Valkyrie's Kiss, page 1
Copyright© 2014 Kristi Jones
Cover Artist: Sour Cherry Designs
Editor: Karyn White
ALL RIGHTS RESERVED
WARNING: The unauthorized reproduction or distribution of this copyrighted work is illegal. No part of this book may be used or reproduced electronically or in print without written permission, except in the case of brief quotations embodied in reviews.
This is a work of fiction. All names, characters, and places are fictitious. Any resemblance to actual events, locales, organizations, or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.
Rise of the Valkyrie, 2
Copyright © 2014
I wanted to kiss him the moment I laid eyes on him, but of course that was the one thing I most definitely could not do.
The young girl with the AK-47 held him steady in her sights. I watched him kneel and carefully lay his weapon down, the ease of his movements stealing my breath. His face was hidden behind a pair of tinted sunglasses, his body encased in Army green and tan fatigues, but I could see his strong chin and tanned skin.
He knelt opposite the girl, unmoving. In this place of swirling dust and daily eruptions of gunfire and explosions, his complete and utter stillness was captivating—the sound of shouting retreated and fell away. Automobiles and trucks on the nearby supply road quieted. The very air seemed to halt, the dust falling to the ground like litter.
The American soldier said something. I was too far away to hear the words, but their tone, even at a distance, was calm and soothing. The girl rocked on her feet, but kept the muzzle of the gun leveled at his chest. Tears ran down her dirty cheeks, mixing with rivulets of sweat dripping from her dark hair, giving her face a Madonna-like sheen.
I moved closer, crouching behind the cars parked along the street. There were no passengers, no drivers, and no pedestrians on this lonely street just outside of Kandahar. The residents had either fled or were hiding behind closed curtains.
The girl had every intention of killing. I could see it in her eyes. They weren't the eyes of a young girl, but the eyes of a soldier who had seen too much death. I have seen those eyes on countless battlefields over the years. I saw it in the eyes of the soldiers sinking and rotting in the mud at Passchendaele, in the jungles of Guadalcanal, and in the blood soaked snow of Stalingrad. After more than a hundred years of service, I knew the look of battle fatigue all too well.
Courage, true courage, on the other hand, is something I rarely see.
I will admit that my job has gotten more complicated over the past seventy years. I haven't seen it this bad since the Second World War. Not because atrocities haven't happened in the past seventy years. Of course they have, but Valkyries are restricted to battlefields only. Our job is to find the courageous, selfless heroes of armed conflict. If and when we find such individuals, we have the power to mark them for Valhalla where they will live out their days pampered and feted like royalty.
But heroes are hard to come by, and civilians keep muddying the waters. Like the misguided young girl facing off against an American soldier.
Standing in the shelter of a bombed out apartment complex, I scanned the area for enemy activity. I saw only pockmarked concrete walls warming in the sun. Smoke stained the distant skyline where earlier an OH-58 Kiowa Warrior helicopter had gone down.
“Drop your weapon!" The deep-throated scream of an American soldier barreled through the tense morning air.
I'd been so fixated on the surreal scene playing out before me that I’d failed to notice an American squad moving into the sun soaked street. Like lions circling, half a dozen United States soldiers fanned out, taking up positions behind their defenseless comrade.
The girl swung her weapon wildly, finally settling her aim on one of the soldiers to her right.
My courageous hero pulled off his sunglasses with slow, deliberate hands. I could see he had vibrant green eyes. His gaze was frank, open, and filled with compassion, not fear. He waved his arms, trying to draw the girl's attention back, trying to save his buddies, no doubt.
Then I saw It.
Death waited across the street. It was dressed in the long white robes of a Muslim cleric. I didn't think twice. Suddenly I was in the air, leaping between the girl and the captivating man with the kind eyes and empty hands.
I landed seconds before the girl's finger pressed the trigger, taking one round in the shoulder, one in the back. I felt their sting as the bullets tried to penetrate my skin.
The fearless soldier's eyes went wide. He lunged for me. "Get down! Get down!"
The pack of soldiers behind us scattered, running for cover. The girl fired off another volley, hurrying their escape.
I turned and knocked the weapon from the girl's grasp, the power of my swing wrenching the object from her hands. She clasped her arms in pain. The AK-47 went flying until it was a mere speck of black against the blue sky. The girl's blank stare turned to wide-eyed fear.
"Run!" I said in Arabic. Our eyes locked for a moment, and I saw the smoldering fear ignite. She blinked, glanced at the man behind me, and bolted. I watched her disappear into the remnants of the city block, a deadly waif fortunately leaving her weapon behind.
"What are you?"
I turned back. My hero was looking at me, confusion wrinkling his strong brow. "What are you doing? What are you?" he asked again.
He looked at the blood on his hands. I could feel the skin on my back tightening. The healing had already begun.
He tried to get to his feet, never taking his eyes off me. I could feel Death closing in.
I pulled my necklace out from under my t-shirt. It was made of the finest silver, forged in the fires of Odin’s smithy at Asgard. The silver wings represented the flight of the Valkyrie, and I used this talisman as a conduit for my limited powers.
"I'll explain later," I said, enveloping him with my body. “Trust me.”
I held my hand over the soldier's eyes, pressing the silver wings against his lips and muttered the spell that would slip him into a safe sleep. I only hoped my body was enough to block my furtive action from Death as It approached.
"How dare you interfere with my business here?" Its voice sounded like truck tires on gravel.
I looked up. It stood over me, eyes blazing.
"What business?" I said, my crouching body the only thing standing between my soldier and Death. "No one is dead here."
"That girl was mine."
"Apparently not," I said, lifting my chin. I was on my knees, shielding my unconscious warrior. It was not a position of power and not one I often found myself in.
A Valkyrie looking for heroes has no business with Death. It is a creature of numbers. It wants souls, as many as It can get. Quantity over quality, every time. This, of course, makes us natural enemies. Death looked only to rack up the numbers, to claim as many souls as possible, and every soul a Valkyrie marked for Valhalla was one soul fewer for Death to take, one fewer notch in Its belt of triumph over life.
"I want that one," Death said, kneeling in the dirt, craning his neck to see my spoils. He brought a pocket cloud of coldness with him.
"He'll live," I said, wrapping my arms around my unconscious soldier.
"The girl was mine," It said again, licking cracked lips. Its eyes bored into mine. I swallowed back my revulsion. Death couldn't hurt me, not physically, but Its very presence radiated emptiness, a yawning, ice-cold void that could drive even the immortal mad.
"Well, go get her then."
"You know I can't follow her n
"Not my problem."
"It might be," Death said, a smile playing across Its lips, like the curling of a snake across a rock face. "You broke the rules."
"You don't know what you're talking about."
"You protected him," Death said. "That's against the rules, and you know it."
"Not if..." I faltered. I didn't know how much Death knew of our code of conduct. It was unwise to give Death too much information.
"Not if you mark him?" Death said, anticipating me. "So do it then."
"I'll mark him. When the time comes."
"Hm. Perhaps I'll wait with you."
I shrugged, feigning indifference. "Nothing else going on in the war today?"
"Funny," It said, jaws clenching. Its bleached blue eyes burned with something beyond anger. Beyond hatred. I never had gotten used to it—the look in Death's eyes. No matter what form It took. It was other-worldly. Reptilian.
Gunfire rattled nearby, a threatening storm.
"Snipers," Death said, lifting Its head and sniffing the air. Moments after the word left Its mouth, bullets hit the sandy road at Its feet with muted thunder.
Death took one in the chest.
It sank to Its knees. "Dammit."
"Not so smart taking the form of the enemy," I said, unable to keep the triumph out of my voice. It would take time for Death to find a new form, and It was powerless between vessels.
"I don't choose sides, sister," Death said, the fire in Its eyes smoldering to a slow burn, "And neither should you."
I looked down at the soldier lying unconscious in my arms. I never should have challenged Death.
I wrapped my arms tightly around the man. He weighed almost nothing, and yet I felt the outline of his muscled back against my forearms. I breathed in the scent of him. He smelled of aftershave and unsoiled earth, gunpowder and sweet sweat.
The street was now deserted, the American soldiers having moved off to hunt down the snipers. Maybe.
I had to move quickly. The American soldiers might return, or a sniper might succeed with the living where he or she had failed with Death.
Using my wings in the middle of the street, in broad daylight, was out of the question. I didn't want to be sighted.
After surveying the empty street one last time, I used my left arm to lift my hero, partially unfurling my left wing to act as a sort of shelf upon which he could rest. I did my best to look like a struggling mortal helping a wounded comrade and moved as quickly as possible back to the corner of shade under the abandoned apartment building. He emitted a muffled groan, but he was too weak to struggle. I left his weapon behind.
I tried to think.
There was no way for me to know for sure, but I feared that Death had his scent now. I could take him back to Kandahar Airbase where the rest of the ISAF were encamped and leave him there. But Death was a tracker. It could easily engineer a situation to result in death. If I wanted him to live, I knew I couldn't take him back yet. Not without protection.
I was mesmerized by his face—serene, almost beatific in the dying light. His strong chin marked with a deep crevice, his skin browned by the sun but still supple. He was a study in contrasts, something I could appreciate.
I myself am a creature divided. Doomed to stroll for eternity between death and everlasting life. Not mortal and yet not quite a goddess either. An under-goddess of the lowest order. It is a lonely life. A life where gods and men hold all the power.
My only real power lies in the gift of choosing. A Valkyrie’s job is to choose a hero from among the gods' mortal playthings. When I am ready, I will be forced to choose a mate from among the heroes I’ve claimed. The gods will give us time to reproduce, and if I am lucky, I will give birth to a girl child. My mate and I will have twenty-one years on earth to raise her before she is consigned to her first duty as a Valkyrie, the Death Duty, where she will walk with the dead for a decade. After this, my mate will return to Valhalla, and I will return to work on the battlefield, dreading the day when I must repeat the process all over again.
The setting sun took its warmth below the horizon, and the desert air began to cool. Long black shadows threw rectangular shapes onto the pale heat-soaked earth. My hero moaned. He would recover from the spell soon. I had to act fast.
Clutching the soldier in my arms, I looked to the sky and unfurled my wings. Bulletproof, of course. I am a creature built for the battlefield after all.
I gathered my catch in my arms and took to the air, my hero held close against my impenetrable body.
I had no plan. I didn't know what I intended to do with him. All I knew was that I wasn't ready to let him go.
We flew west, away from the city of Laskar Gah. I took him deep into the hard-packed arid Afghani desert and found a rock outcropping encircling an area of sandy soil. It was a good place to hide while I decided what to do next.
I laid the mortal down and watched him sleep. His eyelids fluttered. His hands clenched and released. He would regain consciousness soon. The spring evening was still warm, and though we wouldn't need heat to get through the night, we would need light, so I built a small fire.
Leaning against the rocks, I watched him. I watched his eyelids dance.
Suddenly he bolted upright, eyes wide, legs flailing. He looked down at his empty hands and struggled to his knees.
"Where am I?"
"We're in the desert outside of Kandahar," I said, still leaning against the rocks, wings tucked securely out of sight.
He blinked, turned his head and scanned the area, as any trained soldier would do, evaluating the situation, taking stock of the terrain and any available weapons. He was probably also looking for an escape route.
"There's nobody here but me," I said, hoping I sounded reassuring.
His eyes moved to my uniform. Had he forgotten our encounter? It happened often enough. Some mortals just can't accept what they see when confronted with the unexplainable. They block it out. It always amazes me, this ability to pick and choose what to believe, to mold reality to your own liking. We Valkyries have no such luxury.
"Listen, I know you're scared..."
"I'm not scared," he said, pulling himself to his feet. He was still weak from the spell and shuffled his feet, throwing out his arms to steady himself. "I might be a little freaked, but I'm not scared."
I smiled. I couldn't help myself. He was so brave. Not because he wasn't afraid. I could hear the quiver in his voice, smell the adrenaline in his blood, but he would not let himself be dominated by the fear he felt. It was a unique quality, whatever motion pictures might portray, and maddeningly attractive.
His green eyes, now melted to a sparking topaz, drifted away from me, his eyebrows drawn together.
He swallowed, and his body twitched. He swiped at his forehead and pulled his hand away as if expecting to see blood. Again, it wasn't hard for me to read him. He was afraid. He wanted to bolt, but held himself in check. I could see the memory coming back to him.
"What are you?"
"What do you remember?" It was a dangerous question, but with Death out there somewhere, waiting, I had to know.
"The girl." He rubbed his forehead again, pressing his eyes with the heel of his hand. It was a quick movement, over in a flash. He knew not to let an enemy out of his sight or to show fear. I should have expected it, but the realization that he saw me as an enemy sank a stone to the bottom of my heart.
"You came between us," he said, his eyes traveling the length of my body. "She shot you."
For the first time in a long time, I felt self-conscious. Valkyries are, as a rule, beautiful to mortal men. My skin is the color of liquid marble. My long black hair, though held back in a knot at the nape of my neck, is thick and glossy. I have lavender eyes, the color of a bruised sunset, and high cheekbones that give me a sculpted, ancient beauty. Of course, we were made to be a vision of loveliness, an oasis of beauty in a desert of
"You're not hurt," he said, confusion clouding his handsome features.
"No." I did not know I was going to tell him the truth. I'd never done it before. I always went with my standard story—you hit your head, you don't remember. We were ambushed but the tanks, the machine guns, the Air Force rolled in and rescued us.
Not that I had ever rescued a soldier before, but the battlefield is chaotic, and I've taken my share of shrapnel and slugs. So I make excuses for the quickly healed wounds and miraculous escapes.
Either that, or I tell them about Valhalla and mark them.
But this man wasn't ready for Valhalla. He wasn't dead yet, for one thing.
I sucked in a breath, tasting, smelling for any sign of Death, but the only scent I caught was the ash from the fire, the sand, and the man crouching opposite me with wary, fear-filled eyes.
"You took a hit from an AK-47 at point blank range. You should be dead." He stumbled backward. "Why aren't you dead?"
I stood up slowly and put out a hand, hoping to stall his retreat. "This will be difficult for you to believe, but I am not like you."
"Yeah," he said, giving a jittery laugh. "I already got that."
There was no easy way to tell him, so I blurted it out. "I am a Valkyrie."
"A what?" Confusion crinkled his forehead. He shuffled left. I moved right. We were dancing around the fire. He moved with bent knees, arms wide, as if trying to corral a tiger. I kept my hands at my sides, my head high.
"A Valkyrie. I am a servant of Odin."
"Odin is a powerful god. He has, I admit, fallen into obscurity in these modern times, but he still reigns over a substantial number of immortals."