Friday, 13 February 2009

The Old Ways Never Die - Rewrite Two

My work took me to the old Viking city of the north, York. I had been there many times before and each time I always struggled to decide whether it was better or worse. Yet in the August sunshine my mind didn’t have time to dwell on such decisions. I sipped my cappuccino in Starbucks and crossed off another name on my quota. I heard the radio in the corner announce that a serious crash had occurred on the A64 east of York and the road would be closed for at least four hours. I paused to wonder which of my colleagues had performed well this time.

I gazed out through the open door and into the street. Tourists, teenagers and families, who passed by going left, carried no bags but the necessaries. The rest of the crowd going right, held several bags from a variety of stores. York was always good at selling. It was a renowned trading centre in my youth and I am pleased it still was.

A shadow came over me as Geirölul finally joined me for our usual coffee break of the day. Sunshine glaring through the open doorway outlined her fine figure in golden mercury. Today she wore a silk blue dress, with a pearl white hand bag and the custom sterling silver bracelet, the trade mark of our group. She took off her large yet oddly stylish hat as she sat down, revealing her always shimmering corn blonde hair.

“Just like the weather back home isn’t it?”She remarked openly, placing hat and bag under the table before taking her seat. Her viper green eyes lingering casually on the quota sheets before me.

“It is indeed. How many have you got left to visit today?” I enquired, with a wry smirk at the humour of how we all pitted against each other to finish the quota first. If only because the first one home would have first pick of men to serve and care for that night.

“Have about ten maybe eight left. How about you?”

“Same more or less. Would you like a coffee?” I offered, my hand already reaching into my own bag for my purse, causing my wavy brown hair to fall across my face.

“Oh no thanks Mist, perhaos once today is done. Where are the rest of the girls?”

I paused to recall our briefing at sunrise. “I think Göll is somewhere along the A64 towards Scarborough, Hlökk is travelling with her as she has some to collect there anyway. Herfjötur is around Monks Cross shopping centre. Can’t remember where the rest are but I am sure they are somewhere in the area.”

“I still can’t believe the boss chose Hild and Thrúd to go to Iraq of all places.” She muttered bitterly.

I raised an eyebrow ironically. “Are you saying you would like to go there?” What she was suggesting was as absurd as if she had said that pushing the sun further away would stop global warming.

She looked at me with a small sheepish smile appearing across her lips. “Well, it would be nice to do a job abroad for a change. I’m getting bored of Europe that’s all.”

“Yeah sure you are, you just want to visit Constantinople again for a tan boost.” “Can you blame me though? My skin’s going pale again because the sun here is too weak. Besides I prefer a natural tan, unlike all the women these days who use paint or bright light to burn themselves silly shades. A delicate gold brings out my hair more don’t you think?” She twisted some golden strands around her fingers against her cheek as if it to prove a point.

I merely nodded, always amazed at how vain she could be despite her warm heart. She sighed dramatically. “So where is your next visit of the day?”

“The hospital.”

“Great I have a child to visit there as well.”

I glanced through the windows, turning in my chair so I could see the now familiar towers of York Minster. My mind suddenly changed focus from the present to the past. “I can still remember the time when that wasn’t there. Even when Clifford’s Tower was made of wood.” I said this more to myself than to Geirölul.

Such landmarks, structures and even town names always reminded me about how much time has truly passed. In each case I remember how I came to be in the position I am now and all I’ve done since. I was, and still am in some respects, part of this world yet am restrained from truly participating. It felt like half of myself existed here but the rest of me in another entirely separate realm. The two worlds lay close together but only ever offering the faintest of touches. Enough to feel close but never whole. A torn existence between what is, what was and what will never be.

“That night in March, I think it was, when all those Jews were strapped inside and the tower was set alight. That was my first job with you and the team.” My voice blurred as memories drifted around me in the endless invisible sea of time. I found my gaze on my half drunken cappuccino. I didn’t see the warm liquid but all the faces of those I had saved and lost, swirling in the froth and rising in the steam.

“We had a tough challenge that night. What with children and women crying and the men, well they weren’t being much help.”

“Oh Geirölul, have you truly forgotten how you felt when you discovered the truth? I understood, that’s why I was able to calm them down before they passed on.”

She paused in replying and stared at me. I could see it in her eyes. How she struggled to keep herself in control of the memories, the sights, the sounds, the faces. She couldn’t have forgotten, no one ever does. Death will always leave its mark in some way. Geirölul was one of the many that act as if what came before never happened, as if it wasn’t them. Just a tale on the news about someone else’s dramatic loss and agony. Nothing to do with them. She had seen and witnessed far greater change in the world than I have done during my time with the team. The distance in her memories was immeasurably bigger than the cause of my own heartache.

“OK, I admit it if you weren’t there we wouldn’t have been able to escort so many to Valhalla safely. Although half the men were in the end sent to Hel to keep her well fed. She has as large an appetite for souls as her father Loki does for causing mischief.”

She answered my question by giving me the wrong answer. She fidgeted with her silver and amber rings showing I had made her touched a wound, still sore after so long. I wanted to say sorry but that would openly acknowledge her weakness, her one flaw but one we all bear. So I chose to allow this change of subject, she is my elder in more ways than would appear in this light of day and I still owed her a lot of respect for the way she handled my own conversion. I had no right to question how she handled her own.

“Yes, our methods of selection have changed a lot since then. Now we have to copy what the Christian angels do, base our decision on their good and bad qualities.”

“I miss the old days when it as all decided by the way you died not by the way you lived. If you died bravely or by the sword you go up, if you die of illness or old age you go down. It was so much simpler back then. The Bitfrost test can only tell us if they deserved to die, nothing of the qualities of a warrior which is what the boss is truly looking for.” She glanced at her watch. “Anyway as much as I would enjoy chatting all day we have still got work to do.”

I nodded finishing the last of my drink to vanquish the bitterness of our situation rising any further into my heart. I had learnt a long time ago that getting angry about it helped no one and changed nothing. Better to make the best of it because all of us knew on the team that there was a far worse position to be in than our own. “Ok let’s go.”

With that we left Starbucks and made our way through the throbbing streets towards the district hospital.

Once at the hospital car park we walked to a shaded corner away from curious eyes. There we both unfolded our white bags into our luscious white swan feather cloaks. She tied mine around my neck and fastened it with a silver brooch whilst I did the same for hers.

“Mine is on the second floor where is yours?” Geirölul asked. She no longer wore a dress under her cloak but a slinky outfit made from tanned leather delicately sewn together with silver and gold thread. Only the most senior of the team, second to Freya who founded us, were allowed to wear Frigg’s enchanted golden threads. It was a symbol of honour as well as a special defence when in battle with spirits. My own outfit was a mixture of silver and blue embroidery glistened in the frozen sunlight.

“Fourth floor I think. Wait for me here when you are done, I don’t know how long I am going to be with this one.”

With a final nod to each other we strode purposefully back round the corner across the car park and into the building. No one gave us a glance and no one got in our way.

I found the man I sought in the ward filled with other cancer sufferers. He lay in his bed as if sleeping. The monitors were quiet and his drips didn’t stir. A woman sat beside him holding one hand yet she sat distantly as if afraid to get too close. She did not look up when I arrived. She would seem to be around my age but no one is near my age anymore. I walked silently to the end of his bed.

I lifted up one side of my cloak and pulled out smoothly my tall ash wood spear tipped with silver. My Norse name in futhark runes glowed upon its hand grip in dazzling silver. It was housed in another enchanted piece of fabric, similar to that of Baldur’s longboat which would be folded away to fit into the palm of your hand. It is the only way of carrying our weapon with us with modern tight security. All the women in the team received these spears, blessed by the boss as we called him but our real leader was his adoptive daughter Freya. We all believe she is the one who inspired mankind with the concept of Mother Earth. A force that can be so gracious and beautiful yet at the same time savage and deadly, in both respects. All were embodied in her. But then the Vanir were a race internally bound to the forces of nature and life. The Aesir were simply semi-human counterparts next to them. Like mortals needed air, food, water and warmth to live, The Aesir relied on Idunn’s golden appels to remain young. But staying young forever does not make them invulnerable, they can still be killed by a physical wound. Even Tyr lost his right hand to the mongrel Fenris wolf, another offspring of Loki’s tainted seed.

I banged the butt of my spear upon the cold plastic floor.

“Arise soul of the dead. Arise and answer my summons!”

A silhouette of sparkling mist began to form over the man in the bed. After a minute it became a solid double that sat up and stared at me with blank eyes and an empty expression.

“Are you or are you not David Garret?”

The soul merely nodded slowly.

“Good. Awake David Garret. Your time has ended upon this earth and a new life will soon begin.” I stomped my staff once more. The eyes began to blink and gaze around curiously yet with fear.

“Who…who are you?” He managed to ask clearly shaken. They always were at this stage.

“I am your guide to the next life David.”

He looked me up and down. “You look like a strange kind of angel.”

That line had been said to me so many times it no longer made me laugh.

“I am not the angel of your God David. Your God has decided to pass your soul to my Lord’s care. But the decision still remains whether you deserve an afterlife of happiness or pain.”

“So your Lord isn’t my Lord?”

“No David. My Lord is a god of eternal ancient power despite the Christian numbers. It is he whom you will serve if you pass the test, if not you will be sent to Hel’s Underworld.”

“Does your Lord have a name?”

I paused, not many of the deceased have been so curious as to ask about names, they usually worried about where they will go in the next life. I decided to answer for politeness sake.

“Yes. His name is Wodan, Odin, All-father, Father-of-All, and Lord of the Glorious Dead, Masked One and the Wanderer.” I walked towards the window and threw it open. No breeze blew through just still rays of sunshine. “Now, are you prepared to take the challenge?”

That was when something was clearly wrong.

David began to laugh.

Not the laugh of fear or even joy but of malice and hatred. He leaped off his bed and ran for the open window and jumped out into the sky in a blur. He did not fall, or even scream but glide out over the surrounding area. I spat upon the floor muttering a foul curse, my hand grasped my spear tight.

“Bláin!” I yelled into the air, knowing Geirölul would hear me despite being several floors below. “You scum of darkness! That soul is rightfully mine!”

He pivoted in the air to face me, an evil smile upon his face. “He is mine now and Hel will feast gladly on his soul.”

Bláin was a renowned trouble maker to all soul guides. He had the unfortunate talent of possessing a body upon their last breath then taking control of their souls directly. The true souls mind is awake through the entire experience and unless freed to regain their will they may face the wrenching pain of the Underworld as their essence is drained by Hel.

I heard a gasp of breath as Geirölul finally joined me. Her eyes lit with fire when she spotted the cursed being flying lazily around in the air. Visibly mocking us and only ever encouraging combat between us.

“Did you manage to send the child away safely?” I asked eager for some good news.

“Yes, I heard your cry just as she passed through the rainbow bridge to Asgard.”

“Good. Shall we put this dark elf back into the earth Geirölul?”

“Oh yes it’s about time I had a proper target to practise on.” She nodded. We spread out the sides of our swan feather cloaks and flew after Bláin.

As we approached he quickly flew away out towards the bridge connection to Museum Street.

“Face us you coward!” Geirölul cried out gliding in front of me over the time frozen city.

“You have to catch me first.” He taunted flying further away heading lower towards the river. His choice of words made me wonder if he modelled himself on the folk tale of the Gingerbread man. However he may have forgotten that the wily and cunning fox eventually caught and ate the gingerbread man. Or in this case two vixens.

“Geirölul! Snap trap.” I suggested quickly into her ear as I flew past. It was one of the many catching techniques we as a team practise when we come across such situations.

As predicted Bláin flew straight under the bridge with Geirölul in close pursuit, shrieking her war cry to intimidate. It is such a cry that has given us the name Banshee or Wailer to some folk over the ages. Luckily he did not look back to see if we were both behind him. So as he started to climb back up again I threw my spear from up high piercing him straight in the stomach, giving Geirölul a chance to grasp and banish him with the words imbued with Odin’s power.

He let out a long groan of pain before his appearance evaporated in black plumes of smoke. Our spears remained frozen in the point of impact. Beside them a wispy figure of David stood, his eyes wide and shocked at being so high yet not falling. I wasted no more time upon retrieving my spear. I scored an invisible line in the air at feet level and then using the flattened edge of the blade drew it in a long, tall arch over the line. Rainbow colours marked my magic drawing.

“Now David, no soul that deserves to go to Hel would be snatched by a dark elf so eagerly. Therefore I grant you access to Asgard. Pass under Bitfrost and be welcomed into the next life.”

He stepped forward in the air, tapping the spiritual plane we stood on. The mortal fear of falling still firmly in his mind. Then with one last glance around the world he once lived in, smiled at me and walked through the rainbow arch doorway. His last mortal words were “thank you”.

“Right I think we deserve a coffee for that, how about you?” Geirölul said her chest heaving for air. “Could I tempt you to share a brownie with me?”

“Ha!” I laughed loudly. “You know as well as I that a Valkyrie’s work is never done.”

***

I felt so much more at ease once I was away from the hustle and bustle of this proud city although standing on the old city wall above a busy road wasn’t the best place to find it, it was a lot better than sitting in the streets still full of shoppers and workers.

A large black rook swept over my head and landed on the top of the trees that stood and grew amongst the gravestones between the wall and the road. It glanced my way, titled its head up and heralded me with a loud call. One of Hugnin and Munin’s many cousins, same blood but different breed. Rooks, Crows and Jackdaws were Odin’s spies in this world whilst Hugnin and Munin flew their large wings over the other eight realms he had domain over. Watching the rook begin it’s evening watch distracted my senses from alerting me to the new presence at my side.

“You’re not thinking of jumping are you? I’ve already had enough of that today.” A smooth voice spoke to me.

“Hello Lucifer.” I answered not intending to look him in the eye. Those snake eyes of his were as powerful as my spear and I was not wanting a fight tonight.

“Please call me Luke, I’ve told you girls many a time that Lucifer is so old fashioned.”

I kept my fix maintained on the rook whose attention occasionally passed over to me. It too was aware of Lucifer’s presence.

“How is my brother these days?”

“I wouldn’t know, I don’t visit his prison much. The snake’s keeping good enough guard over him.” That is Loki couldn’t escape without having toxic venom dripped upon him and searing him to the bone. His only supporter left is his wife who tries to keep him venom free but can’t watch over him twenty four seven fortunately.

“Ah yes, poor Loki. Well at least I’m still around to carry out his work. I mean, you girls need something to chase now and again, don’t you?”

I smirked. “How is Bláin?”

“Oh he’s fine, smouldering but fine. Stuck him in the sewers for a few days to recover with the rats and then he’ll be back pestering you as normal.”

“Don’t you have any angels to harass?”

“Erm, not at the moment no.”

“I wonder why. Perhaps your losing your touch.”

“Oh no Mist, don’t mistake me, I love winding up their little white wings but their all such righteous minded and morally bound. Their all so dull nowadays. They don’t truly understand their role like you and I do.”

“Is that so? So what is your role Lucifer?”

“You know the answer to that as I do Mist.”

“Yeah, you’re the pain in the backside for everyone.”

Lucifer laughed, a sound so similar to Loki’s own that it was undeniable of their blood ties. “Very true I do not deny it.” He paused and leaned over the wall, “Ah here comes one of my own now.”

His grey gloved hand pointed down at a mother pushing her toddler in a pram. In the next second the pushchair hit a raised pavement stone and flipped forwards, the toddler fell out onto the pathway and began to cry. As the mother rushed forwards trying to soothe her child a youth walked close by and swiped her handbag underneath his coat. The woman didn’t realise until the child was back in the pushchair. “I’ve got a good feeling about that one, I think I might lead him to drugs next or knife crime. I haven’t quite decided yet.”

“God did a good thing when he chucked you out of Heaven. Bullies don’t deserve the blessing of having wings.”

“Did he? Did he really? Others would say otherwise you know.”

I didn’t answer, seeing his cruelty didn’t put me in the mood for a theological debate if anything it made me want to whip out my spear and stick his head on it. Lucifer sensed this in me too.

“Don’t get your heckles up Mist, you know the rules.”

We weren’t allowed to interfere with their work and they weren’t allowed to interfere with ours. Covert cooperation was not allowed and not approved. Soul designation was for them to decide not us. Religions could only work together if the top deities agreed to it. The only time any religions worked together during my time was the Asian tsunami and that was only because so many mortals were living lives without faith or belief in anything other than the physical and material. All faiths were losing worshipers and so loosing strength and existence. So they decided to claim souls that weren’t bound to them under the cover of the Vanir’s earth practises. It did work to stabilise them but then Loki and Lucifer caught onto the idea and so nine eleven happened. All mortals and gods learnt a brutal lesson that day.

“Meeting you is always a pleasure but as I’m sure you are aware the day is not yet over and there are still mortals needing our attention.”

“Oh are you leaving?” I asked being sarcastic.

“Yes, I’m afraid so, I’m a very busy man. Until next time Mist. Happy hunting.”

When his voice no longer tainted the breeze did I relax once more. I looked up to the rook on the tree top who gave me a nod of approval. Resisting Lucifer was only a small part of our war but I relished each challenge he presented me.

Nodding farewell to the rook I pulled out my quota and selected my next client and continued the job. Each soul saved was, to me at least, one more nail on Loki and Lucifer’s future. As we gain strength they got that little bit weaker. When the day of Ragnarok comes, I will be one of several who leads are army into battle, to push all evil into oblivion and bring the dawn of a new, peaceful existence for all worlds. Despite the great loss that came with the job of a soul guardian and guide, deep in my spiritual heart I never stopped thanking the Gods that I could be a small but crucial part of life after death.

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