Blood whispers before it screams. The roar of a thousand spears soaring and puncturing the sky. Javelins serenade then pierce flesh. Battleaxes howl, ripping into unsuspecting skulls. The clank of iron against steel, the guttural grunts of beast-like warriors thrusting their bodies into certain death—all of this makes my skin tremor, my womanhood shudder and twitch.
All my life I have known nothing but war. Fighting is sport, the way the gods pass the time, waiting for Ragnarok and the day when the world will be reborn without them. Violence is my music, and my ears must be attuned to choose the most promising notes, to distinguish from the cacophony those souls brave enough to join our symphonic army.
Our task is thorny. So much bravery on the field, today as every day, in the gray valley between three mountains. An icy sun casts shadows on the stones. Durnir, my ancient steed, flutters her wings, her whinnies staccato, still jumpy to the smell of conflict. I caress her mane and gaze down upon the contestants. Is this one’s growl more fearsome than his brother’s? I look for volcanoes in their eyes, for a rage that causes veins to branch trees on their necks. I seek the ones who behead with one swift slice, who sink teeth into their opponent’s legs, who imagine this battle must be their last.
Odin expects nothing less of us. Still I wonder why he frets so, when he too must be aware of the prophesy. I have often asked Hervör what purpose our task serves. If all the gods will perish, then what matter who comprises the einherjar? And each time Hervör clucks her tongue, shakes her boar-sized head at me: Svipul, daughter, the tree that loses its leaves still strives to bear the sweetest fruit.
I try to understand, but fate pricks me with questions. Until the scent of fresh wounds waft past, and I feel my throat dry, my chest heave and tremble. Surely we Valkyrie have been destined to this task. Who else could find such pleasure in death? My eyes swim over the scene beside me. Six women hold forth, each to her own steed: Gunnr, Róta and Skuld. Göll, Hlökk and Herja. Glorious sorceresses all. Proud chins, dancing tresses, flowing robes, their unsullied byrnies shimmering copper like desert snakes. I can see their nostrils flair. Their eyes swallow the battle, their ears tuned to the same frequencies of death as mine.
“Sisters,” Gunnr’s voice echoes like a shout into a deep ravine. “Our lord’s eternity depends on us. Choose, but choose wisely. Follow your instinct, and yet do not let it betray you. Let the deeds, not the man, speak to you.”
We nod our heads: a familiar call to arms. I usually pay little mind to her warnings. Only the noblest bloods speak to me, the others diluted by ambivalence and uncertainty. I have never been tempted by the frailties of mortals.
I see him. Grace personified. A collection of sunrises. Even more beautiful than Baldr on his deathbed. His eyes are the deepest lakes of Hornavan and his flesh the glistening, soft wet earth at their banks. And yet: a human among humans, a soul not worthy of the title I can bequeath him. Fierce is he, but not fierce enough. Quickness he possesses, but not enough to steal thunder from under the sky’s watchful gaze. I watch as he struggles against a mountainous foe, a man whose blows suggest extra arms and legs. Still my destiny persists, his arms flailing, his sword slicing nothing but thinnest air, his sputtering breath unwilling to excuse failure. The futility of his conviction enraptures me. I study his instincts, the curious philosophy behind his movements, and feel something I have never felt before: pity. A ripple in my own senseless permanence.
The mountain bears down upon him, a savage ox that snarls and grunts, normally ecstasy to my ears. And yet the bleats of this lesser lamb hound me, conflict me. When the ox’s mallet thwacks a final blow against his face, I know what I cannot ever know: my lamb is afraid. He is afraid, and somehow I will still pick him.
When the wails die, we guide our stallions down into the field. My derelict is gulping his last few breaths of air.
“Angel,” he cries out, as I hover over his bloodied head.
“What is your name, mortal?”
“Askar. Your eternal servant.”
I canvass the bodies littering the ground one last time. So many others breathe their names to me, so many voices that are more harmonious than this Askar. And yet I crave him. The rogue instrument in the orchestra that will open up the melody. His blood is the perfume I thought I could not smell.
Svartá, my faithful raven, circles above me, his eyes impetuous and fretful. He swoops down, talons perching upon my shoulder. “Leave him to the feast, Svipul. The fragrance of victory denies him.”
“Such scents deny us all,” I say, unconvinced by my own words.
My winged companion steels his gaze into me but speaks no more. A stentorian squawk sends him skyward, in search of unclaimed bounty.
My hands take hold of Askar’s lifeless face. Even after death, the men I have chosen before growled at me, their souls shadowboxing enemies they could no longer defeat. This one is still, a stillness that should repulse me and yet floods my heart. I imagine tending to his cup in Valhalla, nurturing him. I imagine that he will be grateful.
What of the lesser trees in the garden, those wounded by droughts or pestilence? Can they too not produce fruit? And when they do, do they not taste ever more sweet?
I look into Askar’s eyes and see pomegranates. Juicy, vigorous pomegranates whose flesh bears an ocean of seeds. Hoisting his body upon my saddle, I can only hope that when I bite into this fruit the worms inside will not surface to poison me.
Possibly you imagine that the souls of warriors might demonstrate a little less vulgarity in the afterlife. Having passed through death, surely these men should have acquired a sense of common decency. Or is that first vision of us on the battlefield so deeply ingrained, our breasts sweaty at the sight of them, our lust so patently evident as we heave their bodies onto the backs of our charges, that this is all they allow themselves to know: we have selected them, and so it must mean that we love them. We are conquered by our choice.
Bawdy songs fill the giant hall, filthy tales of copulation. Oh, the degradation mortal women must endure! The men slap their jugs against the tables, banging them in unison when we aren’t quick enough to refill their mead. The sour scent of goat milk and Sæhrímnir’s decaying flesh is something I will never grow used to. As soon as I wipe a table down, a new pride seats itself.
“Give us drink from your horns,” one of these ogres says to me.
Could he be any less original? I take off my helmet and am about to pour into it when his gnarled hand grabs hold of my breast.
“These horns,” he says. He puckers his lips and bays like a rabid wolf. The others laugh and one of them reaches over and pinches my back side. I swat his hand away and crack the pitcher against his head, which sets open a gash above his left temple. The peasant dips a finger into his wound.
“Mmm, tasty,” he says, wiping the red into the scruff of his beard. The cackling resumes, the others forming every variant of wench and cunt on their lips.
I wonder how these hyenas could ever protect the gods in the field of Vígríðr and then I remind myself that it is precisely for their barbaric nature that we have chosen them. Surveying the hall, I spot Kára and Hrist attending to the oldest of our lot, muttonheads most jaded and drunk, perched on a platform in the center so that even their shadows arouse attention. Kára sits on Grilog’s lap, her back arched against his broad chest as she reaches behind with her hand to grab at his curly hair. Hrist giggles approvingly as she sets down the pitchers, bending over far enough to allow even dwarves to ogle her pillows. Neither of them ashamed, even in our unintoxicated state, to prostitute themselves for attention. Kára flaunts the golden necklaces of Thor, the black silk of her gown made from the spit of fireworms that only Freyr himself could have purchased from the elves of Álfheimr. Hrist’s eyes and lips are stained with the pink dye of a yak’s anus.
Normally I ignore them, but when I see Hrist move away and approach my Askar I feel seized by panic. We haven’t consorted since she accused me of insufficiently consoling her on the loss of her precious aventail, fashioned from the legs of three thousand tarantulas and coated in the silky entrails of a freshly slaughtered lynx.
She’s roosting upon Askar’s lap when I approach.
“This is not your station, Hrist,” I say, polite but firm.
Hrist’s eyes narrow. She pulls on the twine binding her flaxen hair. “I wanted to welcome the new apprentice into our midst.” She runs a long finger across Askar’s cheek, the emeralds of her oversized ring catching light and making me squint. “How I do enjoy new recruits,” she purrs.
Askar’s eyes light up, flirtatious and frightened.
“Careful with those fingers, Hrist,” I say. “Heimdall might require use of them later.”
Storm clouds pass through her eyes. “So Svipul selected you?” she says to Askar. “You must have been very brave. Most fearless.”
“I would die a thousand times over for Odin,” Askar says. He smiles foolishly. I want to smack tears out of his eyes and then suck them off his cheeks.
Hrist giggles. “Noble warrior!” She caresses his neck. The cleft of her cleavage sparkles, beckoning like a light glowing from inside a cave.
I grab firmly onto her free hand, and raise her to her feet. “Is Thor’s broadsword so unsatisfying that you must resort to throwing yourself at humans?”
“The scent of dead mortal flesh,” she says, breaking her hand free from my grip. “There is no greater intoxicant.”
“The spell breaks when we leave the battlefield,” I say. “You are pretending.”
“Does it?” Hrist flashes her teeth. “Then why did your feet gallop you over here as soon as I sat beside him?”
“Your warriors wait, Hrist. Sanngriðr will not be pleased.”
Hrist winks at Askar, and sighs close to my ear. “His hands seems small, sister,” she says. “But I am sure you have chosen well. There is something about him. I can sense it.”
I watch her saunter off, and look down at the boy-man before me. If only she knew how much I hope she is right.
“Mead for the fine soldier.” I place a goblet before him.
He drinks it down, hungrily. “Like ecstasy in a cup.”
My lips push a half-smile.
“My savior,” he says, reaching for my hand. I pull back, quickly. If the other men were to witness his tenderness, they would surely have at him.
“I bring the drink and clean the tables. That is all,” I say.
Askar winks at me. I feel a tickle I am not used to in my veins. Only because I know he will never do so, I want him to charge at my breasts, ravage me right there on the table.
“My savior,” he repeats.
And I feel myself falling into an abyss.
I am dizzy the next morning. And the following. Normally my eyes yearn to squint into the pre-dawn sunlight of a day of battle. My flesh wakes and my mind can only follow. Like canines in torrid heat, so are we Valkyrie in anticipation of the slain. But now I rise sick with sleep, my ears deaf to the sirens of war, my nostrils rheumy and clogged with an unfamiliar scent that eludes me.
It is only in the gloaming, when we return from blood supper to the glorious garden of Valhalla, when I don my server’s apron and pull back my hair, do I truly feel alive: knowing that Askar will be there.
He whistles songs to me. Trite melodies of the love known by mortals, naïve and simple. And yet. He soothes me like no other. From the moment I set eyes upon him I am calmed to my bones, even when I know the treachery that has brought him here could ruin me.
We have spoken of picnics. Picnics! In mortal fields, by mortal lakes, with mortal flowers blooming under the bright smile of an earthly sun. I indulge his fantasies with laughter.
You are duty bound to Odin now, I remind him. To go forth at his side into the Armageddon.
In the meantime, he says.
In the meantime, I repeat.
Every day I tend to him, my fondness only grows. He is lumbering, his reflexes stubborn to adjust. His mind challenges only what he sees before him. I watch as he stumbles in the daily drills, clumsy with his heavy shield, shrill in his battle cries, tentative with his body paints. I tell him to select the blackest dyes—they will inflict the most terror in his enemies. I warn him not to flinch; in every battle the eyes are the first to be conquered. And yet, he flinches. And I see it again: that beautiful, horrid vulnerability. That gorgeous uncertainty. We are prisoners, he and I, different only by degree.
There are answers the gods expect which Askar will never give. But how he is eager! Eager for self-sacrifice, to be one brick upon which the castle of heaven may form. The purity of his humility forces me to persist, spinning more coils into my web of deceit, adding minutes, seconds, days to our frozen time together.
Cursed Odin, Vili and Ve! Giving life to sticks, tempting us with the mediocrity of mortal flesh. Slave to the poetry of the frail, my heart, that most anemic organ, sudden dictator over my mind.
Fernir, sink your unholy fangs into me and rip out this wicked valve! Evil serpent Jörmungandr, let go of your tail and allow the world to end! The fence of Ymir’s eyelashes denies our bodies entry to middle earth, but not our thoughts.
I have no business with a mortal. I have no business with betrayal. Yet.
If it is my fate to choose the valiant to serve my lord, then how could I have so easily broken my vow? If our destiny is inevitable, and we are all pawns in a predetermined game, then how have I made my independent move?
Only if there is a will beyond the walls of this arena.
Only if the infinite black of Ragnarok is a ruse to gird us to our duties, prevent us from questioning the circle of death we sustain.
And why not only.
Why not, the possibility of free will? Why not, the pleasure of the temporary, the sweet bliss of mistake, the gorgeous folly of dreams?
Mortal men proud, Gods vainglorious, Goddesses worst of all. The cruelty of my kind unrivaled in the nine worlds existent and the thousands yet to come. Hrist dwells among this pettiness. Her soul feasts on the happiness suckled from others.
Three weeks into Askar’s training and the veil remains unlifted. I am serving my chosen his portion when she slithers over to my station. She smells our bliss and cannot sanction it.
“Virile brute,” she says, plunging a hand below Askar’s cloth to pull on his chest hairs. “Allow me to serve your needs.”
“Much gratitude,” Askar says, shaking loose of her delicately. “My thirst is sated.”
She leans herself into his back, wraps her arms around him, and looks up into my eyes. “Can the spigots of one fountain truly satisfy? There are much tastier springs to which I can grant you access.”
I cluck at her, bring my face level with hers. “And yet his thirst does not revisit.”
Askar smiles into his goblet and Hrist’s face melts to stone. “Behold!” she cries out. She foists herself off him, mounts the table beside us, her bejeweled index finger pointing down towards her prey. “A soul who resists the cascades of a waterfall for the trickles of a desert stream.”
“A fool if I’ve ever seen one!”
Guffaws bellow from across the hall, above the murmurs of the others. Godmund the terrible, the largest boil swelling among a pustulous armada of sycophants, has chimed in from his elevated perch. If ugliness is indeed the virtue of a warrior, then Godmund is virtuous without equal. A man who births fumes from his armpits, a coarse stink of life that not even death could thieve from him.
“Never so big a fool as one who loves Svipul,” Hrist says.
“And never so disappointed as one who lies with you,” I say.
“The gods delight in that which is delightful. Am I right, Godmund?”
“An oasis of riches you are, fair Hrist. As for that one,” Godmund nods his scabby chin at me, “dry as petrified dung. And no fairer.”
Hrist’s laughter resonates like a chorus of apes. My eyes stare into Askar, hoping he reads my thoughts and retreats before these hostilities escalate. And yet he rises, as he must, and turns to face my maligner. My hand reaches for him then recoils, seized by a tenderness I yearn to display and yet cannot.
“Do not speak of that which you know nothing, Godmund,” Askar says.
Godmund’s eyes yellow with hunger. He stands up from his table. “I should wonder why not. And what will stop me.”
Godmund’s hand grips his blade. Askar looks to me, and I see that he knows where we have arrived. It should not take more than a passing glance, a loaded nod of the head, to set these ruffians off. This is how Odin wants them.
My defender lances himself across the room, his sword met midair by Godmund’s own. A battle that will end in bloodshed and bruises, a drubbing after which I carry my derelict’s body back to his bed and tend to his lesions, is the hook upon which I hang my hopes. Wounds would only attest to his readiness for battle.
Only when I see Godmund lose his blade in a fantastic moment of calibrated uncertainty do I realize that this scuffle is intentional, a plot hatched by Hrist. Godmund shudders exaggeratedly, and spits bile into Askar’s face. My dreamer swoops and thrusts, knocking Godmund to the ground. He straddles the barbarian and hovers victory over the fallen. And yet.
His nemesis prostate before him, Askar flinches. When the room should echo with the gurgle of a throat gasping for air, the crush of a skull kicked in, the only sound is that of Askar’s sword returning to its sheath.
Oh treacherous innocence, oh sweet wretched mercy.
Askar walks back to me, head bowed to the ground. His eyes assume the stunned silence that has accompanied his actions to be a tribute to his clemency. Instead he has only exposed my folly, and his own.
In the cloudbanks we are gathered, the council of twenty and hundreds of curious onlookers. Sanngriðr sits upon a throne of silver swans, her hair as dark as the devil’s heart. Giantess among giant women, handmaiden to our Lord, she who rumors hold to have carved the magical runes herself into Gugnir, Odin’s beloved spear. A withered giraffe’s neck serves as her pikestaff.
“Svipul, great-granddaughter of Blidikk, a warrioress and sage the heavens have rarely known. How is it you are brought before me today?”
“She has betrayed our covenant,” Hrist says. “A soul unworthy of the einherjar dwells among us because of her.”
My sisters gasp and murmur. Sanngriðr knocks the pikestaff against her footrest.
“Let the girl speak for herself. Is this true, Svipul?”
“His blood spoke to me,” I say. “His soul is savage and pure.”
“He flinched when challenged in the hall,” Kára comes to Hrist’s defense. “Godmund spat at him and when he was given opportunity to slay his tormentor, he laid his sword down. Fear clouded his eyes. We all witnessed it.”
“Not fear,” I say. “Compassion.”
“The armies of Odin are not served by compassion,” Sanngriðr says. “Ragnarok is hastened by the disciples of mercy. We are given few tasks, Svipul. Tasks that are sacred, essential, decreed by fate. If your instincts are compromised, we shall all suffer the eternal fires of Muspellheim. Fetch the mortal. He must be sent to Heldgard.”
“No! You cannot nullify my judgment without precedent. Allow him to battle once more, and let me prove my instincts just. Askar is a true einherjar.”
I see Sanngriðr’s whiskers flinch. Her eyes take in the other councilwomen, who seem intrigued by my proposal. Ruthless as she is, she knows she cannot deny me.
“Such a wager shall be set. Seven sisters shall be sent to observe him in the fields of Amon Amarth, where a bloodbath rages now so fierce that even Loki trembles at the sounds of the screams echoing in the canyons. All seven will be asked to choose one most valiant to escort back to our lair. If all seven agree that your mortal is that warrior, then both he and you shall be spared. If even one disagrees, then not even a thousand merciful licks from Auðumbla’s tongue will save you.”
Amon Amarth is the devil’s well, a fantastic mosaic of savagery. Blood spilled here thicker for the barbarity birthing it, the red pools into the earth, sprouting leaves that strangle and scream. I have never seen such an epiphany of madness. My sisters’ groins grumble, their lips foam. And yet I have grown immune to these fierce pleasures. I see only my shepherd.
He waits at the precipice of a hill opposite us, his armor sparkling in the cruel midday sun. How ready to prove his steel. How unprepared.
I want to believe in Askar. I want to know that the words I have spoken in his honor were delivered to me through his tenor and will. But my mind senses its own betrayal.
I warned him this morning: Today you battle for our eternal soul. I am always ready to fight until I die, he said. But he doesn’t know the death that awaits an einherjar. He doesn’t understand that the death of his soul would be the death of my ideas, the obliteration of possibility, every stray thought collapsing onto itself, shriveled and barren.
Forty trumpets sound, a cry barely rising above the din of the bedlam below. My sisters writhe upon their horses, eager to cast destiny. But theirs is not the destiny of choice; it is merely the instinct of animals.
How I wish they could see that our fate need not be so confined, so narrow. How I wish for once they could see the men behind the warriors they choose.
My beloved is released. I watch him plunge headlong into the field, a flimsy aquarium for defense: his helmet, octopus; his shield, jellyfish; his sword, a shifty, limp eel. Flaccid and slippery I have let my angel spill into chaos.
I cannot let him die again. Not this way, as a sad joke offered up to the shallow whims of beings larded with eternal vice. He that is more worthy than all of us of being called god. I will not let his memory be besmirched for eternity. In death’s prescribed texts, let the words speak differently of him now. Let the gods snicker at the folly of one of their own, and not make sport, as always, of the weak.
His destiny I will change, and once done, my own.
I snap at Durnir’s bridle, sending my steed rushing forward. The sun above me dazzling and lucid, a co-conspirator goading me onward. Bodies flail around me but my path is undeterred. I center my opponent. With the soft cunning of a fox, I bare my axe, slicing through the swine that deems to conquer my Askar. The mortal’s eyes burn with surprise: a valiant soldier suffering the vagaries of the gods. There was a time I would have carried his soul back to Valhalla. Now he is only carrion for the vultures.
Askar stumbles off the ground. I steer him away from the chaos, to the shelter of a nearby rock. His breath is short, raspy, angry. He looks crestfallen.
My hero’s eyes claw into my soul. “What have you done, Svipiul,” he says. “You did not give me the chance.”
“You would have been killed.”
He pounds his hand against his armor. “Killed in battle to serve as Odin’s warrior in Valhalla!”
“They would not have chosen you.” My lips sting from the vinegar of my tongue. I cannot look at him as I speak, and yet I must. “You are not what they seek.”
“But you chose me before.” Askar’s pupils bounce in their sockets, loose magnets in search of metallic shelter. “Only now you intervene? You didn’t know how I might have proven myself. I might have overcome them all.”
“I knew before this battle began. I have known since I first laid eyes on you.”
“Then how can you speak of escaping destiny’s chains? You made me believe I could challenge the fates.”
“You are wrong, my love. By reaching for you now I have changed our fate forever. Rest, my prince. Savor this final moment, brave Askar, righteous warrior.”
My hero shakes his head. He flings his sword against the large rock; it clanks softly then hits the ground, with the barest vestige of noise.
“I am not brave,” he says. “I have been denied the chance.”
I hear familiar thunders—the gallops of my sisters’ judgment closing down upon us. Reaching for Askar’s face I watch his expression grow limp in my hands.
“I could have been a warrior,” he says, his eyes searching the heavens.
“You always were,” I say. “And forever you will be.”
I lift the horns off my head and lay them down upon his. Draping my human in the cocoon of my bosom, I press his head against my byrnie. He resists, at first. But soon he acquiesces. Together we close our eyes. The sounds of war wash away and all I can hear are the soft crescendos of his breathing, the thrush of blood still traveling through his veins.
“Our picnic,” I say.
And then I feel his body ripped away from mine.
Within days, I will be sentenced. Odin decrees that a rogue Valkyrie shall never be permitted to set eyes upon Valhalla again. Whether this means they will gouge my eyes out, or banish me to Niflheimr, I do not know. If I am lucky, I shall suffer the worst punishment one can give a god and shall be made mortal. Mortal while Askar’s body will be chained to a rock, his flesh candy for vultures. Mortal so I can watch him perish, feel with a human’s brittle empathy what it’s like to watch a lover’s slow demise, and be unable to do anything about it. Mortal so I too can experience death myself, and understand what I have given up for my sins.
Regret is what they expect me to feel. But I am not certain my heart will comply. The battles of gods are undying, our day to day the same struggle against enemies manifest and invisible, predictable and haphazard. Our destiny is foretold in stark cruelty. We are petty, jealous, vicious and stubborn. Lessons go unlearned. So what makes us so different from mortals? We, the powerless omnipotent, the shapers of worlds later denied to us. If only an ambiguous eternity differentiates our races, then I choose the certainty of death.
Let me embrace mortality. Let my blood whisper. Let it scream.
BIO: Eric Sasson’s story collection, Margins of Tolerance, is forthcoming from Livingston Press in May 2012. His stories have appeared in The Puritan, BLOOM, The Nashville Review, Alligator Juniper, Trans, The Ledge, MARY magazine and The 2nd Hand, among others. He lives in Brooklyn, NY. www.ericsassonnow.com