The feast was uneventful and was pleasant enough. So much so that it was a blur and I managed not to embarrass myself too terribly. I found my way to my bed by myself and slept soundly ’til the morning.
I observed Kieran opening her court for the day and made my way outside of the fortress. It wasn’t that I found the company of others bothersome, but the stonework felt confining, stifling even. I understood that it was a fortress, meant to defend those within, but it felt more like a prison. Especially since I couldn’t leave the world on my own power.
As I began my walk toward first the forest and then the shoreline, I looked longingly toward the sky. When my powers returned, would I be welcomed back to Ásgarðr? Would they know who I was? Would I be attacked?
I thought again of how I arrived at my current situation. No matter how often I tried to think of an alternative way to get out of it, to return to my own time, I felt that my only options were to return to Ásgarðr or seek out the Aevum once more. Either Woden would return me to my own time or the Aevum, since got me into this mess, would sure as hell get me out of it.
I returned my gaze to the path before me and greeted the few fae that were out. I steered clear of their domain until I reached the beach grass. Taking off my slippers and gathering my skirts in one hand so that they wouldn’t get soaked by the surf, I began my leisurely walk.
I followed the shoreline for some time before I saw someone else in the distance. Probably someone else wanting to enjoy the ocean before winter set in. As I drew nearer, I recognized the person as one of the Laskandians that were visiting Kieran’s court. He was a man of average height for a Laskandian – close to six feet – and from what I could see he had a lean, wiry build. He had close cropped black hair, which was unusual but not uncommon for his people; blonde and red hair being far more common than black or brown. He was olive skinned, another common trait among the Laskandians; however, it made him stand out all the more in this society that prized pale skin in L’Aquitaine. I could see that he had taken off his boots and rolled up his trousers to walk in the surf as well. He wore what I thought was an excessive amount of black, between his trousers and tunic, until I realized that it was his uniform. It was the same one that I had seen when I was introduced to the Laskandians, but he had taken his tabard off. Feeling all together silly, I offered him a polite greeting when we were within speaking distance.
He did the same and then paused. “Lady Vaera, isn’t it?”
I stopped to answer his question. “Valkyrie Vaera,” I corrected him. “Her majesty insists on the title for helping her.”
The confusion cleared from his face. “And what is a battle maiden doing helping a mortal queen? Shouldn’t you be collecting souls?” There was a tone of disbelief in his voice as he spoke.
“And allow my duty to consume me? I would go insane without taking time for myself now and again,” I replied, lifting my chin. I expected doubt. Doubt was the one thing that I was greeted by most in this land. No one had seen a Valkyrie before and now a strange woman was claiming to be one. I didn’t blame anyone for it. If I had been confronted by the same, I would have my doubts as well.
“Then you are here for pleasure.” He was still doubtful and his gaze flickered over me.
At his mention of pleasure, I felt something unfamiliar and uncomfortable twist itself in the pit of my stomach. As I watched his pale blue eyes look over me, I felt my pulse quicken and I had to force myself to not fidget. I was used to being met with awe and respect, not doubt and seeming appraisal of my body.
“I am here for rest,” I stressed. “Then I will be leaving.” Why was it so important for me that he know why I was here? What did it matter? Everyone else I normally deflected their questions or ignored them.
“How long are you here for?” He glanced down as the surf washed over his feet and ankles, then over at me as I stepped a little further away to avoid drenching the hem of my skirts.
“I don’t know,” I said. “When I feel ready to return to Ásgarðr.”
His reply made me laugh, realizing how wonderful it felt to do so. “I apologize. It is the best answer I can give.” And it was, without going into detail as to why I wasn’t leaving whenever I wanted. “Things have been interesting here,” I elaborated, “and I would like to see how things turn out.” I glanced sidelong at him. “You know my name, but I do not know yours.”
He gave me a mild look of surprise, followed by a polite bow. “Forgive me. I am Constantine von Blair, part of the retinue of Nikola, Duke of Kóbor.”
There was no deference in his manner. No forced politeness. It was different being treated this way. I was sure that he didn’t believe me to be a goddess, but he was quite sure that I was a noblewoman and had the ear of the queen. While I appreciated Rhys and Kieran’s companionship, they were often consumed by their duties. Looking back on it now, what I wanted was a friend that didn’t see me as a way to get close to the queen and her consort.
I didn’t curtsey or smile politely. I looked aside and mumbled, “A pleasure, I’m sure.” There was an overwhelming feeling of sadness that threatened to envelope me, followed closely by loneliness. It was only with great effort that I fought them back. I caught movement out of the corner of my eye and guessed that Constantine was straightening himself and looking at me.
I must have failed at concealing my emotions because I felt a light tough on my arm, just enough to draw my attention. I pulled back slightly, confused by the action. Constantine was giving me a serious look. “Not everyone wants to be your friend because you happen to have the confidence of the queen.”
“Does that include you?” The question was out before I fully thought about it. I didn’t necessarily regret asking it, but thought that I should have phrased it better.
I was rewarded with a flash of a smile. “I think Nikola would be delighted to learn if we were friends, because that would help with the trade negotiations.” He gestured to himself. “As for me, politics are not one of my strengths no matter what the duke may say.”
Unsure if he meant what he said or was trying to win my favor, I gave him the benefit of the doubt. I made a note to myself to be careful until I learned the truth of the matter, but the answer satisfied me for now. “And what are your strengths?”
An answer began to form on his lips, a crooked smile beginning. Another look at me convinced him to change his reply from something that he normally used. Maybe something charming or some witty banter that he would have used on another woman. “Surviving highly improbable and dangerous situations as well as being abrupt and honest with the duke. I’m convinced those are the only reasons he keeps me around.”
“Then you are also a confidant of the duke’s.” I chose to ignore his earlier remark. It was no doubt a slight exaggeration of some of his exploits, meant to impress. I suppose any other woman with no battle experience would have found it dangerous and exciting.
“Only when he tires of hearing his praises and wants an honest answer.” He turned to look out at the waves crashing on the beach. “He’s a man of action who has been forced to become a politician. Some days I think he longs to be back on the battlefield rather than have to deal with politics and intrigue.”
I gave him a small smile. “You must be a good friend.” He looked back at me and gave me a questioning look. “Or a very good observer,” I added.
“I’d like to think a little bit of both,” he said with a smile.
The implication, I think, was that he noticed I wasn’t someone who was easily impressed or a woman swayed by charm. At least, I would like to think that. Not knowing what else to say, I turned and gestured in the direction he was walking in. “Where were you heading before I interrupted you?”
He shrugged. “No where in particular. I wanted to see a bit of L’Aquitaine without being noticed. Many people don’t frequent the beach unless the trade involves the sea. Even then, most are cautious. Sea dragons frequent these parts.”
“Only during the summer and fall,” I told him. “The waters are warmer then and there are more people out on the ocean for trade and the like. That’s when they like to strike.” He gave me a questioning look. “I asked a few of the local sailors. They usually are willing to spin a tale or two about anything strange they see. Ofttimes, there’s some element of truth to what they say.”
Constantine arched an eyebrow. “And… are there sea dragons?” He cast a wary eye out over the ocean, trying to hide whatever nervousness he felt about being so close to the water. It wasn’t something I would have expected of him.
I could still sense mana, as well as people and animals with any traces of the otherworldly about them. I closed my eyes to focus, letting my other senses take over. I could feel a sea dragon or two, but the impression was faint. “They’re out there, but would much rather be left alone. It would be best to leave them be for now.” I turned back to the knight, offering him an amused smirk. “It is my opinion that we are both very safe here for the winter season.”
The tension in his body left, unnoticeable to everyone but me only because I was looking for it. He acknowledged what I said with a nod. “That’s one thing that we won’t have to worry about during our stay.”
“How long will you be staying?” I didn’t bother to listen to Kieran and Duke Nikola’s conversation earlier. Besides, this allowed me to keep the conversation going. I gestured for him to follow me as I began walking away from the fortress in the distance.
“My understanding was until the treaty was signed,” he answered, his long strides allowing him to catch up with me. “We could be here for a couple of days to a fortnight. Perhaps longer if the queen and the duke decide to discuss details.”
I nodded absently, only half listening. Why was it now that I found my attention distracted by a man? I never held interest in them before. Not since becoming a shieldmaiden and certainly not after becoming a Valkyrie. My rage toward men had long since abated. What quality did Constantine possess that drew my attention? Could it be because my emotions were no longer suppressed? It was worth exploring at a later time.
The man glanced over at me, noting that I had drifted off into silence. “Am I boring you?” he asked after a moment.
Looking over at him in surprise, I said, “No, not at all. I-” glancing away, then back again, I gave up trying to explain and shrugged “-I have a lot on my mind.” I shook my head, unwilling to elaborate further. “You said that you are from Laskanda. Tell me about your world.”
Finally on a topic that he knew well, Constantine brightened considerably. I liked the quick smile he gave me and as he began to tell me about his world, I could hear the relief in his voice. A world full of as much water as there was land, with two moons and the world that could be seen from Laskanda. The thought of seeing a whole other world in the sky every night boggled my mind. Ancient machinery created by their ancestors kept the tide from swelling too high when the moons’ pull was great. He gave me a brief history of his world with little prompting.
Before long we had turned back toward the fortress and we could see it just on the horizon. We paused uncertainly as we both saw it, the structure reminding us of our duties. I thought I heard a sigh come from Constantine, but when I glanced over at him I saw a slight frown on his face.
“Tomorrow then?” I asked.
He gave me a confused look. “Tomorrow for what?”
“To meet. To talk. It was,” I searched for the right word, “refreshing to talk with someone without much mention of politics. And I have so few friends..” I trailed off, realizing what I had said. Did I really consider him a friend? I was normally far more selective of who I let get close to me.
He gave me a smile, a real one this time, and I felt something twist in my stomach. “I’d like that.” A frown replaced his smile. “But aren’t you worried what others may say if they see-”
I waved him off, dismissing the thought he was suggesting. “No matter what we do, people will always talk. There’s nothing to be done for it.” I gave him my best teasing smile. “Besides, if you do anything that I don’t like, I shall be sure to tell you and handle the situation as I see fit.” I paused to be sure that he knew I was only teasing him. Memories of being with my father and brothers in our great hall came unbidden to my mind and I had to push them back. I couldn’t dwell on the past now. “And if you happen to be too busy to talk on any given day, my feelings won’t be hurt,” I assured him.
Constantine considered my words, then nodded. “Then I’ll see you at the opening of court tomorrow. If time permits, in the coming weeks I’ll introduce you to the duke,” he offered. “That is, if that’s something you would want to do.”
I hesitated, then asked, “The duke isn’t easily offended, is he?”
He laughed, the sound sudden. “No, not at all. He’s a military man, first and foremost. I think he’d appreciate talking with someone with a military background. He can tell you all of his war stories, since I’ve heard them all before.”
I found myself grinning as he spoke. “Then yes, I would like to meet the duke.”
We kept up a steady stream of conversation as we made our way back to the fortress. After we parted ways, I realized that I was content, possibly happy, for the first time in a long while. Kieran noticed the change in me and commented on it. All I told her was that I made a friend who also shared similar interests as me and left it at that. I could tell that Kieran wanted to ask more questions, but I changed the subject or deflected her questions.
I did help her find military leaders with experience from her ever growing subjects. One was even a fae prince named Caolán, who I recommended to the queen. He was as proud and arrogant as any fae, confident in his abilities. He was taller than most and his movements were full of grace, which reminded me of the álfar. His hair was dark brown and curled slightly, his eyes lacked pupils and were green flecked with brown. As was typical of the fae, possessing an unearthly beauty seldom found in the mortal realm. His clothes appeared to be made from elements of the forest, but I never got close enough to tell for sure. Some thought it was a political ploy to help maintain the peace, but I could sense in the prince a fierce warrior and possessing a noble spirit. I had no doubt that he would serve the fae and Kieran well.