Loki Sky-Treader (12,472 words) by LokiOfSassgaard

Chapters: 1/1
Fandom: Marvel, Marvel Cinematic Universe, Thor (Movies), Thor (Comics), Loki (Comics)
Rating: Teen And Up Audiences
Warnings: No Archive Warnings Apply
Characters: Loki (Marvel), Thor (Marvel)

Summary: Loki spends too much time in his room, Thor’s decided. The solution to this problem is clearly to drag Loki out to Vanaheimr for an adventure!


Thor found Loki in his bedchamber. He always seemed to find Loki either there or in the library, unless he was hiding altogether. Sometimes, Loki would hide for what seemed like months.

Loki ignored Thor as he burst into the room with his bearskin travelling bag slung over his shoulder. That bag only ever meant tedium, and Loki wanted nothing to do with it. He had an ancient book in his hands, and he was determined to get through it before he even thought about getting out of bed.

“Oh, you are in here today,” Thor said happily. “Good. I was worried I might run out of places to search.”

“Do you need something, Thor?” Loki asked. “The stables are outside, where they’ve always been.”

“So you do know where they are. I was beginning to think I might have to show you, in case you forgot.” He walked round the low shelf pressed up against the side of Loki’s bed. “What have you done to your hair?” he asked, only just then realising that Loki’s hair had been shorn close to his head.

“It was becoming tedious to clean,” Loki said flatly, not looking up from his book.

It was a truth, of sorts. More accurately, after so long of having no chance at all to wash it, his hair had become a tangled, matted mess after several months at sea. Cleaning it upon his return to Asgard hadn’t even been an option, unless he intended to spend a week in the bath. He hadn’t worn his hair so short since he was a boy, and he wasn’t sure he liked it.

“You are so lazy,” Thor complained with disgust. “Always with your nose in some ancient old text. You spend too much time locked in here alone.”

“If you say so,” Loki said. Perhaps if he didn’t show enough interest, Thor would go away.

“I do say so,” Thor agreed. “Come. We’re going to Vanaheimr.”

Loki looked up at him finally. “Thor, no,” he protested. “I’m tired. Leave me be.”

His every muscle ached. He’d barely been home twenty minutes, and all he wanted was to read himself to sleep. Or possibly read, plan a raid on the kitchens, and then sleep. He hadn’t decided yet.

“You’re tired because you never do anything,” Thor insisted. He grabbed Loki by the ankle and dragged him out of bed. Barely giving Loki enough time to right himself, Thor shoved a passably-clean tunic at him.

“There are adventures to be had, Loki,” Thor said brightly as he sought out Loki’s own travelling back. “I will not allow them to pass you by while the rest of Asgard shares the glory.”

Loki could have pointed out that he wasn’t, in fact, from Asgard, but he knew it would do little to silence Thor. Realising that he wasn’t going to get out of this easily, Loki rolled his eyes and pulled the tunic over his head. He left the collar unlaced and searched for a pair of socks that didn’t have any inconveniently-placed holes anywhere. While he was busy with that task, Thor found Loki’s bearskin bag and opened it. He was greeted with an unpacked bag left over from the last time Loki left the palace with it. By Thor’s reckoning, the bag hadn’t been touched in over two years, when Loki and Odin travelled to Jötunheimr, and Odin returned home alone.

“Loki, this is vile,” Thor scolded.

“Well, excuse me for not having found the time to unpack yet,” Loki said bitterly as he pulled on his boots. “Don’t even bother with it. As you say, we’re only going to Vanaheimr.”

He stepped in front of the mirror out of habit, but he hadn’t much hair at all to fuss with. It would grow back eventually, and it wasn’t worth the effort to magic it back to its proper length. He doubted Thor would let him take the time to make it look like he hadn’t lost a fight with a pair of shears, though.

“All right. Let’s get this adventure of yours over with,” he said in resignation.

Following Loki’s lead, Thor left both their bags behind and bounded eagerly for the door.

***

Vanaheimr was much like Asgard in all but the smallest details. Loki hated it. The entire realm was pointless; little more than an extension of Asgard’s borders. Even the drinking songs were the same. Loki tried to ignore the discordant tale of a hog in the western wood that would eat your bones and drink your blood. He hated that hog almost as much as he hated Vanaheimr. Just like Vanaheimr, the song was utterly boring and predictable. Unlike Vanaheimr, the boar always won.

“This is not an adventure,” he complained into the horn of mead he drank from. “You could have done this at home. You didn’t need me. I could be in bed, enjoying a peaceful sleep right now.”

Thor looked over at him, grinning obliviously. “No?” he asked. “You have no sense of fun. You only understand what is explained to you on paper.”

“I understand plenty,” Loki said distantly.

“You wouldn’t know fun if it kicked you in the manhood,” Thor goaded.

For the first time all day, Loki’s smile brightened. “That sounds like a challenge to me,” he said.

Thor knew that tone. It never meant anything good.

“Loki, no,” he warned.

Loki ignored him and had already found a suitable means of distraction. Under the guise of taking a long draught from his horn, he gestured to the floor at the bar. One of the floorboards dissolved into thin air, and then man standing atop it stumbled heavily to one side, knocking into the fellow to his left. As both men regained their footing, Loki replaced the floorboard and watched the men intently.

“You spilt my ale!” the second man bellowed, and before any apology could be offered, he swung a punch at the man who had knocked into him. At once, the insufferable hog was forgotten as the entire tavern descended into a brawl.

“Yes!” Thor cried, raising his fist and jumping up to join the fray.

“No,” Loki said, grabbing his arm and holding him back.

“What?” Thor demanded.

“We’re out of coin, and the landlord doesn’t barter,” Loki said quickly. “Come on.”

He pulled Thor along the wall, occasionally pushing someone out of the way. Once outside, Loki led the way down a narrow path between buildings, eventually taking them to one of Vanaheimr’s many ports.

“Why did you take us from there?” Thor demanded. “There is nothing out here, and I am the son of Odin. The landlord would have honoured my credit.”

“No, he really wouldn’t,” Loki insisted. “He lost a lot of wealth and land during the war with Asgard. He’s hated father ever since.”

Thor tried to untangle the lie from that explanation, but he didn’t know where to start. “What? How do you know that?” he asked.

Loki ignored him and produced six unfamiliar purses full of silver coins.

“Very nice,” he said. “This should earn us passage to…” he counted off individual ships in the port, pointing at them in turn, “… Niðavellir!”

“I don’t want to go sit underground,” Thor complained.

“Better than a dark, sticky tavern,” Loki said, already making tracks to the small karvi he’d chosen.

Doubting his friend’s ability to talk the captain into a voyage to Niðavellir in the first place, Thor followed after. At first, it seemed as though no-one helmed the longship at all, but Loki threw out all sense of decorum and boarded anyway.

“Andvari, what are you doing here?” he called out from the deck.

Surprised laughter rose from the ship, and as Thor approached the pier, he found Loki standing before a grizzled, weather-worn dwarf.

“What’s this trouble I’ve been hearing about Brokkr, eh?” Andvari asked.

“Baseless rumours,” Loki answered flippantly. “I’ve no idea what you’re talking about.”

Andvari laughed again and turned his attention to Thor. “And who’s this fellow?”

“Andvari, this is Thor,” Loki introduced. “I’m sure you’ve heard of him. We wish to procure passage to Niðavellir.”

He produced one of the stolen purses and started to fish out several coins from it, but Advari shook his head.

“None of that, now,” he said. “I’m headed that way anyway.“

Loki waved Thor aboard and rushed over to the mast.

“How are your sea legs, boy?” Andvari asked as Thor boarded.

Thor frowned at the dwarf’s tone. He clearly knew Loki, but yet, he didn’t seem to know to address either of them with the respect they commanded. Before he could respond, Andvari laughed again and began coiling a length of rope.

“You can’t possibly be any worse than your friend,” he said. “I ought to put you to work.”

“I’ll have you know!” Loki called from halfway up the mast. “I just spent a Midgardian year learning to sail. Your insults are meaningless!”

“Good! Get to work!” Andvari shouted back.

Crowing madly, Loki climbed the rest of the way up the mast. Thor could only stand aside, feeling very out of place for the first time since he could remember.

***

Andvari’s crew of six rowers laughed and sang as they made their course from Vanaheimr’s port. For all Thor tried to join in, they were a cagey lot and were quick to ignore him. Thor soon gave up and went to sit at the prow amongst the coiled ropes and canvas bags, where Loki had gone to nap under the excuse that he’d learned to sail, and not to row.

All of it seemed rather odd to Thor, though. When had Loki ever learned to sail? He had always been so frightened of the water that it seemed completely at odds with everything Thor knew about this strange man from Jötunheimr. And now here he was on a ship full of dwarfs who seemed to all know Loki by name while holding a complete disregard for his status as one of the gods. And now, here was was asleep, as if it were an ordinary place for him to be.

“Loki, all you ever do is sleep,” Thor complained quietly. “And now you make no sense at all.”

Andvari snorted from where he stood at the starboard side, compulsively checking the line at his feet for weak spots.

“What sort of man doesn’t know his own brother?” he asked.

Thor glared at the increasingly irritating dwarf. “And what makes you presume that he is?” he snapped.

Loki awoke with a start and glared at both of them for being so loud. “Can’t you fight for dominance a bit more quietly?” he asked.

He yawned and stretched the muscles in his back. His nap hadn’t been a long one, but he was used to taking what he could get when he could get it. When he finally opened his eyes properly, he saw Andvari preparing the line and sat up eagerly.

“Are we nearly there?” he asked.

Andvari looked to the sky for a moment and nodded. “Just a bit further. I’ll be going under to guide her in soon.”

That manic look returned to Loki’s gaze as he got to his feet. “Oh, let me,” he almost begged. “I’ve been practising swimming as well.”

Thor grabbed Loki’s arm in alarm and tried to pull him back down to the deck and away from the edges of the ship.

“Loki, are you mad?” he demanded. “No Jötunn can swim. You know that better than most.”

“I can,” Loki insisted, pulling his arm from Thor’s grip. “I’ve become quite good at it.”

Andvari shrugged. “If it means I don’t have to go down there, you’re more than welcome to it.”

“Loki, no,” Thor said.

Loki ignored him and began pulling off his boots. While he undressed, Andvari gave the order for the rowers to pull in their oars and gave the line one final tug to make sure it was secure on the cleat and that no part of it or the ship would give way. Having no idea what was happening before him, Thor gaped openly. He thought it might have been some sort of horrible joke until Loki pulled off his tunic and peered over the side of the ship to the water below.

“Are you sure you can do it, boy?” Andvari asked, his tone serious for the first time all day. “I’m an old man. I can’t pull you out.”

Loki nodded and tied a slipknot in the free end of the line.

“Thor, I want you to hold onto this,” Loki said, giving him a part of the line several feet from the end. “But don’t pull me up unless I pull hard on it.” He pulled the rope over his torso and snugged it around his waist.

Thor stood obediently and clutched the rope. “Loki, this is madness,” he said.

Loki grinned wolfishly. “No, it’s just a ley line,” he said.

Before Thor could say anything else, Loki pulled off his breeches and leapt off the side of the ship.

“Loki!” Thor called. He immediately forgot about Loki’s instructions and pulled hard on the line. Before he could drag Loki from the water, Andvari reached out and stayed his hand.

“Look,” Andvari said. He pointed over the edge, where Loki had gone over.

Nervously, and still maintaining a tight hold on the line, Thor stepped to the edge and peered over. He saw no sign of Loki in the water; just an otter with a line tied round its middle and caught at its haunches. As soon as he saw the otter, it disappeared beneath the surface.

“What is the meaning of this?” Thor asked Andvari. He ignored the way the rowers laughed at him and glared at their captain, demanding answers.

Andvari reached out and eased Thor’s grip on the line, letting it out slowly. “He told you. A ley line between Vanaheimr and Niðavellir. This one is dangerously narrow and best seen from under the water. Ships travelling through it need a guide; one who can change his shape and swim deep enough to see where to go.”

Thor frowned as he watched the line slowly slide through his hands. “The last time Loki went into the water, he nearly drowned,” he said quietly.

Again, Andvari snorted, and Thor hated him for it.

“He did tell me about that,” he said. “And that one of your friends told him to just turn himself into a fish, yes?”

“Aye,” said Thor, nodding. “He… did not take kindly to it.”

“Some magic is not so easily learnt from books,” Andvari said. “You need a tutor who knows the magic himself. It just so happens I can turn myself into a fish.”

The rope suddenly went tight, and for a moment, Thor began to pull on it. Again, Andvari stayed his hand, but this time, he pushed Thor out of the way entirely.

“You’ll be wanting to let go now,” he warned, rushing to make sure the line stayed secure.

Thor frowned, but did as he was told and backed out of the way. The line pulled so hard on the cleat it was hitched to that Thor worried the whole thing might break off. But the cleat held and the ship started to list instead, until Thor’s new worry was that the whole vessel might capsize and drown all on board who couldn’t change themselves to a convenient shape. He gripped tightly at the rail. The dwarfs behind him all laughed and cheered as if the whole thing were a game, but Thor could hardly hear them over the sudden roar around them. Then everything lurched, and with a blinding flash of light, the entire sky and sea around them changed. Gone were the crystal blue waters and pink sky, now to be replaced with water as black as ink and an angry, stormy sky above. Before Thor could ask what had just happened, he was alerted by a frantic splashing at the side of the ship.

“I think he wants out,” Andvari said. “Best go fetch him.”

Thor rushed to pull Loki from the water, hauling his dripping, furry form out by the line still tied round his middle.

“Loki, you are one mad bastard, do you know that?” he said to the otter as he freed him from the rope.

Thor placed him down on the deck where Andvari met him with a heavy woollen blanket. A few moments later, Loki returned to his Asgardian shape and began using the blanket to dry himself.

“Not bad for a novice,” Andvari said. “Took you a bit long, though. I’d started to think you got yourself lost down there.”

Loki flicked water at him.

“Yes, well. Some of us do have better things to do with our time than practising poking at small holes in dark places,” he chided.

Several of the rowers behind them laughed as they settled back in to take them into port.

“Loki, when did you learn that?” Thor asked. “I have not seen that magic before.”

“You have,” Loki told him. He pulled on his breeches and began tying the laces. “You just don’t pay enough attention to remember.”

***

The port at Niðavellir was nestled inside a giant cave beneath a mountain, and was teeming with more life than Thor h ad ever thought to see on the realm. He had heard of the great dwarven cities under ground, but he never thought to see one of them in person. The dwarfs had always been secretive of their realm, letting only those trusted few into their borders. Not even Odin himself was welcome there.

And yet, there stood Loki, bartering with another group of dwarfs. He spoke easily with them, laughing at some secret joke Thor couldn’t hope to understand.

“Brother, there’s a hunt on,” Loki said several moments later. “A proper hunt; not like those jokes Volstagg leads on Midsummer.”

“A hunt for what?” asked Thor, unable to help the rising curiosity.

“A hunt for whatever we find to kill!” one of Loki’s companions called out.

“There are gryphons in Stoneholm,” said another.

Loki raised his eyebrows at that. “Then what in the Nine Skies are we waiting for?” he asked. “By all means, Jari. Lead the way!”

“Yes, follow me. I’ll lead the way!” Jari declared, raising his axe.

“We haven’t a chance against Loki Hippogryph-Slayer, here,” the dwarf at Jari’s left said. “Not unless Stoneholm’s been overrun by an entire senate.”

The other two dwarfs laughed as Loki shook his head.

“My friends, I’m afraid you’ve all forgotten something,” he said.

The dwarfs looked at one another with puzzled expressions.

“My brother and I are woefully ill-prepared for this journey,” Loki pointed out, holding out empty hands. “Let us first procure weapons and horses, and then I will show you all the proper way to slay a beast.”

“Yes, weapons and horses!” Jari agreed. “Follow me. I’ll lead the way!”

The trio of dwarfs cried out loudly as they rushed down the gangway. Loki waited just long enough to shoot Thor one of his scheming smiles before following after. For the moment, Thor could only smile back and wonder why Sif or Fandral never seemed to come up with ideas half as good as Loki’s.

***

While Jari was sent off to gather supplies for the hunt, and Loki went off to find suitable weapons, Thor was sent with Dvalin and Bombur and three pieces of silver with the task of buying three horses. Dvalin and Bombur were at least more social than Andvari’s crew had been, but they were still dwarfs. Why Loki would keep company with them in the first place, Thor could not fathom.

Bombur led Thor to a small stable carved from the walls of the cave, where a stout woman with a blonde beard to match her plaits tended the animals. She was the first dwarven woman Thor had ever seen, and all he could bring himself to do was stare.

“What are you looking at, ogre?” she demanded when she noticed Thor staring.

Even her voice, though a woman’s voice, was hard and gruff. It was all enough to snap Thor back to attention.

“I am not an ogre,” he said.

“Only an ogre has hair and height like you,” said the woman confidently. “Don’t know how you got here, and don’t care. Ogres is ogres.”

“We’re here to buy horses from you, Skafith,” Dvalin cut in before Thor could say anything else. He elbowed Thor sharply. “We have silver.”

Taking Dvalin’s cue, Thor produced the silver pieces and offered them to Skafith.

“We wish for three horses, strong enough for a hunt,” Thor said.

Skafith looked at his offering and laughed. “Get you three ponies, that will. Must be out of your ogre mind if you think you’ll buy horses with that.”

“I cannot ride a pony,” Thor said with disgust. “I am the son of Odin. I demand a worthy steed.”

Thor’s would-be companions laughed right along with Skafith.

“He demands a worthy steed,” she parroted. “It’s ponies or nothing. You’re lucky I offer you that much.”

Thor wondered if Skafith’s beard meant she was an acceptable target for his fist. It was no wonder the dwarfs were not welcome in Asgard, if this was how they all behaved. He hadn’t time to wonder for long before Loki rejoined the group with a quiver and recurve bow over one shoulder and a large glaive in hand.

“Where are the horses?” he asked, handing the glaive over to Thor.

“He hasn’t bought them yet,” Bombur said. “I don’t think he knows how.”

Loki rolled his eyes.

“I told him what I’ll tell you,” Skafith said. “Three pieces’ll get him three ponies.”

Loki pretended to think on this for a few moments. “Four pieces for three horses,” he said.

“One.”

“Five for two,” he countered quickly.

“Show me the silver, Sky-Treader,” Skafith said.

Loki handed her five silver pieces. She bit each one individually and then pounded them against the stone wall before nodded.

“Five for two,” she agreed. “This way.”

As she led them into the stables, Thor stepped close to Loki.

“Brother, what was that?” he asked quietly.

“Haggling,” Loki sad as though it were blindingly obvious. “Haven’t you ever been to market?”

“No,” said Thor, as if this fact were just as obvious. “I have no need for such things.”

Loki shook his head and stepped forward into the stall Skafith pointed at. “This one and his brother should suit your purposes,” she said. “Strong horses. Swift and steady. Fine mount for a bowman.”

Loki inclined his head to her and stepped up to inspect the chestnut gelding. It neither flinched nor snorted as Loki approached, so Loki nodded.

“He should do nicely. Thank you, Skafith,” he said.

She nodded as well and stepped aside to show Thor the other horse, a similarly-sized and tempered blue roan gelding.

“He will suffice. Thank you,” Thor said, hoping to avoid another round of mockery.

“We can see ourselves out, Skafith,” Loki assured. “We will call if we need anything.”

“I’m sure you will,” she said with a laugh as she walked back out to the front to watch over her business.

Across from each stall was a low shelf with tack made specifically for each individual horse. Loki soon began to dress his, making quick work of fitting the saddle and bridle.

“Been to see Sindri, have you?” Dvalin asked from the aisle, where he and Bombur watched.

“I’ve no quarrel with Sindri,” Loki said, making sure everything was secure on the horse. “He’s a fine craftsman, and I enjoy doing business with him. He can’t help that his brother is a foul old goat.”

Bombur and Dvalin both laughed as they stepped into the stall with Loki. There was a stepladder pushed against the outer wall of the stall, but it was quicker and easier for Loki to just help them into the saddle himself.

“Where the hell has Jari got to?” Dvalin asked as he scooted forward to make room for Bombur behind him. “If he’s wandered off to get drunk again, we should leave without him.”

“Loki, what is this bad business I keep hearing about with you and one of them?” Thor asked over the low wall.

“He owes Brokkr money,” said Bombur before Loki could deflect the question.

“Rather a lot of money,” confirmed Dvalin. “Though, I think at this point, he’ll be happy to take your head as payment, Sky-Treader.”

Loki cringed as he walked round to Thor’s stall. “That’s a shame,” he said. “I don’t feel like giving it.”

The dwarfs both laughed as they settled themselves and their axes on the saddle. Loki could only shake his head as he waved at Thor to take his mount as well.

“I would, but it’s already been spent,” he said, watching Thor step up into the saddle.

“On what?” Thor asked.

“Women.” Loki pulled himself onto the saddle and settled in close behind Thor.

“Do you mean you… laid with…” Thor couldn’t even put words to his disgust, and only became more confused when Loki laughed.

“Oh, Niðhögg, no,” said Loki quickly, sparing Thor any further embarrassment. “The poor woman would have never lived it down. I went to Álfheimr.”

Thor was torn between being glad that Loki had not bedded one of those foul, bearded creatures, and angry with him for all his other apparently dishonourable behaviour

“Loki, this is not how a prince behaves,” he scolded.

“So?” asked Loki. “I’m bored with this. Let us find our wayward guide and be gone.”

“Yes!” cried Bombur and Dvalin as one.

Loki kicked his heels into the horse’s flanks, causing Thor to startle when the animal he was meant to be driving started to move. The seat on the saddle behind Thor wasn’t comfortable, but Stoneholm wasn’t far. Perhaps with enough shifting and twisting about, Loki thought he might be able to get comfortable enough to go back to sleep while they rode.

Thor followed Dvalin and Bombur out of the stables and along a narrow path lined with horses and businesses, all stuck into the walls of the cave. Here and there, another tunnel would branch out; some natural caverns and others dug out by dwarven steel.

They soon stopped outside a wooden-faced tavern called the Chipped Emerald, and taking an unseen cue, Loki dismounted the horse and ducked through the low door. He was only out of sight for a few moments before rushing back out, followed by war cries and curses. Quick on his heels was Jari, and the two of them both seemed to regard being chased from the tavern as some sort of joke. Loki quickly mounted the horse and took his seat behind Thor, as Jari was helped onto the second by his fellows. Before either were even properly situated, Dvalin began riding hard back in the direction they came. Not to be caught up by the angry mob, Loki slapped their horse’s rump so that it followed after.

“Loki, I will not run!” Thor said, though he did not stop the horse.

Behind them, a small army of dwarfs spillt out from the tavern, some giving chase on foot while others stood and shouted.

“Get back here, you coward,” shouted one with a red face and a pointed woollen cap.

In one fluid motion, Loki pulled an arrow from his quiver, nocked it, and loosed it into the crowd, striking the dwarf’s cap and pinning it to the wall behind him.

“Come and catch me, Brokkr!” Loki shouted back.

Brokkr started to give chase, but stopped and turned round to retrieve his cap. As the horses rounded a bend, Loki had just enough time to watch the cap tear and Brokkr fall on his backside.

***

The port at Rötgart had but a single path leading to the surface above. The terrain of Niðavellir was often harsh, but frequently travelled, leaving wide highways between cities. Stoneholm was only two hours hard riding from Rötgart, but the small band travelled at a leisurely pace, riding abreast along the even dirt road that cut through rocky fields and endless moors.

“I feel like I’ve spotted a unicorn,” said Bombur suddenly.

Thor looked around quickly, wondering what a unicorn would be doing in this realm.

“Behind you, boy,” Dvalin said helpfully.

Thor turned to look over his shoulder, though he struggled to move very far with Loki asleep behind him, leaning heavily against Thor’s back, and with his arms tight around his brother’s waist. Still not seeing anything resembling a unicorn, Thor frowned.

“What do you mean?” he asked finally.

“Lóður,” Dvalin said. “That boy never stops. This is the first I’ve ever seen such a thing.”

Thor looked over his shoulder again, this time at Loki.

“Lóður?” he asked. “He is called Loki.”

“He is called whatever he wishes to be called,” Jari said. “Not every man wants to live by his father’s deeds.”

Thor couldn’t decide if the dwarf spoke against Odin or not. They all had a funny, vague way of speech that could go either way in meaning. He was starting to wonder if it had been they who taught Loki such speech.

“I know not of what you speak,” Thor said levelly. “My brother has never been an active man. You are much mistaken.”

Even as he spoke the words, Thor knew them to be a lie. All Loki talked about all day had been his desire to sleep, but it was quickly becoming clear that the Loki he had known had been in many ways false. It was not a prospect Thor wished to face in the company of others. Especially those who thought so lowly of him to begin with.

He ignored the eye-rolling and disagreements from the dwarfs and focused instead on the ride.

“How much longer until we reach our destination?” he asked.

Jari sat up in the saddle as much as he was able. “Not far now,” he declared, pointing into the middle distance. “Just over that hill, there.”

“We should stop here and tie the horses,” Bombur suggested. “They’ll only serve as bait if we ride in.”

There were varied voices of agreement, and with some difficulty and little dignity, the dwarfs began to dismount. Bombur and Jari went over the side at once, falling into a heap on the ground. Dvalin followed soon after, using his fellows as a makeshift, and shoddy stepping ladder, stumbling as he dropped down from the high saddle.

Shaking his head at the display, Thor reached down and slapped Loki’s thigh to wake him.

“Loki, wake up,” he said. “We are nearly there.”

Loki awoke slowly, rubbing his eyes and yawning. “Where are we?” he asked.

“I do not know,” Thor admitted. “But we are to leave the horses behind and walk the rest of the way.”

“Fine.”

Loki slid off the side of the saddle, stumbling only slightly as he touched ground. Once steadied, he surveyed the area and adjusted his bow and quiver on his back.

“I’m still not allowed in Stoneholm,” he said, looking at a far-off copse. “We may have to make camp if our hunt takes too long.”

Camping with Loki was not an experience Thor looked forward to. Their first attempt at it had been a disaster, and their second had been a string of disasters interspersed with long rounds of complaining. He thought back to Loki’s unpacked travelling bag and foresaw a night of endless swearing and yet another lesson on how to build a fire with flint and steel.

“Perhaps we should leave this for another time,” Thor suggested.

“Losing your nerve, ogre?” Dvalin asked as he checked over his own gear.

“I was promised a gryphon,” Loki said. “So long as we stay above ground, we’re without Stoneholm’s borders.”

He pointed off toward the copse.

“I think we should try in there first,” he said.

“Stoneholm’s the other way, Sky-Treader,” Jari said, pointing in the direction of the city. “That is where the reports come from.”

“Because that is where people live,” Loki said. “I doubt any self-respecting gryphon would choose to live in a quagmire. There is at least some amount of shelter to be had from the trees. I found my hippogryph in a similar area.”

Loki pulled another arrow from his quiver and nocked it, drawing the string slowly back to his cheek. Thor had often seen Loki honing his skills with a bow in lieu of combat training, but he had never before that day seen him use it on anything other than magpies and hares. Now, he stood oblivious to all around him, bow still drawn, and muttering something to himself. After a few long moments, he closed his eyes and exhaled heavily enough to disturb the fletching of his arrow. Eyes still closed, he loosed the arrow into the direction of the trees. He stood silent as the arrow quickly vanished from sight, stiff and barely breathing. Suddenly, he took in a sharp breath and jolted as if struck by something heavy.

“Oh, there’s something in there, all right,” he said quietly.

“What did you see?” asked Dvalin eagerly.

“Many dead,” said Loki. “There may be truth to these reports after all.”

“Then we must strike the beast down!” Jari cried. “Kill it before it can kill again!”

Loki smiled wryly, reminded of a certain hog in a wood. “Ho-ro hiðrum hey,” he said flatly.

Unable to wait any longer, the trio of dwarfs made swift tracks toward the copse, leaving Thor and Loki behind to tie the horses. Thor took the reins of both animals and looked round, but found nothing suitable to use as a post. Without a word, Loki took a long, steel stake from the saddle of their horse, and with little force at all drove it into the ground.

“Tie them here,” Loki said, reaching out for the reins. On top of the stake was a large ring, through which Loki knotted the reins.

“We can leave them,” he said. “It will hold.”

“Magic,” Thor gathered aloud.

“Yes,” Loki confirmed, already following after the others.

Thor walked alongside him, feeling suddenly apprehensive and guilty about having ever embarked upon this journey. “Loki,” he said, his voice heavy and uneasy. “What you did just then. That was sight magic, was it not?”

Loki looked over at him. “I told you I was learning it,” he said. Thor could hear the impatience in his voice.

“Yes, but I did not think you would—”

“Why?” Loki cut in. “Why wouldn’t I?”

Thor looked away. “Why are we doing this?” he asked instead. “I will not see you hurt again.”

“That was years ago,” Loki said flatly. “I was so shamed by the whole thing that I…” It was rare for Loki to falter with his words, but he paused to choose them with care. “I have been practising. I’m not longer the boy I once was. You would do well to remember that.”

“Practising what?” asked Thor.

At that, Loki smiled. “Everything,” he said. “Well. I’m still useless with a sword. That may never change.”

“That is because your arms are too skinny to ever hold one up,” Thor said, giving Loki a heavy nudge.

They caught up with the other three as they drew near the trees, which were thicker and darker than they seemed from the distance.

“There could very well be an entire senate in there,” said Bombur cautiously.

“All the more reason to go in while there is still light,” Loki said as he stepped past him. “If anyone wishes to stand down, now would be the time to do so.”

As he predicted, the other four followed him wordlessly.

***

The group walked through the darkening wood, making little effort to conceal their presence there. As they tracked the gryphon further into the woods, the band grew louder, sharing tales of their previous exploits.

“And so I raised up my axe,” Dvalin said, demonstrating as he did so, “and I shouted, ‘not today!’ And before I could even bring my blade down again, the coward was gone. He ran off, leaving behind his sword and his shield!”

The group laughed wildly, having mostly forgotten their quarry.

“I tried something like that with a flintlock,” Loki said as he examined a low-hanging branch.

“Flintlock?” asked Bombur. “I’ve never heard of such a thing.”

“It’s a Midgardian weapon,” said Loki. “You hold it in your hand, and it makes a terrible explosion and drives a piece of hot lead into your foe. Very messy, but terribly effective.”

Loki was met with wide, curious eyes.

“Well, what happened?” Jari asked impatiently.

Loki smiled wryly. “My powder was wet, and it didn’t work,” he said. “So I did the next best thing and ran his ship aground instead. In my defence, it was my first mutiny. I’ll be sure to do better next time.”

While the dwarfs all laughed, Thor frowned.

“When was this?” he asked.

Loki cast a confused glance over his shoulder to Thor. “Where do you think I’ve been all month?” he asked.

Thor’s frown deepened, but before he could answer, a piercing cry cut through the trees. Everyone stopped at once and looked around for the source of the sound, but none saw anything.

“I think we’re close,” Loki said, drawing an arrow from his quiver.

Now alert and ready for a fight, the band crept further along their path. Soon, the sounds of something stomping through the undergrowth could be heard in the distance. Another cry rang out, and was quickly joined by a second.

“That sounds like a pair to me,” said Dvalin quietly.

“Then watch out for the third one,” Loki warned.

His companions all nodded, except for Jari.

“A pair’s two, you fool,” he said.

“No, you see,” said Bombur. “When a lady gryphon and a fella gryphon fall in love, they make wee little baby gryphons.”

“Let’s hope they’ve only had time to make the one,” Dvalin said.

“Hush, all of you,” Loki cut in. “I’m going to show you the idiot’s way to slay a beast.”

Smiling at some secret joke, Loki drew back his bowstring and waited silently. When again, one of the creatures cried out, Loki loosed the arrow, letting it fly through the trees. A few moments later, all that could be heard was distant stomping and snorting.

“Hum. I guess that only works by accident,” Loki mused.

Not sure what Loki had been aiming to do, Jari raised his axe and let out a mighty battle cry, charing toward the sounds in front of them. Barely a moment later, his fellows followed after, and then Thor. Thor quickly overtook them, leading with his glaive and grinning at the prospects of what lay ahead.

“For Asgard!” shouted Thor as he charged.

“For Rötgart!” the three dwarfs cried a moment later, and all out of time from one another.

“For myself!” Loki shouted from behind.

The others, all so startled by what they’d heard, hesitated for the smallest fraction of a second. It was just enough time to let down their guard, and before they could recover, the female gryphon charged toward them through the dense undergrowth. As their raised their weapons and prepared to fight, Loki skirted round their right flank and fired an arrow at the creature. It struck the side of her neck, but not deeply enough to kill. Instead, she clumsily changed directions and charged toward Loki, screeching wildly, as the male made his presence known with beating wings and slashing talons.

Loki ignored the male and fired off two more arrows in rapid succession, striking the female once more in the neck and again in the shoulder. The gryphon stumbled as she charged, and Loki fired off one more arrow, striking her in the opposite shoulder, before conjuring a large, curved blade.

Now, she could barely support her own weight, and as she stumbled again, Loki charged with the blade, driving it deep into the gryphon’s neck.

“One!” he called out as the creature’s blood spilled across the ground.

He looked up to see Jari and Bombur atop the male, each holding onto its wings in an effort to keep their mount. It kicked and reared at Thor, who stood before it with his glaive, while Dvalin swung and slashed with his axe, though he dealt little damage. Finally secure in his seat, Bombur brought his axe down on the base of the gryphon’s wing, drawing forth a fearsome shriek. Again, it reared up, trying to shake the dwarfs from its back. As it lashed out with its talons, Loki stopped watching and drew another arrow, taking almost no time to line up his shot. He loosed the arrow as the gryphon lunched toward Thor. At the same instant the arrow struck the gryphon’s head, Thor drove his glaive into its chest, and it fell over dead.

“One and a half?” Loki asked a moment later.

“This one counts as mine,” Thor asserted.

“Well done,” said Loki facetiously.

Leaving them to deal with their kill, Loki wandered toward the direction from which the gryphons had come. He soon found the nest, littered with the bones and broken armour of many a dwarf and pony.

Somewhere off to his right, something squawked like an over-grown goose. Loki quickly turned, and found hidden beneath the boughs of a fallen tree, a young gryphon, no larger than a small goat. As he saw it, an idea occurred to him that he hadn’t even considered before. Grinning widely at his good fortune, Loki conjured a small length of cord and got down to the ground. He snatched at the gryphon, dragging it out from its hiding place by its talons as it bit and scratched his arms. As soon as it was out in the open, Loki used the cord to tie its talons together, which only made its fighting and crying all the worse. Already seeing the fault in this plan, Loki conjured another length of cord and used it to tie the gryphon’s beak shut. Moderately more protected from his own stupid idea, Loki picked up the gryphon and made his way back to the others.

“Look what I’ve found,” he declared as he approached the group.

“It’s the wee baby,” Bombur observed.

“I think I shall take it home with me,” Loki said.

He set the gryphon down on the ground and made his way back to the female to butcher his kill and take his trophies. Meanwhile, Thor and Jari had already made good work of skinning their kill. There wasn’t much in the way of good meat on a gryphon, but whatever wolves and falcons existed on Niðavellir would welcome the feast.

Loki recovered his arrows and took the skull from the female, and as many of her feathers as he could gather, finding more value in them than in the hide. Thor took the hide from the male, and Jari, Bombur, and Dvalin took only the tale of their hunt with them.

As their arms were free, Loki charged Dvalin with carrying the feathers, and Jari with the skull, while he carried the still-squirming juvenile in his arms. The extra burden made travel through the trees slow, but they reached the moors as night fell on Niðavellir.

***

Even though it was dark, it was plain that the spot where the horses had been tied was not as they had left it.

“Where are the horses?” Bombur asked as they neared the road.

The area was empty of any sound at all. Not even horses shifting about and snorting could be heard on the moors as the small band made their way to the road.

“Quiet,” Loki warned. Scanning what little he could see, he tried to pick out even a trace of anyone who might have been near. The others carefully laid their trophies on the ground and slowly began t fan out, raising their weapons in preparation for battle.

“Show yourself,” Loki commanded.

When none did, Loki spat onto the ground, igniting a flame large enough to see by. The sudden brightness startled the gryphon in his arms, causing it to thrash and squawk again. Before its rear claws could find purchase in his flesh, Loki put the gryphon on the ground and stepped forward.

Even in the light, he could see no-one nearby. Instead, he found the horses, dead on the ground with their tack spread out around them on the road.

“Damnit,” Loki said quietly. He turned and found Thor at the edge of the light. “Thor. Thor, we have a slight problem with the horses.”

Thor approached along with Dvalin, straining to see in the dim light of the dying flame. The horses had been cut and sliced to death and lay in their own blood on the side of the dirt road.

“Another gryphon?” asked Thor, looking toward the sky.

“No,” said Dvalin. “But meant to look like it. A gryphon would have taken them away.”

Dvalin stepped up to one of the horses and began digging through the littered supplies. He found one lightstone lantern that hadn’t been broken and pulled the pin to light it. The stones in the top chamber dropped into the water in the lantern and glowed bright blue, casting a steady light over the scene.

“Lóður, come here, boy,” he said.

Loki quickly approached Dvalin and crouched down beside him. Curious, Thor followed, watching as Loki looked to Dvalin with the same open curiosity he wore when Odin gave lessons on politics. Dvalin studied the horse before them for a few moments longer before looking to Loki.

“What can you see?” he asked.

“Brokkr,” Loki said flatly.

Dvalin and Thor both looked back at the horse. “You’re sure?” asked Dvalin.

“He’s standing right there.” Loki pointed in front of them. In the dark, a dozen or more dwarfs stood silent. From the distance, it was impossible to tell one from the next, except for the outline of a pointy woollen cap.

“You owe me, Silvertongue,” Brokkr called to them. “I have come to collect.”

“I don’t owe a cheater like you anything,” Loki called back.

Brokkr started to approach with four other dwarfs by his side.

“You do,” he said as he stepped into the light. “I know who you are now, and you are going to give me what I want.”

Thor growled loudly and raised his glaive, but Loki quickly stayed his hand.

“Oh, very well. Here.” Loki threw one of the Vanir purses at Brokkr’s feat. “That should more than cover my debts.

Brokkr looked down at the purse, but didn’t bend to pick it up.

“I don’t want your silver,” he said. “By the laws of Niðavellir and Rötgart, I’ll be taking your head.”

Loki dared to snort at Brokkr’s claim. “You can’t have my head without damaging my neck,” he said. “Niðavellir’s laws give you no claim there.”

“Then I shall have to settle for smashing your skull!” Brokkr cried as he began to charge.

Thor jumped to his feet, holding his glaive before him. “You will have to go through me!”

While they charged one another, Loki ran back in the other direction, fetching up the gryphon and the other spoils of the hunt.

“Come with me,” he told Bombur and Jari. “We’re going to Stoneholm.”

“You’ll be killed!” Jari protested. Still, he gathered up the pelt and as many of the feathers as he could manage.

The entrance to the great underground city was just over the next hill. If Loki could get there, he thought he might have time to come up with a new plan. Barely waiting for Jari and Bombur, he ran down the road.

The dwarfs were small, but a formidable foe, Thor found. He had never before fought someone half his own height, and all of the moves he’d learnt from Týr were proving ineffective. With only the light from the lantern, shadows were long and distorted. He could hardly see the dwarfs from the darkness, and when he swung to where he thought his opponent should be, the blade flew high and the dwarfs ducked under it.

Beside him, Dvalin fought with a gleeful intensity, swinging his axe almost as if he were in the middle of a game. He counted off every dwarf who fell to his axe, making Thor realise where Loki had picked up such a habit. Expecting to hear Loki counting off as well, Thor kicked a dwarf in the solar plexus and dared to look around the chaos.

“Loki!” he called out. His opponent rose back to his feet, and Thor knocked him down again.

Not only was Loki unaccounted for, but so were Bombur and Jari, and a small amount of Brokkr’s companions. Whether Brokkr himself was amongst the missing, Thor could not tell.

“Dvalin, where is my brother?” Thor demanded as he struck a dwarf with the staff-end of his glaive.

Dvalin had just enough time to look around them.

“Stoneholm,” he realised aloud. “Go! I will catch up.”

Leaving to chase after Loki felt too much like running away from battle, but Thor had little choice. If he returned home without his brother, Odin might never forgive him for having taken Loki in the first place.

He ran hard along the road, soon hearing the sounds of heavy foot traffic in front of him. He thought it might have been Brokkr’s men, and was ready to fight them if they were. Instead, he came to Loki and his dwarven companions, struggling to run with their heavy burdens.

“Give them to me,” Thor said. He took from the dwarfs the pelt, feather, and skull, able still to run faster with them than the dwarfs were without.

As they crested the hill, they came to a crossroads and took the path leading east, back down to the valley at the other side. At the base of the hill, the road wound back to a massive steel door, into which two smaller doors were fitted at the bottom. There, a guardsman stood, axe at the ready, and asleep.

“Just go. In,” Loki said quietly.

As they tried to pass the guard, he awoke with a loud snort and a swing of his axe. A moment later, he saw Loki and singled him out from the group, bearing down upon him.

“Parley!” Loki called quickly.

The guard managed to pull his swing, nearly losing his balance as he did.

“I wish to invoke the right of parley,” Loki said, breathless. “I have desperate matters to discuss with your king.”

The guard looked over the lot of them, bruised and stained from their battles.

“Your weapons stay,” he said, eyeing the gryphon Loki carried.

“Of course,” Loki agreed quickly, before anyone else had the chance to argue.

After handing over his glaive, Thor helped Loki remove his bow and quiver from his shoulder, without having to put down the gryphon. Once certain that Loki and his companions were without any weapons, though still leery of the beast in their charge, he called forth another guard to lead them through the city to the king’s palace. Where Rötgart looked for every moment as if it had been carved out of the rock by Niðavellir’s angry seas, Stoneholm had been carved out of the land by hand. The ground was hard, smooth stone and the roads lit by large lightstone lamps anchored into the walls.

“Don’t say anything,” Loki told his companions. Yngvi is only bound to hear me. He does not have to agree.”

“Loki, why are we here?” Thor asked.

Loki managed a rather forced grin. “My chances seemed better than out there,” he said.

They were led into the throne room where King Yngvi sat on a solid gold throne, which had been adorned with gems of every colour.

“Why are you in my city, Liesmith?” he asked, his rough voice echoing over the walls.

Loki stepped to the centre of the room and knelt. “To atone for my crimes and to seek sanctuary,” he said. He cast a quick glance over his shoulder and nodded to Thor to step closer.

“I heard Stoneholm had gryphons and came at once,” he said, placing the fledgling gryphon on the ground as Thor laid out the other trophies from the two they had slain.

“There were two, plus the chick,” he said. “And they shall harass your people no longer.”

He reached up and pulled Thor down to his knees.

“What interest have you in Stoneholm’s well-being?” asked Yngvi after a long moment.

“As I said, I wished to atone for my crimes,” Loki said. Thor watched him speak, not knowing anything of these supposed crimes. Loki seemed to have as many enemies as he had allies.

“And you think this deed has earned you forgiveness?” asked Yngvi incredulously.

“No,” said Loki simply. “That is for the king to decide. I may only ask for it.”

Yngvi started to laugh as he got to his feet. “You ask forgiveness in the same breath you ask for sanctuary?” he asked.

“We were attacked as we retrieved our horses,” Thor said angry. He started to rise, but Loki pulled him back down.

“Thor, shut up,” he hissed.

Yngvi smiled at both of them. “What troubles you, Liesmith?” he asked. “Afraid that something he might say will incriminate you? I think I would like to hear the ogre speak.”

Thor frowned at the insult, but was prepared to speak in defence of his brother. Despite what Loki might have believed, Thor did know how to misrepresent the truth, and he thought he might be able to see what Loki’s goal was with invoking parley.

“We were attacked by one to whom my brother owed a debt,” he said evenly.

“Brokkr of Rötgart,” Jari offered helpfully from behind.

Loki wondered what part of his instructions had been so difficult to understand.

“That was after our hunt,” Thor continued. “Loki paid him what he owed, and that was when we were attacked. There is one more to our party, but he stayed behind to buy us time to find our way to you.”

“Dvalin of Rötgart,” Bombur added.

Loki glared at Thor. “I would not dare ask this of you, if not for the lives of my companions,” he said to Yngvi. “I had wished to approach this meeting differently, and would have done if not for the attack on our party this night.”

Yngvi nodded. “Then your companions shall be granted sanctuary,” he said. “You, I shall have to consider.”

He motioned to his guards, who quickly descended upon Loki. They bound his wrists in heavy chains and jabbed at him with their swords until he rose to his feet. Another pair of guards quickly moved in to seize the trophies, and Loki watched forlornly as the feathers and skull were taken.

“Let my brother keep the chick,” he said quickly. “He is the one who found it, so it is his trophy.”

Yngvi nodded once more. “Very well,” he said.

Not sure what Loki was playing at this time, but this time determined to stay quiet for his brother’s sake, Thor bent to pick up the gryphon as Loki was led away.

***

What remained of the party were quartered in a small room fit for a dwarf While there were enough beds for the three of them, and space enough for the small gryphon, nothing in or about the room was large enough for Thor. Rather than suffer the indignity of trying to fit himself on one of the beds, he settled in the corner and attempted to feed the young gryphon a bit of the dried meat they had been given by Yngvi’s guards. Still bound at the legs, the gryphon screeched and thrashed, apparently far more interested in Thor’s hand than anything he held.

“This is pointless!” he declared suddenly, smashing his fist against the hard, stone floor.

“So stop doing it,” said Jari from where he sat on one of the beds.

“Not this,” Thor said. “Sitting here. While we dine, my brother sits in chains.”

Bombur shrugged. He lay stretched out on one of the beds, a small plate of what remained of his supper resting on his stomach.

“He’ll be fine, I’m sure,” he said. “At least he wasn’t killed on sight.”

Thor turned sharply to glare at him. “You call yourselves his friends, and yet you do nothing when he is in danger.”

Jari looked between the two of them. “I’ve seen him in worse shape,” he said.

Thor growled in frustration and turned his back to both of them, focusing intently on the gryphon he still tried to feed. A few moments later, Thor heard the door open and spun round eagerly, but found himself shamefully disappointed to see Dvalin escorted into the room. His forehead bled sluggishly and a large bruise blossomed out around his right eye, but his cheer seemed to have hardly waned.

“Oh, you’re not dead,” Jari declared. “Good. I was thinking about starting to get worried.”

“Dead?” asked Dvalin incredulously. “Takes more than an idiot with a stick to kill me!”

“The stick did have a rather sharp blade on the end of it,” Bombur pointed out. “And there were twelve of them.”

“Twelve idiots with sticks,” Dvalin amended.

“Sharp sticks,” said Jari.

“Still no match for me.” Dvalin cast a quick glance around the room as he began to undress, letting the stained and torn clothes lie where they fell.

“Where’s the boy?” he asked.

“Led away in chains,” Bombur told him.

“And we should be doing something about it,” Thor cut in, glaring at the lot of them. “Instead, we do nothing.”

When it looked as if Dvalin was about to say something unhelpful, Thor again turned his back to the group and once more tried to convince the gryphon to eat. Taking all of his frustrations out on it, he finally took the beast by the beak and forced it open, using his other hand to all but stuff the pieces of meat down its gullet. It beat its wings and thrashed, using every ounce of its weight against Thor.

As he wrestled with the fledgling, the door behind him swung open again and Loki crept into the room. With his hands tucked casually behind his back, he edged up behind Thor and peered over his shoulder.

“You’ll never get anything done, doing it like that,” he said.

Thor jumped at the sound of Loki’s voice and leapt to his feet, forgetting all about the gryphon.

“Told you he’d be fine,” said Bombur flippantly.

Thor ignored him and pulled Loki into a tight hug. “They’ve released you. This is wonderful!”

“Released me?” Loki asked, pulling away from Thor’s grip. “Not at all.”

“But… How?”

“The same way I travel without the Bifröst,” said Loki. He quickly moved back to the door to peer out into the corridor. “So they’ll probably notice me missing any minute now.”

“You travel without the Bifröst?” asked Thor.

Loki rolled his eyes and shut the door. “Oh, by the Norns’ teeth,” he muttered. “Yes. But the important thing is that I have just walked out of a dwarven prison.” He turned to glare at Thor. “Something That would have been avoided if a few nameless someones had kept their mouths shut when I told them to.”

Thor and Jari both looked away.

“We have to go,” Loki said. “How much silver do we have?”

Thor handed him the Vanir purse he’d wound up with, and between Jari, Bombur, and Dvalin, another they accumulated another two full purses. Loki added all of it to what he still hand and clicked his tongue a few times while he stood in contemplation.

“Yes, time to go,” he said quickly. “Now.” He turned back toward the door and opened it again.

“I just got undressed,” Dvalin complained.

“Yes, and it’s a good look for you,” said Loki, once more peering out through a narrow crack in the door. “Don’t forget my chick.”

Thor glared at Loki then. “You said it was mine.”

“I lied,” Loki said as he slipped out of the room.

Thor quickly bound the gryphon’s beak again before hefting the creature onto his shoulders, holding it tightly at the ankles. He rushed out to meet Loki while the others quickly readied themselves.

“If you can travel without the Brfröst, why do we not go that way?” Thor asked. “I do not like all this running away, but if we must, why not take the quicker route?”

“It’s not like finding a ley line,” Loki said. He pushed Thor up against the wall and stepped forward to peer round the corner. “I don’t think I could take all of you, and once Yngvi’s men notice my escape, you will all be at fault.”

Thor wanted to hit him, but the other three snuck out of the room then, Dvalin still in his underwear and Bombur with crumbs in his beard.

“We should make for the stables,” said Loki. “Where are they?”

Jari looked as if he were about to shout his intentions to lead the way, but Dvalin clapped a hand over Jari’s mouth before he could give them away.

“This way,” Dvalin said with a nod.

Loki grinned in a way that didn’t seem entirely sane. “You heard the man,” he said. “Well. Dwarf.”

They slunk single file down the narrow corridor that led through the residential areas of Stoneholm, keeping pressed against walls as they walked. As the fledgling gryphon again started to struggle and fuss, Thor reached up to silence it with his hand over its face. Never had he expected to find himself sneaking around another realm with a gryphon on his shoulders and a half-naked dwarf as his guide.

Suddenly, Loki broke off from the group and sauntered over to a ginger-beared woman putting out her laundry. She jumped at the sight of him, but before she said anything, Loki pressed something into her hand and bent to whisper in her ear. He kissed her neck, and she laughed and pointed to her laundry lines, to which Loki helped himself, taking several items of clothing and a heavy blanket.

“Dress yourself,” Loki said, handing a damp tunic and breeches to Dvalin. “We don’t want to draw attention to ourselves.”

Dvalin laughed as he took the clothes. “I struggle to think of anything worse,” he said.

The way Loki still grinned as he draped the blanket over the gryphon made Thor nervous, but Loki said nothing more.

Dvalin was quickly dressed and they were on their way once more. As soon as they rounded the first corner, a woman began shouting about thieves. Thor could only guess which woman.

“Loki!” Thor scolded.

Loki grinned widely. “Time to run,” he said.

While the dwarfs all laughed, Thor glowered. But he would have time later to be angry with Loki. This was the time for running yet again. The housing areas began to give way to open spaces, and soon they were in the main market square near Stoneholm’s iron gate. Here, Loki and Dvalin slowed their pace, and the others took their lead, appearing as yet another group of travellers.

“And now we will be hanged for thievery,” Thor hissed as he cast a cautious look around.

Still grinning, Loki held out his arms. “And where are our pursuers?” he asked. “She sent them on a wile goose chase, because I paid her to do so.”

“By they still search for us,” Thor insisted. “You have turned me into a criminal.”

Loki glanced sideways at him. “And you quite literally dragged me from bed. I’d say we’re even.”

He turned toward a wide opening in the wall and walked confidently up to the dwarf tending to his shop front. Behind him were the stables, and on a high wall, a small boy watched the market square curiously.

“We need three horses,” Loki declared, tossing one of the heavy purses toward the man on the ground. “You never saw that silver. The horses will be stolen.”

The dwarf looked at the purse in his hands and then to Loki. As realisation dawned, he nodded and shoved the purse into his coat.

“I’ll just be… somewhere else,” he said before wandering away.

As Loki passed the wide-eyed boy, he winked and tossed him a silver coin.

“You saw it all happen,” he said. “Tell your friends.”

The boy grinned a wide, semi-toothless grin and jumped down from the wall, running off into the crowd. As he disappeared, the others rushed to the first three stalls with swift-looking horses and made quick work of dressing them.

“We haven’t got long,” Bombur said, dragging the heavy step ladder over to their chosen horse.

“Loki, these crimes of yours,” said Thor. He stood aside, unsure what to do about anything Loki did.

“All the oldest sins in the easiest ways,” Loki said as he tightened the cinch on the saddle. “Chick, please.”

Thor hesitated before stepping forward and helping to secure the gryphon onto the back of the saddle, using the blanket to protect the horse from its claws.

“You haven’t done anything here,” he realised.

“Loki tied the gryphon down and took his mount. “My silver has passed through every hand in Stoneholm. If Yngvi is too stupid to see that, he deserves to be deceived.”

Thor spared only a moment longer before rushing to dress the third horse. It would only be a matter of time before they were caught on their rightfully-purchased horses and arrested for Loki’s ridiculous lies.

“What about our axes?” asked Jari as he struggled atop their horse, helped by the other two.

“Next on my agenda.” Loki flicked his wrist, causing a brief flash at his hand. Suddenly, he held an odd device, made of steel and wood. He bent part of it forward, quickly inspected what was inside, and with a nod he returned the device to its original state. Not even waiting to make sure the others were ready, he tore the binding from the gryphon’s beak and slapped its rump, causing it to start crying anew. Laughing wildly, he set off, running his horse out of the stables and into the open market. The others followed quickly, and as they all cleared the stable doors, the owner started chasing after them, shouting of thieves and robbery.

The entire market erupted into chaos, with dwarfs shouting in alarm and running in every direction. The cries of the gryphon echoed throughout the space, seeming to come from everywhere at once. Several dwarfs took shelter under tables and benches, casting about toward the high ceiling for the beast that made the sounds.

The group spread out as Yngvi’s guardsmen began to give chase on pony mounts. Several carried bows, but none fired in the crowded space. Those with axes and swords were not so discriminate, though their caution amidst the crowd made them easy to evade.

As Loki led the group to the front gate, they found it closed with a line of dwarfs standing guard. Loki stopped before them and levelled his steel device at one of them.

“We’ll be having our weapons back, now,” he said.

Before anyone could charge, he pointed his device at a wooden bench. There was a sudden explosion, accompanied by a shower of sparks and a large cloud of smoke. The bench shattered into countless splinters, and Loki levelled his weapon once more at the nearest dwarf.

“Weapons,” he repeated. “And open that gate!”

This time, there was no hesitation. The guardsmen rushed to open the gate and return their weapons, handing those they had forfeited and a few more up to Thor and Loki, who quickly passed them down the line to the other three.

As soon as the gate was open, they ran their horses out to the moors, The mounted guard were once again upon them, and without the threat to civilians, they were not so inclined to hold back. As they ran in the dark, several arrows were loosed, flying dangerously close to hitting their targets.

“You’ll have to do better than that!” Loki called back.

“They won’t follow us over the hill!” Bombur shouted. “They never do!”

They ran the horses up the hill, shouting and chanting as they went. More arrows were fired, and as they crested the hill on the edge of Stoneholm’s overland borders, the guards one by one gave up their chase.

“Bor’s bollocks!” Loki shouted suddenly.

Thor twisted in his saddle, but Loki only waved him on.

“Go,” he said. “We’re out of the kingdom, but we’re not safe.”

They found the road to Rötgart and kept a swift path until the sun started to rise behind heavy clouds.

“We should rest the horses,” Dvalin said. “Less chance of an ambush during the day.”

“Oh, but the last one was so much fun,” Loki said flatly.

As Thor dismounted his horse, he turned to Loki, finding an arrow sticking out from the back of his thigh. A small trail of blood ran down Loki’s leg, dripping slowly off his heel.

“Loki!” Thor cried in alarm.

Frowning, Loki looked down at his wound. “I’m fine,” he said tiredly.

Jari stepped around the horse, and when he saw the damage, he started laughing.

“Looks like the Sky-Treader took one to the backside,” he called to the others.

Loki rolled his eyes at their laughter and shifted in his seat, finding it difficult to dismount. “Yes, very funny,” he said. “Thor, tell me. How is it I spent a year aboard her Revenge and walked away with nary a scratch, but I spend two days with you and find myself shot?”

He moved to rest against his horse’s neck, but Thor reached up for him instead.

“Get down,” he said. “That needs to come out.”

As he helped Loki out of the saddle, Jari took the horse and tied it with the others at the side of the road.

“Can you stand?” asked Thor.

Loki nodded and took a shaky step back, just to show that he could. Almost immediately after, he sat down on the ground and rolled tiredly onto his side. Thor followed him to the ground, inspecting the wound, though he didn’t know what he was to be looking for.

“What magic was that?” he asked. He took the arrow in hand and pulled it from flesh, trying his best to ignore the way Loki cried out. But the bleeding didn’t get any worse, so Thor could only assume he’d done it right.

“Back in Stoneholm,” Thor said after a moment. “When we were retrieving our weapons.”

Loki rolled over onto his back and pulled his strange weapon from the front of his belt.

“Human,” he said, handing it to Thor.

Thor took the weapon to study it. There was a hole at the front, but when he tried to peer down it, Loki reached out and angled it toward the ground.

“This would have killed him,” Thor said, recalling the way the bench shattered. “If you used it on that guard.”

Loki took the weapon back and pointed it toward the sky, making it click.

“It only carries one shot,” he said. “But he didn’t know that, did he?”

He started to laugh, and Thor couldn’t help bu join him.

“Thor, I want to go home,” Loki said.

Thor nodded. “We will. Once we return to Rötgart.”

“No. Now,” said Loki, sitting up and putting his weapon back in his belt. “Gather our things. We’ll leave the horses for the others.”

Thor started to get up, until he realised what Loki had said without words. “You liar,” he said. “You could have taken us all from there!”

Loki only shrugged and let himself fall back to the ground.

***

As they returned to Asgard, Thor remembered having travelled between worlds with Loki, years before. Like the first time, it seemed to happen almost instantly. Also like the first time, Thor had to stop himself from being sick.

“We should go speak to Father,” Loki said, already limping toward the throne room.

“Only if you promise never to make me travel like that again,” said Thor.

Gryphon in his arms, Thor followed after Loki anyway. They found Odin in the throne room, speaking to a Vanir noble. He paused only to acknowledge their presence, and continued with his conversation.

“Let me do the talking,” Loki said quietly, though there was a certain hardness to his voice that Thor found impossible to ignore.

Soon, the Vanir man left and Odin called his sons forward as he sat in the throne.

“Father,” Loki greeted as he gingerly took a knee and placed his fist over his chest. Thor did the same. “We have come from the kingdom of Stoneholm in Niðavellir. We have brought back a gift. The land there was overrun by gryphons. We slew all but this one in the name of Asgard.”

Thor gave Loki a dubious look as he placed the fledgling on the ground before them. While everything Loki said was technically true, it also seemed the biggest lie he’d ever heard.

After a moment, Odin smiled. “You have done well,” he said. “It pleases me that Thor has begun to teach you these things.”

“Yes, Father,” Loki said, inclining his head. “But I fear I only got in the way. I am not suited for this sort of thing.”

Thor couldn’t help the incredulity that showed so plainly on his face. Nor could he believe that Odin seemed to believe every word Loki said.

“Loki is hurt,” Thor said suddenly. “I would like to take him to Eir’s chambers.”

“Of course,” Odin said.

As Odin ordered an Einherjar guard to find a place for the gryphon, Thor helped Loki to his feet.

“Are you incapable of telling the truth?” Thor asked as they walked out into the wide corridor.

“Of course I am,” said Loki as he started to walk the path to his own chambers.

Thor frowned, not sure if Loki had just been truthful or told another twisted lie. Either way, it was far too much to decipher with his head still spinning from everything else.

“And now, I am going to bed,” Loki said. “Do not bother me for at least a week.”

Thor could only stand where Loki had left him, wondered what the point of any of it had been.