Warnings: Dirty talk and sexual innuendo; graphic violence; TW for past torture.
Summary: Written for a Norsekink prompt asking for a retelling of the lay of Geirröd, from the Thorsdrapa.
Author's note: No more action, this part is 100% brotherfeels.
This time, the iron doors ground open under Thor's hand. He did not know whether there was some sealing magic on them that had died with the master of the hall, or whether Loki had simply stopped holding them shut. With the bellowing racket that the giant had made in his death throes, Thor had halfway expected to find Loki fled.
Loki sat on the edge of the long stone steps leading up to the entrance of the hall, his hands held loosely in his lap and his head bowed. The cloak he'd hidden under when leading Thor to this place had fallen to one side, puddled in a dark fall of cloth over the sharp edges of the stairs. The glamour he'd worn, too, had vanished, and for the first time Thor beheld the ravages that his months-long imprisonment had left on his body.
Loki had always been slender but now he was gaunt, almost skeletal, with his skin drawn tight over his bones and the joints swollen. His cheeks were sunken into pits, his lips cracked and chapped nearly to shreds for lack of water. He had always been paler than Thor, yet now his skin had a waxy, almost grayish cast to it that put Thor uneasily in mind of a corpse laid out on its pyre, awaiting the lit torches.
Yet even the skull-like aspect of his face was not as terrible as the look in his eyes as he stared out into the darkness; haunted, wild, and utterly desolate. It was the look of a man who could not rest, yet stayed unmoving simply because there was no place in all of the worlds he could go nor deeds he could do that would bring joy or hope back to him again.
Looking upon his brother, Thor felt himself filled with a rush of emotions that was equal parts pity and anger. He no longer thought Loki a traitor - the giant's words had made it clear that Loki had not wished to cooperate, and the misery he'd endured was writ all too plain on his features - but he found he was still angry, very angry at what Loki had done. He'd not told Thor the truth, so that they could battle this foe together. He'd not helped him when Thor was running for his life in the giant's lair. He would not, it seemed, do anything but sit here and stare at nothing while Thor was murdered in the hall beyond.
"Loki," Thor growled as he approached, his boots grating over the stone step as his injured leg dragged. Loki started up and whirled around, his eyes round and horrified, and he backed rapidly away until his feet caught on one of the stone steps and he stumbled.
"Thor!" he exclaimed, then managed to summon up a shred of composure somewhere; he pasted a smile over his face, which looked more distressing than reassuring on his skull-like face. "Are you finished already? Is... is the giant..."
"Dead," Thor told him bluntly.
"Of course he is!" Loki exclaimed, with a hollow, breathless little laugh. "I never doubted you could kill him. You are Thor Odinson, after all, basher of trolls and slayer of giants. No giant could hope to stand against you -"
"Enough," Thor grated, and took another step forward. "Save yourself the flattery, Brother. You lied to me, you tricked me - "
Loki's smile thinned at the edges, becoming panicky and desperate as he took another small step backwards. "Now - now Thor, let's not be hasty about anything. I apologize for the deception, but I couldn't hope to kill Geirröd on my own - I needed you. I brought you here to kill him, it really is that simple. I was counting on you -"
"Aye, you were counting on me," Thor said with heavy sarcasm - he had learned some things from Loki, after centuries of being his brother. "You were so confident in my inevitable victory, you brought me to this fight unarmored save for my night-clothes. I suppose you felt it was only fair to do so to give the villain a sporting chance."
He lunged forward, and Loki raised his hands in feeble self-defense. The sight of them made Thor's own injuries throb with horrified sympathy; they were so bruised as to be black and bloated, the nails splintered and the fingers red ruins down to the first knuckle. He ignored his own stinging hands as he grabbed Loki by the shoulders and jerked him around to face Thor straight on.
"Why?" he demanded hoarsely. "Why did you not tell me the truth? Gladly would I have recompensed that monster for the wrongs he did you, if you had only come to me. Father too - he would never suffer such an assault on one of his warriors, let alone his own son. Nor would any man of Asgard let such an outrageous breach of hospitality stand. Any of us would have helped you, Loki, so why did you choose this instead? This deception - this betrayal? Did you truly want to see me dead that badly, brother?"
Loki stared at him, his expression forlorn and hollow and desperate. "I swore an oath," he said in a thin, high voice. "I swore an oath to do as he willed, to - to bring you to him. I could not break it."
Thor began an angry retort, then broke off midsentence. He'd never come out ahead in contests of words with his brother and he didn't think any good of it would come now, even when Loki was falling apart before his eyes.
So he'd sworn an oath. Thor could understand that, he really could. A known oathbreaker would be nithing in Asgard, a nothing-man, reviled and shunned and stripped of his powers and standing. That the oath had been made under duress, and to a villainous giant no less, was of no consequence. As little as he liked the outcome Thor understood that once given, Loki could not take back the oath he'd made to Geirröd.
But Loki had always been careful and crafty, detail-oriented and pedantic. Thor could not fathom why that would change now. If Thor could think of loopholes in Geirröd's commands - to bring Thor unarmored as ordered, yes, but accompanied with a squad of half-a-dozen of Odin's best warriors? - then surely Loki could think of ten more in the same minute. What could have gone so wrong in his brother that he hadn't even tried to defy Geirröd's will?
Thor stared into his brother's ravaged face, trying to understand. And as he did so, he found himself remembering something that the weaponsmaster Tyr had told him, many years before.
Through the years Thor had had many teachers of weapons and warcraft, and yet it was always Tyr, grim and dour Tyr One-hand, who'd lost a limb to the poisoned fangs of the dire wolves centuries before Thor had been born, who taught them about the hardest lessons of war.
On that day, he had begun to teach Thor of the various ways and means that he could use to resist and escape, should he be captured by the enemy. "As crown prince of Asgard," he'd said - and coming from Tyr that never sounded like praise - "There is somewhat less chance that you will be killed in battle, or executed if you are captured by the enemy. But there is also somewhat more chance that an enemy will strive to capture you. As a prince, it is your duty to your people and your kingdom to escape if you can, so that you cannot be held for ransom against your kingdom, nor bent to an enemy's will."
"There is little enough chance of that," Thor scoffed. "I would never betray my father or my country. I would sooner die."
"So says any man who has not yet been put to the test," Tyr replied. "We Aesir do not die easily, my prince. And many a prisoner soon finds that death is not a luxury easily come by."
"I do not fear pain," Thor protested.
"That is because you have never known it," Tyr said flatly. "Everyone breaks, my prince. Everyone. A wise commander knows this and plans for it in his calculations, rather than spending strength on recrimination or punishment. Your father understands the truth of this. Why do you think he keeps his councils so close, trusting his stratagems only to a careful few, and the whole of his plan to no one but himself?
"It matters not how strong or stubborn or prideful or loyal you are. True warfare is not like in the tales, where mighty warriors speak lines of poetic defiance and rescue is always timely. If your captors are patient enough and cruel enough, if you cannot win your way free, if no rescue comes, you will break."
No one had come to rescue Loki. No one had even been looking for him. He might have died here, high in the sharp-fanged mountains among the cold biting winds, before anyone back at home had even realized he was in danger. For three months while Thor went about his daily life with barely a thought to his missing brother, Loki had starved and thirsted and beat his hands to bloody ruin against a door that would not open.
And Loki - Loki had broken.
"Aye," he said aloud, loosening his hold on Loki's shoulders. "And we Aesir must keep our sworn word, must we not? I seem to recall an oath I swore myself, tonight, that I have yet to fulfill." He had sworn in that hall that if he escaped alive, he would revenge his slights on his brother's head, and he meant to do just that.
Loki looked wary; he took a quick breath to speak, his tongue darting out to moisten his ravaged lips. Before he could speak another word Thor's hand raised his fist above his head. It pained him still, the black burns across his palms reminding him with every twitch of movement of the damage wrought by the iron bar; and that was why it was with a closed fist, not an open palm, that he brought his hand down gently and smote Loki softly on the side of the head.
"There," he said, and stepped past his brother, who staggered a step before regaining his balance, looking as confused and disoriented as though Thor had truly struck him.
He turned and limped away, leaving a confused Loki behind him. "Thor?" his brother asked in a worried voice, but Thor did not bother to answer him. Let Loki figure it out; wasn't he supposed to be the smart one?
Thor stepped back inside the hall just long enough to take hold of the box where he'd stashed Geirröd's head - he had no desire to linger in this accursed place any longer. It was not so heavy that Thor could not lift it even without his armor, but it was awkward - almost as tall as he was himself, to start with, and his burned hands protested the rough iron surface.
Getting it back down to Asgard was going to be a trial; he might choose to leave it here for now, and return better-equipped in the morning. Geirröd wasn't going to get any deader, after all. But there was something he wanted to do before then - he wished for his brother to see the proof of Thor's deed.
He hadn't expected Loki's reaction to the sight of the casket; he flinched backwards until he hit a wall, and his face, already pale, went bone-white. He swallowed - Thor could see the wasted lines of his throat moving - but said nothing.
"Come, brother," he said, and enforced his words by seizing Loki and dragging him forward with one hand while he pulled the lid free with the other. Loki would feel better upon seeing that his tormentor was truly dead; maybe then he would understand there was no reason to fear.
"Tho - Thor, what are you doing?" Loki gave a panicked yelp, struggling ineffectively to escape.
Thor shot him an irritated look, uncomprehending as to the cause of Loki's sudden squeamishness. It was just a head, why all the fuss? "Look you, on the spoils of this night's work, and see what you and I together have wrought - "
Loki's whole body seized up under Thor's hands, doubling over as he twisted frantically to try to get free. "No," he whimpered, pushing with nerveless strength against Thor's grasp. "No."
"Loki, what has come over you?" Thor demanded. It disturbed him to see Loki like this; while he was still a little bit angry with his brother, he was beginning to feel more frightened for Loki's sake than he ever had been of Loki. Loki looked up at him, his face stark white and his eyes hollow, desolate.
"I beg of you, Thor, if you ever loved me," Loki said, his voice hoarse and ripped bleeding. "If you truly hate me so much, then kill me now and have done with it! Do not - I cannot -"
At last it dawned upon Thor what Loki so feared, and he was overcome by a mix of outrage and horror. Loki thought that Thor still sought to punish him, that he would force him back into the same casket that had been his torment. He felt at once paradoxically horrified by the depths of Loki's terror, and angered that Loki would suspect him of such a thing; did he think Thor was as much a monster as Geirröd?
"Brother, no," he exclaimed, horror pushing out the indignation. Loki was clearly in a state of unreasoning terror, unable to discern anyone's true motivations. Thor hastily slammed the lid of the casket shut and moved to comfort his brother. "That was not my intention, I - I would not do such a thing -"
Loki managed to twist out of his grasp, scrambling along the stone tiles until he hit the wall. A choked gasp escaped him and then he was bent over to the ground, retching upon the paving stones. Or at least, his body heaved and shuddered, but no more than a drop escaped him to fall and freeze onto the ground.
"Brother," Thor said, his voice softer than he thought he could have made it. "Did you not take the time to eat and drink before you came to fetch me?" He would have imagined that Loki's first act, on regaining his freedom, would be to slake his thirst and eat his fill. Had he taken nothing for himself?
"I ate," Loki croaked, staring off unseeing into the distance. "I couldn't keep it down. The thought of -" He cut himself off, and swallowed hard.
Thor found himself at a loss. His first attempt at reassurance having so spectacularly backfired, Thor cast around for something else, anything else to say or do. He reached out a hand and laid it carefully on Loki's shoulder, heedless of the pain in his palms. It meant far more to be able to touch. "Brother," he said. He meant to say, I am not angry, but even now that was not true; even now the corners of his mind still seethed with temper. But it wasn't important. "I forgive you," he said instead.
Thor must have found the right thing to say because Loki collapsed against him at last, his entire body wracked by long shudders. He buried his face in Thor's shoulder, and from the shake of his chest Thor thought perhaps he was weeping, but he felt no dampness of tears seeping into his shirt.
But then, perhaps the last three months had left Loki with no water to spare for tears.
"I didn't want him to kill you," Loki whispered to his ear, his whole body racked by shivering shudders. "I didn't. I didn't. I, I, when I came to your bedchamber I didn't, I didn't know what I would do. But then you said, you said, you didn't miss me at all. You hadn't even looked for me, you didn't even care! You said, you said, you said you were happy I was gone - "
Thor winced painfully at the reminder, the careless remark thrown into a horrible new light now that he understood the circumstances. If there was a worse thing he could have chosen to say just then, Thor couldn't think what; but how in Yggdrasil's name was he to have known?
"I just wanted," Loki said; his voice cracked and he swallowed painfully. "I wanted you to know how it felt. To be helpless and alone and afraid and hurting. I wanted you to know. But I never wanted him to kill you, I swear - I never wanted you to be dead."
Thor swallowed what felt like a lump the size of Mjolnir in his throat, and told himself that the pain in his chest was only that of cracked ribs. It grieved him to hear that his brother had wished such harm upon him, no matter the reason; but what else was he to do? He would be ten times the monster Geirröd had been, to bring further punishment on Loki now. "Loki. Brother. Take ease," he said huskily. "You yet live, and so do I, and our enemies are defeated."
After a long while Loki's shuddering ceased, and he drew a long breath that sounded like a drowning man coming to air. When he lifted his head his eyes were sane again, though his face was still hollow and ravaged.
They should leave this place, Thor thought. Loki needed food and rest, treatment for his wounds - and so did he. "Come," he said. "Let us return home, with the monster's head as badge of our valor."
Their horses were still nearby, huddled in the lee of a rocky cliffside out of the night wind where Loki had apparently released them to wander. Thor went in pursuit of his mount, Loki tailing reluctantly behind. Getting his tack in order was no small task, especially when it came to securing the giant's head hanging behind the saddle. His hands were slow and clumsy with the burns, and he fumbled; the sudden weight of the burden yanked a leather strap painfully across his palms, and he hissed involuntarily.
Loki glanced over at him, drawn by that pained grunt, and his gaze sharpened suddenly on Thor's hands. "Your hands," Loki said, horrified. "What did you do to yourself?"
Thor turned his hands palm up between them, wincing as he flexed the joints and the skin cracked, bleeding a little. "An iron bar from the fire," he said. "It was the only weapon I had to hand."
Loki shot him a look that, in any other time or place, would have been accompanied by a long exasperated sigh. Really, Brother? he would say, his tone sounding bored and pained at once. That was the best plan you could come up with? Now, for once, he forbore the lecture; he raised his own stiff hands to Thor's, and his face smoothed over with the blank concentration Thor had learned to associate with his brother performing magic.
Green sparks sputtered over his palms, at once cool-and-soothing and hot-and-stinging. Loki winced before Thor did, though, and dropped his hands. "I have not the strength left to make this right," he confessed in a small voice.
Thor snorted, not unduly bothered by Loki's failure; his wounds were bravely got in battle, and he was not ashamed of them, painful though they might be. Healing them by magic always struck him as cheating somehow, and deprived anyone else of the chance to see them and exclaim over his bravery.
"If you did, I'd expect you to tend your own hurts first." He reached out and recaptured Loki's hand, turning the black and swollen flesh against his own. Loki looked at it blankly, as though he'd forgotten it was on the end of his wrist. "It matters not. Let us go where we can both find healing and rest."
Thor braced himself in winceworthy anticipation - several moments of dizzied scrambling later, he found himself upright in his saddle with his feet in the stirrups and reins in hand, head only spinning a little from the throbbing ache of his ribs. He'd ridden with such injuries before, many times when coming from some battlefield in worse conditions than this - but it was never fun.
Dawn had come to Asgard while they'd tarried in the mountains; the sun had not yet broached the horizon, but a pale light grew in the sky and filled the snow-walled valley. It was a beautiful sight, yet Thor was little able to appreciate it during the slow, uncomfortable ride down the mountain. He was still in a fair amount of pain (and riding with broken ribs was not helping) yet the nervous tension that hovered between him and Loki was almost worse. He could tell that Loki still was not easy in his mind, nor easy in Thor's presence.
Thor found himself at a loss. He had made his decision to forgive Loki, but all still was not well between them. What else needed to be said? Yet it seemed that more was needed. Loki was broken, broken in ways that Thor knew not how to mend.
He had no skill for this, he was no word-smith; his strength was in his arms, but no convenient target presented itself for him to smite. He could swear an oath, perhaps, to shield Loki against all such foes in the future, yet what good would that do? He would have come to his brother's defense long before, had he but known. How could he ensure that even if separated from him by barriers and distance, he could make Loki's enemies his own?
Miles of road unwound below them as Thor mulled the problem over. At last, even as they turned the final switchback corner on the mountain trail and the valley opened up wide beneath them - still misty-blue with night's vapors - Thor came to a decision.
"Loki," he said. "You must promise me something."
His brother did not respond. Thor moved his horse closer to Loki's, close enough that he could see the other man's expression, downcast and shadowed. "If you should ever find yourself in such dire straits again," Thor said firmly, "trapped by an enemy you cannot defeat or escape, then do not spend your strength in futile resistance. Do not let them so pain you. Make whatever promises you must, agree to whatever deeds they wish - and make haste to bring your tormentors to me, that I might defeat them."
Loki shuddered, but at least he shot a sideways skittering gaze at Thor's face. "That's a very open-ended offer you make, Thor Troll-slayer," he said, and Thor could not decipher the flat tones of his voice. "What if such a foe is beyond your ability to defeat? This one gave you trouble enough."
Thor charitably did not point out that Geirröd would not have posed half so much trouble to him if he'd had Mjolnir with him. "No foe is beyond my ability," he said firmly. "But bring them to me and I shall slay them, even if it be a very army of giants."
Loki snorted softly, eyes returning to the ground. "Are you not supposed to tell me that I should die before I let my honor be so tarnished?" he asked, his voice quiet and defeated.
"Nay, Brother," Thor said. "Because then you would be dead."
He and Loki had both been brought up, of course, to believe that a warrior's honor transcended all other considerations, even unto death - but he had never before stopped to consider what that really meant. Easy enough to entertain noble fantasies of self-sacrifice, of dying bravely on the battlefield after overcoming some temptation. Harder, much harder to imagine Loki gone from his side, from his life; to never see his smile again, never laugh at one of his jests, never hear his voice again - in the face of that, honor seemed somehow like a poor second.
He added, "And I will never allow that to happen."
Loki stared at him for a long moment, his expression unnervingly blank and unreadable - but whatever he saw in Thor, it seemed to ease him. His tense, stiff posture relaxed somewhat, and he slumped in his saddle. "Very well, Thor," he said, in a pale shadow of his usual lofty tone. "If I should perchance find myself in a situation that is better handled by the blunt application of brute force than by diplomacy, I shall be sure to find some way to turn it over to you."
"Good," Thor said, and grinned. A guarantee of Loki's continued safety, as well as the promise of battle against worthy foes; what could be better?
They came at last to the gates of Asgard, even as the sun crested incandescent over the horizon. Some of the tight bands of pain around Thor's chest eased at the sight of the familiar golden fortress: familiar, comforting, safe. The first sunrays of the day glinted brilliant off the highest towers, washing away the dim golden haze of starlight as the stars faded pale into the sky.
Inside there would be warmth to soothe cold cramping muscles, hot food and drink, servants (and mothers) to fuss over them, and most importantly, healers. Thor shifted in his saddle, grimacing as his ribs reminded him insistently that just because he was ignoring his injuries thus far didn't mean they'd ceased to exist. A sentry looking over the walls spotted them and called a hail; he did not yet sound alarmed, as there was nothing unusual about seeing the two princes go riding together, or returning at odd hours, and they were yet too far away for their injuries to be noticeable.
"Come on, Brother." Thor urged his horse towards the gate eagerly. "It is not so early that we can't rouse servants to tend to us. They will be astonished to see us returning from battle, and all eager to hear the tale we have to tell."
Loki, however, hung back. Thor glanced over his shoulder at his brother, looking like a pale shadow atop his mount. "Loki?" he hazarded.
Loki's eyes slid away, along the ground. "I don't…" He swallowed. "I don't want to go in there, Thor."
Thor looked at him, not able to comprehend his objection. "It is our home," he said. "And you need treatment."
"I've survived this long, haven't I?" Loki pulled away. "It's nothing that a little rest and food won't cure. You go on, Thor. I'll find someplace where I can have some privacy, and -"
"Loki, no," Thor complained. "What would Mother say, if she knew I'd let you go off by yourself in this state?"
Loki met Thor's eyes, his mouth twisting in a bleak parody of a smile. "These are no honorably-got battle wounds, Thor," he said, making a vague gesture with his ruined hands. "Anyone with eyes can tell that I didn't collect these hurts in battle beside you, nor even in a single day. It would be humiliating enough to explain how I came to be captured, let alone -" He broke off and looked away, blinking hard. "Let alone how I came to be free again."
"We don't need to tell them that part," Thor said sturdily. "I am sure you can come up with some clever story, Brother."
Loki scoffed weakly. "I'm afraid my invention is somewhat laggard, at the moment."
"Then I shall think of something," Thor announced, as he let himself with no small amount of wincing out of the saddle. Once on the ground he paused a moment to catch his breath, and turn his mind over the problem at hand. Lies were not his forte; the closer to truth they could remain the better. But his little brother was relying on him; he had to come up with something.
He brightened as a thought occurred to him. "How about this," he said. "You were captured by giants -"
"The depths of your creativity never cease to astound me," Loki said.
Thor refused to be distracted, even if the returning edge of Loki's droll humor was a welcome relief. " - but you managed to sneak a message out to me," he said happily. "And I was in such an eager rush to rescue you, that I ran out of my chambers while forgetting to put on my armor or take Mjolnir."
Loki shot him a disbelieving look. "That's it? That's your idea of a cover story?" he said. "Really, Brother, did you happen to hit your head in the fight with that giant? You actually expect people to believe that you went to do battle and forgot your weapons and armor."
"Well, I don't see you suggesting anything better," Thor said huffily. He'd rather liked his idea, foolish though it might have made him look to rush off to Loki's defense without even arming himself first. "How about - how about this - I did not have my armor with me because in an effort to sneak into the giant's lair, I had disguised myself as a maiden and presented myself as his bride -"
"Thor." Loki covered his face with both hands. "Stop. Just stop, it's an embarrassment to even be near you. No one in their right mind would believe for an instant that you could actually pass yourself off as a maiden, the idea is preposterous." He drew in a deep sigh and let it out slowly. "Fine. I'll do the talking, as always."
Thor beamed. Just like that, they were a team again. As always the best way to goad a reluctant Loki to do something was to start to do it poorly, and Loki's perfectionist streak would kick in and take over every time.
More importantly, there was no more talk of Loki sneaking off to nurse his wounds in private. They would go back home, rest and mend their wounds; Thor would bully Loki into eating until the frightening gauntness smoothed away. The hurts in Loki's mind would heal, too, with him back in the familiar routine; time and distraction would chase out those twisted, frightening thoughts that had driven him to this evening's mad deeds. And then Thor would be able to put that agonized confession - I wanted you to know how it felt! - from his mind forever.
"Come on," Thor said, and gave Loki's shoulder a gentle buffet. "The day grows long while we stand here; let us go on home."
Without waiting for Loki to respond he strode ahead, calling to the guard on duty, and the gates opened wide to embrace him. Behind him he heard Loki's footsteps, following slowly in his wake.
Author's Notes: Like hospitality but more so, oaths and the keeping of them were considered SRS BUSINESS in Norse myth. Half of the stories revolve around one party or another making an ill-advised oath and then having to jump through hoops to keep it. Even Loki, god of trolling and assholes though he frequently was, would not violate a sworn oath.