Authors: James Jennewein
SHIP OF THE DEAD
For my parents, James and Thelma Jennewein
For Christine and Mike
he goddess of the underworld had kept Thidrek the Terrifying waiting for days. At least it seemed like days; he couldn't be sure. Here in the underworld, outside the massive doors to her inner sanctum, there was no sun, moon, or stars above, nothing but a void of continual darkness, which made keeping exact time rather difficult.
Thidrek hated waiting for anyone or anything. In the past, as a lordly prince,
had made people wait. He'd made people scream in agony, too; such was his love of torture. But he was a prince no more. Just a rotting bag of bones, another wretched subject of the almighty priestess of sin and evil, the goddess Hel. Worse, to his despair, it had been a long, long time since he had terrified anyone.
At last the doors creaked open and he was ordered forth for an audience with She Who Made the Darkness. The hall was enormous and after a long walk he came to a flickering pool of light where sat a colossal throne, sheathed in shadow. He knelt and bowed his head.
“Your majesty,” he intoned, “a faithful servant awaits your command.”
From out of the darkness came a deep, throaty hiss that sounded like a death rattle. “My dear Thidrek,” the voice rasped, “would you like to be terrifying once more?”
“Indeed, your majesty! Pray tell me how I can bring this to pass.”
“You will lead my army of the dead to make war on the living,” she said. “You will kill every soul on earth who worships my hated father and brother, Odin and Thor. And then I will reign as queen of the earthly realm, loosing upon the world all that is filthy and foul.”
It was a tall order, Thidrek knew, but he just couldn't pass up a chance to conquer the world. Ever since his childhood, this had been his dearest wish.
“I will do it, m'lady. When can I start? Now? I was thinking I could start now.”
“Before you lead my army, Thidrek, you must prove yourself worthy.”
A test. He hated tests. Even more than he hated to wait. But he would do
to become terrifying again. “Say it, your majesty. Tell me what I must do.”
She leaned forward, her sinewy arm moving into the light. He saw it was dark and scaly, more beast than beauty, her hand not a hand at all but a three-pronged claw. He felt the cold caress of her claw against his cheek and her very breath upon his face, and he was utterly her prisoner as into his ear she whispered:
“Bring me . . . the Ship of the Dead.”
Hail, Corpse Maidens
High we fly on magic steeds
O'er battlegrounds of blood
Choosing heroes brave in deeds
Soldiers old and yet to bud.
In death they find an afterlife
In Valhalla's halls they spree
Odin smiles upon their honor
And on us, the Valkyrie.
âAncient Norse kenning attributed to Drudd the Scribe
“I find I worry less about my weight now that I'm dead.”
âThidrek the Terrifying
ane the Defiant peered out on the fog-shrouded meadow, knowing that screams of pain would soon shatter the predawn stillness. With two armies soon to meet here in battle, by midmorning this lush field of wildflowers was sure to be spattered with blood and strewn with body parts. But he cared nothing about who lived and died; only
they died. Because when the Valkyries came for those who met death bravelyâto take their souls to ValhallaâDane would then have a chance to see his beloved Astrid again.
It had been two months since she had been compelled to leave earth and join the ranks of Odin's corpse maidens. Two months of agony for Dane. He tried his best to accept his fate of being without her forever. But every morning when he awoke and grasped the awful truth that her absence was real and not just a terrible nightmare, his heart ached anew. He prayed and prayed to Odin to release her so she could become human again and return to his side. When that didn't work, he loudly damned the gods for their callous, unmerciful ways.
His angry passions spent, he began to think more clearly. There
to be a way to break Odin's hold on Astrid. Perhaps a bargain could be struck with the gods. He would offer to perform any brave feat they wished
his reward was Astrid's return. Would they listen, or would they casually incinerate him with a lightning bolt? No matter; nothing would stop him from trying to get her back.
But he had to have someone take his offer to Asgard, the heavenly place where Odin and his kind resided, and he reasoned that a Valkyrie who regularly flew between heaven and earth could serve as messenger.
His plan was this: He would watch the battle from his place of hiding, and once the butchery had ended, he would creep in among the bodies in hopes of intercepting a Valkyrie. He knew it wouldn't be easyâValkyries were usually invisible to the living. But if
was seen by a Valkyrieâespecially by Astrid or Mist, a corpse maiden who'd previously saved his lifeâperhaps they might make themselves visible to him. Or so he hoped.
“When's this supposed to start?” asked Jarl the Fair. “There's no one here but mourning doves.” Indeed, the ghostly cooing of the doves was the only sound heard across the fog-cloaked field.
“Don't worry, Jarl,” Dane assured him, “you'll see blood soon enough.”
it? I'll be in the thick of it!” Jarl proclaimed, sharpening his knife blade. “When the fighting starts, Demon Claw will show no mercy.” Demon Claw was Jarl's knife; Jarl was the kind of fellow whose weapons were more dear to him than his friends. Tall and well built, with a striking mane of blond hair, Jarl thought himself the perfect specimen of Norse manhood: an intimidating physique made all the more daunting by an obsession to die courageously in battle so as to gain entrance into Valhalla.
The other two beside him, Dane's best friends Drott the Dim and Fulnir the Stinking, were not, Dane would readily admit, prime models of Viking masculinity. Short and chubbyâ“stocky” his mother called himâDrott always had the vacant look of a man a couple arrows short of a full quiver. Fulnir was taller, more muscular, and much keener of mind, but sadly he suffered from intestinal maladies. It was said that, if farts were gold, Fulnir would be the richest man in the world.
“We didn't come here to
the battle,” Fulnir said. “We're here to help Dane find a Valkyrie.”
“That was my understanding,” Drott said. “Besides, I wouldn't even know whose side to fight on. By the way, who
“Olaf Bloodaxe versus Guthorn Wormtongue,” Dane said.
“I'm joining Bloodaxe,” Jarl said.
“Why? Because his name has
in it?” Fulnir teased.
Hearing a sudden rush of footsteps, Dane and his cohorts whirled round to see five towering, wraithlike Berserkers. One of them held a long spear, the point of which he held against Dane's throat. Three carried swords, and the final one, the largest, held a doubleheaded war axe. Naked to the waist, their battle-scarred bodies and beards were painted a chalky white, giving them a horrific ghostlike appearance. They wore hollowed-out skulls of wolves and bears as helmets, and from within, their eyes resembled those of crazed beasts craving blood.
“Spies! For Bloodaxe!” hissed the one with the spear at Dane's neck.
“No!” Dane blurted out. “We're from Voldarstad, two days south! We came toâ”
“They lie!” spat the one with the axe. “Kill them!”
“We're not your enemy,” Dane insisted.
“We're here to join you.” This from Jarl.
?” said the axeman. “We fight for Wormtongue. While approaching, did we not hear you sayâand I quoteââI'm joining Bloodaxe'?”
“Aye, I heard him say it,” said the spearman. The others nodded their skull heads in agreement and raised their weapons to strike. Dane knew they'd be dead in an instant.
Wormtongue, right, Jarl?” Dane said. “We've
come to fight for him.”
“Hail Wormtongue!” Drott yelled.
The spearman hesitated, then turned his skull head to the axeman. “Well, we
a bit short on men. Let's put them in the shield wall, see how fast they die.”
A row of no fewer than a hundred men stood shoulder to shoulder, each with his shield thrust forward, overlapping the shield to his right. The effect was that of a veritable wall of shields, the first line of defense against the enemy. Behind this shield wall were two more equally strong lines of men. Wormtongue's cavalryâwarriors mounted on massive war stallions, each man with long spear and swordâguarded both flanks. The army stood in place, inviting Bloodaxe's troops to come and meet their death.
“Well, isn't this a bite in the backside,” said Drott.
Dane and his friends stood smack in the center of the shield wall, feeling decidedly less excited about things. Each held in one hand the sword he'd brought from Voldarstad and in the other hand the round limewood shield he had been issued. This was their only defense, for unlike the rest of Wormtongue's men, who wore chain mail and helmets fashioned of iron or leather, Dane and his friends stood bareheaded and armorless. Worse, the Berserkers had positioned them where the best of Bloodaxe's troops were sure to attack. The strategy, the spearman explained, was that while the enemy skewered Dane and his friends with their spears and swords, the Berserkersâpositioned immediately behind themâwould dive in and chop the attackers to pieces.
“I can understand if you feel a bit exposed there,” said the spearman, “and it's true, the enemy
see you as easy prey. But while you're attracting their death blows, we'll swoop in and kill the men who've killed
Drott raised his hand. “Sugestion. How about you kill them
they kill us?”
The spearman mulled this for a moment. “I kind of like the original plan.”
“It works for me,” agreed the axeman.
A piercing war cry sounded from somewhere off in the fog. “Kill them!” the voice screamed. There was silence, and then what seemed a thousand voices answering in unison, “Kill them all!”
“Thanks for volunteering us for death, Jarl,” Fulnir said, his voice quaking.
“Thank Daneâhe's the reason we're here,” Jarl snapped.
“Jarl is right,” Dane said. “Sorry for dragging you into this.”
“I have to pee,” Drott said.
“I just did,” Fulnir said, looking at a wet spot down his leg. “Are you as scared as I am?” They all nodded, even Jarl.
“I admit I wanted to see Valhalla,” Jarl said, “but not today.”
The axeman leaned over their shoulders and said, “Fight well and you'll all feast at Odin's table tonight!”
“I hope they're serving mutton,” Drott said. “I like mutton.”
Hearing a whooshing sound above, Dane looked and saw a swarm of sparks arcing through the mist. Flaming arrows, hundreds of them, headed directly at them. “Take cover!” he yelled.
Dane went down on one knee, holding the shield above him, trying to make himself as small as he could beneath it.
A smoking arrow tip penetrated his shield, stopping an inch from his eye. He heard a scream of pain and behind him saw the axeman's beard was on fire. He had taken a flaming arrow in the chest. The Berserker furiously beat at his face with his hands, trying to put out the fire. Suddenly another arrow buried itself in his neck; a fountain of blood spurted out, dousing the flames. The axeman stood for a moment, relieved he was no longer on fire. Then fell over dead.
Ten or so other men had also been hit by the rain of arrows. A few were dead, others crying out in agony. Dane glanced left and right and saw his friends were unscathed. Jarl hacked away at an arrow that had been embedded in his shield. Dane decided he'd better do that, too.
That's when the enemy came out of the fog, running down the hill, shrieking like banshees and pushing a large wagon laden with flaming oil pots. The wagon was aimed at the center of the shield wall, the very spot where Dane and his friends stood.
“The cowards!” yelled the spearman. “Using fire wagons to scatter us! Hold the line, men!”
“Hold the line?” Fulnir said. “Is he serious?”
“Retreat!” Jarl shouted.
For an instant, Dane felt the impulse to charge forward into the frayâto put his strength to the test. But just as quickly, Jarl and Drott pulled him back away from the onrushing fire wagon. Jabbing with their weapons, the Berserkers pressed them forward again, hoping Dane and his friends would absorb the force of the wagon's collision.
Dane and friends braced for impact. But then the front wheels of the wagon hit a small boulder on the ground and, careening sideways, it tipped over, spilling its cargo of flaming oil onto the grass in front of Wormtongue's troops. Remarkably, not a man was even singed.
“Attaaaack!” screamed Dane.
The shield wall broke. Wormtongue's troops surged forward to meet the enemyâas did the Berserkers, who ran full speed past Dane and his friends to meet the best of Bloodaxe's warriors head-on. There was a furious clash of shield upon shield and clang of metal upon metal. Jarl too began to run into the battle. Dane grabbed the scruff of his coat, stopping him. “I meant for
to attack, not
,” Dane said.
“Oh.” Jarl watched, excited by the bloody combat. He was like a little boy with such a taste for honey that he'd stick his hand into a beehive to get it. This time, though, Jarl came to his senses, declining to join the fray.
“I say we leave before anyone notices,” Dane said.
No one disagreed. They hurried away into the fog, escaping from a battle none of them wished to fight.
High in the skies above, two Valkyries sat astride their pearl-gray mounts, peering down at the battlefield. Each wore the standard-issue uniform of golden-winged helmet and swan-feathered cloak over bronze chest armor and lily-white gown.
“Can you see anything?” asked Mist, the one with coal-black hair. “I hear men fighting and screams but that's about it.”
“How are we supposed to choose the brave dead if we can't even see them?” Astrid said. The breeze blew her long blond hair across her face, and she had to brush it away from her eyes. “Why won't they let us braid our hair? Or at least cut it so it's not constantly blowing in our face?”
“Just one more stupid rule we have to follow,” Mist replied.
When Astrid had agreed to join the Valkyrie sisterhood, she'd had no notion the job would prove so demanding. First, there was the celestial steed that she'd been issuedâVali, named after the youngest of Odin's sons, a god of war. The aptly named horse had a combative, willful nature, and no Valkyrie had ever tamed him. Astrid had labored long and hard to gain command of the animal, learning that if Vali sensed any weakness or hesitation in her, the sky steed was quick to mischief.
Next there had been her new powers of invisibility. Though thrilling in its own way, she had learned it took skill and concentration, and she had not yet fully mastered it. And then there was the violence that she was forced to watch. How else would a Valkyrie be able to tell which warriors were the bravest and most worthy of being taken up to Valhalla?
But most difficult of all was trying to forget Dane.
Astrid had tried to convince herself that the pain of leaving Dane would fade with time, like a wound healing. But just as she began to believe the door to her past was closed for good, like a viper springing from the grass, a sudden memory would strikeâDane's valiant smile, his hearty laughterâand she'd realize that the pain had never left. It had taken root deep within her like a phantom heart, still beating, still calling to her. If she was ever to find peace, she knew she must cut this heart from her very core. She had one future nowâas a corpse maiden in service to Odinâand had to devote herself to carrying out her sacred duty.
Now, poised above yet another melee of blood and gore, she was trying to do just thatâscouting for mortals worthy of the great hall.
She spied the third sister who had been dispatched with them to the battlefield. It was Aurora with the fire-red hair and smug, competitive nature. Aurora gathered the heroic dead as if it were a contest, as if she believed that the more dead she brought to Valhalla, the better chance that Odin would look upon her with favor. She was not satisfied to stay an ordinary corpse maiden for long; no, she told her sisters that she had made plans for advancement, whatever that meant.
Aurora rose from the battlefield with
dead warriors slung over her horse like sacks of grain. She stopped her horse beside her sisters, grinning like a proud fisherwoman showing off her prized catch. “Oh, my,” she said, smirking, “did I take the two
had your eyes on?”