The tales tell of a Prince of Asgard—nay, not he, not he who is so adored by the realm now, kind and soft and shining though he is. Another. The first Odinson. Where our young lord now is temperate, this son was the storm itself: passionate and irrepressible and loud. Where wee Baldr is fair-pale, he was painted in warm gold, sun-touched. So beloved, not least by his father, who has now forbidden his name to be spoken.
Ah. Thor. That was what he was called. The Thunderer. Lord of Storms, of lightning and thunder and hard, stinging rain.
The tales also tell of the great plagues that have swept the realm in ages gone by, may they never touch us again nor hover above the heads of our children. Plagues—there was a time that wights crawled from every grave to trouble those they had once called kin. There was a time that listlessness grasped many hearts until the bodies in which they resided wasted away. There was a time that—well. That is where the tale begins.
It was long ago, an age that now seems dim to all memories, a time in which a dread affliction swept through Asgard. A plague had come among the Aesir, and even Idunn’s golden apples did nothing to blunt its bitter sting. Tyr One-handed could not fight it. Odin and Frigga watched as their people languished. The eyes of Heimdall could see no cure. But in that time, a stranger came to Asgard.
Blue of skin and dark of hair, the stranger’s eyes burned with hidden wit and his smile was as a secret long-kept.
“’Tis the Allfather I have come to discuss my business with,” he said to the gatekeeper when he came. “I will reveal it to no other.”
The Allfather was desperate, and the Jotun was allowed to come before him.
“What do you call yourself, and what is it you have come for?” asked Odin, though he wondered at the sight of a giant of stature no more than an As.
The Jotun laughed, lighthearted. “I am Loki, who is like flame and ice at once, and I have come to save your folk, if you will let me. I can promise this: if you will grant me a boon, I will cure them as if this plague had never been.”
“And what boon would you have me grant,” said the Allfather, his single eye in shadow, “for you to do this worthy deed?”
In that moment Loki slung it from his back: a purse made from the soft and well-furred skin of an otter, fresh from the river, as if it still had the salmon in its jaws. “Allfather, who can provide in treasure and in wisdom, I would have you fill this bag with red gold from your treasury, to its very brim.”
The Allfather looked to the wan faces of his subjects and promised that it would be so. “Only do not be long,” he said, “lest there be none left to taste of your cure.”
The Jotun Loki smiled and gave a deep bow as he promised it. And he left Odin’s halls, whistling to himself a tune that had never before been heard in Asgard’s bounds.
As he went he passed a group who sat upon Asgard’s wall of stone. It was the Odinson and his companions, faithful friends and brave comrades, and they called out to him. “Ho there, our Jotun savior! Where do you go?”
Loki’s head tilted upward to gaze at the prince of the realm alone of all his peers. “I go to the well at the foot of the world tree, if you would know it.” As he gazed upon the Odinson, his eyes gleamed sly. “I am owed certain favors by the three women. And look, I will call in those favors for the sake of you and your kin.”
Thor, he of the hammer Mjolnir, he who calls down lightning, grinned down at the small giant. “Go, then, and return as soon as you may.”
When the Jotun returned upon the morn of the third day, it was with a clear vial of water, which he poured into the spring that fed the streams and wells of all Asgard.
All who drank of the waters were cured. All who felt the touch of that cold liquid in their throats could not hold back a sudden laugh of joy at how their bodies healed and strengthened as they stood and stretched and spread their arms out in the sun.
“See, Allfather,” Loki said, when he returned to the gleaming hall. “I have done as I have sworn; your people are restored. By the workings of my clever mind your people are saved.”
“And now you wish your payment,” Odin said where he sat upon the golden throne.
“I do,” laughed Loki.
The Jotun’s purse was taken from him. It returned half-weighted.
“You surely cannot demand the amount in full,” said cunning Odin. “The delay cost many lives, and were their worth deducted, you would end up owing.”
Loki ran his hand through the clinking coins, an unfamiliar frown upon his face. But no complaint did he make. “So shall it be, Allfather,” he said, though his voice was low. “But perhaps your hospitality you can offer to one who has been in your service.”
And so it was; Loki, the Jotun whose spirit was of fire and ice at once, remained among the Aesir for a long span of time then, and each day as he traveled out into the forests of the realm, he passed the king’s son sitting upon the wall and raised his palm in greeting.
“Ho there, Thunderer,” he called. “What do you see from your perch? Any grim tidings?”
“Naught but a lone Jotun out wandering,” laughed Thor, the sun a halo of gold about his head.
And Loki went about under the shadows of the forest, and he smiled as a secret long-kept.
But it was not long before he was called again before the Allfather, as a new threat loomed upon the horizons of the shining realm.
“An army of Jotnar is camped upon our borders,” Odin said in quiet conference, looking in the face of this one from the enemy who had before saved them. Loki, the most beautiful of all giants, whose eyes burned with hidden wit. “You turned away a plague from the Aesir once before. For another boon, would you do it again?”
Loki looked in the Allfather’s single eye. “Perhaps for a certain boon,” he answered. “If I do as you ask, I would require as payment twelve of the apples of Idunn, the fruits of immortality and vigor.”
Odin King considered this, gazing upon the shadows in the distance, the dust of the army that would soon assail the realm. Many would be lost; warriors sent too soon to Valhalla. “Those fruits shall be yours,” he said, and he swore it upon his sword and spear, and gripped the Jotun’s arm in his own hand, feeling the cool of his skin and the pulse of blood beneath.
And so, as a storm gathered above the shining hall of Odin, Loki departed. Thor stood upon the wall, his hammer at his side, his blue eyes gone as dark as the clouds above.
“Where do you go, Jotun?”
“Your father has asked another deed of me,” Loki answered, raising his hand in greeting. “He has asked me to turn aside the army of my own kind from your land. Do you suppose I will do it?”
Thor tilted his blond head as if unsure of the answer.
“I will,” said Loki. “And do you know why?”
When Thor’s eyes met his, the Jotun smiled, and Thor saw for the first time how sharp his teeth seemed in the fading stormlight.
“Know me when I return,” said Loki, the blue of his scarred skin a shadow at dusk, turning his back to the shining light of Odin’s hall.
Upon the morn of the first day, there was no word. The shadows lingered. All was silent. No songs were sung, and even Tyr of battles could muster no voice of courage among the stifling fears.
Upon the morn of the second day, a flight of ravens took wing and blackened the skies, their harsh voices rasping in every ear.
Upon the morn of the third day, a ghostly shadow in the shape of a man approached the gates of Asgard. He walked as if he might stumble; his hair was dark upon his cheek. His eyes shone like secrets, the green of a flash upon the dusk horizon. His mouth was pressed shut, holding back silence. His skin was pale as ice and snow in winter.
Heimdall granted him admittance and he came before Odin.
“I demand my payment, Allfather,” the man breathed.
From beside the throne, the son of Odin stared.
With a gesture from his hand, Odin had the apples brought forth. They sat upon a golden tray, their skins a shade of sunlit yellow blushed with warmth as never seen in the mortal world. The sight of them was sweetness in the mouth; the taste of them was like the summers of children, endless and perfect. The scent of them was like the gentlest green breeze.
But there were only three.
Loki furrowed his brow as he curled his fingers around the first of the apples and brought it to his mouth.
“You cannot promise me that they will not return tomorrow,” Odin said. “Should I give you such a gift for such a brief victory?”
The Jotun who no longer appeared as a giant in their midst nodded and let his teeth sink into the crisp flesh. “It is as you say, Allfather. I am grateful, certainly, for this boon.”
And Loki remained among them, and as before, he left each morning to hunt in the forests and wander the forest paths.
“How did you turn them aside, Jotun?” Thor called after him one day. “How did you do it? What dread sword could frighten an army?”
His friends beside him looked on, curious of the sight of the Jotun who was paler than the most delicate of the Asynjur.
Loki turned in silence and stared up at the Odinson. “No sword, Asgardian. No sword at all; all I need is my wit and my words, and anything I wish will come to pass.”
They two looked upon one another, and without another word Loki turned and disappeared into the forest shadows.
And time passed. Loki went among the Aesir, though he was not of them, and he was not trusted, he was not loved. The Allfather took his counsel when he wished it, and the warriors of Asgard clenched their jaws at the one who had denied them the icy spill of Jotun blood across their blades, and the Odinson, with the great hammer hanging from his belt, shouted greetings at the dark-haired man each day and smiled when he was answered with sharp and clever words.
And then there came another threat, darker than any before.
A cold and bitter wind breathed across the realm, stinking of death, thick with gravedirt.
The voice of the ruler of Niflheim rung in every ear, a trembling whisper, a shaking cry.
The dishonored dead resented the gods who lived. They would feast upon their flesh and sate their thirsts with Aesir blood. They would craft shelters from piles of Aesir bones and build ships from their nails, with sails from the remnants of their corpse-stained wrappings.
As the Aesir gathered, weapons clanging and voices rumbling, Loki walked among them with swift steps until he came before the Allfather.
“They will not come to this place. It shall be the third great deed, and I will prove myself with it,” he said, his voice dark and sure.
“And what boon do you crave this time?” Odin asked of him, even as he girded himself for war and gripped Gungnir in a steady hand.
“I would be counted among the Aesir,” Loki said, looking down at his own pale hands with their narrow fingers. “I would have that honor. I would be counted your kin.”
In the dim light of a realm on the edge of war, the two looked at each other. And Odin reached out his hand.
“I would be glad to call you my kin, if you could save us from this shadow.”
Their arms clasped, and a hesitant smile touched Loki’s lips.
The last he was seen departing from the edges of Asgard, it was with sword in hand, his limbs dressed in leather, his eyes narrowed.
Just before he stepped across the boundary, he looked back, seeking the sight of a gleam of gold hair and eyes the color of evening sky. He was as steel as he turned again away. His teeth were Jotun-sharp. His tongue was fire-clever. His heart was beating fast and hot as that of a mouse in the jaws of a serpent, struggling in its last aching breath.
The morn of the first day did not dawn.
The morn of the second day was dark and chill.
The morn of the third day Thor stood upon the wall with his hand to his brow, seeking in the pale, thin sunlight for the sight of a lithe body sprawled, perhaps, upon the green.
It was the eve of the fourth day that Loki returned. He walked like a man far beyond weariness, driven by will alone. His hands curled pale at his sides, seeming almost to glow. There was ash marking the tangled shadow of his hair about his shoulders.
He stood before the Allfather, swaying.
“I have done it, as I promised. I have pushed back the sun, and your twilight shall not come. Not for many years more,” he said, and his voice was a dry rattle in his throat. “Now claim me as your kin.”
Odin looked upon him, and for a moment his hand seemed about to open. But then he spoke.
“You know it cannot be,” Odin Allfather said, and his voice was low and dire.
Eyes as green as spring leaves grew wide.
“I have done three deeds for you,” Loki said. “Three deeds no As could have accomplished. Would you deny me even now?”
A tear might have stung Odin’s eye. Or it might have been only the smoke of distant pyres. “You, Loki, are fire and ice itself, and we are Aesir. You may live among us, but never will you share our blood.”
For the first time in the long life of a Jotun, Loki’s tongue was stilled, and his heart seemed to cease to beat.
But it was just as Odin said, and fire burns.
“Kinship I have earned.” Loki peered deeper into that single, cold eye. “And I will take my payment any way I must.”
And Thor, prince of the realm, ever the loyal son, stood at the side of the golden throne.
Loki’s magic, his power, was in his voice.
“Thunderer,” he said, beckoning with arched fingers. “Odinson. Come to me.”
Thor hesitated. But Loki’s voice was a spell, an enchantment, weaving itself into the mind, sweet as honey wine, bright as sunlight on the water.
“Mighty Thunderer, beautiful Thor. I have ever been your beloved brother, have I not? As long as you remember,” he breathed with the weight of a sigh, “as long as you remember, there has been Loki.”
For a moment nothing stirred, nothing moved, except the gathering shadows in Thor’s eyes as the spell claimed him. As it took him. And then the Odinson nodded, chin dipping, a sudden warmth lighting his face.
“Come to me, then, brother,” Loki said, and his lips curved, tender as a blade, as he stretched out his arms.
Thor stepped forward, his sky-blue eyes gone black, so black the stars shone within them. So wide. The flutter in his belly. The sight of his brother’s dark loveliness and the wetness of his eyes. He lifted his hand, needing only to touch Loki’s skin and know that his brother was real. His fingers brushed away tears. His breath was echoed in the bloodthick sound of his brother’s heart.
The immortal gods of Asgard watched, helpless, immobile.
“Shall we show our father how we love each other?” Loki murmured, loud in the deathly silence, lips brushing against the tender skin beneath the Thunderer’s ear, pale hands tracing the strong lines of the Odinson’s body, thin fingers pushing back the strands of his golden hair.
“Shall we show them all?”
Thor’s answer was a low sound, desperate and hungry, as Loki’s hand encircled him.
And was it not true? Had Loki not shown Thor just how much he loved him?
Had Thor not replied in kind, kicking away the pebbles from the top of Asgard’s wall?
The immortal gods of Asgard were not able to move from their places as Thor’s mouth opened soft and willing to the firm, wet press of Loki’s tongue. As thunder rumbled in his throat, as Loki’s fingers twisted in his hair, a twinge of pain to make him tremble. Loki could play him like an instrument, drawing soft sounds from his mouth until he cried aloud, begged, pleaded in a way wholly unfit for a prince of Asgard. He longed for it. It had always been so.
Loki’s limbs twined around his brother, yes, his brother, his brother, who gasped and whimpered and thrust him up against the wall.
Loki’s voice was magic. Loki’s voice was an enchantment, and it was torn from his throat whether he would or not as Thor’s teeth found the supple muscle of his shoulder, as Thor’s hands wrapped around his narrow waist and thumbed dark blue bruises into his flesh. “Take me, take me, show them, love me, Thor, Thor, brother,” Loki whispered. “Yes, take me. Make me yours. I have always been…”
The Thunderer pulled away cloth and pushed inside him then, and neither could have cared that all Asgard saw.
Odin has forbidden their names to be spoken now.
The enchantment did not fade, not as their sweating brows pressed together in the echo of their cries, not as morning came, not as Odin cast them out.
Thor believed he had a brother. Loki, dark and pale, kept his fingers wrapped around the Thunderer’s arm.
“It is all I ever wanted, Allfather,” Loki said, sharp-toothed, the edge of his mouth curled in a smile that did not touch the forest shadow of his eyes. “I thank you for this boon.”
They were cast out together as the sun rose over Asgard the morning after their great transgression, and no tales tell where they have gone.
No tales tell, and it is forbidden to speak of it.
But there is a lake in a certain realm, and upon its shores I found an empty purse of otter-skin, its fur still gleaming brown. Embedded in the wet silt, a few scattered coins of red-gold, glinting in the cold dawn. The cores of two apples, tooth-marked and wrinkled, as if they had just been cast aside.
Frigga holds her young son close, and the light of fair-pale Baldr gleams across the realm, for he will someday grow into his own.
But I believe Asgard has two other princes.
And I believe they will return.