Rated T

~HP~L~O~K~I~HP~T~H~O~R~HP~

Chapter IV – All-Father

Night came almost too quickly. Sigyn was gone, and Severus was left alone in his chambers. A few times, he contemplated wandering the palace again, but each time he thought to poke his head out of his chambers, there was a guard nearby. He had the sneaking feeling that he was being watched more closely, perhaps as a direct result of his careless conversation with General Toryn. He cursed his stupidity more than once, but there was now nothing he could do about it. Severus could fume all he wanted, but he was, after all, a stranger here, and had not exactly been invited in the first place. He knew that he had been lucky to be given the amount of freedom that he had.

Since he was unable to slip out of his chambers unnoticed that night, Severus had to content himself with pacing in the open air of his balcony, thinking about various things, and wondering why the ravens still seemed to have nothing better to do than watch him. He wished he had read more Norse Mythology, but it had not exactly been an interest of his. He might have read some of the myths out of boredom or idle curiosity as a young boy, but with so many other things to occupy his time, reading frivolous nonsense like mythology had not been at the top of his priorities. Of course, now that he knew that the Norse Myths at least were not actually frivolous nonsense, he bitterly regretted not taking more of an interest in the stories.

He glared at the ravens in the light of Asgard's moons and tried not to mutter to himself too much. The birds were really starting to unnerve him. He was pretty sure that they were spies of some sort. Absently fiddling with the silver band on his wrist that was preventing him from using his magic, he craned his neck, trying to distract himself with the incredible night sky here. He did not know why Asgard's night looked so strange compared to Earth's; here he could see galaxies, nebulas, two brilliant moons, and more stars than he ever knew existed. He could even see a streak on the horizon that might have been the Milky Way, seen from a different point of view. He could even see other worlds scattered across the night; vague distorted shapes, like planets viewed through a telescope. Despite never having been very interested in Astronomy, (although knowledge of the stars and moon phases was important in gathering Potion ingredients) being here on Asgard, he could gaze for hours on the wonders of the alien sky.

After some time, Severus let out a long breath and rubbed the crick out of his neck as he sat down on the white stone railing of the balcony. One of the ravens hopped up close to him and he half-heartedly swatted at it.

"I know you're up to something," he muttered at the sleek black bird. "What do you think you'll find?"

The raven cawed and hopped to the side, gazing off at something else.

"Do you spy for Odin? Hmm, I wonder if Animagi exist among Asgardians …"

This time, the raven did not seem to respond. Severus sighed and tapped his fingers on his knee as he considered the mystery in the dungeons again. He had assumed something was not right when he had first seen it, and having it confirmed by Sigyn was confirmation of his instincts, but what was he supposed to do about it? He didn't belong here and knew nothing of Asgard. The little he could guess was gleaned from hazy memories of a mythology that was likely as distorted as the legends of Robin Hood.

"I need my magic back," the wizard muttered without thinking.

He stared at his hand, pale in the moonlight, and flexed it into a bony fist. He wondered what Bruce was doing at this hour and suddenly wished he could send him a message of some sort. But what would he say anyway?

Dear Bruce, Asgard's weather is great and the people are interesting. Wish you were here!?

Ugh.

Shaking his head at himself, Severus stood up and wandered back inside the house. He shut the balcony doors, glaring at the raven when it left off staring out at whatever it had been studying to caw at him. He shut the door, even though it was a fine night and his chambers tended to become stuffy. He just didn't want that suspicious bird sneaking in while he slept, or watching him sleep either. After Severus drew the lacy curtains shut, plunging the room into a soft, shadowy darkness, he went to the bathroom to wash up for bed. He had never been fond of 'changing for bed' since he preferred to wear something that made it easy to get up at a moment's notice in an emergency. Here, although he was provided with very comfortable sleeping clothes, he preferred to simply remove his extra garments and sleep in whatever it was he happened to be wearing, so long as it was still clean. For years, he had been forced to survive with only two, maybe three changes of clothes, and pajamas were not exactly a priority.

He lay in bed in a silky tunic and loose pants that were much more comfortable than any sleeping garments he had ever owned back on Earth, and watched the moonlight make patterns on the walls through the curtains like water rippling in the twilight. Perhaps tomorrow, he and Sigyn would make some headway into their little mystery.

~HP~L~O~K~I~HP~T~H~O~R~HP~

Severus supposed he had been a bit optimistic the night before. He awoke with the sun, opened the balcony doors to let in sunlight and air, and did not see the ravens, which was encouraging. But accompanying Sigyn was a guard. He was not dressed in elaborate armour like the Einherjar he had seen so far, but he also looked rather young, and bored. Maybe he was not a full-fledged palace guard yet and was stuck with the detestable duty of babysitting the Midgardian mage. He and Sigyn did sort of communicate, even with the presence of the guard. Severus gave the guard one glance and threw Sigyn a disgusted glare, which she returned with an apologetic grimace. Under cover of asking her to button a doublet he put on, he softly asked her about the Queen and whether she had been able to request an audience with her yet.

"I have given the message to the Queen's Dressing Maid," Sigyn whispered, her lips barely moving and her voice barely audible. "We shall see." She gave his doublet a satisfied pat and turned to give him his boots. "Lady Helga would like to see you before breakfast this morning," Sigyn informed him respectfully in a normal tone.

"Before breakfast?" Severus repeated with a raise of his eyebrows. That meant they were going to check his magical core. That particular exam happened to make him nauseous. Maybe it was the way they did it, or the magic/technology they used, but it was better on an empty stomach.

"If you are not feeling well after, at least you will already be in the Houses of Healing," Sigyn informed him with a little curtsey. The guard sighed audibly and shifted his feet. Yes, he was obviously young and hot-headed. It was probably a dull job, babysitting a weak, injured mortal, but any guard needed to stay professional despite that.

"You could leave, you know," Severus snapped at him. "I do know the way to the Houses of Healing from here."

"I have my orders," the young guard said in a monotone.

"Then I suggest you fulfill them and stop sighing like a bored child," Severus informed him drily. The young Asgardian bristled at the condescending tone, but he did not sigh or shuffle any longer. Severus took an extra long time finishing with his boots and a cloak that was similar enough to his old wizard robes that it felt comfortable, simply to annoy the guard. Sigyn must have seen what he was doing, because when he looked up at last, finished, she was suppressing a smirk and her eyes were sparkling with amusement. He fought the urge to smirk back at her and instead arched an eyebrow at her that clearly asked her if she was coming.

The guard escorted Severus along the corridors, but didn't bother to lead him. The wizard already knew how to get to the Houses of Healing, but knowing a more direct route from his room would have been nice. Thankfully, Sigyn saw his hesitation and stepped out in front, leading the way. After not very long of a walk, they reached the beautiful carved doors of the palace's medical wing and Sigyn excused herself to attend her other duties. Severus' guard, however, did not.

The Houses of Healing had many rooms. The main one was open to the air with huge windows and was wide and almost circular. The place was full of soothing colors and beautiful mosaics decorated the walls and pavement. Healers in robes walked briskly to and fro as they went about their work and Severus spotted his first male healer, a man with gray hair and a clean-shaven face. He stood for a few seconds admiring the beauty of the 'waiting room' before a middle-aged woman spotted him and his guard.

"Can I help you, sir?" she asked gently, her eyes sweeping over his body in a quick assessment of his health.

"I am here to see Lady Helga," Severus replied, much as he had yesterday when he had come.

"Oh, of course!" the healer smiled and gave him a quick curtsey. "She is expecting you, Severus Snape. If you will follow me?" She turned briskly and Severus followed her, or moved to. His guard was still shadowing him. Turning to the young man in annoyance, he turned the full force of his glare on the guard.

"Do you mind?" he asked icily. "I am not aware that medical exams are spectator sports."

The guard glared back at him for several seconds before he marched over to the corridor where the healer had gone and planted himself at the side, a hand on the broadsword at his belt. The woman healer arched her eyebrows disapprovingly at the action while Severus shook his head in annoyance and simply marched past the man now standing guard. The corridor was wide and lit by light panels running along the walls, and lined with doorways. Some were open and some were shut, just as in any medical establishment, and this particular area of the Houses of Healing was mostly for diagnostics and health assessments. The opposite end of the Asgardian infirmary was for trauma, emergency aid, and the like, with everything else being taken care of in their own rooms anywhere in between. Severus was glad that these Houses of Healing were at least quieter and better organized than St. Mungo's had been, and some muggle hospitals he had seen as well.

Lady Helga was indeed waiting for him in the same room he had visited last time, and his guide, (Ilsa) smiled and curtseyed before she returned to whatever it was she had been doing before, leaving Severus with his Healer in the cozy exam room.

"You're early today," Helga greeted him with a friendly smile, getting up from a chair where she had been perusing data on some sort of projected screen that had been floating in front of her. He wondered what sort of technology that might be, as it did not seem like magic. He did not respond to her comment and instead busied himself with removing his doublet. Despite his ploy with Sigyn earlier, he really did get frustrated with all the buckles and buttons Asgardians were so fond of on their clothes and appreciated the help. He couldn't wait to get his magic back. Dressing with it would be so much easier.

"As I'm sure you have guessed," Lady Helga announced, setting out a few things on the small table by the exam bed. "I shall be examining your magical core again today. Then we'll see if you can take that bracelet off anytime soon."

"That would be helpful," Severus muttered. He tossed his doublet and then his tunic on the end of the bed before he sat down. The old woman took the bracelet off his wrist, pressing a small silver disk to its clasp like a key of some sort. When it popped off, Severus flexed his hand and sighed, hoping that his core had stabilized by now. Feeling the hum of his magic again was a welcome sensation, even though he did feel an ache deep in his chest, which he knew was not a good sign.

"How does that feel?" Lady Helga asked gently, gesturing for him to sit up straight and put his chin up. He already was sitting as straight as possible, and merely gave her the evil eye before straightening his gaze and lifting his chin. "Severus?" she patiently prompted him when he delayed in answering. Her soft wrinkled hands were pressing into his ribs, foreign magic was thrumming against his senses and it was rather distracting, not to mention fascinating.

"It aches, in my chest," Severus answered shortly, concentrating on the magic he could feel, vibrating like a plucked harp-string in proximity to whatever she was doing with her hands. "But I am glad to have access to my magic again. I don't want that bracelet on again. Getting cut off from such an integral part of myself …" he trailed off.

"Mmm, it makes you feel naked without it," she murmured understandingly. Her magic suddenly found his magical core and Severus drew in a careful breath. His body relaxed under the influence of her magical essence, but deep in his chest, it still felt like an open wound; sore and sensitive. As she prodded the core of his magic, the nerves all over his body tingled with pain and a headache started up at the back of his head, quickly spreading to engulf his skull in fiery needles. Starting in his chest and expanding rapidly outwards, he felt like he was being pulled apart. He retched involuntarily and jerked away from her. Lying on his back, Severus gasped for air and wondered why it still felt so unpleasant. Shouldn't he be healing already? His stomach roiled rebelliously and he took deep breaths to stave off the nausea. Through the ringing in his ears, he was aware that Helga was talking to him. He raised a hand to show her he could 'hear' her, but to hold on for a few seconds while he re-centered himself. After a few seconds, the dizziness and nausea passed, leaving only a tingling ache in his chest and keen exhaustion threatening to send him off to sleep. After his former exams, he had felt the same way, only perhaps more tired, and glad he was in his comfortable bed.

"Severus?" Helga asked once it was clear he was feeling a little better.

He propped himself up on his elbows and glowered at her. "Isn't there any way you can mend the damage instead of simply poking at it?" he snapped, not unlike the way he used to speak to Poppy.

"It's like blood loss," Helga retorted, clucking her tongue in disapproval of his tone. "It will only heal with time."

"Well then, why do you feel the need to torture me by prodding what essentially feels like an open wound?"

"You should keep your eyes open when I do my 'prodding'," Lady Helga snorted. "Then you'll be able to see why it feels like 'an open wound'." She paused and shook her head, "Frankly, I don't even know how you even have any energy at all. You should be flat on your back after –"

"Yes, yes," Severus interrupted impatiently, struggling to sit upright again. "This is not anything you have not said to me before. But am I able to remove that bracelet yet?"

"I'm afraid not," Helga replied tersely. "I imagine it will be another four or five days before we can consider that, judging by the rate of healing."

Severus sighed, but he didn't push the issue. It was pointless. He would heal when he healed, and not a moment sooner. Helga briskly helped him sit up again and started probing his damaged throat, clucking and muttering as usual. After she got a feel of what she was working with, she had him lie down while she worked. He let himself float away on the strangely soothing waves of her healing magic as they washed over his scarred throat and filled his body with something like new life. Absently, he wished Poppy had been able to do this. He might not have been so eager to escape her clutches if she had been able to make healing feel like this.

~HP~L~O~K~I~HP~T~H~O~R~HP~

He had breakfast in the Houses of Healing, since he felt too tired and dizzy to make the short trek to the breakfast terrace. But after a morning nap, he felt well enough to leave again, and Lady Helga came to put the bracelet back on his wrist before he left. It felt unnatural to be once again cut off from his magic, but at least he knew for certain it would not be long before he could remove it permanently. As she clasped the bracelet around his wrist, he admired the workmanship, and once she stepped back, he held up his hand.

"How does it work?" he asked abruptly. "We have nothing like this on Earth … Midgard, I mean."

"I actually don't know how it works," Lady Helga chuckled. "I know it is imbued with a magical dampening field that suppresses all magic in its immediate radius when its circle is closed. But as to the exact science of it, I do not know. I am a Healer; not an Enchanter."

Severus nodded thoughtfully, and reached out to touch the finely crafted bands of silver metal, twisted together to make a loose braid-design that was simple, but eye-catching. He sighed and dropped his hand back into his lap before he reached for his boots.

"I advise you to keep resting," Lady Helga informed him as he shoved his feet into the black shoes. "Sleep is the best thing for magical replenishment."

"I'll keep that in mind," Severus muttered. He knew that, but he was not going to be sleeping his days away unless he was truly tired enough to do so. His throat, always so raspy in a way that he had almost gotten used to in the last fifteen years, felt much better after his last magical treatment, and he wondered if she was healing the scars on the inside as well as the outside. His voice sounded slightly better as well and the thought of perhaps speaking with more or less his old voice put him in a good mood.

"Sleep is not the only way to let your mind and body be at rest," his Healer added suddenly. "You should ask your maid to show you the gardens."

Severus glanced up at her and nodded slowly. "I may do that," he replied. He stood up and grabbed his doublet and cloak, and to his surprise, Helga stepped in to help him when he struggled with the order of the buttons and clasps. "You people are fond of complicated clothing," he grumbled, though without any ill-will. The clothes were comfortable and pleasing to the eye, so he really couldn't complain. He almost liked the challenge, even though he was not fond of having to solve a puzzle every time he dressed or undressed.

"Not having grown up here, you think them complicated," Lady Helga chuckled, taking his cloak and shaking it out before gently sweeping it over his shoulders and smoothing it out in a motherly gesture once it was on him. "You should see what our Prince Loki was fond of wearing on special occasions. Now those garments were complicated, even by Asgardian standards."

"If it was anything like what he was wearing on Earth, I believe it," Severus snorted, almost smiling at the memory of his ridiculous horned helmet and elaborate outfit.

"Mmm," Lady Helga hummed. "There are rumours, of course, that he has come home. But the King has not issued any sort of official statement. So he was on Midgard?"

"I am not certain I should be talking about it," Severus muttered, suddenly wondering if he shouldn't have said anything. He had assumed that the healers would know he was back. After all, Thor had mentioned that he had asked a healer to see to Loki.

"I understand," Lady Helga said quietly. "I suppose … I simply miss our Prince. He has been missing over a year now."

Severus peered at her wrinkled face searchingly. "I hear much about Prince Loki from many people," he said carefully. "It seems he was rather popular."

"Ah, yes," the old woman smiled fondly. "Loki was such a good boy. A bit mischievous, and had a bit of a temper … but he was a good boy. Compared to his brother, he was a patient boy, to tell the truth. Most Asgardians are hot-headed."

"Were you his healer?" Severus asked, just out of curiosity. He wondered if it would be possible to suggest she go down to the dungeons and take a look at Loki. He had not looked very well the last time they had seen each other in the hall outside the throne room. Even though Severus was the one who had fainted, Loki had still been recovering from torture that no mortal could survive.

"I only treated him for a couple of minor things, you understand," Lady Helga replied. "You know: skinned knees, a bloody nose … Lady Eir was his official Healer. The Queen would allow no one else to treat her sons."

"I don't believe I have met her," Severus commented, for lack of something else to say.

"She is the Chief Healer here," Helga explained cheerfully. "I'm not surprised you have not met her. She is a busy woman."

"I enjoy learning here," Severus suddenly said, abruptly changing the subject. "There are so many things I do not know or understand about your people. Sigyn has been a great help."

"I'm glad," Helga smiled. "She is a good girl; so capable and clever. I may be biased, but I can think of no one better suited to be your guide here."

"Do you know Sigyn well?"

"I should say so! I am her maternal great-aunt, and I took care of her mother after the deaths of her parents. Sigyn's grandfather perished in the Ice War, and her grandmother was a field healer. She received a terrible injury and came home only to die a few days later, leaving me with custody of a fiery young lady who had absolutely no desire to become a Healer. She married a Stable Keeper and became a cook in the Palace kitchens. Sigyn was their only child … and then Sigmund was kicked by a horse and crippled. He died a few years ago, a broken, bitter man." She broke off suddenly and dabbed her eyes with her wrist. "I'm sorry," the old woman sniffed. "I don't know why I'm telling you all this. You do so remind me of one of my sons, you know. He is a tutor, and has some magic of his own, but Asgard discourages our men from pursuing magical training."

"So I've heard," Severus muttered. "Thank you for your aid, and the conversation. I will see you tomorrow, I suppose."

"Yes, you will. But Aifa and I will only be going over the scars and lingering injuries, so you may stop for breakfast first, if you wish."

Severus nodded to show that he had heard and left the room. He was preoccupied with his thoughts, and so was rather startled when a guard suddenly moved to follow him once he stepped out the door. He glared at the young-looking man who was dressed the same as his earlier escort, but was most certainly not the same soldier. He shook his head in exasperation and ignored his shadow as he sought out the terrace for lunch.

~HP~L~O~K~I~HP~T~H~O~R~HP~

The day passed slowly. Severus went to the library after lunch for a while and gave himself a headache trying to use the clear translation sheets. He fiddled with his bracelet and wished his magical core would hurry up and fix itself so he could try a simple translating spell. Some of the books he had read in the libraries in Africa and India had been in foreign languages and his wandless translation spells had worked on them well enough. He found his mind wandering after an hour and he stared out the window he sat near. The view was different from the one he had from his balcony. Here he could see what looked like the wall and main gate of Asgard and a long bridge sticking straight out toward the edge of the realm. On the very edge of the horizon, the sky was dark, almost twilight, and he could see the water pouring over an abyss. He stood up and went closer to the window, looking down over a city of golden spires and shingled roofs. He had not thought very much about the main population of Asgard. Not everyone was royalty or a servant, and Asgard consisted of more than the Royal Family. His gaze returned to the bridge sticking out of the city like a broken rod and remembered what Sigyn had told him about the 'Bifrost'. Wracking his brain for the word, he found it. It was some sort of rainbow-bridge in Asgard, in the Myths. Here, the bridge thing certainly sparkled in all colors of the rainbow, but it looked solid enough, even though it abruptly cut off not too far from the black abyss of space. Was Asgard even a planet, he wondered?

He turned to his silent guard, who was being much more polite and professional than the put-out youngster of this morning.

"How large is Asgard?" he asked abruptly. "It does not look much bigger than a large city."

"You see only the edge," the guard returned just as brusquely. "Asgard is the smallest of the Nine Realms, but it is not very small. Not in the way you think. Beyond the city is a vast realm of mountains, farms, and woods."

Severus arched an eyebrow, slightly surprised, but still mystified. "But most realms are planets, are they not?" he asked.

The guard frowned. "I do not know this word," he said slowly. "Planets?"

"Midgard is round," Severus said, demonstrating with his hands. "Are not most Realms like that?"

"Ah," the guard smiled. "You are correct. Asgard is not exactly like that. It is slightly curved." The man cupped his hands as if resting on top of a round ball. "Once on a time it was like all the other realms, but a catastrophe nearly destroyed our Realm many, many years ago. King Buri, founder of our modern Asgard, managed to affix half the world in the Crown of Yggdrasil, or so the tales say. We are anchored in place and safe, but our Realm does not work exactly the same as others."

Severus nodded slowly, fascinated and intrigued. How would such a world have sunrises and sunsets? Or seasons? Or even weather? This realm should be a dead rock floating in space, yet Asgard flourished somehow. Magic? Science? A combination of the two?

"If I may," the guard said carefully. "Why do you ask?"

"I have never heard of a world that would even work that way," Severus answered slowly. "I don't understand how it functions. It intrigues me. I am a man who likes to find answers. Is that the Bifrost?" He pointed out the window.

The guard didn't even need to come closer. "What's left of it," he answered grimly.

"What exactly happened to it? Thor informed me that it was destroyed, and my maid referenced it. But what destroyed it? It looks … splintered, at the end; like a branch that was torn away."

"Prince Thor destroyed it, we all know that," the guard replied, looking suddenly embarrassed. "Forgive me, I do not mean to speak badly of his Highness."

"Naturally," Severus smiled encouragingly. "But I am certain he had a good reason."

"His reasons have not been disclosed … but most of us believe that Prince Loki, who was King by proxy at the time, attempted to misuse the Bifrost and Prince Thor tried to stop him."

"And in the process, the Bridge was destroyed and Loki fell into the abyss," Severus finished, his mind whirling with questions.

"I imagine so," the guard muttered, shuffling his feet.

"I do not wish for you to get in trouble for telling me these things," Severus suddenly said, realizing that perhaps the young guard wasn't supposed to be talking to him.

"It is common knowledge," the soldier replied with an awkward grimace.

"And you're bored," Severus finished. "I don't suppose you could simply leave me in peace?"

"Orders."

"Ah, of course."

Severus turned back to the window and observed the view for a while longer. He lost interest after a few minutes and decided to return the books he had been struggling with to their shelves. The old Librarian ignored them while Severus, followed by his guard, slipped silently out of the Library.

"Where are the gardens?" Severus asked his shadow.

"The gardens are this way," the guard replied, gesturing with his head and turning down a different passage Severus had never been down. They descended some staircases and passed through beautiful halls. Severus was suddenly glad he was wearing Asgardian fashions as they began to pass officials and other important-looking people. There were more guards and servants in this part of the palace, and some gave his shadow-turned-guide a glance or nod of greeting. Severus was used to being the tall one in a castle, or anywhere, really. But the Asgardians, even the women, were mostly taller than he was. It was rather obvious that he was not one of them and he received more than one curious glance. Severus turned his most impressive scowl upon them and they did not speak to him, instead averting their eyes and hurrying on their way. It was an admirable skill of his, that he could repel curiosity simply by his glower alone. He almost wanted to snigger. Was there no one here in Asgard who had experienced the power of a glare?

The guard pushed open a light door and they stepped out into a beautiful courtyard. Somewhere beyond the walls he could hear noises from a city. Animals, chatter, rattling of wheels and clanging of a nearby blacksmith filtered into the lovely terrace. They left the terrace and Severus stopped in stunned amazement at the archway into the gardens.

"These are the palace gardens," his guard explained. "They're open to any visitor or guest of the royal family. The private gardens, obviously, require direct invitations."

"This is not a garden," Severus muttered. "It is a park."

Still amazed, he stepped out onto the immaculate paved pathway, admiring the flowers, trees, and grass. There were statues, a golden fountain, and bushes cut into incredible shapes. He did not recognize most of the plants, but when he did see something familiar, he almost wanted to point it out to his guard like a child. He loved gardens, and had to resist the urge to yank off his boots and run through the velvety grass in bare feet. How long had it been since he had been in a place so lush and gorgeous, so filled with life and colour and tender care …? He took a deep breath and instead just walked, admiring the sights like a mature adult rather than running his mouth off with questions his guard surely wouldn't be able to answer. After walking for some time, he stopped at a beautiful bench in the midst of carefully pruned rosebushes and lovely, unfamiliar trees. He sat down, realizing too late that the bench was made for people taller than he, and he felt rather young and small as he sat, his toes barely touching the pavement. He closed his eyes and tilted his face to the golden light that filtered through the leaves and breathed in the fresh air and the scent of roses.

It was paradise.

"I would not mind coming here when I'm dead," he commented aloud without opening his eyes.

The guard chuckled. "I'm told some of you in Midgard thought this Realm was part of Valhalla."

"Is it?" Severus asked curiously, opening his eyes and noting that the guard looked like he was in a good mood.

"No, Valhalla is … was … another Realm. It was Asgard's moon."

Severus pondered that. "So … Valkyrie are real?"

"Were," the guard corrected him. "Long ago, the Valkyrie were Asgard's elite female warriors. They were feared throughout the Nine Realms."

"And now?"

"The last of them were exterminated in a Civil War long ago," the Asgardian replied quietly.

That was a sobering thought. Severus wondered if something catastrophic had happened to Asgard's moon Realm as well. He knew from the night sky that this world still had two moons, so once they had three? Or perhaps more?

"So … is Helheim real as well?" Severus asked for lack of something better to say.

"Helheim?" the guard frowned. "I do not believe so …"

"I have also heard it called Niflheim."

"Ah yes," the guard grinned ruefully. "Niflheim exists. A terrible Realm it is; filled with monsters and ice dragons."

Severus blinked at that. Did he say Ice Dragons? "Is there intelligent life there?"

"Not that I know of," the guard shrugged. "But then, not many Asgardians I've known have ever been there. The main Realms Asgard is allied with are Alfheim and Vanaheim, and I've been to both. Nornheim and Ria are somewhat allied with us as well. The rest are either enemies or of no consequence."

"I am not very familiar with the Nine Realms mentioned in our mythology," Severus admitted.

"Eh, I'm not too familiar with them all myself." The man shrugged. "I'm just a normal guard; not even an Einherjar. If we officially went to war, I could be conscripted for the army, but we're not exactly at that point yet. I've never been off Asgard in a military sense."

Severus turned his attention back to the trees and flower bushes, pondering the guard's words. Military, politics, technology, all in a place Earthlings had thought mere myth or legend … It all seemed so unbelievable, yet here he was, sitting here in a garden of plants from worlds Earth had never dreamed of. He was probably the first human in Asgard, at least since ancient times.

"This is simply incredible," he murmured, almost without meaning to speak. "An entire civilization … It has all existed here since before our first parents came out of their caves and learned to create fire."

"It is strange to us as well, that the mortals of Midgard have come so far in so short a time," the guard replied easily. "Your kind are resilient and clever, for a people that have such short lives."

Coming from anyone else, the compliment would have sounded condescending … and alright, so it probably was still a bit condescending. But Asgardians lived for thousands of years, while a human was lucky to reach a hundred, unless they had a magical core to keep them going for fifty or sixty years after that. So yes, mortals must seem quaint and strange, with their short lives and odd habits and endless curiosity. Severus almost snorted. The attitude of Asgard toward Midgard was similar to the wizarding world's attitude toward Severus had plenty of arguments for why wizards should be more open to muggle ideas, and none for Asgardians to be more appreciative of humanity. What did humans have that Asgard didn't?

The guard turned suddenly and Severus picked up on the movement. He rose from his bench and saw a young servant boy, bowing nervously a few feet away.

"Yes?" the wizard asked warily.

"Severus of Midgard?"

"Yes?" Severus repeated, his tone getting a bit testier.

"The King has summoned you to a meeting," the young man said respectfully. His cheeks were flushed with excitement, and he was probably bursting with questions, but he was more professional about his job than the young grumpy guard from this morning.

"Has he?" Severus muttered. He wondered if it would be a wise idea to talk to the king about the oddities in the dungeons. Perhaps if it came up …

"I am to escort you there, my lord," the boy said, puffing up his chest proudly. Severus wondered if this was the most important message the kid had ever delivered. Irritating as it was, Severus was a little amused by the boy's enthusiasm.

"Call me lord one more time and I'll wring your neck," Severus growled, but not with any real malice. "You may call me sir, or Snape, or Severus, or Mr. Snape."

The boy's face flushed with chagrin and he gave a hasty bow. "As you wish my … Sir. Apologies, sir."

Severus sighed and gestured for the boy to lead the way. The guard followed silently behind and the boy strode along the garden paths at a brisk pace. Severus was glad his ribs were healed, and his leg wasn't hurting today, so he kept up easily with the servant. When they entered the palace, they went up a wide spiral staircase and through a few wide, airy hallways.

They stopped in front of a guarded, ornate door that was unfamiliar, and Severus felt secretly relieved that he wouldn't be conducting this interview in the throne room again. The servant bowed to the guards and one of them rapped on the door before pushing it open.

"Wait here, sir," the young man said respectfully before he slipped through the golden door.

"Where are we?" Severus asked his guard, glancing at him.

"This is the All-Father's office," the soldier replied. "He often conducts private meetings here. More comfortable I expect."

Severus nodded. That made sense. No one in their right mind would do everything in a huge throne room; only the most important things. The door opened again and the servant boy stepped out and bowed to Severus. Honestly, that was getting annoying. How did royalty stand it? Come to think of it, how had the Dark Lord stood it?

"You may enter, sir," the young servant said respectfully.

Severus waved at the kid before he could bow again or something silly like that, and stepped through the golden door. The guards pulled it shut behind him. He glanced around, keeping his reactions bottled up. The room was surprisingly cheerful. It was not imposing or intimidating, the wealth was not ostentatious, and the decorations were quite tasteful. There was a desk, more like a table, on this side of the room, but the King was not seated there, nor was he in the comfortable looking lounging area at the opposite end of the huge room. Odin himself was standing at the large curved window at the far end. There were potted plants around him on the floor and on the window seat, and some other much higher windows had silvery designs etched in the glass, which caught the light in beautiful ways. The walls were gray-streaked stone like marble, and the floor was wood, but so smooth and hard that it shone like glass. Tapestries, a few statues and carvings, and some more vases, (some with plants) decorated the room. It was a very fine office, and Severus had to admit that the informal air of the place helped to put him a bit more at ease.

"You summoned me, your majesty?" Severus said once it was clear that the King was not going to speak first.

Odin All-Father turned and gazed at him with his one blue eye. "You came quickly," he commented.

Severus inclined his head. "I was only in the gardens. It was not far."

The King nodded and turned around fully. His kingly garb was gold and white and his armour glinted in the sunlight from the window. His face was stern and implacable, but Severus could detect no hostility in his gaze. "I trust you are recovering?" Odin asked politely.

Again Severus nodded once, though he couldn't resist raising an eyebrow in sardonic humour. "Your hospitality is most generous, but I trust you wished to speak to me on matters more important than what we deem, 'small talk'?"

Odin arched an eyebrow as well, and his blue eye twinkled with surprised amusement. "As a matter of fact, I do," the King replied. He gestured to the comfortable looking seats. "Would you sit?"

Severus followed the King of Asgard, rather surprised that the King seemed to be in such a mild mood today. He waited until Odin was seated before he sat down across from the King, of course. He usually attempted to be the epitome of etiquette when in audience with a powerful man, after all. Odin waved a hand over the low table between them and drinks appeared, Severus nodded, somewhat impressed. Whether the drinks had been under an invisibility spell or had been conjured from somewhere, it was still a fine, casual show of magic. He took a glass as Odin gestured magnanimously for him to help himself, and he gazed critically at the pale amber liquid. It smelled somewhat like caramel, but sharper.

"We call it hygge," the King informed him when he took a sip and blinked hard at the taste. "Do you wish for something a bit weaker?"

"Perhaps that would be wise," Severus said reluctantly, putting the glass down. Much as he liked the flavor, the alcohol content was much higher than anything he'd ever drunk casually before. "The vintage is excellent, but if I drink the entire glass I will be hopelessly drunk. And the taste makes it entirely too easy to do so."

The King chuckled and gestured at a crystal decanter and a smaller glass while he sipped some hygge himself. "Try some gilmer wine. It might be a bit more to your liking."

Severus found the pale pink wine to be much better. The alcohol was still strong, but it wouldn't have him flat on the ground in one glass, at least.

"Having had some time to adjust, what do you think of Asgard?" Odin asked, fixing him with that shrewd blue eye of his.

"I am a bit overwhelmed," Severus replied honestly, resigning himself to a few more minutes of polite small talk. "Your magic and technology are far beyond anything I have ever encountered, your very culture is both baffling and fascinating, and I was just learning not an hour ago that your Realm is not even a planet, as Earth is. It is … how did the guard put it? Anchored in the crown of Yggdrasil. How is that possible?"

"It is a matter better explained by our best earth-mages," the King informed him, looking somewhat amused at his answer.

"I could never hope to learn half of what I wish to learn here in one lifetime," Severus sighed with real regret, glancing at the wine in his hand. "I would not even know where to begin to ask the questions I have." He looked up at the King again and raised his glass with a wry smile. "As I said: overwhelmed."

"I have asked Sigyn to help you as much as you require," Odin informed him. "She is more knowledgeable about things than one would think, considering her status."

"She once served Prince Loki, did she not?" Severus asked, pressing toward what he felt was the issue at hand.

"That is one reason we assigned her to you, yes," the King replied, eyeing him shrewdly.

"She does not know he lives, and I was unsure of what to tell her."

Odin was silent for some seconds, seeming to weigh his words, weigh Severus too, from the way he was looking at him. "I have not announced that my son has returned," the King said slowly. "But I have not denied rumours to the contrary. Allow me to be honest with you, Severus of Midgard."

"By all means," Severus agreed, sipping his wine.

"I am a King with millions of subjects to think of, not to mention the Realms which Asgard protects. Were Loki any other criminal, he would no longer live. This is the truth. But he is my son, and I want a reason to believe he is not … changed. Not for the worse. You are the only one who has suggested that you have any sort of proof of Loki's innocence, one way or another."

"Thor does not count?" Severus asked wryly.

"He counts, of course," the King said wearily. "But you are not only unbiased, you are human. You are one of those who should view Loki as your foe, not a brother. Do we understand one another?"

"Loki won't talk?" Severus guessed, though it wasn't much of a guess.

"Not to me," the King said grimly. "He will not see a Healer, he will not speak to his Mother, and I have forbidden Thor from seeing him. They do naught but fight of late."

Severus tapped his fingers on his glass. "Not to sound callous, your majesty," he said carefully. "But I could have told you he would react this way. Meaning no great disrespect to your son, adopted or not, but Loki is as immature as some of the children I used to teach. He fears appearing weak, so he feigns strength. If he can find strength in being an evil warlord, than he believes he has no choice but to take that strength. What he does not know is that it takes strength to step out from behind his shield and face what has been done to him."

Odin nodded thoughtfully. "Indeed, now if only there was one who could tell my son such a thing and he would heed it …" The King shook his head and sighed.

"I would do it, if you wished me to," Severus volunteered. "As I said, I have dealt with children who thought strength lay in cruelty. Loki may not be so far gone, but his attitude is the same. I will not coddle him, nor will I react to his inevitable attempts to rile me."

"I would appreciate your efforts," Odin said, looking weary and sad. Severus thought of the parents he had met over the years, who had spoken with him, appearing almost exactly the same. This was a father who loved his son, who grieved for him, who wanted so badly to believe the best of his boy, but feared he may have to believe the unbelievable, one way or another. Either his son had turned into an evil, twisted enemy, or he had been tortured, broken, and forced to be something, someone, he was not. It was heartbreaking.

Slowly, the wizard leaned forward and put his glass down on the table. "Do you wish to hear what I know first?" he asked carefully. "I firmly believe your son did not truly want to rule Midgard, either as a benevolent god or a cruel warlord. I believe that he can be redeemed. That he can be healed. He is not far gone, but who knows how far he will fall if he is left alone for much longer?"

The King nodded slowly. "I thank you for your words, Severus of Midgard," he replied, his tone suddenly more formal and distant. "I brought you here for the express purpose of interrogating you about what transpired in your Realm with Loki. But if you will volunteer such information, I see there will be no need for questioning."

Severus inclined his head and took up his glass again. the King of Asgard was blunt and to the point, which was a relief. Years of deciphering Dumbledore's riddles had done nothing for his sanity, so it was refreshing to be able to speak so openly. Odin asked him about his past, and Severus spoke briefly of his background and how he met Bruce and became involved in the matter of SHIELD and the Tesseract in the first place. Odin paid close attention as Severus described what Loki had done in Stuttgart, and the strange effect of his magic.

"He stood in a crowd, with illusory copies of himself standing guard around the perimeter," Severus explained, looking up at the marbled wall as he dragged up the unpleasant memory. "His voice … it was compelling. He spoke of how humanity must kneel, how we are no better than ants whose destiny and deepest desire is to be ruled. He spoke of the need to free us from freedom. I hated listening to it," Severus confessed, looking back at the King, who looked grave and troubled. "There was magic pouring off him in waves that made me ill. Traces of dark magic in my body reacted to it … and it was not pleasant."

"Have you mentioned this to the healer?" Odin interrupted.

Severus nodded. He wasn't going to go into detail about his Dark Mark, since he hadn't really mentioned much about the Wizarding War. They said they might be able to remove it anyway. "The Healers here are healing much damage that was deemed permanent by my former healers," he replied.

"Your healing seems to be progressing without undue trouble?"

"It is," the wizard replied, reminded at once of the speed with which his broken arm and ribs had healed. He didn't even need to wrap his arm or hold it still anymore. "But my magical core is still damaged to the extent that I still am unable to use any magic. This is a bit of an annoyance, as I cannot use my translation spells on books I wish to read in your libraries. The strange clear papers they use instead of such spells are quite useless to me."

"I shall request a mage to enchant an object with the spell you have in mind," the King said thoughtfully. "Of course, you would have to cast it first, but only once. Then your core will be able to heal while the object will translate written words for you when you keep it near. You have my permission to speak with your maid about this matter. Sigyn will help you with inquiries."

"Thank you, your majesty," Severus said, feeling a trifle overwhelmed by such generosity. "You are too kind. Truly."

"Nonsense," Odin rumbled, looking grave and sad. "On behalf of the son who caused you such injury, Asgard owes you some recompense."

Severus blinked in surprise, and then smiled. "Loki did not do this to me," he explained. "I did it to myself. Granted, I was fighting him, but I overspent myself. I am not trained to fight without a wand. Directing raw magic is dangerous. I could have killed myself. In fact, Loki may very well have saved my life by stopping me when he did."

"How did he stop you?"

"He …" Severus trailed off and tilted his head back, frowning as he tried to remember. "It got very cold … the cold burned. My skin was freezing. It was …" he shuddered slightly, not wanting to recall how similar the feeling in his nerves had been to a well-cast Cruciatus curse. "I knew I was going to die," he finally said. "I fought him with the foolish hope of distracting him for a few crucial moments until the rest of the Avengers could come to my aid."

"You knew how powerful Loki is?"

"Normally, I suppose he should be quite powerful, but I wouldn't know," Severus mused, tossing back the last of his wine. He was feeling strangely detached, and knew he might have had a little too much. He put his hand over the top of his glass and shook his head when Odin silently asked him if he wished for more. "I assumed Loki was far too powerful for even a group of well-trained, wand-bearing mages to defeat, so I did not face him with the hope of survival. Yet … I live. We fought, I was pitifully helpless against him, and yet he did not kill me and his taunts were laughable at best. He toyed with me … and then the Hulk arrived. He attacked Loki and … after that, I knew that Loki had not been acting under his free will."

"How so?"

"His eyes glowed blue when I first met him," the wizard explained. "When we fought, his eyes were still the colour of the Tesseract, of his staff … But after the Hulk gave him a few blows to the head, his eyes turned green and his attitude was much different. He was … less arrogantly evil and more … distant. He was cautious, and he sneered a good deal, but he was not so haughty and there were no taunts or threats. I guessed right away that the staff had possessed him, but there was more to the story."

Odin was silent for a few moments, digesting this information. "After you realized he had been controlled to such a degree, what was my son's reaction?" the King finally asked.

"Loki feared being taken over by the scepter again," Severus replied. "He asked me to render him unconscious."

"But you did not."

"I invaded his mind instead," Severus said with a scowl. "My sincerest apologies for that, but time was of the essence. His eye-colour was shifting between green and blue so quickly that I knew I had mere seconds before Loki lost the battle."

The King waved the apology and explanation away. "Tell me what you can of his mindscape."

Severus opened his mouth to reply, but then hesitated. "I hate to break such a confidence, your majesty."

Odin glared at him. "I am his King, and his father. He is currently a prisoner for life, with no rights whatsoever. If you can tell me what he suffered, from what you saw in his mind, you may very well clear him, at least to some degree. So speak. Tell me what you can."

The wizard briefly closed his eyes and then abruptly stood up. Pacing helped. "Loki's mind was a mess," he said bluntly. "It was shattered, destroyed, on fire … He was screaming. In his mind, Loki was screaming. He was in pain." Severus stopped and folded his hands behind his back. "There were three other presences in his mind that were not his. The scepter, or the Mind Stone within the scepter, was a placid, calm voice, like a still lake without a bottom. The one Loki's mind called the Ebony Maw, was a raging wind, beating and battering and dragging into submission … the final voice did not speak above strange mutters in a language I knew not, but it was flame and pain and nothingness. It was the most horrific. Yet, when I began the battle, shoring up Loki's mind and dragging more of his consciousness under my occlumency shields, that voice retreated almost before I even realized it was there. The others had to be pushed out, but the one that was all fire and pain … that one left before the battle began."

"Occlumency?" Odin interrupted with a thoughtful frown. "The word is unfamiliar to me."

"Occlumency is an art of protecting the mind," Severus explained. "It is magic, but from what I have seen, even those without magic can succeed at it, on some level. A true occlumens forms shields around their minds comprised of many layers. Sometimes, these layers are false. Invented. Lies. Sometimes the shields are truth and beauty and strength, something which the owner is focusing on so intently that no other thoughts can escape. And sometimes, the shields are nothingness. After all, a blank mind is one in which there is nothing. It is difficult to explain. But it is useful, and requires discipline, and I was surprised Loki had not learned such techniques before. He had mental defenses, but they were mostly aggressive, not defensive. Mine are defensive, but the best offense is a good defense, as we humans say. My mental walls are flexible and impenetrable, and so invisible that if one never suspected me of having such shields and entered my mind, they would only see that which I wished for them to see, nothing more."

"You saved Loki from no less than three mental influences that had possessed him?"

"That is correct," Severus said with a nod. "I fell into darkness at the end, having over-extended my magic too far. I awoke a week later, still exhausted and in pain. But I lived. And Loki lived as well. The Ebony Maw threatened Loki in his mind several times, and I do not know who he worked for or who he was, but Loki truly feared him. I caught glimpses of …"

Severus stopped, suddenly aware that he was talking to Loki's father. This stern King truly cared about his son, adopted or not, and to tell the King to his face that his youngest boy was tortured, degraded, and broken over a period of months was almost unbearable. He had been forced to make reports to the Order of the Phoenix about members who withstood torture for mere days, not an entire year. Severus dragged in a ragged breath. He knew that he must be honest. For Loki's sake.

"I cannot un-see such things," he said quietly, gazing into the King's face. "Your son was tortured and broken in ways that ought to have left him dead or insane. Only when he was possessed and confused did he ever kneel before this Master, take the scepter, and invade Midgard. He never wanted a throne, least of all one on a dust-ball covered in ants. He would rather have died than submit to such a fiend."

"Your conclusion?" the King of Asgard asked gravely, hiding any emotion behind the stern and stone-like face of his expression.

"If you were to ask me, Loki is at least mostly innocent. On Earth, we do not punish those who were mere puppets for others. There is a curse, the Imperius Curse, which some wizards are able to cast upon others in order to control them in much the same way as the scepter controlled those Loki touched with it. Those under the Imperius Curse are not judged guilty of the crimes they commit while under such influence. But I know Loki must acknowledge it is so first. There must be proof if he is to be pardoned."

Odin was silent for some time. Severus held his peace, and eventually sat back down. The King had a tear glistening in his eye, and the wizard looked away to give him privacy. Finally, the All-Father stirred, to drain the rest of the hygge from his glass.

"Thank you for your honesty, Severus of Midgard," the King said gravely. "If this cruel enemy who tortured and controlled him has his sights upon Midgard, who knows what other plans he may have? Loki is the only one who can reveal such things."

Severus nodded grimly. "I would suggest I speak with Loki as soon as possible," he drawled. "I saw his memories and he knows that I know of what he has gone through. Besides, he does owe me."

The King smiled, a light of hope burning in his single eye. "So he does," Odin mused. "So he does. Tell me, Mage of Midgard, when you insisted on remaining here in Asgard, were you planning this?"

"I hoped to have the chance to learn the truth of what had happened, nothing more," Severus replied firmly. "One curious thing about spies: we are the most likely to seek out truth. After all, the truth, or the lack of it, is a spy's mightiest weapon."

Odin nodded again. "You are a mighty warrior, Severus of Midgard. Tell me, have you ever thought to take up a sword?"

Severus was too flabbergasted to reply at first, but he caught the gleam in the King's eye, and managed to laugh a bit. "I am too old and damaged to be much good with a blade, your majesty. Besides, watching your Einherjar sparring the other day was enough to put me off such a desire even if I'd had it."

"Toryn insisted that you are an assassin and went on about you for nearly an hour," Odin replied with an amused smile. "I do not imagine you know what prompted such a reaction?"

"Sigyn told me he was likely hateful simply because I wield a wand rather than a sword," Severus grumbled. "Is this why Loki seems more popular among healers and servants than among guards and warriors?"

"Magic is not appreciated in this Realm," Odin sighed. "But I am skilled in it myself, as is my wife, who was raised by witches and is the most gifted enchantress in the Nine Realms. Have you met the Queen yet?"

Severus shook his head, suddenly remembering the topic he had wished to bring up with the Queen of Asgard. "Sigyn gave her a message from me this morning," the wizard commented. "I wished to speak with her about something I witnessed by accident. Sigyn seemed to think it worrisome."

"Oh?" the King narrowed his eye slightly, assessing him sharply.

"I apologize, but I could not sleep a few nights ago and wandered the palace corridors. I became turned around and found out I was in the dungeon area. While I was there, I witnessed three guards doing something … suspicious. I left before they saw me, and I did not see the prisoner they had been …" Severus trailed off and reorganized his thoughts. "The guards spoke of medicine, and how they hoped it would begin to work soon. But Sigyn told me that soldiers do not give medicine or healing to prisoners unless in an emergency. The prisoner was struggling, but not screaming or crying out, and he was able to crawl away when they finished, so I simply did not know if it was serious or not. It disturbed me, and disturbed my maid, so …"

"It is rather disturbing, and against all protocol," Odin agreed gravely. "I will look into it. Meanwhile, when do you wish to see Loki?"

"Today, if I am allowed," Severus replied, rising from his seat. "Is now too soon?"

"Not at all," the King agreed, rising as well and going ahead of the wizard to the exit. He wrenched open the gold-gilded door and turned to the guard who had been accompanying Severus all day. "Jorgen," the King called as the man and the Einherjar stiffened and saluted. "Escort Severus of Midgard to the dungeons. He has permission to visit a prisoner for as long as he needs. Should he require privacy, you are to grant it to him. Understood?"

"I hear and obey, my King," the guard murmured, clapping a fist to his chest and bowing.

Odin turned to Severus and placed his hands on the wizard's shoulders. Severus froze in surprise. It was a strangely familiar, fatherly gesture, but he had no idea if Asgardians were typically this physical.

"I wish you success," the King of Asgard said gravely. "You will come after and speak with me of what you learn. And you will meet the Queen."

Severus nodded. When he stepped back and the King's hands were back at Odin's sides, the wizard clenched his right fist and pressed it to his chest and he bowed slightly. This beat kneeling and groveling and kissing a Dark Lord's stinking robes by a long shot.

"I will return here," Severus confirmed. He turned, his cloak swirling satisfyingly around his legs, and marched after Jorgen the guard on his way to the dungeons.

~HP~L~O~K~I~HP~T~H~O~R~HP~

After many tribulations and false starts, I have finished chapter 4 at last. (Wipes brow) I hope it won't be this long of a gap between chapters next time. Thank you all for your patience!