Lead Warrior p. II

The canopy of the forest hummed with the static from countless raindrops as the Warriors gathered together. The chilly afternoon near Lysefjord brought an eternity of memories flooding back to Hel, some bitter, some sweet, all crashing over her at once like the salty waves over the longboats that had helped define her bonded people so long ago. She had offered to have the ceremony in Australia for Roxy’s comfort, but the younger Siren had refused; it was often a move of respect among the Healers and Diplomats to hold the ceremony in the relinquisher’s bonded country, and Hel was happy Roxy had decided upon this route for the Warriors.

They were in the thick of the green forest, far from where any adventurous humans might hike by and find them. The smell of wet foliage invigorated Hel as she ran her hands over the sharp needles of a large spruce tree. She thought of the timber her bonded people used to make their homes, their boats and their tools. The fresh, clean scent of the spruce needles and the sound of footsteps across the blanketed forest ground almost made her forget where she was; she felt, for just a second, that she should pick up her spear and follow her bonded people to the boats.

She brought herself back to the present, tugging at one of her braids. The Warriors were trickling in, but there was still no sign of Roxy. Hel frowned, thinking of her sister’s hesitancy earlier. She had made peace with her own decision to retire from her position. She had gone through every meditation she knew of to ease her mind. If Roxy backed out now—

There was a hiss of whispers from the gathering crowd and Hel turned her attention to a large, sprawling oak tree. There stood Roxy, dressed in a red leather jacket with her favorite crimson lace tank top underneath. She had let her hair down, her black curls falling in cascades around her face and shoulders. Across her cheeks and forehead were dots of white paint and black eyeliner outlined her brown eyes.

Hel approached Roxy and gave her a quick hug as passing sisters and nieces offered their congratulations. Hel hid a smile as Morgan offered Roxy a forced, thin-lipped smile and a small nod. She knew the day was going to be an injurious one to Morgan’s pride.

“Glad you changed the look up a bit,” Hel said, turning her gaze back to Roxy.

“Kinda wish I left my sweater on. It’s freezing here.”

“Oh, this?” Hel said, looking around them as though she could see the temperature in the air. “This is a mild day compared to the winters.”

“Yeah….” Roxy said, trailing off as she watched more sisters and nieces arrive. Hel wondered where her sister’s mind was at the moment. Was she still having second thoughts?

Hel looked over the growing crowd but didn’t see the faces. Instead, she saw her bonded people walking through the green woods, singing songs to the gods.

One face still stood as clear as the sun filtering in golden ribbons through the trees. A tall, lean young woman with brown skin and brown eyes, her black hair in intricate braids. She carried her ax in one hand while her spear rested in its sheath against her back. She watched the woods where Hel stood, as though she could see her clearly when nobody else could.

“Revna,” Hel said. As the words escaped her lips, the woman disappeared from view, leaving a bewildered Roxy in her place.

“Um . . . who are you . . . “ Roxy looked over her shoulder and back at Hel. “Who are you talking to?”

Hel blinked, feeling as though she had lost all sense of time and place. Slowly, the present-day cleared and sharpened around her and the ghosts of the past faded completely.

“Nothing,” Hel said. “Being here just . . . stirs some memories.”

“Ah,” Roxy said. “And who is Revna?”

“Just an old friend,” Hel said. “Come on, let’s get you going.”

The crowd had taken their place among the trees, watching the circle around the large oak. Hel looked over the shoulders of the Warriors from the back. Seas of women stared ahead, standing in wait for the procedure to begin that had only happened once before. Hel had been the first Lead for the Warrior Sirens. She had taken the role when the role was still undefined. As she took the first steps forward toward the oak, she hoped she had done enough to define what they needed from Roxy.

She was aware of the stillness in the air and all the eyes that followed her as she walked down the path of needles, around trunks of firs and birches, to the old oak, with Roxy falling in step behind her. She heard the caws of the ravens over her head, those ebony birds that always seemed to find her on important days. She welcomed their presence as old friends from the days long gone.

As she and Roxy reached the oak, she turned to face the Sirens gathered among the trees. Some stood by themselves in full battle gear, some stood in groups, wearing formal attire. Occasionally, a small child would sit on their mother’s shoulders or at her hip as they watched, wide-eyed and giddy.

“Welcome, sisters, nieces, fellow Warriors,” Hel called out, her voice bouncing from the trees over the call of the ravens. She was certain that, with the group of hundreds, some would strain to hear her. Still, every face that she could see seemed to brighten as she spoke.

“Since the days that these woods were full of the Austmen building homes, preparing for battles and making their way down the treacherous fjords, I have had the honor of counseling your actions, leading you in battle and being there to pick up the pieces after devastating losses.”

She closed her eyes for a moment, feeling a wave of bittersweet emotion crashing over her once again. “Tonight, that role ends. Tonight, you will find yourself under new leadership; one that was as fiercely contended as any battle we have endured. So let us find hope in this shift—hope that one day, our role in the humans’ lives will be obsolete. That we will never have to live our lives around loss and death brought by the rages of war. This is what we should always strive for as Warriors—the end of battle and the beginning of peace and prosperity. I hope you will continue to lead us toward that path, Roxias, and that you may find new ways to bring an end to humans’ suffering.”

At the last sentence, Hel looked at Roxy, and for just a moment, the young woman of her bonded people stood beside her, looking up at her with admiring eyes.

The vision was gone as quickly as it came, and Roxy again took the place of the young woman, watching Hel with trepidation as she took deep breaths.

“Roxias, your responsibility is to the women gathered here today—to provide guidance and leadership. You will answer to them as a commander and strategist. You will be their strength when they have difficulty finding it within themselves. You will train them to use both deadly skill and unwavering composure in the face of pressure. Is this a task that you can accept?”

Roxy took a slow breath, her brown eyes glowing a soft amber. “Yes,” she said finally.

Hel watched her little sister for a moment, then reached down to untie the leather strap around her waist. From the holder, she pulled out the gold-handled dagger of the Lead Warrior. She looked at it in her hands for a moment, glinting against the shadows of the trees above them. Errant raindrops gathered on the silver blade, looking like little jewels against the odd light that always emanated from the metal.

Hel took a deep breath and stretched her arms out toward Roxy. Roxy pursed her lips together, clenching and unclenching her fists repeatedly as she stared down at the blade.

Finally, she reached forward and gently picked it up. As the blade left her hands, Hel felt a weight lift from her. She watched Roxy hold up the dagger and examine it with the same awe and reverence that she had when their father had given it to Hel. Remembering the harsh warnings from the man, Hel winced. Instead of repeating her father’s threats from that day, she cleared her throat.

“Roxy, you take the weight of humanity’s blood and pain when you take that blade. May you always remember your purpose and let it guide you in every decision you make, every plan you craft and every counsel you offer.”

She turned her eyes back to her sisters and nieces. “I present to you, your new Lead Warrior.”

Cheers and calls came from all around, and many stepped forward to crowd around Roxy. Hel happily stepped aside, allowing space for her sisters and nieces to offer their congratulations. She walked down the path she had walked with Roxy and made her way through the trees.

It was a long walk she needed to clear her head. The patterns of raindrops above her and the crunch of the needles under her feet took her away from present-day again. Suddenly, she was following a figure with long, black braids and dark skin, who walked with ease around the roots and dips of the forest floor.

She walked at a distance from the woman, careful to not be detected, but not wanting to hide more thoroughly. When at last they reached the edge of the forest and the rocky ledge of the fjord, the woman stopped and looked down at the waters below. Their rushing movement was almost deafening to Hel as she stood just at the edge of the trees. The raindrops were gone and in their place, the twittering melodies of songbirds played around them.

“I know you’re here,” Revna said in that confident, unafraid way she had when she spoke to the gods. “I can feel your presence.”

Hel hesitated for a moment, then took a step out of the trees. Revna didn’t turn around to look at her, but kept her eyes on the waters below.

“You’ve not changed, Deathless One,” Revna said over her shoulder. “Why do you seek me out?”

Hel found she wasn’t even a little confused by Revna’s question. “Even those of us who’ve lived forever still long for certain people we once knew. Is this strange?”

“You should be used to the fleeting nature of life. You were the goddess of death.”

“A title that you humans gave me,” Hel said, feeling a pang of contempt rise within her. “Not a title I ever asked for.”

“It was under your watch that the deaths mounted, was it not?” Revna now turned to look at Hel fully, her brown eyes still full of admiration and fondness. “You saw the battles and losses of our people.”

Hel was silent, as there was no way to argue. From where Revna stood, Hel walked in death’s shadow wherever she went.

Revna stepped toward Hel, reaching out to place a hand on the Siren’s shoulder. “You’ve grown weary of your place? Didn’t you always tell me that life should be lived with honor and never regret?”

Your life, Revna. You were just a human with such little time to waste. I’ll have plenty of time for regrets. I’ve seen civilizations come and go, and I’ve had a hand in the destruction of many of them. I’m tired of seeing death around me. I miss the joy and celebrations, the songs, the dancing, the stories laid out for generations. That’s what I treasured from my time among humans.”

“It’s as you said, humans’ lives are short. We celebrated and suffered alike,” Revna said, moving her hand from Hel’s shoulder to her cheek. “Some lives may have been long-lived, some may have been cut short. But we lived. Nothing you did ever took that away.”

Hel looked at Revna, just as she had seen her last. “Yours was too short.”

“Not compared to many. And I wouldn’t have traded my life for any throughout time. I treasure every moment that I was given, and most certainly every moment I stood before you. I hope that someday, you can find this happiness.”

Revna leaned forward, and Hel closed her eyes. She felt the brush of lips against her cheek.

When she opened her eyes again, Revna was gone. The birdsong had stopped and the rain was falling. Hel stood alone in the rain at the edge of the fjord.

She lowered herself to the ground, feeling the wet grass underneath her and the chill of the wind against her skin. She watched the evening settle over the fjord, the calls of the ravens coming from the trees. She sat there for minutes that dragged on as she replayed Revna’s words in her head.

“I hope I can, too, Revna.” she whispered and stood to walk back to her sisters and nieces.