THE FIRST RAYS OF DAWN swept over the distant horizon and drove away the long night. But Freya did not welcome the rising sun. It was her mortal enemy, bringing only misery. She tilted her wings and flew headlong into the fading darkness, hoping to follow the night, praying day would not find her.
She had been flying all night, soaring high above Asgard, dreading the upcoming First Day Ceremony.
Orus, her raven companion, flew at her side and tried his best to keep up. But his wings were much smaller than hers, and despite his best efforts, he lagged behind. After the long night he was too tired even to beg her to turn back. All he could do was try to stay with her and help guide her through First Day.
“Freya!” a voice called.
Freya looked back and saw her older sister Maya soaring confidently behind them. Her own raven was flying closely at her side.
“Freya, stop!” Maya called. “Please land. We must speak.”
Orus forced more speed and caught up with Freya. “Stop!” he gasped. “I can’t fly much longer, and your sister is calling.”
Freya looked over at her companion and saw how exhausted he was. She hadn’t been fair, forcing him to fly all night. Pulling in her wings, she descended and gracefully touched down in a field of golden grain. As she folded and settled her midnight-black wings onto her back, Orus landed on her shoulder. “Don’t lose your temper with your sister,” he panted softly.
“Thank Odin I found you!” Maya cried as she also landed and charged toward Freya. “Mother’s in a state. Everyone is searching for you. Where have you been all night?”
Freya used her sleeve to wipe away the beads of sweat from her brow. Now that she had stopped, she felt exhausted from the long flight. The muscles in her wings warned of the stiffness to come. “I needed some fresh air.”
“I can see that,” Maya cried. “But why didn’t you tell anyone you were going? You could have at least told me!”
Freya dropped her head. “I saw you dancing with some of the warriors. I didn’t want to disturb you.”
“You know I would much rather spend time with you than dance.” Maya softened her tone. “Especially on the eve of your First Day.”
“I don’t want to do this.”
Her sister’s pale brows knitted together in a frown. “Do what?”
“This! Today!” Freya snapped. “My First Day Ceremony and then going to the battlefield.”
“What do you mean? You’ve been to the battlefields thousands of times. You’ve spent all of your life there. The only difference is that today you will reap your first warrior.”
Freya sighed heavily. “That’s what I hate. The warriors and all of the killing and wounding. Thor and Odin may appreciate them, but I don’t.”
“Freya, stop,” Orus warned.
But she couldn’t. “Humans are nothing but filthy, bloodthirsty monsters. I don’t want to touch them or be part of bringing more of them here. Asgard would be much better off without Valhalla and its dead warriors.”
“How can you say that?” Maya cried. “Valhalla is a wondrous place and a home to all the valiant warriors who have fallen in battle since the dawn of time! Those fighters have earned their place here. It’s a great honor that we are the ones chosen to escort them. You should celebrate everything they’ve achieved.”
“All they’ve achieved is becoming good killers!” Freya replied. “And what does that make us when we reap them? We’re even better killers!”
“We do not kill!” her sister said indignantly. “We reap; that’s very different. We bring an end to their suffering and escort them home to Valhalla.”
“But I don’t want to do it,” Freya responded as she turned away from her sister. “I don’t want to touch a human or even talk to them. All they ever want to do is fight and kill.”
Maya started to preen the black feathers on Freya’s folded wings. “Freya, listen to me. Those are the old warriors from the early days when it was glorious to fight and die in battle. You haven’t spent enough time at Valhalla to get to know the modern soldiers. You just go there, do what you must, and leave. If you took some time to actually speak with them, you’d see they are different.”
“A warrior is a warrior,” Freya insisted as she turned and pushed her sister’s hands away. “They’re human, and I don’t like them.”
“How can you be so judgmental? Trust me. Most modern soldiers don’t stay in Asgard. They ascend to be with their families. You’ll see today when you reap your first. Just talk to them. I think you’ll be surprised.”
“But what if I don’t want to?”
“Freya, listen to me. Reaping is what we do. You have no choice—it is your duty to Odin.”
Freya looked at her sister and sighed. Maya was beautiful. All four of her sisters were, but Maya was exceptional. She was tall and lean with long flaxen hair. The skin on her sculpted face was unblemished, and she had the palest pearl-gray eyes in all of Asgard. Her wings were fine-boned with elegant white feathers lying neatly over each other. She was everything a Valkyrie should be, which was why most of the reaped warriors fell instantly in love with her.
Compared to Maya, Freya, the youngest of the five sisters, felt like a plow horse. She wasn’t as tall, beautiful, or graceful. Her wings were large and stocky. Their raven-black feathers always looked as if they could use a good grooming. Instead of pearl-gray eyes, Freya’s were dark blue. And although she was the fastest flier in Asgard, it was always Maya who attracted attention.
But for all their differences, Freya adored her older sister. Many times she had watched Maya with envy as she confidently approached the battlefields. Without a trace of hesitation, Maya reaped the warriors she was assigned and escorted them back to Valhalla.
“Don’t you ever question what we do?”
Maya shook her head. “We do as we are intended to do. As Odin tells us to.”
“And if we don’t want to do it?”
Maya put her hands on her hips and tilted her head to the side. “Sometimes I wonder if you’re even my sister. How can you not want to be a Valkyrie? We are most respected in Asgard. Odin favors us above all others. It is an honor to do what we do. We escort the best warriors home.”
Sitting on her shoulder, Orus whispered into her ear, “Stop arguing. Maya cannot understand. Don’t condemn her for that.”
Freya looked into the dark eyes of the raven on her shoulder. Orus was right. No one in Asgard could understand how she felt. At times she didn’t even understand it. She hated humans, and nothing could change that.
“I’m sorry,” she said finally. “I guess I’m nervous for today.”
Maya nodded and combed her fine fingers through Freya’s wild, unkempt hair. “Of course you are. C’mon, let’s get you ready for the ceremony—before Odin sends out a Dark Searcher to find us.”
* * *
Freya and Orus followed Maya and her raven back to Valhalla. Beneath them the Great Heavenly Hall was being prepared for her First Day Ceremony. This was to be the final ceremony for some time, as there were no Valkyries younger than Freya. Everyone in Asgard wanted this ceremony to be the best ever—everyone except Freya.
In the fields surrounding Valhalla, the reaped warriors who had chosen to remain in Asgard did what they were always doing. Fight. Thor, son of Odin and greatest warrior of them all, was among them, taking on hundreds at a time. Some called this training; Thor just called it fun.
Looking down, Freya could see his bloodred cape billowing in the wind and wild reddish-blond hair blazing as he used his sword against the other Valhalla warriors. He could have used his hammer, Mjölnir, but that wasn’t fair. One swing of the enchanted weapon would literally blow all of the warriors away.
The clanging sounds of sword upon sword rose up in the air as the fighters spent all day battling each other. Then when night fell, they would enter Valhalla together and drink, sing, and tell stories of their great victories, before preparing for the next day’s battle.
To Freya it all seemed so pointless. There were so many other things to see and do. Why these warriors should choose to fight, day in, day out, was something she couldn’t comprehend.
Freya and Maya veered away from Valhalla and flew over the beautiful buildings that made up the main city of Asgard and back to their home. It was a magnificent mansion standing alone on a hill, surrounded by gardens that turned into dense forests.
The Valkyries always had the best housing, and as Freya’s mother, Eir, was senior Valkyrie, she had the biggest, most opulent home—second in size and beauty only to Odin’s palace.
Landing on the main balcony, they found their mother pacing the large, richly decorated living area. Shields and weapons from battles throughout the ages adorned the walls, and the floor was lined with sheepskin rugs.
Eir was dressed in her shining silver armor. The feathers on her wings were groomed and bejeweled, and her ceremonial dagger hung at her waist. Her winged helmet sat on a chair.
“Freya!” Her ice-blue eyes blazed, and her white wings were half-open in fury. “Where have you been? Do you realize the time? You will be late for your own First Day Ceremony! Odin will be in a rage.”
“Mother, it’s all right,” Maya said calmly. “Freya and Orus went out for a quick flight and lost track of time. Odin need never know. If you tell him we’re on our way, we’ll be there shortly.”
“It will take an age to get her prepared,” her mother ranted. “Just look at the state of her. She’s filthy!” She snatched up a comb and tried to drag it through Freya’s tangled blond hair. “It will take all day just to get this mess cleared. Not to mention your feathers. Just look at the state of them! I’m amazed you can even fly—”
“Mother, please,” Freya begged. She caught the comb as her mother pulled it through a large tangle. “I can do this. Just give me some time.”
“For the life of me, I just don’t understand how my own daughter could do this to me on this day of all days. Of all my children, you have given me the most trouble. Your sisters were dressed and ready to leave at sunup. They’ve already gone to Valhalla to join the honor guard. Don’t you realize how important this is? You are my youngest child and the last Valkyrie. Today, finally, you will join us in the reaping. It is a great honor.”
Freya opened her mouth to protest, but her sister cut in. “Of course Freya understands the importance. We all do. Just give us a moment to prepare, and we’ll meet you at the entrance to Valhalla.”
Her mother remained unconvinced, but nodded as she reached for her winged helmet. “Just don’t keep Odin waiting long. You know how impatient he can be.” Without a backward glance, she crossed to the balcony, opened her wings, and leaped off.
* * *
“Remember to bow when you approach Odin,” Orus warned. Well preened, he sat on Freya’s shoulder as they prepared to leave for Valhalla.
Freya nodded her head nervously. “I’ll remember.”
Maya put the finishing touches to Freya’s gold-and-white gown as she flitted around her. “And try not to yawn when he gives his speech.”
“I’ll try. But why does he always have to talk for so long?”
Orus leaned closer to her ear. “To hear himself speak!” The raven cackled at his insult to the leader of Asgard.
“Don’t let Odin hear you say that,” Maya warned, swatting at him. “Orus, you should show more respect—like my Grul.” Maya reached up and stroked the raven at her shoulder.
“Don’t try to educate Orus, Maya,” Grul teased. “He’s too thick to learn anything.”
“Who are you calling thick?” Orus challenged, cawing loudly and flapping his wings.
“You,” Grul answered.
As the two ravens cawed at each other, Maya held up her hand. “Enough! When will you two finally get along?”
“Never!” the ravens said as one.
Freya reached up and stroked Orus’s smooth black chest. “Calm down. He’s just trying to upset you before the ceremony.”
“He’s doing a fine job of it,” Orus muttered. “One of these days, Freya, I’m going to show that Grul just how clever I really am. . . .”
Ignoring the bickering birds, Maya finished fastening a plain gold chain at her sister’s neck. “Oh, and try to look interested when Odin tells the story of Frigha.”
“Oh no, not again,” Freya moaned. “Why does he keep telling us the same old story every time there is a First Day Ceremony? Surely, by now, we all know it.”
“He tells it as a warning to all of us,” Maya said. “So no one forgets what he did to the one Valkyrie who defied him and ran away from her duties in Asgard.”
“But we all know the story. There’s no need to keep repeating it!”
“I know, but just show him some respect and try not to look too bored.”
“I’ll try.” Freya inhaled deeply. “So how do I look?”
Maya took a step back and surveyed her work. “You look beautiful. Not even Mother could find fault. Your face is clean, hair combed and braided, and your feathers are sparkling.”
Freya grinned and opened her dark wings. Her sister had applied fragrant oils to the feathers, and now the black feathers glowed with rainbow iridescence.
Freya looked to Orus. “Well, what do you think?”
“You’ll do,” the raven said casually. He gave her a playful nip on the ear with his polished long beak. “Just as long as they don’t look too closely at your fingernails.” He cawed in laughter and flew off her shoulder toward the balcony. “Now hurry up, before they start the ceremony without us!”
* * *
Valhalla had been decorated for the ceremony with the most beautiful flowers that grew in Asgard. The high walls had been scrubbed; the spires that rose high into the air flew the colorful flags of the Valkyries. The numerous weapons adorning the many doors had been cleaned and polished, and all the grounds surrounding the hall had been groomed. There wasn’t a thing out of place.
Outside the great hall the warriors stopped fighting and gathered together along either side of the entrance to greet Freya. As she approached, they all bowed their heads.
“See, they’re not so bad,” Maya whispered as she smiled at them.
Freya wasn’t convinced. “Just you wait. The moment we’re inside, they’ll go back to slaughtering each other in the name of amusement.”
Maya sighed. “That is the afterlife they have chosen for themselves. Why must you condemn them for that?”
“Because it’s foolish.”
“It’s their choice!” Maya insisted.
The girls’ mother appeared at the entrance. “You’re late,” she chastised. “Everyone is waiting.”
“I’m sorry, Mother,” Maya said. “But doesn’t Freya look beautiful?”
Their mother was much like Maya—tall, elegant, and Odin’s favorite Valkyrie. “Yes, she does,” she admitted, embracing Freya warmly. “I am proud to welcome you into the sisterhood of the Valkyries. Come, my youngest daughter. Come and take your rightful place among us.”
Freya stood directly behind her mother, while Maya took her position behind Freya. As they approached the wide doors of Valhalla, Maya donned her winged helmet and then placed a reassuring hand on her sister’s shoulder. “I’m right behind you, Freya. Always.”
Grateful for Maya’s calm presence, Freya reached up and gave Orus a stroke on the chest. “Well, this is it.”
“Good luck,” the raven whispered. “You’ll do fine.”
Her mother led them into Valhalla. Its high arched ceiling rose far above her head, and the shields of countless centuries adorned it. Seemingly endless rows of seated Asgardians lay before her. Freya felt everyone’s head turn and focus on her. Lining the long aisle leading up to Odin were all the other Valkyries. They were dressed in their battle armor and wearing their winged helmets, and their wings were open in salute as they raised their swords high in the air.
Freya knew them all by name, but there was none among them that she could call friend. She was the youngest and the last in the long line of Valkyries. But this wasn’t all that made her different. For reasons no one understood, Freya was the first Valkyrie born with jet-black feathers, as opposed to the white or gray wings of the other Valkyries. Her mother had always said that her father was a powerful warrior with dark hair and piercing black eyes. Maybe she’d gotten her dark feathers from him.
Freya had been told that he was one of the warriors at Valhalla. But her mother had never pointed him out. When she was younger, she would walk among the fighters, hoping to find him. But as time passed and she saw how brutal the warriors could be, she lost interest in meeting him.
The blaring of horns pulled Freya from her thoughts. Everyone in the huge hall rose and stood at attention. As Freya followed her mother down the long aisle, she walked past her three sisters at the front. Their swords held high, their armor shining, and their extended wings glistening as they all smiled proudly at her.
Finally, Odin appeared with his family on a tall dais at the front of the hall and took a position to receive her. Following close at his heels were Odin’s two pet wolves, Geri and Freki. At Odin’s command they sat and panted softly.
Freya’s mother bowed before the leader of Asgard, stepped to the left, and knelt down. Freya followed suit and knelt before Odin. Her sister bowed and then knelt on Freya’s right.
“Rise!” commanded Odin.
Freya rose and stood before the imposing leader. She felt awed in his presence. Odin in his battle armor was a terrifying sight. His wild red hair spilled out from under his large horned helmet, and his red beard grew long and thick, down to his waist. His left eye socket was covered with a gold patch. It was rumored that he had sacrificed his eye in pursuit of wisdom, but Freya didn’t know if this was true or not. In his bare arms he carried his famous spear, Gungnir.
Freya had never been this close to Odin before, and the sight of him petrified her. All the wild stories told about his strength and battle prowess now seemed possible as she stood before him.
Standing behind Odin was his wife, Frigg. She too was dressed in her golden battle armor, and in her hands was the new silver breastplate that would be given to Freya. Her long blond hair was neatly styled in two bejeweled braids that almost reached down to her fur-lined boots. It was said she was the most beautiful woman in Asgard. Up close, Freya could see it was true. The only one who could ever rival her beauty was Freya’s own sister Maya.
Beside Frigg was Thor. He was the spitting image of his father, Odin, except for the color of his hair. Thor’s hair was long and reddish blond; only his beard showed a distinct hint of his father’s red. Thor stood, stone-faced and unmoving, as his blue eyes bored into her. He had changed from the well-used battle armor she’d seen him wearing earlier into his formal armor with a clear red cape. He was clutching his hammer in one hand and holding a newly crafted winged helmet in the other.
It was said that Thor didn’t have a lot of time for the Valkyries, and by the dark expression on his face, Freya could see that this was true. What caused the enmity remained a mystery. But for as long as she had lived, Freya had done her best to avoid him and his sharp tongue.
Standing back against the wall behind the dais was Loki, the trickster and unrelated blood brother to Odin. Unlike the other men of Asgard, he wasn’t strongly built. He wore leather armor, not metal, and was often seen with a staff. Loki had long, dark brown hair and sparkling, mischievous eyes. Freya hadn’t had a lot of direct experience with Loki, but she knew the stories of the trouble he caused. Yet for all that, Odin not only tolerated Loki’s presence in Asgard; he welcomed it.
When he felt her eyes on him, Loki gave her a big grin, bowed elegantly, and winked at her. Freya’s face went instantly red and she looked away. But not before she caught him laughing at her discomfort.
Odin cleared his throat loudly to ensure he had everyone’s attention. “Welcome to this final First Day Ceremony.” He dropped his eyes, and they landed directly on Freya.
“Freya, today you are the last to join your sisters in the reaping. This is a somber occasion indeed, filled with reverence for a time-honored duty assigned only to the Valkyries. It falls upon you to bring only the best of the slain to me, here at Valhalla. They have earned their place among the glorious dead and share in the celebration of battle. . . .”
Freya stood before Odin, trying her best to stay focused and listen to his long speech, but as the moments passed, it was becoming harder. Her eyes drifted around the great hall, and she saw how everyone else was hanging on his every word. Looking at the masses of people, Freya had never felt more alone.
Why was she so different? Why couldn’t she feel the same way everyone else in Asgard did? What was wrong with her?
A sharp nip at her ear brought her out of her reverie. She stole a quick look at Orus on her shoulder. “Freya, stop daydreaming!” he warned softly. “Prepare to swear your oath.”
With a quick nod Freya turned her attention back to Odin. She hadn’t been aware of his speech and suddenly realized he was now deep into telling the story of Frigha, the runaway Valkyrie.
“It gave me no joy to blind and de-wing her, but her defiance of my command was too great,” he was saying. “Finally she was banished from her home in Asgard. To this day she wanders the Earth alone, lost in her shame and betrayal. . . .”
On and on Odin droned, giving warning to all Valkyries that once they swore the oath, they were bound to their duties and forbidden to leave Asgard without permission. Then with that permission, they were only permitted to visit battlefields to reap the valiant dead. Freya wondered if he ever stopped talking long enough to actually breathe.
Finally he offered her his large hand. “Come forward, Freya,” he commanded.
“Go on,” Orus ordered into her ear. “This is it!”
Freya nervously took hold of Odin’s outstretched hand and stepped up onto the dais. “Kneel, child.”
Freya opened her wings wide enough to allow her to kneel before the leader of Asgard. Odin placed a hand on the top of her head. “Freya, do you swear to carry out your duties to the best of your abilities?”
“Say ‘I swear,’?” Orus whispered softly into her ear.
“I swear,” Freya repeated somberly.
“Do you swear allegiance to the sisterhood of the Valkyries and promise to fulfill your obligations as one of the favored?”
“Do you swear your allegiance to me to do my bidding according to the laws of the Valkyries—bringing only the best of the best warriors to my Great Heavenly Hall, Valhalla, and leaving the others to Azrael and his Angels of Death?”
Freya hesitated. This was the one order she knew was going to be hardest to follow. Who were they to decide who was worthy or not? How could she be expected to judge someone? It was all so unfair.
“Say ‘I swear’!” Orus whispered. “Freya, swear it!”
Freya could hear the sharp intake of breath from the others behind her as she hesitated.
“Answer me,” Odin commanded. “Do you swear?”
It went against everything Freya believed, but with the pressure of her mother beside her and all of Asgard gathered behind her, Freya finally nodded. “I swear.”
She could hear her mother release her held breath.
Odin inhaled deeply before continuing. “Do you understand your position as Valkyrie? That you possess the power to keep the Angels of Death at bay and with a word can command them away from the battlefield.”
“I understand,” Freya said.
“Then it is by my order that I command you to arise, Valkyrie. Rise and receive your armor and sword.”
Freya climbed to her feet as Odin took her hand. He drew her back to his wife, Frigg.
Frigg raised the new silver armor. “By this breastplate, I give you the power of wisdom in choosing the best for Valhalla. May it guide you and protect you always. I welcome you, young Valkyrie.”
“Lift your arms and open your wings,” Orus softly instructed.
Freya felt as if she were in a dream as she lifted her arms and opened her wings fully. Frigg approached and placed the silver breastplate into position on her chest. The heavy armor fell down past her waist. She had never been measured for it, yet somehow it fit the lines of her body perfectly. The leather straps were then fed around her body and under the wings at her back to be fastened at her right side.
With her breastplate in position, Frigg kissed Freya lightly on the forehead and took several steps back.
Next Thor came forward. He put his hammer down as he lifted the silver winged helmet high above Freya’s head.
“With this helmet, I grant you speed and stealth. No human eyes will rest upon you as long as you wear it. Only the dead and dying may see you as you truly are. Take this helmet, Valkyrie, and protect it. With it lies your power of secrecy.” He paused, and his blue eyes threatened. “But be warned. Never allow a living human to wear it. To do so will cause your helmet great suffering, and its cries will be heard in all Asgard.”
Thor took a step closer and put the silver winged helmet on Freya’s head. When it was in place, Freya felt everything change. She became dizzy and light-headed. The world around her drained of color, as though she were gazing through a dense fog. Maya always said it was harder to see with her helmet on. Freya now understood what she meant. Though the helmet made her invisible and a part of the ethereal realm, it had a cost. That cost was her clear, color-filled vision.
She felt herself starting to fall. Thor’s strong arms held her up.
“Steady . . . ,” he said. “It takes a moment to adjust.”
Freya recovered but still felt very strange, almost as if she weighed nothing. Distracted by the strange sensations coursing through her body, Freya was unaware of the silver gauntlets being drawn up her arms or the heavily jeweled dagger being placed at her waist.
When she was fully dressed in the armor of the Valkyrie, Odin came forward again. In his hand he carried a newly forged sword. Her sword.
Freya had seen Odin perform this part of the ceremony many times, and had watched Maya going through it. But now that it was her turn, her fear returned.
Odin lowered the sword until the tip was resting halfway down her gown, just above her knees. He reached forward and pierced the fine fabric with the sharp tip. Then as Freya stood perfectly still, he used the sword to cut away the lower length of the gown all the way around her body.
When he finished, the jagged edge of fabric rested against her thighs as the lower half of her beautiful gown lay in ruins on the floor. Looking down at herself, she knew this signaled the end of the life she had known. It meant she was no longer a child, or a girl or even a young woman. She was now . . .