This story is old.
I wrote it a long while ago- almost a year, I think- and it’s easily one of my better works in my opinion. I’m posting it on site as both an apology and a hint as to things to come. It’s fantasy, natch- I’m still working on the sci-fi story and will be for a while.
‘Forthcoming’ is vague for a reason- my time lately has been limited. As soon as I get home I will be posting Chapter 28 [You have my oath], finally, and then, after I’ve finished the short story [Discord of the Saints], I’ll be working full tilt on Demimind until it’s finished and I can put all of the beautiful chapters in one clean section and start on my next main project.
Thanks for your patience everyone, and I hope you enjoy this new old story.
By Sam Oliver (Eris)
I mean to kill him.
I curse his quickness, jerking my morningstar back into the air, ill-dealt hatred boiling in my belly. Both of us are stained with blood and grit, and the very ground is slick with the sweat of our battles, becoming so much salty mud. Or is it the rain that pours down around us?
I am the guard, however. The time will come when he will slip past me- it has been told, written, and cast down in iron through the ages.
I won’t budge, flinch, or waver.
A raven caws, distracting me for one crucial moment.
A spatter of mud catches me in the face, the force of it spinning me around and clouding my vision. It stings like ten blazes. “Oh, illness take you, Lak, that’s cheating!” I sputter.
Gods beside but I am such a ditz sometimes.
I stumble, come up against a wall, and fall over. A hand catches me in the forehead. My good-for-nothing helmet smacks into the mud with a thunk that seems a total waste.
His runed quickblade dabs at my throat almost gently, splitting my larynx and chopping through my windpipe- also mercifully slicing through my veins. My blood spills over onto the ground, pooling around me as all of it rushes out of me and turns the mud an ever so slightly different shade of boring brown.
Fortunately I’m dead before I can see it.
Or at least, that’s what would have happened if he’d used a real blade. As is it just tapped my throat.
“I win,” He murmurs in his rocky, casual tone.
I grit my teeth and sit up.
“Oh come on.”
I sigh, wiping muck out of my eyes. When I can clear my vision again I stare him in his etched face.
“Why do you go so easy on me? You could have cut my head off. I’d have been gone for a day at most,” I grumble. Lak shrugs his bare, grizzled shoulders. I wince. It always looks like it hurts. He has so many scars.
“Because you’re a girl,” He says gruffly.
He pokes me in the forehead and his voice drips with amusement. “You are. You have a girl’s brain even if you were granted a boy’s body. You’re better at sewing than you are at holding a sword, you can’t curse, you can’t fight to save your life, and even Baldy pushes you around.”
I don’t know how to answer that with words as I stand up.
I don’t. I mean to knee him in his stupid boy balls, but he trips me with obvious ease, knocking me to the ground with one hand and the aid of a cleverly placed foot. I barely see him move.
I thud into the mud. Another trip to the stream to wash up, then. And get the mud out of my hair.
I spit out dirt, push myself to my feet. Lak is offering me a hand but a boy wouldn’t take it, so I don’t.
“Come on, let’s go get something to eat. I’m sure the feast hall is filled- it always is.”
The dining hall is packed, as usual. As from a distance, I watch myself enter and sit down with Lak, watch myself eat my meal, chattering animatedly. My body feels out of control, my words just pour out.
We’re not the only two at our table. We have our own little group- Griz, Laur, Mella.
But no one else sits next to us but those two. I can’t hold my liquor, so I drink tea.
Griz sometimes sneers at me for that. Out of everyone I care for Griz the least.
I don’t think anyone else cares by now. Laur doesn’t drink either, but she’s a bloodslurper, so I guess that’s natural. The darkval seems particularly morose tonight, not even talking to Mella, who I’d naturally assumed was her girlfriend.
And I’d forgotten to hit the stream before I came. Another thing to worry about, then.
A drunk vike with an eyepatch wanders over and all but begs Mella for a date. When she refuses, his words turn rather venomous.
“Bah, who’d take a dyke like you anyway? I’d rather roll with a mare than a bootsniffing sadfaced darkval-lovin’-”
In slow motion, I watch myself stand.
I watch myself say something.
He responds with a stream of abuse and raises a hand. I watch myself cringe. I watch him laugh.
Lak moves. To the vike’s credit, he has pretty good senses.
The vike whirls, and meets Lak’s hand coming the other way. The scarred demi’s strength and speed are nearly unparalleled, and the man is knocked on his end, then over backwards he goes. He’s unconscious before his head strikes the floor.
I watch myself flee the suddenly silent feast hall.
As soon as my foot strikes the outside I hear the roar of a brawl start up. A chair follows me out.
The stream is perfect. Its temperature is wonderful, and feels great as I wash the dirt loose from my body.
I barely even register it.
I just sit there and let the water flow and split around me. It’s never deep enough to be a danger.
The banks are softstone, rare in Newrath, but common enough here. The smoothness of it feels nice. It squishes beneath my toes as I stand and walk up out of the water. I think that’s clean enough.
A folded furred robe smacks me in the face as I turn. I struggle into it and nestle into its folds, holding it across and over my wet body automatically.
“What?” I squeak. He just surprised me, that’s all. Lak always does that. “Were you… watching me?”
“Grim, this is the public stream. Why in ten blazes wouldn’t I watch you?”
“I’m a boy.”
“You’re a girl.”
“No I’m not.”
Lak gazes at me steadily, until I feel myself burning up.
I wish he’d look away.
Unwilling and confused, I still can’t stop myself from taking a few steps towards him.
“Look, I know you, Grim. I watched you die, I saw the val that brought you here.”
His arms reach out and pull me against him. His skin is hard and scarred and his hands and arms are well muscled iron. I’ll admit it’s a comfort.
I’ll admit my heart beats faster.
I want to push him away. He’s too close, it’s too soon, I’m not ready to be this close to him, it’s been days, months, years.
I struggle out of the poetry this realm wants to enforce on me. I don’t push away, I just slip out of his grip.
“Grim, you’ll be miserable if you don’t admit to who you are inside,” Lak says evenly. There’s no tremor in his voice. He doesn’t reach for me. “You’ll suffer.”
I look at him.
He stands tall, though only two fingerspans taller than me. He has a slim, scarred build. He’s covered in scars, in old battle wounds. So much so that he’s nicknamed Whitewelt by some. His hair is blonde and he has no beard. His eyes are brown, but flare like fire when he fights. He’s also unbelievably fast and strong.
And he’s a demi. I’m a vike. I got here after I died, he’s been here all along.
I haven’t asked him who sired him. The question hasn’t come up. Never comes up. Not during training, not while I sleep. It’s no secret that I’m his apprentice, either, no secret that I help him put on his armor and that I serve him in his room. It’s an honor- he’s seen so much battle.
I still don’t know what he sees in me. What he wants from me.
“What do you want?” I ask, my voice soft.
“I want you to be less of a coward and face up to who you are, Grimnell.”
If only I could know who I am.
“My bed, tonight.”
I blink at him, uncomprehending. It’s later in the day. We’re preparing for our battle. There’s one almost every day.
“You’ll be sleeping in my bed tonight,” Lak says, giving me a grin. “Unless you can best my kill count.”
“You assume I’ll survive,” I grumble. “And anyway, what gives you the right?”
“You made an oath once. I don’t think you expected me to hold you to it, did you?”
I roll my eyes and pull on the leather-padded armor.
It had taken time to stitch it together. I pride myself on my work with stitches. Oh, I could have a demi sew it up for me if I really wanted to- or at least, Lak could ask one to. But while I can’t fight, I know how to sew.
Lak is right, and curse him for it.
He’s also right about the oath. I swore to him that I would best him in battle one day, and until that day came he could bed me like a wench for every day I failed.
In fact, that was shortly after I met him and before I knew he was a demi. At the time he’d laughed.
The idea of him actually taking me up on the vow makes me nervous, and maybe a little disgusted with myself. If disgust is even the right word. Mostly I’m excited. I have a goal now.
As his apprentice, I will enter battle with a long staff made of oak and my morningstar. We’ll be fighting the mountain men today.
Their colors are black and grey, while ours are green and brown. We have the greatest distribution of demis of any clan in the Gate. The mountain men have only one, maybe two. It should be a rout, but I’ve heard tell that their vikes are among the strongest of the dead.
I smile at that thought. Perhaps I’ll be lucky and he will kill no one. Though he tends to be a bit put off the next day. That won’t do.
It’s a worrying noise, from Lak. I turn to find him staring at me.
“It’s nothing. Help me into this, Grim.”
I assist him in putting on his chain hauberk. He prefers to fight light, but the last time he went out without mail someone cut him in two. A demi, I think. Lak’s bones are too thick for any mundane vike to chop down.
I bring him his iron greaves and strap his feet into them. I lock strong steel bracers around each of his arms.
The metal is magical, I’m told, able to deflect almost any blow and stop sword swings better than a buckler. I don’t know where he got them from.
He carries no weapon- he prefers to fight with his bare hands. Though he uses a quickblade in our training sessions, he complains that he can’t move as freely with a sword in hand. I don’t argue- his muscles are such that I’ve watched him dent bronze with his bare fists.
The older heroes only use copper armaments anyway. The soft metal will be easy to chop through if it is not enchanted.
I breathe easy when his armor is set in place. My own leather is studded with precious iron, gleaned from those who have moved onward and left it in the stone. With Lak by my side… well, I think it should be clear now. Lak enables me to do so much. There’s almost never a time when he isn’t there to assist me. He helps me, and I’ll never understand it.
A horn calls, out on the field outside of the longhouse. The call to today’s battle. Fierce, loud, and joyful. Should I be filled with that same joy?
Without warning, Lak storms to the door. He wrenches it open and marches on without me. As I walk to the edge, I see him turn and stare at me for one long moment. “The choices you make I cannot make for you.”
I stare back at him. I understand, but I don’t say anything, and then he turns away and marches towards the field, already filling with the hundred vikes who share our longhouse and feasting hall, our clan.
And just like that he’s gone.
He’s lost in the throng, like always, and I’m running onto the field, like always. The ground is slippery- constant battle has caused it to turn to muck. It slides under my feet, but I steady myself.
I keep my quarterstaff in hand.
And it occurs to me that I haven’t kept to my oath, or even survived one of these battles since I came here. It occurs to me that Lak might be getting tired of looking after me, of looking out for me constantly. I tighten my grip on the smoothed oak and make my way into the crowd. My entrance does not go unnoticed.
“Hey! Grimnell finally decided to show some balls!”
“Where is the prissy git?”
“He just walked on. I almost forgot what the color of that blaze-cursed armor looked like.”
My focus wavers for a moment. This suddenly seems to be a horrible idea. Why am I here?
“Lost yer demigod lover, have ye?” A vike grunts nearby.
“Everyone, quiet,” Someone hisses. “Whitewelt is giving the speech.”
And just like that, everything falls to silence.
Everyone is quiet except for Lak, who stands tall at the front line. I push my way through the crowd until I can see him better. He’s addressing the entire crowd.
“I’ve stood here a few times now. I think we all know what this means,” He says. His voice carries even though he speaks softly.
“We’re not fighting for honor, or glory. We’re fighting for fun. It’s our reward- each of us must love it in some way. I encourage all of you to enjoy yourselves in your own unique way.”
His eyes lock on mine, and for one brief moment he smiles.
My heart jumps in my chest.
Then he turns away. “Follow me into battle and we’ll have a nice, even fight.”
I don’t think I’ve ever heard a more welcome sound than the cheer his speech rallied. It fills my heart and head, rousing an old but familiar battle rush I haven’t felt in forever. In the sky, two ravens caw, flying circles over our group.
I close my eyes, memory clouding my mind.
Silence, as the cheers die. There’s a rumbling as of a thousand feet pounding the ground at once. I know it is our foe. I can feel them, see them, even though my eyes are shut.
I remember the clang of metal on metal and the thud of metal on flesh, the thick, the din and the chaos of it all. I remember it as if it were yesterday, instead of an age, an aeon ago. And my heart is warmed.
And… I remember hair, my hair, long and red and braided, and I remember my eyes, grey and stormy. I remember my name and my arms and armor. I remember the fights, the glory, the honor. I remember the feel of a true rage, of a true battlelust that would make a bloodslurper cringe. And… something else, something inestimably important that I’m missing…
A roar brings me back. I gaze out across the field.
Then my eyes find the host of the mountain men, some hundred spans distant. They are not led, they are rabble, and they are rapidly closing the distance between us.
Their forces are great- too great. And I’m in the front lines.
Oh, there is nowhere else I would rather be. Fire rises in my arms and chest.
I’ve talked to my val about why I was chosen.
My val chose not to answer me. I never really knew why. I mean to find out one day. There’s something about my memory that doesn’t fit, just as Lak said. And this melancholy which has gripped me for so long seems nothing short of witchcraft. I used to love battle. I used to live for it. For ages, years it has been nothing but another chore. Something has been dreadfully wrong. And now, again it is right, but…
All sound fades for a moment as we stand firm, lips grim and tight as the foe charges towards us in an unruly mass. I eye their front lines- wolfskin clothes, broad axes with wooden handles, short swords and long copper daggers.
My heart is pounding. It’s the only sound.
I set myself for the charge…
A line of assorted weaponry drops as the first line jumps towards us. An enormous man covered in wolf furs swings that axe up and over his head and gets no farther as a blade from my right passes between his ribs.
He falls backward into the mud and immediately another two men jump to take his place.
A warning from my side makes me duck, and I pitch my weight backwards, stumbling. An axe swings over my head. The two men in front of me bear down on the vikes to my right and left, ignoring me completely after the initial strike.
I bring my quarterstaff around in a sweep, catching one on the back of his hand and spinning his weapon out of his fingers with a snap.
“Aw blaze,” I hear him mumble as the tip of my quarterstaff strikes him in the forehead. He’s down, and instantly set upon by my allies. The other of the pair has already been dealt with, and a spear protrudes from his ribs.
A broadsword chops down towards my face heavily. I just barely manage to bring the quarterstaff up to block it, and still the strength of him makes me stagger. A chip of wood flies, but, battle rush still roaring in my ears, I kick out and drive my foot into his stomach, heaving forward and throwing him off balance. His guard is down for a brief moment.
The end of my staff catches his chin and slams him backward. With him dealt with, I take a moment to catch my breath.
Is my chest flat in my memories of the other, the previous life? Am I a warrior or a woman who took up the sword to protect a village? Am I wearing plate or am I in leather?
I don’t know, I can’t remember for once. I remember nothing but the battle, the sword biting into my neck, my blood spilling and finally falling, with me, onto the ground. I remember red hair. It was so long, so, so long ago. I remember my stormy grey eyes. I remember braiding my hair, I remember… my mother braiding it, showing me the braid… Her words… Does she say ‘my daughter’? Or am I imagining it?
The din of battle snaps me back.
Familiar shouts make me turn.
A wedge of mountain men is driving its way into our host’s flank.
“Grim! To me!”
It comes near that wedge, and I catch sight of blond hair and a figure carved out by gods. Lak.
I run, pushing through the crowd of black and green armored vikes.
It parts ahead of me. I use the staff to boost my speed.
“Runnin’ off already?” A vike yells, to a chorus of laughter I leave behind.
Finally the mass of my tormentors parts, and there stands Lak. His opponents lie dead around him, the wedge disabled. He certainly works quickly.
He grins at me. “Good news. I’ve asked the valkyries about your true nature.”
I stare at him blankly. So had I. What could he have learnt that I had not?
“They’ve confirmed it- you’re really a girl!”
For one uncertain moment I can believe it. My body is aligned with my mind, and I feel myself waver.
My eyes widen.
He swings his blade back behind him, casually spinning about and letting the arc of his blade take his opponent’s head from his shoulders.
It’s beautiful, and I find myself falling madly in love with this man. I close the gap between us as he turns and wrap my slim arms around his sturdy frame to press a kiss to his strong, manly lips.
Or at least, that’s what I would have done. In retrospect the fantasy seems stupid, but at least it’s better than the reality.
He got himself killed.
The first blow from behind struck him about the neck and nearly severed his head.
I have to cover my mouth to keep from retching. “Oh blaze,” I say faintly. “And it was going so well, too.”
The mountain men have no demis, it’s true, but standing before me is one of their skinchangers.
He’s taken on the skin of a bear, come up behind Lak and struck in one blur. By the time the warning has fled my lips, Lak is dead.
I back up somewhat, but a ring of vikes pushes me back.
And… it occurs to me that the main battle is a little far away at the moment. These are mountain men.
“What’ll you do with yer man dead, red hair?”
It’s a familiar voice. The drunk.
The skinchanger backs off and the drunk vike from before enters the circle. He gives me an indescribably foul grin. Little evils like this are fairly common, even here. But justice is justice, and he’ll have his even when I die. But something bothers me…
“You betrayed him?” I ask, incredulous. “He’ll kill you every day for the rest of your miserable afterlife, you stupid git!”
“But he ain’t ‘ere right now, izee? Ye know the first rule o’ war here issat victory means th’ wenches are all ours, right? So if yer a wench on th’ inside…”
Oh, blaze no. He’s got to be kidding me.
“You killed him for one hour with a girl shaped like a boy.” I say flatly. “You’re mad. Madder, because even if you do get your hour he’ll be back tomorrow and slaughter the entire clan. He’ll challenge you.”
“Hah. I’m not th’ only one who’s affter ye, and it ain’t just ye. Tha’ dyke has had it comin’ fer a while.”
Most people don’t even use their supposed victory time for anything, in our clan. In fact, my people don’t carouse much, either. This doesn’t sound like anyone I know. It’s too… chaotic. He can’t truly be from our clan. We’re honorbuilt and oathbound- it’s odd enough that he would have approached a darkval. Arrogant, downright brash…
“That’s not right,” I say slowly. I think I know. “You’re not a vike.”
“Oh?” He says, tone changing, interest catching him, baiting him.
For a heartstopping moment I’m uncertain, I’m wrong, he’s just a vike and it’s over. But his form flickers.
The drunk shakes, and splits, shifting shape.
The Allfather blinks at me, rising up. Further up.
I’d breathe a sigh of relief, but his magnificence is making me shake in my well-stitched leather boots. I feel as though I’m being crushed against the dirt, even though I’m still standing. And I am still standing, right?
“This is awkward,” He murmurs, in a rumble that reaches across the battlefield. All around, the sounds of battle stop.
“Huh,” I whisper. “Wha?”
“You know most people guess ‘Loki’? What gave me away? I’m honestly curious.”
For a moment I worry I’ve swallowed my voicebox.
Then I manage to squeak out my response.
“Explain!” He roars. My bones ache from the force of it, and I feel tiny. It takes all of my courage to form a reply.
“Loki is too vain to take the form of a drunk, and you looked as though you honestly did not have an eye,” I say, trying to keep the words from escaping all at once, forcing myself to speak slowly and clearly. “Loki could do that, but he would shape himself with both eyes anyway. You can’t shape yourself with your eye.”
“Hmm.” The Lord of Valhalla smiles at me. A lot of people have been doing that lately. “I see. This is unexpected.”
I just stand there, trying to keep from trembling out of my armor.
“Would you like to become one of the valkyries? We always have spare horses. I feel I must reward you somehow.”
I bite my lip, then glance towards Lak’s corpse, and then down at myself.
“He’ll be brought back.”
“Thank you,” I manage. Another thought occurs to me.
I stare at my feet. “Valkyries are women.”
“You are a woman, my dear. There was…” He pauses, brow furrowing, expression darkening. “A mistake. Your valkyrie formed you as a man despite your spirit’s looks. In this holy place you are meant to take the shape of your soul regardless of your body. A valkyrie should honor that.”
“How do you know that?” I ask, before I can stop myself. When his eyebrows knit together I add, “I’m just curious.”
He laughs, at that, and it’s probably meant to lighten the mood. I can hear the gathered vikes and mountain men around me clattering in their armor.
“I am the Allfather, Grimnell. Is it so hard to believe that I could know so much? Just take it on faith.”
“What happens now?” I whisper weakly.
“Do you want your spirit’s form?”
I blink. I need to actually think about this one.
I stare at myself. Really stare at myself.
I have a flat chest. I have no hips, I have thin legs and arms. I’m slim and frail. My long red hair is messy with mud and blood.
I hate my body. It’s clumsy and weak and even in full battle rush it can’t do anything right. I do no more than weaken my opponents. My confidence has been nothing for so long. I’ve been trying to fool myself for so long.
All this time. All those years.
I glance up at Odin again. He stands there, waiting for my response.
Yes. I frame in my mind, opening my mouth to say it.
Before the word can leave it, his reply thunders through me. Tearing me, reshaping me, twisting me in a hundred different ways.
“It is so.”
I wake up slowly.
My whole body feels as though it’s afire, but in a good way. I sigh, staring at the ceiling of the longhouse and smiling. It’s been a long day. Of course now I begin to remember I had other questions for Odin.
But it’s a little late for that.
I sit up on my bed and inspect myself. My hair is messy, but longer, and fiery red.
I have breasts. My memory is kind of fuzzy, but I’m pretty sure they’re about the same size as before I was chosen. My skin is freckled and soft, but still scarred from battle, and I’m grateful for that. I may be a woman again, but I was chosen by a val. I won’t let anyone forget. I look down the slope of my body, gazing at myself for a while. There’s awe in my heart.
It’s… amazing. I’m not the prettiest girl in the Halls, not with demis and shifters and vals around, but I’m certainly more of a girl than I’ve been in years, ages, aeons, and it happened so fast.
I look up and around, suddenly a little self-conscious. But no one is here except one man. And I rather expected him, so I settle down again, breathing easy.
Lak is standing a span away, back to me.
I blink, at that.
It strikes me that I’m wearing no clothes. I am also a woman, as Odin promised. I’m in no real hurry, either- it’s closer to night now. No battles, no feasts to worry about.
I slip into the fur robe Lak gave me- someone had set it on the bed next to me. I stand and then hug him around the waist from behind. I can feel him tense up.
“How did you do it?” I whisper. “Why?”
He doesn’t answer. Instead, he turns and holds me, arms around my body like back by the river, with the added bonus of me being the right shape. It feels good, but I’m not to be derailed.
“C’mon,” I say, trying to keep my voice firm. “Just tell me why, then, if you don’t want to admit how.”
“You were miserable,” Lak says, without the merest hint of rock, sounding choked up. “Dying for you is the least I wanted to do, Grim. The very least.”
“So everything you did…”
“Was to get Odin’s attention on you.”
“How often was he watching?”
“He always watches. He watches over his sons pretty carefully. That was a test of his own devising, though. I asked to be the bait.”
“What were the conditions?”
“If you’d won through combat you would be restored to your body’s original form. It would have been fair- life for life.”
I stop and think for a moment. And it dawns on me. So I was a woman originally then, not just in spirit, but in body as well. Something else is nagging at my brain.
“You would have died?”
“For good. Odin agreed it was a fair price to pay. But I’m back because you talked him down instead. You must have impressed him, even if it was a girl’s way of winning. Or maybe because it was a girl’s way of winning. Father always had a soft spot for women.”
I feel my heart swell. “You think so?”
“I would not be here if you had messed up.”
I breathe out a happy sigh and sit down, patting the bed beside me. “Cmere.”
He sits down next to me and I hug him again, pressing myself just a little closer. “You blaze-cursed fool. Just how happy would I have been without you? You’re just lucky it all turned out right.”
I feel Lak run his fingers through my hair and I find myself smiling. I curl up against him. It feels awkward right now, but good, too. It’s right in ways that before it wasn’t. I close my eyes, content to rest a while like that.
I think I’m going to enjoy the rest of my afterlife.