Love and War – Chapter 2: Lessons

Revna waited every day for the mysterious stranger to reappear in her life. She couldn’t help but wonder if she had been speaking directly to a god, and if so, which one had graced her with their presence and help. She often gazed off toward the edge of the woods, lost in her daydreams, waiting to see the familiar figure outlined in the shadows.

A year passed by, however, and that day still had not come. There were no crunches of footfall through the fallen leaves of autumn, no footprints left in the snows of winters, no treaded grasses of spring. She casually asked about her in the nearby village when going to do business, but the description was often vague enough to be confused with many of the women; tall, strongly built, blond hair, blue eyes seemed to describe a good portion of the surrounding towns. While waiting for customers to visit her cart, Revna would scan the crowds looking for the woman, to no avail. 

Revna longed to traipse through the woods again, despite her last experience. She felt a desperate pull toward the trees. It sometimes felt as though her feet longed to move despite her insistence that they stay put. One day, as the summer was transitioning to the autumn and the chill was back in the breeze as it had been on that fateful night, Revna could resist no longer.

“Father,” she called, pulling on the white cloak that she kept in her pile of outer layers, “I’m going to pick some mushrooms in the forest. I’ll be back in a couple of hours at the most.”

She heard heavy footsteps approaching until Njal entered the middle room of the longhouse and watched her sternly, hands balled on his hips. He was a tall figure, but much leaner than most of the Austmen. His skin was darker than Revna’s, having come from the lands of the south with the original traders and merchants that explored the seas. His dark brown eyes narrowed as he appraised her.

“You want to go out into those woods again?” he asked, his voice still carrying the notes of his original language, though the new one had replaced much of it. “Out where you told me just a year ago that you almost got eaten by a pack of wolves?”

“I won’t travel too deep into the woods this time, Father. I’ll be more careful. We’re out of mushrooms and there were none at the markets worth paying the merchants’ prices for. Not when I can find them myself for the price of a little digging.”

Njal walked toward Revna until he was right in front of her. He reached out and took the edge of the white cloak in one hand, examining it closely, and he ran his other hand over the fur. 

“I’ve never seen you wear this out,” he said, looking from the cloak to her, as though piecing together what was really happening. “Never have you wanted to risk sullying the gift from your strange friend.”

“You still don’t believe what I saw,” Revna accused, a warm blush spreading across her cheeks.

Njal considered for a moment, the corners of his mouth turned down into a scowl. “I’ve lived among many gods, Revna. I’ve heard the stories and I believe there are strange things in our world that we can’t understand. But sometimes I wonder if some of these things intend to do us harm, despite the stories we hear.”

He sighed as he looked his daughter over again. “Two hours. No more. Your mother will be back from town soon, and I want you here to help her with supper.”

“I promise,” Revna said. “Two hours.”

Without waiting for another word, she rose to her toes, kissed her father on the cheek and hurried outside. She took a quick turn to the tools, grabbed a small sickle, and made her way from the house.

She crossed the large grazing field to the trees, remembering the day that she chased the unruly pig. She stopped in her tracks, thinking of the large wolf that had snarled and stalked her. She wondered if she was making a mistake, being too foolhardy.

Then she thought of the woman who commanded the strange fire that had saved her. Her resolve strengthened, and she crossed the line from her safe fields to the unknown of the forest.

The sunlight filtered through the leaves and firs above her head as she scanned the woods. Fallen trees here and there made it difficult to discern a viable path. She took another step in and carefully scored the bark of one tree with her sickle. When she was done, she began walking deeper into the trees, stopping once in a while to score another tree. Whenever she found a patch of mushrooms, she would stop to dig them out of the dirt with her hands and put them in her pockets. Then she would stop to listen, only to hear the birds above her or the footfall of slow-moving animals in the brush.

When an hour had passed, Revna took a seat on the ground and took a deep breath. The air was perfumed with the scent of firs and leaves and dirt, warm and inviting. The songs of the birds echoed all around, and she noticed she felt a sense of peace wash over her. She felt her eyelids drooping as she leaned against a birch and yawned. She knew she shouldn’t fall asleep. If she were to stay out here too long, her father would not be pleased. 

“Please don’t tell me you’re lost again.”

A familiar voice made Revna jump to her feet, suddenly wide awake. In front of her stood the stranger, who looked no different or older than when she first appeared.No lines or age marks appeared on her face from the last time. Her blond hair was braided to one side once again, and her blue eyes narrowed at the teenager. This time, however, she wore armor under her furs. On her back was a large spear and in her hand was a shield.

Revna was stunned. She did not know that her stranger could be a warrior. She had a hard time finding her words at first.

“Well?” the stranger asked, tilting her head.

“No, no, not lost,” Revna said finally. “I was gathering mushrooms, and I just found this place to be very relaxing, so I took a break.”

She took a breath and tried to steady herself as the woman continued to watch her. Finally, the stranger looked around at the trees and up to the canopy.

“You’re correct about that,” the woman said at last, her voice pleasant and cheerful for a moment. “This area is quite lovely.”

“You can join me, if you’d like,” Revna said quickly, the words tumbling past her lips before she could stop them.

The woman turned her attention to Revna once again. Revna cleared her throat and added, “I mean, I understand if you’re too busy, and—”

The strange woman lowered her shield to the ground and sat down next to where Revna had been sitting. Revna watched her, shocked that she had taken up the offer.

“Are you going to sit with me or do you wish to continue staring?” the woman asked, looking into the woods.

“Oh,” Revna said, quickly lowering herself down to the ground.

They sat in silence for a moment. Revna examined the shield that lay just by her crossed knees. There were interesting symbols that Revna thought might be letters in a different language and the outline of a large black wolf. There were large dents across the face of the wooden shield. 

Revna couldn’t miss the crimson stains across the face of the shield. 

“Do you…do you sail with the Austmen?”

“Often,” the woman said, her voice now sounding strained and worn.

Revna was silent again, looking at the shield. The black wolves twisting around the edges of the shield sat uneasily with her. 

“Do you often come out here to scavenge for mushrooms?” the woman asked.

Revna looked back at her. “Rarely. Most of the time, I buy them from the merchants. They wanted more than I will pay, though.”

“So you will risk your skin for mushrooms, but no plans to go beyond your lands,” the woman said, and Revna saw her tilt her head and look out of the corner of her eyes.

“I’m not completely helpless this time,” Revna said, holding up her sickle. 

“A weapon like that requires close range. You should use something with a longer span.”

Revna looked down at her sickle, thinking about this point. Would she have been able to best a hungry wolf at such a close distance?

“What else should I use?” she asked.

The woman looked back out into the woods. “I suggest a spear. It’s my favorite.”

Revna scoffed. “I’ve never picked up a spear.”

The woman turned to her fully and surveyed her. “Would you like to try?”

Revna froze, staring at the woman. “You mean…with yours?” she finally asked.

The woman looked around them. “Do you see any other spears out here?”

Revna felt a rush of fear and excitement both competing for her body. She stood to her feet, not able to contain a nervous smile. 

The woman stood and unsheathed her spear. She stood next to Revna and nodded toward the tree that she had been leaning against.

“See that patch of white in the center? I want you to hit that.”

She gave Revna the spear. It was long and cumbersome in her hands and Revna had difficulty standing and holding it to position it to throw. She shifted the spear multiple times, trying to line the point up with the tree while also keeping the back straight.

Finally, she reared back and let go. The spear soared through the air and hit a nearby tree, nowhere even close to the spot. 

The woman clicked her tongue and retrieved the spear.

“You really never have touched a spear, have you?” she asked, looking at the point for any damage. She then looked at Revna, who felt awkward in her own skin.

“Come,” the woman said. “First, let’s correct your stance. Put your left foot out, pointed at where you’ll throw. Good, now twist your shoulders so that you’re facing the side.”

The woman put the spear down and placed her hands on Revna’s shoulders and gently pulled her into the correct position. Revna found it difficult to stand on her feet but managed to hold herself in the position.

The woman stepped back and examined Revna. Finally, she nodded and picked up the spear. “Now, you’ll have to know where to hold it. Balance it on your finger and where you find they balance it perfectly is where you grip.”

She took Revna’s hand and placed the spear on her fingers, adjusting occasionally as the spear tipped back and forth. With the final change, the spear sat perfectly on Revna’s fingers. She gripped the spear in that spot.

“No, no, never hold it like that. You have no control over it then. Here,” the woman took the spear with one hand and spread Revna’s fingers with the other. She placed the spear in between her index finger and thumb, and Revna noticed it was easier to hold it in this position.

“Now, you’re going to take your arm out like this. Good. Now when you throw, you’ll twist your body toward the tree and bring your arm in and forward. Let the spear move over your fingers. The last ones it should leave are these two, as they’ll guide it. Now, try again.”

Revna took a breath, concentrating on the tree. She counted down in her head and then moved all at once. Her arm came in and forward, just as the woman said. She felt the wood of the spear graze her fingers as it flew forward. She heard the soft thunk as it connected with the tree.

It had not hit the mark she had aimed for, but it hit the correct tree. Revna gasped and gave a loud hoot of joy as she stomped her foot into the ground, clapping her hands. She turned to the woman, who was looking at the spear.

“Much better. You’ll need to practice, though. Once you learn to throw it without missing, welding it as a hand weapon will be barely a challenge. Here,” she said, pulling the spear from the tree and sheathing it, handing it to Revna. “I have plenty. You can have this one.”

Revna looked at the spear. “Are you sure?” she asked. “I mean, this doesn’t have any sort of magic that could cause us trouble in my home, right?”

“None,” the woman said. “It’s just a plain spear.”

Revna was silent, overcome with emotions that she didn’t quite understand. She looked from the spear to the woman, who watched her with a guarded look. “It’s getting late,” she said. “I have to get home. Thank you for everything. Will you be here again soon?”

“I come here often,” the woman said. 

Revna nodded. She walked toward her way back to her home, passing by the shield as she did, looking at the black wolves along the sides. She felt a nagging sensation of a question she longed to ask.

As she took another step, she found she could no longer bear it.

“You’re her, aren’t you? Hel, daughter of Loki, the goddess of death.”

The woman, who had been walking the opposite way, stopped in her tracks. 

“Your people call me by that name, yes.”

“Do you find me because you plan to take me soon?” Revna asked, feeling the fear rising in her voice as it shook.

Hel looked over her shoulders. “If I intended to do that, girl, I would have let you get eaten by wolves when I met you.” She nodded toward the spear. “Keep practicing. I hope to see your improvement should we meet again.”

Revna nodded and began her walk back to her home. 

“One more thing,” she said, turning around. But when she looked behind her, she saw Hel was gone and she was alone in the woods.

Revna stared that the spot she had last seen Hel. She had heard no footfall or breaking twigs that had shown the goddess had left. 

Revna peered into the woods for a moment more, tied the sheathed spear to her back, and followed the path back to her home once again.

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