He fell from that wall he did not want to take particularly; fell and failed to conquer a city he had no interest in – at least, before he saw her; fell with a raging roar, fell covered with blood he did not know was his or the soldier he just killed's. He fell into the river beneath the wall. He fell and his axe with him. He fell, looking at the sky and Odin's ravens flying right above him. He fell for her.
He had been focused before he met her. He had fought with his usual ferocity and strength. He had fulfilled the bloodlust which consumed him every time he fought; fulfilled his most basic instincts, his most basic needs. He had felt the usual yet thrilling sensation of being on the edge of death; the place where he felt the most alive. The only place he ever felt alive. The only place he truly was content.
The vanguard had been slaughtered soon enough and the violent battle had allowed the men who still could to mount on those monsters of wood; those towers Floki built to kill the men on the wall, and conquer a city twice richer than Rollo's brother's kingdom.
A city, Rollo guessed, was marvelous. He could hear songs from the wall. He could see the high towers of white stones from behind the wall. He could imagine the treasures the city held. He already pictured waters of gold, fine fabrics, silks and velvet. He could smell the attractive scent of power. He knew the city was worth taking. He had only saw a tiny bit of the city, but he knew, deep down, that it outdid all his wildest dreams. He pictured it like Valhalla. A place only a few reached; a place he did not have his place in yet. A place he needed to get in. A place he would get in. No matter the cost.
He had sliced and cut men's throat or arms for that purpose. He had slaughtered foreigners in such a feral way it was as if he became a wild and savage beast of wrath and destruction, awakening the monster who slept, waiting to unleash its raging fury. He had danced around his enemies, throwing more men in the river than he could count. He had bathed the river's red water, he had feasted on the terrified screams of pain his opponents gave. He had been spattered and covered with thick blood, had roared his joy to fight and to sow death and destruction; roared his joy do do what he believed he was born to do. He had growled and howled Odin's name, asking for his protection, begging him to notice him.
He never expected him to answer in such a way. He never expected the Allfather to answer him with such a vision. He never expected such a fate.
At the bottom of the wooden tower, Rollo had raised his eyes to the top of the wall, trying to catch a glimpse of who to kill next. But on the wall, stood one of the most fascinating creature he ever saw. He had stopped and gazed at the woman for what seemed to be an eternity, eyes wide opened, sparlking with a lust and admiration rarely felt for any woman.
Suddenly, the chaotic battle became insignificant. The movement around Rollo became nothing but a décor. All the screams and sounds faded, leaving space for a revered silence as Rollo savored his vision. A silence so thick it was as if Rollo suddenly became deaf. Shouts, crashing sounds of swords, axes and shields, screams of pain and terror, caws of crows waiting for their food below. All faded. The world seemed to have been shut by a woman, standing alone on the parapet.
A woman, younger than him, whose brown hair was tied into a single braid which nonchalantly fell on her shoulder and whose head was circled with what looked like a crown. A woman dressed in black and gold and who was shining under the sun. A woman who looked at the battle with severe eyes, as if she was trying to determine where to strike to insure victory. A woman who looked like Siggy in many ways but did not have her beauty. And yet, that woman was so regal and proud, her jaw so sharp and her mouth so tempting a feeling of power and might filled Rollo when he looked at her. In spite of her looks, this woman breathed wealth and power. Rollo's two most favorite things.
Rollo had gasped for air and breathed heavily, as struck by an invisible hammer. He had suddenly felt overwhelmed by a sensation he had rarely felt in his life; the urge to live and to conquer. He wanted to take that wall now. He wanted it because she was on it. The wall was her and she was the wall. She was the thing he wanted to conquer; the thing he wanted to make sure truly existed. He wanted to climb and touch her. He wanted to embrace her. He wanted to see if everything he had ever imagined was real; whether it was the city or the woman standing above him.
He had climbed with all his rage and strength. He had covered the wall with more blood and sweat. He had kept staring at her, killing whoever came in his way. She looked at him, fascinated by the strength of this man, his allure and the way his body worked; a war-machine. She had looked at him with her severe eyes and it only gave him more strength and rage to conquer.
He had arrived on the wall, panting. He was close, so close to her. She was there. He could reach her. He only had to walk a few more steps and there he would be. He would reach her, touch her, discover her. She was so close. So close.
But as soon as thunder striked in Summer, he had been struck by an enemy blade and pushed from the wall. Before his fall he caught a glimpse on the city and as soon as his eyes fell on that vision he was looking forward to since the beginning of the battle, he felt struck again, but this time, by disappointment. Such a disappointment he felt his heart was broken forever.
It was nothing like he imagined. No gold, no wealth and no power. Only people screaming, praying and crying. Women weeping and children, frozen with terror. There was no glory below. There were only scared people poorly dressed and famished due to the siege. The only wealth there was, was locked away, put in safety, hidden to his eyes. The only treasures were in his mind. He would never reach them. There was nothing below but sorrow and fear.
Rollo almost gave a sob of regret. All those efforts for this. All for nothing. All for a victory without glory. All for the gods to feel insulted with such a conquest. What a waste. What a waste.
He fell covered with blood, roaring, disappointed. Nevertheless he fell happy he got to fulfill his most basic instincts. He was happy he got to see the woman before he fell. With this vision, he felt his life was complete. He had come full circle. He was happy he got to die on the battlefield, wielding an axe; surely it would grant him a seat at the table of the gods in Valhalla. He would get to feast with his dead friends, with his father and with kings he admired; kings whose exploits had been sang to him his whole life.
He felt himself becoming weaker. He felt life escaping him. He felt hundreds of eyes, looking at his fall. He heard screams and shouts. He heard Ragnar. He heard him roaring his name with what seemed like regret and sorrow in his voice. He heard Odin's crows above him. He heard the battle below, shields, spears and swords crashing against the other. He heard fury and carnage. He heard what was his life, once, before the sorrow and the regrets. He heard the sound of large wings spreading.
He looked at the place the woman was but she disappeared with the last sound he heard. She vanished and, at the place she was standing a second ago, he saw the black feather of a crow, being carried by the wind. He caught a glimpse of those wings he heard. Then, everything disappeared under a black cloak.
Then, he died.
Would Ragnar regret him? Would he weep for him? Would Bjorn bury him? Would he cry as well as his brothers? Would he carry his memory? Would Lagertha weep for him? Would she think about him? Would she grow old to carry his memory? Would the living remember the dead, brothers, sisters, sons and daughters? Would he be missed? Would he be loved?
Would his parents await him in Valhalla? Would he get to see Siggy again, to touch her soft skin, to stroke her long hair? Would he be happy in death more than he was in life? Would he finally live? Would he finally rest?
Those were questions he did not have the answers to. Those were questions he would never get the answers to.
He woke up in the middle of a forest. In the middle of a forest. Trees as high as the sky, golden leafs, soft moss under his feet, birds tweeting and fresh air. Blue sky and warmth. But it was impossible. He just died. How could he be on Midgard again when his seat awaited in at the table of the gods?
He looked to the ground and gasped with surprise when he noticed it was made of wood.
"Yggdrasil." he whispered with awe, knowing, from instinct that he was standing on a piece of the world tree.
"Are you finished?" an imperious voice asked him harshly.
Rollo looked up and what he saw finished to warm his heart. He was dead. He was dead and yet, she was there. She was there, standing before him, her long braid, nonchalantly falling on her shoulder, dressed in black and gold. She was there, beautiful, regal and divine.
"Yes." Rollo murmured as a reflex, forgetting, with the sight of her, her question.
"Good!" she coldly said. "I have had enough of your stupid ass already. Now let's get on with it!" she continued, raging and disdainful.
Rollo stood up and looked at her more attentively, bewitched, entranced. What stunned him was her black cloak. At first he thought it was made of silk, but if he looked at it more precisely, he could see that the upper part of it was made of black velvet and the lower part of the fabric turned into black feathers reflecting the sunlight. The same as a crow's. The same as Odin's crows.
"The wings..." Rollo whispered, his eyes, locked on her cloak, recalling the large wings that took him when he was falling, back on Midgard, when he was dying.
Then, there was her dress, all golden, crafted in a way it looked like an armor. Her black cloak was being held by two shoulder pads made of gold on which was carved feathers. The woman was dressed in such a fashion it looked like she could spread some wings and fly to an unknown battle she would come out victorious. She was dressed for war and freedom. She was dressed as a divine being worthy of every worship and admiration. She was dressed as if she was a...
"Valkyrie." Rollo said, looking at her.
The woman turned to him and rolled her eyes.
"Why did I have to take such a stupid and worthless man? Why, oh why did the gods do that to me?!" she said, infuriated and out of patience.
Rollo opened his eyes wide, then gave a goofy grin which transformed into a delirious laughter. She was so daring and her insults only made her all the more desirable. Rollo had always enjoyed pain to match his mental suffering. He had always loved strong willed women to match his physical strength. This woman was one of the ones he loved the most. She was fierce.
"You were on that wall." Rollo said, breaking his hilarity. "I saw you." he said with devotion.
"Yes." the woman said, coldly, as if she was about to prepare a war against him. "I was there. I was there and I saw you, you and your kind, you ignorant and stupid beasts, trying to take a city where you would have killed, pillaged and raped! I saw you, you monsters, slaughter men to get in the city! I saw you and all the harm you did!" she said, calmly, but with such a burning hatred it could have set Yggdrasil ablaze.
Rollo gasped and tried to say something but no words came to answer to what she said. He recalled the terror and misery behind the wall. He recalled his disappointment. He recalled the faces and howls of despair of a people; of women he would surely have had his way with. He recalled and he knew she was right. There was nothing in wars and raid but suffering on both sides. Rollo was a warrior. He was the most brutal of all; the most brutal side of war.
But the woman in front of him represented so much more. She was the beauty and allure of glory. She was a victorious battle which would be sang for centuries. She was war, but she did not have its flaws. She had been given Freya's blessing.
"Now, are you finished with your stupid questions? Or shall I kill you again?!" the woman harshly spat.
Rollo grinned then nodded. He gestured towards the only path in the forest "Lead the way." he said with curtesy.
The woman tilted her head as to judge him. She frowned, then turned her head away and began her walk to the great hall; to Valhalla.
Rollo walked beside her. Strangely he felt his attraction and desire increased every second he spent next to her. Strangely he felt an infatuation grow in his chest. He felt it blossoming everytime she sighed with annoyance. Rollo wanted to conquer her. He wanted to conquer her just as much as he wanted to conquer that city he died for. Never had a woman been more alluring; not in death, nor in life.
"Why are you constantly staring?!" the woman hissed, as if his presence was for her unbearable.
"What is your name?" Rollo asked.
"This is none of your concern!" she spat with disdain.
"Mine is Rollo." he said.
"I did not ask your name! Now shut up! Your voice annoys me!" she said.
Rollo rolled his eyes. She was so stubborn and he did not know where to begin with for her to stop being so cold.
"You know," he said. "the journey to Valhalla might be more enjoyable if you and I talked."
"How infuriating he is, that mortal!" she groaned. "Why did the gods even led me there again! As if I needed to witness another siege!"
"Another siege?" Rollo asked. "Has this city been taken before?"
"Only by monsters, traitors, cowards and dogs!" she said, raging, stroking her braid.
"Was that meant for me?" Rollo asked.
She turned to him and for the first time, she smiled. It was a smile without joy but nevertheless it was a smile. And her smile as beautiful. Oh, how beautiful she was when she smiled! It was as if the forest was being lit by the brightest and warmest of suns. As if a storm ceased to leave place to a cloudless blue sky.
"It was meant for me." Rollo deduced. "I like your temper. You are fierce." he said in all honesty, grinning.
She frowned but nodded, as if she accepted the compliment. But she did not started to like him for all that. It only made his presence slightly more tolerable.
"So I am dead." Rollo said, more as a question than an assertion.
"You are." she confirmed.
"And you are the Valkyrie who will lead me from the battlefield to Valhalla." he stated.
"I am." she confirmed again.
"So this means I died on the battlefield." Rollo said for himself. "But it can't be!"
"Yet, it happened. You died." she stated. "I would not be here otherwise."
"I survived worse." Rollo growled. "I survived far worse. It is not a simple fall that killed me. You did." he accused.
"I cannot kill mortals. You died." she said again, out of patience.
"Do not mock me!" he growled, grasping her wrist. "I survived being trampled by horses! I survived a slaughter in Wessex! I cannot die from a fall!"
She considered his hand for a moment, seemingly about to explode in a rage that could consume him, but she concealed and instead, stood his eyes full of ire, hers filling with anger. She took his wrist in her hand and stepped closer to him. Rollo gasped and lowered his eyes to her hand, lingering on her breast. He froze. She touched him. She touched him and it had been enough to get him rid of his raging madness.
"Then it was your fate to die that day. The Norns decided. Who are you to contradict them?" she seethed with a growing rage.
"Is there a way to go back?" he asked, desperate, his eyes still locked on her hand.
"No. believe me, I tried. But one cannot escape death. Especially not when it had been woven before his birth." she stated.
"So I won't see my brother again, then? I won't see my nephews again? Bjorn? Nor Lagertha? I won't get to eat again? To feel the ocean spray on my skin? To run in the forest? I won't be living?" Rollo asked.
"That is the meaning of death, isn't it? Not being alive." she ironized. "But one can live in Valhalla and feast. One can meet his family and friends again if one is lucky enough for it." she finished with a harsh tone.
"Will I see them?" Rollo asked.
"The only way to know is to walk." she coldly said.
Rollo removed his hand from her wrist and noticed with regret and sorrow that his grasp turned her skin red at the place it was a second ago.
"I am sorry." he apologized.
"You are a beast. Why would you even be sorry?!" she hissed, angered.
"I am sorry about many things. I doubt I will ever be able to apologize properly to the many people I hurt. Some awaits in Valhalla, some others are sitting in other halls." Rollo confessed. "You are my Valkyrie. You are my guide. Give me your name, please."
"My name is not important compared to the greatness of the gods and the World tree. I am a Valkyrie. Just a Valkyrie. Just another soldier to fight when Ragnarok will come." she declaimed as a poem learned long ago.
"Yet, your name matters to me." Rollo said, grazing her hand with his.
"I am not interested in granting you satisfaction." she said. "Now remove your hand before I cut it!"
Rollo chuckled, then complied to her command. They walked for a while, heading to Odin's hall where Rollo would see Arne and Torstein again. Where he would see his mother again. Where he would drink and fight. Where he would be happy, doing the only two things he was good at.
And yet, he missed life already. What would bread taste like? What would mead taste like? Would it be as divine as on Midgard? Would it be worse? The unknown terrified him. What if death was not what he imagined? What if death was not a relief but a burden? What if him being dead led to his loved ones on Midgard unhappy?
What if it hurt Ragnar? And Bjorn? Lagertha? Rollo was saddened. He missed them already. They were his family; the people he had known his whole life. It was a wrecking, truly, for a warrior who sailed the sea many times to be taken away from his home. The wanderer was lost and the sailor lost his anchor. There was no control over things anymore. The dead had to be carried away. Like a feather was being controlled by the wind. Now, Rollo had no control over his death. The Valkyrie, as well as the gods and the Norns were deciding of his path.
How infuriating for a man who naturally wanted to be free and take control over his life and destiny, things he had been deprived his whole life, to not being able to control his death. How infuriating it was for him to be stripped away from the last chance he had to be his own master and not his brother's dog.
He was stripped from his home and stripped from the good of life.
Rollo concealed a bitter laugh. His whole life, he had wanted to be dead! And now that his dearest wish had been granted, he finally gave a shit about life! He suddenly clinged to it!
"They truly have quite the sense of humor, the Fates." he murmured bitterly.
"What?" she asked.
"Nothing." Rollo hastily said.
"You said you killed a lot of people." she stated. "I am not surprised. But I merely wonder how and why? Why would anyone inflict such suffering to mothers and families?"
"It is complicated." Rollo said after a long sigh. "Unless, of course, if you are familiar with betrayal and jealousy."
"I am not." she said haughtily. "But still, I want to know. I want to know if you are truly as worthless as I suspect you are."
"Then you will have to tell me your name first." Rollo said. "I do not wish to speak of it with a stranger, even a Valkyrie."
She sighed in annoyance and muttered some words Rollo did not understand. As if she was speaking in a language long dead and yet familiar.
"My name is Gisla." she finally confessed after a long minute of swearing.
"Gisla." Rollo said, the sound so familiar in his mouth. "Gisla." he repeated as to carve this peculiar sound in his head. "Gisla." he whispered as to tell an entrancing song or poem. "That is a beautiful name." he said. "Like you."
"I do not care about your compliments!" Gisla hissed, blushing. "Now answer the question!"
Rollo sighed. The dreadful truth was about to come. So many things uncovered, revealed. He was under the impression that he was about to be skinned alive and all his wrongs exposed for the world and the gods to see.
"It is true I killed many people. I killed a lot of people in battle and raid. I suffered some blows also. Yet, I am not a murderer. I never killed anyone in cold blood. There is no glory in that and the gods would never have approve. Killing an enemy in battle is so much more satisfying." Rollo grinned. "The fear in their eyes and the exhilarating, urging thrill of the fight makes it so. Killing in battle is different than murder."
"And rape?" Gisla asked fiercely and proudly. "Do you approve of rape?" she asked again, colder and harsher, judging him with her dark eyes.
Rollo's face darkened. It wasn't easy, even in death, to be confronted to one's past actions. Although they were slaves, he did rape women. But since they were slaves, this crime had not been punished. Yet, he suffered the consequences by being mocked and questionned. He knew what people whispered behind his back, long ago; that he was a man without honor. He doubted the Valkyrie would say otherwise.
"At a time, I would have." Rollo admitted, as if he was being tried. "But after... after a defeat I changed. I decided that in order to deem myself worthy of the gods, I had to change. So I did. I changed. I redeemed myself to all eyes. Now, I much prefer slaying warriors in battle than rape women, even during raids. That is much more honorable."
"Good answer." said Gisla, being the embodiment of justice. "But I am not entirely satisfied knowing the extent of your crimes." she said.
"No man is innocent." Rollo stated. "Not even the Christ god of the Christians.
"Babes who just got out of the whomb of their mothers are." she objected.
"I said man." Rollo said. "Not babies. We are born full and loses parts of ourselves along the way. That is the way life is. We are born innocent and that innocence always ends up shattered, sooner rather than later. And when it is later, then it is harder. Because you grew with this innocence; you learned to love it." he sighed. "And yet, in spite of this loss, you fill it with other things; life, love, friendship and happiness. That is the meaning of life isn't it? To gain and to lose. That is the game. You only have to play it fairly and you discover the rules later."
Gisla froze and turned to him, eyes widened by what she just heard. Stunned to realize such wisdom came from the mouth of this man she considered as a savage without a brain, she could not help but let out a little gasp of surprise. Rollo turned to her and gave a small grin.
"Sorry." he said. "Was it too dark?"
"Not dark." she said. "Surprising."
"Oh? How so?"
"You talked about life in such a way I wondered if... if you lived more than what you lived."
"Well I am dead now, am I? What good can wisdom be if it is never to be shared?" Rollo said, bitter.
"You shared it with me." Gisla said, quite offended he did not consider her as the most worthy of such honor. "That is well enough."
Rollo gave a happy grin, flattered by the Valkyrie's compliment and the fact that she appreciated his thoughts.
"Have you always been this wise?" she asked.
"No." Rollo replied. "I was foolish when I was young. But the hardship of life helped me grow, as well as a woman I once loved."
Rollo finished his sentence, recalling Siggy and her beautiful hair and eyes, the times she spoke to him by their hearth and the way she handed him the boiling knife, desperately trying to get him out of his sorrow and self-loathing. He also recalled the day he lost her. The pain and the sorrow. He would never see her again. She was not in Valhalla. She was not a Warrior. But she was strong. She had died an honorable death. So maybe she was in Folvankr. Maybe she was not in Hel's halls. He hoped not. Siggy deserved better than that.
"How was she, that woman?" Gisla asked.
"Ah Siggy." Rollo sighed, smiling at the familiar sound her name formed in his mouth. "Siggy was strong and wise. She gave me her strength but she still had some to spare. She truly was extraordinary. She was not a fighter yet she would have jumped into battle to protect her home. If Ragnar had not killed her husband, then surely she would have ruled longer. She was skilled with politics and the game of power. She was clever and she anticipated every move her enemies made. She was fearsome. And she died, a day I wasn't there."
"Then surely she is in Folkvangr, for Freya appreciate such women." Gisla noted.
"I hope so." Rollo said. "She earned it."
"How did she die?"
"She drowned saving my nephews. The sons of her best friend." Rollo recalled with bitterness and sorrow. "Yet another thing I sacrificed to my brother... to Ragnar. Love." he sighed again. "I lived a pointless life. I am bitter and full of regrets. I am worthless and nothing good awaited me on Midgard. I would never have children, no matter of how much I wanted to. I would never have married and spent the rest of my day mourning my Siggy and what my life might have been had I accepted Haraldson's offer. What a waste."
Gisla considered him for a moment. It was as if she discovered and saw him for the first time, that stiff scarred man, marked with ink and bruises. Marked with sorrow and pain. Marked with regrets. Marked with life.
"I failed so much things in my life. I failed at loving and I failed at rebelling." Rollo said, all the more bitter.
"Rebellion?" Gisla asked.
"Yes." Rollo sighed. "Another part of my life I wish to forget. A dark part of it."
"What did you do?" she asked, for the first time, with genuine curiosity.
"I allied with a man against my brother. I was jealous and raging. All he had, I wanted it. So in order to take it and step out of his shadow, I waged war." he told. "I killed many friends that day. I am still not forgiven. My actions were never forgotten. This rebellion only brought suffering for both sides. It was pointless and in the end I lost more than I gained."
"War is not the only way to gain something." Gisla said. "Sometimes, marriage is." she added with such a bitter tone it was as if the words came from the mouth of a wolf.
"Sometimes." Rollo said. "But conquering seems to be an obligation for a king."
"Is that why you and your beasts decided to attack a city and its people?" she brutally asked.
"Ragnar is the king. Not me. I obeyed." Rollo said, coldly. "I obeyed and in return I was given nothing but disappointment. There was none of the things he spoke of when I saw what was behind the wall. There was no wealth and no glory; only death, pain, sorrow and misery. Only suffering."
"Regret that pointless battle as well as a pointless death. What a waste it was! I died and for what? Tears? Misery? Death?" he almost yelled. "There was no glory in my death! None! I died a pointless death for a city I did not want! Don't you think I deserve to be angry too?!"
"You do." Gisla admitted, calmer. "But I am angrier and your rage cannot match mine. I kept it for centuries. Yours only lasted a second."
Rollo's jaw dropped and he looked at her in awe. Was it even possible that such woman exist? Was it possible that her rage was bigger than his? Was it possible that her fire barely grazed him? Was it possible he found such a woman in death?
"The most fierce..." he murmured for himself.
"You died a pointless death." she continued. "You died full of regrets, discovering the thruth of life and war. You died wiser. Is that not what matters the most? Wisdom?"
"Perhaps." said Rollo. "Perhaps Odin himself agrees with you."
"The only way to know is to enter Valhalla and sit on your chair." Gisla said. "And we are yet so far from its gates."
"Is it because I am slow?" Rolo teased.
"Yes. But I enjoy hearing what you say. Wisdom should never be told in the air. Wisdom is always appreciated by a listener." Gisla said with a half smile.
"It is not fair, nonetheless, that you should be the only one to benefit it. So many people need wisdom in life. I will forever regret not having shared mine with the people I met; with my nephews." Rollo finished on a sad note, recalling the time him and Bjorn talked about life and love.
"You talked about fairness." Gisla stated. "As if you cared!"
"I do!" Rollo pleaded. "You have no idea how fond I am of equality!"
"Equality and fairness are not the same thing." Gisla noted. "Which do you prefer? The first or the latter?"
Rollo sighed, amazed that even in death, a woman helped him grow.
"Both." he answered. "Although equality cannot be fully achieved, I believe fairness can. I wished to be a fair man once. Too bad I died."
Gisla gave a smile. "Then you are wiser than I thought you were. You might have been a fair man, indeed. But I have known fair kings, and they all ended up dead." she finished with bitterness and anger.
"So you lived once? You were not born a Valkyrie?" he asked.
"No." Gisla said, suddenly colder and harsher. "I was a mortal. And then I died."
"I died suffering, agonizing, begging for help in my head, begging for death. I died cursing the people who did this. Begging the gods to punish them one day. I died asking for their demise and fall. But I died silent. I did not want to give my killers the satisfaction of knowing that they hurt me." she said with a shiver, clenching her teeth with anger.
"This doesn't tell me how you died." Rollo gently noted.
"I was tied to a horse by the hair, then dragged by it on rocks across a dark forest. My bone broke and I lost a lot of blood. I did not die as quickly as you; I suffered from it. But I was given the satisfaction of not being raped. I know that if I had not been of royal blood, then I would not have had the same priviledge." she bitterly seethed.
"Royal blood?" Rollo asked. "So you were..."
"A princess." Gisla proudly said. "I was the daughter of a king and I lived and protected that same city your disgraceful kin wanted to take! I lived a siege there. I saw so many deaths. Some of those people were my friends and my loyal servants. I will never forget nor will I forgive. And I certainly hate the fact that this city I loved is still assaulted and still knows suffering. I hear their screams of pain. I can feel it. I cannot tolerate it." she fiercely announced.
"Then I am sorry you had to witness such a thing again. And I am sorry about the fact that you are going to witness it again and again for that is the way of the world; to wage wars and siege." Rollo said.
"Not if I can prevent it by killing the ones who wants to take my beloved city and make my people suffer." she proudly said.
"I respect you spirit, but I doubt the gods agree with you. Certainly not Tyr, Thor and Freya, at least." Rollo said.
"It doesn't matter." she said. "I will keep raging then. It will fuel my lungs and veins and give me a semblance of life."
"You are amazing." Rollo said with awe. "Even dead, you keep fighting for the living, caring about them as if you were still there. You are amazing."
"I know." she proudly said. "Thank you... what is your name again?"
"Rollo." he said with a gentle smile.
"Rollo." she said. "Thank you Rollo."
"You are welcome." he replied. "So why did you die? What did you do to deserve such a pain?"
Gisla looked away for a moment, her eyes lost in the forest, as if she was staring at a time lost long ago. She sighed and grinned.
"I killed my husband and attempted to poison his family." she said.
Rollo sighed with admiration. So she truly was as fierce as she looked. She was as fierce as Lagertha and Siggy. Yet, he wondered why she would commit such a dreadful act. She was a killer and yet she never fought in battle. She was a killer, but a different kind from him. He suddenly wondered if, like the city, her truth would disappoint him.
"Why?" he asked, dreading the answer.
Gisla's smile faded. "You are afraid of the truth. I can feel it. But do not fret. This truth shall not disappoint you. I am not a city made of marble."
Rollo gave a silent chuckle, then listened to what she had to tell.
"I was a princess, long ago. I was the descendant of a very powerful line of Frankish kings. The daughter of the sons of Mariwig; of the king of Austrasia." she began
"I do not know those names." Rollo confessed.
"They lived long before your birth." she said. "That is not surprising."
"Yes." Rollo whispered, impressed with the legendary tone of her story. It felt like he was hearing epic sagas of heros and exploits done long ago. As if he was back in the great hall, with Floki and Helga and was told the stories of the gods.
"So my father ruled this kingdom. It was prosperous and rich. He had many children whether it was with my mother or his other wives. He had sons and daughters. My sisters married princes or noblemen and they left for their realms. My brothers learned to rule, waiting to know who would inherit. But in court, nothing is ever easy. A lot of backstabbing happened which led to the death of two of my brothers and one of my brothers to become a bishop in Rome. So, soon, my father only had one last heir. One last son to rule." Gisla told. "And my brother was killed one day. The mayor of the palace was the one who did this. He conspired with our enemies and with the other kingdoms who both wanted their share of ours."
Rollo gave her a smile full of compassion. She had lost brothers and sisters. In a way, she was like him.
"My father was left with no heir and no other choice but to marry me to one of the dogs who were responsible for his loss. He sold me to the prince of the kingdom of Neustria. The most unfair thing is that if I had been a man, I would have ruled. But I am a woman and as such I cannot, even if I was the one ruling in the shadows, all those years he mourned my mother, brothers and wives. I should have ruled and it made me angry." she seethed. "That damn law! I wish it never existed!" she said.
"What law?" Rollo asked with curiosity.
"The Salic one." she said, spitting the name as if it was the most disgusting of poisons. "The one which says a daughter cannot inherit her father's throne. That dumb law which led to the fall of dynasties and messed up the whole succession of power. As if we needed this! This makes ruling so complicated!" she hissed, unnerved. "That is why he sold me to my brute of a husband."
Rollo kept silence, recalling the day he learned Lagertha killed her husband and took his earldom. Gisla reminded him of that in her own way. She would have made a great ruler had she been queen.
"So what happened?" he asked.
"I was raging and I was mad, of course." she hissed. "I tried to tell him against it but his decision was already taken and I was already betrothed in spite of my pleas. So he signed the agreement and the end of our dynasty and kingdom with it. My father was weak not to change a law that could have insured his kingdom's survival! He was weak for thinking he could rule without me by his side to counsel him! He was weak for thinking a woman could not be a great ruler!" she bitterly spat. "But I had my revenge."
"How so?" Rollo asked.
"When my husband fell asleep, after he had his way with me, I took my dagger and stabbed him in the heart. I knew I was dead and my kingdom with it. I had nothing to lose and to regret. So I killed him and tried to poison his family, our enemies. But some of those dogs survived. So they tried me and executed me. But I did not scream. I did not weep. Had I done those things, I would have dishonored my family, my blood and the line of Mariwig, and show weakness. And that I cannot have! A daughter has to show strength when her father shows weakness. And women have to be stronger than men in order to survive. That is the lesson I learned from life."
"My father is dead." she continued. "Served him right, he was poisoned by his most trusted advisor. Now I hope he knows what betrayal feels like, because he once betrayed me by throwing me to the dogs."
"I am a traitor too." Rollo said. "But a traitor, how despicable he might be, has reasons for his betrayal. And if he does not, then he finds some."
"What were your reasons?" she asked, coldly.
"I wanted fame and glory. I wanted more in life. That is all." he said.
"But what reason can drive a father to sold his daughter and his throne to his enemies?!" she said, suddenly crying. "What reasons drove my father to get rid of me? His only daughter! What reasons did he have to hurt me?" she yelled in tears.
"That," Rollo said, wrapping his arm around her shoulder and drawing her to his chest. "I do not know." she let out a sob against his chest. "So how did you become a Valkyrie?" he asked.
Gisla sniffled and wiped her tears away. "The gods were impressed with my strength and spirit. So they turned me into a Valkyrie. They appreciate brave women, desperate to avenge their kin."
"Then they must not like me very much." Rollo noted. "I made my kin suffer."
"Do you regret it?" Gisla asked. "Did you have reasons for this?"
"Yes." he admitted. "Good reasons."
"Then the gods will forgive you." she said with confidence. "They would not have brought you to me had it not been the case."
"Then I thank them for that. I thank the gods for you." Rollo said. "I thank them for the sight of you. You were my destiny, no matter how lethal of a destiny it was."
Gisla turned to him and gave a smile. The man in front of her was so different than what she previously thought. He was gentle and strangely, she felt respected with him. She felt like the queen she should have been. She felt powerful. Her chest suddenly grew. She was suddenly filled with a warmth she had never felt. She felt alive but she was dead. She felt peace after the war. She felt her death was an entirely different thing now. She was entirely different now.
She felt regret.
She regretted that fact that she was dead. She regretted that he was dead also. She regretted they both could not live together and, perhaps, fall in love. She regretted this infatuation she felt growing. She regretted life and she regretted death.
But he was there, with her, on the way to Valhalla and the table of the gods. He was there forever. And she was a Valkyrie; a Valkyrie who could come to seat in Valhalla, near Rollo. They both had eternity. She had eternity to learn and love him. The eternity to really live.
"If only you had been alive then," she whispered for herself. "things would have been different. If I had been married to you, things would have been different. The world would have been different."
"Hm?" Rollo asked.
"Nothing." Gisla hastily said, pulling away from him and the warmth of his body. "We are almost there." she said, showing with her finger, a door, at the end of the path in the forest.
"Too bad." he said. "Soon our journey together will end. I wish I could stay in this forest with you forever."
Gisla gave a smile. "Maybe I will visit. I am your Valkyrie; your guide. So perhaps Freya will grant me this."
"Perhaps..." said Rollo.
They walked in silence to the great golden door, finely carved to describe Yggdrasil, in front of them, guarded by a massive wolf, half asleep, watching carefully as the strangers approached, whose fur reminded Rollo of snow during Winter. He did not want to leave her. He did not want to enter the hall and risk to lose the sight of her; to lose his vision. He was grateful for it. He was grateful she was the cause of his death for he fell for her. Love was glorious. The best sagas told about love. His favorite poems told of love.
He desired her, but he also fell the minute she talked. His infatuation grew in his heart and now, he loved her. He fell in love with a Valkyrie. How priviledged he felt! How happy he felt, knowing that such a thing as love existed in death. She still held so many mysteries. So many things uncovered. So many secrets yet. But the eternity to tell those stories. The eternity to love; to live.
He wanted to spend it with her. He wanted to see her again.
"We are here." Gisla said, stopping before the stairs leading to the wolf and the door, as high as that wall Rollo fell from. "It is time for you to enter and to take your seat at the table of the gods. Mead will be poured soon." she continued, regret filling her voice.
"Yes..." Rollo said absent-mindedly. "the feast awaits..."
Suddenly, he turned to her.
"Will I see you again?" he asked, taking her hand in his, rubbing his thumb on her skin.
Gisla's jaw dropped and she looked at him for a second, bewitched by the sweetness in his eyes. She searched for words to say but found none. She sighed and smiled.
"Perhaps..." she said. "If the gods allows so."
"Good." Rollo said. "I am thankful the Norns wove your threads with mine, Gisla. I am honored to have you as my Valkyrie."
"I am pleased with you too. Your conversation has been pleasant." she admitted. "You are not the beast I thought you were. Congratulation. You are the first man to change my mind about something." she said with a gentle smile.
"That, I am proud of. You are stubborn Gisla. Stubborness is a good thing sometimes. But one must learn to open one's eyes at a moment." Rollo said, cupping her face in his hand and brushing her eyes with his calloused thumbs.
Gisla shivered at the action. But it was not a shiver of discomfort. For the first time, she felt loved. She reconnected with what once made her human. She moaned and giggled.
"I am thankful I did." she whispered.
Rollo sighed then smiled. He leaned and gave her a kiss on the cheek. "My life began with a woman and ended with a woman. It has come full circle. I died without regrets, and if I did, then I thank the Norns for them. Thank you for life and thank you for the regrets. Thank you for the trees, the sea and for my nephews. Thank you for Siggy, for Lagertha and for Ragnar. Thank you for my pain and the suffering. Thank you for the truth and the lies. Thank you for life. Thank you for death."
"How poetic." Gisla said with a tender smile, still surprised by his gentle heart.
"Bragi inspires me those words." Rollo said, looking at the door. "As well as you, my Valkyrie." he said, turning to her, smiling devotely.
"Do you love me?" she asked.
Rollo gasped and instantly, his face melted into the most tender of smiles. "I believe so." he said.
"Then kiss me. Bid me farewell before you enter Valhalla." she asked. "I wish to know if you truly are as gentle as you seem."
She wished to know if there was hope a man could have ever been gentle to her. She wished to know if life would have been sweeter to her.
Rollo leaned to her face, cupped it as gently as he could. The contact made her shiver, but she moaned in delight. She was already in love with his warmth. He put his forehead on hers, just as gently, and rubbed his large nose around hers. He, then, kissed her forehead, then, her eyes, her cheek, her ear, her jaw and her throat. He trailed kisses and each one of them made her shiver and moan. It was a delight. She felt loved, worshipped. She felt his kindness and respect. She knew he would not take her. She instinctively knew he would not harm her. He was the patient wolf and she was the prey.
He kept kissing her, stroking her hair, the gold around her head. His arousal grew, so big and so violent, but he concealed it. He wanted her, but he wanted her to be the one to ask for it. He kissed her and each time, he savored the smell and the warmth of her skin.
"My Valkyrie." he whispered, his voice harsh as stone and yet tender.
He kissed the corner of her mouth and she shivered again. She moaned and sighed. He was almost there. Almost.
Then, as suddenly as a storm rising, he put his lips on hers. He kissed her. Again and again, showing to her how he could love her. All the ways he could love her. With love; with passion; with worship; tenderness; and the urge to feel alive. She moaned each time, savoring the delight and pleasure it was to feel such a man love herself. She moaned and asked for more. She wanted him.
She wanted to feel alive.
But alas, the spell broke. The trance vanished and Rollo pulled back after he had covered her face with kisses.
"I want to love you." Rollo whispered, his lips grazing her ear. "I want to see you again and live with you."
"You are dead." Gisla said. "But I wish to love you too."
Rollo gave a small chuckle at her ear which made her shiver with delight.
"You should go." she said. "Valhalla awaits and the gods are not the most patient kind."
"I will see you again." Rollo said, holding her hands in his, more as an assertion than a question.
Gisla smiled. "Go." she said.
Rollo smiled, placed a last kiss on her forehead, dropped her hand, then began to climb the stairs to the great door. When he walked by him, the wolf started to growl, but Rollo whispered some poetry he knew which made the wolf fall back asleep. The door opened to him and, with a last loving look at the Valkyrie, he entered to great hall.
His eyes fell on what was in front of him and he gasped for air, stunned by such a vision. He was about to weep, moved by the fact that he was here. He was finally here. He was in Valhalla. He was in Odin's hall. What an honor!
It was higher than the tallest mountains. The ceiling was composed of thousands of shields, all painted in different colors, and the size of the hall was so large Rollo could hardly count the doors through which the warriors would come out and fight. The wood seemed to be made out of the brightest of gold and each pillar was finely carved. Valhalla breathed wealth, power and glory; it was the soul of a warrior. He heard songs and laughter. He heard the multitude of warriors whose death were now sung during feasts on Midgard. He saw them; all so glorious and joyful. So many warriors; so many soldiers for Ragnarok. Rollo was in awe. What a glorious fate to partake in something that grand; that glorious. It warmed his being more than the hundreds of hearths. He heard fire crackling joyfully in those hundreds of hearth. He heard joy and mead be poured. He felt warmth and happiness. He smelled wood and gold, metal and blood. He felt battle. He felt the thrill of the fight fuel his veins. In a few hours, he would fight again. Perhaps against a friend or a king dead long ago. He would drink and he would fight. He would do it for eternity until Ragnarok. He would do what he was born to do.
And when Lagertha and Ragnar would rejoin him, they would feast and talk. They would laugh, drink, recalling of the time they lived. They would ask Odin to protect Bjorn and maybe Lagertha would get to meet Siggy again. Maybe he would get to see Siggy again. They would be together again, away from everything which made them suffer. Away from jealousy and from pain. Away from betrayal.
He would think of her also. He would think of Gisla and maybe she would come and find him. Maybe they would talk and maybe they would kiss. He would fall in love, perhaps, and find a new destiny. He would be with her and maybe, if he was lucky, they would have in death more than what they had in life.
It wasn't all that bad.