by Alex Singer

"I'm sorry, what was that?"

The first-year fledge ducked as though her hair might hide her. The second-year fledge stared at Aesa with wide eyes. "I didn稚 say anything."

"Oh, okay," said Aesa, reasonably. Then, very reasonably, she swung around so that she was staring the first second-year in the face. Aesa may have been a first-year who'd just popped her wings, but she was already tall for her age and not afraid to show it. "Because it sure sounded an awful lot like 'oh, everyone knows why you're here.'"

She mimicked the second-year's lilt so perfectly that the girl next to her went pale.

"So," asked Aesa, tilting her head so that her braids jangled. "Why is she here?"

The second-year seemed to remember herself, then. She pushed away from the shivering first-year and smiled, smoothing the elegant, swan-white hair that matched every young Valkyrie on the Nine Peaks.

"Not really your business, is it?" she said, batting her eyelashes. She put an arm around the first-year. The first-year flinched at the touch. "My friend and I were having a talk. That's what friends do. We talk."

"Talk," said Aesa. The second-year nodded. "Okay. Wonderful. Let's talk. Why do you think she's here?"

"Excuse me?" said the second-year.

"Why are you here?" said Aesa.

'Don't,' mouthed the first year.

"Excuse me?" said the second-year. She released the first-year and turned with a smooth swing of her skirts. She was in her element now, her head raised in great pride. It didn't bring her close to Aesa's height, but at this point it didn't occur to her. "I'm Gerdis Gerundottir. My mother was a fine Valkyrie captain and now wife of Gerun Hall. I am here because it is tradition for our finest daughters to prove themselves as strong and capable as the husbands they are to marry."

Aesa listened to this very patiently. She nodded at the appropriate times.

"Why do you talk so slow?" she asked, finally. "Have you been struck in the head?

This took Gerdis off-guard. "That's..." She regained herself, attempting to speak loftily again. "I was trying to speak so that a wolf-child should understand."

"Wolf-child," repeated Aesa. She smiled. "I like that word. Though it's not accurate. They're actually called wolf-rider. The people who brought me here, I mean. They're quite good people, you know. Very good at what they do. Should I tell you about them?"

"I don't really care," said Gerdis, quickly. "Wolf-riders, fine, fine." She glanced back and forth, as though that might save her. She took a step away from the first-year, as though that might put Aesa off, but Aesa just advanced on her, her long shadow stretched across the floor of the training hall.

"I think you should," said Aesa, rolling her shoulders. "I really think you should. They live in the woods in the valley of the First Peak. They are good warriors. Very brave. They belong to the Handless Lord himself. The one who bound the great wolf at the mountain, you know. You have to be brave to do that. I think they might even be better than your people at Gerun Hall. What do you think?"

"I doubt that," said the second-year, with automatic disdain. Aesa paused. Gerdis realized her mistake too late. "I mean, certainly, certainly. Whatever you say."

Aesa walked past the first-year. The girl flushed, fiddling with the long braid which hung over her shoulder. Aesa took careful note of her as she closed the distance, closing her hand over the second-year's shoulder.

"Now I'll tell you what they're not," said Aesa, "They're not petty pillow-stuffers who think having at first-years makes you big when you池e just using your cloak to build a marriage bed."

"Unhand me," hissed Gerdis.

"As you wish," said Aesa. She released her shoulder. Then she punched her in the face.

It wasn't hard to hear a fight in Freya's hall. The ceiling was tall and sounds echoed on the stone walls. Within moments students from even the snowfields in the back had heard the shouts. They flooded in to catch the ruckus, quickly swallowing up the mortified first-year in the press.

"Big red's done it this time!"

"Is that Gerdis Gerundottir?"

"Who's winning?"

"Should we call Lady Freya?"

"Fight, fight!"

It wasn't really much of a fight. Gerdis fumbled for the training sword she had leaned against the wall. Aesa, who had learned to brawl when she was four, was under no such limitations. She grabbed a handful of the second-year's smooth hair, and that was it. Gerdis shrieked as Aesa pulled her into a headlock.

"Now," said Aesa. "I think you owe an apology!"

"Let me go," cried Gerdis. "You're horrible, let me go!"

Aesa tightened her hold on her hair.

"Not yet," she whispered.

She didn't see the dark blur until it was too late.

Gerdis Gerundottir fell to the floor. Aesa nearly followed, she fell to her knee, eyes wide in surprise. Her cheek stung and, after a moment, a single red braid separated itself from the mess that was her hair, and fell to the floor.

Silence fell in Freya's hall. The new fledge stood four steps away from Aesa. Her arm was still out, and her training sword out for all the other students to see. She hadn't bothered pushing her way through the crowd. She'd simply shifted her cloak into wings and sailed over their heads. Feathers were still falling as she turned to face Aesa. The cloak and hair that settled against her back were night black like a crow.

"Fighting is not permitted outside of the training hall for any who have not gained Freya's approval," said the new fledge. Aesa had expected an instructor but the girl's uniform told her she was just a second-year, and one even shorter and skinnier than the first-year whom Gerdis had been tormenting. Still, the onlookers backed away from the imperious sweep of her startlingly dark eyes. "And personal duels are a waste of all our time if only idiots are involved."

"Signy," croaked Gerdis, "Signy, I'm sorry. She struck me. I couldn't do anything."

"I don't care," said the dark-haired fledge. This seemed to break Gerdis, she melted against the floor, cradling her swollen face.

"I do," said Aesa, standing. "You lopped off my hair!"

"Could have been your head," said the fledge, simply.

"Hah!" Aesa tossed her remaining braids back over her shoulder. "That's rich! And who are we, puffing our feathers out so grandly?"

"Signy Sigendottir," said the dark-haired fledge.

Aesa crossed her arms. "And that means?"

An awkward silence filled the hall. Signy stared at her. She didn't blink. The onlookers began to shift, uncomfortably. Aesa heard someone whisper: 'Is she serious?'

"Oh, what," said Aesa. "Am I supposed to know?"

"Oh," said Signy, tilting her head as though seeing Aesa for the first time. "You're the one who was raised by the wolves."

"Wolf-riders," corrected Aesa.

"I've wasted everyone's time," said Signy. She sheathed her sword and turned to leave. "Fighting is not permitted without Freya's permission."

"Now hold on," said Aesa, grabbing at her arm. "We're not done here—"

She went stumbling from a blow at the back of her head.

"Yes we are," said Signy, from behind. Aesa felt another braid come loose and slide to the floor, neatly severed from the rest. Someone among the onlookers had the nerve to applaud.

"All right," said Aesa, straightening. "All right."

She turned and rushed her.

If Signy had been expecting anything, it hadn't been that. Aesa caught a look of surprise in her face as she came nose to nose with her, a second before Signy jumped away. Aesa turned, her own cloak unfurling into furious red wings as she winged after Signy, with such a force that their swords met an inch from the second-year's chin.

"What were you saying?" asked Aesa, "about personal duels?"

"This is stupid," said Signy. She spun away from her, only to gasp faintly as Aesa ceased a handful of her cloak to pull her back.

"I said hold on," said Aesa.

Signy whirled with her training sword out. Aesa dropped down out of the way of the wild blow. Her leg shot out, clearing the space between Signy's steeled legs and catching the hilt of Gerdis' resting training weapon. It bounced off the wall. Signy jumped to avoid it and Aesa stood with both weapons in hand.

"This is a brawl," said Signy.

"Damn right it is." Aesa grinned over the two blades now at hand.

Signy sighed, and moved.

Aesa wasn't sure where the next blow came from. Or the one after. She swung, hoping to catch something, but was met only with a blow to the head from one closed, armored hand.

"Enough," said Signy, watching Aesa stagger back. Aesa charged, swords up. Signy let her get close enough so that the shoulders brushed, before she flowed away from her like she were made of water, and struck Aesa in the back with the flat of her sword. She struck her again in the side. She did it once more, across the back of her legs. Aesa spun, only to feel the press of metal against the side of her neck.

"Turn," said Signy.

Aesa did, very slowly. Another lightning blow forced her to the ground. She lay on her back, under the point of the second-year's blade.

"This is over," said Signy, her hair hung over Aesa like a curtain.

Aesa dropped her swords and held up her hands. "I agree with you completely," she said.

Signy blinked. A few strands of her dark hair separated itself from the space close to her jaw, and slithered to the floor. It was followed by the rest, a dark sheet which fluttered to the floor in a dark pool around the both of them. The remaining locks settled jaggedly around Signy's shocked face.

"When did you—" said the second year, she turned around, staring at her own hair at her feet.

"It was nice of you to show us all how skilled you were," said Aesa, "but it was nicer of you to let me close while you did it."

Signy stared at her. "That was it?"

Aesa shook her head, jangling her own torn braids. "You started it. I take it you'll report me now."

Signy's hand balled into a fist. She shook, and forced her face to go blank. "I see," she said, in a clipped voice. "How petty. Well, you can have your small victory if you want, but no one will pass you if you fight like that. As your senior I wish you luck, Wolf-rider. You're no Valkyrie."

"I beg to—"

Signy shoved her sword into her belt and walked away. Most of the onlookers went with her, calling excitedly to her as she vanished down the hall, her cloak and the ragged remains of her hair flapping behind her.

"—differ. Hey, now—" It was too late, a wall of departing students flocked between them, and anyway Aesa tripped over her own tangled cloak. "Who are you to say who's a Valkyrie anyway? Isn't that Freya's job? Or Odin's?"

But if Signy heard her, she didn't bother to reply.

Someone held a hand out. Aesa took it, levering herself up. The first-year from before nearly rocked backwards under her weight.

"Oh," said Aesa. "You're still here."

"You shouldn't have done that," she said, not looking at her. "Signy's very good at what she does. Her mother was once one of Odin's Ravens. She's been learning to fight since she was four."

"So have I. That doesn't mean anything," said Aesa.

"Signy's different. She's... well." The first-year smoothed her skirts. "Thank you for helping me, anyway. I wish you hadn't, though. You'll be in real trouble now, and nothing Gerdis said was untrue."

"You talk like I haven't been in trouble here since the day I arrived." Aesa rubbed her shoulder. Signy was light on her feet, but it turned out she hit hard. "What does everyone know you're here for?"

The girl colored. "That I'm here because I don't want to be married. Because I want to be a maiden until the day I die."

"Eh," said Aesa. "Isn't that sort of the point of wanting to be a valkyrie?"

The girl blinked at her. "Yes, but... it's... suppose it's complicated if you haven't grown up here."

"I suppose is it is," allowed Aesa, frowning at one of her torn braids.

"I can help you with that," volunteered the girl. "Your hair. I mean. Cut it for you幼ut it even, not off, I promise!" She added that last part as Aesa's tensed with the suggestion.

Aesa relaxed. "Aren't afraid you'll set yourself on fire?"

The girl looked away, wrapping her patterned cloak tighter around her shoulders. "At least the red stands out. That isn't always a bad thing." She bit her lip and then, as though steeling herself for her own battle, lifted her chin and met Aesa's eyes. "I'm Sifa Kattendottir. I'm sorry. I think I've earned you an awful enemy in Signy. She won't let an insult like that stand."

"Hmph. I'm not afraid of that Signy Signdottir," said Aesa. "I'll just have to fight to win, next time. I'm Aesa, by the way. Just Aesa."

"Yes," said Sifa, with a cautious smile. "I'd already heard."

The End

NOTES: Prequel to Ravencloak.

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