A throne of ice in the barren wastes of Jotunheim made a poor comparison to the gleaming majesty of Hlidskjalf in Asgard, but at least it was a throne. Thor climbed the rough hewn stairs to stand beside it on the dais and tried to smile, but if the frown on Frigga’s face as she took her place opposite him was anything to go by, the attempt was unsuccessful. The Dowager Queen looked radiant in her coronation robes, her golden hair piled high on her head, pride and joy clear in her eyes despite the twist of her lips, and so he breathed deep and let the love he bore her turn his fake smile to a real one. Allmother she might be, and mother to each of the Nine Realms and all their peoples, but she would always be his mother first.
Representatives from Vanaheim, Alfheim, and Nidavellir having taken their places of honour around the throne, the plain in front of it began to fill with commoners, Asgardians to one side, Jotuns to the other. The Frost Giants were a formidable sight, even conquered and chastened as they were, taller by half again than the very tallest of the Asgardians, their blue bodies tattooed and scarified, their red eyes glowing as the light from thousands of torches reflected off the ice. Their mood was strange, unpredictable; the older ones, who remembered the world before Odin brought them to heel, were restless and sullen, the younger ones, who had known no other life but subjugation to Asgard, were clearly excited for this new shift in their status and the changes it might bring. Thor felt the lightning dance around his fingertips, and clenched his hand tightly. All jealousy aside, there was nothing to fear, and he would do nothing to ruin the occasion.
A sudden hush fell, then the blare of trumpets rang out, and Hela was walking towards the dais, Gungnir in one hand, Mjolnir swinging loosely from the other. The crowds drew back as she passed, no need for any sort of guard, the Jotuns rightly terrified of her, who had shed so much blood on this very plain, and even the Asgardians, proud as they were of their glorious Queen, maintaining a cautious distance, unwilling to risk causing even the slightest offence. Thor’s sister was a mighty warrior and ruler, and when her time came she would join their father, and his fathers before him, in Valhalla, but she very much ruled by fear, not love.
She climbed the stairs quickly, her green and gold robes trailing behind her, massive antlered crown catching the light of the torches, and sat down on the throne, legs crossing languidly. A murmuring spread through the crowd unbidden as those closest realised her footstool was the Casket of Ancient Winters. Thor tensed, but the moment passed, the Jotuns as broken after a thousand years without ice magic as the Dark Elves after Bor’s conquest and five millennia in the light. Hela smiled, her message clearly received and understood, and stood back up, striking the dais nine times with Gungnir, the rhythmic pounding echoing and bouncing back off the bare cliffs, overlaid with the cracking of the ice beneath their feet.
On the ninth strike, Loki appeared in a flash of green light. He looked magnificent in green and silver, the horns of his helmet lending additional height to his slim frame and letting him tower over the assembled Asgardians, if not the Jotuns, and for a moment Thor felt as out of place as he ever had as a child, the blond hair and golden colouring he had inherited from Frigga marking him the changeling next to his pale skinned, black haired siblings, for all that it was Loki who had not been born on Asgard.
Loki was trying to look stern and regal, bowing first to Hela, then to their mother, but as he straightened and caught Thor’s eye he smiled, a broad, open mouthed smile that lit up his whole face, and the last of Thor’s envy subsided, replaced by the very real love he felt for his brother. They had been best friends and comrades in arms for a thousand years, and nothing that came to pass on this day would change that.
Hela stepped forward and Loki knelt in front of her with his usual lithe grace, head bowed as she circled him, one hand coming to rest lightly on the back of his neck.
“People of Jotunheim,” she said over his head, and the Jotuns as one went to their knees. “A thousand years ago my father, Odin, Allfather, King of Asgard and Protector of the Nine Realms, killed your king and laid waste to your world. He took from you the source of your power, and left you to dwell in darkness.” There was not a whisper of sound from the crowd. “But the Allfather was merciful,” Hela added. “He promised you your punishment would not be forever, and that one day, in return for your submission and your loyalty, you would again have a king of your own.”
The Jotuns looked up at that, hope in the eyes of a few, suspicion on the faces of many more. Hela ignored them, and turned back to Loki.
“Loki Odinson, my lieutenant, my brother. You are a prince of Asgard, but you are not of Asgard.”
Loki’s flinch was miniscule, but to Thor it might as well have shaken his entire body. His sympathy mixed with satisfaction that, after all, he knew his brother best. Hela had his loyalty, but she would never truly have his love. Nor would she ever feel the lack, so long as he served her purpose.
“Our father took you from the ruins of defeated Jotunheim as an infant, and I return you to them now as a king. Will you rule over your people wisely?”
“I will,” Loki said quietly, but his eyes were troubled.
“And will you pledge their undying fealty to me, your Queen?”
“And will you lead them in war for the greater glory of Asgard?”
“I will,” Loki said, and now he sounded certain.
“Then rise, and take your birthright as King of Jotunheim, my brother,” Hela said, and she picked up the Casket from the ice at their feet.
Loki stood up, and reached out with both hands to take the sacred relic. As he touched it it lit up far brighter than Thor had ever seen it glow when they visited Odin’s treasure vaults as children, and in its light he saw, just for a moment, a fleeting look of grief and uncertainty on Loki’s face.
It vanished just as quickly, and Loki turned to face the waiting crowds. The blue of the Casket swept across his hands, up his neck, and onto his face. The Asgardians remained silent, eyes cast down, well aware, if only by rumour, of what had befallen the drunken fool who dared ask Loki whether he would sport his true face in the halls of Asgard henceforward. The Jotuns, however, burst into rapturous applause, shouting and stamping their feet, and calling down blessings on their king, and Loki, his red eyes flashing, finally relaxed.
After nine days’ wassail, Hela and Frigga returned to Asgard, taking the ambassadors and the royal guard with them. Thor asked, and was granted, leave to stay a little longer. Three more days passed with Loki holding court with his new subjects, appointing counsellors and generals, revising laws and approving the reinstatement of long suspended rites and rituals. On the halfmoon Thor, unaccustomed to being so long ignored, called for Heimdall to open the Bifrost.
Instead of the expected rainbow whirlwind there was a sudden blast of cold that chilled Thor to the bone, tiny ice crystals forming in his beard as he huffed out a shocked breath, and then Loki was there, blue skin rapidly fading to Asgardian pink as the room warmed back up.
“Leaving so soon, brother?” he asked.
“I wouldn’t want to distract you from your new friends,” Thor responded, then instantly felt embarrassed at his own peevishness.
“And yet here I am,” Loki said. “Abandoning affairs of state because you called.”
Thor sighed, and refrained from pointing out he’d called for Heimdall, pleased that Loki had been paying attention after all. “Was it important, what you were doing?”
Loki smirked. “To the Jotuns? Very. To me? Not remotely.”
“Do you not care for them at all then?” Thor asked carefully. Loki had always been touchy about his Jotun blood, though to Thor’s mind it was not so bad a thing to be born of one of the strongest races in the Nine Realms. It bothered their mother not at all to have been taken as a prize from Vanaheim, nor Thor himself to be a product of the union that brought the greatest of the other realms under Asgard’s sway. Then again, perhaps that was easy to say when the Vanir and the Aesir were as good as indistinguishable in looks.
Loki stared at him in silence for a moment, then nodded. “I do,” he said at last, and he sounded like it had surprised even him. “They’re brave, and proud, and I believe they will be loyal servants of Asgard. Times have been very hard here since Odin brought them low. They deserve to have their Casket back.”
“And their king?”
Loki smiled. “And their king.”
“I’ve looked forward to this day as long as you have,” Thor said seriously. “You are my brother and my friend, and sometimes I’m envious, but never doubt that I love you.”
“I don’t doubt that,” Loki said. “In all the intrigue of life at Odin’s court, and now in Hela’s, that’s the one thing I’ve always relied on.”
Thor reached out and touched his face, so familiar after a thousand years growing up together, playing together, fighting together. Loki leaned into Thor’s palm, closing his eyes, blue now, as they had always been, and Thor dragged his thumb across his mouth, lips red from the cold. Loki had explained it to him once, that he didn’t feel the cold as Thor did, but his Asgardian form reacted to it all the same.
Loki took advantage of Thor’s momentary distraction to bite down on his thumb, hard, and Thor laughed, and shoved him further into the room, towards the pile of furs that had served him as a bed during his stay in Jotunheim. The Jotuns had done their best, with what little they had, to provide hospitality to the royal party, furnishing the icy guest chambers for Asgardian comfort. Loki allowed himself to be pushed down into the bed, and Thor sprawled on top of him. Loki laughed, and pretended to try to shove him off, but the look of relief in his eyes was clear.
“Hush!” Thor said. “What will your people think of their king being ravished while vanished from a council meeting?”
Loki laughed again, making no attempt to be quiet. “I imagine they’ll think I’ve picked up some terrible habits while an unfortunate prisoner in Asgard.” He fumbled at Thor’s belt, pulling it free, and loosing Thor’s trousers to take him in hand. “No, but seriously,” he said, as he stroked Thor hard and made him shudder, “I suspect they’ll think exactly what our parents thought, what Hela thinks: that it will bind us together even more tightly, and prevent any future battle over the succession.”
Thor marvelled, as he always did, at Loki’s ability to maintain, let alone attempt to convey, a coherent thought while making love. His own thoughts were whirling wildly as he unfastened Loki’s tunic and kissed his way down his chest. Loki stopped talking abruptly as Thor took him in his mouth, and Thor allowed himself a moment of satisfaction before setting to work sucking him hard and fast. Loki came in a rush of salt, and Thor swallowed him down, before moving back up to kiss him again deeply, and rub himself off against his hip. It took only moments, they knew each other so well.
“You know you can wear your true face around me,” Thor whispered, in the warm and sleepy intimacy that came after. “You don’t have to hide.”
“This is my true face,” Loki said fiercely. “I will be be a Jotun for the Jotuns, but never on Asgard. Do not ask me again.”
Thor nodded, acquiescing. “And how often will you come to Asgard?” he asked, suddenly stricken at the thought of life as Hela’s lieutenant without Loki there to share the burden.
“Actually,” Loki said thoughtfully, “I have something to show you.”
He waved a hand lazily, and the Casket of Ancient Winters shimmered into existence from whatever mystic space he had hidden it in.
Thor sat up and watched as Loki drew forth images of a world he didn’t immediately recognise, strange towers of glass and metal, streets and skies crowded with archaic vehicles, and people scurrying about like ants. A dark skinned man clad in black leather examined a cube that pulsed with a blue energy oddly reminiscent of the Casket.
“The Tesseract has awakened.”
“One of the lost Infinity Stones,” Loki explained. “They would wield its power.”
The thought struck Thor with a chill that had little to do with their surroundings, though he pulled the bed covers closer anyway. The Infinity Stones, once six in number, had been missing since before even Hela was born, the only one still known the Aether, which Bor had brought back to Asgard from Svartalfheim, and locked securely in the vault under the watchful eye of the Destroyer. “But it’s a little world,” he said, incredulous. “A human world.”
“Has it been so long since we visited that you no longer recognise it?” Loki asked, smiling. “It is Midgard.”
The image shifted to a grassy promontory, an uninterrupted vista looking out to sea, which Thor did indeed recognise. Odin had taken to spending time there in his final days, in the gaps between ever lengthening Odinsleeps when the crown began to weigh heavy, claiming he found it restful. Thor and Loki, however, had not visited in centuries, since the rash days of their youth, when it had seemed good sport to appear among the mortals in a maelstrom of ice and thunder, and scatter them as would a god. Odin had not approved, insisting that the Midgardians were mere children, unversed in the ways of the older, greater, realms.
“But if they seek to harness the power of an Infinity Stone…”
Loki nodded, a grin spreading wide across his face. “Then it is what we have long been waiting for, brother. A signal to all the realms that they are ready for a higher form of war.”
“And you think Hela will be interested in such a war?”
“I think Hela has her eye on far greater things. She often asked our father why he stopped at nine realms when Asgard could have been the seat of absolute power in the cosmos, our supremacy unchallenged. I think if we can promise her an Infinity Stone, then she will let us have Midgard.”
Thor breathed in quickly. “Us, brother?”
Loki shrugged, in that way he had that made it seem like he’d already thought through and discarded every idea that was just beginning to blossom in your head. “I already have a kingdom,” he said airily. “And it appears, from those long consultations you found so tedious, that my people would very much like not to be any longer the lowest of all the worlds orbiting Iggdrasil.”
“Consider it my gift to you, Thor. You need only beg a handful of Asgard’s legions from Hela; she can ready the rest for her own ventures. My Frost Giant warriors will win you Midgard, and a crown. After all, surely I, as a king, deserve a king as a consort, not a mere prince.”
Thor tackled Loki back into the rumpled bed, knocking the Casket out of his hand to disappear once more, and kissed him hard on his laughing mouth.
Heimdall greeted them as they emerged from the Bifrost. “Welcome back, my princes,” he said in his sonorous voice. “The Queen will receive you immediately.”
“Of course,” Thor said. Nothing escaped Heimdall’s sight. Loki nodded, and they headed back to the palace together. Unusually, Heimdall accompanied them, drawing Hofund from the lock at the heart of the Bifrost mechanism, and sheathing it in the massive scabbard on his back.
Hela was waiting for them in the throne room, Frigga seated at her right hand, Brunnhilde standing at her left, dragonfang in hand, Sif and a score of likewise armed Valkyries arrayed behind them.
It gave Thor a moment’s pause. Hela had always treated them both with the desultory affection of a sister who had been millenia old when they were born, and far too busy with her own glorious conquests to spare much time or thought for coltish youngsters, but if she ever sensed even a moment’s treachery he knew it would not save them.
Loki, by contrast, approached confidently, and bowed ostentatiously at the foot of the throne. He had always been her favourite, from the moment he first shifted form as an abandoned infant in Odin’s bloodstained hands, reaching out his tiny arms to the victorious king’s lieutenant, and taking on her black hair and pale skin before their astounded eyes. He had never worried, as Thor had, about whether she resented the golden child of her father’s new bride, or Odin’s increasing withdrawal from the life of unending war they had shared for so long.
“Well, well,” Hela said, voice ringing in the vaulted chamber. “A king for less than a month, and already champing at the bit.”
Loki smiled at her. “Always, my Queen. For the greater glory of Asgard. And for you.”
“We have located the Space Stone,” Loki said. “And if one Infinity Stone still exists, there will be more. Think what the legions of Asgard could achieve, led by a Queen wearing such jewels.”
“Mmmm, I am,” Hela said, and her spreading grin was very like Loki’s. “And what do you ask in return for such a mighty gift, little brother?”
“Midgard for Thor,” Loki said. “To rule in your name, as I rule Jotunheim.”
“Done,” Hela said. “Approach, Thor.”
Thor walked towards her and took Loki’s place at her feet, bowing deeply. When he looked up she was holding Mjolnir out to him. He hesitated, uncertain. She had carried the hammer for so long he almost suspected some kind of trick.
Hela laughed. “Do you know what Odin said to me when he gave me Mjolnir?”
Thor shook his head.
“That if I was worthy, it would be mine always. Are you worthy, Thor?”
Thor glanced quickly at Loki, then at their mother. Both nodded. “Yes,” he said, then again more firmly. “Yes.”
“Then take it.”
Thor reached out to take the hammer, and Hela’s hand clamped down tightly on his, obsidian nails biting into his skin. “And know that if you fail me, or betray me, you will long for something as sweet as pain.”
“I will not fail you,” Thor said, gasping at her strength. She rarely had need to display it these days, but she was far, far stronger than he was, or Loki, or any other denizen of the Nine Realms. She drew her power direct from Asgard itself, and here in the throne room she was strongest of all. “Nor betray you,” he added quickly.
“Of course not,” Hela said, smiling and letting go just as suddenly. Mjolnir swung into his hand as if made for it, perfectly weighted, and it was like it had always been there, an extension of his arm. He stepped back to stand next to Loki. Frigga smiled down at them, and Brunnhilde sheathed her sword.
“I can spare you three legions, my brothers,” Hela announced. “I presume those friends of yours will lead them, and the Jotuns will make up the ranks. The rest will be coming with me.”
“And where are you going, sister?” Loki asked, while Thor’s head was still spinning with the shock of it all.
“Oh, didn’t I say? First to Nidavellir. I’ve asked Eitri to make me a necklace.”
Thor looked at Loki, but this time Loki seemed no wiser than he.
“And then to Xandar,” Hela said, smiling triumphantly. “Your timing is very good, you know. The Power Stone just showed up there. With the Reality Stone that's three out of six. This will be a very good day for Asgard.”
She stood, the audience clearly at an end, and swept out of the throne room, Valkyries following after. Heimdall stayed behind a moment, and waited for Thor to finish embracing Loki in excitement before speaking, still in that calm, measured way of his.
“Be careful, my princes,” he said. “This may not be so easy an undertaking as you think.”
“Nonsense,” Loki said. “The people of Midgard are petty, and tiny. It will be a glorious battle, but not a lengthy one.”
Heimdall shook his head. “They are not the cowering wretches you think,” he said. “They are unruly, and therefore, I think, perhaps, they cannot be ruled.”
“What have you seen, Heimdall?” Thor asked.
Heimdall closed his golden eyes for a moment, breathed deep, then spoke. “A knight in armour, a man out of time, and a beast,” he said. “An archer, and a spider, and a shield.”
“Riddles,” Loki scoffed.
“Perhaps,” Heimdall agreed. “The Queen calls, I must go.”
In the quiet of the empty throne room, Loki kissed Thor on the lips, hard. “I meant what I said, brother,” he said, still holding Thor’s upper arms. “I will not bring the Jotuns to Asgard, nor wear the face of a Frost Giant in these halls. I will assemble my army on Jotunheim; do you likewise here and follow me, and we will launch the invasion from there.”
Thor nodded; it made no difference where they embarked from, and if Loki preferred to keep his two lives separate then so be it. So long as he was where he was meant to be, fighting at Thor’s side, forever, it would be enough.
“Mother,” Loki said, bowing his head for her blessing. Frigga took his face in both hands, and went to her tiptoes to kiss him on the forehead.
“Good fortune, my darling,” she said. “Make your father proud.”
“I will.” Loki hugged her tightly, then turned to Thor. “See you soon, brother.”
Thor nodded, and Loki vanished. Mjolnir was heavy in his hand, and he felt the lightning building, keen to see what it would be like to wield both. But first he would have to speak to Volstagg, Hogun, and Fandral, offer them the glory of leading Asgard’s legions in the war.
“Thor,” Frigga said suddenly.
“Yes, Mother?” he asked, surprised. He had not thought to take his leave of her just yet.
Frigga took his hand in both of hers, slender fingers folding over Mjolnir’s haft, the wounds from Hela’s nails disappearing under her gentle touch.
“Do you know what your father said to me about Mjolnir?” she asked.
He shook his head.
“He said its power has no equal. As a weapon to destroy, or as a tool to build.”
“I don’t understand.”
Frigga smiled. “You are all my children, and I love you very much,” she said. “But you, Thor, are part of me. Part of Vanaheim. And so I ask you to think about that, in a way that Loki is only now learning to, with Jotunheim, and Hela, I fear, never will. Do what Odin never got a chance to. Be a father to your people, not a tyrant. Be ready for war, but do not seek it out. Be a merciful king.”
Thor stared at her in shock.
Frigga smiled, and kissed him on the cheek. “Go on now,” she said. “Don’t keep your brother waiting.”