In front of the palace stood a girl-child with a dainty but serious face, her slender figure clad in a long green tunic. As Thor dismounted with Mjolnir in hand she looked up at him, without pity and without fear.
“I see that Garm and his brood have been kind to you. I am Leah, the Queen’s handmaiden.”
“I will speak with your Queen.”
“She is expecting you.”
The girl turned to walk away without motioning for him to follow. For a moment, hesitation raised its head in Thor’s mind at last: Hela knew he was coming, she was prepared for it. Yet what did she prepare for him? He remembered Hogun’s words.
--Remembered Hogun’s words and pressed on, letting that shade of green guide him through the weary arches and wasted corners of Hela’s House. At every step, Thor searched for signs of Loki and found none. Surely Loki did not belong here--Loki, who was full of mischief and energy, who dreamed of fire and flood. Yet Loki had to be here. Thor needed his brother to be here so that the spark in his heart would not devour him whole.
The high throne of Niflheim was made of glistening white bones. On top of it sat Hela, whose visage bore such a resemblance to the shadow in Thor’s own dreams that it was almost hateful to look at. But she was dressed in a flowing green robe, too, the vivid green that no one in Asgard would now wear because of a lost prince.
“I come for Loki.”
Hela laughed. It was a jagged, cheerless sound.
“Asa Thor, this is not your realm but mine. My words and my words alone have the power.” She fixed those green eyes upon him and Thor felt a coldness seeping into his bones, crawling like old age and disease.
“I come for Loki,” said Thor again. This time it was not a demand. “He is my brother, a son in the House of Odin. He belongs in Asgard, and he belongs with me.”
The bones in Hela’s throne rattled ominously as the Queen laughed again. “Do you truly believe in such foolishness?” she asked at last, when the echoes had subsided. “Thunderer, I had thought you changed. Your flesh is not his flesh. Your blood is not his blood. As Asgard had forsaken him, he in turn had forsaken Asgard. You have no claim on Loki Laufeyson.”
“Whatever the history, whatever is to come, he is my brother,” Thor tightened his grip on Mjolnir. “The Sun may trade place with the Moon, the river Elivagar may breath fire instead of ice, but even then that bond shall not be broken.”
The Queen fell silent, and Thor felt that spark seething within his chest anew. Loki was here, he knew it now. Loki was here, and Thor would leave with him. They would go back to Asgard together, and whatever wounds Loki had sustained, he would heal them. There was no other possibility, no other way.
Hela raised one hand, and the green sleeves fell back to reveal her skeletal fingers. “I shall allow you to leave with Loki, O King of Asgard. Be not grateful, for I only do so to bring you regret and sorrow.
“Go behind me into the Ever-North, the only path leading away from my House. Your steed will be waiting for you at the end, but until then you must climb on foot. The one you seek shall be three steps behind you, but Asa Thor, never turn back to look at him until you quit yourselves completely of Niflheim. Until then, one look, one glimpse, one stolen glance of his hands or feet--that will be the renunciation of your claim on Loki forever, and I shall keep him here for perpetuity.”
Thor had expected her to ask for the Sun and the Moon, had been prepared to free Loki by treaty or force. Regret and sorrow, in turn, looked so small as nothing for a price. Had he not already known them well enough in these years past? He had become his own king, but in the moments when he was not King but a son of Odin, his thoughts invariably led him to Loki.
In the end, it was always Loki.