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The Most Insidious Poison

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“No, Thor, a thousand times no. Muspelheim is dangerous – to go there for any reason is to risk death!”

They carried him back, slung between Volstagg and Fandral, golden head drooping. Sif and Hogun, who’d defended their escape, almost didn’t make it before the Bifrost snapped closed; they dove through together at the very last moment, bringing with them the stench of sulfur and burnt flesh.

“Come now, brother, where’s your sense of adventure? Have you lost it among all these dusty old books?”

They’d run straight for the healers’ wing, shouting at any who’d listen to rush ahead and prepare. By the time Sif and the Three reached the ward with their precious burden, there was a bed already made, with four royal healers standing at attention. They still almost lost him.

“Adventure is one thing. This is madness, Thor, madness! I won’t be a part of it!”

Even with all the healers’ skill, all their ancient magic and alchemy, they couldn’t undo the damage. Asgard’s golden prince lay limp atop the white sheets, his skin pale under its tan, only the barest rise and fall of his chest to show that he had not yet made the final trip to Valhalla.

“You’ll miss out on a great glory – the bards will sing the tale of our hunt for centuries!”

Word had spread as fast as the servants could run, and the King and Queen had both dropped everything to tend their son. But even gossip does not easily penetrate the thick silence of the library, and so it was not until much later that the fourth member of the royal family arrived at his brother’s bedside.

“I’ve better things to do than risk my head for glory. It’ll serve you right if the fire serpent eats you.”

The healers said it was poison, a terrible venom that was eating into his bones and dissolving his flesh from within. They’d managed to halt its spread, but could not reverse it, could do nothing to draw it and free him from its ravages.

“Your loss, little brother. I’ll see you at our victory feast!”

The effort to keep the poison from spreading was enormous; the healer holding the spell already looked drawn and exhausted. When her companion suggested – tentatively, gently – that perhaps the royal family should prepare a vigil, the Queen wailed her grief and buried her face in her husband’s shoulder.

No one noticed the younger prince slipping silent and dark from the room.

*             *             *

“Oh, look, it’s Loki Run-and-hide, running away again.”

Loki gritted his teeth and kept walking. He’d had plenty of practice pretending not to hear Sif’s snide comments. But this time she wouldn’t be ignored – not today, not when the man she loved lay dying in the healers’ ward. She followed him, and he could hear the footsteps of the Three behind her as she said acidly, “What’s the matter, Loki? Can’t you be bothered to attend your own brother’s vigil?”

“I’m busy, Sif—” he began.

A hand grabbed him by the arm and spun him around: Fandral, looking furious and scared. “Busy?” he demanded. “You were too busy to come with us, and now you’re too busy to stay with Thor?”

He wanted to say you aren’t in there either, but that wasn’t their fault; Odin had banned all but the healers and the royal family from the ward. He shook Fandral’s hand from his arm and turned to leave again. “I warned him that it was dangerous. I told him he shouldn’t go.”

“You knew he’d go anyway!” Volstagg shouted, planting himself in Loki’s path. “Perhaps had you come along, this wouldn’t have happened!”

“No,” Sif said, disgust in her voice. “He’s just Loki Lie-smith, a weak and useless—” Hogun kicked her sharply, “—bookworm.” She didn’t bother to hide that her preferred word would have been much crueler. “He’d have just been in the way.”

Loki’s fists clenched at his sides, and his jaw ached from grinding his teeth. “I don’t have time for this,” he muttered, and shoved past Volstagg. He could hear them move after him, but a wave of his fingers set the tapestries to motion, twining and coiling like the fire serpent itself. If their shouts had fear beneath the surprise and anger, it was a cold comfort.

*             *             *

The Well of Urðr was a quiet place, serene with the soft sound of running water and the whisper of wind over sand. The well itself stood solemn, nestled in the roots of the great tree, which spread in all directions through the rich sandy soil. At the edge of sight, mists wrapped the land in a white shroud; but if one looked hard enough, it was possible to catch a glimpse of the vastness of Yggdrasil stretching overhead. The path through the great tree which Loki had taken brought him out near the well, and the three Norns who sat beside it. He dropped immediately to one knee, bowing his head respectfully.

One of them said, “Rise, child.” He stood, holding himself still and calm beneath their scrutiny. It was Urd, the crone, who had spoken, and she said now, “Why have you come to the Well?”

“I am Loki Odinson,” he answered. “My brother Thor lies dying of the fire serpent’s venom. I seek a way to heal him.”

“Odin’s son,” Verdandi mused. She was breathtakingly beautiful, a maiden in her prime. Her blue eyes fixed on Loki. “All knowledge has a price. Are you prepared to pay?”

“Yes,” Loki answered immediately. He’d known, before he came. Odin had told his sons how he’d lost his eye.

Urd and Verdandi exchanged a long look, then together turned to the well’s third guardian. Skuld stood a little apart from them, covered head to toe in a shroud of the finest silver silk, so that she seemed almost a part of the mists. Her head tilted toward Loki, though he could see nothing of her face behind her veil. When she spoke, her voice had a strange resonance: “Surtr knows the antidote. Give him what he seeks, and he will repay you.”

“What does he want?” Loki asked.

It was Verdandi who answered. “Sinmara.”

Sinmara, the giantess guardian of the mighty sword Lævateinn. Loki said, “And the price?”

“Three drops of Surtr’s blood,” Urd said, “taken unknowing.”

Loki nodded. “I will bring it to you,” he promised.

“Go with care, child of destiny,” Skuld said.

Loki bowed to them and took his leave. The task was difficult and the price was steep, and worse, he had little time. Only as long as it took his parents to accept that their son was lost, and better to allow him to die a warrior’s death than languish in an infirmary. He had to depend on their stubbornness, their grief, to hold out until he could get back. Though they had not bothered to wait by Loki’s own sickbed when he had been near death himself, some years ago after a bad encounter with svartalfen – they loved Thor far more than they loved their younger son. They would not so easily give up on him.

It was a slim hope.

It was the only hope Thor had.

*             *             *

Loki approached the gates of Muspelheim as if he was there with a full royal entourage: from the front, walking up the wide road with his head high, his hands open and empty at his sides. He’d seen the gates once before, many years ago, when Odin had taken him along on a rare diplomatic trip. They were some four times the height of a man – or of an Aesir, at least, for the man who stood between them was Surtr, Muspell’s greatest son, and his head came near to the top of the gates.

He had deep red skin and hair of fire like all the sons of Muspell, and his eyes were like black coals as he watched Loki approach. Loki stopped some distance away, far enough back that he would not strain his neck trying to look up at Surtr, near enough that he wouldn’t have to shout. He said, “I am Loki Odinson, of Asgard.”

“I remember you,” Surtr answered, in a voice like the rumble of a volcano. “Odin’s tiny ice child.”

Loki smiled politely; he supposed that to a fire giant, the single pale child standing silent and watchful among suntanned Aesir warriors would bear a resemblance to an ice sculpture. He said, “I’ve come to offer you a bargain. Will you hear me?”

Surtr scowled. “An Odinson dealt my serpent a terrible wound. Why should I listen to you?”

“Because the serpent returned the favor, and I need an antidote for its venom. In exchange,” he added quickly, “I will give you Sinmara.”

Surtr threw his head back and laughed. “A slip of a child offers me the mighty Sinmara,” he said. “Do you even know why she refuses me?”

“Tell me,” Loki said.

“She asks me three riddles, each time I go to her,” Surtr said. “She’ll not accept me unless I can answer all three.” He scowled. “I’ve yet to answer one.”

Loki near sighed with relief; riddles were doable. He’d feared something far more complicated. “What riddles?” he asked.

“They change each time,” Surtr grumbled. “She’s haughty, is Sinmara, and will not take a man into her bed who has not brains enough to amuse her.”

“Then take me with you,” Loki said, “and I can whisper the answers in your ear when she asks.”

“You’re small, ice child,” Surtr said, “but not that small. She will see you.”

“Will she?” Loki said, and called magic to him. His body melted and changed like water until he was a moth, green and sleek. He flew up to Surtr’s shoulder and settled into the collar of his armor, saying in his ear, “I think she will not.”

Surtr laughed again. “Perhaps you’re right. And in return for this, you want the antidote to my serpent’s venom?”

“Yes,” Loki said. “My brother is near death.”

“So is my serpent,” Surtr said.

“You still come out ahead,” Loki pointed out. “The serpent, unlike Thor, will recover on its own, and you will have Sinmara’s favor. Thor merely gets his life.”

The wait while Surtr considered it was agony. Loki was acutely aware of the seconds ticking by; could not stop thinking of Thor lying pale and still on the bed. Finally, though, Surtr nodded. “So be it, then. Come, little ice child, we court a giantess!”

*             *             *

The Sons of Muspell were as hot as Jotun were cold, and they had gone only a few miles before Loki’s moth-feet began to feel the heat of Surtr’s body through his armor, and still more heat radiating down from his burning hair. Loki could use his magic to shield himself, but to stay in a moth’s shape was already tiring, and he needed to spare what he could to collect the Norns’ price. So he bit his tongue and shifted from foot to foot, and tried not to think about burning.

They traveled the paths of the great tree for almost half an hour, even at Surtr’s long strides, before they finally reached Sinmara’s grove. It was a peaceful place, nestled in a colorful garden where flowers grew wild among the trees under a twilight sky. A wide-mouthed cave sat in the side of a tall green hill, and just within the cave’s entrance was Sinmara herself, seated on a carved stone bench.

Surtr stopped in the center of the grove and bowed to her. “Ah, my lady,” he said. “You make the stars shine the brighter for being allowed to shine upon you.”

“Your tongue drips with flattery,” Sinmara answered coolly. “Has your brain developed half so much intelligence, then, that you would try your luck once more?”

“I have studied,” Surtr answered. “Your riddles will not protect you any longer, Sinmara.”

The giantess laughed. “Let’s test that. Three questions, as before.” She took a breath and recited, “The serpent cannot make them, the whale never tries. The hawk may create them, but never when he flies.”

Surtr put his hand to his chin, as if considering. But Loki knew this riddle, had once stumped Thor and Sif and the Three with it for days, and he whispered in Surtr’s ear.

“Ah, my lady,” Surtr said. “I have it: Footprints!”

Sinmara’s brow lifted; she had clearly not expected any better from him than he had ever given. But she nodded, and a small smile curled the corner of her mouth. “Indeed,” she said. “No sooner spoken than broken.”

Again Surtr made a show of thinking, while Loki puzzled it over. It was a clever one, but Loki, too, was clever, and after a minute he gave Surtr the answer. “Silence,” Surtr announced, and Sinmara’s smile grew wider.

“You truly have studied,” she said. “Then, one more: I turn my head, and you may go where you want. I turn it again, and you’ll stay ‘til you rot. I have no face, but I live or die by my crooked teeth. What am I?”

Surtr made an unhappy sound; this one sounded difficult and indeed it was. Loki racked his brain, trying to recall any hint of the riddle in all his readings, any clue that might point him to the answer. Sinmara’s smirk did not waver, and after a time she said, “Have I stumped you again, son of Muspell?”

“No!” Surtr said. “But I must think on this one.”

“I will not wait forever,” Sinmara said, and Surtr growled.

Loki ignored them, trying to think. Thor’s life depended on getting the correct answer, and that thought ate at his mind, distracting him from the riddle itself.

“Well?” Sinmara asked.

“Patience, woman!” Surtr snapped. “I cannot think while you talk.”

“I have given you patience,” she answered.

There had to be a clue, something hidden in the riddle, had to be a key…

Oh. Of course. Loki almost laughed as he leaned close to whisper the answer.

“A key!” Surtr shouted triumphantly.

Sinmara smiled then, and inclined her head. “Three correct answers. Well done, son of Muspell.”

Surtr took a step forward. “Then, my lady—”

But Sinmara held up her hand, stopping him. “Intelligence you have demonstrated, but what of wisdom?”

“More tests?” Surtr growled.

“One final question,” Sinmara said. “How many sons has Odin Allfather?”

Loki frowned. Everyone knew of Asgard’s two princes, one gold and well-loved, one dark and mistrusted. Was it a trick question?

But Surtr was already speaking: “He has but one son, Thor, whom he intends to name king someday. I, Surtr, eldest son of Muspell, have seen it.”

Loki froze, shocked and sick at heart. He had known, always, that he was not loved as Thor, that as the second son he was tolerated at best – yet for Surtr to claim that he was no true son of Odin—!

Sinmara nodded. “So it is and so it will be. You have proven yourself this night, Surtr son of Muspell. Come and claim your reward.” She stood and disappeared into the cave.

Surtr began to follow her but Loki remembered himself and hissed in his ear, “The antidote! You promised the antidote!”

“Blood of the serpent, a maiden’s tears, and ice from Niflheim, stirred beneath starlight with a scale from the serpent’s belly,” Surtr whispered quickly. “Now begone! What follows is no business for an ice child—”

“Are you coming, my lord Surtr?” Sinmara asked, reappearing at the cave’s mouth. She looked at him and frowned. “What is that by your ear?”

Loki whispered, “A rose!” and fortunately Surtr had the wherewithal to play along. By the time his hand swept up to his shoulder Loki had become a rose, and he held him out to Sinmara. “A beautiful rose for a beautiful maiden,” Surtr said. So occupied was he with wooing her that he did not notice that the Loki-rose had thorns, nor that a particularly long and sharp thorn had pierced Surtr’s thumb.

Three drops of blood was all Loki needed, and they ran down his thorn and along his stem – but Surtr was the greatest of Muspell’s sons, and his blood was as that of a volcano, fiercely hot and burning as it flowed. Loki wanted to scream, but a rose has no mouth; even if he had, he would not have dared – not held between two giants as he was. He suffered in silence as Sinmara plucked him from Surtr’s fingers, and he was grateful when she laid him upon the bench and reached out for Surtr instead.

They disappeared into Sinmara’s cave and Loki changed himself back, gasping between gritted teeth. Surtr’s blood had burned away all of Loki’s right sleeve and halfway down the right side of his armor, exposing burnt flesh and bone all the way to the vial on his belt where the three drops were captured. But captured they were, and Loki fled Sinmara’s grove back to Muspelheim.

*             *             *

Along the way, he tried not to think about Surtr’s words. Yet there was little else to think on, except his worry for Thor. If Loki was no true son of Odin… what could that mean?

When he was young and just learning to hide, he had spent a great deal of time practicing in the servants’ halls. He’d overheard all sorts of gossip, including the rumor – whispered hastily in passing, for to even speak it aloud was treason – that the younger prince had been conceived while Odin was away at war. Frigga, lonely without her husband, had taken another man to warm her bed. Upon his return, Odin had been too proud to admit he’d been cuckolded, and had claimed the babe as his own – no matter that the timing was impossible.

The more Loki thought on it, the more it made sense. He did not look like Odin or Thor at all, and had only a passing resemblance to Frigga. He knew his parents did not love him, not as they loved Thor, and now he could see why: he was a living symbol of Frigga’s infidelity, of Odin’s cuckolding.

Yet, what did it matter? Loki could not change the circumstances of his own birth, could not change how his very existence was an insult to the Allfather. The only thing he could do was prove himself worthy, twice as worthy as Thor, so that it no longer mattered that he did not carry Odin’s blood in his veins.

So he ran through the twisting paths of Yggdrasil, ignoring the pain of his burned flesh, and finally emerged in the lava fields of Muspelheim. He’d known where Thor and Sif and the Three had gone to hunt – everyone knew where Surtr’s fire serpent made its lair – and it was little trouble to find their footprints. Loki traced them, following the path of their hunt, until he came across a place where the rocks had been crushed and great gold scales lay broken and scattered across the smoking ground. He carefully did not look at the bright red Aesir blood spattered among them.

He found the path of the serpent after the fight, unsteady and marked with dried serpent blood, and tracked it back to a narrow cave in the side of a mountain. He could see a great coil of scales not far inside, where the serpent slept off its wounds. He wrapped himself in a veil, taking care to disguise the stink of his own injuries – no matter that the serpent would not likely smell his injuries over its own – and slipped into the cave.

Surtr had been right: Thor, or one of his companions, had dealt the serpent a terrible blow. Blood still dripped down its flanks, and Loki crept close enough to fill another vial. The serpent’s blood, too, hissed and smoked against the glass, and Loki shuddered again as his wounds throbbed. It would be more difficult to steal a scale, especially with only one good arm. But he thought again of Thor lying helpless in the healers’ ward, and steeled himself. He found a spot on the beast’s belly where Mjölnir had landed, knocking loose a row of scales, and set to work prying one free. The serpent rumbled and shifted, and Loki held his breath – but it did not wake, and after several minutes’ effort he pulled free a shimmering gold scale.

He eased out of the serpent’s cave with even more care than he’d entered – it would be embarrassing, to be caught on the way out – and dropped his veil with a sigh. He had used more magic this day than he was accustomed to, and he would need yet more before the night was out.

*             *             *

He stopped in Niflheim for ice on his way back to the Well of Urðr, putting some in a tiny chest enchanted to stay frozen and packing more around his burns. The cold was a small enough relief, but it kept him upright and moving, and he did not scream when his steps jarred his injuries.

It was near midnight when he emerged beside the well once more. The Norns were waiting for him, and he knelt.

“Rise,” Urd bid him. “You have the blood?”

“I do,” Loki said, and offered her the vial.

She took it from him, holding it close to her nose to peer at it. “Well and done it is, Loki of Asgard,” she said, and this time Loki noticed that she did not call him Odinson. He knew, then, that Surtr’s blood had never been the true price.  

He bowed to her, and turned to Verdandi. “My lady, the antidote requires the tears of a maiden. May I be so forward?”

Verdandi gazed upon him for a long minute, then nodded. “For you, child, I will shed a tear.” She drew out a goblet and bent her head over it. When she handed it to him, filled with glistening tears, she said quietly, “The path of a prince is never an easy one. Take heart.”

“Thank you,” Loki whispered.

He bowed to them and set out once more upon the paths of the great tree, turning his feet to Asgard. He had the blood, the tears, the ice, and the scale. All that was left was to mix it together under starlight, and pray that he would be in time to save his brother.

*             *             *

Thor dreamed.

He is somewhere dark and frozen and foreboding, surrounded by enemies, and Fandral screams as a spear of ice takes him through the chest—

He is on the Bifrost and its light is everywhere, wild and scintillating and untamed, and Loki hangs helpless from the edge of the rainbow bridge. He looks up and begs, “Brother please—!”

He is in the gardens of Vanaheim with Loki; they are children still and laughing, and Thor dares Loki to scramble out ever further along a narrow branch, until it snaps and Loki plunges to the grass below—

He is falling, tumbling in a glass cage beneath a strange blue sky, the pain of betrayal sharp in his heart—

He is standing unarmed and helpless before Odin’s silver Destroyer, its orange eye aflame, and knows he is about to die—

He is burning, he is falling apart from the inside, but something tries to hold him together, something keeps him bound to the agony that is his body—

He is dying—

He was awake.

Thor blinked up at the ceiling of the healers’ ward, slowly focusing on the face of the woman who leaned over him. He recognized her as one of the healers, Frigga’s own, and struggled to remember what had happened, how he’d come to be here. He’d gone with Sif and the Three to Muspelheim to hunt the great serpent there—

The serpent. He remembered its fangs sinking into his shoulder, piercing his armor as if it was no more than cloth. Remembered fire raging through his skin, then nothing.

There was a cry to one side, then Frigga caught him up in a fierce embrace. “Thor,” she whispered. “Oh my son!”

He returned the embrace, though his arms were strangely weak. “I’m fine, Mother,” he said.

She pulled back enough to see his face, and now he could see the tear-tracks on her cheeks, the dark circles beneath her eyes. Odin stood behind her, his relief nearly a tangible thing. The Allfather stepped forward, resting a hand on Thor’s shoulder. “Welcome back,” he said gruffly.

Thor looked at Frigga again. “I’m fine,” he said, but it came out more a question than he’d intended.

Frigga smiled despite the tears in her eyes. “You nearly died,” she said. “It’s thanks to your brother that you’re still with us.”

Thor looked past them to see Loki, standing still and quiet in the shadows by the wall. “Then I owe you a great debt, brother,” he said. Loki’s only response was a small smile, but then Loki had never been one for great shows of emotion.

Thor allowed Odin and Frigga to fuss over him for a few minutes more, but even he had little patience for attention when he was not strong enough to revel in it; and eventually he shooed his parents away. “I’m fine, truly,” he told them. “You’ve business to attend to. I’ll do naught but sleep for a time, and there’s no need for you to watch over me.”

Frigga smiled at that, and Odin patted his shoulder, and together they departed. Loki, who still had not spoken, made as if to follow them, but Thor called him back. “Brother, I want to thank you,” he said. “I owe you my life, it seems.”

Loki smiled again, but it was faint and there was something wrong with his expression. He said, “Get some sleep, Thor,” and turned once again to leave.

Thor caught him by the wrist, then frowned. For a moment, he could’ve sworn he felt burning-hot flesh beneath his fingers, a slickness of blood; could have sworn Loki gasped in pain – yet Loki’s wrist was smooth and unharmed…

“Brother,” Thor said sharply, “drop your illusion.”

Loki turned back to him, smiling, baffled. “What are you talking about, Thor—”

But Thor tugged hard on his wrist and Loki’s words cut off in a cry of pain. Thor commanded, “Drop the illusion.” For just a moment Loki stared at him, green eyes defiant, then the illusion disappeared.

Thor’s breath caught in his chest. Loki’s right arm and side were a mass of burned flesh, with charred bone visible beneath the oozing blood. His palms, too, were burned, and his face and the back of his neck, an angry red as if he’d stood too close to a fire for far too long. Without his magic to mask it, the stench of burning was thick in the air. Loki wavered, as if the illusion had been the only thing holding him upright, and crumpled.

Thor shouted for the healers even as he tried to catch Loki. His strength was not yet what it should have been, but he managed to steer his fall so that he collapsed across Thor’s legs. Then the healers arrived, and they gently pushed Thor’s hands away and took Loki into their care.

*             *             *

When Loki came back to himself, he was lying on a bed in the healer’s ward, strong-smelling unguent slathered over his burns. Thor’s bed was next to his, empty. Thor himself, still dressed in the light shift and pants the healers had given him, sat on Loki’s bed, watching him. When he saw that Loki was awake, he smiled, broad and relieved. “Welcome back,” he said, and Loki wondered if Thor realized how much he sounded like Odin.

He tested his good arm; it held him enough that he tried to sit up, but Thor’s hand on his uninjured shoulder stopped him. He scowled, but Thor said, “The healer told me not to let you get up. She said you’re to rest.”

“You’re the one should be resting,” Loki grumbled.

Thor smiled again. “I was. Got bored.” Loki rolled his eyes, but before he could speak Thor’s expression turned serious and he said, “Brother, what were you thinking, hiding this? If you’d left it untreated you would’ve lost your arm! You could’ve died!

Loki looked away. In truth, he wasn’t sure if he could put in words the fear that, had he returned to Asgard with a major injury of his own, he’d have merely been accused of imitating Thor, of trying to steal attention from the golden prince – no matter that he’d been injured finding an antidote for the poison that was killing him. So all he said was, “I have some salve in my rooms.”

Thor looked rather like he wanted to smack him. “Some salve,” he repeated. “You’re a prince, Loki! We’ve healers for a reason. And you were injured because of me – did you think they’d not treat you?”

You’re their prince,” Loki said softly. “It doesn’t matter what happens to me. If you died, they’d have mourned, and if you died when I could’ve saved you, they’d crucify me. But if I died…” He shrugged his good shoulder. “No one would mourn.”

Thor stared at him, and for once Loki could not read the expression on his face. Thor said, firmly, “I would mourn you, brother. I would not—I would never—have you trade your life for mine. Don’t ever let that idea cross your mind again. Ever.” He punctuated the words with a gentle shake. “Do you understand me?”

Loki nodded, a little unsteadily. It was enough. Even if Loki was nothing but a symbol of betrayal and infidelity to Odin and Frigga – even if they did not love him and never would – Thor still did.

It would have to be enough.