Chapter Five – Know Thy Enemy (draft 1)
The magpie screeched and cackled.
Nothing moved except the crawling darkness of shadows and slithering damp mist. Being in the spiritual dimension didn’t mean its all sunshine and summer heat. I shivered, hugging my swan feather cloak tighter around my shoulders and neck. Something more than the cold that night was making me tense, nervous and shaky. I looked over to my two companions for the evening, noticing how neither of them was showing signs of weakness like I was. But then they were Elder Valkyries.
Skögull was at the small window keeping an eye on the pair of magpies sitting out in the darkness perched on the opposite bridge tower. Geirölul was sat on her knees, spear across her lap, eyes closed and listening. Both were unnervingly still, I couldn’t spot one sign of life from either of them. No vapours of breath or twitching muscles. Their frozen state led me to believe several times that perhaps I was experiencing a dream. That we hadn’t been sat for hours since sunset in this derelict ruin.
The magpie cackled again, shattering my illusions and confirming reality.
“Before we train you with our expert experience, you must see what we are training you to fight against.” Freya’s words echoed back across my mind as I let it drift once more over the events of the past day. Reminding me why I was learning a good deal about the aspects of patience.
I shuffled onto my knees as quietly as I could, receiving a flash of a glance from Geirölul. In this different position I had a better view above Skögull’s head and up into the sky where I noticed a full moon high in the sky. Odin’s Blind Eye as it used be known, for night was when other creatures and beings roamed and ruled the world.
“She’s coming. Come closer, girl.” Skögull beckoned quickly. I crept to the window as she moved to the side, allowing me full vision outside. Geirölul joined me to the left. “Look to the river.”
I looked and saw a sight few see and live to tell the tale.
There was a lot of movement occurring at Lendal Bridge landing and it wasn’t from the magpies which had now swooped down to perch on its railings. The movement was under the water. It was like a Kraken lay in the river bed thrashing, lashing and twisting. Churning and tossing the water with immense force. The spray didn’t seem to bother the magpies who fanned out their wings, perked up their tails and cried out even louder. After what felt like the build up to a volcanic eruption something small and white emerged from the bubbling froth of the river Ouse. It was a skull, a skull with horns, sharp teeth and red eyes. What at first I thought was its neck became longer, thicker and wider until it was clear what I was seeing was Hel’s personal longboat emerge from the Underworld, Nagilfar. It shone with equal brightness of the moon, for it was made of many millennia’s worth of toe nail clippings gathered from those dead and buried when their families had not done so.
“Look how she mimics the All-Father.” Geirölul whispered, pointing out the magpies now flying in circles over the longboat before settling beside a black shrouded figure sat upon a chair beneath a red pavilion deck. “Magpies doing a Ravens job. You’d think she would get enough gossip from her darklings. I reckon she does it just for performance.”
The mention of darklings, what we nicknamed dark elves who work for Hel, I felt my stomach tense as a flash of a thought popped into my head. Would Jake be with Hel? Is that why he hasn’t surfaced for six months since he led Kate into the trap that destroyed her?
It was then that I heard a new sound but a sound I was familiar with on a smaller scale. Now that the water was calm and the magpies were silent, the endless sighs, cries, moans and groans of tortured souls tainted my ears. My eyes quickly found the cause of the noise and I felt my legs weaken, half collapsing myself against the old, crumbling stone walls.
There was so many of them. All outshining the moon except their torment showed through in viens of red, writhing through the pure white glow. All along the edge of the boat were large glass jars full of souls, glowing like phosphorescent raspberry ripple ice-cream. Sadly it turned out I was right to think of them as food for that is what souls are to Hel. I watched as one jar was selected by her bone finger, brought to her by a figure in a black hooded habit, opened and that same reaper like hand dipped into the jar. The screams issuing from it was so mind piercing even her magpie familiars pressed themselves into a corner, trying to escape the sound. All three of us, ourselves hidden behind the window, were crouching with hands over our ears trying to block it out.
It stopped. The renewed silence made even my own frantic breathing sound too loud. I looked out again, my stomach pulled tight in a knot with fear, knowing what was going to happen next, dreading it yet still wanting to witness the horror.
I struggled not to retch as the ghost figure of a lost soul, her tears red, hovered and drifted before Hel. The soul’s hair wrapped tight in Hel’s bone hand. Hel’s left hand, made of flesh, tickled its fingers through the soul’s essence, making her squirm like a rag caught in a tree’s branches. The flesh hand reached up and quickly pulled back Hel’s black shroud with great flare.
Half dead were words that suited Hel’s complexion for it was more subtle than the obvious difference between her hands and arms. She didn’t have the half skull face I’d imagined but in a way I was relieved to see she had a whole face. She did look quite deceased through the pale blue and bone white tones to her skin, patches of wrinkled mouldy skin, her torn ears and cut lips. But it was her eyes that were more striking and in the complete opposite manner to Freya’s. The skin all around the sockets had shrunk and become taught revealing a black ring of space around her eyeballs, making them appear to be on the verge of popping out at any moment. The eyes themselves were like mini moons, chalk white unlike the fog whiteness of the blind.
My heart stopped for the second time when I saw her smile, revealing broken and missing teeth in a small black pit. Hel’s two magpies had recovered also and were cackling at the miserable soul trapped in her bone grasp.
“Tell me your name.” She spoke, the voice of an aged crone creeping into the darkness.
The soul girl sobbed before muttering, “Sophie.”
“Sophie.” Hel’s smile changed to hide her teeth. With a wave of her hand she silenced her bird companions. “How would you like to live forever young? Just as you was when you died?”
“Will I see Mummy and Daddy?”
“Yes Sophie. You will see your parents again. Would you like that?”
The poor soul nodded.
“Come to me then Sophie, I will grant your wish.”
I wanted to stop her, to prevent what I knew was about to happen but I could feel the protective hands of Geirölul on my shoulder, the shake of her head told me she knew what I was feeling. So I watched on, helpless as the soul of Sophie cautiously stepped forward and was lifted up onto Hel’s robed lap by the same hands that had picked her from the jar and held her close. Hel cradled Sophie’s head in her hands and lent forward as if to kiss her on the forehead but it was a kiss that lasted longer than any true kiss of affection should. Once Hel’s lips made contact with Sophie’s essence she was sucked up, like a grotesque milkshake through a straw. The soul’s glow went into Hel’s mouth and shone out from behind her eyes. It then turned red and spread all over Hel’s face. When it vanished a few seconds later she was transformed. Her skin was young and well toned, her teeth were all visible and clean and her eyes were a startling emerald green. She smiled a beautiful and cruel smile like a snake about to strike. I had witnessed a beast becoming a beauty.
“The young ones are such a delight on the tongue.” She spoke to her magpies, now perched on either side of her chair. She then turned her gaze to the black robed figure that still stood to her left holding the jar full of souls. “Krazak, you can put it away now, I am restored enough to enjoy this moonlit tour.”
Krazak revealed himself by tearing off his habit. I thought I had seen the meaning of grotesque in Hel but Krazak broke the definition into something else entirely. He, for it was a man, or what was left of a man. He wore rough armour with spikes around its edges, his shoulder guards had sharp curves to the ends and the chain mail he wore over his arms and legs seemed to have been burnt black yet it didn’t dim his great deformity. Krazak had a gaping hole in his left cheek and another where his right ear was missing. There was a mass of skin missing on the top of his head leaving him with little scraps of hair left around the sides. He had several fingers of flesh missing on each hand which were now bone ones. I couldn’t see the condition of his legs as they were encased in black metal plate. He wore an eye patch and the other eye was swollen and green, dirty puss oozing from his tear duct. What else caught my attention were the two swords he had strapped round his side, one was straight with a keen edge to it but the other was roughly cut with a jagged edge.
“That is a Worthless Einherjar. He will use the straight sword to kill you and then the nasty one to hack you to pieces to drag you back to become part of Hel’s feast.” Skögull answered both questions forming in my dry mouth.
“She’s seen enough.”
“Agreed. Let’s go.” Skögull crept away from the glass pane and slowly opened the old door leading out of the room.
“Can such a creature be killed?”
“We’ll answers your questions back in the Sanctum, for now let us not risk you finding out the hard way.” She whispered in my ear as we made our way through the old building attached to Lendal Tower. Stirring clouds of dust over the old banisters and floorboards untouched for many years.
Once we had climbed out of the rear most window and onto the garden wall hemming the building and tower close to the river side, we leapt down to the ground and crept to the old wooden gates of St Mary’s Ruins.
“Geirölul will escort you back to safety; I have some business to attend to.”
Before I asked what and if she would be safe Skögull had flown off into the misty shadows, her own wings hardly leaving a path.
“Do you understand now the dangers both you and the children face?” Freya asked looking sternly down at me. We were sat round the amber slab once more overlooking the training grounds now empty of the clashing and groan of battle.
“Yes, but I think I’ll need more than the gift of flight to survive such a fight against them.”
“Quite correct Jennifer. We will teach you the best tactics and defence before you are given such a gift. Hildr will teach you, come in all your battle gear but minus your spear, she will teach you with the weapon she chooses. She’ll be waiting on the grounds for you at dawn. Understood?”
I gulped and just nodded. The name Hildr has as much power and mystic to it as did Freya. Both were Elder Valkyries and legends in their own right. Hildr was the Valkyrie of Battle, no one but Freya has ever bested her, except of course her heroic lover Sigurd, the mortal blacksmith who killed Fafnir the Dragon. Now I was to be taught by her. It was almost as weakening a thought as when Frigg first told me to see Freya in person. I was walking back to my room when I realised I was having a lot of expectations made of me and I became very scared I wouldn’t meet them. Then something else struck me, Kate somehow believed I could do this role, she chose to mentor me to be her replacement. I couldn’t let anyone down in this matter; I couldn’t dishonour Kate’s memory by proving to be a failure. I felt more certain in myself after such reflective thoughts that I even did several battle stances before I collapsed into bed catching what sleep I could before my new challenge.
“What happened to you?” Martha asked quickly grabbing my face in her hand and scrutinizing the developing bruise on my cheek.
“Long story.” I muttered my lips squashed into an unnatural position.
“Have you seen the Healers about this?”
“What do you mean can’t?”
I paused. “Hildr.”
“Hildr!” Martha collapsed quickly into the seat opposite mine as I hunched quietly by the fire in the feast hall of Shield Maiden Halls. “What does she want with you?”
“Not sure, I think they think I’ve become weak since what happened to Kate. Perhaps they think I need extra help to be able to protect myself better.” I lied, feeling the noose of secrets heavy on my neck but what disturbed me was the small truth behind the lie that I was hard to admit even to myself. That I did feel more vulnerable out chasing souls without Kate there to watch my back.
“I guess they wouldn’t want to lose another one of us. Kate was an old one wasn’t she?”
“Yeah, she had been around a while.”
“Have they told you anything about the hunt for Jake?”
“Nope, they want me to focus on my training, boost my skills.”
“But why does Hildr want you to train when you’re in pain? Doesn’t seem right.”
“I agree but she reckons it will increase my stamina and strength. I must learn how to fight in all conditions not just states of weather she said.”
“Well you’re certainly becoming the star pupil what with Freya seeking an audience with you and now Hildr of all Valkyries giving you extra training. Just hope they don’t push you too hard.”
“Thanks for the concern Martha, it’s appreciated.” I leant over and held her hand lightly as my other was busy holding my throbbing face.
Each pulse of pain brought a horrid flash back of the hilt of Hildr’s sword coming up in front of my eyes. That dawn training session was more of a torture session. No matter what technique I tried I couldn’t get past her defence especially with the clumsy rugged blade she had given me. I had practiced with it for weeks but that morning I was only able to leave a few scratch marks on her armour.
There were several times early on in these dawn sessions when I became so frustrated that I just let my rage rule my actions leading to a frenzied attack; without much affect on Hildr who just smirked as she parried, blocked and redirected every move I made against her.
“You’re trying too hard and so you’re not thinking.” She said loudly letting me rest my aching arms for a moment.
“I’m applying everything you know.”
“And some of your presumptions too.”
“What?” I looked at her lost to her meaning.
“You know I’m regarded highly for my combat skills and expertise so your logic presumes I am unbeatable. That is why you’re only applying what you know and not pushing your limits. You’re failing to see me as vulnerable as you which I assure you I am. Because of that you have failed your first lesson ever taught when your basic training began.”
“Which was...?” I gasped, leaning on the two handed sword she has chosen me to fight her with. Recalling my first ever combat lessons was far from my mind at that moment.
“Watch your enemy. Study it. Observe the way they fight and it will reveal their weakness.”
It was easier said than done as I was watching her but merely trying to deflect her attacks and stand my ground. But soon I managed to apply the tactic of study, to notice not just how her own sword clashed against my own but what stance she used. How strong and hard she was to push off when she had her legs a certain distance towards me, how her body tended to slant slightly to the left as she forced her sword at my flesh and the average number of steps she took before she was upon me with full force. They were only minor details, slight, subtle differences to my own actions that wouldn’t have been noticed by a novice in training. To their eyes Hildr would have been an unbeatable force which was what I believed upon our first struggle against each other, ending up with me on the dusty floor. Hildr had taught me about the power of advantage, how one small detail of knowledge about your opponent could lead to victory in the face of defeat.
I showed what I had began to understand by standing with my legs equally spaced apart but opposite parallel to my shoulders, appearing to merely brace myself for her on coming attack. Hildr was three feet in front of me, hardly a sweat upon her forehead and only a single braided strand dislodged from her hair. I tensed, looked at her roaring a Viking charge towards me, breathed and counted...1...2...3... and I jumped! The runic power in my swan feather cloak giving me lift just above her head as she ran directly beneath me. As I reach my peak I lunged my spear point downwards just glimpsing her head by an inch but it did catch something as the sudden contact made me lose concentration and flung me downwards.
I just about landed in a crouch, arm up read for her counter attack but nothing came. Just laughter. I looked up nervously and saw Hildr stood only a few feet away holding a long chunk of her hair and laughing.
“Well you’ve dealt a mortal blow to my beauty.” She managed to mutter before returning to her hysterical laughter. She eventually waved me off the training ground as I stood anxious and confused waiting for her to regain her sanity.
I chose not to mention it to Martha as I was still unsure whether to be proud or ashamed of it. I was just glad that Hildr didn’t banish me for it. If it was Freya I reckon I would have, with her being the Goddess of beauty and love and all that. Thankfully Hildr didn’t mention it either and I couldn’t say if she herself had told Freya or not. Instead of setting me one on versus her she had several battle dummies dressed in armour the same thickness of the Worthless Einherjar. For nearly two weeks now she’s been first teaching me where the weak points are and then taking on the armour herself so I had a mobile armoured opponent. The only way I knew I was making any good progress was each time she set me a new challenge. Yet I never got close to her hair let alone her flesh again and that day’s bruise was evidence of it.
“Are you sure you’re up for tonight?” Martha asked dragging me conscience away from the blurred memories of training.
“I’ll have to be. I can’t really get a sick note.” Surprisingly enough being dead doesn’t mean you can eat all your favourite deserts and not suffer the consequences.
“What section are you serving?”
“Well I’m only in twenty two if you need me ok?”
“Thanks. I’ll remember.
Martha took my hand away from my bruise and grimaced. “Hummm, I best do your make-up tonight. Don’t want the guys throwing mead at you as well as gawking at your chest.”
I tried to laugh but stretching my cheeks was painful. We left the fire and made our way to our flats to get prepared for one of the most boring parts of being a shield maiden, well I found it boring.
We may be powerful fighters and cause warriors to go in frenzy in battle but Odin still liked to have us all, as women, serve the Worthy Einherjar their food and drink at the end of the day. In truth we were the waitresses and bar maids of one giant, loud, testosterone fuelled pub.
Martha did a good job with the make-up; she was training to be a make-up artist before she died in 2001. She got her drink spiked when on a hen night out with her girl friends then fell into a canal. She still had nightmares about drowning. My bruised cheek was now lighter thanks to a large dose of concealer and blush and a mixture of other make-up. She’d even given me some super glittery eye-shadow but not to dazzling to look vain and whore-like. Made me feel a bit better knowing how beautiful my eyes at least looked.
She was fiddling with my pair of amber brooches holding up my apron and dress when we heard the silver horn blow three times. Half an hour till full service was expected.
“How do I look?” I asked raising my chin, hands on hips.
“Like you’d rather be anywhere else.” She laughed. “You look fine. Perfectly presentable considering the hoops Hildr’s had you jumping through.”
“Thanks Martha, you’ve always had good taste. I never thought the amber would go so nice with this green dress.” I did a little silly twirl letting the large folds open around my feet like petals. Martha herself was wearing purple dress with a black apron but the intricately designed pure silver brooches glistened like stars on her chest.
“Come on, let’s go show the fella’s how sexy we modern girls are.”
We walked arm in arm into the throng of other shield maidens all dressed well in a range of colours, wearing a variety of stylized brooches, like a thousand butterflies we paraded towards the gleaming golden hall on the pinnacle of Asgard, Valhall. Odin’s great hall of the slain.
On approach of the large courtyard entrance we are searched for any weapons and if found had to leave them with the guards. We were then lead to the extensive kitchens set beneath Valhall so the heat from the big stone ovens heated the floor for the warriors. It was amazingly well organised. There was a designated kitchen area for each section of the three mile long table above. Each table section seated twelve men and each three had one set shield maiden to serve and wait on them hand and foot. I kissed Martha good luck as we parted ways. Checking my list of guests I got to work.
As this great feast was only held once a month I didn’t mind too much all the food and drink thrown, spat, puked, spilt and rubbed into the table and the earth floor, thankfully I didn’t have to clean it up. What I couldn’t stand was when those messy and dripping hands and mouths tried to touch me.
Sven was as usual trying to convince me for the three millionth time to come to his bed, Ox was busy regaling his companions of the many battles he fought in and Urik kept trying to see my breasts. Of the three Urik was the creepiest and I had yet to work out why he was worthy of a seat at the All-Father’s table. But we were forbidden to ask such question of Odin’s chosen. All the men in this mammoth sized room were slain during the great Viking era, otherwise known as the dark ages.
It was only here the power behind the Aesir really reminded me that this afterlife of mine wasn’t actually some weird dream of a coma. Valhall basically was a shape shifting, changing hall of illusion which quite suited Odin considering all the tales of him being a wolf or an old Gandalf lookalike. I was only just getting used to it myself but I can still remember the utter disbelief I felt after finally accepting I was dead but I was now living my afterlife in a place where a building that on the outside could only hold twenty men yet once a month it could hold near five thousand without needing an extension. It was very disorientating when I served at my first feast as I still couldn’t logically explain it. In the end some of my elder friends taught me a trick, if I just acknowledged and accepted the column sized spears which held up the entrance than my imagination could accept the ever extending back part of Valhall.
I gave Sven his fifteenth horn of mead for the evening and went back beneath to the kitchen via the stone slabs that levitated between the two floors. Bustling between the raised elbows of my female colleagues heading back upstairs carrying dripping wooden trays of roasted meat or horns of mead.
“Gretta, Urik wants some more ribs.” I told the cook of my section, who was grabbing never ending pieces of animal meat from the cupboards around the ovens and boiling pans.
“Desme will take that up. Someone’s asked for you outside.” She answered rather stiffly not looking me in the eye as she put some more on a skewer into the oven.
“Oh. Who is it?”
“Wouldn’t say. Just it was important.”
At first I wasn’t curious I was just glad for an opportunity to breathe some cold air against the furnace of the kitchens. But as I wiped my hands as clean as could be possible minus food stains I began to wonder.
I stepped into the midnight hour outside. There was a pacing figure cloaked in rich purple velvet. Their large hood hid their face in shadow but I could make out a feminine neck and I further proved right when I noticed a flash of heel and embroidered leather.
“Did you ask for me?”
The woman stopped and walked calmer towards me before kneeling in a flare of material at my feet. I thought I heard her whisper “Forgive me.”