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The years flew by Loki in what seemed like a matter of minutes. He watched his Sleipnir grow up from a gangly colt to a rangy yearling to a slender young stallion. Despite his divine heritage, Sleipnir grew rapidly at the beginning of his life, as all young animals do. His coat, which had been an ash grey when he was born, darkened to a charcoal, and his ebony eyes took on a hunter-green tint.
After a decade or so, the stable master decided that it was time to break Sleipnir. The day the news came to Court, Loki was in attendance. A page brought the message and Odin's eye glimmered with interest, and Loki barely managed to contain himself. Anxiety flashed through his mind like lightning, blinding him. He could hardly hear as Odin gave instructions to start the breaking process the next day.
The day of Sleipnir's breaking dawned much like Skada's had: cool and frosted. Loki approached Sleipnir's paddock and called for him, as he had nearly every day. Sleipnir pricked his ears and came over to the fence, pawing at the ground with two feet as he searched for the treat in Loki's upturned palm, but found none.
"Today we're going to break you," Loki said evenly. He was not Sleipnir's mother, merely a party interested in his future. "You'd better behave. I do not want it to go as your mother's did."
Sleipnir's eyes fixed on Loki's with cool intelligence and he arched his neck, reaching his muzzle towards Loki's face, snuffling over his cheeks and forehead, mussing his hair. Loki allowed himself to smile as he gently pushed the stallion's face away and fixed his hair.
"Prince Loki! Since you're already there, could you halter him?" a page shouted over to Loki, tossing a fine leather halter to the god. Loki caught it, rubbing his fingers over the brass plate reading "Sleipnir".
He was able to easily buckle the headstall on Sleipnir and lead him to the breaking pen, worry weighing heavily in his stomach like a stone. The horse, on the other hand, was unbothered: prancing elegantly, eight legs moving in perfect synchronicity. He took in the breaking pen with acuity, sniffing at the timbers, long since repaired from Skada's damage.
"It would be best, my lord, if you were not inside the pen when we break him," the page said politely, echoing only what the stable master had told him.
"I was one who broke the Fabled mare," Loki responded. The page bowed and backed away, and within minutes, the stable master himself appeared.
"I am aware that you broke the Fabled mare," the stable master said snappishly. He was a down-to-earth man who knew his way around horses, and didn't want some hoity-toity prince interfering with this delicate process. "However, I'll have you know I do not want this animal broken like that. This is a fine stallion, deserving of better treatment than that poor mare you damaged. I will not allow you ruin this one, too."
Loki was taken aback, yet he saw the wisdom in the man's words, and bowed out with respect. Leaning against the timbers on the outside of the pen, the prince watched as the stable master and his page approached Sleipnir respectfully. The stallion was familiar with them both and greeted them friendly. The stable master, Horst, offered Sleipnir a handful of grain before attaching a long lead rope to the halter.
It was almost like watching magic as Horst sent Sleipnir trotting around the big pen, using his arms and voice alone. No force, no threats, no indication of anything other than complete understanding and respect. The page revolved with Horst as Sleipnir trotted around, his eight legs carrying him quickly and easily, like watching water flow.
Odin arrived at the point when Horst untied the lead rope, working at liberty with Sleipnir to move him through his beautiful gaits, having him reverse direction on a dime, backing and sidestepping as if the horse had been trained for years. The All-Father whistled long and low, in appreciation. It was the same call Loki used to summon the animal, but it did not interrupt his connection to Horst. He was in sync with the stable master.
When Horst had Sleipnir galloping, a breathtaking sight, he suddenly turned his back. Almost as if he had jerked a lead rope to his head, Sleipnir pulled up and turned towards Horst, walking to him, blowing his breath through distended nostrils, but ears still pricked. Loki was wondering if there really was some magic or extrasensory connection as Horst turned again and rubbed Sleipnir's face.
The page opened the gate to the pen and Horst walked out, Sleipnir following obediently at his side, like a well-trained dog. Horst walked all the way around the stables, jogging at some points to have Sleipnir trot slowly, and stopping abruptly at others, to have the animal halt at his side perfectly. To say Loki and Odin were impressed was an understatement. There was no rope connecting man and animal, yet they stayed no more than a foot away from each other, as if there was.
Finally, Horst returned to Sleipnir's paddock, but before entering, he turned to Sleipnir and backed halfway into the field, until five hundred yards separated the two. Sleipnir had not moved a muscle, though Loki could tell he was straining to go to Horst. After ten minutes, Sleipnir still had not moved, not put his head down to graze, not turned away. Horst summoned Sleipnir with a simple call and the animal went bolting, sliding to a stop right in front of the stable master. Loki felt tears of pride well in his eyes, but he blinked them back. He was not Sleipnir's mother.
Horst slipped Sleipnir's halter off and had to shout and wave his arms to startle Sleipnir away and signify an end to the session. Despite that, Sleipnir trailed Horst to the fence and neighed forlornly when the stable master closed the gate to the field behind him.
"That, my lords, is how you properly break a horse. Granted, he won't be finished in one day, not even close, but you start in one day, and don't overexert them. They only learn so much, and this one is incredibly smart, but I am not going to take the chance and sour him to learning. You two break horses like there's no tomorrow. The method I use, a lot of people call 'gentling'. We gentle them, we don't break their spirits. Work with, not against," Horst said sagely, buckling Sleipnir's halter over his shoulder as he marched back towards the barn.
Odin have an appreciative "hm" and returned to the palace, leaving Loki alone with the stallion. He grasped Sleipnir's nose and held his head still, running his hands over the fine-boned face, around the intelligent eyes. It was unusual, he thought, that the colt he'd watched grow up was darkening with age, instead of lightening.
"My boy," Loki crooned, cupping the stallion's ears. "You're doing so well. I want you to know that I'm proud of you."
Sleipnir snorted and bobbed his head, as if he understood Loki's murmured praises. The God of Mischief turned and walked away, ignoring Sleipnir's calls. He was halfway across the lawn of the palace when he felt a rumble go through the ground, and was knocked onto his face by a shove to the back. Rolling over, Loki was greeted with the great silhouette of Sleipnir, standing over him, gazing down curiously.
"Wha—how did you—why?" Loki stuttered as Sleipnir grasped the strap of his armor and hauled him upright, setting him surprisingly easily on his feet. Sleipnir tossed his head, looking over his shoulder at the fence, which came up to Loki's shoulder. Then he gave a clear snort and glared—the horse glared—at Loki, as if to say, "you didn't come when I called, like you promised."
Loki was shocked, as he understood the horse's actions all too clearly. "You remember that? That was twelve years ago." Sleipnir whickered. Loki flung his arms around the horse's long face and allowed himself a display of emotion that nobody but this horse would ever have the honor to see.
Sleipnir tolerated Loki hanging on his face for several minutes, then he pulled his head free and trotted back to the pasture, jumping over the fence with ease, his sinewy dark body sailing through the air, four feet snapping out to meet the ground with a muffled thud. He brought his four back feet under him and landed, cantering a step before pulling up and turning to face Loki, giving one last trumpeting call before galloping away, disappearing over the crest of the hill.
"What a magnificent creature," Loki breathed before grinning to himself.
Sleipnir's breaking continued every day, and every day, Loki watched avidly, observing carefully as Horst worked respectfully with the great, eight-legged horse. At first, there was progress in leaps and bounds, but then that stagnated and Horst would do the same things, day after day, for two weeks sometimes. Loki could never pick out any flaws in Sleipnir's performances, but apparently Horst could. Each little shake of his head, every high-legged step, thrash of the tail, chomp of the teeth, indicated to Horst something different, indecipherable to Loki.
As boring as it was, and sometimes as infuriating as it was, Loki never quit attending the gentling sessions. He wanted to make sure Sleipnir was doing well, treated well, and progressing well. The last one was nigh impossible to ensure, but Loki would not quit on this horse, not when it had become his life. Every day he was consumed with thoughts of Sleipnir, attending Court only when asked, and preoccupied when he did.
Horst never became upset with Sleipnir; never raised his voice above a calm, even tone; never struck or lashed out at Sleipnir. Loki was impressed, and after the sessions, he found himself trying to imitate Horst's techniques to get Sleipnir to obey him. After a few attempts, though, Horst caught him and cautioned him against overexerting the horse's mind.
A year passed and Sleipnir was still not fully gentled, but Loki never lost patience with the speed of the training. Others, however, lost patience with Loki's obsession about the training. Thor, in particular, was upset with his brother's reticence. One day, he finally confronted the god.
"Loki," Thor said as he walked up behind him. As usual, Loki was leaning against the timbers, watching Horst perform new exercises with Sleipnir. "Loki, brother, may I speak with you?"
"Of course, Thor," Loki said absently, not turning away from the pen. Thor's expression darkened. "Are you going to speak, or merely stand there?" Loki turned to see the reason for Thor's silence, and the God of Thunder was surprised at Loki's visage.
His brother had always been of a lean constitution, but now he looked positively thin. His high cheekbones had always shadowed his cheeks, but now the skin was pulled taut and hollows sat about his dulled eyes, build of his skull visible in the sharp lines of his brow and jaw. His hands were likewise drawn and eerie, tendons sharp and striking against the bones and sinew. Loki's movements, normally graceful and sweeping, were limited and stiff, as though he hadn't moved much in a very long time.
"Brother, what has become of thee?" Thor murmured.
"Thee? You're getting awfully formal, now, Thor," Loki cautioned, taking a step away from the pen. Thor saw that his arms, sleeves pushed up past the elbows, were stained black from the tar of the pen.
"Just walk with me. Hear me—"
"When Sleipnir is finished." Loki cut Thor off, turning coolly back to the pen, where Horst was completing an exercise involving flicking rope over the horse's flanks. Thor gritted his teeth angrily. He understood and accepted that his brother wanted to be with his child, but for thirteen years, Loki had zoned out, ignoring all but his child. That was unacceptable.
"No, Loki. You are coming with me now." Thor grabbed Loki's shoulders and wrenched him away from the pen. Loki shouted in surprise and flailed, but he was weakened and ineffective against Thor's strength. Sleipnir, however, was not.
At Loki's cry, Sleipnir snapped out of his concentration, turning fully away from Horst. Horst tried to regain the horse's attention with a sharp call and a flick to the rump with the lead rope, but Sleipnir now devoted his singular focus to Loki. He raised his head, eyes bright and focused on Loki, ears straining forward, nostrils blowing to take in the scent of distress. Realizing the efforts were futile, Horst replaced Sleipnir's halter and reattached the lead rope. He knew exactly how dangerous this animal would be if he got out, agitated.
"Let me go, Thor! Do not be brutish! If you wish to speak, release me!" Loki cried, elbowing Thor in the ribs with his stiletto joints. Thor groaned at the blow, but did not let Loki down. Only when he'd dragged his brother into Loki's chambers and stood firmly in front of the door did he release his bear hug around Loki. Furious, Loki whirled towards his brother, summoning Vaara. Thor leveled a harsh glare at him.
"We both know you're in no condition to weild that, Loki."
"How dare you," Loki growled, his deep voice dangerous. "How dare you shame me so! How dare you carry me like a child, and interrupt Sleipnir's session!"
"I dare. You ought to be shamed; you have shut your own family out for thirteen years, Loki. For a horse!" Thor's anger was clear, but he was doing his best to restrain it. Loki snarled, his face animalistic.
"Not just any horse. Sleipnir. My horse. You cannot take me from him, or him from me." Loki ran his thumb over Vaara's blade, gazing objectivey at the blood that beaded on the pad of his finger.
"Ever since the day that creature was born, he has caused nothing but strife. He is killing you, Loki! Look at yourself!" Thor shoved Loki in front of a mirror, watching with brutal satisfaction as the shock registered on Loki's skull-like features. "He has made you lie, hurt people, and starve yourself! No creature; however beautiful, however precious; is worth that!"
"Beautiful and precious …" the words trailed from Loki's cracked lips faintly as he ghosted his fingers over his face. Suddenly, a shrill neigh echoed around the room, wafting in through the open windows. Loki ran to the balcony railing, as if pulled by an invisible string. He scanned the ground and saw Horst leading Sleipnir back to his field, struggling with the might of the great horse. Sleipnir thrashed, eight legs flying dangerously, and Horst had to dodge artfully to avoid the steel-shod hooves.
"Beautiful and precious," Loki repeated.
"Brother, see sense! You have ensured your colt's survival, it is time to ensure your own. Feed yourself, bathe yourself, return to yourself. Return to us. It is not fair to anybody what you are doing; even Sleipnir needs time to be a horse. You hobble him by making him reliant on you," Thor pleaded. Loki turned, and his eyes were filled with sadness. Thor had reached him.
"I-I …" Loki stuttered, hands dropping limply to his sides. Vaara clattered to the floor. "These lies … are eating me alive," he said faintly, voice cracking. "I can't do this any more. Lie to myself that I am not Sleipnir's mother. I lie to everyone with my actions, I hold the lies of the past in my stomach. I hold the lies against Skada in my heart."
"Let them go. Tell the truth, if only to me," Thor begged, dropping to his knees as Loki's knees buckled.
"I love Sleipnir, almost more than myself. Nay—more than myself. He is an innocent, noble creature, better than the soul that sits black and grim in this shell," Loki hugged himself. "I am not good enough for him, or you, or Father, or Mother. They have cast me off for the silver-tongued devil I am. An apology cannot atone for the trust I have betrayed; for the people I have hurt …"
"Then start with those who are closest to you. Skada. She knows your secrets. Show your remorse to her. She cannot hold it against you forever; she will begrudge you one thing if you ask her: forgiveness." Thor reached out and held Loki's thinned wrists to prevent him from striking himself.
"She will castrate me if I approach her," Loki said with a weak smile. Thor's lips tightened as he helped Loki to his feet.
"Maybe that will calm you some, brother," he said jokingly. Loki nodded, staring at the ground. "You pose no immediate threat to her, especially not in this … emaciated state."
"If you say so, brother. I trust your judgement," Loki said in a resigned voice, allowing Thor to lead him to Skada's rooms. With luck, she would be in.
"Lady Skada," Thor said politely, knocking on the tall oak doors. There was a noise inside, like a bolt being drawn back. One bright copper eye appeared in the crack between the doors, surveyed Thor, and opened the door wider. When she caught sight of Loki, though, Skada started to slam the door shut.
"Lady Skada, please reconsider." Thor stuck his forearm in the door, preventing its closure. "I think you would be interested to hear what my brother has to say."
"Oh? Why ought I listen to the barbed tongue of that demon, when all it has done in the past is cut me?" Skada's voice was a sharp hiss that made Loki flinch.
"If you wish, I will be the mouthpiece through which he converses. I will strip the barbs from his words, soften his blows. Does that appease you, lady?" Thor said diplomatically. Skada was silent another moment.
"Barely," she growled, widening the door just enough for the brothers to slip through. Inside the room, it was dim, and dark, bloodred velvet drapes covered the reflective surfaces. The effect was similar to being inside the maw of a giant beast. Skada flopped down into the throne-like chair at the foot of her bed, instantly transporting Thor back thirteen years. She fixed Thor with her curious gaze, but this time her eyes were harder, anger tinting their color. She was hardened, scorched, tempered by Loki's wounds.
"Skada," Loki said softly, his baritone filled with hurt. Skada did not even grace him with her eyes. She spoke only to Thor.
"Tell him he must speak to me only through you."
Loki almost growled in frustration, but complied. "Tell the Lady Skada that I wish to apologize. I was not able to the last time we met."
"Loki wishes to convey his apologies. He was unable to apologize the last time you encountered each other," Thor repeated, feeling stupid. However, if this was the only way Skada would accept Loki, it would have to do. Her smoldering gaze never left his calm, blue eyes.
"What has he done for thirteen years? Thirteen years of ignoring me—for what? What is more important than making amends?" Skada hissed.
"I was foolish, I fixated on the only stable thing in my life: Sleipnir. I am a mother, and I feel drawn towards him. I ought not to have ignored everyone. I-I … I am suffering inside, rotting and dying, because these lies I have told and the wounds I have inflicted are festering. The infection sears me, and I am desperately, I am crawling, on my knees begging for respite from this burn," Loki kneeled before Skada, hands clasped, head bowed. Finally, her heated stare flickered over his emaciated, prostrated form.
"So you come to me. The Goddess of Destruction, Queen of Chaos, Holder of Fire. You seek my help for burns," Skada said slowly. Loki did not move. "What would you have me, do, God of Lies, Giant of Ice? Oh, yes, I know of your lineage. A prince of two realms, a prince of Ice, a prince of paradox. So what would you have the fire do to soothe the ice's burns?"
"Please, please," Loki breathed, "take the sickness from the flames. Call back your heat, and let the water freeze over. Let the ice heal. I beg you for your permission to heal; your forgiveness …"
Skada sighed heavily. "Face me, Prince."
Loki looked up into Skada's eyes. They burned with a myriad of emotions, so many Loki could not untangle them. He felt vulnerable, bared to her searching stare. All he could do was hope that she saw how genuine he was. After many long minutes, Skada looked away. She twisted in her chair, hooking her legs over the arm, turning towards Thor.
"I've seen all I need to. I forgive this devious god. I give him, however, nothing more. I wish to take something that was promised to me over a decade ago. A favor, drawn from my mouth, to be fulfilled, to be paid in full, by Loki Laufeyson." Skada's voice was soft, but the room so quiet. The mellow alto reached everyone's ears with perfect clarity.
"I am ready, Lady Skada. Let the command fall from your lips. I will bear it," Loki said, rising to his feet. Skada watched him carefully, eyeing him like prey.
"I wish …" Skada paused for effect, and Loki held his breath, "never to see nor hear from you again. Thor will not be sent on your behalf, nor will anybody speak to me for you. Prince Loki Laufeyson shall die in mine eyes."
Loki felt his breath catch in his chest, and his heart stutter. It couldn't be happening. She couldn't be so cruel to forgive him, then deny him further healing.
"Skada," Loki breathed, begging her with his miserable emerald eyes. She closed her eyes and stood abruptly, refusing to look at him.
"Go. Go now; I …" Skada covered her face with her hands. "Just leave, Loki."
"Skada," Loki's voice was barely audible, but painful with wretchedness as Thor grasped his wrists and pulled him from the room.
"Speak not my name, Prince," Skada said as the door closed behind the brothers, "it pains me too much, Loki, my love."
Yup, the drama went from Skada to Sleipnir back to Skada. I just had to tie up that loose end before we return to the drama of mother and child. I hope you enjoyed this rather angsty foray! I promise, sincerely, that the next chapter will have action. It will have angst, but action abound. Secrets are revealed, lies cast off, and hearts broken apart. Someone's going to lose, but there's no telling who.