It was with trepidation that Odin realized he had not heard the children in some time.
He released his consciousness from Huginn and Muninn and opened his eye to see the Windflower Garden, conspicuously empty of small princes. The little golden ball with which Thor had been playing lay abandoned under the hydrangeas, and try as he might, Odin couldn’t hear the faintest whisper of a child’s laughter.
Frigga would be upset, he knew. It had been her idea for him to take the children to the garden; she had said that since he’d chosen to be a father of two small sons, he ought also choose to spend time with those sons. But barely a year had passed since Jotunheim’s defeat, and while most of Laufey’s giants had retreated to their frozen realm to lick their wounds, others had gone renegade, roaming the Nine Realms, harassing honest farmers and laborers, disrupting trade. Odin had increased patrols as much as he was able, but Asgard, too, had lost many in the war, and its warriors were spread thin. So Odin watched with Huginn and Muninn, the best he could do as a king chained to his throne by the day-to-day toils of ruling that came after war.
Odin stood and paced round the edges of the garden, listening hard. They couldn’t have got far, he told himself. He hadn’t been inattentive very long, and the baby had only just learned to walk. Still, Loki had a penchant for following little Thor around, and would go back to crawling if that was what it took to keep up with his brother. On the one hand, Odin was glad – very much so – that his little Jotun foundling had taken such a shining to his adopted brother; on the other, it meant that where one went, so did the other, and now Odin could find neither of them.
The Windflower Garden was not named so only because of what grew there, but also because it had many arches leading in and out of the grove, so that the wind blew pleasantly through it no matter from which direction it came. The bench on which Odin had sat to fly on his ravens’ wings was between two such arches, and he thought he would have noticed if the children had passed so close to him. That left four other paths, each equally enticing to a small child’s eyes. Odin picked one at random and began walking.
This section of the palace grounds was filled with small gardens and groves, some carefully tended, others deliberately left to grow wild. The footpaths twisted amongst the flowers and trees at a lazy winding pace, meant for long contemplative walks, secret lovers’ trysts, and other retreats from the bustle of the palace. Odin took as many of them as he could, looping back onto his own trail and once even returning to the Windflower Garden by a different path than he’d left. He saw the occasional gardener, a handful of nobles, but when questioned none of them had seen the two young princes.
He was beginning to truly worry, his mind filled with images of renegade Jotun finding lost paths through Yggdrasil into Asgard and pouncing upon his sons, when finally he heard a child’s distant cry. He followed the sound, having to double back twice when he hit dead ends, and eventually came upon a section of footpath deep in the shade of a vast willow tree. The baby sat splay-legged in the middle of the path, bawling; little Thor crouched beside him and watched him worriedly. He looked up at the sound of Odin’s footsteps and said, “Loki’s crying, Papa!”
Odin swooped in and scooped the baby into his arms. Loki’s tiny fists tangled in his beard and his cries faded to muffled sniffling. “Yes,” Odin said to Thor. “Babies cry when they are frightened.”
“Why’s Loki frightened, Papa?” Thor asked. He straightened and reached up to take a handful of Odin’s tunic – not himself scared, but simply wanting attention.
Odin shifted the baby to one arm and reached with the other to tousle his son’s hair. “Perhaps because he does not know where he is,” he said.
“Why not?” Thor asked.
“Because,” he said, “you have wandered far away from me, which you should not have done.”
“Why not?” Thor asked again, and Odin suppressed a sigh.
“Because wandering off alone can sometimes be very dangerous,” he said. Thor had his mouth open for another why and Odin continued quickly, “Although it is safe here in the gardens, there are many places outside the palace where you could get snatched up by Jotun if you stray too far.”
Thor’s eyes widened. “Jotun?” he repeated. “They’re great big monsters!” He waved his arms wildly to demonstrate, and the tiny Jotun in Odin’s arms turned his head to look at his brother.
Odin winced. “Your nurse has been telling you stories, hasn’t she.”
“Yes!” Thor said excitedly. “She told us Jotun eat cows. She said they’ll eat us too, if we’re bad. I told her if they try I’ll hit them with my sword!” He mimed a fierce battle, and despite himself Odin could not help but be impressed at his son’s footwork – already the boy demonstrated proper form.
When Thor had wound down, Odin said gently, “Thor, you have a brave heart, and a good one. But you must remember, strength of arms is not always the best way to protect yourself. Sometimes you must use your head, and that means not wandering off, nor taking your brother with you.”
“But why?” Thor said. “And why not Loki? He wandered off too.”
Odin stopped walking and knelt so that he could look the boy in the eye. “My son, you are the elder brother, and so you have a special responsibility. Loki is small yet, and not as strong or as skilled as you. As the eldest, you must watch out for him, and guard him when he cannot guard himself. And that means using your head.”
Thor pursed his lips in a moue, his eyes fixed on his little brother tucked against Odin’s shoulder. “What if I don’t want to?” he said. “I want to fight Jotun and protect Asgard. I don’t want to have to sit here and watch a baby.”
“Thor,” Odin said, and turned his son’s chin so their eyes met. “You want to protect Asgard?”
“Yes!” Thor said, his eyes lighting up.
“All the people of Asgard?”
“Is Loki one of the people of Asgard?”
Thor blinked at that, and frowned in confusion. “…yes?”
Odin nodded firmly. “Yes. And to protect a whole kingdom, you must first start with its people. Loki is your brother, Thor; you must never forget that. He is the first person you must learn to protect, and only when you can protect him, can you protect anyone else. Do you understand?”
Thor thought about it, his brow furrowing. Finally he said, “I understand, Papa. I must protect Loki so I can protect Asgard.”
“Yes,” Odin said, and smiled, relieved. He ruffled the boy’s hair as he stood up, and Thor grinned back, clearly proud of himself for puzzling out a difficult riddle. Odin turned, Thor skipping beside him as he began the walk back to the Windflower Garden. The baby had calmed, fearless in his father’s arms, and now twisted to watch his brother with wide green eyes. Thor began to chatter, darting back and forth across the path as he acted out another swordfight, and by the time they reached the Windflower Garden little Loki was squirming to be put down.
Odin let him go, and he darted off after Thor, unsteady still on his feet but determined to join his brother. Thor came to a halt and squatted down in front of him, putting his hands on the baby’s shoulders solemnly. “Papa says I must protect you,” he announced. “So you stay right here with me, where I can keep you safe. Understand?”
The baby laughed, reaching for Thor with chubby fingers, and Thor smiled, a genuine fondness to his expression. Odin sat back on his bench, his heart at ease. Before Jotunheim, had anyone told him a Jotun and an Aesir would play together and share the bond of brotherhood, he would have said the very idea was idiocy. But now, watching Loki chase happily after Thor, Odin knew he’d been right to bring the babe home after the war. Mortal enemies their people might be now, but some day, his two sons would mend the rift between their realms and bring about an era of peace.
Odin leaned back and closed his eye, listening to the joyous sound of his sons’ laughter.