It started with the workhorse. Loki was leading the blasted horse on a merry chase, rather enjoying the exhilaration of running through the forest, leaping over trees and brooks. His pursuer was quite fleet of foot for a workhorse, and would make good breeding stock. Idly he wondered if the builder could be persuaded to part with the beast, and for what sort of price (or what trickery would be required).
Then they came out the other side of the forest, and Loki saw the wild herd cantering across the plains, and he had a different idea entirely.
He stopped short, studying the distant herd, looking for the swiftest mare. The workhorse came up behind him, all heaving breaths and excitement, and tried to mount him. Loki sidestepped, and kicked the beast in the side for good measure.
"None of that," he told it firmly. "You just wait there." He bound it with magic to make sure, and then he looked back to the herd and called the mare he had chosen, spells on his tongue to make her come to him, tall and unafraid.
He cast other spells, while he was waiting for her to close the distance; spells of fertility and lifegiving, spells of potency, spells to bless an unborn child and enhance the fruits of a union.
He'd have to leave Asgard for a time, but that was no real issue; he was used to wandering off as his whims took him. His first thought was to go to Svartalfaheimr and harass the dwarves, but if word got back that he'd been seen there, his story would fast unravel.
Maybe he'd be a bird for a while, and spend some time on the wing. He could learn what the entire land looked like from above.
When the mare reached them, he released the workhorse and left them to their mating. With his spells on the mare he would find her again easily enough, when the time came. In the meantime - he shifted his form, let the wind catch his feathers, and took to the air with a cry of joy.
The mare gave birth to a beautiful grey colt, wobbly at first on eight legs, but soon showing himself to have the speed of both sire and dame, and more. Loki was pleased with the result of his spellwork; if he was going to pass this thing off as his offspring, he would have it be magnificent. Think of his reputation.
He whispered to the colt, sang to it, made it love him, and he led it back to the city after all his months of absence. This, now, would be the real test of his abilities. Most of Asgard thought him a little peculiar, but peculiar enough that he could have them believe this? That remained to be seen.
He walked straight into his father's throne room, boldly, with his head held high. People bowed their heads to him, and murmured to each other, and he could almost imagine what they were saying: where had Loki Odinson been this time, and why was he leading an eight-legged colt?
"Loki!" Thor cried out when he saw him, face breaking into a delighted grin. "Welcome home, brother!"
Loki gave a little wave, and smirked when their father shot Thor a quelling look for the break from protocol. Thor hung his head, but was chastised only momentarily; he was soon grinning at Loki again, pleased at his return.
"My son," Odin said, his eye falling curiously on the colt. "You have returned to us."
"I have, father." Loki bowed deeply, and took the time to fix his expression. This would have to be phrased... delicately. He rose, and smiled. "I bring glad tidings."
"Really," Odin said drily.
"Oh, indeed." Loki widened his eyes, the very picture of earnestness. "You may recall, you made it my task to prevent the timely completion of the great wall, lest we be honor-bound to pay a most grievous price."
His father inclined his head. "I recall this. The Jötunn's workhorse ran off and he could not finish in time, thereby absolving us of our duty."
Loki was startled enough to break out of his story. "The builder was a Jötunn?"
"We slew him!" Thor said happily, then caught their father's eye and looked abashed for his outburst. "Sorry, father."
"Yes, well." Loki cleared his throat. "I apologize for my delay in returning, father, but after completing my task I found myself in something of a... delicate condition."
"How so, my son?" Odin asked, and Loki got the distinct impression he was being humored.
He persevered anyway. "It seemed to me, that the simplest way to halt the wall would be to remove the horse. And the simplest way to lure the horse away was with a mare." He lowered his eyes demurely. "So I changed my form--"
Sharp whispers broke out throughout the court. Odin was still impassive.
"I must confess," Loki said, glancing up as if to share an embarrassing secret, "I did not expect the beast to be swift enough to actually catch me."
Thor looked horrified. Loki had to fight to keep his face still; he thought otherwise he might collapse from laughing too hard.
"It's not like you to make such a miscalculation, Loki," Odin said mildly.
Loki gave a silent sigh and resigned himself to deceiving everyone but his father. It was still an excellent jest, even if not quite as complete as he might have hoped.
He said, "I can only suggest that my wits were blunted by my worry for the fate of Lady Freyja." He gave a bow in the direction of the lady in question, who looked distinctly alarmed to be brought into this storytelling.
Odin looked like he was about to speak again, so Loki hastily continued, "In any case, matters took their course and I found it necessary to remain in that form until the child was born. Now, though, I take great pleasure in presenting to you my son, Sleipnir--"
--prince of the realm of Asgard, he was about to say, when his father cut in smoothly.
"A mighty steed he shall surely be, and fit for a king. I thank you, Loki Odinson, for your most gracious gift."
...Damn. Well, he could hardly name the thing a prince now. Loki huffed in irritation, thwarted. He had come so close.
Thor was still staring at him in appalled concern, and that cheered Loki considerably. There was still plenty of fun he could have with this little tale, even if he couldn't have a horse-prince.
He put on a smile, looking up at their father. "I am honored that you consider it worthy, my king. Now, if you will excuse me, I've travelled far and I would like to retire."
"Of course," Odin said, and smiled back at him, fond and amused and a little smug.
Loki returned to his chambers, and laughed so hard he was nearly sick.
The next time was almost an accident. Loki was exploring in the Ironforest and came across the ravaged corpse of a dire wolf. He was about to hastily backtrack, having no wish to come across the beast that had done the killing, when he heard a tiny, high snarl... and of course he couldn't just leave the pup there, it was an orphan, he wasn't heartless.
He carried the infant wolf back home, not thinking much of it. No one spared him much of a second glance; they had seen him carry much stranger things. Then he came across his brother in the hallways, and Thor snorted to see the pup.
"I hope that's not another of your strange children, Loki."
Loki hadn't even thought about that, but he opened his mouth now and found himself saying, "Actually..."
Thor laughed. "A noble effort, brother, but I saw you yesterday. Even you cannot convince me you conceived and bore a child in so few hours."
"I told you I was seeing a woman, Thor. Why do you never listen to me?" And that half-petulant complaint was close enough to something he'd really say that the lie would go down smoothly.
Indeed, Thor hesitated, frowning. "But... if you're seeing a woman, why is the babe a wolf?"
Loki gave an eloquent shrug. "Who can say why magic does what it does?"
Thor reached out to pat the pup and it twisted in Loki's arms to snap and growl. Thor snatched his hand back, looking hurt, but Loki found his heart was oddly warmed that at least this tiny, wild creature preferred him to his brother... even if no one else did.
"Have you told father?" Thor asked.
"Not yet." Loki favored him with a smile. "Would you like to come with me?"
Thor looked like he would very much like to do anything but that, but he fell into step beside Loki like the very picture of a loyal, protective older brother. It was impossible to be angry at Thor; Loki felt guilty enough for even resenting him a little.
Unfortunately, when they came upon their father, Odin took one look at the wolf pup in Loki's arms and said, "No."
"I didn't even say anything," Loki protested.
"A dire wolf is no plaything, Loki."
"Father, it's his son," Thor blurted, all outrage and protectiveness.
Loki couldn't even enjoy whatever despairing look their father undoubtedly wore at Thor's gullibility. He was looking down at the pup he held, unable to control the unhappy twist of his mouth. The wolf liked him. He just wanted one thing that liked him best.
Maybe it was the look on his face that softened Odin, for his father said gently, "The beast can live, Loki, but it will have to be chained. It's too dangerous to let run around free."
"I understand, father," Loki said softly.
Later, when he was alone, he thought of the pup's small size, its fearless defiance, its soft fur. Too dangerous, he thought bitterly. Were they not warriors of Asgard? What was too dangerous for them?
Next time, he would remember to make sure he made his presentation in front of the whole court, as he had with Sleipnir, so Odin could not dismiss him so easily.
He didn't always go out alone. Often he went adventuring with Thor, which meant going fighting with Thor because Thor had an uncanny knack for finding battle. Then Sif started to come along, attempting to prove herself. Loki wouldn't have minded that, because he understood what it was like to chafe at the path laid out by tradition and custom and expectation. Unfortunately, where Sif went, the Warriors Three followed; Volstagg swore to defend Sif, Fandral swore to defend Sif from Loki (with a leer and a wink), and Hogun just didn't want to miss out on the glory.
(One of these days, Loki rather thought he might seduce Fandral, to prove that he could and to put the great womanizer in his place. But later.)
So they were six. It was at the end of one of these adventures that they were gathered, still flushed with the effort and exhilaration of battle. Loki was examining a curved blade that had caught his eye, a wicked thing he'd lifted from an enemy's corpse. He heard Fandral murmur, "It just doesn't sit right, bringing a woman into battle."
Sif heard too, but she only laughed, and said, "Now, Fandral, you cannot deny that we would have a much harder battle without Loki's magics to aid us."
Loki whipped his head around, but it was nothing he had not heard insinuated before. Only, with the group's laughter, even Thor chuckled, and perhaps it was that more than anything that spurred him to speech. "And a fine woman I make, when I am one, while the Lady Sif must only play-act at being a man."
The laughter stopped very abruptly. Loki smiled into the sudden silence.
Sif put her hand on the hilt of her sword, eyes flashing. "Man enough to fight you."
Loki spread his arms in invitation, glee rising within him. Oh, he preferred the artistry of magic, that was no secret, but he could fight, and they always forgot that, and he would put her on the ground.
But Thor muscled between them, holding them apart. "Loki, Sif, enough!" He called both their names, but his eyes were on Loki, as if Loki had done anything more than defend himself. "We have had a glorious victory today. Let us not quarrel."
"As you wish, brother," Loki said, and if his placating smile bared a little more of his teeth than usual, well, that was only fair. He tossed the curved knife aside, inwardly seething.
It wasn't the jest; he'd learned long ago to shrug those off, by necessity. But for Thor to take Sif's side - just because Loki didn't wear his offense on his face, as she did - you didn't let an enemy see that they had wounded you, you'd think Thor of all people would understand that.
He turned away, calling over his shoulder. "You lot return to the palace. I think I'll continue on for a while."
"Loki," Thor started, exasperated, perhaps a little concerned (too little, if so, and too late).
"Let him go, Thor," Volstagg sighed. "You know how he gets."
Fandral said something; Loki was drawing too far away to catch it all, but he heard the word 'princess', and he heard Thor snap, "Enough, Fandral," with real anger, but he cared little at this point.
He was too hot, and too weary, and gone were the days when he and Thor were a world unto themselves.
He found himself thinking of the wolf pup he had brought back home. (Thor had obligingly told the Warriors Three that the pup was Loki's get, and sworn them to secrecy, which meant the whole court heard within hours. It amused Loki, even if their father was not taken in.)
It kept outgrowing its chains, and soon they would have trouble chaining it at all, but it still remembered Loki and took meat from him as it did from few others. Vidarr was one, and Tyr another (although with all his showing off Tyr was apt to lose a hand one of these days), but not Thor, never Thor.
Father was probably right that it was too dangerous, but Loki could still remember it as a pup, and his heart ached sudden and fierce.
If Sif wanted to be a man, he thought savagely, she should be a man, and he took some satisfaction in imagining his knife slicing through her precious golden locks. Not too soon, though, not to make her think she had actually hurt him with her careless words. It would be best if he could combine it with some other purpose. He could wait for the right time. He had inherited twice the patience where Thor had none; he could wait.
For now, he thought to himself, too dangerous, and he set out to find a snake.
Not just any snake. He descended the branches of Yggdrasil, its gnarled and pitted trunk, slipping through the worlds until he came to the great tree's roots. There countless serpents roiled, hissing and spitting, their eyes like malevolent jewels.
"Which of you will be the mightiest?" Loki wondered aloud, showing his own teeth to the bared fangs of the snakes. "Which of you is worthy to be presented as Lokison?"
Fenris-wolf was menacing enough, and the eight-legged steed had indeed grown to be the king of horses. If Loki intended to present another child, it would have to be special indeed to be worthy of its 'brothers'.
He watched the serpents as they gnawed on Yggdrasil's immense roots and on each other. They glistened in the blood of their kin, scales tinted red, and the air was thick with the smell of death and offal.
Occasionally one would lunge up at him and he would beat it back by sword and whip and spellcraft; his footing on Yggdrasil's root grew slippery with the blood of the beasts. Still he watched, and waited.
Finally he laid eyes on the one he would choose. Its fangs were stained bright with venom and its body was sinuous and powerful. Loki grinned recklessly, beckoning to it.
"Ho, serpent! Think you can best me?"
This would not be like the colt or the wolf pup; this was no lesser creature he could sing into his thrall. He would have to defeat it in combat, and it would be dangerous, and he wanted it to be dangerous. He wanted to remind himself he was not the woman they called him.
The beast slithered up a root, tongue flickering as if to taste his scent on the air. Loki crouched low, bracing his feet firmly, and readied himself.
The beast struck fast. He managed to turn it away with the edge of his blade, but it came close enough to score a line through the thick leather of his sleeve. He swiftly recalculated his tactics, edging back to draw it further up the root where his footing would be more secure.
It came after him, hissing, and Loki parried its strikes again and again. The effort jarred him to his bones, but he was strong and battled on, chanting bindings, dodging and striking and fighting with all his considerable skill.
He knew not how long the fight lasted. Only that it was long enough to make even one of Asgard weary, and that was when he made his mistake. Just a little one, a slip of his foot, and then he was on his back with the snake rearing over him in triumph.
I'm going to die, Loki thought in surprise, and wished that Thor was here, and at the same time he thought bitterly that Thor would never have made such a mistake, and a sudden rush of new strength flowed in him. As the snake's head hurtled down, Loki lunged upwards, hands outstretched, and he pulled the unfinished bindings tight. With a wordless shout and all of his magic, he made them hold fast.
The serpent crashed to the ground with a look of immense surprise, its jaws tied tight.
Loki leaned hard on his sword, caring not if he damaged the blade. Breathing heavily, he stared at the great snake in no small amount of surprise himself. Then he tipped his head back and laughed in giddy joy for his victory. Let Sif do as much! Fight him, indeed.
"Come, beast," he told the serpent, still catching his breath. "Jörmungandr, I name thee. We go to the All-Father." And he climbed astride its vast neck, and bade it carry him home.
Of course, he didn't take the creature inside the city gates; he was no fool and it would hardly have fit. He waited outside with it, and sent word to Odin he was there, and when Odin came out the whole court followed.
(His eyes went to Thor first, and Thor blanched at the sight of the serpent, and put his hand on his sword.)
(One of the ladies of the court fainted, and Fandral was staring in too much shock at the serpent to rush to her aid.)
"Welcome home, Loki," Odin said, implacable as always.
Loki grinned down from atop the beast. "Thank you, father. And may I present my son, Jörmungandr, prince--"
There were shrieks of dismay.
"A bold and majestic prince, to be sure," Odin said, with a perfectly straight face. "If I may, it seems he will grow a tad larger than your other 'sons'."
It already dwarfed them both by far, but Loki made no quick retort; he only inclined his head and murmured agreement.
Odin considered the serpent for a moment. "He should have lands that befit his status, I think. Don't you agree?"
Loki's eyes lit up. Accepting the beast as a prince was one thing; awarding it lands was more than he could have dreamed. He put a bracing hand flat on the serpent's neck, trying to hide his glee at the horrified whispers of the court. "If you think so, father."
"I fear this realm might not be enough for him. We shall send him to Midgard, and he will have the entire seas as his dominion, and be our ambassador there."
Oh, cunning, cunning father. Loki felt his mouth twist in a wry smile, and he bowed his head, acknowledging defeat. "Truly, father, you are the wisest among us."
"You flatter me," Odin said, and walked up to the serpent with no fear to extend a hand to Loki. Loki took it willingly and allowed his father to help him down.
There, a safe distance from the people of the court, Odin murmured, "Loki, what am I to do with you?" But he was laughing as he said it, and Loki grinned in answer.
Loki had actually fathered children, of course. In all his many travels, there had been no shortage of maidens in his bed. Midgard was the easiest and most convenient, for the maidens there were quick to awe, but they were such short-lived creatures there. He tried to check in on his offspring, but so often he would only manage a visit or two before they passed away. He never bothered to bring one to court, because their lifespans were so short and because there was no humor in it; which of the Aesir didn't have a few mortal bastards somewhere?
Occasionally he would examine the weaving of the Norns, to see if there were any he had mislaid. It was on one of these visits that he saw a thread nearing its end; a human woman he had lain with, and there, a stunted off-shoot, a babe to lose its life before it was even born. The babe was not actually his, but she thought it was - hoped it was. Her husband was slain and it was better to have the child of a god than of a dead man.
He thought, suddenly, that perhaps his mistake was in presenting 'children' too beast-like, too animal for the court to understand. A monster that resembled them would be all the more potent in its perversion, cause much more of a stir. Make them think twice before they left him again at the mercy of dwarves.
Skuld looked up sharply from her spinning. "You would be wise not to meddle, Loki Twice-Prince. You know not what you will do."
Loki's lip curled in distaste, and he could feel the pull of his new scars, the ones the dwarves had left him. Why should he heed the words of a frost giant, even if she was a Norn? She spoke little but madness, anyway.
He left the Norns and went to Midgard, where he sought out the mortal. She was near the end of things now; heavy in labour, struggling, her strength waning.
"My lord," she gasped when she saw him, and her face filled with sudden hope. "Have you come to save me?"
At least she had the wit to know it was going badly.
Loki shook his head reluctantly. "I cannot. I can save the babe, though."
Her eyes closed for a moment, but no longer. She fixed her gaze on him again, determined.
"It will be painful," he warned her.
"Do what you must," she said, and then threw her head back and cried out with pain.
Loki knelt by her and laid his hands upon her stomach. He could feel the infant in the womb, a girl-child, its life slipping away. Lowering his eyes, he called on dark, dangerous magics, blood magics, the curses that would let him stay death's hand. The unborn babe struggled as the magic took root.
"Hush, child," he murmured. "I am giving you life."
The human woman was starting to scream now, but he couldn't do anything about that. He was creating an abomination in her womb, an undead thing; of course she would feel it. He pressed his magic more firmly, weaving it as the Norns wove their webs. He worked long into the night, until sweat drenched him.
Finally, it was done.
At some point, the woman had stopped screaming. Loki frowned at her pallid face; she would not finish delivering the babe now. He reached up and closed her eyes, then drew a knife and slit her belly to free the infant that he would not give to death.
There was a lesser Norn in the doorway, a light elf, watching. Loki tied and cut the child's cord and watched her take her first breath, laying in her mother's viscera. One side of her was pink and fresh, the other blackened and gnarled by his magic; a dead child given life. "Have you come to give her fate?" he asked without looking up, lightly mocking.
"You were warned, Lie-smith," the Norn said.
"The babe would have died, and I saved her." Loki cast a sharp sideways smile at the elf. "Surely that is an act of mercy."
"You gave her life, but she will forever be with the dead. Fate is not so easily averted."
"So you say." Loki wrapped the child in a blanket and pressed a kiss to her forehead, the rotted side. "She is a princess of Asgard and I will stand for nothing less than what she is due."
He did not wait for the Norn's answer; he left Midgard behind, and went through Yggdrasil's secret ways to return home. He bathed the child, and stole goat's milk for her, and then he took her before the court and smiled with his scarred lips and said, "The princess Hel, my daughter."
This time even Odin looked perturbed, and he said in an undertone, "Loki, what have you done?"
"I saved her," Loki said defiantly. "She's my daughter and I saved her life, and she will stay."
"So be it," Odin said, but he looked unhappy, and the victory felt bittersweet.
Hel grew fast and strong, thriving on the rich food of Asgard. From her good side, she was beautiful, enough to rival even Freyja of the Vanir. She learned soon enough to only reach for things with her living hand, and keep her other side draped in shadows, but Loki she could hug with both arms without harming him, and she did this often. Loki, for his part, did not shun her the way the others did. He had nothing to fear, for his were the magics that were embedded within her, that would keep her from growing old and dying.
For all that the Aesir were cautious, and for all that Hel herself was careful, accidents happened. Disease spread. Decay caught like a candle to flame. Finally Odin came to Loki where he was braiding Hel's hair in the garden.
"Loki. It is time."
Loki thought about pretending not to understand, but his fingers tightened unbidden in Hel's hair and he said, "No."
"I will give her Niflheimr. She will have a great kingdom there, as befits a princess of the house of Odin."
He snorted, continuing the braid. "She's just a human girl, father."
(Hel didn't stir; she knew this already, Loki had told her all of his great tricks, while she smiled and laid her head in his lap.)
Odin crouched beside them and said in a voice more gentle than Loki could bear, "Not to you."
Loki turned his face away to hide the burn of his eyes. "There's no need for it. She does no harm."
"Father," Hel said, chastising him not for the lie but for the obviousness of it. She was right; Asgard was sick and it was a sickness brought by Hel. Good, sweet, beautiful Hel. Loki didn't want to let her go.
He finished the braid without speaking and knotted a strip of sun-bleached leather around it. There was a patch of grass gone yellow and brown where Hel had accidentally brushed her dead hand against it. He put his arm around her from behind and drew her to his chest.
Hel clasped his hand with both of hers, but out loud she said, "Thank you, grandfather, for your generosity. I will ready my things."
Loki closed his eyes and swallowed his grief. "I'll send you gifts," he said fiercely. Hundreds of them, thousands of them. He would slay armies and dispatch them to Hel for her amusement.
"I know, father." She twisted around to kiss his cheek, then stood and slipped away.
Loki stayed kneeling in the garden, his head lowered. He could hear Odin sigh.
"And will there be another, Loki?"
He didn't have to ask what his father meant. He shook his head numbly. No, he had lost his taste for this particular game.
Odin clasped his shoulder. "You could spend more time with your brother, you know. He misses you."
Loki restrained his huff of laughter at that. Thor had the constant adulation of his friends; what need had he for Loki these days? He certainly didn't heed Loki's counsel; would rather be brash and reckless, seeking naught but glory. At least the kingship was still far away. Loki dreaded to think what would happen if Thor hadn't grown up before that time came.
"Be patient with him, Loki," Odin said, as if following his thoughts, and maybe he was.
Loki took a breath and put a smile upon his face, and finally looked at his father. "I will, father. Thank you for your counsel."
Patience, yes. Patience he was very good at. He would be patient, and he would think of new, better tricks to play, and he would keep himself amused with them until such time as things got a little better. And they would get better, he knew; he and Thor were too much of a set to be distant for long.
He left Odin in the garden, and went to make travel-gifts for Hel.