A "Captain Scarlet & the Mysterons" story
Less than an hour later, when Captain Blue, refreshed and wearing clean clothing, entered the Hall where the ceremony was to be held, he had the surprise of finding it already crowded with people.
It was a vast, stone-built room, with many apertures on the two longer walls, and torches lighting the Hall, so there was barely a dark corner. There were two huge wooden tables, covered with food of all kinds, on each side of the room. The centre of the paved floor was left completely empty, like a large aisle, leading to a dais at the far end of the room where stood a rustic throne adorned with white furs, and set between two shorter tables.
Everyone present was laughing and shouting, eating and drinking and having a good time. Most of them were warriors, wearing their most attractive clothes and sporting beautiful weapons, clearly exchanging bad jokes and telling their war-like exploits to each other, if Blue was to believe the snatches of conversation he picked up as he entered the Hall and walked toward the dais. There were also many servant girls, who seemed to be enjoying themselves as much as the men they were keeping company. There was little inhibition displayed as the rowdy warriors pulled the women onto their knees and kissed them – while the girls barely resisted, and then only in a playful way. Such scenes left Blue with a certain sense of bewilderment, as he knew many of these people as reserved and disciplined individuals – he would never have imagined them, even given the opportunity, acting like real barbarians of another age.
Already on the dais, he could see Captain Ochre, casually leaning on a huge hammer, and talking with animation to Captain Grey and two other Viking warriors, before bursting into laughter. Just next to him, seated on a bench, Captain Scarlet was eating a whole roast chicken with his hands, without a care in the world. He drank from a large wooden goblet, letting its contents drip on his chin before wiping it off with the back of his hand, and biting into the chicken once more. Hundreds of years of sophistication down the drain, the perplexed Blue reflected, as he stepped onto the dais, staring with curiosity at his friend, whose ‘stiff upper lip’ and detached attitude had often irritated or disconcerted him. He watched as Scarlet, letting go of his chicken, caught a passing servant girl and pulled her close to him to kiss her cheek and whisper something in her ear. She laughed gaily before pouring ale into his vessel, while he wiped his hands on her already dirty skirt; she quickly ran away from his grip, before he could catch her again.
Yep. I will never look at Paul Metcalfe in the same way from now on… Earlier, after leaving Blue at his chamber where he had fortunately escorted him – for which the American captain was secretly thankful, because he would never have found it alone – Scarlet had walked to his own place, which was down the same corridor, and Blue, following him with his eyes, had seen Anna Preston – the servant girl Gerda in Scarlet’s mind – waiting for him by the door. They had disappeared behind it after exchanging a fierce kiss. Blue couldn't help but wonder how easy it had been for his friend to let go of the well-bred veneer created by civilisation… Seeing Scarlet, as well as all the other people surrounding him now, and how they were behaving, Blue began to consider that some sayings were true, and that there really was a sleeping beast inside each man – just waiting to wake up.
It was a fascinating observation.
As people started to notice his presence, Blue received many greetings; goblets and jugs were raised in salutation, and congratulations came from all round. His broad shoulders became the target of much vigorous thumping, and he didn't have enough hands to accept all the drinking vessels warriors were offering him. He wished he knew exactly why they were so pleased with him. He imagined it had something to do with 'capturing a Valkyrie'; it made him feel rather embarrassed to think he was being congratulated for something he didn't think he had really done – and it was uncomfortable to think that Rhapsody was viewed as the 'fierce Valkyrie' they were talking about. He hoped she was all right, and that he would be able to see her soon, to actually make sure of that. He couldn't wait for this ceremony to begin, to learn what it was all about.
But 'Odin' was still absent, and Blue imagined that the ceremony wouldn't start before he arrived. To be truthful, Blue had to admit he was curious to see this incarnation of Odin. He didn't quite know what to expect, but Fawn had warned him that he would be surprised.
Blue couldn't imagine Colonel White actually settling comfortably into that kind of role – a fierce war-leader of the Vikings. It just didn't fit in...
In the meantime, standing behind the table on the dais not far from Ochre and Scarlet, where he thought his place should be, he was waiting impatiently, ignoring the goblet he was handed, and scanning the Hall with probing eyes.
At the far end of the dais, standing on his own, and apparently not willing to mix with the rest of the crowd, he found 'Loki'.
Captain Black's presence in this setting – in the guise of this particular character – had put Blue on edge earlier, and had opened a new set of possibilities, that might explain the predicament in which he and everyone else on Cloudbase presently found themselves. For the Mysterons – the full scale of whose powers were still unknown and who were even able to control human minds and bodies, as well as matter, in order to recreate life from death itself – might conceivably be able to warp reality and perception to the point of creating this fantasy world. Before seeing Black, it had not even occurred to Blue that they might be involved. He was wondering now why he had not thought about this eventuality. Of course, he had already been pretty confused up until now – and he was still trying to figure out what had happened to all of them.
It could also be possible that Black’s presence is only part of this fantasy as well, he pondered, turning his eyes in Black’s direction. He could have been dreamt up by any one of us – not even real at all, just like the rest of what we’re seeing – and feeling.
Right… But I’ll stay on my toes, nevertheless… Just in case.
It’s quite fitting that he should have the role of the malevolent Loki, all things considered… Isn't it because of Loki's many misdemeanours that most of the Norse gods' problems originated, according to legends? And wasn’t it because of Captain Black's unreasoned actions that the war between Earth and the Mysterons started?
“Are you suspecting he might get up to something during the evening?”
The question, addressed to him and coming from nearby, almost made Blue jump out of his skin. He turned slightly to see Scarlet, still seated at his place at the table, but comfortably leaning his back against the wall behind him, looking at him with an intrigued expression. Scarlet gave a brief nod in the direction of Loki.
“I, too, am suspicious of him,” he declared in a low voice.
“He gives me the creeps,” Blue murmured. “Seeing him here…”
“Aye. I could see earlier that it was just as if you had seen a ghost. Well, Loki does give that impression, I will admit that. Especially when he lurks in the shadows, as he habitually does.”
“Just give me the word, and I will crush him like the maggot he is.” It was Ochre who had now approached to join the conversation, closely followed by Grey. Blue noted that Ochre’s hands were now holding his hammer as if he was indeed ready to strike at Black. He was watching him fiercely.
“I never understood why your sire tolerates his presence in Aesgard,” Grey declared with a shrug of his broad shoulders.
“We tolerate you, Lord Tyr,” Scarlet remarked with a mischievous smirk. “Why should Odin not tolerate him?”
Grey huffed disdainfully. “Do not compare me with that Ice Giant’s bastard, Lord Balder. I will not be amused.”
“My aim was not to amuse you.” Scarlet returned his attention to Black, who was now approached by the smiling servant girl Gerda. She offered him a drinking vessel that he accepted with a brief nod. “But you are right to wonder, prince of Vanaheim. The truth is, Odin is honour-bound to Loki, since the day the wretched villain saved his life in the Lands of the Ice Giants – for a reason only known to him. If not for Loki, our lord and ruler would be in the land of the dead right now.”
Blue’s interest was piqued by this tale. How similar this is to the ‘real story’, he recalled. Conrad Turner had also saved Colonel White’s life many years ago.
“Since then,” Ochre added darkly, “we are bound as well to Loki – and cannot do him any harm.”
“But we are well aware that we should not turn our backs on him,” Scarlet continued. “Though half-Ase himself, he is also half-Giant, as you said yourself. He is planning Aesgard’s downfall with the Ice Giants… Our common enemies, Lord Tyr.”
“As he is planning Vanaheim’s downfall,” Grey agreed.
Scarlet scratched his ear thoughtfully, still glaring with obvious displeasure in Black’s direction; the latter briefly exchanged words with 'Gerda' in a low tone, before she nodded in acknowledgement and left. "I also suspect that our sire is keeping Loki close by so he is able to keep his eye on him. Loki's behaviour – and reactions – might be a good indication of what the Ice Giants are up to."
Grey was watching Scarlet intently; he could not fail to notice the flash of anger burning in the other man's blue eyes. He smirked, and then adopted a nonchalant tone: “I suspect, Lord Balder, that your animosity to the villain runs deeper still.”
“Whatever do you mean?” Scarlet asked suspiciously, turning a dark eye on Grey.
“Was that not your favourite servant maid who just gave her brightest smile to Loki? Nay, let me rephrase that… The girl could certainly not be called a ‘maid’ nowadays.”
Standing behind them, Ochre permitted himself a chuckle; angered by Grey’s statement, Scarlet thumped furiously on the table, knocking his goblet over, and jumped to his feet, in the process throwing the bench he was sitting on crashing loudly to the floor. Blue jumped in surprise.
“You will take back those insulting words, Tyr!” Scarlet roared, facing a still calm-looking Grey.
“I will not,” Grey declared quietly. “Is it an insult to speak the truth? Beside, considering the events, my prince, you would be better served to forget about the girl as of now.”
“Give me your hammer, Thor!” Scarlet barked, addressing the tall man behind him. “Give it to me so I can split this bastard’s skull open!”
“I will not,” Ochre replied, as calm as Grey. “You would not be able to lift it and you will hurt yourself.”
“Give it to me, I say!”
“Nay. Lord Tyr only spoke the truth: you should forget about the girl, she is nothing to you anymore. If she ever was worth anything at all, as she was probably nothing more than a distraction for you. Now sit down, you fool, you are acting like a drunk.”
“I am not drunk!” Scarlet retorted fiercely, turning to Ochre. “You know that I cannot get drunk, thanks to the Ice Giants!”
“I never meant you were drunk,” Ochre sighed with annoyance, “just that you were acting like you were.”
Blue raised his eyebrows, hearing the surprising exchange between the two men; again, here was a reflection of the real world: alcohol had little or no effect on Scarlet as well, since his Mysteronisation. But what could this new discovery mean exactly? Why should it be similar, and what else did it hide? Blue didn’t have time to deliberate further, as he saw Scarlet step menacingly in Ochre’s direction.
“Have it your way, brother. I will use your thick head, then, and knock it against his, so hard they will both explode… and they will hear the explosion from here to the land of Vanaheim.”
“You are welcome to try,” Ochre answered, rolling his eyes.
An alarmed Blue saw Scarlet still advancing on Ochre, who was now raising his hammer; he stepped forward, and put a firm hand on Scarlet’s shoulder, in an attempt to hold him back and calm him down. “I don’t think fighting amongst ourselves is such a good idea,” he said tentatively.
“I do agree with that,” stated Grey.
To Blue’s surprise, that had the same effect as adding oil to a fire. Scarlet turned around briskly, literally snapping at Blue, who, faced with the intensity of the anger reflected in his friend’s blue eyes, let go of him and stepped back, despite himself.
“I should have realised the two of you would stand together...” Scarlet pointed an accusing finger at Blue. “It is all your fault, brother!”
“My fault?” a stunned Blue echoed.
“Aye! ’Tis true the servant girl means little to me, as Thor said, but if you had not supported Tyr, and stood with him on this mad scheme, I would not be condemned to…”
The loud, stentorian voice suddenly booming from the other side of the room stopped everyone on the spot and every conversation ceased. Not even a murmur now escaped the crowd. At first frozen in place, Blue slowly turned around. He had already figured out who had just arrived, commanding such silence with only his presence and obtaining obedience with the authority of just one word.
In the embrasure of the large door leading into the Hall stood a tall man of fierce and imposing appearance, his face framed by long, unkempt, white hair and beard, streaked with silvery shades. He was clad in the finest linen and furs, with a large belt encircling his torso, and bracelets of gold. In his right hand, he was holding a long spear tipped with three sharp points, as if it was his symbol of power – his sceptre. From the distance, Blue barely recognised him; but there was little doubt, just from the sound of his voice – very recognisable, despite the annoying lilting accent common to all present – who the newcomer was.
“Is this the way the heirs of Aesgard behave themselves?” thundered the voice of Odin/Colonel White. He started walking toward the dais, his steps echoing loudly through the now-silent room. “Is this how you should conduct yourself in the presence of guests? And in my presence?! You should be ashamed!”
Blue barely noticed how everyone was bowing slightly at Odin’s passage; he was intently watching the man’s approach, and with each step, having a better look at his face. He couldn’t detach his eyes from it – the expression of his features was implacable, made even more ferocious by the large scar crossing the entire left side of his face, clearly left by the vicious strike of a sharp blade. The eye from that side was obviously gone, and the hollow space it had left was hidden under a piece of leather that acted as a rustic eye patch. The other eye, however, was very much alive, and burning with a vibrant intensity.
“Balder, this ‘scheme’ you are referring was my idea,” ‘Odin’ continued. “Your brother and Lord Tyr only suggested it, and I decided to go along with it. If it had not been for the greater good of our land, I would never have pursued it. You should know better than to discuss my decisions.”
“Of course, Sire,” Scarlet said, bowing humbly in the presence of Aesgard’s ruler.
“Thor, despite your much vaunted strength, remember that I can still best you in any fight, whether you are armed with that hammer of yours or not!”
“My lord,” Ochre acknowledge with a bow of his own.
“Lord Tyr, you are a guest under this roof, but remember that my patience has limits. Do not ever attempt to try it to the breaking point.”
Grey bowed slightly. “I do apologise for any offence Lord Balder thinks I may have done to him, Lord Odin.” His innocent tone caused Scarlet to stare at him with irritation.
“Hodur…” ‘Odin’ had finally stopped in front of Blue to look levelly at him. A strong hand fell on the American captain’s shoulder and squeezed it.
“’Tis good to see you well, after that dangerous mission in the land of our enemies, my son.”
The tone of his voice had definitely softened a little while addressing him, and Blue had to fight not to look too uncomfortable at being called ‘son’ by his commander-in-chief. Imitating the others, he bowed slightly, breaking eye contact briefly.
“I am at your service… Sire.”
He looked up into the ravaged face again. For a moment, ‘Odin’ stared at him, and Blue looked back, waiting with anticipation. The lone, piercing blue eye definitely reflected Colonel White’s indomitable and fierce spirit, but it didn’t take long for Blue to realise that this man didn’t recognise him as Captain Blue – as he had vainly hoped he would. He was looking into the face of a stranger.
He was profoundly disappointed.
It was for White now to break eye contact, as he let go of Blue’s shoulder. He turned around to walk toward his throne, where he sat down heavily. Seeing Ochre and Scarlet follow to stand beside their ruler, Blue followed them. A servant girl approached respectfully to give a filled goblet to White, who took it and acknowledged her presence with a brief gesture. He watched with a fierce look as Grey came in front of him and bowed to him once again.
“Has your ruler entered Aesgard’s gates, Lord Tyr?” White asked brusquely.
“Aye, Lord Odin,” Grey announced humbly. “Vanaheim’s ruler has come, answering your call, and is waiting your invitation to be presented to you.”
“That is well, then.” White raised his vessel. “People of Aesgard!” he called loudly. “Today is a great day for our land! Today is the day we will see the end of the long-lasting war between Aesgard and Vanaheim! Hail to Victory, warriors! Hail to Aesgard!”
To the shout of ‘Hail!’ and ‘Aesgard!’, everyone present saluted and drank deeply from their vessels. Blue did the same, although the bittersweet ale was much too warm for his taste and he nearly choked on it. He drank slowly, noticing over his goblet that Tyr was politely doing the same. Both put down their half-empty vessels only when the others around loudly lowered their empty ones onto the tables. A glance on the other side of the dais informed Blue that Black/Loki had barely touched his goblet, but was now looking very interested in what was going on.
Blue had to admit, he was curious to know that too.
“Lord Tyr,” White solemnly announced. “The ruler of Vanaheim is invited to enter the Hall and be presented to us.”
Grey bowed anew, before standing tall and half-turning towards the large entrance behind him. He made one gesture of his good hand; a small commotion rose from the crowd and Blue narrowed his eyes to watch as a small group of people, dressed in their best attire, finally entered and walked down the aisle, in a dignified fashion, while the large double doors were slowly closing behind. Marching in the middle of the delegation was a tall man with long, neatly brushed, black hair, and a smooth face looking proudly ahead; by his side was a young woman, in fine but obviously humbler apparel, keeping her head down under a hood that barely hid her long blonde hair and striking beauty.
Blue had no trouble recognising both Captain Magenta and Destiny Angel, as they approached ‘Odin’s’ throne.
White was silently and thoughtfully watching the newcomers, apparently gauging them carefully. Grey came to them as they stopped in front of the dais and took Destiny’s hand to kiss it with deference. Magenta ignored his presence and stood tall, glaring at White, when Grey turned to present them.
“Lord Odin, ruler of Aesgard, may I present the ruler of the Vanir people…”
White acknowledged the announcement with a brief nod. Destiny saluted him with a bow, but Magenta didn’t move.
“Insolent dog,” Blue heard Scarlet mutter behind him.
“Ruler of Vanaheim, I welcome you amongst my people,” White declared.
“Lord Odin,” Magenta answered. “I would wish to say that it is an honour for me and my sister to be in your presence.”
White raised a single brow; he failed to realise Blue was doing the same. “Your sister?” he said matter of factly.
“Aye. I am Prince Freyr, of the Vanir people. And this is my sister, Lady Freyja…”
“Lady Freyja,” White said with a nod. “The leader of the Valkyries. I have heard about you, my lady.”
“Lady Freyja, whose beauty precedes her wherever she goes,” Scarlet murmured again, in admiration, but this time a little louder, fully intending to be heard. He was heard indeed, both by White, who glared warningly at him, and by Magenta, who shot him a look that was nothing less than murderous.
“I know you,” Ochre suddenly declared, addressing Magenta before the latter could utter another word. “You are no prince… You are Fricco the Thief!”
There were new murmurs from the crowd. Blue tensed, waiting for the follow-up. Magenta stood his ground. “That was in another life, Lord Thor. Indeed, I was Fricco the Thief, many years ago. But all that has changed now.”
“This man cannot be the ruler of Vanaheim, Sire,” Thor scoffed, turning to the silent White. “He is a cattle thief. He took my livestock, five years ago!”
“I took the two goats which were pulling your chariot,” Magenta corrected, obligingly. “You should be grateful, Lord Thor. I spared you the humiliation from showing yourself further in such a peculiar equipage.”
There was laughter all around and even Scarlet joined in; Ochre, however, didn’t seem to find it amusing at all. He had grabbed his hammer, and was now descending the dais. “You impudent bastard, I will teach you to make fun of a prince of Aesgard!”
He stopped in his tracks suddenly, when Magenta unsheathed his sword and took a step back, pointing it at his advancing adversary. He blatantly ignored all the Aesir warriors present in the room, who, at the first sight of his sword, drew theirs, threateningly.
“One more step, Prince, and I will run you through!”
“I will break your head first… thief!” Ochre seethed between his teeth.
Before Ochre could take one more step towards Magenta, Destiny walked in front of him and stood between the two men, extending her hands to them, demanding peace.
“Hold!” White called from his throne. All the swords were instantly lowered. “Lord Thor, step back!” White ordered. “Put up your weapon.” Reluctantly, Ochre obeyed and stepped aside. Magenta held his ground. White turned his only eye to him. “Master Fricco – or Lord Freyr, whatever your name is now: I suggest you lower your sword. Unless you want to… deprive your ‘sister’ of her most loyal servant.”
“Lord Odin…” Destiny spoke for the first time; she gestured to Magenta to sheathe his sword, and as he finally obeyed, she turned around and removed her hood to face the assembly. A cascade of golden hair surrounded her beautiful face, and everybody, stunned by her fully revealed beauty, stared straight at her with baited breath. Even Aesgard’s ruler seemed taken aback for a split second.
“So,” White murmured with an appreciative nod, “what Lord Balder said earlier was true. Rumours of your beauty do precede you, Lady Freyja.”
“Lord Odin,” Destiny said, presenting a dignified façade, “Lord Freyr never presumed within these walls to be the ruler of Vanaheim. He was protecting me, as he always does. He is but an emissary for me – a front. As he has been in recent years, thus protecting the identity of the true ruler of Vanaheim from our enemies.”
“And you are not his sister, of course,” White said, musingly. “You are the ruler of Vanaheim.” His tone didn’t seem to indicate that he was suitably surprised. Destiny glared at Grey.
“Lord Tyr informed you,” she accused.
“He did not. He kept your secret to this day… Queen Freyja.” White bowed respectfully to the younger woman. “And this was a secret that I kept myself, though I learned it a long time ago. It was not so difficult to discover, my lady. A ruler must know his enemies, if he ever wishes to defeat them; as Aesgard has defeated Vanaheim.”
“You made use of a subterfuge to defeat us,” Magenta retorted bitterly. “You captured and held our Valkyries hostage, and called upon us to surrender.”
“All is fair in war,” White remarked.
“We were winning,” Magenta declared in turn.
“Then it was all the more necessary for us to make use of the ‘subterfuge’.” White leaned forward, glaring at Magenta. “I would suggest, Lord Freyr, that you keep your accusations to yourself. They will serve you nothing at this point. Furthermore, you are obviously not aware of all the details of the arrangements I made with your ruler, through Lord Tyr…”
“Traitor,” growled Magenta, glaring at Grey.
“At ease, my lord,” Destiny demanded. “When he put himself under Odin’s command, Lord Tyr was but following my instructions.”
“My lady?” Magenta seemed genuinely surprised.
“This war between our two peoples has gone on long enough,” Destiny continued.
“I agree, my lady,” White said with a nod.
Destiny turned to face a discomfited-looking Magenta. “We might have won this war with Aesgard…”
“…Or maybe not,” Ochre grumbled under his breath.
“…But we would never have won any war, all by ourselves, against the Ice Giants. And that, Freyr, you know as well as I do. Neither Vanaheim, nor Aesgard, can hope to defeat these fiends all alone.” She took Magenta’s hand and squeezed it reassuringly. He looked down, conceding defeat, and apparently acquiescing to her words. Destiny sighed deeply, before turning to face White again. “So for the good of both Vanaheim and Aesgard, and so we can face our common enemies, the Ice Giants, and one day defeat them, I have agreed to surrender to Odin’s rule – and have accepted an alliance between our two people.”
“Did we have to surrender to achieve that?” asked Magenta with a frown.
“Odin would never have agreed to surrender to you, prince of Vanaheim,” Scarlet said sardonically, with a raised brow.
“It doesn’t matter,” Destiny said quickly, before Magenta took the remark as an insult. “The deal is now done. The land of Vanaheim falls under the rule of Odin of Aesgard. Through me, as queen of the Vanir, all of our land pledges loyalty and obedience to our new ruler.”
“And I pledge protection and justice to the people of Vanaheim, ruling the land as I rule my own,” White said in a low tone. “However, Lady Freyja, the deal is not quite done yet. Before all this becomes official, there are still… some formalities that must be attended to.” He leaned even further forward on his throne, fixing his one eye on Destiny. "Do your Valkyries pledge their loyalty to me as well?" There was a note of suspicion in his voice, as if he doubted that fact. Destiny had a short moment of hesitation.
"Lord Odin, it is understandable that the Valkyries are wary of this arrangement between our lands..."
"That much is obvious, Lady Freyja – considering the amount of fighting they did when my warriors… 'invited' them into Aesgard and within these walls. One of them even fled to hide herself within the land of the Ice Giants, where one of my sons had to ride, in order to find her." He nodded towards Blue, and then addressed Destiny anew: "I trust you have informed them of their part in this arrangement of ours."
"I have, Sire…"
"I take it they were not pleased, then."
"Maybe they had good reasons not to be pleased," Magenta remarked acerbically. "They probably knew they would be held captive within the Walhall's dungeon."
White raised his brow, before turning toward the three Aesir princes standing by his side, with an accusing look; Blue didn't say a word, nor did he move, and Scarlet shrugged dismissively. As for Ochre, he grunted loudly.
"The dungeon?" White asked with curiosity. “Thor, I left you in charge of this affair. This was your idea?”
"What else could we do, Lord Odin?" Ochre retorted, turning to the older man. "These girls are she-devils incarnate – they would have escaped us, if we had not locked them up."
"That is an arguable point. But did you have to put them in the dungeon?"
Ochre scoffed. "It seemed to me the safest place to imprison them, my lord. After all, until this deal is done, they are still to be considered as enemies of Aesgard, are they not?" He smiled mockingly. "One of them even dared to threaten to gut me with a blunt knife, if ever the chance was to present itself."
“A blunt knife?”
“So it would cause more pain, Sire,” Ochre explained, laughing.
White gave a half-huff, half-chuckle hearing that, before he settled down on the throne, slowly, and turned to Destiny again. “Quite. Maybe it was a wise move, then. Do we have to fear that your Valkyries will turn against us, Lady Freyja?”
There was a flash in Destiny’s eyes at this accusation. “Lord Odin,” she reiterated in defence, “consider what is asked of them and ask yourself how you would react in their place, if you were forced into this venture.”
“Well, the same is asked of me and I have yet to slit my throat…” Scarlet muttered, loud enough to be understood. Everyone within hearing distance burst out laughing, and Ochre gave ‘his brother’ a vigorous thumping.
“Much good it will do you, Balder,” White replied with dry humour. And the remark made Blue prick up his ears in interest.
“Nevertheless,” Destiny continued, as if she had not been interrupted at all. “The Valkyries know their duty – and will perform it, whatever the cost asked of them.”
"What is that cost, exactly?" Magenta asked suspiciously. "What is the part they should play in this… charade?"
"This is not a 'charade', Lord Freyr,” White retorted. "This is an alliance between the land of Aesgard and the land of Vanaheim. An alliance between our two clans, rendered official by the joining of our royal houses… And as it goes, in those circumstances, such joining has to be made through…"
"Marriage," Blue realised. The sudden understanding left him in shocked disbelief. The fact that nobody noticed the astonished expression on his features was simply due to the fact that everyone was watching Magenta's reaction – and the expression of surprise and dismay was far more obvious on his face than on Blue's. He turned a disapproving glance toward Destiny, while White was concurring with Blue's declaration with a quiet nod.
"Aye. The three heirs of Aesgard and three Valkyries will be united by matrimony. Thus the alliance between our two lands will be sanctioned."
"You sold our Valkyries in marriage to these Aesir savages?" Magenta accused Destiny heatedly.
"Watch your tongue, Lord Freyr," she answered quickly, before any of the Aesir could react to Magenta's words. As it was, both Scarlet and Ochre simply shrugged dismissively, as if the insult had no effect on them. White kept silent, watching intensely as the 'queen of Vanaheim' turned to her vassal, and with eyes flashing with anger, scolded him in the same tone he had used with her. "The three chosen Valkyries are of royal blood, and therefore should be prepared to make the necessary sacrifice to ensure the safety of our land. This is their duty, and they will do as they are required… And I will not suffer you to dispute my decisions."
Magenta scowled, his eyes blazing with barely contained anger. He then obviously calmed down, giving a deep sigh, and then bowed in front of Destiny, finally acknowledging her ruling. "As always, I'm at your service, my queen."
"These two are lovers." Blue heard Scarlet’s lilting whisper in his ear. "Just by the way they fight, you can feel it…"
Blue didn't care to voice his opinion on the matter. In 'real life', there were rumours spreading around Cloudbase about Destiny… Some to the effect that she might be involved with either Magenta or Grey – or others stating that she might still be in love with Scarlet, with whom she had been romantically involved, some years ago. There was nothing certain about that aspect of her life – she was always an extrovert girl, and very caring, but also could prove very secretive and personal when she decided to be. Her private life was her own, and she probably figured that nobody else had any business knowing any of it. Aside from the Angels – and even there – Scarlet was probably the person who was closest to her, and maybe he would know about her private life, but it was doubtful she would confide in him – or that he would repeat whatever he might know. He was far too discreet – and he had too much respect for Destiny and the friendship they shared to betray her.
But in this present setting, it was far different. Perhaps Scarlet was unconsciously voicing something he did know from ‘real life’. In this world, Blue was realising, even if things were different, he couldn't escape noticing that there were some similarities… uncomfortable similarities that he would have to investigate further. It made him more and more convinced that the Mysterons might very well be behind this absurd situation.
"Is this settled then?" White's booming voice suddenly enquired, pulling Blue from his reverie. “I wish for this matter to be fully resolved before the night is over. Lady Freyja, if there are no more protests from your vassal…”
“The last protest, Lord Odin, comes from me, as well as from Lord Freyr,” Destiny answered. “We would like to see that the Valkyries are well, if you would not mind.”
“Even if I did mind, you would insist in this demand of yours, is it not so, my lady?” White asked with a deep frown. “Nevertheless, I will grant your demand – for I had already decided, long before you asked it. By this, I will show you my good faith.”
He made a grand gesture toward the closed double doors. All eyes turned in that direction, as two guards standing there pulled on the carved wooden handles and opened the doors wide. There was a commotion from the hallway beyond – and a group of Aesir warriors finally entered, straining on long chains, towing and pushing inside three shackled and chained women dressed in dirty and torn rags, which had very recently been rich garments.
If, up to now, Blue had been amazed by all he had witnessed, this new scene gave him the worst shock yet. He watched helplessly as the three young women were forced to march towards the throne, dragged and pushed, struggling furiously to get free, and kept at bay from their tormentors, whom they were trying to reach. At least – two of them were struggling with fury, while the third was merely trying to keep up without falling, her long, and now dishevelled, red hair falling into her face, which displayed an expression as confused as could be, looking around her in total dismay.
Blue’s heart missed a beat, as he realised that Rhapsody probably understood far less than he did himself about the situation, considering that she had not benefited from Doctor Fawn’s briefing. He also felt a pang of disgust, for the way she was being treated, along with her two companions – whom he recognised instantly, despite their unkempt outlook, and the ferocious expressions distorting their beautiful, dirty faces. They were Melody – and his beloved Symphony. And the way the Aesir warriors were laughing at their vain efforts to resist was enough to revolt him.
“Lord Odin,” he called over the clamouring laughter of those surrounding him, and turning towards White, who was still seated on his throne, watching the Valkyries approach without a single emotion apparent on his set face. “This is outrageous! Is this a proper way to treat those who will be our allies?”
As he said these words, he could see the look of utmost revulsion displayed on both Magenta and Destiny’s faces change slightly to one of gratitude as they stared at him. He even caught sight of Grey bowing his – slight – approbation to his outburst. He stepped down from the dais, just as the Angels – or Valkyries, as they were in this setting – were forced to stop in front of the throne.
Rhapsody nearly lost her footing, and, trying to pull away from the warrior she nearly fell onto, bumped into someone who was standing right behind her. She felt strong hands grabbing her arms. When she turned around, it was to gaze right into the pallid face of the man she knew as Captain Black, staring implacably at her. She gave a gasp of horror and surprise and, freeing herself from his grip, backed away to escape him. Her feet entangled themselves in the shackles around her ankles and she fell backward, nearly onto Blue’s legs. He caught hold of her before she reached the floor and pulled her up. He could see the lost look in her eyes and, before she had a chance to push him away, he leaned to whisper discreetly in her ear:
“Don’t worry, Dianne, I’m here…”
“A-Adam?” she gasped with relief. She had heard him, despite the surrounding clamour, and he heard her. She looked in confusion at him. “My God, Adam… that’s Captain Black standing there…”
“He’s not what he seems,” Blue murmured again. “At least, I don’t think so…”
“What is going on? Where…”
He frowned a warning as he felt a presence approaching him from behind and the laughter was dying down. “Play along,” he recommended. “I’ll explain later…”
“I don’t understand…” Those were the last words Rhapsody was able to pronounce as her eyes suddenly grew wide with a new surprise at discovering who was now standing behind Blue, with such a totally outlandish appearance.
“The Valkyrie’s reaction is quite understandable,” Captain Scarlet declared, pulling Blue slightly aside to stand in front of Rhapsody. “Aye, our friend Loki is certainly not a reassuring sight…” He narrowed his eyes, looking down with interest at the young woman, who could do nothing but stare at him, open-mouthed. “Her expression is similar to the one you had earlier, Hodur… Lost and confused… What happened to the two of you in those mountains?”
“You savage!” Blue turned around to face the furious expression of Melody, who was now trying to reach him. “What have you done to our sister?”
“Quiet!” White bellowed from his throne, as Melody’s vain efforts to attack Blue were drawing another gale of laughter. Silence followed instantly, and even Melody quietened down. “Both Lord Hodur and Lady Nanna have been through horrendous experiences, during their journey back from the Ice Mountains… Of which, all that we know is that they were attacked by wolves, although we suspect there was more to it.”
“Sire, Lord Hodur does not remember most of his journey,” Ochre said, by way of explanation.
“And neither, it seems, does the Valkyrie Nanna,” White interrupted him before he could continue. “But that mystery will have to wait. What I would like to know now is: who is responsible for the disgraceful display we have just witnessed?”
“You mean to say, Lord Odin, that you were not aware of this?” Magenta asked with a deep, doubtful frown. “You did not order the Valkyries to be brought here in chains?”
“I certainly did not. Now, whose bright idea was this? Was it yours, Thor?”
The growl from White was accusing, and ominous enough, but it didn’t seem to impress the red-haired warrior that much. “Not me, Sire,” he retorted with a shrug.
“Balder? Did you give that order?”
“Nay, my lord,” Scarlet replied. “But it is not difficult to imagine from whom this idea comes, since he was present a second ago… Probably enjoying his latest trick.”
“Loki,” growled White again, almost spitting. “This would be quite like him… Come forward, Loki!”
Everyone looked around the room for the culprit; but he seemed to have disappeared, taking advantage of the confusion. Blue could have kicked himself. He had let Black get out of his sight for only a minute or two. He wondered if he had not caused the commotion exactly for that reason.
“I should have known,” White muttered. “As soon as his evil deed was done, the trickster would vanish until such time as to start again…”
“My lord,” Ochre then said, taking a step forward, “In Loki’s defence, I must admit that it is an inspired and prudent idea.” He won a withering look from White as well as from Magenta and Destiny, but didn’t seem to care. He smiled mischievously. “Look how fierce these women are. They would kill any of us if they had the chance…”
“I would certainly kill you, bastard prince,” Melody declared suddenly, pulling to get to him. "Just remove these chains and…”
“Now, Lady Sif,” Ochre said with a mocking grin, walking to stand in front of her. “You already made that promise to me earlier. Do not worry; you will get all my attention later on. That is my promise.”
"Why wait so long, my lord?" Melody replied between clenched teeth. "Come right now, give me a sword – and I will give you what you so rightly deserve."
Ochre raised a brow in mocking amusement. "You would cut my head right off, if I gave you a sword…"
"Aye. And hang it on the saddle of my mare, as a trophy…" Melody scoffed. "That is MUCH more respect than you presently offer us Valkyries."
Murmurs and chuckles greeted her challenge. White, on his throne, raised an enquiring brow, while Scarlet started laughing out loud. "Why, Thor, it would seem you found a spirit as boisterous as yours – perhaps too boisterous?" He grinned wickedly, looking in appreciation at Melody, then down at Rhapsody who was still staring up at him in shocked silence. "I wonder if you will be able to handle her – mayhap I should take her myself. The redhead might be more suitable for you…"
"Not on your life, brother,” Ochre answered before either Rhapsody or Melody could utter what would no doubt sound like an acerbic protest or insult. "And beside, you might learn before long that redheads are quite a handful – I should know."
"Aye… so you should. ’Tis to be considered…" mused Scarlet. His smile widened, and he raised a mocking brow while glancing in the direction of Blue, who had his eyes set on a silent, but fuming, Symphony. "But I still prefer blondes… The Lady Iduna would be to my liking…"
"What are you all on?" Rhapsody whispered, opening eyes wide with astonishment. Scarlet simply raise a questioning brow, but didn't reply. He didn't have time, anyway.
"Try to touch me, you arrogant son of a swine,” Symphony snapped angrily before Blue could react to Scarlet's obvious tease, "and I promise you will lose something that you -"
"ENOUGH OF THIS!" Obviously annoyed by the increasingly chaotic scene, White jumped onto his feet, and hit the floor forcefully with the stave end of his spear. The loud sound echoed throughout the Hall. “I have heard enough nonsense for one evening! Remember where you are! This is the Hall of the Gatherings, not a fighting arena! The next one who utters such foolishness will be thrown into the wolves’ den! And do not think that I would not do it!” Silence had already fallen in the Hall and nobody dared to answer White’s menacing threat. He grunted with satisfaction and turned to Ochre, Scarlet and Blue now looking at him with attention. “Heirs of Aesgard, it is not for you to decide which of the Valkyries you will be betrothed to. The choice rests with Lady Freyja and myself.”
“And we will choose wisely.” Those were Destiny’s first words since the Valkyries’ arrival a few minutes earlier. For some reason, she had kept quiet up until now, observing the scene with considerable interest. The Valkyries turned to her, and both Melody and Symphony were glaring at her with obvious resentment in their features while Rhapsody still looked as lost as previously. The nearby presence of the tall barbarian – who looked so much like Paul, but who was nothing like him – was making her feel more uncomfortable than she cared to admit.
Fortunately, Adam was there as well – the real Adam and not some strange barbarian look-alike as the others were. And despite the fact that he was dressed like all the others, he was acting in the same way as the old reliable Adam. That, at least, was reassuring.
“Lady Freyja,” White said, stepping down from the dais, “may we rely on your Valkyries’ acceptance of the terms of our agreement – or will they dare to disobey you?”
"They will disregard their personal feelings and obey my orders." There was a flash of warning in Destiny's eyes as she stared back at both Melody and Symphony. "I am their queen, and their leader in battle. They might not like it, but they will perform their duty as it is demanded of them, for the greater good of Vanaheim." She marked a short pause, before adding promisingly: “…Or I, myself, will push them into that wolves’ den.”
There was a short moment of hesitation from the 'Valkyries' but then, after exchanging glances, they acknowledged Destiny's words with a slight nod. Defiance was still apparent in their eyes, but their submission to their queen's decision seemed enough to satisfy White. He gave a loud guffaw in obvious appreciation of Destiny’s last words and, pushing his spear into Blue’s hands so he could hold it for him, he snatched two goblets from the hands of two nearby warriors and walked meaningfully to the younger woman.
“You are a woman after my own heart, Lady Freyja.” He offered her one of the vessels with a poised gesture and a courtesy that almost – almost – reminded Blue of the man’s real persona. “Let us seal this alliance between our lands with a pledge – and sanctify it with the joining of our two houses.”
“My Valkyries are now your Valkyries, Lord Odin,” Destiny answered with a slight bow. “And they will obey you as they obey me. They are the best mounted warriors you will ever find in all the combined lands of Aesgard and Vanaheim.”
“Aye, that they are. And as the spouses of my heirs, they will be considered as my daughters. And all of your people are now my people, and shall be treated as equal to any Aesir and given the same protection by my warriors. This I solemnly swear – my queen.” He raised his own goblet to the assembly, and declaimed in a loud voice: “Let it be heard and understood that from this day forward, the lands of Aesgard and Vanaheim are now to be considered as one land. One people. One force against our common enemies, the Ice Giants. And when the day does come, we will crush those malevolent fiends, once and for all, and drive them away from our lands and back to the darkness from whence they came! Together!”
There came the potent noise of the banging of weapons, and shouts of ‘Hail Odin!’, ‘Hail Aesgard!’ and even ‘Hail Vanaheim!’ and ‘Death to the Ice Giants!’ from all around the room. The warriors sprang to their feet, raising their tankards and swords. Blue looked around in wonder – and almost dread, as the last lacquer of civilisation seemed to completely vanish in that short instant. He could see that Rhapsody was not keen either at finding herself in the middle of such a furious and frantic company, and she stared at him with a pleading look. He gave her a brief nod of encouragement.
But in fact, he didn’t feel as confident as he would have liked to feel, or as he was trying to appear.
* * *
Barely an hour had passed since the end of the meeting; Blue was now in his chamber – Hodur’s chamber – pacing around nervously and rehearsing what he had learned so far. What he knew wouldn’t fill a book, and that was exasperating; what was more, although the present state of affairs – within this world – was starting to make a more comprehensive picture, he was as much in the dark as before as to how and why it even existed.
He wished he could use a pen and a paper to write down his discoveries so far – that would make it far easier to concentrate, but true to form, neither of those two simple and very common objects was on hand here. So he’d have to make do without them.
Fact: After a malfunction, all of the personnel on Cloudbase were stuck in a fantasy world born out of a 3D game that was running in the Room of Sleep – transformed into an FX Room for the occasion. What had caused it to malfunction, and why everyone was affected, was still a mystery. Yet, apparently, the incident had caused everyone to forget their real lives and to embrace this new reality, and believe it to be the only one they’d ever known. The effects went as far as to erase everything that they knew before, creating a complete set of memories, knowledge and behaviour that were previously alien to ‘the victims’ –
A complete brainwash…
Fact: Normal 3D games were played at the subconscious level, by imposing images, sounds and feelings on the players so as to give the appearance of reality. From what Blue knew of those games, it was still very tricky to create suitable and complete realism for some of the human senses. If sight and hearing were easily tricked, touch was a little dodgy, and it could still happen that simple contact with a badly configured ‘wall’ would cause the game to collapse. Additionally, even the most sophisticated game could not render the sense of smell perfectly, and as far as Blue knew, there was no way at all to influence taste in these games… Which was not the case in this particular situation: everything was – or at least seemed – as real as in real life itself. Dust would make you choke; ale did have a taste and could even make you feel dizzy. Those were not normal conditions for any ordinary 3D game.
Which would imply that this is far more than an ‘ordinary game’…
Fact: This world was apparently loosely based on Norse mythology – except that it had been brought to a more ‘realistic’ level – so to speak – and with some subtle differences. Blue’s memories of those legends were coming back to him slowly, and he did recall that in some more obscure myths, there had been a mention of a war between Aesgard and Vanaheim… A war that had ended up with the two peoples finally making peace and joining together – but in none of those legends was there mention of the Valkyries ever being on the side of Vanaheim. Speaking of which…
Observation: Each of the senior staff members was seemingly ‘assigned’ a key role in this three-dimensional Nordic play. For the vast majority of them, and as far as Blue was able to assess, those roles had been given according to each ‘participant’s’ personality – and were reflections of what they were in real life. The Angels, surely enough, had been transformed into the Valkyries here – with Destiny, their generally acknowledged leader, becoming Freyja, the first rider of the Valkyries and ruler of the Vanir. Magenta was ‘her brother’ Freyr – or at least, her front, if not actually her consort. Blue remembered that the legends also gave Freyr the name of Fricco – which, oddly enough in this reality, while it was an alien detail to the myths, had been used for a period of Freyr’s life where he was a mere cattle thief – thus making Freyr a ‘reformed criminal’, as Magenta was in real life. Ochre had been transformed into the boisterous Thor – which didn’t seem like an odd choice when you thought of it; Lieutenant Green, the communications officer on Cloudbase, was Heimdall, ‘guardian of the entrance of Aesgard’ – the Bifrost, the Rainbow Bridge! and Colonel White, in a strange but logical twist of fate, had become Odin, ruthless ruler of all of Aesgard.
As for Captain Scarlet, he had been turned into Balder. If memory served Blue right, and if what he had heard so far concerning ‘Balder’ in this world was any indication, then Blue knew very well why Scarlet had been given that role…
So it would not be coincidence that all these people have been given those very specific roles… I don’t believe in coincidence. It would be far too convenient…
Which would mean that this whole fantasy world has been carefully planned all along…by an outside source.
And Blue had strong suspicions of who that outside source might be.
Clue: the unexpected presence of Captain Black, in the also very fitting role of Loki, renowned trickster and evil-doer of Aesgard legends, could not be a coincidence either.
Conclusion: this whole situation could very well be the work of the Mysterons.
The more he thought of it, the more Blue became convinced that this was indeed the case. It seemed the best and the most plausible explanation so far.
Well, they probably have the powers to actually carry out such a crazy scheme, don’t they? But why would they do that? Why go to such lengths to recreate such a world, and carefully put each of us into these specific roles?
Blue had no idea so far why he was Hodur in this set up, but there was certainly a reason. The Mysterons never did anything without reason…
Blue didn’t know if Fawn knew of Black’s presence. That was doubtful – he felt pretty sure that Fawn would have told him if he had known. This was not information he would have kept to himself – no matter the amount of interruption that might have prevented him from warning Blue.
He had to talk to Fawn; to tell him what he had learned – and to ask him if his suspicions about Scarlet were true. That was probably what he was trying to tell me, before we were interrupted by Scarlet himself…
Pretending that he required the physician Mimir’s help because he still didn’t feel too well, he had asked a warrior to fetch Fawn. But he was soon disappointed when the man returned to him, stating that he could not find him.
“He’s not in his quarters?” Blue asked with a puzzled tone.
The warrior – whom Blue remembered as a security guard from Cloudbase’s hangar bay, by the name of Norris – simply shrugged his shoulders in an indifferent fashion. “I looked everywhere, my lord. It seemed that the physician Mimir has disappeared.”
“Disappeared…” Blue repeated pensively, starting to pace around again.
“Maybe he joined the Vanir party who came to Aesgard?” Norris suggested. “After all, he is a Vane himself; he might have joined his people. Nothing would prevent him from doing so now.”
“Maybe,” Blue murmured. Maybe he’s trying to reach Rhapsody? No, she wouldn’t be with the Vanir party… She’d be kept with the other ‘Valkyries’ – at least, until they’re all delivered to their ‘betrotheds’
Blue knew that both ‘Odin’ and ‘Freyja’, following the last victory toast in the Hall, had retired together in private, in order to discuss that final detail, and were to reach a quick decision on this matter – tonight. Blue wasn’t comfortable with the thought that any of the young women would be – quite literally – given to him. He didn’t quite know what he would do when she arrived. Which should be soon now, Blue reflected uneasily. No matter who it was, it would be an embarrassing situation. He rather thought that it would be best if Rhapsody was… ‘allotted’ to him. That way he would be able to brief her on what little he knew. But at the same time, it was driving him crazy to think that Symphony would be handed to either ‘Thor’ or ‘Balder’.
There would be no wedding ceremony – not as such. The agreement between the two rulers was enough to consider the unions as legitimate – and consummation during the nuptial night would be the only rite necessary to validate the marriages. There was no place for fanciness in this harsh world… Things were kept straight and simple.
Think rationally, Adam, this is only a game. It’s all subconscious. Whatever might happen, it won’t be real, so you don’t have to worry about a thing.
Right… If I continue telling myself that, maybe I’ll convince myself…
He shook himself. For now he had other business to take care of – maybe that would take his mind off these foolish and pointless concerns. He turned to Norris.
“Keep searching,” he ordered. “Get others to help you. I want to know where Mimir is…”
Commotion from the hall beyond the door interrupted him; Blue turned on his heels, in time to see the door burst open and two other warriors enter, roughly pulling inside a young woman who, despite the chains that were restraining her, was struggling to escape them.
Blue’s face paled instantly. That woman between these two men was Symphony. Refreshed, her hair combed and wearing a clean and exquisite, although old-fashioned, gown, she was still the same combative Valkyrie he had seen earlier in the Hall.
And still the same strong-willed Angel I know and love…
Seeing her manhandled by these two unruly warriors made Blue’s blood boil. He took a step forward. “Release her!” he roared angrily.
“My lord,” one of the warriors protested, “she is a she-devil! Considering her threats earlier in the Hall, we were fearful that she might hurt you.”
“Beside, the Lady Iduna would not come willingly,” the other put in.
“You heard Lord Odin’s order earlier!” Blue barked, frowning deeply. “I’m giving you the same order now! Release her from those chains. RIGHT NOW!”
His tone did not admit any debate; even Symphony seemed to calm down at the sound of his voice – at least enough to permit the two warriors to finally obey Blue’s order, despite obvious reluctance. One of them picked up a key and unlocked the collar that encircled the young woman’s neck, and then removed the shackles from her wrists. She kept still…
…Until her hand reached for the unguarded knife hanging from the belt of the warrior on her right and swiftly snatched it from its sheath. Blue saw the three men with him trying to reach for her and, fearful that they would hurt her in order to disarm her, he moved forward… and stopped almost instantly in his tracks, when he felt the tip of the unsheathed blade suddenly resting against his throat.
Everyone froze where they were.
Keeping his chin up, Blue squinted down to meet Symphony’s glare, looking up fiercely at him, neither her eyes nor her hand wavering.
Which is a damn good thing, because one false move and she could end up killing me…
Do I still dare believe it’s only a 3D-game gone wrong? Blue asked himself. Of course I don’t… What if Karen kills me, even accidentally? For real?
“Now,” he said carefully, trying not to swallow, “I’m sure you don’t want to do that…”
“Do I not?” Symphony asked in a cold enough tone. The blade slightly pricked Blue under the chin. He grimaced. The minor wound felt uncomfortably real enough. Blue looked down at Symphony; her whole attitude right now seemed to indicate that she would not hesitate one second to slit his throat. She was serious.
“Take it easy,” he said, trying to sound soothing. A glance toward the three warriors told him that they were watching for the first available occasion to jump on Symphony and restrain her, without risking his life. There was no telling what lengths they would go to, to stop the young woman.
She seemed to have read his mind.
“Tell your men to leave us,” she hissed between her teeth.
“We will not leave this room,” Norris replied harshly.
“You will, if you do not want me to slit the throat of your precious prince!” Symphony snapped.
Blue nearly forgot to mind the blade when he nodded his agreement. The sting under his chin reminded him of it. “Do as she says. Leave us.”
“Lord Hodur…” one of the other warriors started to protest.
“It’ll be all right,” Blue answered carefully. “I’ll handle it. Go. Leave us.”
Symphony watched cagily as, reluctantly, the three Aesir warriors walked back through the door, while keeping wary eyes on her, not knowing what she would do. She gave them a stern glance. “Close the door behind you,” she ordered. “And do not come back before you are ordered to. Or you might regret it.”
“Obey her,” Blue acknowledged. “I’ll be all right. She won’t dare to kill me, I’m her only shield.”
She raised a brow at his statement, but didn’t comment. Slowly, the door closed behind the departing warriors. Forcing Blue to follow her steps, by keeping the blade against his throat, Symphony backed away to the door, and turned the key into the lock, not taking her eyes off her hostage. He followed the gesture with some wariness.
“This way, no-one will come to disturb us,” she announced. She threw the key to the other side of the room, in a casual enough gesture. “You are my prisoner, now, prince of Aesgard.”
“What now?” Blue asked carefully, locking his eyes with hers. “What are your intentions? You’re going to kill me?”
“Kill you? Would I really do that?” She scoffed loudly and came closer, nearly against him. It seemed to Blue that it would be so easy to seize her and disarm her, but the blade resting against his throat was still more than enough deterrent. “You said it yourself earlier, my lord, you are my shield… And shields are meant to protect.”
“I wouldn’t be much of a protection if I was dead, would I?”
“Aye, you certainly worth more to me alive than dead, Lord Hodur… but not only because you are ‘my shield’.” With that, before Blue could move, she swiftly removed the blade from his throat, put her arms round his neck, and pressing her body against his, tiptoed to reach him and planted a vibrant kiss onto his lips. He nearly gasped – out of surprise, out of breath, and rolled unbelieving eyes as his body responded almost instinctively, if still a little clumsily, and his hands closed on her hips to bring her closer still to him.
When their lips parted, he looked down in total confusion into her eyes, seeing the expression on her beautiful face grow bright with mischief, as she hung from his neck. He was completely speechless.
She smiled and laughed gaily. “’Tis good to see you again, my husband…”
* * *
What’s happening to me? Rhapsody Angel was wondering as, escorted by a single Viking warrior who was holding her arm tightly as if to make sure she would not escape, she was marching down a long corridor lit by numerous torches hanging from stony walls, toward what she knew would be the chamber of one of the ‘Heirs of Aesgard’.
I’m dreaming. I was hurt when our SPJ crashed on the Cloudbase runway and I’m in sickbay. I’m having delusional dreams. I’ll wake up any moment now.
But it all felt too real… The fine linen of the gown she was wearing now, the chill draught piercing her skin, the coldness of the stone under her feet – the earlier heaviness of those chains she had been restrained with and that – mercifully – she was now free of. She was completely at a loss about what was happening and could not think of any logical explanation - for any of it.
She had woken up earlier in a dungeon – a dungeon! – suffering from a terrible
headache, dressed in rags, already in chains, and in the company of both Melody
and Symphony. At least she thought they were Melody and Symphony – they looked
exactly like her friends, but didn’t act at
all like them. They were talking with a
strange, lilting accent, calling her ‘sister’, and although they checked her
with concern, the questions they were asking and the statements they made
didn’t make any sense at all. They were all ‘Valkyries’ –and they had been
captured by Aesir, and they were to suffer an ignoble fate, worse than death,
according to them.
With her head still hurting, and already as confused
as she could be – or so she thought –
Rhapsody hadn’t really had the time to get over her surprise, never mind
try to understand her situation. It
wasn’t very long before she saw
fierce-looking Viking warriors enter
the dark cell to take them to that great Hall.
Melody and Symphony had made a show of resisting, as ferociously as they
were able to; the disbelieving Rhapsody was merely there for the ride, caught
in the action, trying desperately to make sense of what she was now seeing –
Amongst all the wide assembly in the Hall, she had seen Cloudbase’s senior staff, barely recognising them in their ancient garments and hiding behind a rough appearance. Ochre, Grey, Magenta, Destiny, even the colonel…
Even Paul, who, like the others, didn’t seem to recognise her… And that had made her heart ache.
And there was also Captain Black…
She shivered despite herself, remembering his cold touch on her arms when she had stumbled against him. It was as if she had touched a snake.
But was it really him? she asked herself. Was it really all of them? She was beginning to doubt that very much. Paul would never have stood idle on seeing her covered with chains and manhandled; he would have done something – reacted, just like Captain Blue – the only one to remember her, to actually look like the man she knew – had done.
She was hoping that it was to Blue that she was being taken. Somehow, she trusted that she would be able to learn from him what this whole insanity was about. He seemed to know a lot more than she did, from what she was able to gather earlier. He would tell her exactly who these barbarians were.
Rhapsody’s hopes vanished when, approaching a closed door, she heard half-muffled voices coming from the other side. An argument, by the sound of it, between a man and a woman. The Viking guiding her stopped in front of the door and stood there with her, waiting. Rhapsody glanced up at his face; the man was keeping a neutral expression, but she could see the uneasiness within him, reflected in his eyes. He obviously knew better than to intrude on the couple’s squabble.
“How can you say it is finished, my prince? Do you not know the feelings I have for you? How can you make such a decision?”
Rhapsody’s heart sank when she then recognised the male voice that answered – so very familiar despite that alien accent she had heard earlier.
“This was not my decision,” it was saying with patience. “I have to abide by Odin’s command.”
“This is not ONLY Odin’s command, and you know it. I saw how you were looking at her… You want her. Do you love her more than me?”
“This has nothing to do with love. This is a… political matter.”
There was a loud scoff from the woman. “Political?! Since when do you concern yourself with politics, my lord?”
“Be careful, Gerda… My patience is growing thin. I will not allow you to mock me.”
“It is you who are mocking yourself, Lord Balder. This… woman… This Valkyrie… She will betray you. Did you not see anything? Were you blind?
“I assure you I do not know what you are talking about.”
“Then you ARE blind, as well as deaf, Prince. People have been talking… About the woman… and your brother…”
“Gerda…” There was a touch of annoyance, as well as of warning in Balder’s voice now, but the woman didn’t seem to hear it at all, as she continued her tirade, relentlessly:
“There is talk about the time they passed together in the mountains of the Ice Giants… Together, alone, Lord Balder. Do you not wonder why they do not remember anything at all of that time?”
“I am warning you, woman…” growled Balder.
“…Or is it that they do not want to tell anything of what happened there? Do you not see now?”
“Still your tongue!” There was anger now in Balder’s tone as he barked the order. The silence that followed was brief, as Gerda finally kept quiet, suddenly realising that she was threading on dangerous ground. “Still it, before I still it for you,” Balder growled again. “I did not hear any of those calumnious rumours you are talking about, except coming from your heinous mouth, right now. Who told you such lies? WHO put those malicious thoughts in your head? Loki?”
“Those are no lies, Prince Balder. Mark my words: together, they will betray you…”
“SILENCE!” Balder’s tone did not suffer any reply now. He was truly furious. “You are talking about my betrothed… and my brother. Jealousy is making you lose your mind, Gerda, and say things that you will live to regret. As of NOW, you are no longer in my service… You are to return to the Wallhall kitchens - where you were working before, feeding meals to the warriors, sleeping in the commune… NEVER to appear before my eyes ever again!”
Gerda gasped loudly. “My lord… You cannot…”
“ONE MORE WORD and you will be assigned to the stables!”
Silence followed, soon broken by Gerda’s low and bitter tone. “So this is how it ends between us… And I thought you loved me.”
“I… appreciated you, Gerda. But I CANNOT allow you to spill your venom on my brother and my betrothed with impunity. You were the instrument of your own downfall.”
There was another short silence. “Nay, my lord,” Gerda then said sourly, “’tis your downfall that you have instigated. That, I promise you.”
Those words sounded more like a threat than a prediction; the following second, the door was opened wide and the servant girl walked out with long strides. She gave a spiteful glance in Rhapsody’s direction but did not say anything; huffing, she passed by. Rhapsody followed her with her eyes. An icy draught seemed to follow her, and Rhapsody shivered. She had seen hatred in the young woman’s eyes – a hatred that seemed aimed at her.
She looks so much like Nurse Preston in sickbay – could it be her?
“The Valkyrie may enter.”
The voice coming from the other side of the open door was now clearer, and calm, as if nothing had happened. The Viking warrior easily pulled Rhapsody inside the room; she could see little point in resisting. She felt better now; her head felt lighter, and she could think a little clearer. She really felt that she would be better served by knowing the situation before running away from it, in an unknown direction. She had no idea where she would end up, anyway.
She was brought into the middle of a vast room, brightly lit, well-ventilated with a gentle breeze entering through the large apertures pierced in the wall. There was a small table in front of her, with plates of fruit, two goblets and a jug filled with a dark brown liquid. Against the far wall, there was a large rustic bed, covered with furs. Rhapsody’s eyes were fixed on that bed; she was suddenly wondering if she would not have been better off taking the chance to flee.
“Well, that certainly looks much better. Those garments suit you better than chains, Lady Nanna.”
Rhapsody did her best not to jump, and turned her head towards the darkest corner of the room. Standing there, right next to one of the apertures, through which she could see a clear dark sky dotted with bright stars, Scarlet – or rather Balder – was looking at her, his piercing blue eyes scrutinising her from head to foot. There was a mocking smirk on his lips as he approached with a casual step.
“But I still say I prefer blondes.” If he thought of making her react, one way or another, he was mistaken. He eyed the guard beside her. “You can go, now,” he told him. “I do not think she will cause me any trouble.” Stopping to stand in front of Rhapsody, he barely acknowledged the man as the latter bowed to him and, releasing the young woman’s arm, left, closing the door behind him. “You will not, will you?” Balder asked, almost in a murmur.
Rhapsody couldn’t answer; she was literally transfixed as she looked into the man’s face. So much like Paul, and yet… it can’t be him.
Faced with her silence, Balder grunted. “’Tis really my luck – to be stuck with the quiet one of the lot.”
He took one of the goblets on the table, poured some of the brown stuff into it and offered it to Rhapsody. She glanced at it and saw the thick yellowish froth that had formed on the liquid – which smelled terrible. She looked away in disgust, and Balder laughed.
“Suit yourself, Lady Nanna.” He drank the contents of the goblet in one large gulp, and then, putting it down, eyed Rhapsody carefully. “I have seen you with much more fire than this before… What happened to you in those mountains for you to lose your spirit this way?” He raised a brow. “Why did you flee to those mountains to begin with? Is it such an ugly fate to be wedded to a prince of Aesgard?”
He took an apple from the table and offered it to her. She barely looked at it. He scoffed.
“Oh, come on, now. You must be hungry! You cannot have eaten that well in the dungeon?” He bit into the apple. “Speak to me, Lady Nanna. Your silence is weighing on me.”
“What would you have me say?” Rhapsody said abruptly.
His face lightened with a smile as he chewed on the apple. “Ah! At last! Words coming from that pretty mouth of yours. And more: I can sense in those words that there is still that old spirit in you.”
“When was that?” Rhapsody asked with a frown.
“When was what?”
“You said you had seen me with more fire before… And now, you’re speaking of my ‘old spirit’. When was that? How did we meet?”
“The first time?” He shrugged. “Probably on the field of battle, during one of the numerous clashes between your people and mine. I was probably trying to dodge that spear of yours… Lest you actually ran me through with it!” He smiled. “Surely, you must remember this better than me. I probably made quite an impression on you.”
“You would be arrogant enough to assume that,” she retorted.
“The fire grows brighter now!” Balder laughed. “There is promise here.” He shook his head. "But I do not assume anything. I can only observe… that you can't take your eyes off me." He leaned toward her, eyeing her mischievously. "Do not try to deny that."
Rhapsody flushed violently, before looking down. "It's just that… you look very much like… someone I know."
"An old lover, mayhap?" Rhapsody raised her eyes anew in time to see Balder shrug dismissively. "Is that why you fled to the Ice Mountains? To escape your fate and still be with him? Well, I say, forget about him. You are mine, now. Legitimately, by the agreement of both our rulers."
"And if I do not agree with that?" she asked abruptly.
Balder frowned. "You have no choice. You are a warrior. Honour and duty demand that you obey your ruler, just as I must obey mine."
"What if I don't consider… 'Freyja' as my ruler?"
"Well, she is, so it is a moot point to argue."
"Then I will argue this: I have a duty to consider that I do not have to obey unreasonable orders. They can't be imposed on me. This is my first duty, as a person – and as a soldier." Balder did not answer that. He was simply looking at her in silence. She raised an inquisitive brow. “You're thinking that I’m not as quiet as you first assumed… Lord Balder?” she said tentatively.
“Nay. I did not really think so!” He became more serious in the space of a second. “I, better than anyone else, know that an encounter with the Ice Giants can scar you for life. So I am blaming all of your present, uncharacteristic behaviour on this… The same for my brother. Because this is what happened to you, is it not? You encountered those devils?” He offered her what was left of his apple, but she didn’t even deign to look at it. Instead, she was staring at him, wondering what he meant exactly. “Still not hungry, then? That will come…” He took one last bite from the apple and threw it away onto an empty plate on the table.
“You don’t believe what that woman said earlier?” Rhapsody remarked.
He grunted. “’Tis unfortunate that you heard those disgraceful accusations,” he mused.
“She was talking about me, then.”
He shrugged. “Aye. But those were words born out of jealousy. You should not concern yourself with them. You see that they do not concern me.”
“Why? You trust me that much?”
Balder guffawed loudly, before turning to the table and serving himself another drink. “Do not give yourself too much credit, Lady Nanna. I would never trust you entirely… especially with a knife in your hand!”
“Gee, thanks,” she murmured in an undertone.
“But I do trust my brother,” he added quickly, with a slight smile. “And there is not a more trustworthy man alive.” Draining his goblet in one long draught, he put it down onto the table and turned to face her again. He took her by the hand. "But enough talk, now. ’Tis our wedding night. And it is time for us to seal our union and truly be husband and wife, as it was decreed by our rulers."
As he was bringing Rhapsody's hand to his lips, she swiftly removed it, immediately on the defensive. "Didn't you listen to what I said earlier?" she demanded. "I did not agree to this!"
"You persist in this little game of yours?" Laughing, Balder encircled her waist and brought her close to him, before she could even react. "I do not mind. I like a little fighting before love…" He leaned his head to kiss her exposed shoulder. She could feel the roughness of his cheek on her neck. Pushing him away, she freed herself.
"Don't touch me!" she demanded.
Rhapsody’s irritated expression made him laugh – which only infuriated her further. She took a swing at his face, but misjudged both the distance and the speed of her fist and he dodged her attack easily. In one fluid movement, he slipped under her arm and stepped behind her to encircle her with his strong arms, effectively pinning her arms against her body.
Big mistake, buster… Rhapsody stamped her foot down furiously, bringing her heel down onto Balder’s foot. The thin suede of his boot wasn’t enough to protect his toes and he yelped, relaxing his hold on her just a little. Her head went backwards and hit him squarely on the nose, forcing a loud groan from his lips. This time, he completely let go.
Seizing her chance, Rhapsody attempted to dash towards the door, but just as she was getting out of reach, Balder’s hand closed on her wrist. He pulled her vigorously toward him, then used the momentum, and flung her in the other direction, letting go at the end of the arc.
This time, Rhapsody completely lost her footing and fell down – face first onto the bed. Instantly, she tried to crawl off it, but already, Balder had leapt to her side, turned her onto her back and was now sitting astride her, pinning her down. She did try to push him away from her, hitting him with closed fists, but he effortlessly caught her wrists on the fly before holding them down against the bed, on each side of her head.
Rhapsody still struggled for a short time, but her attempts to get free were futile; he was just too strong, and had the advantage. She finally stopped, her breast rising and falling from her rapid breathing, and looked up with eyes burning with anger at the man sitting on top of her. He was smiling roguishly, as if he was having a great time.
This CAN’T be Paul, Rhapsody told herself anxiously. Paul would never treat me – or any woman – that way. This man is only a brutish barbarian who only thinks of taking his pleasure… He just LOOKS like Paul… That threw me off and now I’m in trouble.
Balder leaned down on her, looking attentively into her face; she glared back at him, not lowering her gaze.
“Are you afraid of me, Lady Nanna?” he asked in a low voice.
“No…” Although she was trying to present a brave façade and to render her voice as firm as possible, Rhapsody was very much aware that this barbarian would see right through her. She was afraid, but she also was angry, and very upset that she was now at his mercy.
He will not find me easy prey…
Before her eyes, she saw the smile on Balder’s face slowly disappear; he rose on his knees, pulling on Rhapsody’s wrists and forcing her up into a sitting position. She nearly gasped in surprise and didn’t even resist. Her hands still imprisoned within his strong grasp, she looked into his eyes with some apprehension. He wasn’t mocking her anymore; the expression on his face was now more serious.
“You should never be afraid of me, my lady,” he said in a murmur. “You should know that I would never hurt you…”
Rhapsody froze at his words. He sounded genuinely concerned, and suddenly so kind… He sounded just like Paul.
“What did you call me?” she whispered, feeling the hold on her hands slowly release.
“My lady. My…” By the frown suddenly appearing on his face, it was obvious that Balder was having a mental struggle, as if he was trying to grasp an obscure memory. His hand reached for Rhapsody’s cheek and she didn’t even attempt to pull back when he grazed it. “D…”
Rhapsody’s heart missed a beat, as anticipation grew within her – but the elusive word died on Balder’s lips.
Suddenly, his look became hard and he roughly pushed her down; she fell off the bed, entangled in the furs; startled by Balder’s apparent change of heart, she looked up in puzzlement – in time to see the servant girl she had encountered earlier literally jump onto the bed with a wild shriek, holding a dagger, and stabbing Balder in the abdomen.
Where did she come from? Rhapsody wondered. She realised that the woman – Gerda – must have slipped into the chamber while she and Balder had been busy fighting each other. Unnoticed, she had crept up on them, keeping quiet until her opportunity came to attack. Balder must have seen her at the last minute – and pushed me out of harm’s way. But that had left the Viking prince unprotected, and he had now fallen victim to the savage blow of the crazed woman. With a loud grunt, he fell down to the floor, holding the wound.
“I warned you that you had caused you own downfall, Prince Balder!” Gerda spat hatefully. “Now you will die… exactly like the swine you are.”
“Leave him alone!” Rhapsody jumped to her feet, gripping one end of a fur blanket and standing in front of the crouching Balder, who was struggling against his pain and attempting to regain his focus. “I won’t let you kill him.”
“Ah, the Valkyrie now stands to protect her man,” Gerda sneered mockingly. “Do not worry, woman. You are meant to die as well!”
She lashed forward but Rhapsody dodged and flapped the fur blanket to wrap the exposed arm of her adversary. The knife disappeared under the blanket and Rhapsody gave a sharp jerk, unbalancing Gerda, who stepped forward… right into the trajectory of the Angel’s fist, which caught her on the chin. She fell on her back, losing her weapon in the process.
Rhapsody leaned to pick up the knife, just as the door burst open and four Viking warriors, armed with very sharp spears, ran in; they stopped in shock upon seeing the scene: their prince was on his knees, clearly hurt, and the Valkyrie was standing over him with a bloody knife in her hand. Gerda, lying on the floor, seeing an unhoped-for possibility to exact her revenge on the hatred Valkyrie, gestured wildly in her direction, with an accusing finger.
“Kill her! She attacked Lord Balder! She tried to kill him!”
Rhapsody paled; she stepped back, feeling completely helpless, as the warriors walked menacingly towards her, spears at the ready.
“HOLD!” With a supreme effort, Balder had pulled himself to his feet, gritting his teeth against the pain in his abdomen; holding himself as upright as possible with the help of the table, he glared warningly at the Viking warriors. “The first man to touch the Valkyrie will hang tomorrow at dawn!” He gestured toward Gerda. “THAT woman attacked me. Seize her!”
Rhapsody blew a sigh of relief. It didn’t take more than three seconds before the warriors marched on Gerda and pulled her, struggling, to her feet. She stopped resisting when she realised that she couldn’t escape. Balder let go of the table and slowly walked towards her. He stopped by Rhapsody, and took the knife from her hand – gently, as if he didn’t want to scare her away; she willingly let go of it and watched him as he stared with attention at the blade tainted with his blood. His left hand was covering his wound, the blood oozing between his fingers.
After a last concerned look at Rhapsody, Balder approached Gerda and stood in front of her, showing her the knife.
“It is fortunate for you that the Lady Nanna was not hurt,” he said implacably. He let go of his wound and presented his blood-covered hand to her. “This was not your idea, I am sure. Who put you up to this?” Gerda kept silence and lowered her head. A low growl of complete anger came from Balder’s throat. “Have it your way, then. Tomorrow, woman, I will deal with you. Under the torture, you will talk. That, I can assure you.” He roughly wiped his bloody hand on the woman’s tunic. “Take her away!” he ordered to the warriors.
“My lord, you are hurt,” one of them remarked. “You should see the physician Mimir. You…”
“I will be all right.” Balder raised his hand to stifle further protests from the four men. “’Tis but a scratch. Take her away, I said. I can no longer bear the sight of her.”
Keeping himself straight and dignified, he watched with cold eyes as the warriors, reluctantly obeying his orders, left the room, escorting the now disheartened Gerda. They closed the door behind them. Rhapsody followed their departure with her eyes, in a way disappointed that she had not been able to take advantage of the incident to run off – but at the same time unsure of what she should be doing now, especially with Balder standing there, wounded. It was more than a scratch he had received. She could tell just by the look of it; she couldn’t explain to herself why the four men who had just left had not noticed it too and insisted far more that their prince needed to see a physician.
She turned to him, in time to see his knees buckle underneath him; she walked to his side. He had trouble holding himself straight now and was leaning against the table anew. “You are hurt,” she told him. “More than you pretended.”
“Aye…” he agreed through clenched teeth. “The wretched woman missed you but did not miss me.”
Rhapsody was shocked. “You should see a doctor… a physician…”
“Do not concern yourself with this. ’Tis not the first time…”
Balder made a few tentative steps toward his bed and, almost despite herself, Rhapsody helped by supporting him. He seemed to appreciate this new attitude of hers and nodded his thanks. He lowered himself on top of the bed, groaning with pain.
“I only need a little rest,” he slurred. He grimaced as he turned on his back, his eyes closing.
“You need a doctor,” Rhapsody insisted with disapproval. “I’m going to get…” She moved to stand up, but Balder’s hand kept hold of hers and would not let go.
“Stay with me,” he said in an almost inaudible tone. “Please… My lady…”
“Stop calling me that,” she pleaded.
She stared at him in shock; his eyes were closed now, and his breathing was shallow; his brow was covered with a cold sweat. Instantly, she was by his side, stroking his damp face and hair, looking at him with distress.
“My God,” she whispered. “Paul… It is you…”
“Dianne…” he repeated, this time in a tone so low she had trouble hearing it. “I’m so cold… Can’t feel my legs… my arms… Can’t think… Trapped… Help… help me…”
“What is it?” Rhapsody asked with urgency, feeling he would soon lose his senses. She had noticed that the lilting foreign accent had disappeared to be replaced by Scarlet's usual voice – slurred, but familiar. “What happened, Paul? What is this place…”
“R… Ragnarok…” Scarlet moaned. “The Twilight… The Twilight of the gods… We must… stop… Ragnarok…”
With those last words, he finally gave in to pain and mercifully lost consciousness, leaving Rhapsody with more questions than answers – and a despairing sense of anguish.