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Dead Embers

By:T. G. Ayer

Chapter 1

Cold burrowed into my knees, digging icy claws deep into bone. Despite the pain, I didn't move. I just knelt there on the white marble floor of Odin's Hall, time suspended in a maelstrom of seconds and minutes and unshed tears.

Bright red blood, Aidan's blood, dripped from my quivering hands, warm and sticky like honey. Yet there was nothing sweet or pleasant about having the warm ruby liquid seep into the whorls of my fingers and stain my hands and my clothing.

I blinked.

The sounds of the Great Hall simmered around me, fading into the shadows of my despair. Only the rabid cackle of Loki's laughter filtered through my sorrow. The rattle of his chains echoed in my ears as Fenrir dragged him away.

Loki's treachery should not have taken us by surprise at all. I'd never trusted him, not for a minute. Neither had Aidan. We'd expected Loki to show his hand at some point. But when he finally made his move, we never saw it coming. In the end he'd driven his poisoned dagger deep into Aidan's flesh. And now Aidan's blood marred the bold purity of the white tiles, while I sat bereft, haunted by a god's callous laughter and my own pathetic tears, which refused to fall.

I exhaled, a sobbing, shuddering sound that felt too loud and yet not loud enough. I wanted someone to make it all right, or to just make everything go away.

I wanted to curl into a ball and tell everyone to just shut up and leave me the hell alone.

Grief and anger and guilt warred inside me, and I clenched my fingers. The darkening blood beneath my nails glared at me, mocking my grief. A desperate urge engulfed me, a need to scrub the flesh of my fingers raw, to get every last spot of blood out, to erase the rosy tint from my skin.


My vision dimmed, eyes unfocused, time passing unnoticed.

Someone touched my shoulder, and I flinched, hand flying to my sword. My knuckles tightened on the hilt beneath my fingers. But when I looked up, it was only Joshua, his brow wrinkled with concern. And Aimee, who stood behind him, gazing at me with watery eyes.

"Bryn," Joshua said, crouching beside me, the heat of his hand warm on my shoulder. "There's nothing more you can do here."

I tried to focus, tried to tell him to leave me be, but instead I said nothing, just let him help me to my feet, let them lead me away to the deafening silence of my room. A pitcher of water sat waiting for me, the people around me preempting my needs. I should have been grateful, should have said thank you.

I said nothing.

Just rubbed the rose-petal-encrusted soap bar all over my fingers and grabbed a little brush, whose intricate dragon carvings barely made any impression on my blurring vision. Rubbing and scrubbing, I was lost in a desperate need to get the blood off my hands, and off my skin.

And my soul.

I was lost. Until Aimee's warm hands grasped mine, tugging the brush from my deadened fingers, rubbing them dry with a clean washcloth. Aimee handed me a clean dress and shooed Joshua out. He threw me a sad, apologetic grin, and all I managed in the way of thanks was a weak smile before Aimee shut the door in his face.

Changing into the fresh garment, I kicked the bloodstained clothes away from me. They landed a bit too close to the fire. Fitting, really. They deserved to burn.

I sat on the bed, and the wool-filled mattress sank as Aimee plopped beside me, giving my arm a sisterly squeeze. I guess I was projecting my mood pretty well because she just sat with me, saying nothing. I was grateful for her silence, and even more for the fact that she wasn't Sigrun, thank goodness.

I wasn't ready to face Sigrun yet.


In my room, I sat unmoving on the fur-laden bed and glared at the red and yellow flames of the fire as it crackled merrily and tried its best to warm me. But my heart remained a blackened, useless lump of ice. I could think of nothing but Aidan— unconscious, abandoned in Hel, alone.

The memories of everything we'd been through together burned like accusatory flames. We'd fulfilled the goddess Freya's demands; we'd found her precious necklace. But in the end it had been for nothing.

In the end, I'd still lost Aidan.

A large part of me blamed Asgard for Aidan's predicament, along with everyone who had anything to do with the realm of Odin. Another part of me blamed my father for messing with DNA and inadvertently creating a Valkyrie. A tiny part of me blamed myself for not paying enough attention to spot Loki's treachery.

So many places where I could lay the blame.

But it was Asgard itself that I now hated with a violent, visceral passion. Asgard had called Aidan to Valhalla, to serve Odin as his Warrior. A goddess of Asgard had played with him, and with me, as if we were just pieces on a chessboard: used, manipulated, then discarded.

And a god of Asgard had poisoned him.

I blinked, and the memory of Odin's face wavered before me, his words echoing in my mind. Soothing, reassuring words. About how I'd had no choice and how Aidan was better off in Hel. But who was Odin kidding? Seriously, there was no friggin' way I could ever agree that Aidan was better off in Hel. How could that possibly be a good thing? And Freya? What sane part of me could ever believe her promise to try her best to help him? I didn’t trust her, not by a long shot.

I lay back on the bed, bone-weary. But when my lids finally closed, rest was the last thing I got. Loki's evil snarls and visions of Aidan twisting in his poisoned coma plagued my dreams. Better to stay awake.

For three days, I shut them all out and tried to forget. And at night, while the palace slept, I found solace in the lights of the aurora borealis. Iridescent lights—emerald, mauve, pink and yellow—shimmered across a black night.

I trudged to the rise just beyond the Hall of Valhalla, wrapped tightly in furs to keep out the winter freeze. There I stood, mesmerized by the Northern Lights, as the dark winter's night slid by.

In Asgard they believed the lights marked the passage of the new Warriors into their new life in service to Odin, risen from the dead to fight in the Great War. To die for a greater reason. The lights grounded me with the knowledge that the world turned. No matter my great and insurmountable grief, no matter Aidan's seemingly helpless situation.

Life went on.

When the pale fingers of weak morning light began to steal away the brightness of the aurora, I hurried back to my room before I bumped into anyone and was forced to make small talk.

But my solitude didn't last long. A knock on the door jolted me from my thoughts. "Brynhildr?" A soft, unfamiliar voice filtered through the thick wooden door. "You are summoned. The All-Father awaits your presence."

I closed my eyes a moment and pictured Aidan. Lying asleep, waiting for me. Maybe my pity party had lasted long enough.

During the last few days I'd cried enough tears, then dried them all. Now I reached for the door and yanked it open, fast enough to startle the young Valkyrie in the hall.

"I'm ready," I said.

Chapter 2

The soft murmuring in the Great Hall fell silent as I entered. I avoided the eyes of the assembled Warriors and Valkyries and strode toward the shadowed figure on the raised dais.

Odin leaned forward on his seat, his expression softer than I'd expected. The kindness in his smile hurt my heart, and brought burning tears to my eyes.

A wild flutter of black wings in the air caught my attention, and soon a sooty raven landed on my shoulder. Hugin. Odin had given me his favorite raven, Hugin—the legendary Bird of Thought—as a guide when Aidan and I had gone back home to find Freya's beloved necklace, Brisingamen.

The bird weighed next to nothing as he perched on my shoulder. I tilted my head to stare at him, eye to eye; emerald to gleaming obsidian. He bent to my ear and whispered, "The time spent within the arms of Grief is only worth it if you have a reason to live. Take heed, Brynhildr. You have strength and courage. Use them to free your beloved." His ultra-sultry tones were hard for me to process. Every time he spoke, I wondered if he'd gone and swallowed Barry White.

Hugin's advice sounded heartfelt, but I didn't reply. I was still pretty annoyed with the little cat-and-mouse game he'd played on our last mission. The annoying clump of feathers had fed me information one little crumb at a time. Too many times he'd held back crucial information that would've helped us get back home to Asgard sooner.

Hugin tipped his head and pierced me with a knowing, contemplative stare, as if he knew I wasn't his greatest fan, as if that knowledge disappointed him.

I shrugged, not caring that my movement forced Hugin to shuffle to regain his balance.

Well, too bad, Blackbird. In the end, despite your advice, the gods got what they wanted, and Aidan still ended up in Hel with Freya.

Odin crooked a gnarled finger at me. "Come closer, Brynhildr." His patched eye hid within shadows cast by a black, floppy-brimmed hat, the little accessory giving the powerful god a decidedly approachable mien.

I hesitated for an instant, then walked to the beckoning god, leather-sandaled feet making no sound on the marble floor. The links in my chainmail clinked against my sword, the echo slowly fading into the far corners of the hall.

Odin scrutinized me, his single grey eye gleaming with life and with a certain sparkle of cheer.

What did he have to be cheerful about?

I took care to school my features to a more neutral and acceptable respectfulness. After all, I stood before Odin, God of War, the All-Father.

"My lord." I bowed my head, standing still in front of the seated god.

"Child, I know you have grieved. And I do know you feel you are to blame. But you must release yourself from such a punishment. None of what happened is your fault."