Chapter 8: You are the king, but I'm the land
They were in the orchard again; first they were playing hiding games, as they had as children, then they were clasping one another, Loki's hands clawing Thor's back. Now Loki drew Thor's head against him, and allowed him to drink sweet honey. The taste still clinging to his tongue, Thor lay on the grass- as he had not many nights ago- while Loki cut his hair with a pair of silver shears. "I always wanted to rule Asgard alongside you," he said, cutting off a fat lock and placing it to one side.
Thor laughed, hollowly. "Liar."
"Not this time, actually," said Loki. A cold wind set the trees to rustling and they were both nine and ten years old again. "I had it all mapped out. I would tend to the business of governance while you headed up the army and kept our borders safe. You would be the icon of the people, always in the limelight, and I'd sneak around behind your back, cleaning up your messes. Like Frigga does for Odin."
It was a nice picture, but it was a lie.
"You'd have to be my wife, then," Thor muttered, eyes closing as his brother's hands stroked his jaw, and the cool metal of the shears touched his throat.
He awoke from this dream, stared at the ceiling for a second, then leapt from his bed bellowing in rage.
Charging out of bed, entirely naked, he flung open the door to his bedroom and barked at a nearby squire to saddle his horse, ready to set out at first light and track down…
Then he stopped, turned back and retraced his steps, for at some point in the last ten seconds his eyes had registered an anomaly that his brain had not.
In his bedroom lay his boots, his favoured sword, and Mjolnir, who was never more than two feet from him as he slept. Nothing out of the ordinary there.
Except he was certain that the untidy wads of parchment, bound together with black thread, that peaked out from underneath Mjolnir had not been there when he'd fallen asleep six hours ago.
He debated with himself whether it was wise to touch them. Throwing caution to the wind- if they were coated in poison, Mother would be able to administer an antidote swiftly enough, if they were cursed, one of Father's advisors would know the counter-curse- he lifted Mjolnir, picked them up, and was in the process of removing the thread when it clicked.
Underneath. The papers had been left underneath Mjolnir.
His brother's voice echoed in his ears.
"It was so cruel to put the hammer in your reach, knowing you could never lift it."
Thor stood there, not moving to unbind the stack of paper further, while he thought. Inspiration struck five minutes later.
"He didn't raise the hammer," Thor said to himself. "He lowered the floor."
He got down on his hands and knees to check and, indeed, the carpet beneath Mjolnir's core dipped at least two inches. "He actually crept into my room, cut away at the floor beneath the hammer, put the paper beneath it and then rebuilt the floor. HAH! Excellent wretch!"
Feeling inordinately proud of himself, he took out the first paper, only to find that they were all part of one large, folded piece of parchment, with ragged edges suggesting that it had been messily cut from a scroll.
"At least you're alive," he said to his absent sibling.
He read. It was a list of instructions for a spell, in a language Thor did not recognise, with neat translations written adjacent to each sentence. The purpose of the spell, as Thor could divine it, was to grant one the power of levitation.
No, wait, that was wrong. Loki had showed him levitation spells when they were younger, during one of those short-lived periods in which he desired nothing more than to show off by opening his stupid brother's eyes to the many wonders of magic and the ways in which they could aide one on the battlefield. Thor had shrugged off the lesson, saying that he would soon be able to fly with Mjolnir's aide, and that he could foresee no tactical advantage to be gained from making an enemy hover above one's head.
This wasn't a levitation spell, though it bore similar hallmarks. This was different this… that word, he knew what that meant, where had he heard it before…
Damn Loki. He must have known Thor would struggle with this one.
It took him ten minutes of reading, moving his lips silently, to interpret the purpose of the spell. It was a spell to grant strength. Unlimited strength, although… very strange, it granted unlimited strength, but only when that strength was put to a certain, specific purpose. One could not use the spell to punch through mountains or throw a stone through the crust of the planet. One could only use it to lift things. One might be unable to push aside a boulder, but one would be able to lift…
Thor's eyes flickered to Mjolnir.
…anything one wanted to.
One mystery solved. Why would Loki have left this for him to find? To make the next game more fun, his brain supplied.
Thor's eyes ran down the page, seeking out possible methods of counteracting the spell, imagining waking to find Mjolnir spirited away in the night. There were the necessary incantations, and here were the special ingredients required. And here were the rites one had to perform.
And down there, in the left-hand corner, was the word 'sacrifice' and here were the words 'a being pure of heart, of [underlined three times] royal blood'.
At the very bottom of the page there was a painstakingly detailed diagram.
Beneath it, written in Loki's own handwriting; MEET YOU IN THE MARKET.
The commercial heart of Asgard was a sprawling, open-air market, where denizens of the Nine Worlds (or at least, of those worlds who currently enjoyed a friendly relationship with Asgard) came to barter, to trade, to auction, to find sponsors, to learn and offer their services. The market was vast in the way that only structures built by gods could be, so vast that, standing in the middle of it, one could not see where the city began again. It could accommodate up to ten million people at once.
At the heart of the market hung an iron bell. It had been forged from the same metal as Mjolnir, although not in the heart of a dying star, but in the belly of a dragon, who had been chained and peppered with a million spears, kept alive only so long as it took the forgers to complete the clapper and the crown.
The bell had hung there for longer than most of Asgard had existed. If it had a name, no one knew it. It had no part in formal ceremonies; it had last been rung before the market itself had even formed, by Frigga's great, great grandmother (a drunken Valkyrie who felt that her great, great granddaughter's birth had not yet been marked by sufficient pomp and pageantry.)
Today, it rung. It rung loud and it rung long, shaking cobblestones loose and making teeth itch.
It did not take long to draw a crowd; the market was already the most densely populated segment of Asgard at any one time, and the clanging drew men and women away from the gladiator ring and in from the fields, abandoning work and play to inspect this new phenomenon.
When an estimated million people had gathered, Loki let the nameless bell go with a final, resounding 'gong.'
Then he smiled at all of them, crocodile-wide, and set to work.
The sun was high in the sky as Thor reached the market, Mjolnir screaming as it flew.
His eyes barely noted the throng, which by now must have been three million strong at least. Nor did they remark upon the curious absence of his friends, who would normally have been at the forefront of any such gathering, inquisitive bloodhounds that they were.
For once, no one hailed him as he touched down, for all attention was otherwise engaged at the very centre of the market, where the hung the great bell he had climbed up and played upon as a child.
The crowd was pressed tightly together, filling every nook and cranny of the marketplace, whispering amongst themselves. The only open area was a wide circle, perhaps twenty metres in diameter, around the bell itself; here, the press of the crowd was pushed back by a white circle of scattered salt that none were willing to step over.
In front of the bell, a makeshift altar had been set up, one broad, flat piece of stone set atop a wider, squat piece of stone, with dozens of runes hastily etched into its sides.
Loki stood behind it, noticeably flatter than he had been when last they met. In his hand, held upright so that the sunlight may glint off it, and that all may know immediately what it was, was a curving blade.
On the altar was a squalling baby girl.
"You could not," Thor whispered to himself, fully aware that his brother would be able to hear him even if the whispers of the crowd were as loud as the roar of the ocean.
"Hail, thunderer," Loki greeted him, in a loud, carrying voice.
Thor was certain that he had been struck speechless with horror, but he couldn't have been, because the voice that answered sounded like his.
It boomed off distant mountains. Those who were present that day towards the back of the crowd swore they heard it echoing back off of Jotunheim.
"Her name," Loki said, "is Lífþrasir. Isn't she ugly? I'm sorry about that, it wasn't intentional."
Already Mjolnir was in his hand. Dizzy, Thor realised that a part of his mind was already calculating the exact trajectory required to knock his brother's head clear of his shoulders before he could bring the knife down.
Perhaps the baby wasn't his, Thor thought, and this was a foolish, cruel game. It wouldn't have been difficult for Loki to hide HIS child away, and steal someone's else's baby to murder.
What an evil thought; that to watch another person's child die might cause him so much less pain.
"Release her." It should have been an order. It was a plea.
Loki giggled, giddy. Utterly malicious. "Tell me why I should."
He brought the knife so it hovered, rock-steady, fifteen inches above the girl's tiny throat. "Tell me QUICKLY."
He was crying, openly, feeling his fingers flex on Mjolnir for the killing throw.
"She is my daughter. Our daughter. You… you could not be so wicked."
"She is not your daughter, Odinson," Loki said, in the same raucous, carrying tones.
Terror gave way to rage. Mjolnir's handle creaked under the strength of his grip.
"For nine months!" Thor bellowed. "NINE MONTHS you have told me and told me that the child is mine! And I look to her face and I know that she IS mine! There is my mother's brow! There are my father's eyes! There is YOUR CHILD, Laufeyson, and you would offer her up as a piece of MEAT! Of all the indignities you have wrought upon the House of Odin NOT LEAST OF WHICH was your own CURSED EXISTENCE, this is by FAR AND AWAY the most VILE and DESPICABLE OF…"
Loki held up a hand for silence, and Thor wasn't sure why it worked. He felt as though he could scream forever. (He noticed only peripherally the scorched cobblestones surrounding him, and the fact that all sturdy warriors present had backed as far away from him as was possible in the crush.)
"The House of Odin," Loki repeated. "Most venerable of dynasties, most ancient and pure of lines."
As he said this, he touched the tip of his finger to the child's brow, and ripples of gasps spread through the crowd as the peachy-pinkness melted from her flesh, leaving corpsy blue in its place. "Is she still yours, Thor? Does your firstborn really carry Jotun blood in her veins? Surely not. To be your child is to be your heir; to be your heir is to be a future king or queen. Would you have a frost giant seated upon the Hliðskjálf?"
"Upon the Hliðskjálf and upon the throne of the universe itself!" he hollered back. "I would love her were she a fish or a tree or a scale on the back of the Midgard serpent! I would conquer galaxies in her name! I would give her riches unmatched and loyalty unrivalled and if ANY tried to stop me I would send them to Hela's realm!"
"Even you," he said, no calmer but more controlled. "It would pain me to slay you, brother. But the child is as much my kin as you. And I would protect her at all costs."
"As much your kin as I am," Loki said slowly, every syllable falling like a leaden brick into the ears of the silent crowd. "Are you absolutely sure of that?"
Most of those who were in attendance that day did not here what Loki said in reply to that, but those standing closest to him said they thought it sounded like; "…Heh."
Loki brought the knife up… and, opening his mouth, nicked the tip of his tongue. A rosy bead swelled and then dripped into the child's open, bawling mouth.
"Then all will be well," he said, and put the knife down upon the altar.
Raised his face again, features suddenly placid, and extremely smug.
"She is yours, Odinson," he said, and took a step back from the altar. "And now she has been properly baptised. Come and get her, if she's truly yours."
And then Thor noticed his father, standing at the very farthest edge of the crowd, shaking his head sadly.
The next few moments were dreamlike. Gingerly picking up his child as Loki shushed her, watching her tiny red eyes blink up at him. Holding her aloft before the crowd, who had never once missed an opportunity to cheer the Odinson in two thousand years, and who had been moved by his proclamation, and who started to cheer and holler at the top of their lungs. Watching the salt ring dissolve into thin air as they rushed forward, patting him on the back and begging a chance to touch the royal infant, and telling him how pretty she was, such tiny toes and such a strong grip, a warrior born without a doubt.
Someone had started ringing the bell again, and a song had broken out.
In the middle of it all, Thor had the feeling he'd just been tricked.
He never saw the look exchanged between Loki and the Allfather, both of whom were in the process of slipping back into the shadows, having no place at festive occasions.
There were legalities to be observed.
"The fact is, your majesty," said Odin's most trusted advisor, nervously, "that your son laid claim to the child in front of five million witnesses. Unless you would like me to order all of them summarily executed it will be very difficult, in a purely LEGAL sense, to deny it a legitimate claim to a position in your family… and, eventually, on your throne."
"I know who I would like to have executed," Odin said, flatly, giving his older son a chilly look. To the younger, he said, "You will pay for this."
"Aye, but I suspect it shall prove well worth the price," said Loki, the confidence of his words belied by the shrinking of his shoulders under the All-Father's withering glare. Somewhat meeker, her added, "If it pleases you, I shall remove myself from Asgard entirely, and thus will never be able to incline her against you."
"You will remain where I can see you," Thor rumbled.
"Forgive me, sire," said the advisor, "but I feel we must return to the issue of, erm…"
"Don't say it," said Odin, sinking back into his chair with an aura of infinite defeat.
"What are you all talking about?" said Thor, who sat with his arms folded across his chest. Trying not to stare at Lífþrasir, who was bouncing on Loki's knee and making happy gurgling sounds.
Odin grunted and hiked a thumb in Loki's direction, not deigning to look upon him. "Is that your brother, Thor?"
"No, it is not," Odin replied.
"I cannot be your brother, Thor," Loki said, as though speaking to the infant who sat in his lap. "Because that would make of Odin's House a nest of incest, would it not? No, no, I do not think I can be your brother."
The argument continued for the early hours of the evening, while Frigga offered short, measured contributions from the sidelines. A full moon was high in the sky by the time Odin Allfather formally disowned his youngest son.
There was a feast- of course there was a feast- and the Warriors Three joined in when they returned from Muspelheim, tattered and smelling of sulphur. Everyone wanted to see the child, or to present her with elaborate presents. Many bemoaned the fact that there had been no prior announcement, and now they had no gifts to offer of acceptable quality and expense, until Frigga proclaimed a week of games in her honour, with an official gifting ceremony on the seventh day.
When they were in private for the first time that day or night, the first thing Loki said was, "I have promised her to Frigga. To rear. I didn't think you'd have cultivated the necessary skill to raise a child yet, and I have no interest in doing so."
The second thing he said was, "Ow. Are we to have a marriage based on spousal abuse then, my lord?"
"Scum," Thor hissed, seizing him up by the scruff and slamming him against a wall, glad that he no longer had to be careful of damaging his body. "You have stolen all my choices from me."
Squinting from the eye that wasn't blackened, Loki replied, "We're gods, Thor. We do not have choices."
Thor dealt him a punch that broke three of his teeth, and then threw him down, stalking over to the table to pour himself a pitcher of wine.
"You warriors have already sworn themselves to me," Loki said. "Publicly. You may cast me out, but you have to make them rescind their oaths. That, I think, they would not thank you for."
"Also, there will never be a better time to try for lasting peace between Jotunheim and Asgard," he said, tentatively edging forward as Thor continued drinking. "Laufey will not be much longer on the throne, and proclaiming a half-giant to be a princess of Asgard will win us much favour among his subjects."
"There is far more of you in her than there is of me," he said, standing at Thor's shoulder now, hesitant as a moth. "I made sure of that. She will bring you no Ragnaroks. Unless you do something to deserve them. Either way, she will receive no active encouragement from my end."
"You think of everything, my sweet," Thor spat, wine dripping down his chin. "Tell me, was stranding our friends on the side of a volcano really necessary? And don't you DARE to whine to me that they are not your friends, after the boon they granted you. Volstagg tells me the child would have died."
"Volstagg does like to exaggerate," Loki muttered, sourly.
"Or mayhap your faith in your abilities is unwarranted. Careless, thoughtless… did you say you'd given her to FRIGGA?"
He wasn't any less angry the next day.
Or the next.
Ten months later, he was still angry.
Even in Frigga's expert hands, the child required so much of his time and attention. He pledged to spend five hours of every day training her in the noble art of battle, until his mother told him that she wouldn't be ready for that for a few years yet. But there was still so much to teach, so many places in the Nine Realms he wanted to show her.
It was difficult to remain angry all the time, particularly given that the source of his anger had to constantly remind him to support her head.
"Don't hold her like that," Loki said, correcting his grip for the third time. His tongue had never healed; the nick at the tip left it with a permanent fork.
The anger never went away, but it was joined by other things.
The sound of Loki's broken moans as he pressed into him. The visceral satisfaction of leaving purple bruises all over the skin of his not-brother.
When the anger began to retreat, they found their way to trying it on a bed. It was a relief to find that, even without fury driving him, the wonder at the gentle grunts that pushed their way out of Loki's throat remained.
This, Thor thought, was the first time he had been permitted to caress Loki's body when it actually looked like Loki's body to his eyes. All, despite the many years and the many different shapes, all was exactly as he had left it. The scar on his side where he'd fallen from his horse when they were children. The dark mole that Thor had always teased him looked exactly like a tick, and the light smattering of freckles over his shoulder blades that Thor had once linked together with ink while he slept, in retribution for a prank long forgotten.
"Sooner or later we will have to get legally married," Loki said, unable to keep his mouth shut even when he was balls deep and keening. "People will call her a bastard."
"We are not getting married, you perverse…"
"I will let you take other wives," Loki said, rolling his hips agonisingly slow. "I won't even be cruel to them. As long as it is understood that my child's needs and wishes take precedence over theirs."
"And it will ALWAYS be understood," Thor replied, curtly, pushing back hard as Loki bit his shoulder, "that my daughter's needs and wishes take precedence over any of those of your other children?"
"Naturally." And how easy it was to make out the noise of turning gears as Loki thought of a way to twist those words to suit his own purposes.
"You think you can win everything," Thor grumbled, as Loki's hand snuck beneath him to tease his head. "That is what I find infuriating."
"I believe in having high goals."
"If we are wed you would have to be my queen. Queen Loki. Hah! Can you imagine it?"
"I'd make a good queen. I could curb your…" he broke off with a gasp as Thor seized his hand and chewed on it; he'd found that chewing on Loki was good for allaying his stress. ".. your excesses, you brute. Aah!"
"You shall have no more children," said Thor, worrying the soft part where thumb met index finger. "Is that understood? And you shall adopt a life of piety and repentance, and…"
"Of course I shall," Loki soothed, and thrust forward again. "I promise."