The Character of Aslaug is Copyright © Joan Jacobsen
The Characters of Tigermark and TL are © Tigermark
The Character of Aramis Dagaz is © Aramis Dagaz
The Characters of Joe Latrans and Annie Latrans are © The Silver Coyote
All other characters appearing are Copyright © Joan Jacobsen
Characters are not to be used without prior written permission of their authors.
No part of this story may be reproduced or placed on any website without the written permission of the author.
This story is copyright © Aslaug, 2007
Beneath the Fur
Aslaug opened her eyes. Above her, the sky was clear. There was a warm breeze washing over the landscape and clouds gently rolled past. The sun warmed her to the core and she wanted to close her eyes again. To drift away into a comfortable, peaceful sleep. She would have, if it wasn’t for a few problems.
First of, she had no idea where she was.
When she had gone to sleep, it had been in her own bed…
Under a roof.
Not here. Not outside like this.
Secondly, she felt incredibly weird. And…there was something drastically wrong with her vision. Something horribly wrong, in fact.
It changed nothing. She could see clearly enough, but…something wasn’t as it should be. And she still had no idea where she was. She wanted to sit up, but her balance was off and all she managed was to get slightly upwards before she fell back again.
She sighed and reached up to rub her face and clear her eyes.
Then she screamed in horror.
Her arms were bare.
No fur. Normally, her eyes would see blonde fur. Normally…her eyes would see her muzzle. So that was what was wrong.
There was no muzzle. She scrambled upright and promptly started falling over. She had feet.
She looked down herself in horror, her fingers still exploring her face. No muzzle. Just…this strange lump in the middle of her face. This had to be a nightmare. A really bad one for that matter. But there were no monsters. She couldn’t smell brimstone and burning flesh like she normally could in her nightmares.
“Gods, where am I?” she whispered, hoarsely. She could barely recognize her own voice. It sounded completely wrong.
What had happened to her? Where was her fur? Where was her face? What was this place?
She took a few tentative steps, trying out her new balance-point. It wasn’t easy and she tried adjusting with her…
She looked behind her in shock and her…paws…things…fingers…went back.
Her tail was missing!
The wind rammed into her face again, but instead of feeling it make her fur ruffle, it simply washed over naked skin. This was completely, utterly wrong. This could not be happening. Nothing this weird could possibly be real.
A hard shiver ran down her spine and she closed her eyes.
“This is not Surt…this is not Surt…” she whispered, over and over to herself, clenching her fists.
There was nothing to be afraid of. It was simply the surprise and the shock. Whatever this was…wherever it was, it was something she could deal with. It was a bad dream. No doubt about it. Or…a really, really sick joke.
“Loke, I’ll wring your neck next time I see you if you have anything to do with this. All the way around!!” she growled.
Instinctively, her fingers shot up to her neck. It wasn’t there. Her hammer. Her pendant.
Nevermind clothes! Without THAT she was naked.
She was about to roar in anger as she felt something take shape between her fingers and she closed her eyes again and nodded.
“So this isn’t a dream…” she whispered. Her hammer had just formed out of nothing. At least the gods had let her keep that much.
She looked down herself again. Still naked, and not a pretty sight. At least this gave her a chance to get a closer look at old scars. She remembered where she had earned them all. Each and every one. Normally, they formed lines through her fur. Some of them were slight enough that they simply made the way her fur fell change a little. She looked at her arm…
Yes…the line going all the way around it was still there. That one she remembered clearly enough.
She had earned that fighting that old enemy of Tigermark’s…
Again she looked around. Her friends were nowhere to be seen. That was unusual. Normally…they would be there. They were a team, after all.
There could really only be one explanation.
This was about her. This was one of those situations where she was supposed to learn something.
Well, so far she had learned how to keep her balance without a tail. It wasn’t easy. She kept wanting to adjust. Instead she had to use her toes for the purpose. Every time she thought of something else, she started tumbling over.
It wasn’t cold. However, she was completely naked and her weapons and armor were nowhere within sight.
Narrowing her eyes and raising a…paw…to shield her eyes from the sun, she looked around for any sign of intelligent life. First of all, she would need to find some clothes. Probably a weapon of some kind. Being unarmed was extremely uncomfortable and she found it difficult to concentrate.
A large, brown sack fell out of nowhere and landed in front of her. It had a familiar, metallic clang to it as it landed.
Nodding slightly, Aslaug opened it and looked inside.
“Thanks,” she mumbled, grumpily. “If I have to endure looking like this, at least I can cover up somewhat…”
It held her weapons and her armor and some clothing. It looked…familiar. Like the kind of clothing she would have worn…
…that she would have…worn…
…in her own time.
She almost bolted upright and promptly lost her balance again, falling over with an annoyed sigh.
“This is not going to be easy…” she said, quietly.
First things first. Getting back up again, she emptied the bag and managed to get dressed. She had seen others wear shoes where she came from and she managed, after a number of attempts, to put the boots on that she found in the sack. As well as the sturdy pants, the loose jerkin and the leather vest that would protect her from getting ground to minced meat by her chain-mail.
It felt strange dressing. She couldn’t quite get used to the feeling and she tried repeatedly to get her tail through the hole in the back of her pants before she remembered she didn’t have a tail anymore. It was, frankly, a deeply discomforting thought.
“Where in all of Midgaard am I?” she whispered and pulled the chain-mail over her head, tying it under her arm. It was the type she was used to, with sleeves reaching to the middle of her forearms. She grabbed her belt and tied it around her waist. Once, twice around, before buckling it and tying it into a knot around the buckle. The franciscas fit into the two leather holders she had made for it. Around her forearms, she tied her bracers, made from thick, boiled leather. She put the leather cap on her head that went under her chain-mail coif, before finally slipping her goggled helmet on. Then she tied her heavy cape around her shoulders. It might be hot at the moment, but there was no guarantee it would stay that way. Lastly, she reached down and hefted her beloved long-axe.
It felt easier to move now that she had familiar weight distributed around her body.
She took a few steps and found that her sense of balance was adjusting at last. Another few steps later, she felt able to walk at something close to normal speed.
The problem still remained where to walk to.
The main problem still remained her location. Clearly, this was not her own…world.
She blinked a few times and looked around again. It was a dry landscape. Grassy plains as far as the eye could see, with barely a hillock to break the monotony. The air felt wonderful in her lungs. No doubt she was a long way away from any kind of civilization.
If she had only known if it was morning or afternoon, she would have known if the sun was in the east or west…and she could have aimed north as a result.
She sighed and looked at the sky again. There was nothing she could do except take a chance. She had just woken up. That normally meant it was morning, and if that was the case, the sun was in the east. If she kept it on her right side, she would be walking north. Closing her eyes for a moment and filling her lungs with air, she set off in long, even strides.
There was nothing but darkness. Then…a voice was heard. A voice sounding unlike anything a voice should sound like. It sounded like metal speaking. As if vocal cords, made from steel and brass grated against one another to form words of an unnatural, deviant kind.
“And you are certain?” it asked.
“Oh, completely. Not one survivor,” another voice answered. This one sounded…normal, if somewhat sibilant.
“I could not possibly care less about survivors! I am interested in the intruder.”
“In…truder, Milord? I know nothing of any intruAAARRRGGHH!”
“You over there! Find me the intruder. I want to know who she is. She does not belong. See to it.”
“As Milord commands…”
There was a moment of silence. Then a door opened and closed.
“Theatrics, Milord. Creating a door simply to leave? Why do you tolerate that one?”
“In a word: Competence. I will not have my plans disturbed by an outsider. This feels…unnatural.”
“Milord has a sense of humor. How very witty.”
“And you are possessed by an overblown sense of your own importance, monkey!”
Then there was only silence in the darkness.
Aslaug had been walking for hours. At least she had guessed right about the time of day, as the sun was now coming up on its zenith. She couldn’t recognize most of the plant-life she had seen along the way and she was pretty certain she wasn’t on the North American continent.
She was starting to wonder if she had made a mistake by moving at all when she came upon a small stream. She had passed a couple, but water seemed to be fairly scarce in the area.
She stopped and filled her helmet with water. Lifted it to her lips. It was hot and some cool spring water would be nice.
Only…this wasn’t just spring water. She stopped moments before her lips touched the fluid, frowning deeply. The water looked clear enough but there was a scent to it that she recognized. That she would recognize anywhere…at any time.
Something stirred deep in her and she emptied her helmet, immediately putting it back on her head. The wind caught in her hair and she sighed deeply. For all she knew, it could be a dead animal nearby, but in this world, she didn’t know what constituted an animal to start with. She looked at her reflection in the stream. Until now, she had avoided doing so. She hadn’t looked at her reflection in her helmet, her axe or any of the other small streams she had crossed so far.
She didn’t like the image looking back at her. It wasn’t her, to begin with. The scar across her face was still there. The lumps on the sides of her head…her ears…were as she remembered them. The left one had a piece hacked out of it, like she was used to. She remembered the blow that had given her both marks. At least her hair was a recognizable color, and as long as ever. She needed to braid it before continuing. Her paws came into view. Everything looked so different. So alien. She sighed and started tying back her hair in her usual braid. She had to rely on herself in this situation, no matter how strange it felt. No matter how much it all felt like a very bad dream.
Her arms were as strong as always. She was still built for war, she didn’t doubt that for a moment.
As long as she could swing her axe, she would be.
“The wisest warrior is he…or she…who knows when not to use it…” she said and looked at her axe. It was a friend. Her first…and last…defense. And yet she knew it would be a better world if she never had to use it again.
And now there was blood in the water.
It could be an animal, but she already knew it wouldn’t be. She hadn’t been sent here to find a dead animal.
She hung her head and walked upstream.
Tigermark put down the telephone and frowned. Aslaug hadn’t answered it. Although he knew she flatly refused…in her customarily direct and outspoken way…to ‘fall slave to the cell’, she did own a stationary telephone. She didn’t answer it. She might be out, of course, but he had long since learned to trust his gut feeling. He had tried calling her about some very disconcerting dreams since around three in the morning, and she still hadn’t answered. Something about the situation didn’t sit well with him.
Something told him his friend was in a lot of danger.
He picked up the phone again and made another call. It rang for a while before the receiver was picked up.
“Hey…Joe, it’s me…”
She had walked for probably twenty minutes before Aslaug found what she was looking for. Apparently, the change of shapes hadn’t dulled her senses in any real way, since she had smelled the blood in the water from so far away. She hefted her axe again and approached the scene. It was not a pleasant sight. Next to the stream, a large horse was grazing. It looked skittish and it was sweating.
It was armored.
Next to the animal, a creature looking somewhat like herself had fallen from its back. Only somewhat. Aslaug assumed this one to be a male. It lacked certain…features…to be female. This one was armored as well.
Strange armor, though. Aslaug had never seen anything quite like it. It was mostly chain-mail as well. Not unlike her own, but it wore some kind of shirt over the armor itself, like a short-sleeved jerkin. Instead of her goggled helmet, this one wore a fully enclosing bucket on its head, with only a slit in it for eyesight. It also wore…chain-mail pants? Yes, Aslaug was certain that was it, even from a distance. No doubt it offered excellent protection for someone on horseback, but she couldn’t help but wonder how uncomfortable it had to be. A very long spear lay in the grass. It was bloodied a full two feet from the tip. A sword lay in the grass as well, having apparently fallen from the wounded creature’s scabbard as it tumbled out of the saddle.
It still had one mailed foot in a stirrup.
Aslaug approached this cautiously. The creature appeared dead, but she wasn’t taking any chances. She had no way of knowing, in fact, having no idea how these beings looked when dead, dying or simply asleep. But she could not deny her own curiosity and she walked closer, very slowly, looking left and right to make sure no one else was there.
Her breath caught in her throat as she got closer. She could see the jerkin this creature wore over its armor clearly.
It showed a cross, presumably where the heart would be.
And a raven.
A black raven…on a white background.
Aslaug reached down to run her fingers over the bloodied, torn image of the bird. This was more than just familiar. This was…Danish. This was the battle standard of the Kingdom of Denmark.
“Unfurl the Raven and let it fly…” she whispered.
The creature coughed, completely catching the shieldmaiden utterly by surprise. She stumbled backwards and blinked. So it was still alive. But…clearly in no condition to fight. The wounds it had suffered were horrifying. With no fur for the blood to stick in, it slicked the pale skin of the creature instead and showed red flesh underneath.
She knew nothing of the anatomy of these creatures, but Aslaug was pretty sure that without medical attention, this one would certainly die. She knelt next to it and removed the helmet on its head. A bearded, pale face became visible. The creature’s hair and beard was a reddish blond. The face was slightly wrinkled. This creature wasn’t old…but it was past its first youth, at least. Carefully folding her cape and putting it under the creatures head, she moved the few steps down to the stream to fill her helmet with water.
Who was this creature? WHAT was it? Where was she? What had happened here?
Why did she have to see it? What was it that was so important for her to see…?
She knelt down next to the wounded creature again and splashed a little water on its face. She hoped it would regain consciousness, at least long enough to give her some answers. Again it groaned and its eyelids twitched slightly.
Aslaug had nothing resembling bandages, but if she had to, she could tear her jerkin or maybe there was something on the saddle. She hadn’t checked yet. She couldn’t bring herself to tear the jerkin of the dying creature.
Not the Raven.
She washed the face of the wounded creature again and slowly, it opened its eyes.
“I must…be in Heaven…” it whispered, barely audibly.
Aslaug sighed. If she had needed proof she wasn’t dreaming, she had it now. She recognized the language, but it was more instinctive than a matter of her actually hearing it spoken. She knew he spoke Danish…and yet she simply understood the words, rather than actually hearing him say them.
It always happened like that when she went…somewhere else. There was no such thing as a language barrier. But it saddened her. She would have liked to hear it again…hear her own tongue spoken.
She rubbed her face with the back of a paw and looked at the creature with a sad shake of her head. “No. Not in Heaven.”
“But…you are a woman? Are you not an angel of the Lord?” the wounded creature asked. He could barely move.
Aslaug blinked. A woman? She had never heard anyone call her that before. For all she knew it could be an insult but…somehow she didn’t think it was. There was such confusion and hope in the eyes of the creature before her.
Again she shook her head. “No. I am not.”
The creature sighed and closed its eyes momentarily. It looked like it was in a terrible amount of pain, but that it tried to suppress it. To not show how badly it hurt.
Brushing its hair out of its eyes, Aslaug smiled, hoping smiling meant the same in this world as in her own. “Who are you?” she asked.
“Strange…for you to ask me that. You speak my language. I haven’t heard it spoken since we left…for the Holy City…except by my comrades. And now they are all dead,” the creature said. “As I will be soon.”
“Not if I can help it,” Aslaug said, quietly. “You are Christian, aren’t you? This cross…”
She ran her fingers over the cross sown onto the creature’s jerkin.
The creature looked confused. As if Aslaug had asked him if the sky was blue.
“Of course I am…” he whispered and coughed. “I am a pilgrim to the Holy City.”
“Pilgrim…” Aslaug said, as if tasting the word. She had heard it before. “You are traveling there to worship your God, are you not?”
The wounded creature coughed. “My God?” he wheezed. “The only God! What are you, woman? Some kind of heathen?”
Aslaug smiled crookedly and leaned over to wash the wounded creature’s face again. Her Thors-hammer fell out from within her armor. “I will not argue this with you. But I would still know your name,” she said, softly. “You are wounded. Probably dying. You are not my enemy, and I will do what I can to make you comfortable or even to save you if possible. Take my help or reject it…but do you not think there is a reason why we have met here…wherever we are?”
The creature’s eyes went wide and Aslaug saw a moment of horror and dread in his pained face, before he closed his eyes and took a deep breath. “God surely tests this old warrior…” he said, quietly. “First…the infidels kill us all in a wicked and dishonorable ambush…and now I am nursed by maybe the last heathen of the old faith…and yet…we are nowhere near Denmark. How…did you get here?”
Again, Aslaug smiled. She held her helmet to the wounded creature’s lips. “I will tell you right now, that you would never believe me if I did share it with you. And you still seem reluctant to share your name with me…”
The old warrior drank gratefully from the offered water. It seemed to help him regain a little of his strength. He kept his eyes closed though and Aslaug realized he was probably very tired.
“I am Gudfred of Viskinde,” he said at last. “An old warrior…a knight serving God, hoping to see the Holy Sepulchre before his death. I went along with Prince Svend, when he answered the Call and took the Cross to liberate Jerusalem…”
Aslaug nodded. Gudfred, the old warrior had said his name was. ‘The Peace of God’. An apt name, really. She offered him a little more to drink before sitting down next to him. “Well met then, Gudfred of Viskinde. I am Aslaug Larsdatter…a shieldmaiden of the old ways.”
“The priests would say you were evil in the flesh, woman…for everything you stand for…your faith, your gender…everything comes from Satan. But you have offered me water and kindness…while I am helpless and dying.”
Aslaug smiled a bit. “I know how to bind wounds. Let me find something to bind yours with at least…if it is not too late already.”
“You speak frankly. You do not hide the truth. An admirable trait. You wear armor, though?”
“Shieldmaidens tend to. We bleed too, you know…”
Gudfred nodded. “Women should not fight. It is contrary to the will of God. But again, you are here…and helping me. Disproving it all by simply…being.”
Aslaug was starting to understand that ‘woman’ probably was the word for her gender in Gudfred’s world. Gudfred was passing out from exhaustion and she had to find something to bind his wounds with anyway. She got up and checked the saddle and found an extra blanket that she could tear up and use. Sighing, she realized she might have to tear up Gudfred’s jerkin instead. He would need the blanket to stay warm through the night if he lived that long. Somehow, she hoped he would.
She reached down and checked his wounds again. She needed to get him out of his armor, but carefully. She started to remove it, one piece at a time. It wasn’t easy, but she managed.
To her dismay, seeing the wounds clearly left her no doubt.
Unless the anatomy of these strange creatures worked in a very different way than what she was used to, Gudfred would not survive the night.
Joe scratched his cheek and his hair in turn. It had been two hours since Tigermark had called him, and there had been no news since. He contacted the last member of their quartet, but Aramis had nothing to report either.
It was annoying. He lived within immediate reach of the equine, but Tigermark had told him to wait before he went to physically check up on the shieldmaiden. He wanted to…ask around…before anything was done.
Waiting two hours sat extremely badly with the impetuous coyote. While Tigermark was the level-headed, natural leader of the bunch, Joe occasionally had to admit he wished the big feline would get things done a little faster. Times such as now. He did not particularly like the idea of Aslaug being in trouble and him being unable to help. He and the shieldmaiden were the strong arms of the group. Tigermark was the head, and Aramis, often as not, provided the heart.
It was an analogy he hadn’t really thought of before but somehow it fit.
He was standing by his workbench, oiling gunparts. Somehow it seemed very likely that he would need them sometime soon.
Dammit…if it wasn’t for Tigermarks blasted gut feeling…
Why did those always have to be right?
He assembled his Beretta 96 FS, and holstered it. Then he grabbed a couple of extra clips and his hat heading towards the door.
“Joe? What’s going on?” Annie called out, looking worried as she appeared in the doorway to the living room.
Turning to simply look at her, Joe set his jaw and adjusted his hat. “I have no idea, but Tigermark has a bad gut feeling about Aslaug…”
“Be careful, Joe…”
“I will. But I have this strange feeling, Annie. Something is different this time. And I don’t think I’m in any kind of danger.”
Annie smiled slightly. “I don’t think we have to worry too much about Aslaug, though. I don’t need to remind you that she can’t die, do I?”
“Are you certain of that?” Joe asked.
Then he left the building.
The darkness was invasive. It was alive, slipping into anything, surrounding everything, drowning everything except sound. Lighting a candle would have been a waste of a match. Lighting a bonfire would have angered the darkness and made it strike back.
In the darkness, something waited.
Something malicious. Something ancient.
“The intruder…I have investigated.”
The voice was not metallic. It was edgy. It sounded like it could cut the listener in a very literal way.
“Then explain. I am waiting impatiently.”
“There is more than one. The enemy is represented. And someone else. A true outsider, Milord. Someone…not of this world.”
The metallic voice did not answer for a while. It seemed incredibly annoyed, like this information was most certainly not what it had asked for or expected.
“That is surprising, and I have not been surprised for over a thousand years. How…disappointing. I do not like being disappointed. Is this outsider a male or a female?”
“Female, Milord. And she is not human, although she bears the visage of one for the time being.”
“Turn her! If that fails, kill her.”
“It will be killing then, Milord. Surt already tried turning her, it appears. His efforts seem to have met with repeated failure.”
The metallic voice fell silent again for a moment, clearly annoyed with this additional information too. The temperature in the darkness was rapidly dropping.
“An agent then. Surt is good at what he does. If he failed, I am not going to waste time on her. Get rid of her.”
“As Milord commands.”
Once again, there was the sound of a door opening and closing.
“An agent, Milord…that could seriously upset everything we’ve…”
“SILENCE! YOU have not planned anything. I have! And I will remind you that THEY are not the only ones with agents! I have my own…”
“Indeed Milord. Indeed.”
There was darkness. And there was silence. And it was bitterly cold.