Rated T: some prisoner abuse witnessed
Chapter III - Secrets in the Dark
The door was slightly ajar, but the space between the doorjamb and the actual door was more than big enough for a skinny human to slip through without even touching either side. Severus found himself at the top of a stone stair. The air was cool, but not cold, and it was very slightly humid, but not damp. It felt like a good cellar, not the dungeons he assumed these were. Pulling his cloak more securely around his frame, he silently descended the steps, which were wide and solid, but worn smooth from the passage of millions of feet. A few torches, possibly real ones and not the magical rune-powered kind, guttered faintly on the walls, on the verge of going out. The light they threw was ghostly and creepy, but Severus had lived half his life in dungeons far creepier. He reached the bottom of the stairs and sensed the area widening out, leading to other passages and another shorter flight of steps through an arched doorway. The door there was standing wide open.
A bit more cautiously, Severus slipped through and descended those steps, which were a bit more crooked and treacherous in the near-dark. It was obvious he had reached what Thor had called the Upper Dungeons. Soft yellowish glows like the edges of glass window-panes surrounded open cells where prisoners slept on cots and various sparse belongings were scattered inside. They were like glass cages, except he knew from the crackle in the air that the clear cells were not glass, but some kind of magical barrier.
On his right and left, lit by dim torches, he could see two stairwells going up. A strategic error if he'd ever seen one. You should always make certain that it the event of a prisoner's escape or a dungeon revolt, the exits can be efficiently closed off. With three separate stairways to freedom, the guards would have three times the doorways to block. At least make those other passages secrets or something, like they were in Hogwarts. To the untrained First Year, there was seemingly only one stairwell that led down to the Slytherin domain, but to a student of experience, there were a few secret passages that gave anyone multiple ways to get in and out of the dungeons. He was surprised the Asgardians would do something so stupid. Weren't they a million years or more ahead of mankind, existence-wise?
Shaking his head and dismissing the architectural error, (you can't fix stupid, after all) Severus tiptoed further into the dungeons. On his immediate left, in one of the nearest cells, he saw some sort of scuffle going on. Three men wearing what looked like the same kind of armour as the sleeping guard upstairs were attempting to pin a thin, tall man to the ground and force-feed him something. There wasn't much noise, just the grunts and occasional muttered orders from one of the men as they struggled. Maybe they were trying to be quiet, or maybe this was a regular night occurrence, but none of the other prisoners seemed bothered. Nobody was awake this late. The glass walls surrounding the cell where they were struggling looked intact, except for an empty spot on one side in the corner which was the size of a narrow door. It looked like the yellow-edged glass had been slid to one side like a windowpane to allow access to the cell.
The struggling man suddenly went limp and the three men tensed before their prisoner started thrashing and flailing with even more fury than before. Severus winced, but he knew better than to get involved unless he had proof something wrong was happening. The man wasn't pleading for help, (though his Slytherin told him that if this was a regular thing, he probably had called before and now it was a waste of time) and the guards weren't being too rough with him, (though his Hufflepuff pointed out that the way they kept trying to pin his torso and legs down with their boots was leaving bruises for sure). He stood in the shadows and watched until the men finally let the prisoner go. He curled up on the floor, visibly shuddering, and the three guards grinned at each other in the cell's dim light.
"I thought you said this would be fun," one of them said in winded voice. "I'm bruised from arm to shoulder from his head."
"Norns alive, he still fights like a demon," another man panted, limping to the sliver of door. "When is this supposed to truly work, Sven?"
"I told you, it takes time," the last guard, sounding rather young, answered impatiently. "But don't worry. When the medicine begins its work, he won't want to fight back again, I can tell you."
"That's what you said three days ago," the first man grumbled, stepping out of the cell.
"I have my orders," the one called Sven said tersely. "And your orders are to follow mine. Now come. We must return before Endrag awakes. That was quite a lot of ale he drank earlier, and you know how he is. He'll be awake in five minutes stumbling around for the water closet."
"Just like clockwork," the second, limping guard guffawed.
Laughing crudely, the three guards locked up the cell behind them with a strange series of keys that looked like seals, but probably had runes carved into the ends. The metal rune-keys were pressed against the wall beside the open doorway and the sliver sealed itself back up without a sound; just a shimmer of golden magic. Severus waited until the guards left and watched as the prisoner, crawled to a bed in the corner of his cell and climbed on. He looked like he was in pain, but the guards had said he needed medicine … so Severus silently turned and left, puzzling over what he had seen, but unwilling to do or say anything until he had more evidence. It was very peculiar anyway, whatever was happening.
He left via the stairs on the left, (his right when he was coming down) and climbed a narrow, twisting staircase up to some large rooms that hummed with some sort of energy that made his hair stand on end. The wizard could feel something large nearby, but he didn't go in search of it. He was dead tired now, and dragging his aching leg. The healers would blister his ears in indignation tomorrow when they saw what he'd done to himself, but he would probably be too distracted to pay any attention. He had a mystery to solve now.
"Severus, I wish to introduce you to my most noble and loyal friends before we must depart on another campaign against the pirates terrorizing Vanaheim's fair soil," Thor was chattering as he escorted Severus to breakfast. "You will like them, and they will certainly like you, for you are a worthy warrior and a mighty ally to have in the battle."
"Appreciate prowess, do they?" Severus asked drily, and not at all seriously. He was limping, but hopefully not too noticeably, his head ached and the light was too bright, and he was irritable after puzzling the rest of the night over his late adventure and finding nothing that satisfied him. His every instinct screamed foul play, but he could not act on anything without proof … proof other than vague 'bad feelings'. He had no idea what to do or who to tell. Asgard was not Earth, and Odin was not Dumbledore. Make one wrong move, and he would be back in Midgard faster than he could say 'Thor's Hammer'.
"Ah, they appreciate prowess very much indeed!" Thor grinned, beaming from head-to-toe. He was one of those people Severus detested most in the world: the dreaded 'Morning-People'. He wondered if he should have told Thor to go away when the Prince came pounding down his door and imploring him to come meet the Court of Asgard at its most informal. "Should you have tales of past victories to share, they would be your most devoted audience!" Thor added enthusiastically. "Why, there was one time when we …"
Severus sighed and inconspicuously stretched his sore shoulder as Thor prattled on. The healers had not come to see him yet today, although now that he was walking about more and falling asleep less, they might demand he walk down to the House of Healing himself from now on. He hoped so. Being cooped up in his room and being served in bed was both humiliating and troublesome, and he hated feeling like an invalid. Absently, he rubbed the bracelet on his wrist, hoping they would take it off soon. It was starting to feel like an itch; one he couldn't scratch off.
"And then Fandral said, 'what do we look like, hired help?' and Volstagg dumped the entire cart load on him! I tell you, my friend, he never dared to accost innocent strangers again!" Thor burst out laughing at what was maybe a funny ending to his story, but Severus smiled (grimaced) painfully and wondered if anybody here would cut off his head for refusing to smile. He was capable of playing nice, but he didn't prefer it. He preferred to focus on his work and socialize as little as possible with people he found detestable … which was most people, actually.
"Here we are," Thor announced with a little less boom than normal. Severus could hear the sounds of chatter, laughter, and the clinking of silverware and other dishes beyond the wooden door they stood in front of. "Now, all shall be well. This is most informal, and there is no need to worry on appearances here. Enjoy the food, the company, and your time, and should you need anything, ask me or my friends. We shall gladly help you with anything you require."
Severus jerked his head in a firm nod, already feeling too irritated to thank Thor for his thoughtfulness, (even though it was appreciated) and followed the Prince into the hall.
It was obvious that this was an informal occasion. The hall itself opened to a courtyard that was half a garden and some tables were out on the terrace in the morning sun. There were tables arranged everywhere in a kind of haphazard way that sort of made sense. There were low benches at the outside tables, and long couches and cushions for the inside tables, and they were all remarkably close to the ground. Scores of people in Asgardian clothes lounged or mingled in the hall, chatting and eating. A few people collected food and left, eating as they walked, and one portly man in chain mail threw a goblet on the ground with a clang, demanding another in a jovial voice. Servants flitted to and fro, seeing to the courtiers' needs, but mostly folk seemed to be taking care of themselves.
Thor made for a table just out on the terrace where a trio of Asgardian men in leather and armour, and a dark-haired woman in silver armour, were eating and chatting. A fair-haired man, whose clothes and neat hair bespoke his fussy sense of style, spotted them first, though his mouth was full. He put a dainty napkin to his lips as he waved to them, gaining the attention of his other companions. Soon enough, Severus was being shoved (gently of course; though to an Asgardian and a human, gentle meant two different things) onto a cushion and four (five if you counted Thor) friendly faces were grinning at him.
"My friends!" Thor boomed, spreading his arms in that all-welcoming gesture of his. "This is Severus Snape-son, a fellow warrior from Midgard. Do welcome him, all of you, my boon companions. I have brought him to meet you in the hopes that you call him a brother-in-arms, as I do."
The three men and the woman greeted him enthusiastically and all tried to clasp his arm or clap his shoulder as they tried to introduce themselves all at once. Severus glared at them all and then sharply raised his hand, palm out. They all froze in confusion, some glancing at Thor, who looked as bewildered as they did.
"One," Severus said, his rasping voice sounding strange in a realm of rich baritones and smooth altos. How he missed his old voice. "I cannot understand any of you when you babble like magpies. Two, I have a headache, and you are all not helping. Three, I'm pleased to meet you, but if you try to shake me, pound me, or otherwise pulverize my bones, I'm leaving."
"I like him," the woman announced bluntly, her dark eyes flashing with amusement. She filled a goblet and shoved it across the table to him, to Severus' astonishment. "I am the Lady Sif, sometimes named goddess of war among these louts."
Severus' eyebrows went up at that. "I am honoured to make your acquaintance, my Lady," he said solemnly, truly meaning every word.
"I am Volstagg," a large, red-haired Asgardian who was built like a Viking warrior grinned at him from the opposite side of the table. "Sometimes called the Svelte," he added, puffing out his chest but only succeeding in making his large belly stick out more prominently.
"By who else but himself?" Lady Sif muttered, sending the entire table (sans Severus) into gales of hearty laughter.
"I am known as Fandral the Dashing," the fussy-looking blonde man said next, thrusting out his hand for a normal handshake, Severus gave it a wry look before thrusting his hand into it, feeling like he was about to be crushed and pulverized … but to his surprise, Fandral's grip was almost dainty, and just as fussy as the rest of him, and there was no fear of his hand being smashed into oblivion.
"And I am Hogun," the last man murmured, giving him a polite head-nod. He was dark where the others were fair, and his black hair was pulled up in a knot at the top of his head that made Severus think of Mongolian archers.
"Hogun the what, again?" Severus asked drily. He didn't quite understand the gales of laughter that followed in which Thor was the loudest, but he smiled painfully and helped himself to some grapes while the Thunder-god and his friends finished laughing.
"I am just Hogun, Severus Snape-son," the 'Mongol' grinned.
"And I am just Severus," the wizard replied, struggling to keep his teeth from clenching. "Snape was not my father's first name, but I have no wish to be connected with … that man. But I am a Potion-Master and a Professor, should you wish to give me a title."
There followed some very excited oohing and aahing, until the Lady Sif spoke up and asked if he made potions as a hobby or as a job, and Severus explained about being a teacher of the subject for years. Though, when he mentioned that he taught girls and boys at a magical institution, a mage school, he caught Fandral, Volstagg, and even Hogun exchanging loaded looks and eyebrow-twitches. They were not any less friendly, but Severus felt as if a chasm had appeared between them and he had no idea what it was or how deep it lay.
They did not ask him to tell battle stories, which, he supposed, was the strangest thing of all if what Thor told him had been true.
Breakfast finished in under an hour, and then Thor and his friends had to prepare for their next campaign to keep the Nine Worlds safe. They said goodbye, Lady Sif shook his hand, Thor gave him directions to the Houses of Healing, and they parted ways.
And Severus hadn't been able to use his opening as 'Potions Master' to ask about medicines that might be given to sick prisoners in the dead of night by three guards who did not wish the fourth of their number to know about it.
It felt like a bad start to the day and Severus still had a headache.
"What have you been doing to it?" Lady Helga huffed at him, just as he knew she would. "You have been overexerting yourself!"
"I was only walking," Severus replied in an attempt to be nonchalant, fighting the feeling he had always gotten in Madam Pomfrey's presence. Faced with strong older women, he really couldn't (or wouldn't) fight back. He would seethe and gripe, (silently) and submit like a lamb to everything they demanded … until their backs were turned, that is. How many times had Poppy caught him sneaking out of the Infirmary when she had specifically told him to lie down a rest?
"Hmm, I said a little walking is fine," Lady Helga grumbled, pushing him onto his back so she could get a better look at his aching leg. "Running around the whole palace like a child? Not fine."
"I couldn't sleep," Severus growled, fighting the urge to flinch away as she waved her hand and vanished his trouser leg so she could see the damage. He was a little ticklish, so he focused on something else while her deft, wrinkly hands prodded the tight muscle on his calf.
"That's what they all say," Lady Helga sighed. "Turn over, please."
Grumbling that he wasn't five years old, Severus obediently rolled onto his stomach and tried to relax while she went on poking his leg. She suddenly pinched him and he jerked, half sitting up and glaring at her.
"What was that?" he snapped.
"Just making sure you still have feeling there," Lady Helga chuckled at his indignant expression. She reached out and shoved him in the back, sending back down on his stomach with an 'oof!'. Holy Merlin's socks, even the women in Asgard were stronger than he was!
"Well, I have feeling there," Severus snarled, feeling irritated and beaten down and he wanted to find somewhere he could feel the wind on his face and grass underfoot. He was going stir-crazy here.
"Obviously," Lady Helga murmured, smoothing her gentle hands from his knee to his ankle and pushing healing magic into it.
Severus' eyes slid shut, his whole body went limp, and he sighed as all the tension rushed out of his bones and muscles and he fell into a weird floating sensation. It was the effect her magic had on him, and according to their Asgardian rules, that meant their magical cores were a good match. They were similar enough that his body responded enthusiastically to her work and the healing went much quicker that way.
"Feels good?" Lady Helga said, a smirk in her voice.
"Oh, shut up," Severus grumbled, his eyes still shut. "Hurry up and fix my leg so I can run around all night again."
The Healer tut-tutted, but in that way that said she just couldn't catch a break. She went on with her work, his other healer checked his arm and declared it healed enough to swing a light sword, and Severus endured just a few more minutes of Lady Helga's fussing before she sent him on his way with a cheery, "See you back here tomorrow morning, and don't be late this time!"
Feeling even more irritated than before, Severus stalked out of the Houses of Healing before he remembered to ask about his bracelet. Oh well, he sighed. He could stand it for another day or two anyway. The itch it caused wasn't bad yet.
He wandered until he bumped into Sigyn, completely by accident. One of the guards was flirting with her, but she clearly didn't like it. The Einherjar looked nearly twice her age, and his lecherous leer made Severus' blood boil. She was trapped between a statue and a wall, and she dared not try and dart free with the guard standing right there.
Luckily, Severus wasn't a spy for half his life for nothing. He stopped and crossed his arms as if he was impatient and vexed, rather than furious. "Sigyn!" he barked sharply. The girl jumped, and the guard actually looked slightly startled. "I thought I asked you to wash the gray tunic yesterday."
"Y-yesterday, sir?" Sigyn quavered.
"Yesterday, you air-headed girl," Severus went on, fixing both her and the guard with the power of his glare until the poor child looked ready to burst into tears.
"It is in the wardrobe," he said, with a look that was slightly less harsh. "Go get it and don't forget again, understand?"
"Y-yes, sir, r-right away," she stammered. Picking up her basket of washing, the girl fled, leaving the guard smirking.
"That's how you treat 'em," he said admiringly. "Norns, I wish I was in your place, sir, why if I was, I'd –"
"You'd what?" Severus rasped in a low voice, now very close to the guard, and the gray-haired man looked as if he didn't know how the wizard had done it. But after a lifetime of terrorizing children, he was more than good enough at the game to intimidate cowards. The man, despite having an inch or two on the human, shrank a bit at the maniacal fury blazing in his dark eyes. "Let me warn you this once, and once only, my good man … what did you say your name was again?"
"Y-Jan," the guard spluttered.
"Well, Jan …" Severus drawled, using his hoarse, ruined voice to his best ability. This would be so much easier if he still had his old, silky voice. "I'd hope you are honourable to keep your hands, and your eyes, to yourself, unless you want to lose them. If I find you've touched my servant or even frightened her, I will take care of you myself. Are we clear, Jan?"
The guard gulped, and seemed to shrink just a bit more. "T-twas nothing, at all," he stammered. "'Twas j-just a bit of f-fun …"
"Hmm," Severus hummed, smiling just a bit. He knew how terrifying this particular smile was. It was what Minerva called his 'I'm imagining what you'd look like in a stew' smile. "She didn't look like she was having fun, did she?" he asked slowly, rhetorically. "I repeat; if I find you've harmed or frightened her in any way, shape or form, the goddess of death won't find enough of you to take to Helheim."
With that, Severus straightened his Asgardian tunic and marched away, finding himself missing the billowing folds of his teaching robes. But maybe Sigyn could help him with that. Jan the guard didn't even twitch as Severus left the vicinity, and the wizard smiled to himself as he turned the corner; a real smile.
I've still got it.
"Sigyn?" Severus called softly as he reentered his chambers. It was hard to make his voice sound anything but raspy and grumpy, but he did his best. He heard a squeak in the bedroom, the slam of the wardrobe, and then there she was in the doorway, wringing her hands and trying in vain to stop the tears that kept dripping down her blotchy face.
"I-I'm s-sorry, M-Master," she sobbed, squeezing and twisting her hands together in such a contortion that Severus eyed them uneasily, wondering if she would dislocate a finger. "I c-can't f-find the t-tunic, and I-I've looked e-everywhere and, and …" She looked up at him, her porcelain blue eyes filled with fear and dread. "I s-swear I'll f-find it, or m-make you a new one, Master … please … please don't have me b-beaten."
"Beaten!" Severus shouted, making the poor girl flinch and fall to her knees, almost dissolving in a puddle of her tears.
"Or … or y-you'll b-beat me yourself, M-Master?" the girl whimpered, wrapping her arms around herself and shivering pathetically. "I-I'm s-sorry, I …"
"Stop, just … stop this." Severus sighed and rubbed his hands over his face. "What a day," he groaned. I should have just gone back to sleep last night." With another heavy sigh, he marched over to her and, painfully, lowered himself to the floor next to her. "I hope you're helping me up when we're done here," he grunted. "I'm not as young as I used to be."
"You're not old," Sigyn protested quietly, her voice clogged and hollow from her tears.
"Thanks," Severus arched an eyebrow at her. "But what I really should be saying is … I apologize."
The girl jerked in surprise. She still looked as wary and frightened as a young doe, with those big eyes and trembling lips. Severus focused his gaze on a tapestry on the opposite wall, many, many feet away, and rambled on.
"I did not mean to frighten you. I was merely … setting up. I needed to terrorize that guard and if he saw me being kind to you and then nasty to him, he might complain that I am being improper … or something. I don't know. Anyway, I'm better at acting cruel than kind, do you understand? I had to get you away from there so I could threaten him properly, and I couldn't simply tell you to go get tea and cookies in the kitchen until you feel better. It would have ruined the show."
Sigyn was staring at him with huge eyes. "You … saved me?" she whispered. "I … I thought that's what it … maybe … was." A tear dripped down her face and she didn't notice it. Her blue eyes and red-spotted face was so filled with awe and wonder that Severus knew he'd been forgiven.
"Yes," Severus answered simply. "And if that lecherous pig, or any man for that matter, begins to harass or frighten you, I order you to tell me so I can arrange their facial features. Agreed?"
To his shock, the girl pounced on him, laughing and crying at the same time while she hugged the breath out of him. Coughing for air, he patted her shoulders and gave her a meaningful shove when she didn't get the hint.
"You did that for me? I mean, you'd do that for me? I don't know how to thank you, sir, I really don't. My father is dead and I have no brothers to defend my honour, and ever since Prince Loki …" Her face fell and seemed to pale under the blotches that her tears had left.
"Prince Loki?" Severus demanded. "Ever since he what? Did he hurt you?"
"What?" Sigyn gasped, looking both shocked and hurt. "Prince Loki?! Never! He would never take advantage of a woman like that!"
"Never?" Severus repeated drily, wondering suddenly how many stories of Loki's (ahem) exploits had been true in the myths.
"He used to protect me," Sigyn explained, shivering at the memory. "He … he would do it like you … He would fool the men into thinking he was in a mood, or something, and distract them long enough for me to flee. Then the Prince put magic around me that told him if a man touched me with intent to … well, you know." She was blushing fiercely. "He liked knowing who it was, he said. That way he knew who to keep me away from. The spell would also make my skin too hot for them to touch or they'd get blistered."
"You would get that hot?" Severus asked, incredulous. Were all Asgardians this tough?"
"It never bothered me," the girl said calmly. "They would only think they were being burned … it was all in the mind, Prince Loki said. The men learned to keep their hands off anyway." She stopped and drew in a shaky breath. "But … well, the rumours started getting around that he was … that I was … that he and I …" She covered her face with her hands and sniffled pitifully.
"I … I am sorry," Severus said awkwardly. "I had no idea he would …" Be so kind, he finished in his head. Clearly there were more sides to Loki than he had guessed.
"He told me to keep it a secret," Sigyn suddenly whispered in a pathetic voice from behind her hands. "But … I think Fandral found out. Or guessed. He is much cleverer than most of Thor's friends."
Severus snorted. "I think you would be hard pressed to find people less clever than those blokes," he said scornfully. "They keep all their brains in their brawn."
"Or their stomach," Sigyn laughed through her tears, putting her hands down and wiping them nervously on her dress, a part of over-cloth that looked like an apron.
"Indeed," Severus smirked, glad to see her bouncing back to her cheery self so quickly. "Is that why the guard was only talking to you, not touching you?"
"P-partly," she whispered, a sick look of fear coming over her face. "When the Prince … vanished … or died … I don't know which, but … his magic failed. I felt it. It's only a matter of time before one of them tries to touch me and finds that it doesn't … burn, anymore. I'm … scared."
"Are all the maids in the palace in this sort of danger?"
"They don't think of it as danger, most of them," Sigyn sighed, picking at the embroidery on her dress. "They chatter and gossip about which soldier they'd like to bed and when they are taken in, they boast about it as if they won a victory. My friend, Rona, she loved Fandral … When he took her to bed, she was so ecstatic she tried to get me set up … but I squirmed out by saying that my mother was ill and I needed to go to her."
Severus was silent for several long moments. "Can you not find another job? Or … a husband, perhaps?"
"I am a penniless virgin with no skills to speak of," the girl said bitterly. "The only man I could possibly get to wed me would be poorer than I am and only interested in our bed."
"Or your beauty," Severus said mildly, not really thinking of what he was saying. "But perhaps we could find some other way to protect you in the absence of the Prince's spell."
Sigyn didn't reply and when Severus glanced at her, he was disconcerted to find that she was blushing and looking at him with bright eyes.
"What?" he snapped irritably.
"You … you think me beautiful?"
"I have eyes," Severus scoffed, blowing off her strange reaction. Truly, had no one told the girl that she had pleasing features? Or had those comments been cloaked in the sickening demands of the men she had evaded for years, or perhaps centuries? "You are not ugly and I am not one to lie or flatter about looks, of all things."
Sigyn blushed redder and twisted her hands nervously in her lap.
"That's enough," Severus sighed. "Help an old man off the floor, and then you may go for the day, if you wish. Or if you think you would be safer here, by all means, we can sit and stare at the wall together."
Sigyn laughed softly. She easily got to her feet and pulled Severus up with her. He might have been able to get up on his own, but he was sore and it would have been painful. He was grateful for her assistance, but he shook off her helping hands as soon as he reasonably could. Touch still made him twitchy.
"I am exhausted," Severus told her plainly. "I did not sleep much last night, so I will rest for a while. Do what you like, but remember what I said: if any man attempts to harm you or frightens you in any way, tell me. I am no Prince Loki, but I'm the next best thing."
"What is that?"
"I am, what is called among my people, a Slytherin" Severus explained. "We Slytherins are similar to your trickster Prince in many ways, including our cunning, ingenuity, and love of the colour green." He almost laughed at her astonished expression, so girlish on the face of a being over six hundred years older than he was. "Moreover, I was the Head of Slytherin for almost fifteen years. So I believe I will be able to think of something suitable."
A short nap had given Severus a burst of energy, but sitting in this dim, dusty library was tiring him faster than wandering the Palace last night had. Sigyn had stayed in his quarters, dusting and polishing and fussing about, but she too looked better when he emerged, energized and ready for his next mission, from his bedroom. She eagerly guided him to the Royal Libraries and then excused herself to do something. The Librarian, a stick-thin man who could give Filch a run for the most-ugly-caretaker award, was helpful enough, if terse and rude. Severus and he got along just fine.
But the translation sheets were finicky at best and he was getting a headache watching letters rearrange themselves into three different languages before settling on one, which ten to one, wasn't a language he could read. The clear sheets were enchanted with the art of All-Tongue, but since most could use All-Tongue anyway, they were not used very much at all. The librarian told him they were more common on Alfheim, where the greatest library in the Nine Realms stood open to all beings seeking knowledge, and they were the ones who had crafted these clear enchanted pages. But these were old and flimsy. The librarian promised to order more, but with the Bifrost out of commission, it might be ten years or so before they got a new set.
Sarcastically, Severus thanked him and replaced the book he had been struggling to read for the past three hours and realized it was past lunch. The Librarian told him that lunch was served on the terrace on fine days, so he returned to the place he'd eaten breakfast.
There were fewer people around, especially as it was nearly past midday, but the chatter was much louder and there were mostly men here. He heard that the women often ate together, but none could tell him where the servant girls usually took their midday meal. He shrugged mentally and supposed she could find him when she needed him. He took some thin cakes of bread like middle-eastern paans, and some shaved meat from some roasted animal to make a sort of sandwich. With some roasted vegetables and a spicy sauce adoring them, he found the meal quite satisfying. He wandered back through the palace, wondering if he could find the Houses of Healing so he could get this blasted bracelet off.
But he must have gotten lost, because he ended up in a totally different place. His lunch long gone and his healing leg starting to twinge at him reproachfully, Severus approached the sounds of metal ringing and men shouting.
It was a training yard.
The courtyard was of stone, filled with members of the Einherjar. They were training with several weapons, sparring one another, or hacking at dummies. The scene was like anything straight from the middle ages. He slowly sat down on one of the steps and watched two young soldiers, no more than boys really, circling each other under the watchful eye of their instructor. He found himself wanting to shout at the dunderheads himself, (watch your feet, stupid boy, was one of the many phrases dancing through his mind) and he only refrained because he didn't want to be noticed or kicked out. This might prove useful.
Men rotated in and out. The courtyard practically emptied at one point, and then a whole group of them came in and suited up for practice. Severus sat and watched. He snuck through the columns on the edge of the area a few times to the fountain where the men got their water, and slipped out to find a water closet a few less times, but otherwise, he watched the men drilling.
He soon saw that there were very few Einherjar who could fight well in close quarters. They preferred devastating sweeping strokes that made use of their mighty strength, but a well-aimed arrow or a knife (or spell) could lodge in their unprotected sides in an instant. Their shields were big, but clumsy. Their armour was bulky and had many gaps. Severus ticked off their weaknesses like a general surveying an attack, and shook his head. Wizards had a multitude of spells and were not bound by things like armour, since most wouldn't stand up to a good curse anyway. Common dueling robes had guards against common hexes and weak spells, and were much easier to maneuver in. He could run circles around these slow-moving tortoises who defended the All-Father's palace.
Thinking about wizard magic made him start thinking about Asgardian magic. He wondered if Asgard had a mage branch to the army. Now that he would not mind watching, and it would fill in a lot of gaps left by the straightforward approach of these Einherjar. Wizards on Earth had protections like rotating shields and reflecting shields, and even some shields that could stop physical attacks. He thought back to the magic he had done in New York and was struck all at once by how … unnatural that had been.
Wandless magic was supposed to be difficult to master, next to impossible. And while he almost had been consumed and killed by it near the end, he had still found great ease in cutting and exploding and blowing aside the Chitauri by the scores, and he had even had enough leftover to summon a storm of destructive magic as he battled Loki alone. So what was it that had filled him, acted as a focus, and channeled his magical core into his arms so that he could cast battle-spells with ease in a warzone?
That had to be it. The blue cube had filled him with crippling pain when Thor activated it, (possibly helped by Loki) to bring him here, and he had passed out from the blinding, shattering agony that had roared through his very being, striking against the raw wound where his magical core sat, torn and abused beyond anything he had ever experienced. Perhaps that power had been touching the raw wounds that the Tesseract itself had left and the spark of familiar magic had riled up his exhausted core to the point that it tried to join in with his own magic. But he had been far too weak. He wondered if he ought to discuss this theory with Lady Helga.
"You've been watching us all afternoon," a rumbling voice startled him.
Severus jerked out of his thoughts and looked up at a thin, elderly veteran. He wasn't wearing armour, but he carried himself like a soldier, and Severus had seen him around from time to time, organizing, discussing, and sometimes conducting demonstrations.
"I do not mean to spy," Severus said neutrally. "I was looking for the Houses of Healing and stumbled upon this place. The sight was so interesting that I lost track of time."
"Is that so?" the man murmured suspiciously. He jerked his head. "Houses of Healing are this way. Follow me." He turned abruptly and left, and Severus sighed as he levered himself off the step he was sitting on, and followed.
"So," the veteran growled once they were in the dim, cooler passages of the palace. "You were interested in the drills?"
"Yes, I was rather fascinated," Severus answered honestly.
"Fascinated, were you?" the vetern sneered. "Are you planning an invasion, little one?" The way the old man smiled made it clear he was mocking, but Severus held his temper and did not respond in kind.
"I am not, but what if your enemies are?" Severus answered, keeping pace with the old man who did not walk slowly at all. Severus was glad the healer had worked on his leg today, as it began to twinge from the exercise. "There are so many weaknesses in your soldiers' forms, weaponry, methods … I don't know where to begin. They fight as if everyone they face is going to fight as they do. They are … stagnant. Every soldier trains the same way, every spar goes the same as well. There is no creativity, no room for improvisation, no encouragement to use the environment around them. A well-place arrow or spear or even a knife, and all their strength is for naught."
The old man eyed him shrewdly, and with a fair bit of caution as well. "Your words are wise," he said slowly. "Where did you learn such things? Were you a commander in a war?"
"No," Severus replied, relaxing slightly. "But I fought in one, and I studied the art of war, more for the sake of strategy than anything else. I did not command, but I moved fluidly between the armies, so I was able to see what worked and what didn't."
"Ah," the old man muttered, shooting him a sneering look. "So you were a spy."
"If not for the information I carried, our enemies would have consumed the entire world and slaughtered billions," Severus retorted, doing his best to tamp down the flame of indignation at the familiar disgust at the hated word 'spy'. Yes, he had done distasteful things in the name of the Greater Good, but no one regretted them more than he, and if it were not for his work, the war would have been lost.
"Does not change the fact that you were, and are, a liar," the man growled. He seemed hostile again, but Severus could not detect any impulse on the old man's part to attack him, so he did not slow his pace or step further away from the old veteran.
"Is that why you hate your trickster Prince?" Severus asked coolly. When the man did not reply, Severus went on, his voice as sharp as a scalpel. "Loki fights with his silver tongue, his magic, and his cunning. You fight with your strong arm and a sharp blade, and you think yourself the better man. Yet peace is forged by men of reason and treaties written by thinkers. Strategies are planned and carried out with skill, alliances forged with the silver tongue, and magic can go a long way to helping one win a battle by filling in the gaps left by purely physical means. So tell me, how is Prince Loki your inferior?"
"The King is right about you," the old man said severely as they arrived at the familiar door to the Houses of Healing. "You belong to the god of lies. Perhaps you should join him in prison for the rest of your short life."
"Yes, perhaps I should," Severus sneered back. "But between the two of us we would then have more brain cells than your entire army and we'd simply think our way out. Speak not to me of Odin All-Father. I know he keeps his own council and if he truly thought me a threat, I would be back on Midgard, Or dead now."
"Careful, mortal," the old man hissed, leaning into the wizard's space. "We here on Asgard do not take such a naïve view of your sorcerer's ways. You are being watched."
"The King has set spies upon me?" Severus snarled, too angry to care what he was saying any longer. "Then who are you to be disgusted by my admission that I used to be a spy? I am no longer in that role. My war ended fifteen years ago. Where is your war, sir?"
"Your arrogance is just like the trickster's," the old veteran breathed in his ear, a mocking smile in his voice. "Be careful that you do not trip over your own ego, mortal, or you may find that you are standing on the edge of an abyss."
With that, the old man was gone, leaving Severus at the door to the Houses of Healing. He was suddenly bewildered, and more than a little worried. Why couldn't his life be simple?
"And he warned me that I might fall into an abyss if I do not reign in my arrogance," Severus finished with a sigh. "He left me then, and I … I do not know why I was so foolish as to fall for his taunts."
"He is Toryn, brother of Tyr," Sigyn sighed. "He is a master of strategy and one of the All-Father's chief Council Members. It is … unfortunate that you have insulted him, but he was bound to be insulted anyway. He hated Prince Loki as well."
"I have had no less than three people comparing me to that Prince lately," Severus muttered peevishly. "Why is that? Odin even suggested I might be one of his descendents."
"Oh, I doubt that, sir," Sigyn giggled, her eyes twinkling with good humour. "Begging yours and the Prince's pardon, but he does not seem the type to have taken a human lover, even centuries ago. He was ever a scholar and a learner, not a … what do you humans call it?"
"Skirt-chaser," Severus supplied with a relieved smirk. Whatever Earth's myths may say about Loki, (and his unfortunate children) at least his reputation did not seem to be the same here.
"Yes, that," the girl laughed. "But as I said, the Prince could be quite charming when he needed to be, but his flirting had no end that was not knowledge, and I do not mean the carnal kind. I think you are simply a clever mortal with a gift for sorcery. That, I'm afraid, is what General Toryn hates."
Severus frowned and drummed his fingers on his knee. "Magic?" he guessed.
"It is for women," Sigyn said softly, apologetically. "Magic is not seen as manly or honorable. There are schools for women who wish to become sorceresses, but none for boys."
"But … Loki," Severus said slowly. "He is quite the master of magic. We on Earth once worshipped him as the god of magic."
"That is thanks to his mother, Frigga," Sigyn said solemnly. "She was trained by the Norns themselves and is a princess of Vanaheim. She is one of the greatest sorceresses of the Nine Realms, and she taught Prince Loki at her knee. He is … was … the mightiest sorcerer to walk the paths of Yggdrasil." She sighed and fell silent, lost in thoughts of the past. Severus glanced at the woman, noting the brightness of her eyes, the faint flush to her cheeks … and suddenly realized that she had a crush on Loki. She'd probably been nursing it for hundreds of years, and yet, she still acted like a little girl with her first attraction. How odd. And she still believed him dead. Interesting. Had Odin refused to announce that his younger son was home?
"I have not had the pleasure of meeting the Queen yet," Severus said slowly. "Would there be any way to gain an audience with her?"
"It depends," Sigyn said carefully, coming out of her daydream with an embarrassed blush. "She may wish to meet you, or she may not particularly care. She has many duties, and she is still grieving her son. I believe Loki was her favourite, even if she would never say. He was her … her problem child. He was the one who was always coming to her for one thing or another, and he loved her very much."
"You seem to have known Loki very well," Severus commented, unable to keep the smirk off his face.
"Oh, not you too!" she groaned, covering her face with her hands. "I spoke to him often, that's all! He was lonely, and often talked, or ranted, while I was in the room. It was much like how we speak to each other now. He got me assigned as his maid to protect me further."
"Which was noble of him," the wizard replied soothingly. "I meant nothing by the comment. It was simply … teasing."
She raised her face and blinked at him, as if she didn't quite know what to make of him. Then she smiled. It was shy and hesitant, but her whole face lit up from within.
"I loved him," she whispered as if imparting a great secret. "I truly, deeply, loved him. But I knew he would never love me. So … I never told him. Now … now he's gone and I never told him. But I would walk the remains of the Bifrost on cold nights and whisper to the abyss that swallowed him up … hoping he would hear." She paused and sighed. "I'm really a silly little girl; all heartsick and love-struck over a foolish dream …"
"Do not give up all hope just yet," Severus cautioned her, wondering what her reaction would be to finding out Loki was just a few feet beneath her, sitting alone in the dungeons. "But we can come back to this another time. I have a few more questions before you go."
"Ask whatever you wish, sir," Sigyn said eagerly. "It isn't often I feel so smart, instructing a learned teacher like yourself."
Severus chuckled drily. "You flatter me," he said in a flat tone.
"I speak truth," Sigyn smiled demurely.
"Leaving aside your needless commentary on my brilliance," Severus waved a hand and didn't mind when the girl giggled. "I wish to know if the prejudice against mages is also practiced against healers in this Realm. I have only met women healers thus far."
"Oh no, there are male Healers," Sigyn assured him. "Only, Queen Frigga preferred the women Healers to the men, so Lady Eir is Chief of the Houses of Healing, and Lady Helga is Chief of the Magical Healers. We have a few men who work there too, but they are few."
Severus nodded and filed the information away. "So, back to the prejudice against magic. :et us say a boy is born with magic. Are there any options for him? Healing, perhaps?"
"He hides it," the girl answered simply. "He might turn to crafts, and thus imbue his work with his latent magic and become a master of his art. Or he might turn to healing, and unconsciously tap his own magic to heal others. He might do anything, really, and his magic will adapt with him. But if he tried too hard to suppress it, they usually fall ill or go insane."
Severus blinked. "And the King does not care?"
"He sees magic as a woman's profession," Sigyn said solemnly. "Yet, even women gifted with it cannot always be trained. It is costly … and it is a lifelong commitment."
"Sigyn," the wizard said slowly, watching her impassive face, which had paled slightly as she spoke about magic. "Do you … are you gifted?"
"Yes," the girl answered softly. She raised her hand and a few golden sparkles flashed above her fingers before vanishing. "I cannot do very many useful things with it, except smooth mended stitches and scrub out stubborn stains … but Prince Loki showed me a few simple spells. I can create light in dark places and I can cast an endurance spell on any one of my limbs. That one was one I actually stole from his books while he slept." She blushed heavily. "I hoped that I would not die with that sin still on my soul," she added in a mumble.
"An … unusual spell," Severus murmured, his forehead furrowed in thought. Why did that particular bit of magic sound as if it should be familiar? "Did you ever make use of that spell?"
"Oh yes," the girl nodded earnestly and her voice grew soft and haunted. "Loki was being punished in the Lower Dungeons and I snuck down to help him. I lost track of the days and nights, but when it was over, I had nearly exhausted myself … and the All-Father never found out, I think."
"It involved a snake, I think," Severus said slowly.
Sigyn's eyes widened. "That tale made it down as far as Midgard?" she whispered.
"In a different form … but yes, that is the gist of the story. So, was Balder real then?"
"Hush!" Sigyn gasped, tears blinding her eyes. "L-Loki bade me n-never to speak of him."
Severus nodded, though he was more puzzled than ever. "Very well, we shall not speak of him. But my last question to you is: what sort of medicine do the prisoners in the Upper Dungeons receive from their guards?"
"What?" Sigyn blinked in confusion. "Oh, you must be mistaken, sir. Guards never act as healer except in the direst emergencies. There are healers who are assigned to the health of prisoners."
"And the healers dress as normal? Even at night?"
"Of course!" Sigyn's face turned shrewd. "Sir … I sense that you are, as they say, fishing. Have you seen something suspicious? Guards dosing a prisoner in the middle of the night, perhaps?"
Sigyn was silent for several long moments. "This bodes ill," she said quietly. "Prisoners who are being punished are taken to the Lower Dungeons. Those in the Upper are to be treated fairly and autonomously. They may not be harmed or manhandled unless strictly necessary to the safety of themselves or others."
"So, what these guards are doing is improper?"
"Most improper," Sigyn agreed. "Tell me everything, and then we must go to the Queen about this. She will take it to the King's attention."
So Severus started talking.
He told her about his midnight adventure and the passages he had explored. He told her about the sleeping guard and the strategic stupidity of putting three exits from the dungeons and she admitted that she had never noticed how dangerous such a thing could be. He told her about the struggle and the guards' words and how the prisoner dragged himself back to his bed without a sound, looking utterly defeated and exhausted. When he finished, she looked pale and worried.
"I will put a word in the ear of Frigga's maidservant," Sigyn said solemnly. "If the Queen wishes to meet with you, she will send word. But if three days pass and you have not been summoned, I would suggest that we gather more evidence."
"We?" Severus snapped.
"You're not running around the palace alone at night with criminals on the loose, sir," Sigyn said with a devilish smirk.
"I am not dragging you on my nighttime adventures. What if you are hurt? Or blamed? You could lose your position, I would simply be sent home."
The young maid shook her head impatiently. "You may not know this, but I am not very popular here. Ever since Loki disappeared, I have been treated as the lowest of the low here. Why else would I be assigned to be the personal maid-servant of a strange mortal from Midgard who is rumoured to be a mage of unspeakable power?"
Severus stared for several seconds, suddenly feeling rather angry on behalf of the girl. She was considered expendable while he was considered a potential threat. "Well," he finally said. "In that case, I suppose you are now my evil minion."
Sigyn smiled happily and her eyes glinted with mischief. The Potions-Master suddenly wondered if this was what Loki had seen in the girl, because he was starting to think he might be a little in over his own head here.
And as promised, chapter 3 before Easter. This is literally all I have written of this story at the moment and I'll have to churn out some more when I have time. Hope you enjoy it!