Hrothgar had won many battles in his day, defeating Goths and Anglos by the dozens. When the battles were done, they dressed their wounds, drank tankards of ale, and sang bawdy songs. The battle of the gods was all but finished. He and his men had killed many and defended New Valhalla well. Now they stood around The Interloper’s throne, dressed in the robes of monks, chanting His praises. It was a far different experience than he was used to, but his God demanded this adoration at all times. And Hrothgar was happy to give his creator whatever He wanted.
The chanting echoed throughout the chamber as Hrothgar and his few remaining men joined with the heavenly chorus: demi-gods in white robes, now called angels by their new Master. The sound was lovely and peaceful, like waves hitting the bow of one of the Viking war ships. The men and angels alike poured their hearts into the song: it became less a series of notes, more the sound of this congregation’s blood pumping through veins.
The chanting heart skipped a beat when the large doors of the throne room opened with a resounding bang. The Interloper sat in his throne, looking down the aisle toward the door, knowingly. Standing in the sunlight flooding in was the shadow of a woman; the only woman who had entered the hall since Odin’s expulsion.
“I see you have come, dear child,” He said in a cold, deep voice.
“Surprised?” asked Astrid as she strode down the aisle, past the robed figures.
“No, dear child,” He said, “I know all and see all.”
“All-powerful?” she asked Him.
“Yes, of course.”
“Able to destroy whole armies with your mighty hands. Swipe whole cultures out of existence?”
“Yes,” He said, his eyes glowing with excitement.
“Able to create the heavens and earth from nothing, whole cloth, using only your mind.”
“Yes, yes. You understand,” He said, smiling with pride.
“What I don’t understand, dear god, and pardon me for any disrespect,” she said, looking straight into his burning eyes, “What I do not understand if why, if you are all powerful, you would need to kidnap my husband and the men of my village to fight for you while you sit pretty on your throne.”
As the last words left her mouth, Astrid broke into a sprint, her sword drawn and aimed at The Interloper’s heart. He screamed in fury, unmoving, as Astrid leapt towards Him. Ulfberht Slashed through the air, a silver streak of steel, ready to kill this God. Astrid closed her eyes, ready for her quest to be over, ready for her blade to meet godly flesh. Instead, she heard the clang of steel and a familiar hand grabbing her shoulder.
Astrid’s feet touched the ground; her eyes opened to see Hrothgar standing before her, his large muscles straining, adrenaline pumping through his veins. She looked at those eyes that she had stared into so many times in their long marriage, that she had seen cry and smile, that she had loved. They were no longer those eyes. They were hardened and angry, black with fury. She had never seen Hrothgar in battle before, only in training. He snarled at her as The Interloper laughed and clapped his hands together.
“Oh! Good, good. I love it when they choose me over their family. It makes me positively giddy,” He said.
Astrid stumbled over her feet and crashed to the ground as Hrothgar pushed her backward with all of his might. Her grip stayed firm on Ulfberht, raising it to block the blows he rained down upon her. She pushed herself across the floor with her heels, backing up from this mad man that was once her husband. She kicked out, the wooden heel of her boot meeting his knee with such force that it shattered. As he fell, she jumped to her feet.
Astrid let anger take over as she hacked at Hrothgar, over and over she swung her sword; over and over he blocked her blows. She began to kick him and swear at him: this man that she loved, whom she killed the gods for, had turned on her in the end for this Interloper, for this pretender. She screamed in anger as she stomped his back and his arms with her hard boots. Finally, she knocked the sword out of his hand with a mighty blow.
Astrid raised Ulfberht above her head, the only sound she could hear was the rushing over her blood and the heaviness of her breath. She was ready to make the sacrifice of which Odin spoke. Then she heard it; the Interloper’s chuckle.
“Yes, yes, dear girl. Kill him. Make him a martyr. Another will take his place, you know. They will speak of Hrothgar’s sacrifice through the ages. He died defending his Lord.”
Astrid looked down at her bloodied husband and shook her head.
“No,” she said, “I will not kill the man I love. In him, somewhere, is the one I married, the one I traveled the rainbow bridge to save. The one who has not been brainwashed by a pretender.”
Astrid dropped her sword and put her hand on the back of Hrothgar’s neck, “I love you, husband, wherever you are.”
Astrid walked past the remaining robed figures who stood aghast that she had beaten their general. She began to walk up the stairs towards the Interloper. She smiled benevolently as she climbed the steps, staring into His eyes the whole time.
“You are almighty. You are everything and everywhere. You are all things to all people.”
Panic grew in the Interloper’s eyes as she came closer to Him.
“Stop her,” he cried, “somebody stop her.”
None of the men nor angels moved a muscle as she climbed ever higher, approaching their God.
“You are all things to all people. You have all of the powers every man seeks to have. What does that make you,” Astrid asked as she reached the final step.
“Do not touch me, infidel,” the Interloper cried as Astrid reached out for His blindingly white robe, “Do not.”
As Astrid’s hand grasped the Interloper’s robe, she felt a strange sensation. It began in her lower spine and moved through her stomach and into her chest. A dull throb followed by a strange sense of release. Looking down, she saw that Ulfberht had run her through; she could feel Hrothgar’s breath in her ear, as she had many nights before. She smiled, understanding that the sacrifice was made, as she pulled the robe off of the Interloper.
“It makes you an empty vessel,” she said as His robe fell to the floor, revealing the void beneath.
Hrothgar stood behind Astrid, her blood coursing down the hilt of Ulfberht and onto his hands. He had no memory of having pierced her. No memory of anything since he had found her in the field, speaking of a cataclysm.
“Astrid,” he cried, pulling the sword out of her, “what have I done?”
“I forgive you, Hrothgar,” Astrid said as he laid her gently on the ground, “You knew not what you had done. You were not Hrothgar when you killed me.”
“Killed you? Please, you must live. I love you too much to lose you,” he said, tears filling his eyes.
“There,” Astrid said, “those are the eyes I fell in love with.”
The void had begun to disperse. Hrothgar’s men walked up behind him as the demi-gods, one after the other, disappeared into nothingness.
“What do we do now?” they asked, stripping their robes off.
“You live as humans, unchained,” said Astrid, beginning to fade, “You are no longer servants, but masters, all of you. Return to earth, and tell them that the twilight of the gods is upon us. The era of man has begun. That we are, all of us, free.”
Astrid looked into Hrothgar’s eyes and smiled. Then she was gone.
She was left in Valhalla, the last soldier to enter those hallowed halls, but a grave marker was placed for her, on the land where Father Ansgar’s church once stood. It read:
With sword in hand
She fought the gods
To save her men
Against all odds
And when, to give up,
Would have served any other
This shield maiden became
This new world’s mother.