Gil stood with his wives and his grandfather as the crowd milled around them. The wedding feast was in full swing and he’d eyed Ashlyn approaching from across the elegantly decorated dining hall, complete with flowing white banners that hung from the ceiling. The look on her face as she pushed a few long, dark locks from her face, told him she had battle tactics on her mind.
“What are you going to do if this hair brained scheme doesn’t work?” Jack blurted out quickly, sensing the sudden tension as the female drew closer.
“Running like hell certainly comes to mind.” Gil replied.
“That won’t work, not with her, son.” The elder replied with a sigh. “She would run you down before you’d gotten ten yards.”
Gil looked at his Grandfather. It was like looking at himself at times. “If you know something about Malice, something useful, then spill it.”
“Not so much, useful, but if you want to put her off her game, your best bet would be to send, me.” He finished with a sigh.
The younger Swanson looked at his elder like he’d lost his mind. “What? Why?”
Jack thought about it for a second, but it was Ashlyn who answered for him. “Because, they have met before.”
“You met Malice, and never said anything?” Gil’s voice faded off as Jack took a seat and began his tale. “Before, or after she turned?”
“Before.” Ashlyn smiled for him. “She held a fondness for him.”
“A fondness? As in, she loved him?”
“More like, respected him and his opinions. He was as close to her as any Einherjar, without actually becoming one; at the time.”
“It all began in the trenches of the western front in a place called Belleau Wood, back on Earth.” He sighed, closing his eyes and letting the memory take over.
It was the fourth of June, nineteen hundred and eighteen, and Jack Swanson cursed under his breath, for at-least, the fifth time. The Captain had asked one of the prisoners for information on the enemy’s position and from what Jack had witnessed in the moments that followed, things were not going well. The assault, when it finally arrived, would cost his men their lives.
They had been questioning these privates for hours. Men, whose only mistake had been that they’d gotten caught and as they had been focused on the prisoners, night had fallen; bringing with it a fog that covered the battlefield like a veil.
One if the prisoners, a scruffy looking male with short brown hair and a wrinkled brow, looked out over the field, his face growing pale as he cried one word.
Jack chambered a round in his Springfield as he looked out into the mist, his Captain looking his way worriedly.
‘What is it, Gunny? What did he say?’
‘Valkyrie.’ Jack answered, as he sighted down the barrel through the thick clouds.
Sure enough, moving amongst the dead with an elegance about her, was a tall, blonde woman. Dressed in a dark colored armor, she stood over them, as if examining each of them for their worth. As if? No, more like that was exactly what she was doing. Had their lives been honorable? Where did their morals lie?
Occasionally, she’d bend down and an eerie pulse of blue light emanated from her hand before she moved on to the next. She was collecting souls, but would she take any of her own?
The Prisoner on the ground at his feet whispered to the older soldier, fiercely. ‘Get down, you fool. If you meet her gaze you will die.’
‘Get off, you daft bugger.’ Jack cursed as he kicked the man away from his leg.
Distracted for but a moment, the soldier clinging to him as if it were a matter of life and death, he glanced back up, the blonde woman was gone. Jack ran his hand through his sandy-brown hair as the officer called for others to aid them.
‘What do you know about this, Gunny?’ His commanding officer bellowed through the darkness.
‘I’ll tell you what I know, Captain, but you won’t believe me!’ Jack chuckled, rubbing his eyes for another look down the scope.
‘You gonna make me wait, Gunny?’
‘No, Sir, it’s just, this isn’t the first time I’ve seen one, of her kind, I mean.’
‘You’re right, I’m more likely to believe you fell back there and hit your bloody head?’ His Captain shook his head, rolling his eyes at Jack.
‘No joke, Sir. They’ve been walking battlefields for millennia, gathering the worthy. Her kind, the Valkyrie, are what the Norse base all their legends on. Tough and honor-driven; even the Huns feared them.’ Jack was far from finished describing the Goddesses of old, but he could see that his captain was a little concerned with his words.
‘Aren’t you a little old for ghost stories?’ The man glared at him, then shook his head with a chuckle.
‘Not if they keep me alive, Sir.’ Jack admitted with a long, drawn out sigh.
‘Alright then, if only to ease your mind, you can hold the position here while I check on the rest of the men.’
Jack saluted as the officer moved, then returned his sights to the battlefield once again. He was certain he’d seen her. Waiting was his game. He could watch for hours if need be, occasionally sighting down the barrel. She was most definitely out there, he could feel her.
With the glow of the full moon dazzling against the ripples in the fog, the battlefield carried with it an ominous tone. At first glance, it reminded him of the shores of the old country, the way the mist rolled along on the breath of the wind; but he knew better. Sneaking through the no-man’s land on night like this, was nothing more than a death sentence. Each footstep, every heartbeat, all of it magnified. A cough, a sneeze, hell, he could have farted and it too would have drawn enemy fire.
Nonetheless, Jack felt a pull and found his feet carrying him forward; against better judgment. Every fiber of his being was telling him to drop his gun and run, but his feet just wouldn’t bloody well fall in line. They had minds of their own, and soon enough he was knee deep in the dense, white mist.
The further he trod, the thicker it became until a cloud shrouded the moon above, bathing the battlefield in darkness. Visibility was at a zero and the chills were washing over him, a new wave crashing down with each step he took.
‘Bloody hell!’ He let out, looking back over his shoulder at the firelight flickering in the distance.
He’d not realized how far his little jaunt had taken him. Had he lost track of time? Had he lost his mind?
Nothing seemed to make sense and as if by magic, the fog parted. Swirling up like walls, they cut him off from the outside world, the sound of war so very far away. He shuddered, wiping the sweat from his brow and the next thing he knew, standing in front of him at a distance of about a hundred and fifty feet away, was the female. Tall she was, with silver-blonde hair that hung down past her shoulders in thick braids dotted with beads. She was a vision of ethereal beauty, the epitome of elegance and grace walking amongst the corpses of the damned.
There was a flash of light behind her, and Jack tried to make sense of bellowing voice that shouted out in the distance. A warning of sorts, though for the life of him, he couldn’t make out the words.
‘Incoming!’ The voice shouted again and in an instant the fog began to dissipate as the shell screamed towards them.
Instead of taking cover, Jack braced for impact right then and there, running towards the female who seemed rather unconcerned that the artillery fire was about to rain down on top of her. The first shell exploded in a mass of flame and shrapnel behind him, blowing him off his feet to land face down in the dirt a few yards away. Looking up beneath strained brows, he saw a pair of blues eyes dusted with silver, staring back at him above a smile that stopped his heart.
That was the last thing he saw before the next shell was launched and he scurried to his feet. He grabbed hold of her and rolled them both to the ground, covering her with his body as the shell exploded a few feet away. It sent even more shrapnel into the air and left Jack praying to all the Gods that were, to keep it far away from them both. Hesitantly, he lifted his head and took one look around, eyeing the sky for more shells before ordering her, in a mad dash, back to the trenches.
Oddly enough, his new companion still seemed without care in regards to the chaos that was surrounding them. In fact, she was rather amused, a sly grin slipping upon her face. Jack didn’t hesitate this time, filled with a deep-seated need to get himself out of harms way, and pulling his sidearm he cocked the hammer of the Colt nineteen-eleven.
‘Who the fuck, are you?’ He let out in a stammering mess, the weapon aimed at her head.
He knew her, but he didn’t, nor could he make sense of the chaos she’d unleashed in his mind. It was like she was in there, fiddling with his mental inventory. The female smiled, reaching slowly to push the gun out of the way and as soon as her hand touched his, the link was established. He could hear the soft whisper of feminine laughter in his mind and caught the sparks of light in her eyes.
‘My, my, aren’t we fierce. I love them fiery.’ She purred, her words echoing in his head as she circled him, inspecting him. ‘You know who I am, Jack Swanson? Your mother and your foremothers worshipped me. I am one of the choosers, the Dewiswr y Rhyfelwyr, but you can call me Mal.’ She finished with a grin.
Jack stood with gun in hand, his mouth open and his eyes wide. She was a… was a what?
‘Oh shit.’ Jack breathed heavily.
He’d just tackled a Goddess, and yet, she was taking it in stride. Like that sort of thing happened every damn day. Sure, they walked among the dead, but this one was covered in dirt and about ready to laugh her bloody ass off at him.
‘You, do not like dirt?’
‘I guess, when you walk battlefields such as this a little dirt is better than blood.’ Jack sighed, which brought a smile from Malice. ‘Are you here for me?’ He asked, unable to hold his inquiries back.
‘No, Jack Swanson, I do not award valor with death. You acted out of selflessness. Worry not, I am here for them.’ Her eyes turned to the dead and dying whose cries were so quiet, they were but whispers on the wind.
A wave of something rather grim washed over him. She was here for the enemy. Had to be, but why? Valkyrie attended to the honorable and his enemy was far from it; unless, they’d done something, something unthinkable, and she was here to...
‘They have spilled the blood of innocents.’ She hissed, her armor darkening as giant, razor sharp wings appeared behind her.
There was a fine line between combat and wanton murder, and in the tales of old, the Valkyrie were the ones to determine the difference. They were spirits of Karma. Fate, both good and bad. Someone had fucked up big time.
Jack swallowed hard. He didn’t want to be the one she was looking for at that particular moment. She was angry and he could feel her wrath. It was a good while before she relaxed, her demeanor calmer, and Jack was able to breathe again. Fear was choking him, but intrigue was helping to hold back the waves of nausea in his belly and he hoped like hell it would stay ahead of the game.
‘I assure you, we, do not have issues!’ She smiled at him. ‘You and I, we have formed a bond, Jack Swanson.’
‘Uh….’ He managed to choke out, his heart racing in his chest; a rhythm that rivaled the beating of ancient drums.
‘You risked your life to save mine, therefore I owe you a favor, and from the looks of this place, Jack, I may have already repaid it.’
Jack took a good look around and realized where he was standing. Horror filled his veins, burning in recognition of what had been his trench. Everything, had been destroyed and he hurried for his rifle. Mal was quicker, though, handing him the weapon with a grin on her face.
‘Looking for this?’ Her mind spoke to his, one voice among a thousand, all shouting his name.
“Jack? Jack, where are you, Gunny? Sound off you bloody bastard!” The voices were growing louder still as his men searched the ruins of the trench.
“Fine him!” The Captain bellowed, the urgency in his voice sending chills down Jack’s spine.
Jack took his Springfield from Mal and walked around the corner, a little dazed and confused but none the worse for wear. He could feel the Valkyrie’s eyes on his back and wondered if anyone else would be able to see her.
“Are you hit, Gunny? Do you need a medic?” One of the Privates asked, his hands running over Jack’s body in a mad-dash effort to locate any wounds.
“No, you bloody fools!” Jack chuckled back. “I’m alright, now back to your positions before I skin you for leaving your posts!”
Several of them nodded before turning amongst one another with grins on their faces. All but his Captain obeyed his commands, laying his hand on Jack’s shoulder with a smirk before he too, turned away.
“Glad you’re not dead, Gunny!” The male chuckled.
Jack sighed, and made for where he’d left the woman, but when he turned the corner, she was gone. A little panic stricken and with a headache to rival labor, he hung his head and made back for his men. Perhaps he had hit his head…
‘You’ll see me again, as I said, I owe you a favor.’ Her voice sprouted in his mind once more and a rush of warmth filled his chest.
Jack had to sit down and reached into his hip pocket for his flask. He needed to regroup, and a good stiff drink would do to calm his nerves. Again, he sighed as he ran a hand through his hair. Un-fucking-believable.
“A Chooser, ya daft bugger.” Jack chided himself as he raised the flask to his lips again.
It stopped halfway when he realized something. “That minx, she was testing me!” He got to his feet to take another drink and started pacing.
The woman called Malice wanted something. The word ‘favor’ according to his mother, came with a life of its own, which wasn’t necessarily a bad thing unless you decided to offend that which owed such a favor. Tricky business, when a favor could become a death sentence in two-point-five seconds.
“Gunny?” He heard his name and fell back into the cold hard truth of reality.
“Aye?” He called back, rubbing at his eyes.
“Uh, the Captain says to hurry.” The quivering voice replied and Jack turned to see the Private standing before him, pale as a Ghost beneath thick, strawberry-blonde curls.
“I’m coming, tell him to give me a minute!” Jack shook his head and took another swig.
“ He said on the double, Sir! The uh, prisoners are dead.”
Well now, that was completely different and Jack got to his feet, right quick. The Private was all but shaking in his boots as he led Jack across the mass of craters and the smoldering remains of war.
“I don’t know, Gunny, but all four of the prisoners had their throats torn out, by something big.” The Private shuddered as he drew closer and Jack could hear the Captain bellowing orders.
It wasn’t the wounds themselves that gave Jack chills, but the look of terror on the faces of those poor bastards. He knelt down, careful not to get too close, looking at the wounds with a scowl. Five, neat and tidy wounds, if you looked past the fact that they were missing bits and pieces all over. But those five across their throats, as if they were made by razor sharp claws; or talons. He’d seen a set not too long ago, remembering Mal’s words.
“If I didn’t know any better, I’d say that spook of yours is pretty damn real, and clearly, pissed right off. So, I ask you, Gunny, do we have anything to worry about?”
“She…” Jack corrected him, shaking his head as he rose to his feet. “… is not a spook, she’s a warrior, and she’s not after us. She came for them.” He nodded to the blood covered door. They’ve committed war crimes of the most heinous of sorts. If anything, she helped us…” Jack’s words faded off and the fog at the edge of camp floated in, covering all in a blanket of darkness once more.