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The Game In The Choosing

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Halla's horse called himself Gráfaxi, for his colouring, which he much preferred to Hnokki, the name the other horses had given him. Halla, who had always been named by other people, sat with this idea while Gráfaxi grazed and frolicked by the high mountain stream. Steinvor called her Halla Storyscourge now, or sometimes Halla Ratsister, but neither were names she chose for herself. Perhaps to other people she could be what they needed her to be, but for herself and Gráfaxi she would be only Halla.

Who could carry so many names anyway? Let someone else bear the burden.

Gráfaxi liked the grass just below the treeline best, in the secretly lush places of mountain valleys. He said it was hardier there, and that hardy things were always more satisfying. Halla snorted and thought it was just like a Valkyrie's mount to think so, but Steinvor laughed at both of them and said no, Hnokki was just like Halla; they were well suited. All-Father had made it so.

Perhaps he had, but Halla would rather think that she chose her own path now, that the Norns were responsible for only her broad strokes and not her details. All-Father, her Wanderer, might have chosen where she was to go but not how she was to get there; if her story had been written for her she would have gone with Steinvor the first time she'd been asked and never known Kiev or Marob or Micklegard or Novgorod, never known the landscapes and the peoples on them.

One couldn't be a Valkyrie, she thought, without knowing the lands from which you reaped.

"Let me do your hair," said Steinvor once, and plaited the golden strands and bound them up in a crown upon Halla's head. "You don't want it flying in your face as you travel. No one ever taught you to do it right."

It only ever stayed bound as long as it took for Gráfaxi to find her and nuzzle her head and nudge the strands loose around her face again. Steinvor's red plaits seemed somehow more proper, but Halla was a different kind of Valkyrie.

Steinvor liked to claim she taught Halla everything she knew, but it was Gráfaxi who first carried her down from the thunderclouds and shimmied beneath her so she wouldn't fall from his back onto the battlefield, who guided her to one of the fallen and urged her, him, that one, he is worthy of Valhalla because Halla did not feel she could herself yet choose who deserved a place, nor what 'deserved' even meant. Not when it came to heroes, anyway, whom she still tended to mistrust. She understood her duty, seldom as she had to perform it, but the small amount of dragonish nature that Halla retained made it difficult for her to give things away to those she did not feel had earned them, and that included the spoils of Valhalla.

They came west after Holmgard, west first to cloudy mountain peaks and meandering rivers then patchy bits of farmland, flying unburdened over unfamiliar lands. As the men of Halla's homelands spread across other lands so too did the Valkyries, waiting to leap from the sky and bring their heroes home.

At Smoervík they rested on a cliff overlooking the sea, where Halla mended her sleeve and Gráfaxi pawed at the grass and talked about the unfairness of tiny stones that caught in his hooves when he could by flying instead.

"We'll fly soon," said Halla, gazing outward for a moment and letting her mending rest in her lap. "There are other places across this sea. I had a dream last night that I crossed it on a pair of ravens and found vast lands on the other side." Gráfaxi wasn't pleased to hear about her riding ravens instead of him, but Halla understood.

Not satisfied with such weapons as drove back the dragons into hiding places even Halla had not yet found, iron gave way to steel and swords gave way to projectile weapons and the wicked inventiveness of man continued unabated. It did not take Halla long, or at least it did not seem a long time, to understand that battles were still waged but heroes such as the ones they sought dwindled.

It was not only light that Halla travelled now but near invisibly, into a wider world that did not believe in them anymore.

But All-Father's children still roamed the world and until they waged the Final Battle, such as it would be, he would be collecting his warriors.

"This is it, girls. There's going to be a battle tonight," said Steinvor, kneeling by the water and cupping her hand to drink. "Just across the river."

"There are always battles," said Halla. "They are rarely ours."

"This one is," said Steinvor. "Come, my ragged little ratsister. Mount up and be ready, we have heroes to deliver."

Halla's fingers were sticky, honey-soaked from a hive she'd found at the edge of the woods. She licked one hand clean and offered the other to Gráfaxi before gripping his coarse grey mane and swinging herself astride him to leap into the sky with the others.

When the fighting began, Halla and her sister Valkyries swept the battlefield in the thick of it, sometimes almost indistinguishable from the billows of smoke and ash and dust. Halla was going to take the man who had fallen under the tree, impaled and on the verge of death, but she hesitated and Skeggöld swept him up in her place, lifting him back into the black clouds overhead and disappearing.

The one Halla turned to instead was not a large man and not a loud man and not a bold man, but he defended his people and his piece of land and would not back down. And who was to say that this was not the sort of man that All-Father would need in the Last Battle now? They none of them knew what the shape of it would take, and Halla's ideas of it were ever-changing.

His eyes followed her. He had seen her descent.

"What's your name?" said Halla, leaping off Gráfaxi onto the churned earth. The man coughed, and spat out mud. "What do you call yourself?"

"Cyrus," he said, and used his weapon to push himself unsteadily to his feet.

"Halla, what are you doing?" said Steinvor. "Take him and go!"

"Take me where?"

"Valhalla, of course," said Halla. "To the hall of the All-Father." He coughed again, and seemed to be having trouble catching his breath. The battlefield was growing silent, the fallen and the vanished conspiring to dull the din.

"If you want to go," said Halla. "If you want to go, I will take you there."

"We don't ask," said Steinvor.

"We should," said Halla. "We should always ask." For she had been taking without asking, and she knew how fiercely she herself had fought against that, once. How unjust it felt to choose for someone else what their destiny and destination ought to be.

"Who wouldn't want to go to All-Father's hall, to feast and fight and be served by beautiful women?" said Steinvor. "It's every hero's greatest wish."

"No, it's not," said Halla. "And it's not real. There is no food. There is no battle. There are no women."

"They don't know that," said Steinvor. "They'll never know that. Must you always take the difficult road, Halla?"

"I don't want to fight anymore," said the man, "and I don't need the beautiful women. But feasting...feasting sounds real good. Real nice."

"Leave him, then," said Steinvor, then with one last glance at Halla she leapt into the sky with her hero slung across her horse in front of her and they ascended quickly, leaving Halla behind.

She remembered what Steinvor had said to her once, what might have been a long time ago, before Halla had really begun to travel—that the game was in picking them out. In picking them off. But that was her game, not Halla's.

"You can do as you wish in Valhalla," said Halla, "but All-Father will need you in the Final Battle."

"What will he need me to do?"

"I don't know."

"And when will that be?"

"I don't know."

He coughed again, and this time there was blood mingling with the mud. Halla had seen this before. It would not be long now.

"I don't want to fight anymore," he said again, when he had the breath, "but I think I would like to see how everything turns out."

Halla offered him a shoulder and helped him mount Gráfaxi under his own power, but stopped him when he reached for his fallen pack.

"You won't need that," she said. "We shall travel faster and farther without."

"Then let us travel faster and farther," said Cyrus, "and let me see the world as we do."

Gráfaxi took the long way back, over mountains and seas and undulating lands so vast one could never see the edges of them, and as they travelled Halla again knew the love of the Wanderer, and knew in this she was doing right by him.