Valda Goes Through Hel
Read the first chapter from Valda Goes Through Hel: Valda & the Valkyries Book Three:
Odin, the All-Father, ruler of the gods, turned The Atlas of the Nine Worlds over in his hands. It was a remarkable book: thick, ancient, bursting with knowledge and crafted with obvious love. Its cover was made of stout leather embossed with curving designs that danced across its surface with subtle grace. He opened the book and discovered page after page full of detailed maps, elaborate illustrations and text written out in a hand that was tiny, yet easily readable. It was a Dwarven book through and through, created by a race that practically worshiped knowledge and memory and saw books as the ultimate expression of both.
Odin looked up from the pages of The Atlas and turned his attention to the girl who had handed him the book. She was Valda Gimaldottir, a Dwarven girl only 15 years of age — quite young by the measure of a race that lives for hundreds of years. Yet she had accomplished many things in that short time, not the least of which was becoming a Valkyrie — a shield-maiden and servant of Odin.
“It is a beautiful book,” he said, “a work of art, although I would expect nothing less from the master craftsmen of the Dwarves.”
Valda felt the blood rushing to her cheeks and she bobbed a quick curtsy. “Thank you, Lord Odin.” Valda disagreed with certain aspects of the ultra-strict Dwarven society she had grown up in, but she was still filled with pride for the many accomplishments of her people.
“Take it back,” Odin said.
Valda’s eyelids fluttered rapidly. “Ex… excuse me?”
“Take the book back to the Great Library in Jordenheim,” Odin repeated. He held the book out towards the girl but then bent his arm and brought it back to his massive chest. “How long is the loan period on the book?” he asked.
“The loan?” There was a slight squeak in Valda’s voice.
Odin tapped the cover of The Atlas. “This must be a valued and treasured item in the Great Library. I am surprised that they let you take it out of there. When must you return it?”
“When?” Valda held her hands in her lap, clasping and unclasping them continuously. “Well, no one really said anything about when I should bring The Atlas back.”
They were sitting face to face on the ground beside a quiet mountain stream. Odin had brought them here, far away from the many prying ears of Asgard, so Valda could fill him in on the details of her recent adventures. But now he simply stared at Valda, letting an awkward silence build up between them.
Valda noticed her hands flapping away and stopped them with an effort. Odin had her rattled. She was a master at keeping information from those in positions of authority. She had spent much of the past few years dodging trouble in school and at home by knowing when to keep her mouth shut. But dealing with Odin was something else entirely. This was the god of wisdom. Odin might have only one eye, but there were few things he did not see.
Finally, Valda couldn’t take it any longer. “Okay, when I said I ‘borrowed’ the book, I kind of meant that in the sense of I took it without asking.”
Odin continued to stare at her. He had the look of someone who could afford to wait all day long if he had to.
Valda looked down. “And I kind of barricaded myself in the Great Library and threatened to start a fire, and then I grabbed the book and ran.”
Odin was about to speak when she interrupted him. “The Elves might be a little mad at me, too.” She had a saddlebag on the ground next to her and she dug around in it while she continued talking. “King Helwyr of the Elves especially, since I kind of wrecked his hunting camp, or retreat, or whatever he called it. Really Mimir wrecked it, but he was only there because of me and I gave him the idea so I should be the one held responsible.” She pulled a small wooden box out of her bag and offered it to Odin on her outstretched hand. “I took this from the Elves because I needed it to find Loki. It’s a way-finder. It can track a person as long as you have a small scrap of something from them — like a lock of hair.”
Valda let out a weary sigh. Now she had told Odin everything that had happened during her recent adventure — even the ugly parts. She had never planned on keeping the “borrowed” items, she was just waiting until she could think up some especially sneaky way to return them without anyone discovering she had taken them in the first place.
The book troubled her the most, because if the Council of Elders found out she had taken a book from the Restricted Section of the Great Library they would… Oh, it was just too terrible to contemplate. Books like The Atlas of the Nine Worlds were priceless treasures, only to be read by the highest officials and scholars and even then they were to be treated with the utmost care. Any Dwarf who even suspected someone had traipsed all over the countryside with a book like that stuffed in a saddlebag would most likely faint from shock.
It was just another regret that Valda would have to live with. She had stopped Loki and saved the memories of everyone in the Nine Worlds. She had done what was right and what needed to be done, but there had been unintended consequences of that good deed. Now, when the battle was over and she should be celebrating, she was waiting on Odin to pass judgment. At least she had finally told Odin the whole truth. She hadn’t known how much it bothered her to keep things from him until after she’d told him everything. Now, well, he would either punish her or he wouldn’t. It was out of her hands.
Without lifting her head, she peeked out from underneath her golden bangs so she could judge Odin’s reaction. He kept up his serious look for what felt like an hour, but then he simply shrugged his shoulders.
“I don’t approve of such methods …,” he said.
Valda jumped to her feet. “I didn’t have any choice. We needed to keep Loki from erasing everybody’s memories. To do that we needed to talk to the Elves, but no one remembered where the Elves lived because of the other spell Loki had cast. So we had to have The Atlas of the Nine Worlds to find the Elves so they could help us find Loki…” The words came spilling out of her in a rush.
As she paused to catch her breath, Odin held up his hand. “I don’t approve of such methods, but I understand that you did what you had to do to end the crisis. Now the crisis is over, and it is time to return these items.”
He slipped the way-finder into a pouch that hung on his belt. “I think it best if I have someone else return this to King Helwyr of the Elves. He might not be happy to see you in this instance.” Then Odin handed her the book. “You, however, shall return this.” Odin turned his attention back to the picnic lunch they had been enjoying.
Valda twisted the toe of her leather boot into the dirt. “Can’t someone else return the book?” she asked.
Odin nodded slowly. “I suppose we could have the ambassador to the Dwarves handle it.”
“I didn’t know there was an ambassador to the Dwarves,” Valda said.
“There wasn’t, but I have decided that there should be. The Dwarves are a valuable ally and I want better relations between them and Asgard.”
“Who will be the ambassador?”
“Me?” Valda shook her head. “It, it can’t be me. I’m a woman. Dwarven society doesn’t accept women in authority positions, let alone someone as young as me.”
“I can make them accept you,” Odin said, and the hairs on the back of Valda’s neck rose as she felt the raw power behind those words.
But she stood up to that power. “No. You could make them act as if they accepted me, but they will never truly accept me. There are thousands of years of Dwarf custom lined up against it.”
Odin looked like he was ready to argue the point further but then he let out a long, slow breath. “You’re right. This is why I need your insights into Dwarf culture. This is why I want you in this job. You are a Valkyrie, yet you are also a Dwarf. You have a foot in both worlds and that will give you insights others would miss. All the wisdom in the Nine Worlds can’t help me if I don’t have the right information.” Valda was about to protest but he held his hand up again. “They might want to treat you badly, but they don’t dare treat my emissary with anything but respect. We can use this as a wedge to gradually shift their attitudes. You are not going there to turn everything upside down overnight. You are going there because you can be the start of a change that will give you, and all Dwarf women, the chance to be treated fairly.” He flashed an impish smile as he smoothly rose to his feet. “And you are going there because you serve me and I have told you to do so.”
He laid a hand on her shoulder with fatherly concern. “You are strong and I would not give you a duty I did not think you could fulfill. Trust in yourself.”
He strode quickly over to where their horses were grazing and reached into one of his saddlebags. He tossed a golden bracelet to Valda. She caught it and held it up to get a closer look. “This is…” Odin began.
“The Ravknute.” She ran a finger along the delicate strands of gold woven into an elaborate image of two ravens, the mouths of the two birds holding a polished gem. She recognized the green-blue stone as what the Dwarves called gull-lim, a very rare mineral occasionally found in veins of copper ore. Valda put on the bracelet. It was built to accommodate Odin’s massive wrist, but as Valda slid it past her hand, the bracelet became smaller and smaller until it was the perfect size for her.
“My grandfather made this for you,” she said, her sense of wonder lowering her voice to a whisper.
“Indeed,” Odin replied, “he has made a number of items for the gods over the years. Carrying one will be proof that you are my ambassador, and will remind the Dwarves of the ties between Asgard and them.”
“Remember, you are there to improve relations between Asgard and the Dwarves. You’ll be starting in Jordenheim. That will allow you to ease your way into the position and return the book at the same time. After you feel a bit more comfortable in your role, we will send you to Førsteheim to speak with the Dwarven King.”
Odin stopped to make sure he had her full attention. “Under no circumstances are you to mention any details of Loki’s recent, uh, indiscretion.”
“Indiscretion? More like a crime against the Nine Worlds!”
“Perhaps I did not make the best choice of words,” Odin rubbed at the back of his neck. “I don’t mean to downplay the seriousness of his crime. Yes, Loki tried to rewrite the memories of everyone, but he is missing, possibly dead, and nothing will be gained by telling the Dwarves about what he did.”
Valda wasn’t about to let the issue go that easily. “But…”
“You… will obey… my commands.” For the second time that morning Valda could feel the raw power radiating from Odin. With a physical effort she bit back her arguments and bowed her head. “I won’t speak of what Loki did — I swear.”
Odin went down on one knee to bring his face to Valda’s level. “It does not please me to do this. Loki and I are blood-brothers and the oath I swore to stand by him has caused me untold pain and hardship.” He chuckled lightly but there was no humor in it. “Even a god of wisdom can make bad choices.”
After a moment’s silence Odin cleared his throat abruptly and stood back up.
“Stop by Valhalla and get one of the Einherjar to accompany you. There is nothing like having one of the fabled warriors of Valhalla standing by your side to make you look more official.” He held out a small, leather-wrapped bundle to her, explaining what it was and telling her how it would help the Einherjar during their mission.
His instructions complete, Odin climbed up onto his horse. With a smile and a wave, he rode away.
Valda returned to Asgard as quickly as possible, going first to her room to gather a few things for her trip back home. She changed into a fresh linen tunic, enjoying the feel of the rich fabric against her skin. Her armor went over that: the shiny chest piece enameled in red and covered with swirling designs; the silvery plates that protected her shoulders, knees and elbows; and the rune-covered guards for her shins and forearms. She took her time buckling the many straps that held it all on, making sure she got everything right. She would be representing Odin in front of the Dwarves and it wouldn’t do for her to look anything less than her best. The last piece of armor to go on was her helmet. Valda couldn’t help beaming with pride as she put it on. She had earned the right to wear the silver helm with its distinctive little wings on the sides. “I am Valda Gimaldottir, a Valkyrie in the service of Odin and Freya.” She liked the sound of the words and couldn’t wait to see the faces of the Council of Elders when she announced herself.
Her knife went into a scabbard hanging from her belt. It was a gift from Sooty, Asgard’s cook, and it could cut through anything. Valda would have carried it for the sentimental value alone, but she had already found the magical weapon incredibly useful on more than one occasion.
Finally, she put her spear and shield into their special slots on the back of her armor. There was a mechanism there that held them both tightly in place, yet released them easily enough for her to have quick access when she needed it. It was so ingenious that Valda liked to think a Dwarf had invented it. She decided to ask her grandfather about that when she saw him again. Valda froze in mid-motion. She would see him again very soon. She was going home. That thrilled her and filled her with dread at the same time. It felt like ages since she’d arrived in Asgard and she couldn’t wait to get back to the people and places that filled her memories. But what about the book? What if someone remembered that she had “borrowed” The Atlas? She didn’t know exactly what the punishment would be, but her imagination conjured up all kinds of dismal possibilities.
She had no choice though. Odin had ordered her back home and she had sworn to obey him. She and The Atlas would return to Jordenheim. She was glad that Odin had told her to bring an Einherjar with her. At least she wouldn’t be traveling alone.
The Einherjar were the bravest of Human warriors. Valkyries like Valda would fly over battlefields, using their special ability to see the bravery that burned in the heart of every man. Then the Valkyries would swoop down and scoop up the bravest of the fallen, bringing them to Valhalla where they would fight all day and feast through most of the night.
The Einherjar were deadly serious about their training. For the legends said that when the fabled end times arrived, they would stand beside the gods, fighting for the forces of good against the evil of the Giants and their allies.
Valda could use the moral support of such a warrior and she knew exactly which one she wanted to bring. Valda, along with half of the Valkyries, lived in Folkvangr, the hall of Freya, but to find the warrior she wanted she had to head over to Odin’s hall – Valhalla. The halls were a short distance apart and as she walked between them she squinted at the sun. The Einherjar should still be out fighting on the practice field — and they were.
As usual, the practice session was a chaotic scene with men fighting and yelling, all of them doing their best to kill each other.
Despite the confusion, Valda doubted that it would be hard to find the warrior she wanted. As a Valkyrie, she was able to see bravery as a glow that surrounded a person. The braver and worthier the person, the brighter the light. The man she sought had always stood out to her Valkyrie senses like a raging bonfire.
And there he was now, glowing as bright as ever, except, “Hrulfgar,” Valda shouted, “behind you!”
The warrior she shouted at was just standing there, his sword in his hand but the point of it resting lightly on the ground. He stared off into space, not paying the least bit of attention to the fights going on all around him. When Valda shouted, he turned and looked at her in surprise. Just as quickly he turned his head around to look back over his shoulder. There were three warriors charging straight at him. One had a sword, another a spear, and the third was a giant of a man carrying a massive ax.
Hrulfgar spun to meet them, his sword slicing through the air as he brought it up to a guard position.
The spear-man had raced slightly ahead of the others and howled like a wolf as he ran. Hrulfgar sidestepped to his left, swinging his sword in a glittering arc. He smacked the spear with the flat of his blade, knocking it downward and driving its point into the ground. The suddenly immobile weapon tripped the warrior and he fell flat on his face. The swordsman, who had been following his friend too closely, was unable to avoid this sudden obstacle. He tripped as well, and fell on top of the spear-man. The huge man with the ax was quick enough to stop himself before he tripped over his companions. Unfortunately, this gave Hrulfgar the opening he needed to leap forward and run his sword through the man’s chest. Like a felled tree, the giant slowly collapsed, landing directly on top of his friends, his massive bulk pinning them to the ground.
Hrulfgar wasn’t even breathing hard. He looked at the crowd of shocked faces that had stopped their own fights to stare at him. “Anyone else?” he asked.
Just then Valda jogged up next to him. “Get cleaned up and put on your best clothes and armor. We’ve got a mission from Odin.”
Soon enough Valda and Hrulfgar were riding their horses out from the towering gates of Asgard. They headed straight for Yggdrasil, the World Tree. It had gotten that name because its immense bulk reached through all of the Nine Worlds. It grew straight up from Niflheim, the primordial land of cold and mist at the bottom of the universe, all the way to the lofty heights of Asgard, the Golden City. Wooden planks had been attached to the tree to form a road that allowed passage between all of the Nine Worlds, as long as you could read the secret signs that marked the paths.
“Why aren’t we flying?” Hrulfgar asked.
“Your horse can’t fly,” Valda said.
“Speaking of my horse, why did you choose Fredelig for me? He has to be the slowest horse in the entire realm.”
Valda knew that was true. Fredelig was fierce during battle but refused to move faster than a trot at any other time. That was why Valda had asked for him. She was in no rush to get to Jordenheim — not when there was a chance the Dwarves might remember her “borrowing” The Atlas of the Nine Worlds. So the slower they traveled, the happier she would be. “They, uh, that is they didn’t have any other horses they could let us have at the moment. The others were… busy.”
“Yeah. It’s strange alright.” Valda knew it wasn’t the best excuse she had ever come up with, but at least she had distracted Hrulfgar from the issue of why they weren’t flying to Jordenheim on the back of her magic horse.
“So why aren’t we flying?” he asked again. “Álfagjöf has carried both of us before.”
So much for distractions, Valda thought. Hrulfgar was right, though. Alfie, as she called her horse, could fly them both through the air with ease. Valda would need another excuse for them taking this slow way. “It wouldn’t, that is, we couldn’t because… we wouldn’t, um, make a good impression.”
“Yes, I’m an ambassador now, a representative of Asgard. It just wouldn’t do for us to be riding up on the same horse. It would look like the gods couldn’t afford two horses for us.” She put a shocked look on her face. “You don’t want to make Odin look cheap, do you?”
“No, no, of course not.” Hrulfgar said. “We need to make a good impression, absolutely.”
Continuing her efforts to get off the subject of slow horses, Valda asked, “What were you doing during the training session this morning? Everyone else was fighting and you were just standing there staring off into space.”
Hrulfgar’s cheeks flushed bright red. “I’d rather not say.”
“Don’t be ridiculous. I’m the Valkyrie that brought you to Asgard. You can tell me anything, it’s tradition, that’s what everyone says.” Valda had never actually heard anyone say that but it sounded good to her.
“Alright. I was trying to come up with a new kenning.”
“A kenning? That thing where you make up a compound word that stands in for something else?”
“Yes. Like you can call the ocean the whale-road, or a sword is a wound-hoe.”
“Are you going to tell me the kenning? It was important enough for you to ignore the fighting going on around you. It must be good. I want to hear it.”
“It’s not done yet,” Hrulfgar said. “That’s why I was so distracted. I was trying to come up with a kenning for death, but it’s become a lot more complicated for me lately.”
“What’s complicated about death?”
“I was dead. I died in battle, but I still breathe, I move, I eat, I sleep.”
“Oh.” Valda hadn’t thought about that before. Hrulfgar was an Einherjar and while that was a great honor and a recognition of his skill and bravery, it still was a huge change from everything he had known before.
She had felt a strange affinity for this warrior from the moment they’d met. She’d imagined it was a natural result of him being the first person she had “claimed” as a Valkyrie, but now she wondered if there wasn’t more to it than that.
The life of an Einherjar was filled with fighting all day as they prepared themselves to help the gods at Ragnarok, the final battle between good and evil. As a result, most of the Einherjar were a little dull to talk to — at least Valda found it that way. Their conversations tended to revolve around fighting, feasting, fighting, drinking, and more fighting.
Hrulfgar was different. Before becoming an Einherjar, he had been a skald, or poet. Valda wasn’t surprised that he had been daydreaming about poetry when he should have been paying attention during his practice session. Hrulfgar knew many of the legends and tales of his own people by heart. He also could identify many species of bird by their silhouette or their song. He was a well-rounded person, not just a fighter.
Valda began to understand that he was like her in a way she hadn’t expected: although he was thrilled to be thrust into a new life with new abilities, he still had conflicting feelings about it all. Valda realized how they both had achieved something that they had dreamt about for most of their lives: Valda had gotten the freedom to travel and explore beyond the stifling walls of Dwarf society; Hrulfgar had become the type of warrior-hero that would be immortalized in song and saga; yet they both were now realizing that great deeds require great efforts and, sometimes, great sacrifice.
Hrulfgar was quiet now. From the look on his face Valda guessed he was working on his kenning again. That was fine with her. She was glad that he was riding with her today, but she had more than enough to worry about right now and didn’t feel up to talking.