1 - Gambling with the Gods

 

 

For Helen Higuera

 

 

 


 

An ancient, familiar pull in my chest nudged me closer to the chaotic intersection of San Francisco’s 16th and Mission streets. No flaming arrows here, filling the air with smoke, no dragons either, no thump of axes on flesh and no choked screams of men in battle, and yet I could smell blood in the air. Something flickered at the corner of my vision, something ragged and white. I barely breathed. Mid-way through a Saturday afternoon, and I’d been living in San Francisco for nearly two months without a glimpse of death. Some nights in the bar I even considered starting a fight myself, in the faint hope that a foolhardy, valorous soul might clamor and flail into view. But that would be cheating, and nobody cheats the gods.

Odin’s eye, Sigrid, I told myself. This is what you’ve been looking for. Somewhere close, someone is valiantly fighting for life. And yet, despite the noise all around me: the screeches of tires, the burping exhaust, the mumbles and shouts of passers-by, I heard no violence. My wings vibrated, straining to unfold, and for what? I paused, turning in the street, scanning the crowd.

I recognized the dead man moments before he fell, as he stumbled barefoot and emaciated towards me, as the invisible heartstring that had pulled me to that place finally trembled and snapped. Slowly, almost gently, he began to waver and double in my vision, his soul and body diverging before flickering back into place, his tenuous grasp on life weakly dragging them back together. This man did not lie down to die. He died standing, one arm stretched out and forward, a grimace on his face and words on his tongue, a muttered invocation of rage that broke off only when his heart burst and his body toppled gently to its knees. His image wavered again, splitting in two as the man's spirit, unaware of his own death, continued to stagger forward. What caused him to pause was not the sudden lightness that he felt, nor the almost meaty thwack of his own face smacking the sidewalk behind him. It was me. I stood blocking his way with my wings spread high and my spear raised, banner-like. My eyes flashed smoke. My armor reflected a cloudy sky from another world.

I found his name in his face. “You died bravely, Rufus,” I told him, taking care to appear formal, even severe, though I positively fizzed with joy. “Even to the last moment, you struggled and fought for life. You battled your addiction with courage worthy of the ancient sagas. I am here to take you to Valhalla, the hall of warriors and kings.”

Rufus swayed a little, out of habit, then looked down at his suddenly strong legs and realized he didn’t need to. He looked up at me again, baffled, but calm with the detachment of the newly dead. “Am I dead?” he asked. “Are you an angel?”

I grinned. “Yes,” I said, “And I’m a Valkyrie. I’ll explain on the way.”

 

*

 

The sounds of the city—shouts, tires squealing, the groan of the 22 bus faded into the gentle hum of bees and the distant clash of swords and axes as we arrived, hovering, over the edge of Valhalla. The whole journey had taken only a moment, but my wings ached unexpectedly. I hadn't made this journey with a passenger in a very long time. My companion blinked in the dimming light, his dark eyes reflecting the clouds. It was late afternoon and Valhalla was overcast and windy, just as it had been every day for the past 800 years, ever since the Valkyries had finally given up and become little more than glorified barmaids. I landed gently, but Rufus staggered a few steps on the boggy ground at the edge of the forest, shivering and turning to stare around him, his arms crossed tightly to his chest. I let him breathe the clear, thin air and adjust a little to the strangeness before striding across the bog toward the battlefield and the hall of heroes.

Rufus followed me effortlessly, his thin legs and bare feet belying a sudden easy strength. We weaved across ground littered with dismembered bodies. Only a few savage outliers at the edges of my vision continued to hack at each other; I glanced at them, hoping to see Signy's flailing braid or the grimy iron of Voland's combat wheelchair. No such luck. The wind stank of blood and sweat, earth and iron, and I felt the tension I'd kept in my shoulders, just beneath my wings, begin to ease at the familiarity. This kind of combat felt right, felt understandable to me. I was home.

I watched Rufus gulp and step carefully around a lone arm hacked off at the elbow. He let out a choked gasp when the arm began dragging itself, leaving bloody fingerprints in the moss. He stood frozen, chest heaving, until I reached out a hand and clasped his elbow.

"It's ok," I soothed, keeping my voice firm and confident, trying to remember how shocking all this must be for someone unfamiliar with Nordic mythology. "This is the field of warriors, and the day is ending, so those who have died in battle today reassemble, rise, and join their comrades for food and ale." All around us, bodies in various states of dismemberment began to gather themselves together and help each other off the ground. "This is our afterlife," I ventured, "And yours too, now, if you choose it. Every day begins a new battle and every night we feast and celebrate. It's a good afterlife; rich and satisfying. We prepare for the world's final battle, and it gives us purpose, helps us find meaning in death." He followed as I approached one of the longhouse's enormous doors. "I'll introduce you and get you settled. Come on!" I grabbed his arm again and pulled him bodily into the vast hall.

Olrun stood behind the counter, filling pitchers with ale and mead and sliding them down the long bar toward the tables and benches. Saehrimnir, Valhalla's great hog, rotated slowly over the roaring fire-pit, dwarfing the hunched, one-eyed old man who turned the spit.

My stomach lurched. I should have been expecting him. I took a breath, and then another one. There was no point in trying to conceal my anxiety—Odin the Allfather would have been impossible to trick—so I paused for a moment, letting it wash over me, indulging it for the barest second before approaching the chief of the gods.

Behind me, Olrun handed Rufus a horn of mead and gestured him to the bar, grinning, her excitement palpable even in my peripheral vision. Odin then turned to me, lip curling in a mix of curiosity and contempt. "So, Sigrid Spearthrower." He gave me a slow nod. "Battle-swan, sun-on-blood, warrior bearer," he listed my titles with a sardonic smirk. "You have brought the first soldier to Valhalla in 800 years. But is this a warrior?" He glanced skeptically over Rufus's skinny arms and legs, saw his mouth twisted with confusion and fear. "What kind of fighter is this?"

"He is a mind-fighter who battles his own body for the free will it has taken from him. I saw his mind as he died, Odin Allfather, Flame-Eyed, Battle-Wolf, Father of Song, and even to his last moment he was fueled by rage. His strength of will is second only to his need for a fight that will not crush him. Already, the poison that drove and destroyed his life has been left behind on the streets of San Francisco. He stands lightly and tall, waiting for the fight."

The Allfather regarded me, his single eye sending shivers down my back. "You speak of him as of a fighter, yet he wields neither axe nor sword, nor even his bare hands as weapons. What good is such a man in the battle to end all things? Will he defeat the frost giants with his mind, Sigrid Unsatisfied, Sigrid Bargainer, Sigrid One-Horn-of Mead-is-too-Much?" Olrun snickered quietly at the last, probably remembering my state the last time I'd bargained with Odin, but I held back my customary stream of insults. I recognized his challenge as a distraction.

"Chieftain, Hanged One, Teacher of Gods, Wanderer: is not knowledge a massive part of your own strength? Did you not come by that knowledge only through great perseverance and suffering? The axe, the spear, even magic can be learned on the battlefield, but the rage, the knowledge of deep suffering and unrelenting will to survive, these things we do not teach. We should recognize this man as the unforged blade, the raw iron, that he is."

Odin observed us both silently until Rufus turned from his conversation with Olrun and walked over to face the god. "Well?" Odin asked him. "Are you willing to join my army, Rufus, to train with my warriors for the battle at the end of all things?"

"Well, fuck," said Rufus, the ragged 20th century heroin addict, to the ragged 9th century god. "I always wanted to join the army—thought it might get me away from the city. And now this lady," he gestured at me, "tells me this is heaven for soldiers, with fighting all day and drinking all night and no hangovers to speak of. Well I don't know what other afterlives are out there, but I figure if she's gonna show up glittering with those wings like an avenging angel or one of those elves in some video game and bring me here, there's gotta be a reason. So, yeah. Ok. I'm in, sir. When's this final battle coming? Do I gotta sign?”

Odin smiled a jagged grimace almost guaranteed to send people running, but Rufus held firm. He held out his hand to shake and the god, surprising me with his seamless acceptance of the modern ritual, calmly and firmly shook it.

A clatter interrupted the moment as warriors began streaming in from the battlefield, shouting and laughing with the same comrades they'd eviscerated only hours before. They became even rowdier at the sight of Rufus and me, nudging each other and pointing at the first new face they'd seen in centuries.

"Warriors!" Odin roared over the chaos, and the voices quieted. "As you can see, our youngest and most reckless Valkyrie, Sigrid Spearthrower, has returned to us.” The Einherjar shouted and stamped their feet in approval until a glare from Odin once again quieted the hall. He continued, “And she has not returned alone! I present our newest soldier and pupil in the art of war!" He turned to Rufus. "What is your warrior name?" He asked. Rufus looked blank. "Well? What did you battle when you were alive?"

"Dope, mostly," said Rufus, "And speed sometimes. And the cold, and the heat, and the cops, too."

Odin turned back to the crowd. "Rufus Dopeslayer!" He roared. Rufus blushed and smiled, a deep, slow smile that transformed his face and straightened his shoulders. His teeth flashed in his weathered face.

"Dopeslayer, huh," he said, and drained his mead, taking another horn as it was passed to him. Someone in the crowd began a chant: "Rufus! Dopeslayer! Rufus! Dopeslayer!" and other warriors took it up until the whole hall rang with it.

I moved toward the door, nodding and grinning as each sweaty, bloody warrior I passed clapped me on the back enthusiastically. I watched Rufus disappear into the mass of excited bodies. Should it be this easy? I wondered, letting the massive door close behind me, breathing in the salt-iron smell of the Valhalla swamp and still listening to the chanting, now muffled by the door. Does 21st Century American tragedy really translate across centuries and ocean into divine Scandinavian warfare? As I walked along the side of the building, I became aware of myself as a bridge, spanning two worlds I barely understood: San Francisco with its sleek, titanium facade and grimy underbelly, Valhalla with its constant, unchanging reenactment of death: stasis and metamorphosis intertwined.

 

*

 

I was so lost in thought I nearly crashed into Volund as he careened around the corner in his combat wheelchair. He lurched in surprise, his forearms bulging as he grabbed his wheels and skidded to a stop. An uncharacteristic grin split his face and softened its contours. “Sigrid! You’re back already! Miss me too much?” He rolled closer and added, “Did Odin recall you? Don’t feel bad, love, everyone knew it couldn’t be done.” He swung me sideways onto his lap and wrapped his arms around me, and, for just a moment, I allowed myself to lean into his embrace and breathe his scent: smoke, iron, sweat, and something so particular to him it made my heart leap. He buried his face in my wing feathers and whispered, “Why don’t you let me cheer you up?”

I turned Volund’s face with my hand so I could smile into his eyes. “What makes you think I need cheering up?” I cocked my head toward the great hall and the faint cheering still emanating through the wall. “You’ve underestimated me again.” His eyes widened.

“You really did it. You reaped the soul of a new warrior.” He looked skeptical. “Can he fight? Olrun tells me that on Earth now they fight with great machines, and that soldiers drop fire from the sky in flying carts. Is your warrior one of those?”

“No.” I sighed, fidgeted, and decided to tell the truth. “To be honest, I’m still not sure what drew me to this man, Volund. He has none of the physical strength or skill I would expect from one of the Einherjar, yet I felt the same pull I used to, back in the old days. It was faint, but it was there. There is some kind of spark within him, a kind of desperate courage I have never seen. Still, I can hardly imagine 800 of him marching with Odin into war.”

Volund looked thoughtful. “I will have to meet him to properly understand what you mean. I’m sure he will need training and weapons, and then he will come to me. In the meantime, I want to show you something.” He turned abruptly and wheeled us around the corner and along a small path, rattling and jolting over the uneven ground. His workshop stood beneath a massive yew a short distance from the hall. Like every building in Valhalla, it appeared to have simply evolved as part of the landscape, but while the great hall’s golden shingles and pale wood evoked a stand of tall autumn birches, Volund’s cottage crouched beneath the tree like a hulking, weather-worn stone.

I hopped off his lap and watched him open the door: the door handle, like everything else in his workshop, had been built lower to accommodate his reach, and as usual I found comfort in watching my old friend navigate a space that so entirely suited him. He led the way to a sturdy chest along the wall and lifted out several sheets of mail, which jangled in the spell-enforced silence of his cabin. Leaving the mail on the workbench, he pulled a box from the bottom of the chest and handed it to me.

“Things happened so suddenly we didn’t have time to talk before you left. But while you’ve been away I’ve thought about the world you went to and what you might need there.”

I opened the box and lifted out a metal bracelet, deceptively light for its size, an intricate masterpiece of woven silver and brass. Volund watched as I held it up to the light. “You have all your own armor already,” he explained, “And I figured you’d need guidance more than protection anyway. I connected this mail with an inverted runic pattern - the light shines through it in the shape of the warrior rune, see?”

I looked and, sure enough, the rune Tyr sparkled at me through the twisted metal. No matter how I turned the bracelet, the rune moved to the center of my vision, somehow remaining clear despite being made out of air, existing only in the space between metals. Like all jewelry made by the warrior-smith, the bracelet seemed to have a life of its own, sparkling even with no sun and slightly warm to the touch. The detail was awe-inspiring. As a child, I had once seen a famous armring owned by our local chieftain. Etched with battle scenes, it was said to make the wearer impervious to pain. That armring, while impressive, would have looked like a piece of scrap iron next to this one.

“I don’t know what kind of warriors you might find or how you’ll find them; I don’t even know what dying in battle means to you anymore.” Volund looked somber, his eyebrows drawn together in a tight, anxious line. “It worried me at first. I thought you were weakening us, trying to turn Valhalla into something it isn’t meant to be. I still think that a little. How can warriors who know nothing about us and don’t understand our weapons help against ice giants and the world serpent? I thought you might not find your way back, that you were on a fool’s errand and you’d never find a soul that allowed you to return.”

“Slow down, you’ll overwhelm me with your confidence,” I said drily, leaning against the workbench. “So you assumed I would fail and you made me a warrior bracelet to console me?”

Volund made a growling sound of frustration and shook his head. “Let me finish. The bracelet is strong and flexible, it can stop a blade, and its gaps, the spaces between the rings, are shaped to imitate a warrior’s spirit."

I nodded to show I was listening, but didn’t interject. I still didn’t quite follow, but knew Volund well enough to know he’d get to the point faster on his own.

“It contains a longing for the type of person who excels here,” my old friend continued. “It will respond to the presence of heroes and poets, those who belong in sagas.” He looked at me. “I’ve been stuck in my ways for a long time, Sigrid. Everyone here has. This is a peace offering. I don’t fully understand your mission, but I’ve realized it’s important that you try. I can’t be the only one here who has wondered what’s going on with the gods. 800 years ago the last new Einherja crossed our threshold and still there has been no war. Fenrir has not attacked. Loki hasn’t been heard from in years. Why? What has happened to the world in our absence? Now you’ve returned and changed all of it. Even if you never find another soul, you’ve created real doubt that this endless repetition is right for us. Maybe you’ll even come back with some answers.”

I handed him back the bracelet and held out my arm to him. A smile broke across his face as he slid it over my wrist and to its place halfway up my forearm. I still hadn’t

responded to his gift, and I honestly didn’t quite know how. Since that fateful night when, sloppy with mead and frustration, I had bragged to Odin that I could change our afterlife, no one in Valhalla had treated me as anything other than a deranged fool too stubborn to go back on a drunken bet. The weeks in San Francisco had led me to doubt myself - I’d entered the modern world insanely ignorant and still barely understood my place there, yet without souls to collect, I couldn’t cross between worlds. As I stood there, gazing at a man I had loved for centuries and whose arrogance had infuriated me since we’d met, the fear I’d kept suppressed began to drain away. I was home. I hadn’t exiled myself. If I could find one soul, if I could return once, I could do it again. And if I wanted anything in my life to change, I would have to.