“Are we lost?” is the first thing Thor says.
Loki sits on a mossy boulder, the map unrolled in his hands. Dark hair falls forward across his eyes. Thor is straightening from where he stands mid-stream, listening to the sound of crickets and the soft whisper of the rye fields, holding up a hand to shield against the setting sun.
After a moment, Loki clears his throat. “No. We are not lost.”
“Perhaps you stole the wrong map. That one is all frayed at the edges. Are you sure it’s – ”
“We are not,” Loki snaps, “lost.”
Thor wades his way out of the shallow stream. “Should we bed down for the night, then?”
A fish thrashes somewhere in a rock-pool behind them. This is old country, far beyond the city gates – they had to ride for half a day to get here. It is summer and the weather is heavy, soporific, rolling in like the banked-up clouds on the horizon; rain, when it comes, as it does every now and then, is a light spit that barely makes it beneath the first layer of soil.
“We should probably try and move further west,” Loki says, rolling the map up. There is a distracted frown on Loki’s face, like he’s concentrating very hard on something. “Before we lose the light.”
“No need to ride ourselves into the ground. We’ve got all of tomorrow.”
“I promised Father we’d be back within four days.”
“You know how Mother gets worried.”
Thor does know. Now that they are nearly of age – now that they are just on the cusp of becoming men, warriors, soon to be provided with weapons – he has noticed something new in Frigga’s face.
“She has been a little sad, lately,” Thor says at last. “Have you noticed that?”
“All mothers are sad,” Loki says, “in a way, when their children grow up. It is natural.”
“I don’t know.” Loki stands with a huff, the map disappearing into a cloud of smoke. “Are we leaving?”
They ride on west, into the waning light of the sun. Dusk comes upon them, a steady, darkening shade of the sky; the stars above them open up, blinking, startled that it is night already again.
Loki looks strange in the firelight. This is something that Thor has noticed over the years: millennia upon millennia of observing his brother, as quietly and unobtrusively as he can, though he is not particularly good at being unobtrusive. He watched as Loki’s hair grew longer, as his face grew sharper; as his eyes turned a deeper shade of green, so that looking into them now, Thor sometimes feels like he is being scorched by one of Grislar’s famed bonfires.
Loki gives him an irritated nudge in the side. “If you’re going to ask me to tell a story, brother, you should at least have the manners to listen to it.”
“I was listening.”
“You never listen.” Loki shifts backward, out of reach of the fire. “I am going to sleep.”
“But it’s still so early,” Thor says. “And you haven’t told me where we are going tomorrow.”
“Still west. We have not reached the forest edges yet.”
“And that is where the dragon is?”
Loki’s armour glints dully as he begins to shed it, piece by piece, carefully, onto a blanket. “That is as good a place for a dragon to be as any. Unfortunately I have not met many dragons in my lifetime, so I have not been able to personally enquire. But I will remember to ask in the future. Good night.”
Thor tosses a fresh log onto the fire. “Good night, Loki.”
“Careful with that, or we’ll all catch on fire.”
Something twitches at the edge of Thor’s mouth. In the clearing, Dram stamps a hoof and tugs at her reins. The moon is a full one tonight. The breeze shivers. They are brothers, and they are hunting a dragon. It is like something out of a story; something out of a fable perhaps, or a ballad; something low, impossibly gentle, something beautiful. Something that you remember.
He blinks into awareness. The sky is pale and streaked with cloud. The dawn light washes the ground around them white, chalky, pure. He mumbles Loki’s name.
“Shh,” Loki says, coming to crouch beside him. “It is still early. Go back to sleep.”
Something smoothes through his hair. A bird, hidden in a bush nearby, trills.
“You shouldn’t ride and read a map at the same time, brother,” Thor says.
“I am not like you,” Loki says. “I can manage two things at once.”
This dragon that they are hunting is an elusive one. Tales have been brought back to the court of its existence, though nobody can ever seem to agree on any two points together. It is a monstrous creature, with fangs the length of a grown man’s arm; it is small, and sly, with scales like a snake; it is a harmless thing, yellow-eyed, with a pair of webbed wings too stunted to carry its weight.
“You must let me slay the dragon alone, Loki,” Thor says.
Loki snorts. “What, with your stolen blade? You’ll cut your own nose off.”
“I am a better warrior than you – ”
“Dragons are creatures of magic,” Loki tells him. A ray of sun falls on the open map, then glides its way onto the skin of Loki’s wrist. “You can’t just stab them. They won’t die that way.”
“How do you know? I thought you’d never met a dragon.”
“You don’t have to meet a dragon to know how to kill it,” Loki says, sounding disgusted. “I read it in a book in the library. I know what spells to cast. I’ve even brought all my runes with me.” A slight upward tilt of the chin. “I’ve been practising.”
Thor looks at him, curious. “Practising on what?”
“This and that. It doesn’t really matter. The point is that at least I have practised. You haven’t.”
“I am not of age yet,” Thor says.
“I am not of age either.”
The ground beneath them is starting to rise. Thor wants to say, but I am older than you. I cannot allow you to be hurt. You are my brother; I have to be on guard for you, I have to protect you.
One more thing that he cannot say aloud. He says, instead, “We should look for a cave.”
It is dry, rocky, and full of dead leaves. Loki insists on going inside it first, taking small, wary steps, crouched forward a little as if ready to spring. There is a pile of animal bones in the corner but they look as if they have been there for centuries. A rat squeaks – they both jump, Loki reaching for a knife – the creature scuttles away into the undergrowth with a fat rustle.
“Nothing here,” Loki says.
No dragon. But it is no great setback, not to find a dragon in the first cave that you look.
When they go back to their horses, Loki’s face is white. Thor can see how his brother’s hands are trembling on the saddle as they mount. In the cave, before they had known it was only a rat, before they had known it was harmless, Loki had snatched at him; a fist in his cape, getting ready to shove him, to push him forcefully out of harm’s way.
Loki is sitting by the edge of the lake, sharpening a knife on one of the rocks there. Knives are children’s weapons – that is the only reason why Loki has been allowed to have them.
“If we do not find it,” Loki tells him, calmly, “then we pack up our things, and we ride for home.”
“We will have to find it tomorrow, or else we will not be back in time.”
Loki sighs. “Yes, Thor, I am aware.”
All afternoon, Loki had been very quiet. They’d picked their way through the forest silently, searching out one cave, then another. Most had been empty: one had held a bear, but when it had heard them approaching it had loped off in the opposite direction.
Thor says, “The time is going so quickly. It doesn’t feel as if we have been here for two days.”
“That is the nature of time,” Loki says, moving back into the light. “All things pass.”
“But there must be some things in this world that do not.”
“I don’t know.”
Loki drops down into the grass beside him. Loki makes the movement look like water – like something natural and easy. “Do you know that in some of the other Realms, they think we are immortal?”
“Like Grislar, you mean? And Midgard?”
“Yes.” The knife disappears into a leather scabbard. “But we are not. Nothing is. It is not possible for a thing to last forever. Even mountains are worn away, oceans dry up. You will come of age, and then I will come of age, and then one day Father and Mother will pass, and you will be king. Then on another day, you will pass too. There is nothing to be done.”
Something is twisting inside Thor’s chest. “I do not believe that.”
“Why not?” Loki looks over, enquiring. “It is how things must be.”
“I do not believe – I cannot believe that we are so helpless. You make it sound as if there is nothing we can change about the future. As if it is already decided.”
“Many things are already decided.”
“But not all things. Some things do not have to end.”
Loki’s eyes settle on his face, sharp, assessing. The fire they have lit tonight is smoky – bright, full sashes of it ripple up into the air. Thor is thinking of the dragon that they will probably never find; the mountains and forests are full of likely places, cliffs and ravines, great, gaping chasms in the earth, vales and copses and the mouths of rivers and open spaces within the hearts of hollow trees; a journey that will carry them perhaps to the end of the universe, a search that will go on until the final stroke of time.
“You will always be my brother,” he says. “It does not matter what happens – nothing will ever change that, Loki. It is something that will never pass.”
“You say that now, but once you are king – ”
“Once I am king, I will love you all the more. I swear it.”
Loki’s gaze wavers a second. When it finally breaks away, it skitters over their tiny campsite, over their gilt-edged saddles and their half-hearted pile of kindling, over the pebbles their horses have kicked aside.
“You do not need to swear it,” Loki says at last.
“But I will,” Thor says. “I already have.”
At first they are not even sure what it is. It begins with a ticking of the leaves, like the pitter-patter of animal feet; and then, gradually, the water starts to come down in earnest, skipping from branches, slanting to pelt the trunks of trees, knocking aside the ferns that grow at the foot of the forest. Fat droplets shatter into the earth – a wet, green smell rises up from the soil, like the scent of something new, something freshly born. There is no wind. The clouds are a deepened shade of grey and they roll across the sky like the bellies of ships setting out for land.
The rain disappears as quickly as it comes.
They are both still standing out in the open, looking up. A feather is caught in Loki’s hair. Thor’s hand reaches across the space between them: “Wait, Loki, you have a – ”
Loki smiles at him.
Thor has to crane his neck to see. His heart leaps into his mouth – for a moment he thinks that Loki means the dragon they have come to track, perhaps now blundered into their path and breathing fire – but it is only Munnin perched on a branch.
A strange and bittersweet, indefinable feeling washes into his stomach. “Must we go back?”
“Yes, my prince,” Munnin says.
“Can we not – stay for one more day?”
“I am afraid that is against your Father’s wishes. You are both very much missed.”
“Come on, Thor,” Loki says. The pale shape of Loki’s hand ghosts along his shoulder. “It will take us more than a day’s riding to make our way back to the city.”
“But we have not yet found what we came for.”
“That is alright,” Munnin tells them. “You can always come back.”
It is never too late to embark on something – it is never too late, given a willing heart, to try. Some part of Loki, Thor knows, some deep and inaccessible part, will always be doubtful. Some part of his brother will always be afraid. Shrunken into the shadows of some mythical place, furling and unfurling its great, leathery wings, a dragon that nobody has heard or seen lies waiting; where it broods on the future and, troubled, uncertain, it armours itself and sharpens its fangs.
“I will hunt this dragon out one day,” Thor says. “Loki, one day I will slay it for you.”
It is a promise. Together, in the dappled light, they turn their horses. Together, they ride towards home.