"Lord of Winter," said Lady Dagmar. She swept forward before Aesa could say a word, shifting her cloak into her brown hawk's wings as she knelt in the feast hall. She spread them to their full length so that all present could see them. This was custom for a Valkyrie captain in a strange feast hall. "We ask you to release a wind for us. Just to hold the winter a little longer. My Lord Bryngeror has endured the attention of her rivals for too long. We need a late winter to thwart them. The snow needn't stop their attack, only delay it."
The announcement caused a murmur among the attendants in the hall, all bundled up in furs to combat the cold of the hall. Aesa could imagine how it must have looked: a small flight of Valkyrie coming in the name of a small holding on the other side of the valley, speaking for the wife of a Jarl who had died two winters ago, and asking a god himself for aid.
"Remember, a god in exile is still a god," Lady Dagmar had warned them, when they'd entered the hall. It had mostly been a warning to Aesa, who had been all too eager to shake the ice from her wings and rush ahead. Hodur had not been to Asgard in some time, not even to the selection tournaments in which he would be allowed to choose new Valkyrie, but even still he kept the winter winds in his stores, and in many ways the one god all people of the mountains believed in above all else.
Aesa supposed this was all very impressive, but she was just struck by how young he actually looked. She had been told Hodur was blind and weak, but although he bound his eyes with cloth, he seemed able-bodied enough. She had expected him to look like Odin: all wild and grand. Hodur's hair was close-kept, and his beard little more than a scratchy peppering across his strong chin. His hair was dark, too. Not a common thing among the Nine Peaks.
It was a black that almost matched the hair of his Raven — the Valkyrie who customarily served as captain of the local flight. She stood closest to his chair as he frowned at Lady Dagmar's request. The hair that peeked from under her helm was black. It matched her wings — currently resting in their cloak form around her shoulders. The cloak hung almost to her hips and was as dark as the far corners of the feast hall. She was what really caught Aesa's eye. Mardoll and Dotta's too. Aesa could hear them whisper behind her.
"Her cloak really is black."
"She looks so young."
"Is it true what they say about her?"
"Yes," said Aesa, perhaps a touch too loudly. "It probably is. Now shut up."
Hodur raised a hand to silence the hall.
"You understand," he said to Lady Dagmar, who had knelt silent the whole time, "that what you ask is no small thing?"
"Surely," ventured Lady Dagmar, with great care, "it is nothing to the god whom is Lord of all Winter Storms?"
At this, Hodur smiled thinly. "Perhaps, but I cannot give anything too freely. Many of great renown have sent their wings to me with hopes for my favor, and you are the Valkyrie of no true Jarl."
Lady Dagmar only winced slightly at the reminder. Bryngeror's husband had died two winters ago. The oldest son was just seven years old. Bryngeror had done well to keep the Hall and the holdings functional in the time since the Jarl's passing, but it didn't mean his old allies considered her equal to the lands she managed so well.
"Lady Bryngeror has done commendably in the absence of her husband," said Lady Dagmar, carefully. "I stand by her request."
"Hm," Hodur nodded. With his eyes bound and his jaw set, it was hard to tell what he thought of the request. He reached out past the arm of the chair to touch his Raven's wrist. She murmured something to him in response. "Very well. Since you have such faith in your master, I shall grant you the customary consideration. Select your representative, Lady Dagmar, and choose wisely, for they will be the ones to make your case. "
An attendant stepped forward with a spear.
Mardoll and Dotta exchanged doubtful looks. "How exactly...?" Dotta began to ask, but Lady Dagmar silenced her with a slash of her hand. It was customary for a visiting Valkyrie to present their fighting prowess when requesting a favor on behalf of their lord. Purportedly it was a matter of good sportsmanship, but Aesa always suspected it had more to do with showing a potential rival what a bad idea it would be to say no. Blind or not, Hodur had chosen to observe this custom. They were to respect it. Lady Dagmar stood and shifted her wings back into her cloak as Hodur's Raven stepped forward, shouldering her own spear with an expert ease in spite of her young age.
"Can Lady Dagmar really—?" Mardoll whispered worriedly. They said that Hodur's Valkyrie had once faced a dragon and lived.
Lady Dagmar stood ready. The attendant began to explain the terms. Aesa knew as a Valkyrie in her first wing she ought to observe the proceedings with great care, but she could hardly listen. This was the moment she'd been waiting for since Bryngeror had asked them to visit the god's hall. Hodur's Raven stood across from them with her spear held parallel to her body, waiting.
Aesa found she could wait no longer.
"I'll fight," said Aesa, seizing the spear as Lady Dagmar reached for it. Lady Dagmar tried to grab her, but it was too late. Aesa surged forward, her red cloak whirling into a flurry of equally red wings as she pointed her spear directly at the youngest Raven in the Nine Peaks.
Hodur's chief Valkyrie raised her eyebrows.
"Aesa," she said, after a moment.
"Signy Sigyndottir," said Aesa. "It's been some time."
And then, not waiting for the signal or her shield, she lunged.
They fought to a draw, but only because they had ruined the banquet spread.
"You are our welcome guests, apparently," said Hodur, as his servants had carried the split table out of the feast hall. The noise of the plates clattering had been considerable. He held one hand against his ear. "Eat and rest as you see fit. This will be your home until morning, but be mindful not to break any more of my tables."
Aesa took that as an invitation to wander as she would. She stepped out into the snowfield that marked the beginning of the Winter Lord's hunting range.
She looked out across the dark expanse, to storehouses in the distance. The storm had cleared, whether by natural course or by Hodur's will, she couldn't be sure. It didn't really matter. The snow was clear and ice-blue in the light of the moon. Aesa stretched her arms over her head and looked over her shoulder. There, on the roof of the feast hall. Aesa flipped backwards and unfurled her wings.
She landed on the roof beside the dark-haired Raven, who scowled and raised her hand against the brush of Aesa's wings.
"You sure haven't changed have you?" asked Aesa, folding her wings back into her red cloak. "Knew I'd find you. You perch, Signy."
"I enjoy my privacy," said the Raven — Signy — with twist of her lips. "And you enjoy violating it. What are you doing here?"
"Greeting party of Lady Bryngeror," said Aesa, simply.
"Besides that," said Signy.
"Hm." Aesa stomped on the roof until the snow slid away and sat down beside Signy. "Let me think. Requesting aid, paying court to a God, saving my Jarl's holdings, and looking for an old acquaintance. Have you seen her? About this tall, long nose, black hair, glares like a hawk — a bit like that, yes."
"And I thought you were here to request another duel," said Signy.
"If you'd like," said Aesa. "But a word would do."
Signy's lips twisted. She closed her eyes. "I haven't seen anyone by your description," she said. "Ask someone else."
"I don't see anyone else."
"Then go someplace else. "
"Why don't you?" said Aesa. "If I'm bothering you that much. Or is this you not wanting to give me the satisfaction of making you run?"
Signy said nothing.
"Because believe you me, my friend," said Aesa. "I don't think I could get you to run farther than the last time."
The spear swiped the air where Aesa had been previously seated. Snow exploded in a white mist. Aesa landed a foot away, her skirts settling around her and her cloak spread into the vague shape of her wings.
"There!" breathed Aesa. "Yes, there! That's the Signy I remember."
Signy stared at her blankly over the length of her spear. "So. This is why you've come? To taunt me like a first-year?"
"No," said Aesa, cracking her knuckles. "But if I'm wrong, correct me!"
"Certainly," said Signy. She flowed to her feet, brushing the pieces of snow off of her skirts. She tightened the straps on one of her bracers then, with a sigh, she lunged.
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The snow muffled the sounds of metal clanging on metal, and the sound of ragged breath in the cold air. Aesa danced just out of the spear's reach, bending and weaving to avoid the expert lunges and the lethal sweeps.
"You have improved," noted Signy, with some surprise. She hadn't wanted to admit it, but as minutes dragged it became embarrassing not to. "You haven't tried to tackle me once."
"Yes, well," said Aesa, drawing her axe once to deflect another lunge with a loud screech of metal. "I've learned to bide my time."
She side-stepped the next lunge. It brought Signy close. Aesa's arm shot out, grabbing the other Valkyrie by her shoulder. She pulled her as close as she could, till there was just a hand between them and she could see the faint twist of Signy's mouth.
"You haven't learned not to announce your actions," said Signy, softly. She let herself fall forward. Her forehead collided with Aesa's, sending her head ringing.
"Oh ho!" cried Aesa, stumbling back. "That was dirty! Has our pristine Valkyrie Princess finally learned a little pit fighting?"
"I've learned the best way to deal with scum," said Signy, shouldering her spear, "is to know their ways."
Aesa eyed her through the ringing in her head. "I can respect that."
"Yes," said Signy, "I'm sure you do."
Aesa curled her free hand into a fist and charged, axe swinging.
If Signy had expected another charge like the one in the hall, she was mistaken, for this time Aesa launched herself skywards before their weapons could touch. She swooped in from behind, feet first, and Signy just barely had time to negotiate her spear and her feet and hop to the side to avoid Aesa's heavy boots. Aesa didn't give her much time to recover. She landed, sprung backwards and planted an elbow in Signy's stomach. Signy felt the breath go out of her but forced her mind to work, planting her spear in the ground and using it as anchoring as she aimed her owns side kick which struck the other Valkyrie in the soft spot just above her knee. Aesa broke away with an outraged squawk, but didn't waste time in delivering another three punches, which Signy ducked, deflected, and parried in swift succession. The fourth swing had a fist full of ice in it. Signy shut her eyes against the sting, and in that split second Aesa's boot found her breastplate. Her spear fell. So did the axe. Aesa's weight bore Signy down into the snow.
"What a filthy way to win," murmured Signy. "It's a wonder you were selected by a Jarl, fighting like that."
"You're bleeding," said Aesa.
Signy was bleeding. It wasn't the ice which had scratched her, although the lines were pink on her cheek. It wasn't even a stray nick from the axe, which had left deep scratches in her thicker armor. No — it was her lip. She'd bitten down hard enough to draw blood. The wound stung in the cold. Aesa reached with a wet gloved hand to touch it, but Signy turned her head away and her cheek into the snow.
Aesa sighed, and settled her hand in beside her head instead.
"I would've thought you'd have at least grown your hair out by now," she said, gasping as the adrenaline siphoned out.
Signy glanced at her out of the corner of her eye. Aesa was flushed, her fell hair fell raggedly around them, braids clumped and tangled. "So long as I let someone so beneath me cut it," she whispered. "I will cut it as a reminder of my carelessness."
"So I was the reason you left," breathed Aesa.
Signy swallowed, hard. "You self-centered idiot." She spread her wings against the snow, beating them hard. The ice stirred up was enough to catch Aesa off guard, and Signy planted a hand over her face and shoved her back.
It wasn't a fight that would've passed regulation in any of the selection tournaments. Neither of them retrieved their weapon. Aesa grabbed at Signy's wings. Signy kneed her in the chin. The ground turned to slush and broken ice as they rolled down the slope.
"Do you believe the mountains move for you?" hissed Signy as she threw a punch. She was better at it than she used to be. Aesa winced as she caught it an inch from her face. "Do you believe the sky bows for you? That the birds sing for you? That the sun shines for you?"
"No, just—" Aesa grabbed Signy's shoulders, pulling them sideways. "Gods, Signy. Calm down! I just want to know why you left!"
But Signy could not be calmed. Aesa had the weight advantage, but Signy was smaller, lighter, and eminently bonier. She stuck out her elbows and twisted out from beneath her, just enough to aim another kick at Aesa's gut. She rushed to her feet.
"And now you believe I owe you answers!" she shouted, she punctuated each word with a jab from her foot. Aesa managed to scrabble to her knees, blocking with an arm. "As though you were entitled to it. As though we were ever friends. You rush ahead of your captain in the audience hall, because you believe you are entitled to that fight with me? Do you think everything everyone does is just for you? That what I did was just because of you? Like Sifa?"
"Sifa!" Aesa let a blow in through sheer surprise. Her head snapped to the side, she narrowed her eyes as she surged upwards. "Now that's too much. You know why Sifa did what she did! You were there!"
Aesa charged. Signy swept out of the way, but she didn't factor in the sudden re-emergence of Aesa's wing, one of which swept forward and smacked her firmly in the chest. She fell, winded, and Aesa was on her in an instant, her hands bunched in the folds of the reformed cloak. Signy stared up at her, her dark eyes blank and startlingly calm. "Yes, and I know what she was to you."
"What she was? She was our friend. She was our wingmate. She was—"
"....Oh," she said. "Oh. That's not what you mean."
Signy went heavy in her grip. The Raven tipped her head back and breathed out. "No, it's not."
Aesa's cheeks, already bright from the fight, turned a brighter pink. It clashed miserably with her hair. "You knew about that? How, I mean. It was just once or twice. It was late, and you were out practicing on the peak...oh, Hel, you came back before midnight for once in your life."
Signy said nothing.
"What, did you sit and watch?"
"No," said Signy, bitterly. "I saw quite enough."
Aesa let her go. Signy settled in the snow. She'd left her helmet on the roof of the feast hall. Her black hair stuck to her cheeks. Aesa brushed her own hair out of the way, and kept her hand pressed to her forehead, as she caught her breath.
"Is... that why you left?" Aesa's hand dropped. "Is Signy Sigyndottir really that petty? You left because you thought I wouldn't fuck you?"
Signy began to roll away. "Believe what you'd like."
"No," said Aesa, throwing her leg out to keep her in place. "I'll see for myself."
It was a kiss that was all teeth and determination, and not a lot of finesse. That didn't really seem to matter for the way Signy suddenly surged up under her, grabbing a handful of pleats and pulling with a hunger to match any mountain wolf. For a moment it was a hot, uncomfortable press, and Aesa had to turn her head to the side to get away.
"So tell me again," said Aesa, with a rough laugh, "how that wasn't it?"
"It wasn't," said Signy, "but if you can do that without nearly cracking a tooth, I might at least tell you the truth."
Aesa did. She did so sliding a leg between Signy's skirts, leather gloves creaking as she seized her shoulders. It was a little less toothy, but a lot messier and when Signy broke away, this time. Aesa's lips stung with the sudden remembrance of the cold around them.
"Let me go," murmured Signy, glancing back up to the hall.
"Uh... what?" Aesa shook her head and glared down at her. "No. So you can run again? No."
"So I can take you to my quarters," said Signy. "Unless you have developed an immunity to frostbite."
"Oh — oh," said Aesa. She rolled away. Signy lay in the snow for a moment, as though contemplating the sanity of her actions. Then, with great dignity, she swept to her feet, opened her wings, and flapped back upwards towards the hall. For once in her life, Aesa followed without a word.
The tiny room Signy had been afforded as the appointed Raven of Hodur consisted of a fur bedroll, a few chests, and three spears and a shield mounted on the wall. Aesa imagined some of those chests must have held books or changes of clothes, but aside from that there was nothing to identity the room as anything other than the quarters of a generic, faceless warrior. Aesa, who had always made a point of decorating her living space with anything bright or new, made a face into the polished shield as she folded her cloak with great care over her arm. The rest of the armor and leathers had been thrown to various corners of the room, but the cloak Aesa handled with care.
In the shield's reflection she watched Signy divest herself of her own armor. She took great care with it, laying it out with an agonizing particularity in the space by the bedroll. By the time she was down to her tunic and breaches, Aesa stood naked across from her, her cloak under her arm and one hand on her hip. Signy glanced at her, then reached for the hearth.
"You keep a fire in your room now," said Aesa, following the movement. She remembered Signy's corner of the training hall when they were younger, which were always ice cold. She had refused to keep a fire, even a small one.
"Practicality," said Signy, reaching for the clasp on her tunic. "The nights are longer here. I've learned to set aside fear for the sake of survival."
"Was that it?" Aesa watched Signy's hands. They only faltered slightly. "Was it shame? Anyone would have frozen for a moment, you know. Whether or not it was a bad memory. Even the captains hesitated. It was dragon fire. With a full dragon attached to it, I might add."
Signy's hands fell away. Her shirt fell open, exposing narrow a thin line of pale skin and the beginning curve of one breast.
"Are you still trying to guess?" she murmured. She settled for sitting back on her bedroll, and staring blankly at the spears on the wall, looking just past Aesa and not quite at her. "You didn't falter."
"I don't burn," said Aesa.
"Sifa didn't falter," said Signy.
"Did you really envy her that much?"
"No," admitted Signy. "I had never thought much about her one way or the other, beyond that she struck me as one who took on the cloak and wings to find a good husband, not glory on the battlefield."
"You were wrong," said Aesa, settling down across from her.
Signy nodded. "I was wrong. She was one of the true Valkyrie. And she was brave where I myself faltered. I should have given her due respect. Do you think she would have foregone a husband for you?"
"I don't know, probably," admitted Aesa, fiddling with her cloak. She settled finally for resting it on one of the chests, next to Signy's, the red looked striking beside the black. "Although she would have hated fighting the rest of her life. I can't say I didn't think about it, after she died. But it wasn't like I can ask her, anymore. Though could you imagine how awkward that would've been? She would've wanted to pitch herself into a ravine."
"Would you have foregone marriage for her?"
"Marriage? Feh, I'm staying a Valkyrie. Did I love her like a Valkyrie captain loves her second, you mean?" asked Aesa. "No. And you have no idea how that kept me up for a while. But it isn't as though she hadn't meant something to me. She was one of the few friends I had in the training hall. You were the other one, you should know."
"I hated you," said Signy.
Aesa didn't flinch. "Oh, and I hated you plenty right back. But you were still a friend. Look here." Signy didn't look. Aesa sighed and settled for grabbing her shoulder and turning her. "Sifa didn't do it all just for me. She was a person. No one does anything so bold for just for one reason. Not unless they're mad as balls, like me, and Sifa sure wasn't. She really loved our flight, all of us. She really loved her holding. Her father. Her brothers and sisters. She couldn't let the dragon take any of it. You should know that."
"I know that," said Signy.
"Do you hate her?"
"Never while she was alive," said Signy. "There was no point. She was never my match in any way. And yet she had things I realized I lack, and yes."
"Well," said Aesa, digging her fingers into the cloth of her tunic pulling it aside. "Let me take away your excuse to."
It was nothing like a fight. At least, not the one that had come before. Signy let Aesa slide her tunic off her shoulders, hissing only faintly as the fabric brushed past her sensitive wing-marks. Signy let Aesa push her back onto the bed roll, watching through half-lidded eyes as Aesa swore and yanked at her breeches, pulling them up over her knees and tossing them over her shoulder. Signy only hissed slightly in disapproval at the cavalier treatment of her belongings, but Signy also let Aesa grip her ankle and lean over her to run a hand from her collarbone down to her stomach, with her fingers curled so that she left red lines across her pale skin. Her hand stopped over her hip bone, fingers playing along the rise, as though committing the contour to memory.
"Thinner than ever," said Aesa, tracking the lines of tightened muscle along her stomach. She located one soft point along Signy's inner thigh and slid her hand over it, pinching it. "You never did explain where all that food really went. Do you still eat the roast or is just snow, now?"
Signy rolled her eyes and said nothing.
"Damn," muttered Aesa. "I'm not doing this if you're only going to just lie here. This isn't what I—"
But when she started to let go of Signy's ankle, her hand shot up. They dug hard enough into Aesa that she gasped. She was sure there'd be marks in the morning.
Signy, levered forward so that her mouth was close to Aesa's, whispered: "Coward."
"Oh, Hel," said Aesa, "If that's how you'd like it."
So she did it the way Signy wanted it. She pushed Signy back down. She pulled her leg over her shoulder, and leaned in for the kill.
She had her with her mouth, much more mindful of her teeth than before. The hot-cold draw of her tongue was so confident and sudden that, for a moment, Signy gasped in very real surprise, but Aesa held her hips down. She did it slow, determined to make her squirm, but this proved too tentative for Signy, whose muscles twitched with each stroke, to be sure, but eventually shook her head and dug her nails into Aesa's shoulder.
So Aesa had her with her hand. She had expected Signy to be drawn tighter than a bow, but Signy gave faster than she expected, lying almost boneless as she worked her finger in. She flexed it carefully, spreading one palm over Signy's stomach. Signy tilted her head to watch her. She nearly looked bored.
"I had thought you had come to be known for your first charge," she murmured, dryly.
Aesa's head jolted up in surprise. "So you did hear of me up here. I'm doing something right!"
"Not presently," said Signy.
So Aesa added another finger and pressed home. That shut Signy up. That was how Aesa had her, gripping her hip for leverage as she pressed in fast and hard. When that wasn't enough, she pulled them both so that Signy instead sat on her lap, so that Signy could let herself be had at the pace she wanted: which was fast, so fast that Aesa was grateful for how her years of training had strengthened her wrist.
When Signy came it was with her whole body, everything simply tightened, and she grabbed for both skin and hair as she grit her teeth and swallowed any sound. If Aesa expected to be left on her own after that, she was mistaken. No sooner had Signy caught her breath and untangled herself then she fell on Aesa with a cold ferocity that nevertheless burned as she bit her bottom lip. She rolled her backwards so that her head bumped the floor at the foot of the bedroll. She slid her leg between Aesa's and, with merciless precision, pressed once, and then again, and then again after that.
"Ah," Aesa gasped, laughing as Signy glared down at her. "Yes. That's how I thought you'd be."
It didn't take very long after that.
"I was afraid," said Signy.
"Eh?" Aesa raised her head out of her arms. She lay in a pile of fur. When she cracked her eyes, she saw Signy crouched by the hearth, one hand held straight out over the open flame.
"When I left," admitted Signy, "I was afraid, but not of what you think."
"Oh?" Aesa rolled over. She reached out a careful hand, touching Signy's back, just beneath her wing marks. Signy tensed, but said nothing. "And what do I think?"
"I was afraid of the things you showed me," said Signy, "You. Sifa. You made me realize I still loved life. I would not be so willing to die for my cause like she did. I wasn't able to honor her actions the way you did. I didn't want death. No one can serve as Odin's Raven without wanting death. I wanted to live. Not survive, just live. It was something I hadn't wanted in a very long time."
"A-ha," said Aesa, squirming out from beneath the furs.
Signy raised an eyebrow as she settled beside her. "A... ha?"
"It's funny," said Aesa, smiling — not unkindly. She put her hand over Signy's and pulled it away from the flame. "I'd sometimes hoped that it was something a little like that."
Hodur gave them the winds in a bottle meant for carrying mead. It swished and howled like a wolf in its container, but the seal held.
An attendant handed it to Lady Dagmar as Aesa emerged from the hall.
"You are to release it from your peak and not before then," she heard her tell the Valkyrie captain. "It will be at its most vicious from the North-East. I know it is small, but it is from a bad year. Our master will keep his promise to you."
"He has Bryngeror's greatest thanks," said Lady Dagmar. She slipped the bottle into her pack and turned as Aesa drew near. "And her apologies for his damaged banquet table."
"Ah, yes," said Aesa. "That. I will be happy to take that out of my wages in the next tournament."
"If I allow you fight," said Lady Dagmar, as the attendant scurried out of the way. "You may have done us a turn by impressing a god, Aesa, but you countermanded my direct order. Do it again, and I will take your cloak for a month."
This was no small threat. Wings were, after all, a Valkyrie's pride and joy. "I understand, Lady Dagmar. It won't happen again."
Lady Dagmar sighed, and she strode for the ridge. "And you could stand to look more sorry for it."
Still, she left it at that.
This exit, too, was a part of the ritual. In a larger hall, the full flight of resident Valkyrie would have taken wing to see the visiting flight off. Among Hodur's Valkyrie there was only his one dark Raven. She waited along the bend, her black cloak standing out like a slash against the mountains. She spared them no pleasantries or farewells, but simply dove off of the ridge. Her cloak unfurled, and her wings carried her up into a clear mountain sky. Lady Dagmar dove after her, followed by a laden Dotta and Mardoll. Aesa held back, flying behind them, if only to marvel for a moment or two at what a stark contrast Signy was compared to any other Valkyrie right. So stubbornly grim and severe.
When they reached the valley, and Signy peeled away, Aesa broke formation. She wheeled back, angling her wings so that the sun caught her red feathers at just the right glint. She could hear Lady Dagmar's reproach, but she ignored it, staring at that dark spot, and cupping her hands so she could be sure the Raven would hear her.
"Signy Sigyndottir!" she shouted. "I will see you at the next tournament, won't I! You'd best be there. You'd best be ready to face me again! Or I will know the Raven of Hodur has something new to fear!"
The dark spot hesitated for a moment against the sky, and for a moment Aesa thought she saw the glint of a spear raised in agreement — but Signy was already very far away, and growing farther, as she winged back to the lonely hall of the Winter Lord.