“Remind me again why we’re doing this,” Loki said in a mildly irritated tone to Thor, both he and his brother dressed in Asgardian hunting frocks of brown and forest green.
Each brother had awakened before dawn, far earlier than Loki preferred and typically began his day, already putting him in a prickly mood from the outset. They had entered the forest of Asgard just after the sun had risen with a quiver of arrows and a bow slung across their backs. Having found what Thor considered a promising location to lay in wait, they rested prone on the soft detritus that carpeted the forest floor, peering over a moss covered trunk of a fallen tree.
It was the eve of Kynsblot, Asgard’s yearly celebration of family. It was one of the more minor holidays of the Asgardian calendar compared to the midyear solstice and Yule festivals, though still considered an important rite. Each year on this day, since they were of age to do so, the brothers ventured into the forest to hunt for the meat that would grace their table the next day for the feast.
Loki reveled in the pomp and ceremonial splendor that accompanied such celebrations but he had never been much into the sport, though he was an able huntsman and would in no case starve if he were ever to find himself forced into a survival situation, at least if there was game to be had. He was more than satisfied to allow those whose task it was to procure food for the royal table to do their duty. He had better things to do. Spying an arachnid type creature crawling up Thor’s back towards the God of Thunder’s shoulder, another reminder of why Loki detested the activity in which they were currently engaged, he reached out, flicking it away.
“Remind me again why I have to answer this same question on this day every year. It’s tradition and traditions are important-” Thor replied before Loki interrupted.
“For the unity of Asgard and to connect us with each other and our ancestors, etcetera, etcetera...I know,” Loki stated.
“If you know, why do you continue to ask?” Thor queried.
“It’s tradition,” Loki answered sarcastically.
“Some traditions can be dispensed with,” Thor said before hearing the sound of rustling in the vegetation yards in front of them, moving in their direction.
Gesturing to Loki to be silent and pointing, which was far from necessary as Loki also had ears that were keenly tuned, Thor removed an arrow from his quiver, notching it in his bow, Loki following suit.
Making their way towards them through the forest, sniffing the air warily, came two hjorts, creatures very much like red deer. One was a stag, full grown but still somewhat young, with an impressive rack for his age.
“I have the one on the left,” Thor whispered to Loki, Loki nodding, aiming his arrow at the second hjort.
Thor pulled back on the string of his bow just as Loki was preparing to let his arrow fly, the elbow of Thor’s muscular arm nudging Loki enough to throw off Loki’s aim. Thor’s arrow lodged itself into the hjort, a clean shot to the heart, while Loki’s arrow zipped past his quarry where it stuck itself into a tree, sending the surviving hjort leaping and bounding away.
“You oaf!” Loki exclaimed, perturbed.
“I’m sorry, brother,” Thor apologized.
“No you’re not,” Loki said acidly, laying his bow down and rising, stepping over the fallen tree trunk, walking past the lifeless body of the stag to the tree from which his errant arrow protruded, reclaiming it.
Thor followed, kneeling by the stag to ensure it had breathed its last.
“We could wait for another or should we dress the one and return?” Thor asked, reasonably sure what Loki’s answer would be.
“What’s this ‘we?’ It’s your kill. Considering Volstagg will be with his own family, one will do,” Loki said, impatient to return home.
Loki enjoyed the forest and its peaceful setting, he had since his childhood, but he disliked the idea of being forced to lie still and silent for what could be hours until another hjort happened to wander by. Thor pulled a knife from its sheath at his waist, preparing to slice open the abdomen of the creature. Loki stood a few feet to the rear of Thor, brooding.
Once again Thor would return to the palace triumphant. Loki was also aware that in the very near future Thor was likely to again be victorious. Odin had recently announced that the ceremony in which he would declare his choice of heir to the throne of Asgard would take place in a week’s time. Loki had no doubt which of the two of them his father’s favor would fall upon. He’d had none for quite some time. He questioned why his father would even bother to go through the trouble of putting on a show of it as if he hadn’t already decided ages ago. If Loki was to be humiliated in front of nearly the entire populace of Asgard he would prefer for once that his father dispense with formality.
The knowledge of what he knew would soon come to pass had sent him into a funk. There was no longer any time remaining in which to prove himself to Odin, the sand had run out of the hourglass, though he doubted no matter what he would or would not have done it would have made any difference. Odin had always favored Thor, it was evident to Loki from his earliest memories, though his father’s favor had become more pronounced as they grew to manhood and it became clear Thor was far more the image of his father in his younger days, and the image most others had of a king with his broad muscular frame, golden hair and resonant voice along with his warrior mindset to rush in where angels would fear to tread. There had been a time when Loki had been a child of tender years when Odin had attempted somewhat to obfuscate it, though Loki had always been far too intelligent not to pick up on it even then.
He had even been surly, snippy and short with his mother as of late, though he had been quick to apologize which was seldom the case with Loki when it came to anyone else including his father. In Loki’s view, if he was churlish with someone, obviously they had it coming, having done or said something to deserve it. They should have known better so why should he be in the least apologetic for a natural reaction to their affront?
He knew that a large part of the tradition he and Thor were then engaging in was to renew and strengthen the bonds between them, yet it always seemed to have the opposite effect. In past years, the best that had happened was that he bagged his own beast for the table, both returning to the palace equally accomplished, but he had never returned as the conquering champion and Thor empty handed. This day especially the intended purpose was not to be realized as it only reminded him of Thor’s approaching designation as heir.
When that day came, what was there left for Loki? There was no formal role for the ‘spare’ spelled out. Of course, once on the throne, Loki was sure Thor would find something for him to do to occupy himself but it would feel like charity and mere busywork. He would be but a footnote in Asgard’s history, merely the brother of Thor and no one of any renown or significance in his own right. They had played together as children, fought various foes together as they came of age to do so, yet as time passed they grew further distant from each other simply due to the nature of their position as Princes of Asgard vying for their father’s favor and the throne.
Loki had sometimes wondered if things would be different between them had they been born to no one of any special significance. Perhaps not. Aside from the natural competition engendered by their positions, they were also two very different people seemingly in every way imaginable...physically, intellectually, in their temperament and their skills and interests. In fact, it was hard for Loki to believe at times that they shared the same parentage. It was a sentiment he had heard voiced by others when they were unaware that he was listening...and Loki was always listening. He had learned long ago that the best way to gain an advantage was to merely shut up and listen. Often people would forget one’s presence and their tongues would be loosened.
Loki suddenly felt a strange sensation wash over him, as if a tiny bell of warning deep within his brain had begun to ring, as if something were in the process of changing. It was akin to a railroad switch being thrown, the train that had been chugging along on one set of rails being transitioned to another. The feeling that something was ‘off,’ not quite right, continued and grew stronger, nagging at Loki.
“Brother..I think something’s-” Loki began to say, not sure how he was going to explain what he was experiencing without sounding completely mad, as three figures clothed in what looked to be white form fitting body suits with solid, featureless masks over their faces appeared between him and Thor.
Another appeared behind Loki, placing something cold and metallic on the back of his neck. Before he could react, Loki felt a shock travel down his spine, finding himself unable to move or speak. He watched helplessly as one of the three figures grasped in one hand the hilt of what appeared to be a short sword.
Before Thor became aware of their presence and could react, the figure with the short sword ran Thor through with the blade, back to front, before withdrawing the sword. Thor, though in pain and seriously injured, blood running down his torso and back from the entrance and exit wound, rose swiftly to his feet to face his attacker. The two accompanying the assailant grabbed hold of Thor’s muscular upper arms, one on each side, but they were no match for Thor’s strength, even wounded. Thor, enraged, with a roar of anger and pain, shook off the two figures, taking hold of an arm of each and bashing them violently together into one another, their heads colliding with a deep hollow sound like a watermelon or pumpkin hitting concrete, the two figures slumping to the ground from which they failed to rise. The figure holding the sword seemed to simply wink out of existence. Loki felt the device that had been attached to the back of his neck withdrawn, regaining his ability to move, swiftly turning to see the figure behind him vanish into thin air.
“Brother!” Loki exclaimed in shock after returning his attention to Thor as he witnessed his sibling put a hand to the exit wound on his abdomen, the front of Thor’s hunting clothes now red with blood, the stain continuing to spread in an ever widening circle before he collapsed to his knees.
Loki rushed to his side. Soon another joined him, Loki looking over to see Heimdall.
“We must get him to the healing room!” Heimdall exclaimed, putting an arm around Thor, Loki doing the same on Thor’s other side, both men moving Thor’s arms across their shoulders and raising the God of Thunder to his feet as Thor’s head hung down as if his neck was no longer strong enough to support its weight.
“Who were they? Where did they come from?” Loki asked Heimdall.
“I don’t know. The bodies of the two Thor sent to Hel may provide us with answers,” Heimdall replied.
Thor lay on the soul forge in the healing room, a middle aged female healer working with the mechanisms of the forge. Odin, Frigga and Loki stood across the room, giving the healer and her assistants space to work. Odin watched the activity around his son stone faced, though his despair could be discerned in his lone remaining eye. Frigga’s sorrow was far more apparent as tears coursed down her cheeks, her hand splayed over her mouth as she attempted to stifle her sobs at the sight of her gravely injured son. Loki wrapped a comforting arm around her as he looked to the soul forge and its occupant with an uncharacteristic expression of great concern mixed with lingering shock at the surprise attack. Why had they left him alive and uninjured, merely rendering him immobile?
Sif, Fandral, Volstagg and Hogun entered the healing room, making their way to stand near Frigga, Loki and Odin. All four wore expressions of disbelief and distress though Sif’s was even more pronounced. Unlike Frigga, she shed no tears though it was apparent to Loki she was on the verge as she swallowed hard witnessing Thor lying as pale and still as death and the frantic activity of the healer and her assistants surrounding him.
“What the hell happened?” Fandral asked.
“We were attacked in the forest, taken by surprise,” Loki answered.
“By who?” Volstagg queried.
“I hope to soon have an answer to that question,” Loki replied, knowing Heimdall had already returned to the forest to retrieve the bodies of their assailants and would hopefully discover a clue to their identity.
Loki noticed Sif glance at him with what Loki could only interpret to be hostility,
“I was rendered immobile, unable to come to his aid,” Loki said, more to Sif than the others as he felt her expression reflected a belief that he had neglected to help his brother or had hesitated to do so out of cowardice.
An assistant to the healer, far younger than she, left the healer’s side and approached the group that now lined up along the wall on the opposite side of the room.
“The wound will not heal and the natural healing process appears to be arrested as well. We’re not sure why. It’s possible the blade was contaminated with a toxin of some kind. We’re attempting to discover what it may be. We have been able to stop the bleeding, at least for the moment,” the assistant addressed Odin directly, though speaking to all present.
“Will he live?” Frigga asked, her voice strained with emotion.
The assistant’s shoulders drooped slightly, perhaps imperceptibly to the others, though Loki who took note of the smallest details noticed. Trepidation grew within him as he knew that couldn’t be a good sign.
“We’re doing everything we can. He’s in the best of hands,” The assistant answered the Queen of Asgard with what Loki recognized to be an obvious dodge before she turned away from those assembled, hastening back to the healer’s side.
“My son…” Frigga wept, Loki pulling her close to him, embracing her to lend her what little comfort he could in her profound anguish.