PROTECTOR

A/N

This is one of my favorite stories of all time that I've come up with. I really hope you guys will enjoy it! This is rated M for later cussing, gore, explicit scenes and whatnot. Every chapter will have warnings to let you know the actual rating.

Enjoy, and I'll see you next weekend!

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CHAPTER 1

Shadows flitted across the ground as the winged horses of the Valkyries raced across the sky, heading for the capital.

A father held his three year old in his arms, pointing after them, "There goes the most honorable people in Asgard."

"Wut aboot ganpa?"

He chuckled, rocking the girl in his arms, "Grandpa and his people are the most honorable in Vanaheim love."

"Cun I be one?"

He kissed his daughters head lovingly, "You can be whatever you want my sweetling. Whatever you do, I will always be proud of you."

She looked at the far away glint of the golden city in the light of the sunset, her father's words filling her head as she fell asleep, "You will shine brighter than the stars, my little Mara."

..

15 years later

Her eyes bolted open. Sitting up in bed, Mara cocked an ear, listening.

Nothing.

She smirked.

Of course. Everyone was asleep. As they should be in the darkest hours of the night.

She slipped from her bed, bulling on trousers and a blouse as quietly as possible, trying to create no sound that would wake any of the light sleepers in the family.

Or Norns forbid wake her mother.

After pulling on her boots, she grabbed her cloak and bag, sneaking down the stairs, avoiding the creaking steps. She stopped at the front door to the farmhouse, listening again. Everyone was still asleep.

The half-moon was high overhead, stars twinkling like candlelight, a patchwork of colors across the sky. The air was cool, and a soft breeze shifted through the fields. Crickets chirped, and the sound of sleeping animals filled the air, but save a nightingale in the forest beyond, nothing was awake.

Mara snuck down the paths between the fields and past the barn. Closing the gate behind her, she looked back to the house, windows glinting in the moonlight.

She made it out.

She threw her head back and laughed, then turned and flew down the roads of the village. Her hair flew behind her like a river, stars sparkling in her deep brown eyes. The air exhilarated her, filling her pumping legs with energy, spurring her to go faster.

Mara's heart pounded, singing with the melody of the owls and wolves, dancing with the wind. She was a fast as any horse.

But her journey was still long.

The moon sank until a shadow blocked it.

Mara skidded to a stop in front of the gleaming gates.

Asgard.

The golden city.

Her breath came in pants as she stared down the huge metal gates. They were closed.

Brilliant.

Bloody BRILLIANT.

What now?

She walked up, running hand across the bars, then smirking.

She was as thin as the gaps.

She turned, slipping through easily, looking back at the fields through the bars. It felt real now. There was no turning back now.

Not that she wanted to turn back.

She had come too far, gone through too much to turn back at this point. Mara turned at stalked into the city, footsteps echoing across the empty streets.

A shudder ran down her spine as she clutched her cloak to her.

She had never really been alone at night, even in the forest, where she knew every tree and stone. She had only been to the city, what, three times?

The wind whistled, making shop signs creak. Her footsteps echoed loudly, but not loudly enough to hide the pounding of her heart. The moon was behind the palace by now. There was little light, save for dying or dead lanterns lining the streets.

The wind felt colder here.

Harsher.

It was too quiet.

The forest was alive with sounds: the owls, wolves, and birds melding with the sound of crickets and wind and bubbling rivers to make a form of music not many could hear. Or even understand.

Here, the only sound was the angry wind, creaking, and her.

No light.

No sound.

No people.

It was so eerie.

Then, she threw her hand up to cover her eyes as a door swung open, bathing her in bright, yellow light.

Five men stumbled out through the door, most laughing uproariously. Mara stood silently in their path as they stopped in front of her.

A bulky frame stepped forward, in a gentle, yet booming voice, "Who are you?"

She cleared her throat, fingering the edge of her cloak, "I'm… a traveler."

"Then how did you get in? The gates are opened at dawn."

She shifted nervously.

Mara couldn't see his face, her eyes still adjusting to the dark, but she knew his eyes would be narrowing.

"Did you… sneak in?"

"Uhmm… possibly? I didn't see any closed gates."

The lie soured her mouth. One of the tall shadows went slightly stiff as the one in front crossed his arms.

"They are quite large."

"And I am quite small. If you'll pardon me, I have business to attend to."

She tried to dart away, but they formed a line across the street.

"And what business would that be, for a lone traveler to be alone in Asgard, before the gates open?"

She wrung her hands, lifting her head momentarily to look at the palace.

A soft voice, possibly from the tallest one, curled around her like honey, or a venomous snake, "Would that business happen to be at the palace?"

Mara froze, going stiff. Not good, not good, NOT GOOD.

She saw the tallest one lift his hand. Suddenly all the lanterns around them burst into light, making her yelp and throw her hands up. The group shielded her eyes for a moment, the edged close as Mara doubled over, blinking rapidly, trying to adjust.

She looked up. The men surrounding her were all big, and rippling with muscles, save for one. She clenched her fists at her side, biting her lip. This was no fight she could win.

The man who had been speaking earlier, a man with golden hair wrapped in a brown cloak, scowled at her, "Answer the question."

She sighed.

No point in hiding it now.

She reached into her bag, pulling a folded paper out. She unfolded it and handed it to the golden haired warrior. He surveyed it for a second, then chuckled, looking up.

"Seriously?"

Another blond walked forward, grabbing the paper, and smiling, showing it to the others as Mara scowled.

"All that secrecy, for this?"

He handed the paper back to her. She read it before folding it again and placing it in her bag.

A Valkyrie recruitment poster. She had snatched it from the town hall. It had been the only one. It was in the refuse bin.

She frowned at the ground as the man chuckled, "You plan to be a Valkyrie."

"And what's wrong with that?" she snapped.

"Nothing. But you had us thinking you planned to assassinate someone from the way you were acting."

"My business is my own. I have no reason to share it with five strangers. And you had no right to accost me as you did."

He lifted his hands in placation, "All right, all right. I apologize. It's just, not many people would be out this time of morning, even if they had to be up early."

She scowled at him, "I had to make a long commute, and I didn't know how long it would take. Also…"

The tall man filled her silence, "You don't know how to get there."

She met his glittering green eyes, framed by black hair that looked as soft and fluffy as heather, wrinkling her nose slightly, "Yes. That is a… blunt way to put it. I've rarely been to the city, only sticking to the outskirts of the markets with my family, and only in the day."

The golden haired man smiled, waving in the direction of the palace spires, "Well, you are in luck, fair maiden! We happen to be traveling that way. Would you care to join us?"

She frowned, but nodded silently. The group set off, the lanterns going out again. Mara growled softly, so no one would hear. All the shifting light was giving her a headache. Her eyes could rapidly adjust to dark, but not absolute dark. And bright lights flashing from nowhere didn't exactly help.

They half surrounded her, talking of exploits. Mara barely paid attention, focusing on her own path, running over drills in her head. She didn't notice as the tallest one moved to walk besides her.

The wind kicked up, blowing the hair into her face. Spitting it out of her mouth, she pulled a length of ribbon from her bag, tying it back. She noticed a few words of their discussion. Something about giants and dragons.

The man next to her cleared his throat, "You never did say how you got into the city."

"I was smaller than the gaps between the bars. I didn't have the time to wait for dawn."

"which gate did you come from?"

"The Vanaheim gate."

"Truly?"

"Yes. My family has a farm on the farthest outskirts of the village of Freyr, on the border to Wulf Woods."

"Really? What made you decide to come here to try for a position of Valkyrie?"

Mara smiled as memories filled her mind, "My father is an Einherjar. He works semi-closely with a couple of Valkyries. He raised me on stories of their honor and bravery."

The sky was a light gray now, light enough so she could see him nod and purse his lips, "So you aspired to join their ranks…"

"Yes."

"But why the secrecy?"

Her head fell, focusing on her boots, "Only my father, grandfather and cousin believe I could pull this off. My sister did too…"

The silence felt heavy. The group was no longer talking at all.

The raven haired man breathed a soft oh, "I'm sorry."

Mara shook off the memories, "Thank you. It's been years, but she's the reason I fight so hard to realize this dream. No one in my entire village believes I will make it. But I'm going to. I have to."

"You shouldn't base your life on memories and what others wanted for you…"

She snorted, "If I did that, I would have married some nice, rich merchant and had children by now. I don't want to become a Valkyrie because it would make someone happy."

"Then why?"

Her throat closed up and tears ran down her face. She shook her head, ponytail bobbing in the growing light, "My goals are beyond the understanding of city-walkers."

The men ahead of them laughed, the golden one turned to face her, walking backwards, smirking at her, "City-walkers?"

Her lips twitched, "Ah... sorry. That's what those in the Wulf Woods call those in Asgard. Or any city, really."

"So, should we call you a forest walker?"

"Please don't."

The red haired man, easily the largest of them all looked at her, "You say you live on the borders of Wulf Woods?"

"Yes."

"Any troubles at all in that location?"

"If you're asking if the inhabitants cause problems, then no. The people in the village, especially my family, have an understanding with them. We have a truce with them. We leave them be, don't trespass on their land, and offer them some of our crops every full moon. In exchange, they leave us firewood, and let us hunt, but only enough so our people can survive. The last hunter who tried to hunt more than was needed disappeared, and was never found again."

"Oh, that's sad."

She shrugged, "Not really. Dude was a prick. Everyone was happy to see him gone. We just pretended to search for him so the wolves wouldn't think we were heartless."

She heard him choke a little, the turn forward again. She chuckled softly, smirking only slightly. She saw out of the corner of her eyes that the man next to her was also smirking. He looked over to her and the locked eyes for a second before Mara looked up at the sky again.

It was turning the slightest shade of blue. The roosters would be crowing as her family would make their way downstairs. How long would it be until they didn't notice her?

Until breakfast, when there was still food left?

When her mother would sit with the youngest, rocking in her chair, knitting as she sang songs for them?

When her father would count his children working in the fields and notice one was missing?

Or would he immediately go to her room and find an empty bed?

No matter how they found her missing, they would know where she was. Everyone in the village would if news she was gone leaked. Would father run for his horse, followed by three of her brothers? Would they ride full gallop for her?

Or would they stay, expecting her back?

If they came, it would be too late. Tryouts would be over by then.

Her hands started to worry the edge of her cloak, and the man next to her noticed.

"Nervous about tryouts?"

She jumped, startled that he had spoken, then nodded, "In a way. I really don't want to be late."

"Don't worry about it. You have plenty of time to get there. And I'm sure you'll do wonderfully."

His voice was rich and smooth, like silk. It removed all the fears she had lingering in her heart, making her relax. She hadn't even noticed how stiffly she had been walking.

"Thank you. I just really have to be there before dawn breaks."

"And why is that?"

"I kind of snuck out, without my family's permission, or knowledge. If I'm not there by dawn, they'll find me."

He frowned, "You have a huge head start on them."

"Yes, but they could cover the all the ground I covered in an hour in ten minutes. They have horses, which are significantly faster than people."

"If you snuck out without their knowledge, then they shouldn't know where you are."

"Ordinarily. But being a shield maiden has been my dream since I was very young. My entire village knows about it."

"So, I'm guessing you know very little about what it takes to be one."

She glared at him, "Just like a city-walker to assume the countrymen don't know anything besides farming and hunting. For your information, I have worked my hands to the bone, earning money to pay for books on their history. I have their rules, customs, and traditions memorized. I taught myself to ride, and to fight. The men in my village laughed at me, my sisters called me a fool, and my mother said I should be lucky if I could get a kitchen job at the palace. But I am going to those tryouts, I will ace them, and I WILL prove everyone wrong!"

Her shout echoed off the stone and metal walls of the buildings they passed. The entire group was staring at her. She was used to people staring. But these men, something about the way each of them was staring at her made her want to crawl into her skin and hide.

She shifted nervously in front of them, aware she had made her own stage as she stormed ahead, startling them into stopping.

Then everyone, except Mara, who was terribly confused, and the man whom she had been talking with, starting laughing.

The skinny blond laughed through tears, "She definitely has the spirit down!"

The other blonde one laughed, "If Sif wasn't already my shield maiden, I'd hire this one!"

Mara froze, "Wait. What? Sif. Co-head of the Valkyries Sif. The Sif who trained both the princes, and has three consorts. That Sif? This is a joke, right?"

"Umm… you don't know who we all are?"

She spluttered, "Of course I don't know who you are! How could I possibly-", just then, they turned a corner, the golden gates of the palace reflecting the light of the sun, bathing them in warm light

She looked at her traveling companions, now fully bathed in light. They were all wearing armor under their cloaks, and the blond leader, and the tall one she had been talking with, had silver circlets on their crowns, with the royal crest of Asgard in the center.

"Oh. My. Gods."

Prince Thor, heir to the throne of Asgard, chuckled, "I believe she figured it out."

The Warriors Three chuckled at the blank shock on her face as her knees shook. Mara bent over double, hair falling in her face, clutching her knees, breath coming in pants.

"I was walking with the princes of Asgard and the Warriors Three, and I DIDN'T EVEN NOTICE."

"Yeah. So, what were you saying about countrymen and city-walkers?"

The young prince scowled at his brother, "Enough. How could you expect her to know? First of all, it was dark, so it would have been hard for anyone to recognize us. Second, the people in the city barely know what we look like, much less what we sound like. It would have been hard for someone who works in the palace to know it was us in the dark.

"Okay, okay. We're here anyways." He pointed to a field of packed dirt, ringing by a fence, "There's you training field miss country girl. Good luck at tryouts!"

Mara rolled her eyes and strutted to the fence, listening to them laugh behind her. She leapt over the fence in one swift bound and landed gently on her feet. She looked back at the group of men, now walking back to the palace, none paying her the slightest attention. Except for Prince Loki, who was watching her as she faded from sight. Their eyes met over the distance, and he smiled, giving her a thumbs up.

Mara huffed, turning her back on him, leaning against the fence, watching the sun rise. She pulled a book from her bag, sitting down. She noticed a small group of flyers coming her way. She watched in excitement and awe as they landed neatly in the ring, the shield maidens sliding elegantly off.

She stood as the one in front noticed her and paced over to her.

It was Gunilla. Leader of all the Valkyries.

"Young lady, what are you doing here?"

Mara straightened up, standing at attention like she had practiced, "I'm here for tryouts ma'am."

Gunilla eyed her stance with interest, "You seem to know what you're doing. What neighborhood are you from?"

"I'm from the village of Freyr, outside the city wall, bordering Wulf Woods."

"Ah, you're a country woman."

"Is that a problem, ma'am?"

Gunilla smiled, "Not at all. Some of my best warriors come from the country. I myself am from the country. That exact village even."

Mara looked up in surprise, "I never knew that."

Gunilla shrugged, "Well, I don't exactly go flaunting it around."

Mara smiled, relaxed, but unsure what to say. Gunilla nodded, then walked back to the group, issuing orders.

"impressive. Not many get a smile out of her."

Mara whirled around to face a young woman, skinny, with long honey-blond hair, streaked with red, golden skin, and a mischievous look on her face.

She stuck out a hand, "I'm Amora. I hang around here. Its fun to watch all the new recruits come in, so fresh, full of dreams, only to have their spirits utterly demolished."

Then, another voice rang out from behind her, "Yes Amora. We all know what a twisted soul you have. Now can you please go? We have to set up."

Amora huffed, "Well fine, Sif. But you'll miss me. Mark my words."

She flaunted off, revealing Sif, co-captain of the Valkyries, and the Warriors Three, burdened down with weapons. Sif held the reins to a dozen pegasi.

She led them through the gate and tied them to the fence. She looked Mara up and down.

"Who are you?"

Fendral looked over and laughed, "That's country girl. Remember Sif, the woman I was telling you about?"

"Ah yes." She met Mara's eyes, "You want to be a Valkyrie."

"Yes, ma'am."

"If you've trained as much as you've said, I'll be expecting big things from you."

Mara stood in excited silence watching them set up all the weapons. As soon as they were done, a flood of young women started entering the field. Valkyries stopped them at the gate, checking their age. Anyone under eighteen, even by a day, were turned away. A long line of thirty-something girls stood lined up against the fence.

Gunilla stood at attention in front of them, with the rest of the shield maidens behind her. The Warriors Three leaned against the fence by the weapon racks. Sif paced back and forth in front of the line of girls.

"So…"

A shudder ran through the girls.

"You all think you can be Valkyries. Is that correct?"

The girls mumbled assent. Mara frowned as she spoke clearly.

Sif barked out louder, "I said, is that correct?"

The girls all shouted out different versions of yes.

She glared at them all, "Well, sorry to burst your bubble, but you're not. None of you." She began pacing again, "However, some of you may have what it takes, after rigorous training. Not everyone can be a shield maiden. It is a great honor to be chosen to join our ranks, but not all who are here today will make it to training, and not all who make it there will make it to fully fledged shield maiden."

She stopped pacing and faced them, "Who can tell me what the duty of a Valkyrie is?"

One girl called out, "Look hot in armor while fighting!"

Ripples of laughter went down the line, but Mara stayed silent.

Dryly, Sif replied, "Very funny. Can anyone else tell me what we actually do?"

Mara raised her hand.

Sif pointed at her, "You."

"The duty of a Valkyrie is to protect her realm, and her sister maidens, even if that results in her death."

Sif nodded, "Exactly. We protect Asgard, and each other in battle, even if we die. So, if any here are opposed to that, I suggest you leave now, as you probably won't make it through training."

Twelve girls silently walked away.

Sif faced the women left, "So, now that I have people who actually care about this, it's time to test your strength, commitment to your sisters, and your resolve. Also, we'll test your riding skills. It would be quite the shame if you slid off the back of your horse in battle and died because of gravity."

Gunilla stepped forward, "We'll start with horses."

The shield maidens released the horses from their tethers, leaving them to trot around the ring.

Gunilla smiled, an evil glint in her eye, "Catch a horse, without help, mount, without help, and fly a lap around the ring."

The others dashed forward, running after the horses, who seemed to enjoy being chased after. They landed in the dust time and time again.

Mara cautiously approached a frisky mare, who seemed to be not entirely tamed. She held out a gentle hand, and spoke softly to the horse, calling it to her.

Ruffling its mottled wings, it trotted close to her, nervously. Mara didn't notice when the sounds of the other girls yelling and cursing faded away. She focused on her horse, meeting its doe-like eyes, sparkling with stars. It placed its snout against her hand, she gently ran her hand down the length of it body, feeling the silky smoothness of its mane and coat.

Scratching behind its ear, she whispered softly, "What's your name?"

It snorted softly, tossing its mane.

"Will you mind if I call you Valerie?"

The horse pawed the ground, possibly agreeing.

Mara smiled and scratched behind Valerie's ear again, "Thank you. You're very beautiful."

Valerie nickered softly.

"Why are you so angry at everyone?"

Valerie whinnied loudly, reared up, the pawed the ground, snorting.

"I understand. You want to be free. Free to run through endless fields, to fly over forests. Where I'm from, there are huge plains of grass. Lots of grassy knolls, brooks, flower fields. There's even a giant forest. I think you'd like it. How about we make a deal?"

Valerie huffed.

"You help me get into the Valkyries, I'll take you to my home as often as possible. Deal?"

Valerie tossed her mane, then head butted Mara's shoulder.

She smiled, wrapped an arm around her neck, and swung a leg over her back.

Then, reality came crashing back in when a bunch of cheers made her head snap to where the shield maidens and recruits stood together.

Sif eyed her, "No one has been able to get near that horse. She bites everyone who tries."

Mara frowned, "So why was she here today?"

Sif glared in the direction of the Warriors Three, "Well, some people thought it would be funny. Now, get off the horse, we've proved our point."

Gunilla stepped forward, "Not yet Sif." She eyed Mara on the horse, "She managed to get on. Let's see if she can stay on."

"Gunilla, are you sure-"

"Yes, I'm sure."

"I thought we weren't going to be doing any actual flying or riding yet."

"Let's just see what she can do, then move on." She nodded to Mara, "Show us a trot, gallop, then, take off and try to fly a lap around the ring."

The girls started snickering. Gunilla obviously didn't believe she could stay on the horse, and was setting her up to fail. Mara knew that too.

She leaned down and whispered in Valerie's ear, "Care to help me out here?"

Valerie tossed her mane, then began trotting around the ring, flicking her tail at the other horses, and the humans, obviously putting on a show. Then, she sped it up, galloping around the ring a couple times, before leaping, wings spread, into the air, and soaring above the heads of the others.

The girls clapped and cheered. The Valkyries looked somewhat impressed that a newbie was doing moderately well. Mara held on for dear life, realizing she was terrified of flying, despite years of tree climbing.

After completing a lap, Mara relaxed, thinking they would set down. Valerie had other plans. She shot up, doing barrel roll, flips, dives and many other stunts. It would have been an amazing sight, and it was, except for the shrieking woman.

Valerie set down, to much clapping, while Mara slipped off her side, legs shaking, utterly terrified.

Gunilla and all the shield maiden laughed, as well as the Warriors Three.

Gunilla smiled at Mara, "Well, looks like country beats city, yet again."

Sif rolled her eyes, took the reins from Mara, and glared at the Warriors Three, "Once tryouts are over, we are having a serious chat."

Mara barely noticed as Gunilla kept talking about what they would be expected to do at the academy, absentmindedly petting Valerie's muzzle.

Finally, paper was passed around. Each girl signed her name, putting her address down. Then, the Valkyries tied the horses back up and flew off, leaving the girls there without a word.

The girl next to Mara turned to her, offering a hand, "I'm Valka."

She took her hand, "Mara."

"I hope you get in. that was some great riding."

"Thanks. I've ridden horses all my life, even deer and boars. But never anything that flew."

Valka giggled, "I've never been around horses. I would have been terrified if I was in your place."

Mara smiled, eyes wandering as the other girls dispersed. That strange woman, Amora was talking to someone at the edge of the ring. Loki. They both looked over, Amora smirking. They waved.

Valka gasped, grabbing Mara's arm, "Do you know who that is?!"

"Uh, what?"

"That's Prince Loki!"

"Uhh, yeah?"

"HE WAVED AT YOU!"

"Uhh, great?"

Then, she saw four horses ride up and her heart sank into her shoes. Her family was here. She walked to the edge of the ring as her brothers scowled at her.

Her father just looked… disappointed.

"It's time to go home Mara."

He reached down a hand and lifted her up. Mara adjusted behind him, holding his shoulders as they set off, back the way they came.

But she had done it.

She had made it to tryouts.

She had completed them.

She had made a good impression, hopefully.

Now, she just had to wait for confirmation.