Asgard celebrated the Feast of the Fallen with a night of bonfires and song and toasts to the warriors who had passed down the shining road to Valhalla. In the palace, bards recited the Lay of Áegirr, the warrior whose silver spear had slain a thousand Jotun before they managed to freeze him in impenetrable ice. Odin himself spoke of Ingólfr of the Golden Helm who had fought with him against the giant Baugi during Odin’s quest to win the mead of Suttungr. And when each cup had been thricely drained, they called upon the sons of Odin to demonstrate their prowess to the assembly. It was rumored that Odin considered his sons upon the brink of manhood and that any day he might send them forth upon their vegr to prove their strength and courage. All wished to see their princes and cheer the promised future of the kingdom.
Thor stepped forth, resplendent in a tunic of deepest blue, the pelt of a white wolf (that he had killed with his bare hands by all accounts) around his shoulders. He did homage to the All-Father, shouting his name in a voice that resounded to the spangled thread of the Bifröst. Then he called for five javelins and sent each one hurtling clean through the door of the hall, a two foot thick span of Midgard oak. Then he lifted the massive battle axe of Sörli in one hand and nicked the stems off five of Idun’s golden apples, leaving their ripe flesh unscathed.
Odin’s eldest stepped down amidst applause and acclamation for his strength, while the younger son took his place.
Loki waited until the cheering had died away, and then bent his lithe body in a deep bow to Odin before standing straight once more. Loki did not speak, and yet the Aesir knew that he was practicing his spell craft. The hall grew colder, and the torches flickered before going dark, leaving only the fire on the wide hearth casting its glow around the room. Softly at first and then growing louder came a sound like a deep bell, ringing ceaselessly. In counterpoint, a shiver of high notes slipped through the air, almost painful in their sharpness.
Loki announced in a soft voice that they listened to the dreams of stars. He had caught them one evening, fishing with an enchanted net off the edge of the Bifröst.
When the sound ceased at last, the torches sprang back to life, and the assembly stirred. A ripple of applause gave way to calls for more mead and to build the fire higher. A diverting play of magic it had been, but what good were star dreams in a battle?
Loki slipped away soon after, and only the eyes of his brother followed him.
Thor found Loki sulking in a cave by the shores of the sea.
“Why do you sit in this damp and gloomy place, brother, when the mead still flows and the night is young?” he demanded.
“I doubt any shall notice my absence,” Loki replied, gathering his cloak about him and shooting Thor a glare. “But I’m sure they already lament your departure. I did not ask you to follow me here. Go back to your drink and tales, if you find them so pleasing.”
Thor frowned and sat next to him. “You are like an ígull with your spines prickled. What has upset you?”
“Only the boorishness of our people,” Loki snapped. “Now leave me be.”
“Your magic was most impressive,” Thor began, but Loki leapt up, whirling to face him.
“Impressive? I hardly think so. It didn’t destroy any of the furnishings, which seems to be a necessary condition for judging merit in Asgard.”
“But I have seen you wield mighty spells in battle,” Thor protested. “Why did you not show off one of those?”
“Because, unlike some, I do not have the urge to constantly hack and smash at things.” Loki crossed his arms, turning to stare moodily out at the waves. “Creation is a far headier and intoxicating art than destruction, brother. Not that I would expect you to understand.”
“I don’t destroy things,” Thor argued, heaving himself to his feet and weaving a bit unsteadily to Loki’s side. “Well, I do, but only to protect this realm and our people.”
“And because you enjoy it,” Loki added.
He scratched his beard. “I wouldn’t put it exactly that way.”
Loki huffed irritably. “Don’t dissemble, Thor, it doesn’t suit you.”
“But you enjoy the heat of battle, too! You are ever at my side, in the thick of the fighting.”
“Because you’ve dragged me there. And if I wasn’t, you’d be smashed flat by some giant’s fist.”
Thor laughed and slung his arm around Loki’s shoulders. “Hardly. Now come back to the hall and join me in a toast to all our victories.”
Loki shook him off. “I shall not. I am content here where it is peaceful and quiet—or it was until you appeared.”
“I am not going to let you spend the feast shivering out here.” He planted his feet. “I won’t leave unless you come back with me.”
Loki rolled his eyes, waggled his fingers, and a huge wave suddenly surged up and crashed down on Thor’s head, drenching him.
“Now don’t be cross, brother,” he said, regarding Thor’s reddening face with amusement. “You needed a bath.”
Thor growled and pounced, seizing Loki around the waist and heaving him over his shoulder.
Loki yelped, surprised. “What—Thor—no—no—”
Before Loki could shift into a snake or play another of his little tricks, Thor had strode the three paces to the water’s edge and tossed him in with a satisfying splash. A second later, Loki emerged, spluttering indignantly.
Another wave crashed over Thor. He dashed the water from his eyes, jumped into the sea and dunked Loki under once again. He suddenly found his arms full of a wriggling ball of fur, which resolved into an otter that slipped his grasp, sped away, and led Thor on a merry chase through the cave until he finally gave up, collapsing onto a rock and laughing.
The otter gave a sort of barking laugh in reply and then turned back into Loki, who grinned down at him.
“All right you irritating lump,” he said, nudging Thor with his boot. “Lead the way to a fire and some dry clothes.”
They ended up in Thor’s chambers, sprawled in front of the hearth. Loki stared into the flames for a while, and Thor watched the light flickering over his face, half-hidden in the spill of Loki’s dark hair. Whatever Loki might claim, he could not give credence to his brother’s belief that their people did not value his skills. How could they not see the grace and power, the cleverness and delight of Loki’s sorcery?
“They say that father is going to send us on our vegr soon,” Loki said, drawing him out of his thoughts.
“Good.” Thor stretched out, letting his eyes close. “I grow tired of being thought a boy still.”
“What do you think will be our quest?”
He shrugged. “Whatever it may be, you shall be at my side.”
“You don’t think father will make us go separately?”
The thought made him frown and open his eyes. Loki was lying next to him, leaning on one elbow. “I won’t allow it. Why should he make us be apart?”
“And you always get your way, don’t you?” Loki murmured, and Thor couldn’t place his tone, so he settled for rolling closer and giving him a pleading look until Loki caved in and brought him a pillow.
A fortnight later, the All-Father called them to his throne room. They knelt on one knee before him, right hands clenched in a fist over their hearts.
“Do you know why I have brought you here?” Odin asked.
“You judge us ready for the vegr,” Loki answered in a slightly breathless tone. Thor sneaked a glance and found that he looked pale and nervous. Why, Thor couldn’t imagine. There was no doubt that they would succeed.
“Your brother, yes,” Odin replied. “But you are younger than Thor, Loki. I do not know—”
“I am ready,” Loki said quickly.
“I agree, father,” Thor put in. “And I would not want to go forth without him.”
Odin hesitated for a moment but then nodded. “Very well, although I fear Frigga will not be best pleased.” He leaned back, arms resting loosely on the throne. “I sense that you already have a quest in mind.”
Thor looked at his brother in surprise. “What is this, Loki? You did not speak of it to me.”
“It will be dangerous—very dangerous and—”
“Good!” Thor exclaimed. “Did you think I wanted something soft and easy? I seek to prove my fitness to rule Asgard.”
“I am aware of that,” Loki murmured before facing Odin again. “I propose that we go to Álfheimr to fight the dragon Fafnir.”
Thor’s blood rose within him at the name. Long had they heard of the dragon’s incursions, its ravenous hunger for gold and flesh. Many mighty warriors had fallen to its fiery breath.
Odin looked troubled, and Thor spoke swiftly. “To defeat Fafnir would prove our worth beyond any doubt. It shall be a great victory, father, that will be sung throughout the ages!”
“To face a dragon is no light matter,” Odin replied. “I should rather that you wait until after your vegr, when you will be armored and fitted as true warriors of Asgard. Neither of you have come into your full powers yet.”
“All the more reason to face the dragon now,” Thor persisted. “Our victory will be even more glorious.”
“You know that I cannot help you once your quest begins,” Odin said.
“We shall not need help,” Thor returned.
“Your confidence does you credit, but every man has his limits,” his father reminded him.
Loki stirred and spoke. “If you truly think that this task is beyond us,” he began, “we shall of course seek something simpler—”
“He does not think so,” Thor said, cutting him off. “Do you, father? You have never doubted me before.”
“I do not doubt your courage, my sons,” Odin said and sighed. “Very well. I can see that your hearts are set on this course. You shall set out on the morrow and not return until the dragon lies dead.”
Night had settled on the realm, and Loki had at last left his brother to his boasting about their coming triumphs, retiring to his chambers. He gathered a few items that might prove useful and then paused, his hands falling onto the tattered cover of a book. He had found it in a dusty corner of the library while searching for a treatise on the soporific qualities of eel skin. Something about it had caught his eye, and he had pulled it out, only to find it a dry history of metalworking. Disappointed, he had been about to put it back, when the page turned, and he found himself looking at a picture of a sword. A formidable blade indeed, inscribed with runes and set with valuable gems. The Dáinsleif it was called. Whatever wounds it made, even the barest scratch, could not be healed.
He knew immediately that with such a weapon, he would be the equal of Thor’s strength.
It had taken him a tiresome while to discover what had become of the sword, but at last he had tracked it to its current resting place: the lair of Fafnir. And now fortune had presented him with the ideal opportunity—their vegr, through which he could take advantage of Thor’s strength and his own cunning. All it had taken was the mention of danger, the slightest suggestion that Thor might not be up to the challenge, for his brother to become the most vociferous proponent of killing the dragon. Father never could say no to Thor’s impetuous desires.
He looked at the picture of the sword again before carefully hiding the book amidst the many others scattered about his chambers. Thor could not find out about the sword or he would want it for himself. But his brother didn’t need it, showered with accolades as he was, his strength already legendary. No, it was Loki’s by right, and when he wielded it in battle, he would at last be considered a true warrior of Asgard by the fools who were too dimwitted to appreciate the subtle arts of sorcery.
Settling himself by his window, he waited for the dawn, spinning out the alluring promise of his hopes into a waking dream.