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  • Writer's pictureLaurel Knight

Valkyrie Fallen - Chapter 1




Brenna

*

I knew my life was over the second I spotted the crow.


All crows have that beady-eyed, willing-to-peck-your-eyeballs-just-to-steal-your-sandwich look, but this one sent a shiver up my spine. I recognized this crow.


It wasn’t every day you spotted a divine fucking bird.


This crow had haunted my dreams for the last thousand years. Ever since Odin banished me from Valhalla, and I turned his curse on its head. Instead of remaining in the village where he put me, destined to be his plaything for eternity when the mood struck, I earned my freedom by being the best damned shield maiden they’d ever seen. Even without my magical armor, no one could match me. I gained the Jarl’s favor and eventually earned enough gold to strike out west. I still had stashes in banks all over the world: handfuls of trinkets that were treasured when they were made, but now were absolutely priceless to the people who collected such things. 


I didn’t stay put in any one place for too long. Five years in Amsterdam, four in Los Angeles. Moving around kept me from getting too comfortable, from being too easy to find. I colored my hair, changed my look, reinvented myself over and over. Right now I was rocking a hardcore grunge style, complete with holey jeans, a weathered old flannel, and a beanie on my dyed-black tresses. The 1990s were a great time, and I was legitimately happy some of the fashion trends had returned. Doc Marten’s were way more comfortable than the spike heels popular in the early 2000s.


So, despite the way my heart skipped, I knew the crow wasn’t certain I was Brenna the banished valkyrie. He stood out among the pigeons, but no one else paid him any mind. You saw a lot weirder things on the streets of New York City.


But this meant it was time to go.


Hughin had found me several times before, although he didn’t know it. As soon as I’d spotted his raven feathers, I packed up and skipped town. Changing my hair color and clothing style, I altered my appearance enough, and the bird was fooled… most recently, a few decades ago in London.


He was a divine bird, but still just a fucking bird.


Hughin traveled through the nine realms at Odin’s bidding, keeping his beady eyes on things and reporting back to the all-father. I knew, or at least suspected, that Odin wanted him to find me. Last time he’d followed me back to my flat, and I slipped out, disguised, right under his pointy beak.

Sighing, I trudged past and acted as if I took no notice of the giant black bird, just like the rest of the New Yorkers streaming along the concrete with me. A mental checklist was already growing in my mind.


I need to get new papers—hopefully Jimmy can handle the rush job.


I need to pick a new look and hair color… maybe more 80s? Big hair, sandy blonde?


I need to break it off with Andre… which is too bad. I had just gotten him trained up in bed the way I liked it, and now I’d have to start over.


I probably need to sell another trinket so I have the cash to hole up for a while.


Hughin wouldn’t make a move until he was certain it was me. He’d follow me around for a few days as I made my preparations, and then one day I’d give myself a makeover and he’d be completely thrown when I gave him the slip.


Grinning to myself, I imagined the fury that would rain down on Asgard when Odin once again realized he lost. I slipped into the coffee shop, then sent a couple of quick texts to get things in motion before my shift started.


I didn’t really need the money, but it was easier to blend in when you were just another grungy 20-something working a shitty job with dreams of making it big someday. It was easier for other people to relate to me, and I needed to look like I belonged. Odin would expect me to be a loner, to avoid relationships at all costs, to preserve my secret.


So I had lots and lots of friends. Wherever I went, I was the most charming social butterfly anyone had ever met. I’d find a community that fit my new identity and insert myself in like a well-worn glove fit with the perfect hand. I was so good at it now, I scarcely needed to try. 


While I pulled shots of espresso and added foam to cappuccinos, I mentally sketched out the basis of my new identity. She’d be the bubbly cheerleader type. Perhaps Jimmy could rustle up some sorority letters and a college degree, and I could negotiate a receptionist job at some boring, taupe-colored office. Maybe I’d try the Midwest again. I’d been nearly bored to tears in Omaha, but perhaps I should try Minnesota. There were still ten US states on my checklist, and it wouldn’t be hard to affect the accent—I’d seen Fargo.


By the time I finished my shift, I had an entirely new life sketched out. I shoved the fistful of bills and coins from the tip jar into the pocket of my baggy jeans, locked up the coffee shop, and pretended not to see the crow now perched on a streetlight across the street, watching me.


And that is when fate—or perhaps Odin—intervened.


*


I felt the energy in the air shift. It was just like before a battle: currents of electricity coursed through the wind, raising the hairs on my neck and electrifying my senses.


Someone was going to fight.

Someone was going to die.

I would need to choose.


No!


I fought the urge to seek the battle and send the winners to Valhalla. It had been over a thousand years, but it was still as difficult as the first day I refused to do Odin’s bidding.


Choosing the Victorious Fallen was what I pledged to do. Selecting the best fighters, the most outstanding warriors, to join Odin’s party and wait for Ragnarok was my purpose in Valhalla.

Until I just couldn’t do it anymore.


But the instinct was still there. As much as I’d tried to fight it, it inevitably drew me to the fighting.

And oh, how many battles there’d been.


I thought the wars waged in Odin’s honor were epic; I had no idea that men would continue to find newer, better ways to kill each other. 


Throughout the dark ages, the Middle Ages, the great bloody battles over small tracts of land in Europe, I fought the urge to walk among the dead and test their soles with my magical Valkyrian blade.


It always seemed that as soon as I believed I’d adapted and overcome the urge, the wars grew again. Fortunately, I couldn’t risk traveling too far east, or too far south; my coloring would not have blended with the locals and I would have attracted too much attention. That spared me the bloody battles of Chinese and Turkish expansionism.


But there was plenty of war waged by pale-faced humans to keep me occupied.


I was drawn to the battles like a moth to the flame. It was just too much; the power of so many souls begging for afterlife. During the Great War and World War Two, I found work as a nurse to be near the newly dead. Most of these were not elite warriors that longed for Valhalla. They were scared boys, who took bullets within minutes of touching their feet to the dirt on a foreign land. Modern weapons ruined battle—there were no more epic sword fights, no true battling. Just sprays of metal and gases and other ways to kill a man that were too horrible to mention.


Nevertheless, the valkyries came.


I couldn’t see them, not anymore. Odin had made sure of that. He swore I’d never see my sisters again.


I thought he meant I wouldn’t be allowed among them any more. Little did I know, he meant he’d physically prevent me from being able to see them, as if I were just a regular human.


I still felt their presence on the battlefields as the bloodied and soiled medical teams searched for survivors. 


The valkyrie were there, searching for the Victorious Fallen. Walking among the bodies, testing the souls with their magical blades. Occasionally, I felt the release as they sent one to Valhalla.


I cried for those men.


Because they were doomed. Doomed to endless days of battle, feasting and celebrating the end of the world, only to do it all over again the next day.


Odin sold this fantasy of his army built for Ragnarok, this glorious host that would feast with him and ride out to meet the end of the world.


Only the end never came, and they trapped those poor souls in a never-ending party of horrors.

They fought, they laughed, they feasted in the halls of Valhalla.


And at night, when they slept, they cried. They screamed in terror, in fits of loneliness and agony, missing the family that had long since died and gone to whatever heaven the new gods offered them. 

This was no glorious host, no magnificent party of warriors and winners.


This was a million souls, doomed to endure the same torment every day for eternity.


And so when I felt the pull, the draw in my belly to go to the battle and select the Victorious Fallen for Odin’s mighty host, I fought against it with every fiber of my being. My magical blade, concealed within a guitar case, shivered in excitement.


I continued my trudge down the street toward my apartment, careful to act normally under the penetrating gaze of the beady-eyed crow.


But it seemed the bird was smarter than I gave him credit for.


After so many centuries of slipping away right under his beak, he finally figured me out.

This time, he didn’t wait for me to react.


This time, he brought the battle to me.


*


From the shadows of an alley between me and my apartment stepped four large, menacing men, forcing me to pause. At first glance, there was nothing unusual about them; they appeared like any losers that hung out on the street corners at night, looking for trouble. One casually cracked his knuckles and gave me a sly grin, while another leaned against the nearby building and leered at me suggestively. The third hung back, just making sure I didn’t have a clear path beyond them short of hurtling myself into the street.


But the biggest wasn’t looking at me at all. His stormy grey eyes focused on my guitar case.

And that’s when I knew this was no coincidence.


New York was full of musicians. Students who attended elite music schools. Hopefuls who played troubadour in the subways or on the streets for donations. People who snagged small gigs in coffee shops and tiny bars, hoping they’d get talent spotted and hit it big.


As part of my cover, I learned to play just enough guitar to get away with the story that I was taking lessons.


But anyone looking at me would expect that I had a crappy, cheap acoustic guitar in my beat-up case. It wouldn’t be an item of interest to anyone but the most desperate tweaker who needed to get his next fix.


This man was a little too clean to be an average street thug. Although his clothes fit the bill, his body hinted at a generous, healthy diet. His face was neatly shaved. His grey eyes were sharp, calculating, cold.


“What’s in the case, sweetheart?” The man smiled at me, but it didn’t reach his eyes and his expression didn’t match the menacing tone in his voice.


I tried to play it off.


“Uh, I dunno genius, what do you think would be in a guitar case?” Slouching, I snapped my gum as if I were bored and annoyed rather than on high alert. My cover was a tough-girl hipster trying to make her way in the world, and she didn’t have time for this bullshit. I whipped out my phone and snapped a picture of them, then tapped at the screen. “Congratulations, I just sent that to my friend who’s waiting for me two blocks up, and told her to call the cops if I’m not there in five minutes. Are you going to get out of my way, or do we have a problem?”


“Hey, we have no problems, girl. We just want to see your guitar. Why don’t you play us something? Maybe we’re the big break you’re looking for.”


I snorted. “Not likely. For one, talent scouts don’t hang around in dark alleys waiting for their victims—sorry, clients—to wander by. Second, I don’t play on the street. Third, you’re pissing me off.” I held up my phone with ‘911’ entered on the dial screen and hovered my finger over the dial button. “Do you want me to hit this, or are you going to let me pass?”


The big one stared me down with cold eyes. “You’re not going to hit that button.”


“Try me.”


“No need. I know you won’t hit it because you don’t want attention. You don’t want to explain to the cops why you have a giant sword in your guitar case, which they will definitely want to see when we tell them about it.”


I rolled my eyes. “You’re out of your mind. I have a guitar in my guitar case. I realize that’s a stretch for you to believe, but it’s the truth.”


“Oh, of course you do. But underneath it, in the false bottom, you have a sword. A sword, from what I’m told, that is precious. One might say priceless. So we’re here to collect it, and then you can be on your merry way, with your guitar.”


“Uh, pass. I’ll be heading on my merry way with all of my possessions intact, because what’s in my case is none of your fucking business.” Tapping the button on my phone, I lifted it to my ear, tightening my grip on the guitar case. “Hi, yes, I’d like to report an attempted robbery at-”


The phone was snatched from my fingers and immediately smashed on the ground. I expected that to happen, and I was already swinging my guitar case at the culprit.


It was no ordinary guitar case, although it looked like one. I had it custom made from thin plates of steel, including the steel cables attached to the handle, then wrapped in the shell of a ratty old case to disguise it. The thug was correct: it had a false bottom that concealed my sword, complete with lead lining that prevented magical spill-over from being felt by those who recognized it.


Above me, Hughin’s beady eyes burned holes in my back. I did not know how, but they definitely staged this little intervention to expose my sword and thereby my identity to the crow. I had to keep my secret under wraps.


The case hit the thug in the arm with a fair amount of force, but he parried the hit and it didn’t knock him down. In the seconds since I’d hit ‘call’ on my now deceased phone, the others had surrounded me. A quick glance up and down the street told me there was no one to intervene nearby… the closest street with foot traffic was several blocks away.


I was on my own. 


Gifted with eternal life, I had a certain amount of—shall we say—vitality that the average human didn’t possess. I also hadn’t wasted my time on this earth. I lived several characters who were deeply interested in martial arts. So I had some skills.


Now, if I pulled out my sword and used the magical power it possessed, I’d easily overpower these men. However, that was the last thing I wanted to do with Hughin watching. 


I had to think smarter.


I crouched, prepared for a fight, when I heard a popping sound reminiscent of a giant soap bubble bursting.


Oh, for fuck’s sake.


Turning my head slightly to glance at the thug over my right shoulder, I confirmed what I already suspected: The third man, the one who’d hung back, was no man at all.


It was Loki, and I was screwed.


Now, this was no hot, modern-era movie, Tom Hiddleston Loki, with limitless powers and a sexy smirk.


This was the real Loki, the freak born of a giant and—according to him—a goddess. A hulking, malicious bastard that cared for no one and nothing that didn’t benefit him to care about. That he appeared in his actual form told me the game was up—he already knew it was me. Otherwise he would have appeared as some kind of sexy temptation and try to talk me into giving up the case first.

Instead he grinned, his wide, craggy face not improved by the gash revealing crooked brown teeth. At nearly seven feet tall, his sudden appearance should have surprised his companions. However, they didn’t blink when he suddenly changed, which confirmed my suspicions they weren’t your average thugs.


“It’s so nice to see you again, Brenna.” He spoke perfectly unaccented English as if it were his native tongue.


I tried to hold my ground. “Buddy, you have me mixed up with someone else. My name is Iris. Neat magic trick, though. Do you do shows around here?”


“You’re not fooling anyone, Brenna. Odin knows it’s you, and because he asked so nicely, I agreed to come collect you.” His grin deepened. “However, I did promise to show proof to his pet first.” He gestured to the ever-watching bird. “So why don’t you bring out the weapon and we can get on with this?”


I was trapped. There was no way I could fight Loki’s magic without my sword in hand. He could easily overpower me and just take it.


But pulling out the sword would mean I gave Hughin the proof he was waiting for. How long would it take for him to report back to Odin? Would I have an hour before he came for me? Less?


One thing was certain: If I didn’t act fast, Loki would decide for me. At least if I took a stand, I might have a chance to run.


Sucking in a breath, I crouched to snap open the case and made a show of lovingly removing my guitar with one hand while the second felt for the flap underneath. I raised the instrument over the top of the case and offered it to Loki. “Here you go, sir. My weapon.”


The others had stepped forward to see it, then reared back in confusion when they realized I was actually holding up a guitar. Loki laughed, a grating sound that resembled a choking bear.

“I do admire your spirit, Brenna. But that’s not the weapon I meant.”


My hand not occupied with the guitar slid under the velvet-lined flap, fingers circling the hilt of my most prized possession as the cold and hot currents of pure power ran up my arm.


“Really? I think you should take a closer look.” I tossed the guitar at his face, tipping the case over and standing fully while my body charged with power. The confident, centered feeling filled me, and I grinned back at Loki while I calculated the shortest route I could take to dispatch them and hide before Odin came looking for me.


Overhead, Hughin flapped his wings and cawed, I assumed taking off to report to Odin. I had to have at least an hour to escape. There’s no way he could be that fast.


What I had no way of knowing: It was already too late.

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