a little nervous himself.
His fears were borne out as the crowd retreated and he was left to stare at his…was there even a good word? Consort sounded like an unpleasant disease one hoped soon to be rid of. Loki picked the ribbons loose and went to pour himself a drink.
Loki wasn’t even looking at him now. Loki had moved to the window as casually as if he did this every evening, but there was a slight stiffness in his posture that made Thor think that Loki was entertaining thoughts of turning himself into a raven and flying away.
Thor ended up saying the first thing that came to his head with predictable results.
“I know it was a gift. And very kindly meant.” Thor said, sighing. “But that helmet looks ridiculous, magpie.”
Loki pursed his lips, crossed his arms and flicked a glance upward as if he could see the golden horns arching over his head. He didn’t say anything but Thor felt his own helmet grow lighter and start to feel oddly…organic. It writhed right off his head and he cursed as he reached up to grab it. Loki had transformed the stylized wings….to actual wings. Of course. Thor fought with his helm as it attempted to fly away. After two minutes of undignified struggle, he let go and watched it flitter up to the ceiling where it bashed itself unseeing against the marble. The faint clang almost sounded like a squawk.
“Very funny.” Thor looked over at Loki’s arched eyebrows and glittering eyes. As tempting as the idea was at this moment, he imagined that Loki would take it well amiss if he attempted to seize Loki’s enticing horns. Who knew what might happen?
Suddenly, Thor bethought himself of the best revenge and reached under his arm to unbuckle his vambraces. He’d done this so often that it was quick work even if the clasps mid-way down his forearm were buckled so tight that he had to use his teeth to loosen them. He maintained eye contact with Loki as he finished and set them aside, and then started on the buckles of his breastplate.
It would take the better part of half an hour to divest himself of all his ceremonial armor. And Loki was similarly adorned. So that was an hour of married life seen to.
Loki favored him with little snatches of glances. He was examining the inside of his chalice as if he were contemplating another drink, but his grip on it was far from casual.
“Come and help me.” Thor tried to sound slightly bored, annoyed as if this were all so mundane, so everyday, nothing that anyone need be afraid of. After a moment, Loki seemed to be willing to go along with the fiction. He dutifully came and helped Thor loose his buckles and lift the breastplate and pauldrons over his head, then unlace the fastenings of his hauberk and pull it free.
“Did I forget to thank you for this?” Thor said, suddenly feeling dismayed. He indicated the dazzling armor which fit like a second skin. “It’s beautiful.”
“Yes.” Loki glanced up at him. “It is.”
Thor couldn’t help but slide a hand up under the warm weight of his hair to hold him still for a kiss. Loki sighed a breath into his mouth and allowed it. Thor felt emboldened enough to twine an arm around Loki’s back and pull him into a full embrace and it was delicious and spine-tingling and thoroughly enjoyable until Thor finally managed to work his hand in to finger the skin of Loki’s lower back.
Loki gasped and disappeared in a cloud of….Thor blinked in confusion. He was now clutching air and covered with snowflakes. He huffed a great sigh and debated whether he should take his boots off and just go to sleep or put his clothes back on and look for Loki. Who was probably halfway to Nornheim by now.
“I’m sorry.” Loki was leaning on the door that led to the balcony. “I suspect this looks like cowardice.”
“No.” Thor said quickly. “It’s…no.”
Loki’s brow furrowed while he tried to smile. “It is though. I am terrified.”
“Well.” Thor sat on the side of his familiar bed. “That makes two of us.”
Loki groaned and made an impatient gesture. “Stop being kind to me. It’s ridiculous and I’m…”
“I don’t think I can.” Thor interrupted Loki before he could work himself up into a real rage or brood or melancholic rant. He unbuckled his boots and pulled them off and started unlacing his chausses. Loki had gone silent and Thor looked up to find Loki watching him with narrowed eyes.
“I am just going to…” Thor made a gesture that had to indicate quite a number of things. Loki had come closer and was still staring at him greedily. Thor wanted to laugh and protest…surely they’d seen each other naked many times before, but then he quickly realized the vital difference. This was the first time that it was Loki’s right to touch freely. To claim his prize, as it were.
Thor stripped out of the last of his gear and sat back down. He spread his hands wide, showed them to Loki and placed them very deliberately on the bed. Loki pursed his lips with a very suspicious look but then he couldn’t seem to resist bending down to kiss Thor again, lightly.
Thor did not move to wrap Loki in his arms, even as he desperately, desperately wanted to. Loki grew bolder as Thor kept still and was soon straddling his lap, sucking kisses from his mouth and stroking every inch he could reach. Thor’s hands had tightened to claws, and the only thing that was making it at all bearable was the fact that Loki hadn’t moved to take off his clothing.
Thor was reminded of Loki’s first feast in Asgard. How Loki attacked the food with all the restraint of the starving, ravaging meat like a savage animal. Loki had pushed him almost fully supine and he was feeding off Thor’s flesh with licks and bites. His clutching hands were fierce and almost painful.
Thor dug his own hands firmly into the many layers of furs, coverlets, cushions and blankets that made up his bed. It was all he could do to only twitch and not writhe, he wanted to beg Loki for a spell to immobilize him, for bonds to cling to and push against. It was torture to have to keep himself still, torture to hold himself against the heat of Loki’s curious gaze.
"You're shivering." Loki pulled back, his lips now gleaming red. "Your skin's gone all strange. Are you cold, then?"
"No," Thor gasped as Loki stroked a palm over his goose-fleshed ribs. "It's not the....ah...cold. It's more antici...pation."
"Oh, yes?" Loki straightened. "What do you want me to do?"
Thor gawped at him, feeling his toes curl while he suppressed the urge to just clutch Loki painfully hard. Leave it to Loki to ask impossible questions when his wits were gone. "M-mmore of the same?"
"You make the oddest faces." Loki almost looked reproachful. "It's...interesting for me, but are you just enduring this?"
Thor's shoulders sagged with despair. "Loki, do as you will! You can reckon that I will stop you if I find it doesn't...ah, please."
Loki narrowed his eyes, but he couldn't seem to resist taking another taste of Thor's earlobe and carding his fingers along the ridges of muscle. Loki stroked lightly, then more firmly. He cast little glances up as he grew bolder. Thor steeled himself for the onslaught.
When he felt the soft, smooth porcelain of Loki’s lower lip drag up his cock, he nearly bellowed. Loki’s hands tightened brutally hard in his thigh and over his ribs and it seemed to be no time at all before he was coming, panting at the ceiling, prickling with sweat and hoarse with groans. He blinked and wondered if Loki had vanished into a snow cloud again, the air was full of downy white fluff.
“Is this…” Thor squinted at the white stuff spinning through the air.
“Feathers.” Loki blew one out of his mouth with satisfaction. “You ripped the mattress.”
“Ah, I see.” Thor swallowed and panted and watched as Loki divested himself of surcoat and tunic. Loki appeared to be making rapid progress, now that he didn’t feel trapped by Thor’s heavy attention. Thor bit back on a moan as Loki suckled the point of his hipbone.
Loki had no notion of what was right or proper or unmanly or indecent. So it would be useless to be wroth with him for transgressing. And he discovered it was no cost at all to let Loki spread his hands over Thor’s thighs, to drag his palms over the light hair as he cracked Thor open, spreading his knees gradually.
“Gently.” Thor unclenched his teeth long enough to say as he tensed against Loki’s breath. “Very much gently there.”
Thor thought about protesting, thought about precedents, thought about his own terror and then didn’t think as Loki slid a finger into a delicate spot. Then he was pierced, sweetly and completely. He squeezed his eyes shut from a surfeit of pleasure.
“You will tell me.” Loki said softly but with a tone of distinct command. “If I should cost you the slightest hurt.”
Thor twitched a little, spasmed a bit and slowly realized that he seemed to have lost full control of his limbs and Loki was still relentless in curiosity and depravity both and Thor was drooling, both his mouth and his cock and he wasn’t going to…
“I…I…need to.” Thor slurred. “You must…”
Loki seemed to understand luckily and he was gasping above Thor as he bit and clutched and fought his way up Thor’s body and slid into him and Thor sobbed in gratitude and begged, “Please can I?”
Loki’s eyes flashed just white, his lashes fluttering as he nodded. And Thor could finally free his hands from their death grip on the remains of the mattress and he clasped Loki fully, utterly.
It was an effort, but he kept his eyes open to watch Loki convulse and cry out, his face gone slack and smooth with release. Thor held him tenderly.
“I did hurt you.” Loki pulled back to look at him with budding shock and anger. “Why did you not stop me?” He brushed his fingers across the edges of Thor’s cheek and brandished them, gleaming with Thor’s tears.
“No…no, Loki.” Thor tightened his arms and grabbed Loki’s hand, pulling Loki’s fingers into his mouth to kiss and taste his own salt. “It is not only hurt, but sometimes joy expressed thus.”
Loki stopped his attempt to pull away. “You are sure?” He narrowed his eyes at Thor suspiciously. “You promise me?”
“I promise you.” Thor couldn’t help grinning. “I am not so easily hurt.”
Loki slumped forward again on him and sighed deeply. “I will never understand the Aesir. I think I do and then you go and…” He huffed and shook his head until his hair tickled Thor’s ear and neck. “…so strange. Always so…wet.”
“And hairy.” Thor agreed. “Does it disgust you?”
Loki arched up to look at him again, nodding gravely before dissolving into a cheeky grin. “No.” He mouthed at Thor’s jaw with gentle teeth and nuzzled into his bristly beard. “I like it.”
Nine days they feasted. There were fireworks, tournaments, singing contests and drinking games.
Thor had had to hear about all of it secondhand. Bragi and Volstagg had already composed and practiced several anecdotes, songs and stories about the festivities by the time he ventured forth again, pale, hungry, sore and stinging with bite marks.
Loki was, in this as he was in so many things, a quick study.
“Did it go well or poorly?” Thor asked when Loki appeared quite late from his second trip to Jötunheim in as many moons. Thor had been loath to let him go alone, but Loki had assured him that it did not matter greatly. His countrymen were expert at grudge-holding; it was unlikely they would forget the Hammer of the Aesir and his invisible presence at Loki’s side.
Loki shrugged and moved immediately to comb his hair, gone all turbulent from a trip through the Bifrost. He was still full Jötunn and Thor shifted to cover his burgeoning…interest. Loki idly tugged one of his furs off. “Helblindi is rather useless. But this is also apparent to others than myself, so it went well and also poorly.”
“I would join you next time.” Thor spoke as authoritatively as he could with an erection.
“Why?” Loki yawned and started to pale while Thor watched. “For the pleasure of shivering next to me while I do many things that you find quite distasteful, my precious Aesir flower?”
Thor regarded him reproachfully. It always made him feel ticklish and squirmy when Loki said endearments like that. Loki had almost fully blanched to his usual alabaster again.
“Will you never now take on your true form?” Thor asked mournfully.
Loki stopped his transformation as quickly as he began it. Thor held his breath. It was weird and weirdly delightful to watch the color soak back up his half-naked body.
“I always wondered if I was imagining this.” Loki said faintly. “But you truly don’t mind.”
“No, how foolish.” Thor shook his head dismissively. “Why you would think otherwise is beyond me.” His fingers itched to trace Loki’s scars. Loki was looking at him in the way that made Thor feel like he was already naked. He rucked up his tunic and pulled it over his head hopefully.
“It makes your eyes go all black and your nostrils flare.” Loki sounded like he was working out the last bits of a knotty problem. “You find it…”
Thor couldn’t help himself, his self-restraint lately was poor. Even at the cost of stung, frostbitten lips, he couldn’t help reaching out to snatch at Loki and pull him into a crushing embrace. Loki was stronger in his natural form but he could not hope to withstand Thor’s long-thwarted lust. After a moment, Thor realized that while his lips were tingling slightly they were not burning. Loki did not feel to be more than marble-cool under his touch.
“It does not pain me.” Thor pulled back and stroked both of Loki’s upper arms with delight.
Loki blinked very slowly in what appeared to be the frost giant version of an eye-roll. “That ring you are wearing…the stone protects against cold and frost. And you may feel free to ask me how clever I think it is that you pawed me before you knew that.”
“I did not paw you.” Thor protested. “Watch, this is me pawing you.” He cupped his hands over Loki’s hips and groped him brazenly. “You observe the difference?”
“Ah, that’s a nuanced dis...tinction…” Loki lost a little of his cool when Thor bent to nibble at his collarbone and then sunk his teeth into Loki’s shoulder. Loki seemed more solid in this form, like his flesh was denser and it made Thor half-mad with lust. Loki seemed inclined to grab at Thor’s wrists, so Thor used his mouth, nipping at Loki’s dark nipples, bulling forward to press him down into the furs.
“This longing of yours seems so perverse.” Loki teased, the scars on his face making him look wickedly sardonic. “Is this what Freya calls a ‘fetish’? Have you always felt thus? It makes some of the kennings my people have for you more than a little lewd.”
Loki slid up the bed on his back, cerulean skin resplendent against the white fur. It left his bent knees spread to an inviting angle and his hips canted up. “Does it make you remember your long days in battle? You…fought hard all day, and maybe it left you a bit sore but you managed to find yourself a trophy to bring back to your tent, ah?”
Loki squirmed as Thor grabbed his bare foot and licked the high arch of his instep. Thor slid hot hands up to Loki’s knees and pushed them even wider. “Yes.” Thor groaned. He could almost imagine it, feeling his skin still electric from violence, a seething whirlwind of aggression that was slow to calm. He’d never had an unwilling war bride chained to his tent pole, but as Loki gasped and twisted his hips to preserve his modesty from Thor’s creeping fingers, Thor felt rapaciousness churn in his veins and he growled and sucked a livid cobalt mark into the inside of Loki’s thigh.
“I’m no camp-following whore.” Loki hissed as Thor held his thighs in a bruising grip. “You’ll have to tie me down before I will submit.”
“Oh, I’ll have you.” Thor dug his knees in and knelt to capture Loki’s wrists as Loki made a token effort to escape. “The only question is how, princess. On your back, so I can watch your face as you start to…appreciate me.” Thor tongued Loki’s nipple as Loki tried to make his chuckles sound like sobs. “Or on your belly, so I can appreciate your…assets.” He flipped Loki over and caught a fistful of his hair. The scent of it was intoxicating and he traced his tongue along the scars spread over Loki’s shoulders and down his spine. For all his protestations, Loki ground his hips into the bed like the most wanton slut in Jötunheim and pressed his freed hands out to get better leverage to tilt his bottom up for Thor’s delectation.
The ridges of the scars rasped under Thor’s tongue and he had to taste everything. By the time he’d satisfied himself, Loki had stuffed most of his fingers in his mouth in a vain effort to quell the more embarrassing sounds that Thor elicited with his tongue. When Thor finally shoved his knees in between Loki’s spread legs and hunched over his back, Loki already had one hand between his legs and was shamelessly pleasuring himself, arching and writhing and moaning for it. “So…scandalous.”
Thor mouthed his neck and slid up to press his straining cock to Loki’s hole. He spread his palms over Loki’s shoulder blades and caressed the long stretch of his flanks luxuriously as he pulled Loki back onto his length. When he was fully sheathed he stilled to savor it; breathing the crisp, snowy scent of Loki’s firm flesh.
“In this form, I remember well how strong frost giants are.” Thor panted heavily. “So s-sturdy and resilient. How difficult it would be for me to hurt you.”
“Then do your worst.” Loki purred and squeezed against Thor’s cock. “Ah!”
“Truly, I could have been touching you all this time?” Thor wrenched his legs up higher, and clawed at Loki’s ass to pull him deeper. Loki’s chill palms pressed him down and felt so deliciously cool on his hot, stinging flesh.
“Will you give it a rest?” Loki panted frosty breath onto Thor’s flushed face. “You’re drunk.”
“You’re drunk.” Thor returned testily. Loki laughed but did not deny it as he pulled up to bite the meat of Thor’s calf. “Harder, you gormless troll.”
Finally, Loki left over teasing and ground against him hard enough to make his teeth click. He chewed happily on Loki’s forearm as Loki’s denser weight plowed into him with delicious force. And he was drunk enough to not remember coming, but he woke up sticky and still clutching Loki’s savaged arm. Loki was blinking rapidly and rolling over with a frown and Thor realized that the sunlight hurt his eyes.
“Does it pain you?” Thor asked shyly. The sight of the whorls of scars still enticed him, but he was so replete that he felt guilty.
“Not overmuch.” Loki stood and stretched but as he did, the blue was fading from him, seeping away like liquid.
“Thank you for indulging me.” Thor cupped the back of Loki’s knee and ran his thumb over the softness there.
“I was indulging myself.” Loki smirked down at him and tweaked his nipple.
“Oh.” Thor tried to stand and felt a bolt of ache sear up his spine to the base of his neck.
Loki raised an eyebrow at him and reached over to press his pale hand into the hollow of Thor’s back. Thor felt the tingling, healing warmth spread through him as Loki murmured, “You were supposed to keep your feet braced, remember?”
So the story continued in a similar vein to the moment where Loki could lie in his arms, heavy and heedless as a child, humming a tune into the light hair on Thor’s belly, while Thor watched the fire and tugged gently on his braids. When Thor twitched with a sleepy jerk, Loki raised his head and yawned before crawling up to lie under the curve of Thor’s sheltering body.
“Let’s go to Vanaheim.” Thor murmured sleepily. “They’re hunting their white stag.”
“Too easy.” Loki yawned again and turned to snuggle and burrow his head until it was firmly wedged under Thor’s chin. “What need have I for a white stag?”
Thor tightened his arm around Loki’s shoulders and pressed his lips into the crown of Loki’s head. “You could always sell it once we brought it down…I’m sure it would yield you heaps of gold.”
Loki chuckled and reached up to finger the long locks of Thor’s hair. “I find I have all the gold I need.”