Breaking the Wheel
They lose pieces every Ragnarok; little things such as the harsh sting that follows betrayal, memories of loss, suffering, the pain of death. With every rebirth, they relearn the strength of good mead and how to smile.
For all he was called the Shifter, the only one who never changed or truly forgot anything was Loki. Late at night, Thor would listen to his mutterings when his brother thought Thor was asleep.
“What is the strength of your forgiveness, that you can have so much of it?” Another, unasked question hung from Loki’s lips: How much of my evil must you forget, to forgive me? The slighter man curled up behind him, and Thor felt a hand cautiously make its way over his hip and around his waist. Loki radiated a pleasant chill against his back, despite the midsummer air.
Thor lay still, caught between a frown and a smile. His brother was here with him, his very presence between the sheets making Thor’s heart warm.
Truly, there were likely many things the thunder god did not know about his brother. On the other hand, Thor recalled far more of their past than he would ever mention.
Loki threw Thor against the wall. The taller god moved to defend himself, but paused as Loki gazed at him with narrow eyes and ill-hidden indecision. They were very close together, his breath moving over Thor’s neck in small gusts.
“Would you still love me if I hurt you, brother?” he asked, and Thor paused.
(Monster teeth. A serpent’s jaw enclosing his entire body. Loki’s hand ripping at his heart, holding it to the light still beating.)
A moment passed too quickly, then: “I would still love you if you killed me, Loki.”
Thor pulled his brother into a tight embrace, not caring what others in the corridor might see.
The stables were deserted. Moonlight streamed through windows and doors, dust motes swirling in the wake of quiet neighs and restless hooves. Loki moved just as quietly over dry thrushes, finally reaching his destination.
The stall in the far corner was the largest, by far the most opulent, and contained the most gorgeous equine the Trickster had ever laid eyes on. “Sleipnir.”
The horse’s head jerked up and released a whinny of unmistakable joy, scrambling up on eight powerful legs. The god smiled as the black horse shoved his nose into Loki’s chest, taking in his scent with great huffs. Loki felt his face soften as he stroked Sleipnir’s cheeks and neck, careful to avoid the permanent golden bridle wrapped around it. “Do I really smell that interesting?” he asked as Sleipnir continued to sniff at his shirt and collar. The horse snorted, turning to look at Loki with a twinkling sable eye. The god could sense the amusement rolling off his son.
Ah, he smells Thor on me. Loki swatted at his nose, “Our little secret, yes? Or you don’t get any of Idunn’s apples from me for a month.” Sleipnir nickered, though whether it was agreement or simple pleasure from Loki’s gentle touch, he didn’t know – then Loki felt something that made him freeze inside, just a little. There was crusting at the base of the bridle, barely noticable underneath the shiny straps. One moment, Loki was freezing, the next, white-hot rage swept through him.
“What…what is this?” Sleipnir grunted, tried to pull away, but Loki caught at the bridle even though it stung and burned his fingers. “You’re hurt.”
Then it came to him – damn Odin Allfather. The man who took my son from the moment of birth and bound him as a simple steed. Loki had coped, dealt with it as he had a thousand times before, but everything was different this time. Thor…and Sleipnir… Even though he was the son of a god, a horse could only wear a bridle and bit for so long before it started to bite back, rubbing away hair and skin until the area was bloody and swollen with pus.
Only Odin Allfather had the power to take off the bridle, and that was one thing Loki was certain he would never do – too afraid to give Loki’s children any power or freedom, lest they prompt the Ragnarok. He could still hear Fenrir’s howls as Tyr bound him to the earth, Jor’s thrashing, his daughter’s half-rotten eye filling with tears. A sound escaped the trickster’s mouth, halfway between pain and bitter rage.
How could he do this to you? The thought was familiar as time itself, as azure hidden under Æsir skin.
But the words that escaped were less familiar. “I will free you, my son, no matter what I have to do.” Sleipnir kept quiet, silent in the manner of a being who’d heard the words hundreds of times before, life after life. Have I said this before? The uncertainty was overwhelming.
Loki fled. He couldn’t bear to look or think anymore.
Hidden by the doorframe on the other side of the stable, Thor finally released a breath.
Thor was a man of often oversimplified logic. When his brother up and disappeared for months at a time, he merely assumed Loki was hiding away to prepare new tricks. Truly, it shouldn’t surprise him to learn of the existence of yet another child of Loki’s. Distant pasts bearing the faces of a wolf, a half-rotten woman, and a giant serpent floated to the forefront, laid over with the instances where Loki had appeared for a short while, stomach distended and magic crackling.
Thor stumbled over air as another thought struck him – Sleipnir was well known as the son of Svadilfari, the stallion that once threatened Asgard, and Odin took and bound him in recompense, which would make his brother…
He snorted. Finally, the thunder god could no longer hold back his guffaws. Sif, already on her way to the practice field despite the early hour, shot a concerned look as she passed him in the hall. Thor waved her off, until she finally rolled her eyes and left.
Leave it to Loki to accidentally become a mother….again.
He abruptly cut off the chuckles still trying to escape. Mother. Loki was the mother of Sleipnir, Odin’s steed, whom he kept under his complete control. The golden bridle reigned in the horse’s raw power and commanded total obedience.
Having grown up with horses, Thor knew they sometimes required a firm hand. This was permissible for a mere steed, but the horse Odin rode was Loki’s son. Odin’s grandchild, Thor’s nephew. He’d seen the intelligence shining in Sleipnir’s eyes but always assumed it was a product of Odin’s presence, like the intellect of Hugin and Munin. Sleipnir, though, was the son of an Æsir and as such, Æsir himself. The pain in his brother’s voice finally consolidated with the fact that Thor’s kin was being treated as a slave to his own grandfather. It burned through him like lightning.
“Father, I would speak with you,” Thor cast his eyes about to the guards, dressed in shining armor and quick judgments, “alone.”
Less than two minutes later, thunder roiled in the sky as Thor stared at his father in confusion and irritation.
“Sleipnir is not a legitimate member of this family. He was birthed by Loki who should be siring instead of begetting children. I refuse your request.”
Thor felt like he was choking on a piece of salted meat. “And what if I had such children? Would you take my son or daughter from me and make them carry you about; corral them away like some common animal?”
Aged knuckles tightened around Hrungnir. “You are my son, Thor, not the Mother of Monsters.” The Allfather’s voice was cold as a river running under thin ice. Thor tried to swallow the lump in his throat as the words sank in.
“How can you say this? Loki is your son, my brother! How can you speak the same words lowly commoners use to degrade your very blood?!” His face grew hot in his growing anger and bemusement. However, when Odin’s grip on Hrungnir tightened so the metal squealed in protest and a wave of power crashed into him, Thor nearly lost his ground. Odin only turned that legendary rage on him once in a millenium.
“Perhaps you have forgotten Ragnarok once more, Thor! Loki will always be the harbringer, and you, my true son-”
The rest of the proclamation was lost as Thor stopped listening, the words ringing like a gong in his ears. Memories rose up like the harshest of his storms, one thousand lives and deaths hanging overhead.
Tears, red eyes, a broken god hanging from the broken Bifrost.
“I am not your brother.”
Mjolnir hummed from his belt, and ever-present anchor. He…had forgotten something with each Ragnarok, the most important piece of memory torn from him with each new turn as Yggdrasil built itself anew. In a rare moment of insight, Thor knew who to blame.
“How dare you,” the man hissed, glaring at his father’s stormy blue eye. “You keep this from me, from him-”
“Loki knows, Thor. I take him, raise him as my own only to be betrayed every time. He plays you for a fool. From the Trickster come the world-destroyers Fenrir and Jormungandr. He will only ever use his children as tools for evil.”
Thor’s brother is Jotunn with bloody eyes, skin paler blue than the sapphires that adorn Frigga’s neck. The sting of betrayal spikes in his gut.
You remember who you are. Why did you not tell me? Thor wants to implore, wishing Loki were there at that very moment. I would still…I do still love- Thor’s faltering resolve hardened, recalling his original purpose for the meeting.
“Father, you shall return my brother’s son to him.” The words rang in the air for one otherwise silent second.
Odin snarled, waves of power buffeting Thor where he stood, gripping Mjolnir to keep steady. “You still deny my will, the product of wisdom accumulated over millenia? Do not let yourself believe I do not know what goes on behind closed doors in my own palace, Thor. That you still call Loki your brother is abominable.”
The first real cracks of fear shot through him. Odin knew. Thor and Loki had touched in a way that kin should never touch and Odin knew… Without conscious though his hand grasped at Mjolnir and the hammer responded in a manner unprecedented – it shrieked, driving away Odin’s oppressive angry magic. Thunder crackled above Asgard, cutting through the stones in a reverberating wave. Mjolnir made its way into his hand. Thor stood tall, all submissiveness to the Allfather evaporating in moments. What could Odin do to him now that he had not before? He’d taken Thor’s rights as heir, stripped him of Mjolnir, cast him to Midgard, lied about Loki’s origins, and abandoned Thor to rot until he’d “learned his lesson.”
Thor had lived enough lives now to know that a few days on Midgard and a woman’s fleeting love did not a king make.
“Call me what words you wish, father. Kill me if you must, but if you do not release Loki’s son I will cast away the title of Odinson and leave Asgard. And I shall take them with me.”
Odin snarled again, this time animalistic, a god of wisdom becoming a god of war. “You will obey me!”
Thor ignored the frisson of fear in his heart. This is for my brother, for his son. The thunderer raised his chin and spoke two words, “No, Allfather.”
Thor watched Odin’s face as he seemed to crumple on himself, a ugly look of desperation and fear in his eyes. He raised his hand in a manner Thor had seen once before. “Then I strip you of your power once more.” Though said in an undertone, his words echoed in the ears of all of Asgard.
For once heart-stopping moment, Mjolnir quivered. Thor tightened his grip, putting all the strength of his resolve behind it. The hammer fell still. The thunder god looked up at Odin, who was standing with his hand still raised, mouth slack as he registered that the summoning had failed. Thor took a breath.
“This hammer was a gift to me from Loki, a gift he won from the dwarves after I threatened to break all his bones. I realize now that Mjolnir was never yours to command, Odin Allfather. My hammer knows better than any other being in this kingdom who truly deserves the title of ruler,” he kept speaking, his gaze locked on Odin’s face. “I denounce my place as Odinson, and hereby exile myself from the palace and cut all ties with the house of Odin.”
Thor gasped as something inside him snapped, lifting a great weight from his shoulders that he’d never known existed. He straightened, nodded to his former father, and left the hall.
Thor couldn’t have broken Odin’s heart more thoroughly if he took Mjolnir to it.
He first went, not to Loki or Sleipnir, but to Frigga. He wouldn’t, couldn’t refer to her as his mother anymore. Not when she’d been complicit to Odin’s deception for millennia. She was in the solar as he knew she’d be – as she always was when Thor or Loki came bearing their hurts as children. She stood at a window, weaving abandoned in a pile as she watched the rain of Thor’s anger lash the window panes.
“Frigga…” Stars and stones, it hurt to call her name.
“Thor.” She turned, no surprise evident in her eyes at his presence or the sudden change in address. He let out a breath he didn’t realize he was holding.
“You knew. Everything.” He didn’t need her nod for confirmation – it was all present in the way her shoulders sagged with unseen weight. Thor’s heart clenched.
“This was a long time coming, my son.” He flinched.
“I am not your son-“
“I have heard those words from one boy more than enough, thank you,” Frigga snapped, “You are my son no matter what ties you may have cut with my husband.” Her anger was permeable, but not enough to cover an edge of pain.
Thunder rolled outside. “And Loki?” He watched as her eyes crinkled with a slow, sad smile.
Slowly, the vice around his heart loosened. “If you have foreseen all this, then you know why I have come. Will you grant me this favor…mother?”
Frigga laid a hand on his cheek, her stance at once motherly and every ounce the regal queen. “You need not even ask.”
Thor stepped into the rain with nothing but Mjolnir and the clothes on his back. He intended to leave Asgard, and anything required could either be hunted or conjured by his brother. His brother was surely searching for him now, the trickster’s attention caught by the savage storm tearing through Asgard’s sky. And though Thor was eager to see his brother, he had something to do first.
The stable was not quiet when he arrived – horses whinnied fearfully due to the noise of the unnatural storm and grooms darted left and right, trying to calm the beasts before they either kicked down their stalls or injured themselves trying. The whole affair quieted immediately when Thor came through the door, his sheer presence catching the attention of everyone in the vicinity.
“You,” he pointed to the nearest groom, a boy of some few hundred years, “fetch me Sleipnir.”
The boy hesitated – no one but Odin ever rode Sleipnir, but who was he to deny the crown prince? “Would you like him saddled, your lordship?”
Thor frowned. “No, no tack. Take the bridle off, as well.”
This time it was the boy’s turn to frown. “A-apologies, but only the Allfather can remove the bridle.” In his confusion he forgot to use proper address, but Thor could hardly care less at this moment.
“No matter. Fetch him now.” His tone came out sharper than intended, but the boy spun around and was off like a shot. Mjolnir was humming again. Calm. Easy.
The boy was back a minute later, leading the powerful stallion with a simple rope, since he could not touch the bridle itself. Thor was quiet for a moment, watching. Sleipnir followed the boy at a relaxed pace, seemingly not on edge as the other horses in the stable were. As they locked gazes, Thor wondered how he could ever have mistaken this being as a simple animal – its, his gaze was far too intelligent, too aware. The boy placed the rope in Thor’s outstretched hand without a word.
“Nephew,” he paused, the word strange on his tongue. “I have come to set you free.” Then Thor turned and walked back into the rain, not stopping to take note of the groom’s confusion. Sleipnir followed without further prompting, neither tugging on the lead nor flinching when rain and wind lashed at his hide.
The first order of business was removing that damnable bridle – now he paid attention, he could feel the aura of magic around it. No doubt if Loki could remove it, he would already have found a way a hundred times over. According to the groom only the Allfather could remove it, but Thor had already been down that road. The only option left was Thor himself, and he did not wish to use Mjolnir’s might for fear it may injure his newfound kin.
Sleipnir followed him off the palace grounds without protest and into a deserted training area. They saw no Æsir along the way, for even the stoutest warriors had long taken shelter. The thought of Sif and the Warriors Three made him sad, but he felt no regret – Æsir led long lives and he had no doubt he would see them again. At the moment Loki and his son were more important. When he finally halted and turned, Sleipnir was very close to eye level, watching him carefully. The golden bridle glinted with each flash of lightning.
“I am given to thinking you can understand me,” Thor started. The wind had calmed some, so he could hear himself over the storm. “If you consent, I would remove the bridle that hurts you, and take you and my brother from this realm.” There was a short moment of silence broken only by the rain, then the stallion snorted and took a step forward, pressing his muzzled into Thor’s chest. There was no clearer affirmation. Thor shifted, checking the bridle for clasps and finding none, as expected. He touched the braided metal – it stung, a warning to which he paid no heed, slipping two fingers underneath. It was a tight fit, far tighter than any bridle should be. Warmth seeped down his fingers, and Thor tried not to think about the fact it did not come from the rain.
“Brace youself,” he murmured, and tugged with both hands in sharp motion that would have snapped any normal rope or chain. Nothing gave, but the metal began to warm so quickly his hands would soon be in danger of getting burned. Sleipnir also seemed to feel the heat, for he let out a low whinny and stomped the sodden earth. Quickly, then. “Just one more time.” Thor took a breath, pulling on the power of the clouds above him, the strength of the wind, the hum of Mjolnir’s might as Sleipnir dug his eight hooves into the mud and he pulled.
There was a flash of lightning and a crash of thunder that nearly covered the voice and Sleipnir’s cry. Thor’s hands felt like they were melting as he felt the metal give way at last. He ripped from the horse’s head and flung it to the ground even as he, too, dropped to the earth on his knees. Then there were hands on his face and a voice calling his name.
“Thor, Thor! Are you alright?” It was Loki, of course. His brother had the best and worst timing in all the realms. Not even the pain in his hands could stop the smile growing on Thor’s face as he heard a snuffle by his ear and felt a wet velvet muzzle press against his cheek. “By the Nine, you idiot, answer me!”
“Loki, your son is free.”
“Yes, I noticed, but you cannot believe the Allfather would possibly allow-” the God of Mischief was, for once, totally out of his depth when Thor shook his head.
“I have broken ties with the house of Odin. He can no longer dictate our actions – we are free to go wherever we wish.” Thor was granted the rare privilege of seeing Loki struck dumb.
After a moment, the god murmured, “This has never happened before.”
“No,” Thor agreed. Not in a thousand lifetimes. Somehow without him noticing, the rain had slowed down to a drizzle. Sleipnir lipped at his hair. The next moment Thor was pulled into a rough embrace as Loki too dropped to his knees, one arm wrapped around his son’s broad head and the other around Thor’s shoulders.
“Thank you, thank you,” Loki whispered into his neck. Thor dropped a kiss on the younger god’s head, noticing as they pressed together that Sleipnir’s coat shone the exact same shade of ebony as Loki’s hair. They stayed like that for a long moment, basking in joy and relief and newfound freedom.
It was only later, when they pulled themselves out of the mud and Loki began to inspect the traces left by the bridle on his son that the trickster god voiced a question. “What shall we do now?”
“I need you to take us to Lyngvi, in Niflheim.”
Loki jerked and turned to look at him. He’d probably expected Thor would suggest Midgard, where they could shelter amongst his friends. “Why?”
Thor didn’t fight a smile as he looked into his brother’s captivating green eyes.
“Mother told me where to find Fenrir.”