Tuesday, 2 June 2009

The Old Ways Never Die - a Short Story Honoured by Joanne Harris in her Fan Fic Competiton

This is a short story that appears at least twice already (maybe perhaps only once if I didn't put the rewritten versions on here) and was one of my first short fictional works during my first year at Huddersfield University when doing my degree which included creative writing. It is a story that has always been my favourite and one that has remained close to my heart as it truly demonstrates my love and passion for Viking culture and Norse Mythology.
This story (featured below this introduction) became my third year final peice of fiction in my degree and I have enhanced it, changed it, improved it and made it much more enjoyable I think due to the great teachings I received whilst studying creative writing. I have yet to find out my final mark for this particular piece but I have already received an honourable mention by all time favourite female author Joanne Harris. A woman who like myself discovered a love for the Norse myths when she was young and is now a best known childrens author for her dazzling book Runemarks which as you can tell by the name involves everything to do with Norse mythology from runes, to gods, to goblins and most importantly magic in belief in the old ways.
I recieved this honourable compliment and mention when I discovered that Joanne was holding a Fan Fiction competition due to her awareness of how her book Runemarks might have inspired young and old writers alike. Thus I entered this particular peice in the same condition and content as it was for my final year project as she did particularly only want short stories. I thought of no other best peice of work of my own than a story that she will be fond of due its inspiration and characters. I didn't win any of the three main prizes but she did mention me and my story and described it as 'great' which is a blessing to me.
Here is the link to see for yourself my name upon her website:
http://www.joanne-harris.co.uk/pages/bookpages/runemarks_fanficresults.htm

So please do read on to see if you believe Joanne has given my story justice and I hope you enjoy it as much as she did herself. Any comments are always welcome.


The Old Ways Never Die

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 sunshine of August my mind didn’t have time to dwell on such decisions. I sipped my hot cappuccino in Starbucks and crossed off another name on my quota. I heard the radio in the corner announce that a serious car crash had occurred on the A64, east of York and the road would be closed for at least four hours. I wondered which of my colleagues had performed well this time.
I gazed out through the open door and into the street. I watched curiously as 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 the old days and I am pleased it still was.
A shadow came over me as Kate joined me for our first coffee break of the day. A silver torque bracelet, the trade mark of our group, dangled around her slender right wrist. 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, placing hat and bag under the table. She noticed my quota out before me and struggled with the temptation to look closer at it. Her eyes switching from me and the list until she sat down.
“It is indeed. How many have you got left to visit today?” I enquired. I always found it funny at how competitive we all were to finish our work and return home first. “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 bag for my purse and also putting my quota away so she was no longer tempted.
“Oh no thanks Jenny, perhaps once today is done. I don’t feel I’ve worked hard enough for one yet. Where are the rest of the girls?”
I paused to recall our briefing at sunrise. “I think Lizzy is somewhere along the A64 towards Scarborough, Susan is travelling with her as she has some to collect there anyway. Debbie is around Monks Cross shopping centre. Can’t quite remember where the rest are.”
“I still can’t believe the Boss chose Alison and Joanne to go to Iraq of all places.” She complained.
“Are you saying you would have liked to go there?” This was the first sign of any interest in the jobs in Iraq she had shown, at least before me.
She looked at me with a small, sheepish smile. “Well, it would be nice to do a job abroad for a change. I’m getting bored of Europe that’s all. I’ve been working this area for too long.”
“Well perhaps you should have nominated yourself if you’re that bored of this place.”
“So where is your next visit of the day?” She opted to change the subject avoiding my rather accurate comment. I let her do so with a sly smirk.
“The hospital.”
“Great, I have a child to visit there as well.” It was hard to work out if her excitement was due to my presence in the same spot or because it would mean one more child to add to her vast flock of orphans that she brings to our fold.
I glanced through the windows, turning in my chair so I could see the now familiar towers of York Minster. My mind changed focus, from the present to the past. I could remember when the Minster’s great towers didn’t dominate the sky. Even when Clifford’s Tower was made of wood, I thought, a sour twang of regret built up in my heart.
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. All the women on the team, like myself, lived 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 trapped inside and the tower was set alight. That was my first job with you and the girls.” My voice became distant as memories drifted around me in the invisible sea of time. I found my gaze had returned to my half empty 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 challenge that night. What with the children and women crying and the men, well they weren’t being much help to anyone.”
“Oh Kate, have you forgotten how you felt when you discovered the truth?”
She paused in replying and stared at me. I could see the true answer in her eyes. The endless battle to control the memories, the sights, the sounds, the faces, the emotions. She couldn’t have forgotten, no one ever does. The truth is the truth, unavoidable and undeniable; it is now a part of us we can never escape nor forget.
“OK, I admit it, if you weren’t there we wouldn’t have been able to escort so many to Valhalla safely. It was unfortunate that we had to lose so many of the men, but Hel must always claim some, we can never save everyone.”
I chose to allow this change of subject, she was my elder in more ways than would appear in this light of day. She had seen and witnessed far greater change in the world than I had during my time with the team. I owed her a lot of respect for the way she aided my own conversion to this new life. Having now witnessed countless others embrace the truth of reality I understand now how difficult I must have made it for her.
“Our methods have changed a lot since then. Now we have to copy what the Christian angels do. It is not the most effective way of selecting worthy warriors. But then their God never intended to amass a great and holy army.”
“I agree. Things worked better the way they used to be. I miss the old days when it was 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 old age you go down. It was so much simpler back then.”
The Bitfrost test is a method we now use to determine what afterlife a soul deserves. It is a method my elders hate using but the traditional methods can only ever be applied in areas of war, civil conflict and the affliction of time. Such situations can only be found now in certain areas of the world where man’s darker side is more apparent. I realised then that was the reason why Kate was jealous of Alice and Joanne. She missed the old days and its old ways. To go to Iraq would be to relive their glorious memories of centuries gone by.
She glanced at her watch. “Anyway as much as I would enjoy chatting all day we have still got work to do.”
“Ok let’s go.”
With that we left Starbucks and made our way through the throbbing streets towards the York District hospital.

Once at the hospital car park we walked to a shaded corner away from curious eyes. Upon Kate’s nod we both took out a handful of crushed leaves from our sacred Ash tree. They were stored in a hessian pouch inside our bags. Once we had a good handful we blew them into the air. The fragments immediately glided out in a large radius on a powerful and unseen, silent wind. We had evoked the spiritual plain of the earth around us. Only spiritual beings such as ourselves and those that have passed from the physical plain into this would exist, everything else became a background of statues. We both unfolded our bags into our luscious white swan feather cloaks. The contents of which were kept in special pockets so in either form nothing was lost. We strapped around our waists a leather belt with several sheathed daggers hanging from it. Every job has its dangers after all and ours wasn’t any different.
“Mine is on the second floor where is yours?” Kate asked after checking her own quota.
“On the fourth floor. 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 back round the corner, across the car park and into the building. No one gave us a glance as we walked around the motionless people inside.
***
I found the man I sought in a quiet solitary room at the far end of the ward. He lay in his bed as if sleeping. The monitors were quiet and his drips didn’t stir, all their cables and leads hung loose at their side. A woman sat beside him holding one hand yet she sat at a small distance, as if afraid to get too close. She did not look up when I arrived. I stopped at the end of his bed.
I lifted up one side of my cloak and pulled out my tall ash wood spear, tipped with silver. My Norse name in futhark runes glowed upon its hand grip in dazzling gold. It was a holy item, specially made by the Boss to be just like how he made his favourite son’s great long ship that could fold away into a pocket. This made it easier for us to hide and transport our most prized possession and most lethal weapon. All the women in the team received these spears, Freya, our team leader, gave them to use on our ascension into her elite group after we passed her trials successfully.
After crossing his name off on my quota once I confirmed his identity, I banged the butt of my spear upon the cold plastic floor.
“David Garret, you can wake up now.”
His face which at first was plain and peaceful began to twitch and twist. He licked his lips as if thirsty, gave a yawn and stretched his arms as if indeed he had been in a deep sleep. I came closer to his bed ready to shake him awake if necessary. At my movement he opened his eyes, gave a small groan of alarm and scrambled back against the head of the bed as if I was a vision from his nightmares. To many in the past we were such terrible visions. Not everyone had visions of us as beautiful, athletic, warrior women who rode the winds on the backs of Odin’s wolves.
“Who…who are you? What are you going? What do you want?” He managed to ask his voice trembling. He was frightened; they always were at this stage. His eyes kept flickering upon his female visitor who remained still and silent.
“Welcome to the next life David.” I answered with a soothing tone in my voice and sat at the end of his bed, trying to show I meant him no harm by keeping a distance between us but near enough so I could grab him if he tried to flee. It was inevitable that he wouldn’t believe me. After all, a young woman wearing a white feathered cloak, a tall spear and a pink v-necked t-shirt along with a long white skirt promote all the signs of a deluded mind. Yet we could do our job a lot easier without the fiddly and time consuming changing from modern to pagan clothing. Like all businesses ours too had to change and move with the times to keep serving our ‘customers’ so to speak efficiently.
He looked me up and down. “What do..do..you mean? I’m not dead. Tell her Laura? Laura?...” the appealing looks of support on his face did not register with her.
“I’m afraid you are David. Laura can’t hear you, only the dead can. There’s no one else here but you and me.” It was a lie of sorts as I knew that Kate was going through the same process a few floors below me but I remained truthful to any other active spiritual being in that particular ward.
“No, no I can’t be! I’m alive! I’m alive!” His eyes were transfixed upon Laura in her statue pose. “Laura? Can you hear me? No, no! It can’t be…I can’t be… Laura, look at me! Please! Laura? Laura?”
Before he could move any further in fright I grasped his arm pinning it against the sheets on the bed, I whipped out a dagger from my belt and slashed it across him. The blade passed straight through him and the bed. David gave a sharp shriek then seeing no blood drain from what would have been a severed arm, became silent.
“Do you believe me now?” I asked eyebrows raised as I sheathed my dagger once more and gently let go of him. His eyes stared at what he perceived to be flesh for ten seconds, pupils wide, mouth ajar and his breath steadily declining in its pace. He stared up at me with huge eyes and gave a nervous, little nod.
“Good because we do not have all day to sort you out. I do have other dead people needing my attention you know.” I walked towards the tall window, pushed some wheelie cabinets aside and threw it open. No breeze blew through just still rays of sunshine bearing no warmth upon my skin. “Now, are you prepared to do as I ask?” I walked back to the end of his bed where he had remained.
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 before I realised the true situation. He did not fall, or even scream but glide out over the surrounding area. I spat upon the floor in hatred and muttered a foul curse, my hand grasped my spear tight.
“Jake, damn you!” I yelled into the air, knowing Kate would hear me despite being several floors below. “Get back here with my soul! Or so help me I’ll….”
As a dark elf 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. Jake was a renowned trouble maker to all soul guides in any religion and he certainly was familiar with the tips of our spears.
I heard a gasp of breath as Kate finally joined me, charging through the door with a bang. Her eyes lit with fire when she spotted the dark elf flying lazily around in the air, appearing ever so confident but I promised myself to reverse that dramatically and very, very soon.
“Did you manage to send the child away safely?” I asked eager for some good news.
“Yes, I heard you just as she passed under the rainbow bridge to Asgard.”
“Good. I feel the sudden urge to stick my spear through someone’s head and I intend to do it to him.” Pointing its silver tip in his general direction. He was so confident of himself that he was doing somersaults through the air and dives, warming up for the hunt I thought. Like a cocky fox prancing upon a farmers wall in front of two bloody thirsty hounds.
“Jake what do you think you’re playing at? You know that soul is ours by divine right so give it up?”
“Katherine, Katherine, you know full well I claim his soul in Hel’s name whether you like it or not. Everyone’s edible in her mind.” He let out another bold laugh.
“You know you leave us with no choice but to hunt you down. Why not make it easy on yourself?”
“I am just doing my job. I can’t help it if Jenny’s too considerate to catch me.” He shot a sly wink in my direction. I grumbled under my breath a hundred different ways I could skewer his being upon my spear.
“Then we must do ours. We won’t go easy on you.”
“I sure as Hel won’t, Jake!” I threatened, the battle rage already building up inside me as I imagined the spiritual death and agony I could cause him for such an insult.
“I wouldn’t expect anything less. Now if you excuse me, David has an important meeting to attend.” He turned tail and flew away, casting glances back inviting our pursuit.
That was what we did, we had no alternative, David’s soul was at stake and it is a responsibility the team do not take lightly. Guiding and safe guarding such souls is our job and our honour is rated by how efficient we are at it. To lose even one soul to a tainted one like Jake would be a black mark on our achievements. It would have to be an impressive gang of dark elves to defeat even a pair of us. That is why his remark felt like cigarette burns on my pride.
He led us on a goose chase as expected weaving in and out, up and over as many alleyways and buildings that he came across. We eventually went over the river where he swerved and headed upstream back into the town centre. Kate and I kept up with him all the way, eager for a clear shot at him with our spears but Jake was familiar with such an attack and so used all obstacles in his way to prevent such a chance appearing.
“Stop being such a wimp Jake! It won’t hurt so much if you stay still!” Kate 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 over the rivers surface. Our reflections were cast in segments against the small waves and swirling currents of the River Ouse. It still flowed in this spiritual plain, water is one of the four prime elements and exists within all plains both physical, spiritual and divine.
“Snap trap.” I suggested into Kate’s 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 Jake flew straight under the bridge with Kate in close pursuit, shrieking her war cry to intimidate. The Norns of Fate were on our side as he did not look back to see if we were both behind him. When he started to climb back up again I threw my spear from up high piercing him straight in the stomach, I yelled with triumph for such a direct hit. My attack halted him in his tracks, giving Kate a chance to grasp and banish him with 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 floated, 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 our feet and then using the flattened edge of the spear head, drew it in a 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 plain we floated 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 under the rainbow arch. His last mortal words were “thank you”.
“Right, I think we deserve a coffee for that. Could I tempt you to share a brownie with me?”
“Ha!” I laughed. “You know as well as I that a Valkyrie’s work is never done.”

THE END

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