A/N—I did not see The Avengers until November, after it was out on DVD. I have no idea why I wasn't interested in the movie before (I mean, I loved Iron Man), but did not see it in the theater. Upon first viewing, I promptly fell in love with it and all of the Avengers and most especially Loki. I immediately went in search of fanfic and found many here that inspired me want to start writing, and then this plot jumped into my head, so I finally did start writing.

This fic is most assuredly M (for violence early on and 'adult' themes later). Many Avengers and warriors from the Thor appear throughout the fic, and I've speculated on how future events might unfold to layout what I hope is a believable framework for what lies in store for Loki and others, and how he becomes almost but-not-quite-yet-fully reformed.

While I have not used any real 'spoilers' for future movies in here, certain players from the second Thor movie that have been mentioned in the media are mentioned in this fic...if you are avoiding any kind of movie spoilers whatsoever for Thor: The Dark World, as much as it pains me to say it, don't read my fic! They're minor, but they are there, and, as I said, there's speculation for future events that *might* turn out to be true. Really, if you don't want to be spoiled, don't read.

The prologue is very O/C-heavy, but is necessary (I hope) to establish tone and important character motivations, etc.

I hope those of you who read it like it! I'm so nervous, lol.

Thanks to guineamania for being my beta.


Prologue—The gods will not come for you.

When she was a child, Asrior prayed to the gods. She didn't make altars, as her mother had said the Midgardians built in their ancient times. Such a tangible display risked discovery, and she had learned well that anything material, even something as small as a tear, could mean pain.

So she'd kept the altars in the hidden corners of her mind, dropping to her knees only when the night was deep and sleep took over the fortress. She would kneel on the hard and cold stone floor, her mouth moving silently as she begged the lords of Asgard to help her. Odin would send Thor, and he would fly toward her on his white horse, wielding Mjolner against her father. The Warriors Three would follow, their battles cries ringing as they fought her father's guards. And Sif… Her sister would ride ahead with the God of Thunder, her sword flashing as she made her way toward her, finding her and carrying her to safety.

They did not hear her prayers.

Asrior had not looked to them at first, not even when her mother died. She'd been barely a babe then. When the men came to take her to Svartalfheim where her father, Valtur, lived, she had childishly welcomed the chance to go to another realm. Surely he would love her as her mother had.

She was not afraid despite the rough journey through the portal, when she left the lush green hills for a dark and barren land with just the clothing on her back and a thin golden chain of her mother's. Nor was she afraid when she was borne away in an unfamiliar metal carriage, or when she first entered the dark hall and looked upon her her father's scarred, alien appearance and heavy armor for the first time.

She wasn't afraid when he reached out to her, his pale-as-death hand rough against her chin as he lifted her gaze to his. The eyes that met hers were dark in the torchlight, but she'd smiled, her lips shaking slightly as she whispered, "Father". The corners of his mouth lifted and the fingers on her skin hardened as he laughed. She heard the others in the hall join in, the sound echoing around her.

Asrior suddenly wanted to hide. She wanted her mother and the familiar comfort of their tiny home in Asgard. Then she felt ashamed for feeling such. Her mother had always told her to be brave.

"You look like her," he said, his eyes sweeping over her hair, the dark red of it radiant despite the dimness of the hall. Asrior kept her eyes on him, refusing to look away even as her body trembled.

"You even have your mother's eyes," her father mused, and the fingers holding her chin loosened and moved to trail along her cheek. "Your skin is like hers. Smooth. Touched by the sun. It is as though Birgitta still lives."

The hand dropped.

"Let us hope you did not inherit her whoring ways."

The laughter echoed around her again, and though she did not grasp the full extent of her father's words, Asrior understood he was not being kind.

He was leaning forward in the massive chair, an elbow on his knee, and his face moved so close that she could feel his breath.

"But you are not exactly like her, are you, Asrior of Asgard? You were not like the others you hid amongst," he hissed his eyes beginning to gleam. The corner of his mouth lifted again when she shook her head and whispered, "No. I am different."

"Kagoq."

The words were a demand, and Valtur's eyes moved to someone behind her. And then Asrior felt hands on her hair, pulling it tightly away from her head. Tears pricked her eyelids as the hand tugged and yanked so that she was forced to look the side, allowing her father to view one of her elven-shaped ears.

"You will not hide proof of your heritage anymore, child. You are of the House of Valtur," he said, his voice strong and hard. "You are a child of Svartalfheim. You are a being of this realm, a descendant of royalty, and you will quit everything of Asgard or die in the keeping of it. Do you understand, daughter?"

The last word dripped from his mouth like venom.

Asrior nodded after a moment, and the hand loosened its grip on her hair slightly.

"Good. Let us hope you are so able a student in the years to come." Valtur sat back on the massive chair and lifted a hand. "Taker her, Kagoq."

A rough voice behind her gritted, "Come with me."

And so she heard Kagoq before she saw him, the dark, brooding dwarf who was to be her guard.

She turned her head to look at the one who gripped the length of her hair so harshly, and Asrior shivered, for he frightened her in a way her father had not. Kagoq was massive and squat all at once, his wide body stooped low, a shoulder held at an awkward angle. Whereas her father's scars ran thinly over a strong-boned face, Kajoq's features were flat, half dented and mangled, a scab puckering over the space where his right eye should have been.

He spoke under his breath as he led her to the small chamber that was to be hers, muttering about the uselessness of Asgardian bastard filth, his hand holding her hair as a leash, his one eye trained steadily ahead.

Still, she had not prayed. Not yet. Not when the servants had taken her Asgardian robes and burned them. Not when she'd been forced to wear the dark clothes of Svartalfheim, the black armor heavy and unfamiliar against her skin. Not through that first, long month in the fortress with none but Kagoq and his beaten face and bad-tempered words for company.

Not until the night she'd woken from a dream of her mother.

In the dream, she'd been back in Asgard, in their cottage set among hills. Flowers bloomed outside of her window, and Asrior could hear her mother's sweet voice in the kitchen, calling her to come try the bread she'd taken from the oven. She'd wandered through the house, following the sound and the smells…only the house was suddenly made of stone instead of wood, and the halls were long and dark. When she finally reached the kitchen, the person in there turned and stared. Instead of her mother's deep blue gaze and soft voice, it was Kagoq's eye and growl that greeted her.

"I take care of you now, you little wretch. Take care to remember it."

Asrior woke, remembering where she was, her heart aching for home so much that her need overran her fears. So she slipped silently out of her small bed and tread across the floor, her heart racing in fright as she pushed open her door. Kagoq was there as always, sleeping on a mat on outside of her room, his eye shuttered to her movements for now. She crept quickly past him, holding her breath as she did so.

And then she was free to search for her father, though the halls seemed dark and endless. She'd seen little of him since her arrival at his fortress. But she was sure, despite so little contact, that he could offer comfort as only a parent could.

She found him in the great hall. Instead of sitting at the head of it on the massive stone chair, he'd been alone and huddled over a table, studying something lit with a small candle. Asrior had touched his arm, her voice shaking as she greeted him.

Valtur turned quickly and looked down at her, his eyes glittering in surprise. Before he could speak, Asrior found herself talking, the words tumbling from her in a rush. She told him she was scared, that Kagoq was mean to her, and she thought that seeing him would make her feel better. And then she begged him to tell her if the stories of Valhalla were true. Her mother was of Asgard, she'd said, clutching at his arm, so surely that meant she could see her again in the land of the honored fallen.

Tears pooled in her eyes, blurring her father's image, and then footsteps came running into the great hall, Kagoq's frantic apologies echoing in the nearly empty space.

"Silence yourself," Valtur snapped. The dwarf stopped in his tracks so suddenly that he almost tipped over. Asrior's mouth clamped shut, quivering as she tried to stifle the sobs erupting in her throat.

She noticed that her hand was no longer on her father's arm. Instead, he had taken hold of her wrist, his rough fingers digging into her skin and his voice was silky as he asked, "You cry for your dead Asgardian mother?"

"Yes," Asrior said, her voice shaking, a tear escaping as she spoke. She rubbed it away with her free hand, sniffing loudly. "I miss her, Father. I want to see her again."

A thin smile spread across Valtur's face.

"My lord, please forgive me. Allow me to take her back to her chamber. I'll make sure…"

Valtur raised a hand to silence the dwarf, and his voice was still smooth and quiet, that slit of a smile widening as he spoke. "You think I am angry because she left her chambers without permission?"

Kagoq lowered his eye and stared at his feet.

"No. No, that is not what grieves me now." Valtur purred. He regarded his daughter for a moment, his eyes roaming over her pale face and blood-red hair. Then he pulled her roughly toward him so that Asrior stumbled, her ribs hitting hard against the table. She watched, confused, as he pushed the sleeve of her nightdress away from her wrist. "I am angry because her weakness is an insult to my house. My daughter will not be so pathetic that she cries."

He began muttering something, and Asrior saw the candle he'd been using flare, its flame suddenly bright purple, and his fingers tightened harder on her wrist. And then there was pain, white-hot pain searing across the skin he pulled roughly above the flame. Her knees buckled and she felt a cry rising in her throat. It was as though knife made of fire were slicing deep into her arm to burn the muscle and bone within. She could smell burning flesh, could see it turning black…

Just when her eyes rolled back into her head, just when she was about to faint, she was released and somehow pulled away from the flame.

"If you insist on weeping, it must be for good cause," Valtur said, steel in his voice now. "You will not wail for the harlot that bore you."

Shock had taken over. Asrior's entire body was shaking and her breath came in gasps. Her arm felt as though the skin had fallen off, and if Kagoq had not been holding her by the shoulders, she felt sure she herself would have fallen to the floor.

"Do not let her get by you again," Valture warned. "Beat her, if that is what it takes to make her submit. If you cannot control her, you will be the one to suffer the consequences next time."

"Yes, sire. It will not happen again." Kagoq's head lowered and his voice dripped with deference. And then he yanked Asrior by the hair, pulling hard as he snarled at her to follow.

Cradling her wrist with her good hand, Asrior stumbled behind him, led by her hair from the great hall as though an animal. The pain was still blinding, so much that she had to fight not to scream with the hurt. Her eyes closed as Kagoq pulled her along, and her gasps turned to whimpers; she remembered the tales her mother had told her of the gods' courage in battle, and she tried to whisper, "Be brave. Be brave. Be brave…"

She did not notice when Kagoq led her down an unfamiliar hallway, or when he paused for a minute, or that the grip on her hair loosened. She kept her thoughts on her mother, for remembering somehow helped her endure.

And then they were heading up stairs to the room that was hers, and through her door, and she was allowed to fall onto her small bed. Asrior shrank into it, turning her face into the mattress to muffle her moans.

"Give me your wrist, child." She shrank further into the bed at the rough voice. Her tears were falling freely now as she gave into the pain and distress. Kagoq sighed and muttered, "Here."

He was pulling her arm toward him, his hand surprisingly gentle, though his grip strong enough to hold onto her when she tried to pull away.

"No…" she managed, terrified, her heart pounding in her chest, but the dwarf did not release her. The room was dark, the small window offering little in the way of moonlight, and shadows masked Kagoq's ruined face as she looked at him. Then she felt something cool and wet on her burning skin.

"This will not heal you, but it will ease the pain," he was saying, his voice so low she barely heard him above her harsh breathing. "It will not prevent the scar, either. That was dark magic he used, and your skin will bear the mark forever."

The burning in her wrist turned into swiftly into a sting, and then to a dull ache.

Asrior's eyes widened as she stared up at the dark outline of his face.

"Is that magic, too?" she asked, her voice still thick with her weeping.

Kagoq did not answer at first. He released her and put something in his coat, turning away from her. When he finally spoke, it was as though he was reciting a lesson.

"You must learn not to cry or show any weakness, especially in front of Valtur. You must pretend to be of Svartalfheim, learn to act as a dark elf of your father's kind. And you must listen to me when I tell you to do something. This is for your protection. Do you understand, Asrior?"

The sound of her name on his lips was startling.

"Yes," she managed.

"Good." He sighed and opened the door to her room, leaving briefly and returning with his mat. "Tell me if the wound begins to sting again, and I will put more of the salve on it."

Her eyes were adjusting to the darkness, and she watched as he threw his mat against the door and slowly lowered himself to it. She sniffed and rubbed at her face with her good hand, daring to ask, "How long will it hurt?"

"Sometimes it does not go away," he mumbled, and turned to look at her for a moment. "Yours is not too bad a wound. You were but moments above the flame. It will ease soon enough." His eye closed. "Go to sleep."

"What if I have another dream…"

He sighed, and though he looked reluctant to say it, finally told her, "Wake me if you have dreams. But you must not leave."

Asrior nodded, gazing at him as he fell into sleep. After a while, her tears drying, she pulled the blanket over her body and turned in her bed. The ache in her wrist was almost bearable now.

She could hear Kagoq's breathing slow as his sleep deepened, the sound of it somehow comforting. After a while, she closed her eyes and turned her thoughts to Asgard. She tried to pretend that she was at home in her cottage. She thought about waking to hear her mother singing. She remembered her mother's stories of Odin's palace, of the beauty of Queen Frigga, and the tales of Thor and other heroes. Of her sister, Sif, a warrior who lived in Asgard's great city, and how one day Birgitta would bring them together, and she could live among gods.

And when sleep did not come, Asrior prayed to those gods for the first time.

Once again that night, she slid from her bed, this time moving toward the room's lone window instead of the door. She fell to her knees in front of it, tipping her head against the stone sill. Her eyes squeezed shut and her wrist held carefully at her side, she tried to will the gods on Asgard to hear her pleas. Odin, her mother had said, was good and just, while Thor and the warriors that surrounded him were as brave as they were strong. And so she begged them, her voice but a whisper, to hear her prayers and return her safely to her home.

"Asrior? Why are you out of bed? Does your wound pain you?"

Kagoq's sleepy voice made her jump. So deep was her focus that she'd forgotten he was there.

Turning her head to meet the eye watching her, Asrior found that she was not as frightened of him as she had been before.

"I'm praying," she admitted, her voice hushed. And then, turning, she looked up and out at the stars, her voice filled with the certainly of a child. "The gods of Asgard will help me if I ask."

She closed her eyes, and as another prayer formed on her lips, she heard him sigh and shift on his mat. His voice was low, and she could tell he was close to sleep again.

"You should not bother. The gods will not come for you."

….

By the time she was twelve, she'd learned that Kagoq was right about the gods. There was no rescue, no savior-warriors riding to the fortress to save her. Asrior learned by then that she could rely on only two things for survival—Kagoq's lessons and the memories she kept locked in her head.

She learned many things in those years. She taught herself not to cry or show fear or weakness. She learned to hide her longing for the warmth of her homeland, and learned that, even when she had to hide her mother's gold chain, that Birgitta still lived on in her heart. She discovered that friendship and beauty existed in unexpected places. Most importantly, she learned to keep such sentiments hidden, and that she could endure most of the outside world if she lived part of her life inside of herself.

Kagoq schooled her in the ways of the House of Valtur. She learned their customs and language, though she was forbidden to try to use magic or to learn to fight.

The dwarf taught her more practical skills as well. He taught her how to pretend that it hurt and to cry out when he took her hair in front of her father or the guards, and how to duck just so, so that when he slapped his hand over her head the impact looked worse than the reality. She learned the necessity of Kagoq acting the punisher. Her father, though he'd refrained from using more dark magic against her, was not loathed to use his fists.

She learned that Kagoq was usually right about most things.

Still, when it came to one lesson, she'd resisted.

They were in the room where she learned, watching the commotion in the yard below them through a window, the first time he broached the subject.

"Malekith's movements are dangerous. They bode ill for the future," Kagoq muttered darkly, watching a tall, heavily armored elf walk toward to the fortress gate with her father. "He will provoke war with Asgard. The leader of your world will bring Odin's wrath down upon us."

She glared at him in indignation, hissing, "This is as much my world as yours."

Setting his mouth, Kagoq continued, "There is no good path. Malekith will either succeed, which will allow your father too much power. Or he will fail, which will be worse." At Asrior's questioning look, he explained, "If Malekith falls there will be a vacuum…the elf lords still standing will begin to fight amongst themselves. Already your father talks out of both sides of his mouth. Though he pledges fealty, you notice that he has not pledged to actually do battle alongside his king."

"You think he longs to rule?"

Her teacher grunted. "Your father will use the opportunity to increase his power, surely. Valtur the Unmerciful is loyal to none but his own interests."

Valtur and Malekith were striding outside of the gate then, and the servants attending in the yard scattered in their wake.

"Come back to your lesson," Kagoq said, the weariness in his voice sudden, and his hunched body moved slowly toward the table in the center of the room. Valtur had raged the night before, nervous over the impending visit from their ruler, and he'd beaten the dwarf for spilling mead as he'd poured it.

"I am not in the mood to learn about the past princes of Svartalfheim," she said, not moving. "Let us leave to my room. I can read what I want while you rest…"

"That will only get me beaten again, child. Now sit down and prepare to be quizzed on your ancestors."

Huffing, she did as she was asked, falling heavily into the chair. "I don't know why I have to do this."

"Don't you?" he asked, a look of surprise in his eye. "A daughter of the House of Valtur must know such things. Your father thinks it bad enough that you look so little of Svaralfheim. You must not look ignorant of your race in front of suitors."

'Sui…" she began, her jaw dropping open. "You mean, to marry?"

The scars on his face twisted as he smirked. "Shut your mouth, Asrior. It is unbecoming on you. If your father sees you like that, it will get me beaten again. I'm starting to think that is your plan."

She scowled. "I am not getting married. I am but twelve."

"Mmmm," he said, pulling a heavy book toward him. "Not this week, no. But your father will arrange it when you are of majority. Such is the way of things, and you have much to learn before that time."

Her frown drew deeper. "Who? Who will it be?"

"How am I to know?" He growled, annoyed at her questions. "Someone from Malekith's court, no doubt. Maybe an elf prince. Or a soldier high in the ranks. Someone important."

A thought occurred to her, and the look on her face softened. "Then I can marry you. That will settle things nicely."

It was Kagoq's turn for his mouth gape open. "Wha… Child?"

"Well, it makes sense," she reasoned, the idea growing as she explained, "You are my teacher and guardian, so you are a very important part of the House of Valtur. See? And if I must marry, it can be you instead of one of the men who came with Malekith. Their stares are filled with menace. They do not like that I am not as pale as them and that I look of Asgard." She frowned at the memory, then stated, as though the matter were settled, "You do not mind how I look, and you are my only friend, and I love you. It will be you."

Emotion twisted Kagoq's mangled face, but his words were dampening. "I appreciate that you hold childish sentiments, but such a thing is impossible, Asrior."

"Why?" she asked, nettled at his attempt to impede her plans. "I do not understand."

He looked as though he'd eaten something bitter as he gritted out, "I am not honored in this house, do you not understand that much? I am not your friend, I am a slave. I am a possession. You are but a child, so perhaps you do not see the way of things. I am not of this world, Asrior, and I would not be here if it were my choosing. As a slave, I am bound to obey my master…"

"You are kind to me because you are so ordered? I see you as a friend because you act like one, and I love you because of it. Do you not love me as well?"

"No, I do not. I do not love," he grunted, his eye steely. "It is dangerous to do so."

"You're lying." Asrior said, her eyes narrowing. "Just the other day you said you loved peaches."

He snorted. "Ah, but I spoke of Asgardian peaches, one of the few decent things that wretched realm has spawned. If there is anything worth my affection, it is those. They are like inhaling sunshine. You, however, are a willful and bothersome child who I am forced to attend." He thumped the table with a hand, his one eye moved to regard her steadily, shining in his scared face. "You must cease talking of such things. You are determined to see us all beaten."

Used to his words not meeting his actions, Asrior decided to let things be, and instead leaned forward, broaching another subject that had plagued her for ages.

"You have spoken of Asgard before. You've been there?"

He nodded, admitting, "A very long time ago. I do not want to…"

"Did you fight there with Valtur? I've heard them speak of the sneak attacks on the borders. Was that where you were wounded? In battle?"

Kagoq looked down again, and when he spoke, she had to strain to hear him.

"I have never been in battle, Asrior."

It took a moment for his words to sink in, and then her chest grew tight and words stuck in her throat as she looked at his scars. She tried to think of something to say, but he continued, "And one day… One day soon, your father will order you to beat me. You will be expected to mete out my punishment on your own as you get older."

Asrior's eyes widened, and she shook her head. "You mean, hit you? I could never do that. Do not be ridiculous."

"When he orders such, you must do so. You must promise me."

She refused.

Kagoq begged, bringing up the subject more than once as the weeks passed, reminding her that the punishment Valtur would bring would be all the greater if she disobeyed him. But she could not comprehend pain worse than having her companion hurt by her own hand. She was resolute in her rejection of his pleas.

Once again, Kagoq was right.

The moment came half a year later, after Malekith and the elf-turned-demon Kurse fell at the hands of Thor and Odin. Valtur's moods were extreme as he maneuvered for position in the resulting struggle for control over Svartalfheim. No one was safe from his wrath, and when he sent for Asrior late one evening, after she'd retired for bed, Kagoq was too slow to wake her. Her father had run to the room, raging at their sluggishness, pulling out the whip he constantly wore at his hip as he pushed the dwarf to the ground. Then he looked at his daughter, a horrid kind of hunger distorting his face.

"He coddles you too much," he said, his mouth curling down as he spit out the words. "You must learn that you are the one to control him before you enter adulthood."

Valtur thrust the whip toward her, and Asrior recoiled. "No," she whispered, for the whip was an instrument of dark magic, and the scars it left were permanent. "You ask too much of me."

"I was unaware that I had asked." Her father's voice was low and dangerous. "You dare to disobey me?"

"I will not beat him." Asrior's voice was stronger, and though her insides were shaking, she glared at the man across from her and ignored Kagoq's whispered entreaties to do as her father asked. "It is cruel to do so, and I refuse. There are other ways I can…"

"You refuse me?" her father murmured, taking a step toward her. "Because you do not want to be cruel to a slave?"

"I said I will not beat him. There are other ways, Father," she insisted, but before she could say anything more, she found herself thrown to the ground next to Kagoq.

"Then take his place."

Asrior barely registered the sound of the crack before pain such as she'd never felt ripped across her back and curled down her right leg. It was worse than the flame whose scar she still bore on her wrist, worse than she could have imagined. Black floated in front of her eyes and her ears were filled with a hum so that she did not hear the second crack as the whip fell. Or the others that followed.

She was aware of nothing but the searing, unending agony. Someone was shrieking, and she vaguely realized that it her own voice. She moved her arms as she tried to move away from the unending lash of the whip, but it was impossible. Every movement felt as though her body was cutting through glass. She managed to turn her head, ready to beg and promise anything if it would stop, when her eyes met Kagoq's horrified gaze.

His smashed and ugly face was twisted with rage, and he was shouted something that made Valtur lower his hand. Asrior managed to move after that, rolling to her side. Her back was sticky and it felt as though flesh was hanging from its bones. Bile rose into her throat at the ache. She tried to stop it, but soon she was vomiting onto her arm. Her chest was heaving with the effort to control her sickness when Kagoq's words finally registered.

"…lies to the Allfather that you fought against Malekith instead of plotting at his side. Do you think Odin will believe your lying tongue when you present your scar-covered daughter to the court in Asgard? Do you think the father of the God of Lies himself will be fooled by you?"

Voltur kicked Kagoq in the head, hard, in the spot where his right eye had been. "Her armor will cover her scars," he hissed, and he lowered himself to a knee to stare down at the defiant dwarf that lay prostrate before him. "And who here will tell the Allfather of my lies?"

Asrior, still gasping, tried to crawl to Kagoq, shaking her head as she managed to moan, "No…"

"You think your whip can si…" Kagoq began, his eye burning, but before the words could fully exit his mouth, Voltur grabbed his face, and his hand clamed over his chin. His other hand moved to his belt, and Asrior saw a flash of silver as he bent over the dwarf. Then it sounded as though someone was choking, and soon after she heard horrifying screams and the sound of a muttered spell.

She kept trying to get to him, her eyes closing as pain coursed through her. "Stop…" she whispered, terrified at the sounds coming from Kagoq. "No…"

The cries ended as suddenly as they began, to be replaced by the sound of low, piteous moaning and Valture's heavy, exultant breaths.

"So you see," her father began, triumph on his face as he rose to his feet, "there will be no telling of anything should we journey to Asgard. You cannot speak at all now, Kagoq, and as long as you cannot speak, you cannot tell. And you…" He turned to look down at Asrior, a smile curling his voice. "I have ensured that so long as no one can see the scars blooming on your lovely back, daughter, you cannot tell either."

He turned to walk away, holstering the knife he held as he bit out, "So let us not bother anymore about my lying tongue."

Kagoq moved beside her, an incoherent scream of pain and fury erupting from him. Asrior turned her head to look at him, horror overtaking her as she did so. Blood covered his lips, was dripping from his open mouth and onto the floor.

She pushed up higher onto an arm, ignoring the agony of movement, and reached toward Kagoq. Her hand stilled when she saw it, the bloody piece of pulp lying on the floor next to his face.

The bile in her throat rose again when she realized it was Kagoq's tongue.

It was days before he was able to come to her with his salve, days Asrior spent deep in the place in her mind where Birgitta still lived. It took near to a month for her wounds to fully heal, and in that time, she traveled to her mother often. She remembered that the bread her mother baked was, without fail, either underdone or burnt. She remembered gentle hands brushing her hair, and mismatched clothes, and songs sung in an off-key tune. She wanted her mother, she told Kagoq, who sat by her, listening to her ramble; and he would put the salve on her scars when her words turned to whimpers, humming a low and slow tune that soothed her.

Three more months passed before Valtur once again demanded that she beat the dwarf.

Once again, Kagoq implored that she do so, this time pleading with his eyes.

Asrior raised her hand and struck him, her own eyes begging for his forgiveness.

….

In the years that followed, Kagoq learned to talk to her again using his hands. At first, his efforts were crude. A finger pointed to an ear for 'listen'. Two fingers jabbed at an eye for "look." Over time, their signs became more sophisticated, and they spent their spare moments seeking out new objects or phrases to interpret in their language.

Kagoq no longer managed her learning, of course, but he was allowed to attend to her as a guard. Asrior knew that he was meant to be a lesson to her. A living symbol that herlife was not her own. She was one of Valtur's possessions, a belonging subject to his absolute control.

Her father grew bolder after he'd cursed them. In time, Kagoq lost a hand entire and the most of the use of the other. The scars on his body grew.

Valtur's use of dark magic against her increased as well, for he knew so long that the scars could be hidden under her clothing, his risk of discovery was little. Her mouth was bound by the curse he'd put in place when he cut out Kagoq's tongue. He'd shown her such early on, not long after that first beating with the whip.

Just days after she'd finally emerged from her chambers, Odin had sent emissaries to visit Valtur in search of alliances in the wake of Malekith's defeat. She'd been called into the great hall to welcome them, and after he presented her to the four warriors from Asgard, her father sat back in his chair and smiled.

"I have not seen you in a while, daughter. How long has it been?"

"Little over a month, Father," she answered, her voice a whisper as she rose from the curtsy she offered the men. The armor she wore over her dress was heavy and uncomfortable on the still-throbbing scar that covered her back and snaked down her leg.

"And what did we do, you and I, the last time that we met?"

Her breath caught in her chest when she glanced at the men of Asgard. They were massive, taller than many of the dark elves she lived among, and their pink-hued skin looked like hers. The four were looking between Valtur and herself, their shining helmets held in one hand, the other hands held near the weapons at their hips. The gold and silver of their armor shone brightly in the torchlight, and while their expressions were guarded, one of them noticed her stare and lifted his mouth in the smallest of smiles.

Remembering her prayers from childhood, a part of Asrior hoped that the gods had heard her. Odin, dedicated to justice after a war that had taken the life of his beloved Frigga and so many others, had at last sent someone who could rescue her. The peace-seeking Queen Alflyse had just established her rule over Svartalfheim, so there was no need to favor Valtur. And as the gods had defeated an entire army of dark elves, what was a handful more to these warriors?

Emboldened, she began to tell them that the last time she'd seen her father, he'd beaten her so badly with a cursed weapon that the scars had only just healed enough to allow her to move from her room, and could they take her back to Asgard, please.

But her mouth would not open and the words stuck on her tongue.

Frustrated, she tried again, deciding instead to simply say, "He beat me." Again, her mouth refused to open. The Asgardians were staring at her, their brows rising at her odd behavior. Tears threatened, and she glared at her father, anger and despondence warring within her.

"We discussed my lessons," she finally managed, her voice choked.

He smirked, enjoying her discomfort. "Yes, that's right." And then he waved his hand in dismissal. "You may go now, Asrior. You are not yet of age to attend to guests such as these. I simply desired to make your position here clear."

She bobbed another quick curtsey and turned, almost running from the grand room to her small chamber. Kagoq sat waiting, as he was barred from showing his face to visitors from the outside. When he saw her expression upon her return, he sighed and shook his head, as though saying, "I told you, do not look to the gods for help."

Years passed before they finally made the journey to Asgard. Rumors from the realm of Muspelheim had reached the Allfather's ears; the fire demon Surtur, it was said, had made plans to conquer the realms, forcing Odin and Thor to form closer alliances with many ancient enemies, including dark elves such as Valtur. When a contingent from Svartalfheim traveled to the land of her birth as part of the negotiations, Asrior and her father accompanied them.

Kagoq traveled with them as well, but he was forced to wear a fitted hood and mask in public. Asrior, dressed in her dark armor, her hair pulled back to expose her elven ears, was made to accompany her father everywhere. Not that they were often invited to any of the honored homes in the city, much less the royal palace. Despite the Allfather's effort to reach peace with Svartalfheim, the sins of the dark elves still hung heavy over the realm, and Odin would not anger his lords by showing their old foes too much favor.

In those rare times when they were allowed in the most inner sanctum, Asrior was forced to stand silently to the side; still considered a child at fifteen, she could not formally attend court, though she was allowed to attend to her father as a hand servant.

Thus, one rare night when they entered the House of Odin, Asrior found herself braced against a golden wall, her armor making her scars ache, watching as Valtur the Unmerciful sat at one of the Asgardian king's banquet tables, surrounded by the gods to which his daughter had once prayed.

Thor was near the Allfather, his voice booming over the assembled voices. Asrior tried to keep her eyes lowered, for he was temping to look upon. It was hard not to stare, so pleasing was his visage. The sight of him made her heart beat faster, and she'd once been so absorbed in the color of his hair that she'd neglected the sound of her father's voice. He'd berated her later, though the simple fact that they were in Asgard stayed his use of black magic against her.

The rumble of her stomach distracted her attention, and she briefly thought about taking out the bread she'd hidden under her armor. Though she could not attend the table when in the palace, a servant usually brought a plate to her spot against the wall; Asrior took to pocketing much of what was offered to give to Kagoq, who often went without food. Being in Asgard tempered Valtur's treatment of her, but it was the dwarf who paid a heavy price for it.

She was biting her lip, determined to ignore the pains in her stomach when she noticed that servants were laying a table close by with deserts. There were cakes and pastries piled high, glittering with icing and decorated with flowers. Bottles of wine circled the sweets, and there was fruit, mounds of it. The most luscious apples, great round grapes. And peaches. Piles and piles of glistening Asgardian peaches.

Asrior moved before she realized what she was doing, inching along the wall as the last servant turned away from the overflow of food. She began with two peaches, shoving them hastily into her pockets, and then three more found their way into other recesses of her clothing.

She had her hands on two more when she risked a look toward the banquet—Thor was laughing, his gaze riveted on this new bride, and Valtur was leering at an underdressed goddess as he tipped back his goblet of mead. The others were eating and drinking and joining in the frivolity, the noise rising to a feverish pitch. Everyone was too absorbed in the gaiety around them to notice the elf-child stealing pieces of fruit.

Everyone except for the pale-skinned, night-black haired God of Lies.

He… He sat at the end of the table near to where she stood, far away from his father and brother, and he had pushed his chair back a little, as though to remove himself from the others. His long fingers tapped a rhythm on the arms of his seat, and his eyes were trained on her. Asrior paused when she noticed him, her hands tightening on the fruit.

Loki Laufeyson—descendant of giants, son of two realms, master of tricks—was amused at what he saw. His pale green eyes gleamed when they flitted over the stolen peaches in her hands, his thin lips quirking upward in delight.

He wasn't as massive as the king or Thor, but he was just an intimidating. His was a long, lean strength…elegant and deadly, encased in gold and green armor, and it was nothing to the razor-sharp depths of his mind if gossip was true. Asrior had heard the tales of him, how he had mapped out the destruction of entire races, how he'd played both his brother and the enemies of Asgard for fools, how he'd battled brute strength using his magic and wits. How he looked out for none but himself and his own interests. He sounded much like her father.

Of all the gods of Asgard, she had not prayed to him.

His gaze stayed on her, turning her cheeks hot and making her skin prickle, and, angry at the sensations, Asrior glared at him in defiance, shoving the two peaches under her armor and reaching for more.

Loki's lips parted into a grin as she did so, and for a moment, she was afraid he would bring attention to her thievery. But he turned his gaze back to where the king sat after a heartbeat, a mask of boredom encasing his face. The long fingers on his chair stilled and his hands moved to clasp together in front of him.

Asrior, hiding the last of the fruit, sidled back to her previous position. A knot coiled in her stomach, and she looked down at the floor again, ignoring it as she wished desperately for the banquet to end.

Later, when she gave Kagoq her bounty, he saw fit to lecture her for being too bold. Annoyed, she signed furiously at him, using rude gestures to call him ungrateful. The dwarf refused to talk to her for two days after.

But on the third day, when they were away from the city and deep in the woods because her father ventured out for a hunt, the pair found themselves alone in Valtur's open carriage. Kagoq had been allowed to pull the hood from his head as the forest grew heavier, and when they stopped in a clearing for the elves to move away from the livery in pursuit of wolves, he sighed and pulled something from the bag he wore around his waist.

It was one of the peaches she'd stolen. Asrior, looking down at it, grunted in annoyance, still peeved at him. "What? I thought I was a rash, dim-witted child for taking it."

Kagoq grunted back, signing, I want you to have it.

"You have changed your mind as to my cleverness? Or do you mock me?"

The dwarf dropped the fruit on her lap, and his hand moved clumsily. You risk too much for me. You scare me. He paused and added, I'm sorry.

Asrior tipped her head back onto the carriage seat and looked at his scarred and dented face. Kagoq's jaw was set, his eye resolute. Despite the determination on his face, he looked too weary, she thought. She did not know how old he was, but the impact of her father's beatings was wearing more on him lately, so much so that it frightened her.

"Surely this is the last of the peaches." Her fingers wrapped around it. "You should have it."

He shook his head and pointed at her. You.

"Kagoq…peaches are like…like inhaling sunshine, remember? You love these."

The dwarf did not look at her when he slowly moved a hand to his chest to place two fingers in the center of it, allowing them to rest there for a while, and then turned those fingers to point at her again.

Love. You.

It was impossible to breathe. Biting her lips so hard she could taste blood, Asrior tried to say something. But the words stuck, as though her father's curse was binding her tongue.

So she nudged his knee with hers, hard, making him turn toward her, and she moved her hands, signing, When I marry, I will take you with me. Then we can have all the peaches we can eat.

Kagoq's eye turned bright, but the downward set of his mouth told her he knew her words were hollow. Valtur would never give her such freedom. When she left childhood and the time came to marry, it would be someone of her father's choice and it would be someone he would own, as he owned her. And she did not know if Kagoq would survive in the meantime.

He sighed after a moment, his hands moving again. If I am not around then…

She began to protest, but stopped at his annoyed glare.

When I am not around, remember my lessons. Be safe. Be strong.

I will not let anything happen to you, she answered, her eyes holding his. I will take care of you.

As she had grown older, Asrior had realized things about her time on Asgard. She understood why her mother could not bake well, why their clothes were ill-fitting, and why the little else they owned was handmade—and Asrior knew why, despite such things, she had never felt as though they wanted for anything. Birgitta was a high-born lady of Asgard with little knowledge of the ways of keeping a house, and when she'd hidden from Valtur, she did not ask for help lest she endanger her youngest daughter. And so she'd relied on her own wits and instinct to help them survive, and had given such love that it lasted beyond death.

And now her daughter vowed to do the same.

I will take care of you, Asrior repeated the desperate promise, and when Kagoq smiled even as he shook his head with doubt, she insisted, I will find a way.

The sound of hooves and shouts grew near as her father's party returned to the clearing. Valtur was snarling, blaming one of the men for interfering with his shot at the wolf. The hunt was going poorly, and he was in a sour mood. Beside her, Kagoq shifted nervously, and Asrior quickly concealed the peach in the folds of her skirt.

"I'm sorry, my lord," the courtier was saying, sliding from his horse and falling on a knee.

In answer, her father raised the bow in his hand and crashed in upon the elf's back, knocking him to the ground.

"Kagoq! Come and give me his arrows and take the horse. Drok will not ruin my hunt again."

The dwarf stumbled from the carriage at the demand, and rushed to his master's bidding. His gnarled hand fumbled at the elf's weapons, dropping them, and as he tried to pick them up again, had to duck when Valtur swung his bow.

"Is there no one here competent enough to assist me?" He shouted, swinging again and striking Kagoq's back with the bow. The dwarf fell onto the weapons he was trying to gather, and some of the arrows snapped under his weight. Valtur, spitting with rage, slid from his own mount, his hand flexing at his whip as though he ached to use it, and the eager look he gave the cowering dwarf had Asrior's stomach clenching in fear.

He uncoiled the whip and swung it, hitting the ground with it as he shouted. When Kagoq tried to pick up the broken arrows again, Valtur continued to shout and swung the whip, hitting the ground closer to the dwarf. He was working himself into a frenzy, and Asrior knew he would not stop until he had assuaged his wrath through pain and blood. So blind with fury was he that he failed to notice the warning shouts of his guards, who were warning of riders advancing down a ridge into their clearing.

Riders, she saw, who flew Odin's flag.

Asrior could see the golden banner fluttering as they rode, and the heart that had been hammering as though it would burst from her chest seemed to stop. King's men were approaching, men who would be upon them soon and who might discover her father in the act of using dark magic against Kagoq and who might see.

If they arrived in time.

But one of the dark elf guards that rode with Valtur had grabbed his arm to get his attention, and others were trying to form a circle around Kagoq, as though to shield him.

Much as she'd done when she stole the fruit days before, Asrior acted on instinct. Clutching the peach in her hand, she rushed out of the carriage and sprinted closer to the ruckus.

The metallic taste of fear and adrenaline filled her mouth as she cried out, "The slave is too slow because he grows fat and lazy." The words drew her father's attention, and she lifted the peach, glaring at Kagoq's astonished face. "This fell out of his pocket when he left the carriage," she continued, spitting the words out in a fury. "The slave has dared to steal from you, Father."

Eager to vent his rage, Valtur shook then hand on his arm away, shouting, "You dare take what is mine?"

She heard the crack before she saw her father move, and then Kagoq was on his side, screaming and clutching at his neck where the whip had hit. The elves around them scattered, trying to avoid both the whip and the hooves of horses as they reared in fear; but Asrior ran forward and kicked out at Kagoq, her boot connecting with his shoulder so that he fell onto his chest.

The whip rained down again and again, her father pausing only when he finally noticed that riders had entered the clearing.

The dwarf's clothes were bloody and torn, but the layers stuck to his skin, covering his scars; so Asrior shouted, "Why do you stop?" And she fell down upon him, her hands clawing at his back, and it took everything in her to continue when she heard her friend's moans.

A hard hand ripped her from him after a moment, throwing her to the side, but she'd managed to grab Kagoq's vest and undershirt in her fists before they did so. Clumps of the material were now there, wet against her palms as she fell onto the grass, but the rest of the tattered clothing lay open, bearing the proof of his abuse.

"What is the meaning of this?" A woman's voice broke the across them, and someone tall and dark-haired strode over to where Kagoq lay.

Breathing heavily, Asrior pushed herself to her feet and watched as her sister, Sif, knelt by Kagoq's side and put a hand over his wounded back, muttering, "This looks of dark magic. This is forbidden."

More of the king's men were dismounting from their horses, and one with a pointed blond beard moved to stand by Sif. His sword was half out of the scabbard as he snarled at Valtur, spitting out, "How dare the likes of you roam this realm! I swear by Odin…

"I am an honored guest of Odin's," Valtur spoke over him, smiling widely. "You did not know? I thought the Warriors Three and the Lady Sif were close to the king." He looked at the assembled Asgardians, as though searching for a particular face. "Or do only two warriors attend the king now?"

The blond one's eyes narrowed, and another, fat and red-bearded, snarled out, "We were on an errand for the Allfather! And when he hears of what you have done today, you will not be so honored as you claim."

"What I have done? Do you persist in your slander against me?" Valtur began, and said something else that caused the red-headed warrior to shout again.

Asrior continued to gaze at her sister, who was beckoning to some of the men. She tried to shout, to beg Sif to look at her and understand that she bore such scars as well and to please take her too; but her mouth was held closed by the curse.

Then she looked at her father and the warriors surrounding him. She expected them to be looking back at her, expected her father's rage when he realized how she had tricked him. But Asrior was forgotten as the Asgardians and Valtur did battle with words. It was as though she were not there.

None looked at her but the whimpering Kagoq, who turned his head to watch her when he was put upon a board by the king's men.

Someone said something about a healing room, and Sif was pointing a sword at Valtur, disgust lacing her voice as she spit out, "He is not your slave, anymore, my lord. You have broken Asgardian law, and as such, this dwarf is under our protection. And you will be lucky if this servant is all you lose use of today."

And then the men lifted the board to take him away. Asrior put a hand to her mouth in shock when she realized that her makeshift plan was working.

But distress swept over Kagoq's face, and he shook his head as he stared at Asrior, mouthing No.

Tears threatened her eyes, but she willed them away. Kagoq was shaking his head faster, moaning. And as the men began to move, she kept her eyes locked with his one, deliberately moving her hand from her mouth to say goodbye to her friend, first putting a finger to the inside of a wrist.

Be safe.

She put a fist to her chest.

Be brave.

She touched the corner of her mouth.

Be happy.

And then, Asrior's heart close to breaking, she moved two fingers to her chest and held them there before pointing at him.

Kagoq's low moans turned to cries.

The rest of the king's men were on their horses again, riding past her so that her view of him was obscured, and the sound of the hooves and shouts covered his cries. She moved to the side, then, away from the rush of men and horseflesh, noticing that one of the soldiers spit at the ground as he went past, missing her by an inch.

Reeling with the suddenness of the rescue, she got in her father's carriage and closed her eyes, giving silent thanks to whatever god had allowed her to fulfill her promise to take care of her friend so quickly. She stayed such throughout the journey through the forest and back to the great city. When they were in their quarters, her father's heated demands rained down on everyone, and within hours, their belongings were packed and Asrior stood next to Valtur waiting for the portal to return them to Svartalfheim.

It was only later—when she lay in her small stone chamber waiting to hear the familiar sound of Kagoq's breathing—that she realized that, for the first time in her life, she was truly alone. Kagoq would never be back with her in the fortress.

She knew then that Valtur's rage would not go away. The loss of his slave to Asgardians would eat at his pride. The humiliation would stay with him; it would simmer and burn until it burst. Asrior knew that she would be the one to bear the brunt of it.

She would have to be her own protector now.

Asrior told herself that she could bear such a burden, for she had the memory of her mother; and now the knowledge that Kagoq was safe would sustain her as well.

And it struck her that in the end, Kagoq had been right. The gods had not come for her.

But she had helped bring them to him.