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Chooser of the Slain

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She was born on the day when the great wolf Sköll devoured the Sun.

When the day turned unexpectedly into night, the Maiden King Jófast cried out in the pain of her labour, and when the light returned, a far smaller voice came with it.

They named the girl Dís.

She was raised in her mother's Hall, among the housecarls and shieldmaidens of the Maiden King's hird. They taught her to wield the axe and the spear and above all the sword, to stand in the shield wall and to fight in the holmgang.

In the evenings she'd listen to her mother's advisors – the old skald Gorm, who'd sing the tales of the old Gods, the monk Willerich, who'd preach of the White Christ and his jealousy, and the völva Svana, who'd mock the pair of them. The three of them had been inseparable even before the sun had struck all three of them with blindness on the same day as Dís was born.

At thing and whenever the Maiden King would sit in judgment, Dís would be at her feet or, later, at her side, listening as judgment was made and fights settled without bloodshed.

And so the girl grew into a woman, fierce and wise and well-loved by her people.

She never did hear the whispers in the corners of the hall, whispers of an absent and unknown father. Some of the whispers were ugly things, of a Maiden King bested and left bleeding, and whether they were true or not, it was probably for the best that the girl never heard them.

***

On the morn of the Winter Solstice in her 16th year Dís woke to find a wondrous falcon cloak lying by her bed. Wrapped in it, she stepped outside in the cold winter morning, and saw – among the horses in the fold – a wondrous grey filly, which had not been there the day before.

The Maiden King Jófast did not cry at finding her daughter chosen. She embraced the young woman and she gifted her the fine weapons she had kept ready for her daughter's first proper battle these last few years, and she sacrificed the stallion one of her shieldmaidens had been trainining for the girl to bring her daughter fortune in her new life.

In general, the people agreed that the life of a Valkyrie was a proper life for the daughter of a Maiden King – except for Willerich the monk, who muttered darkly of old demons and wept when she kissed his forehead as she took her leave.

***

Time passes differently for the Valkyries. They do not count the turn of the seasons, the way mortals do, they count the battles – the victories and defeats that call them.

Even so, gradually, it began to seem to Dís as if those battles and the duty of choosing the champions of them, those who were to fall and be raised up and brought to the doors of Valhalla and Folkvangr – as if they were growing less common. As if years and even decades would pass without men and women taking to the battlefield.

Sometimes, when a battle did unfold, she would find herself looking around her, at the Valkyries assembled, and it would seem to her, somehow, that they were not as many as they once had been.

”I do not see Hervör of the Swann Cloak?” she asked her sister Halla, youngest of the Valkyries excepting only Dís herself.

”Nay, you wouldn't,” Halla answered. ”She settled with a smith these many moons ago.”

”I do not see our sister Sigrún?” Dís asked.

”Nay, you wouldn't. She settled with a Saxon these many moons ago.”

”I do not see our sister Brynhildr?” Dís asked her sister Halla for the third and final time.

”Nay, you wouldn't,” Halla answered, her face briefly twisted with distaste. ”She got herself entangled with a dragonslayer these many moons ago.”

”Ah,” said Dís, and that was the end of that conversation.

***

It was a morning in the spring when Dís felt the call once more.

She wrapped her falcon cloak around her and left behind the small hut in the northern mountains of her mother's old lands that she had claimed for own, and went forth to find her horse.

As she rode south, following the call to battle, she felt her sisters joining her, the hoofbeats of their mounts echoing like distant thunder. As she pulled up and landed, carefully, on a single cloud above the battlefield to be, she looked around her with dismay. So few? So few for a battle that called to them all like a lit beacon? They should have been darkening the sky, ready to gather Einherjar for Odin's armies, not – not this scattering of mounted women waiting among the clouds as far beneath them ships of iron and steel drew closer to one another.

And then something – something angrily noisy like an overgrown wasp and trailing smoke like a wounded dragon – came plunging out of a cloud and very nearly collided with her. She barely managed to pull her mount aside, yet somehow had time to see the face staring back at her from the flying thing, open mouthed and wide eyed.

The face of a man.

She didn't ever actually decide to follow him down, she simply acted. And when the flying, smoking thing plunged into the deadly cold waters of the Northern Sea, she wrapped her falcon cloak tight and leapt from the back of her mount and followed him down.

He was unconscious by the time she got him out of the water and threw him on the grey sands of the nearest beach. Dimly, she felt her sisters gathering around them.

”Why did you do that, sister?” Halla asked. ”It is not our place to save them.”

”But he flew!” Dís said. ”I must know: since when do men fly?”

And she turned back, ignoring the disapproval of her sisters.

Eventually, the man regained consciousness, retching sea water and shivering, before properly noticing the women surrounding him.

”You are a man!” Dís said, kneeling by his side and drawing his gaze away from her older sisters, away from the shadows and the blood of them.

”Well – well, yes,” he stuttered, confused. ”Don't I look like one?”

”But you flew! Men don't fly!”

”Haven't you ever seen an airplane before? I mean, I'm pretty sure you have them in – is this Denmark?” and he looked around at the empty, grey beach. ”Wait – where did they go? I mean – I could have sworn I saw a group of horsewomen? And you! I saw you! In the clouds! I saw...”

He blinked, then allowed himself to lie back on the sand.

”I must be losing my mind.”

***

Eventually the locals came, bringing warm, woolen knitwear and bitter, piping hot drink, hustling the both of them off to a kitchen with a hot oven, while men looked out at sea and muttered darkly through bushy beards.

Later still, other men came – serious men in stiff clothes, driving a strange cart that was pulled by neither horse nor oxen. They took her flying man with them and she followed.

”Wait – why are you coming?” he asked, the man named Steve. ”Shouldn't you stay here, safe at home?”

”This is not my home,” she replied. ”And I am curious about you.”

”But you can't just follow me? I don't even know your name!?”

”I am Dís, daughter of King Jófast,” she replied and that was that.

The serious men did not even bother to ask, simply made room for her in the cart.

It was days upon days in small rooms, of serious men asking serious questions and people shouting into strange contraptions, and she looked at it all with curiosity. Gone were the halls she remembered, gone were the swords and axes of warriors, gone were the dragon-headed ships of old.

The ship to which they were eventually escorted was made of metal and spewed stinking smoke as passengers boarded.

”You should stay here, where it's safe and the War won't come,” he tried as they looked up at the ship. ”Even if this isn't your home. You won't be safe if you follow me. I'll be going back to the War.”

”Good,” she replied. ”I should like to see your war, if it is as new as the rest of this world.”

***

As it turned out, Steve's war was further away than he'd implied.

The journey to it brought her to a city as great as the Miklagard that her sister Halla had spoken of a time or two, where a woman frowned at her chainmail, and men looked down their noses at her – though at least she had the satisfaction of defeating a pair of nithings in proper combat, leaving Steve gaping at her.

Still, she was pleased to finally leave that place, though not the woman, who had been kind and gifted Dís with new clothes and tiny pieces of paper with her likeness.

”Diana Prince?” Steve had asked, frowning at the paper.

”Well, she can't very well go around without some sort of ID, now can she? And it's not as if calling herself Dís, daughter of King Jófast is going to make anybody take her seriously.”

”You can't just go around renaming people, Etta!”

”What does it mean, this name you wish to give me? Diana?” she asked.

”Well – she was a goddess in Ancient Rome. The goddess of the moon and of the hunt, I believe. More importantly, people sometimes shorten it to Di, so...”

But Diana interrupted her, kissing her cheek and sliding a ring of twisted gold off her arm.

”I thank you, Etta Candy, for this gift you've given me.”

As they walked towards the new ship, Steve kept glancing back at Etta.

”So – I guess you like the sound of Diana, then?”

***

Steve's war, when they finally found it, was a dismal thing.

Where were the warriors singing songs of glory and drinking their fill before joining the shield wall? Where were the poets to remember the victories? For that matter, where were the victories?

Steve's war was the crying of the wounded, it was children drowning in mud and men hiding from air as lethal as a serpent's bite. How could they ever hope for Valhalla, these warriors, if they never actually fought? If they never came face to face with their enemies?

So she led them.

The conquest of the village was a small victory, but still, it seemed to rouse them. She smiled at their cheers and raised her eyes to skies to watch her sisters descend...

Except the skies were empty.

But how was that possible? Where were they? Had they somehow gotten lost? But – but they had to come! If they did not come, if they did not choose the fallen worthy of Odin's armies – then what was the point of the war in the first place?

”What's the matter, Di?” Steve asked, bringing her ale and sitting down by her side. ”We won today! Thanks to you.”

”I am wondering about the point of this war. Tell me, Steve – what kings are fighting here? What are they fighting for?”

”Well – that's a little bit complicated. You see, there was this Duke named Ferdinand...”

As he finished his explanation, she looked at him in horror.

”They are all just fighting for nothing! There's no glory in this war, no honour, no prize to be won. That's what you're telling me!”

”Not for nothing, Diana! Look around you! Look at all these people you saved today! That's what we're fighting for! That's the only prize worth having!”

Yet still she was troubled.

”How can this be permitted?” she asked herself in the still of the night, having slipped away from a sleeping Steve's arms and climbed onto the roof, gazing up at the moon, her new name sister. ”How can Odin allow a war without glory, a war that does not even feed his armies?”

In the morning, as they prepared to leave the village to go further behind enemy lines, the grey mare was waiting for her. She fed it apple slices and patted its soft nose.

Steve was staring.

”So – I guess I wasn't hallucinating.”

”I never said you were. I'm sorry, Steve, I must go. I need answers and I cannot find them here.”

”Will you at least come back?”

”Yes. I promise. Once I have my answers, I'll find you.”

With that, she mounted the grey mare and took to the skies.

***

The road to Valhalla was one she knew well. She had travelled it many times.

Across the skies to the lands beyond the northern winds, then across the rainbow bridge, past the farms and halls of the gods to the great, gold-glittering hall of Odin himself, stretching across the horizon without beginning or end.

At the gates of Valhalla she dismounted, then hesitated for a moment, leaning against the grey mare. This far and no further had she gone, leaving heroes at the threshold, letting the sisters she knew she had beyond the gates welcome them with brimming horns and heavily laden tables.

This far and no further.

Eventually, she screwed up her courage and entered to meet her god and king.

The hall beyond the gates was vast, like a battlefield that had somehow, impossibly, been covered with a roof and surrounded by walls.

And it was empty.

Silent.

There was a dais in the hall and a throne on the dais. It seemed miles away, but lacking a more obvious goal, it would have to do.

Diana walked through the hall, past toppled tables and benches. Under her feet, tiny ancient bones crumbled to dust with barely a sound, and more than once she had to fight her way through huge cobwebs, as if the spiders had been free to mind their business for untold years.

Eventually, she climbed the dais. The throne gleamed like gold before her. On either side of it lay wolves – long-dead beasts, dried and shrivelled things. Alive, each would have been large enough to eat a man whole. Around them lay golden cups and scattered chess pieces.

She was standing at the very heart of Valhalla, at the seat of Odin's power – and not a single living soul was here.

”Hello?” came a voice. ”Is somebo...” and it broke down coughing, sputtering and sneezing.

She followed the sound, down from the dais and around it.

It was a head. Silver-haired and shrivelled, coughing and rolling back and forth on the filthy floor.

It was a head and she knew his name.

”Mimir?”

”I – yes. Yes, I'm Mimir. And who are you then?” he asked. Having stopped rolling himself, he was now trying to roll his eye far enough back in his head to get a proper look at her.

She bent down and picked him up and put him on a stool.

”Ah, that's better. My thanks, Lady?”

”I am Diana of the Valkyries. Mimir – Mimir, what happened here? Where's Odin? Where are the Einherjar preparing for Ragnarok?”

”For Ragnarok? But child, don't you know? Ragnarok came and went centuries ago. That's why it's empty here. There's nothing more to prepare for.”

”But – but how can that be? I am a Valkyrie. I have chosen from amongst the slain, I have carried heroes to the gates of Valhalla. How did I not notice Ragnarok happening? Was it all for nothing?”

”I don't know, child. I have lain in the dust for centuries, and even the wisest cannot answer questions without a chance to gather knowledge.”

Diana felt her legs give way under her and she sat down heavily on the edge of the dais.

”I came all this way for answers and all I find are more questions.”

”That's – not necessarily true,” Mimir offered. ”Look behind you. That is Hliðskjálf, the high seat of Odin himself. Whosoever sits in it can see all nine realms laid out before them. Whatever questions you have, if answers are to be had in this place, it'll be there.”

”I see.”

Perhaps she hesitated at the thought of her presumption. Perhaps not. Whether one or the other, eventually she climbed the dais and sat on the throne.

”Oh.”

”Child? What do you see?”

”I see Odin.”

”Odin? But that's not possible. Ragnarok happened long ago. He was lost to Fenrir's mad hunger. It can't possibly be Odin that you see. You must be mistaken!”

”See for yourself,” she replied, picking up Mimir and putting him down on Hliðskjálf before starting her trek back towards the gates.

***

The journey back to Midgard felt longer than the journey to Valhalla. She drove the grey mare to go faster, ever faster, and even so it took an eternity.

She found Steve again, lurking outside a military base. He'd acquired cuts and bruises since she left him, along with a haunted look.

”They murdered them. The entire village, Diana! Killed them all in some sort of twisted dinner entertainment!”

He pointed through the fence at another flying machine, bigger than the one he had crashed into the Northern Sea, a raging wolf painted on its side.

”They're loading canisters of the poison gas they used on that plane. They'll kill thousands, Diana. All those boys back in the trenches.”

For a moment she hesitated – right now she knew where she needed to go to get her answers, right now she knew where to seek Odin – but the thought of the dead villagers made her sick to her stomach. It was never truly a choice.

Steve felt awkward as she hauled him up behind her on the grey mare. The mare herself tripped, unused to the extra weight of a living man, but when Diana clicked her tongue and kicked her heels, she responded as always.

Steve's shriek turned to exulted laughter as they cleared the fence.

And then something struck them as she was turning the mare, something sending them tumbling to the ground, all three of them – Valkyrie and mount and man.

”I'm afraid I can't let you do that, little carnage-maid.”

There was something vaguely familiar about the man walking closer and bending down to pick up the spear that had struck her mount, blood dripping from its point.

”Sir Morgan?”

Steve's slurred question jolted her memory – this had been one of those serious men in London, the men who had looked at her and then looked away, dismissing her. Except clearly, she herself had been no more perceptive than they.

”That's not his name,” she said, climbing to her feet and reaching for her sword, placing herself between Steve and the approaching god.

”Oh, but it is my name, little sword-girl. I have so very many of them, after all – why should I not claim one more for myself?”

”How can you be here?” she demanded, raising her sword as she had been taught so very long ago. ”Ragnarok happened. You should be dead.”

”Ah,” the god laughed. This close, she could see the hollow where his right eye should have been, even through the dark of night. ”Am I not the gallows god? Are those who die in battle not mine by right?”

He stabbed at her with his spear, but she dodged, danced around him, making him turn to keep an eye on her and her sword.

”It was such a simple trick, once it came to me. Why have the Valkyries gather the slain for me, when I could claim them for myself? That's all it took, really.”

A second stab and a second dodge and he turned once more. Over his shoulder, she could see the grey mare struggling to her feet despite the bleeding cut in her shoulder.

”To glut myself on death every few years – and why not? They are just humans! I made them in the old days. Are they not mine to unmake?”

Diana thought of the villagers, dancing and drunk and happy in their freedom. She thought of Etta Candy and her kindness, she thought of her mother, long dead, and the people of her childhood. She thought of Steve, struggling to his feet behind the Valfather's back and awkwardly climbing onto the grey mare as the flying machine roared to life.

”So you see, little Valkyrie, I cannot let you stop that plane. Not tonight. This body grows older and the death it will sow will give me enough to last for a hundred years.”

Diana didn't answer in words.

She merely leapt at him, sword raised.

It was hardly a fair fight. She was a Valkyrie, true, but he was a god, old and dreadful, and he laughed as they fought, and his spear dripped with her blood soon enough. But then, all she needed was to stall for time – just a little, really – as the grey mare followed the flying machine into the air, as it somehow, impossibly, managed to endure the pain of its hurts just long enough for Steve to tumble from its back and down onto the wolf plane.

She struck at the god before her and somehow managed to draw blood.

He laughed at her.

”Do you really think you can defeat me?” he asked, eye bright with madness.

”You should have died long ago,” she said, slowly, things starting to slot into place. ”You should have died at Ragnarok – except only the Valkyries decide who die in battle. It is our duty and our privilege.”

”Careful, little Dís,” the god warned, laughter silenced, and once more he struck with his spear.

”That's why the Valkyries still ride, isn't it? Somehow, you hid Ragnarok from them. From us. Kept the call of that battle silent the way you've kept most of this battle from us. Kept it to yourself.”

”And why do you complain about that?” the god demanded. ”You had barely drawn breath when Ragnarok happened. You'd have never been called to your duty if I had not done as I did. You'd have been dead and gone centuries ago. Dust! Is that what you want? To die? I am the lord of the dead! Come closer, little Valkyrie, and let me help you along.”

Once more she barely managed to dodge the spear. Blood was dripping from many cuts and wounds and she could feel herself grow tired. Just a little more, she thought, just a few words.

Just a few simple words.

”Odin! Valfather! I am Diana, Dís of the Valkyries, daughter of the Maiden King Jófast! I am the last of the Choosers of the Slain!”

His roar was an impossible thing, like a wounded beast, and he leapt at her with the spear raised to kill.

”This will be your final battle!”

There. It was said. Now she could die.

Except something with blunt teeth grabbed hold of her falcon cloak and yanked her back, away from Odin's spear, and somehow she managed to stumble to her feet and cling to her mount as it carried her away from the angry god.

And then something huge and roaring descended from above, shrieking metal and burning fur and gas and fang-filled jaws spread impossibly wide, wide enough to devour the sun and the moon and the world entire.

The exploding airplane crashed down on Odin and Fenrir swallowed him whole.

***

Halla found her, eventually, on some tiny nameless island somewhere in the storm-tossed sea.

She dismounted and went to Diana's side and sat down next to her.

”Did you know? The rest of you?”

”Not at first,” she answered. ”But eventually we started to suspect that something was different. Some of us decided to leave, to return to Midgard and live out their lives there. The rest of us? Some of us had nowhere else to go and some of us had no desire to change. And so we kept going.”

”You should have told me.”

”Perhaps.”

They sat in silence, then – for a time.

”What will you do now, little sister?”

”What is there for me? There is no point in our task anymore – it's as useless a thing as this war that's raging – and my home vanished centuries ago.”

”Seems to me,” Halla offered, slowly, ”that you were making yourself a new home these last few weeks.”

”Perhaps I was. Perhaps I'll even go back to Midgard. But not right now. Not when Steve just died.”

”Mmmm. Died a hero or so I hear.”

Diana froze, then slowly turned to look at her sister.

”You didn't.”

”Nay, I did not. Sanngriðr did.”

”Sanngriðr? Our oldest sister, the one who never takes off her mail or even bothers with cleaning off the blood? That Sanngriðr? But why would – nevermind. What's the use? Valhalla is nothing but shadows and echoes. His shade will just crumble to dust there anyway.”

”Well, yes, if she'd taken him to Valhalla. But since she took him Folkvangr...”

”But he's a man?! Freya's halls were always set aside for the shieldmaidens?!”

”She is the goddess of love. More importantly, she survived Ragnarok just fine, and her halls with her.”

Halla smiled and reached out to pat her sister's knee, than climbed to her feet.

”You should take some time to think, little sister. You've got some important decisions to make now, but there's no rush. Besides, your mare still needs to heal properly before she'll be fit for a trip as far as Asgard.”