The gods have agreed to a divine contest and prepared the Grand Arena. Now each god must choose a champion from among their mortal followers. The champions have one thing in common: all of them were extraordinary, well before they gained a god’s attention. We have already met the other champions: Light, Death, Magic, Deception, and Nature.
Today we meet Valka, who will become the Champion of War.
Chapter 7: Valka’s Origin — A Traitor’s Blood
by Kelly Digges
Great Hall of Clan Nokkvi
Twelve years ago
Valka downs the last of her ale and slams the mug onto the table. The sound echoes through the cavernous great hall, above the low hum of casual conversation.
“What is taking so long?” she groans, as loud as she dares.
Her friend Oddi strums idly on a lyre.
“You know very well Grimolf’s going to bend your father’s ear for another half-hour before he lets the poor man see you off.”
“Valorous Valka,” Oddi sings quietly, “slayer of soup, assailer of ale…”
“Shut it,” says Valka.
“Yet was undooooone,” croons Oddi, “by a dozen minutes’ dread delay!”
“You are a terrible skald and you will die alone.”
“I will die in bed, thank you,” he says. “That’s a bard’s prerogative.”
“I just can’t stand waiting on two old men to finish arguing before they’ll let us go do something useful!”
“Useful?” says Oddi. “I thought this was just a raid.”
“Raiding is useful!”
“Please,” says Oddi. “Who is it this time?”
“The Rakni,” snarls Valka. “For killing my cousin Hradi.”
“Who died when they raided us, because we…?”
“We raided their cattle,” says Valka, “because they—”
“Yes, yes,” says Oddi. “It’s all vengeance for something. But what’s the point of it all?”
“I don’t follow.”
“Are we not the greatest warriors in the world?” asks Oddi, with another strum on his lyre.
“Of course we are,” says Valka. “That’s why the Rakni don’t stand a chance.”
“I don’t mean just the Nokkvi,” says Oddi. “I mean all of us, all the clans! When Hragrim united us, did we not fight our way to the very gates of Tartessos?”
“I dunno, did we?”
“Yes! We did!” says Oddi. “Don’t you remember the Ballad of Hragrim the Mighty? He defeated a Tartessian minotaur in single combat, only to perish of his wounds?”
Valka looks at him blankly.
“I sang this one last week!” says Oddi, throwing his slender hands in the air.
“I must have been doing something else,” says Valka with a smirk.
Oddi rolls his eyes.
“I bet you were.”
“So what’s your point?”
“My point is that we’re wasting our time raiding each other over cousins and cattle,” says Oddi. “But united, with Auros’ blessing, we could conquer the world!”
“You’re a dreamer,” says Valka, rising. “Looks like they’re done. Let’s get this over with so I can go kill some cousins and grab some cattle.”
“Of course,” says Oddi. “And when you get back, I’ll be the one who has to make it sound brave and daring.”
“It will be!” snaps Valka.
Valka’s father, Chief Skardi, strides over to her. Grimolf trails after him, still talking, but the chief ignores him.
“Valka,” says her father.
His voice sounds conversational, but he projects it so it booms throughout the hall. An old bard’s trick. Out of the corner of her eye, Valka sees Oddi nod in approval.
Valka is her father’s only child, and she doesn’t mind performing her role—as long as it’s something she was going to do anyway.
“Lord father,” says Valka, loudly and clearly.
Her father lays a hand on her shoulder. He is one of the few men in the clan who looks down when he looks her in the eye.
“May the blessings of the gods go with you,” he says. “May they guide your rudders and fill your sails. Bring ruin on our enemies and glory to our clan, and dedicate your victories to Auros!”
A cheer goes up, and Valka joins it. All the gods are sacred to her people, but the God of War most of all.
Her father puts one strong arm around her shoulder.
“Come,” he says. “I will walk you to the boats.”
Valka keeps smiling, but this is troubling. Ordinarily the chief dispatches the warriors from his seat of power, and the noncombatants see them off at the dock.
They leave the hall, squinting in the sunlight. Her warriors are readying the boats—one longship for the warriors, and one flat-bottomed barge to carry cattle and other spoils.
“What is it, father?” asks Valka.
He stops and turns to her, his face lined with worry.
“It’s Grimolf,” he says. “I’m worried he may no longer be content with meddling.”
“What does that mean?”
Grimolf has been part of the clan for years now, ever since he left his home clan of Isgerd and married Valka’s aunt Luta. But Luta drowned in a storm before they had any children, and Grimolf has been living among the Nokkvi ever since—legally entitled to stay, but with no real bonds of kinship. Valka does not trust him, and he has quarreled with her father’s leadership far too frequently—especially for an outsider.
“Some of the young warriors have been listening to him,” says her father. “You can guess who.”
“Didrik,” spits Valka. “And his worthless kin. I’m still not going to marry him, father.”
Her father holds up a hand, smiling.
“I wasn’t going to ask again,” he says. He rubs his jaw theatrically. “Your answer last time was quite clear.”
His expression darkens.
“But I do need you to do something for me,” he says.
“You know I’ll do anything for you,” says Valka. “Anything but marriage, anyway.”
“I need you to win,” says her father. “In spectacular fashion, if possible. I need to show the clan that my leadership is strong, and that you, not Didrik, are the future of Nokkvi.”
“I was planning on doing that anyway,” says Valka. “I won’t let you down.”
“Of course you won’t,” says her father. “Be well. Gods go with you.”
“You too,” says Valka. “Watch your back.”
Her father nods, and Valka walks down to the waiting ships.
It is night, and Valka and her dozen warriors have only the stars and the moon to see by. They grounded their boats up the coast, with a skeleton crew to guard them, and now they’re approaching the Rakni home village on foot in the dark. It is not Valka’s first raid on the Rakni, and she knows the terrain.
They do not speak. They all know the plan. Valka is the seniormost, and she will lead most of the warriors in a direct attack on the Rakni fighters. A few of the raiders will hang back, free the cattle from their pen, and stampede them back toward the boats.
Valka and her warriors can’t hope to win a pitched battle against the whole clan. This is just a raid. The goal is to occupy them long enough to get the cattle to the boats, then escape.
As they near the village, Valka holds up a hand, and her warriors halt behind her.
“Something’s wrong,” she whispers.
Valka’s second in command, her cousin Svala, approaches.
“What’s wrong?” she asks.
“Not sure,” says Valka. “Just… feels wrong.”
“You want to call it off?” asks Svala. “I trust your instincts. If it feels wrong, it’s wrong.”
Valka thinks of her father back at home, awaiting a victory to put Grimolf and Didrik in their place.
“No,” she says. “But let’s keep our eyes open.”
The sky ahead of them lightens with the glow of Rakni home-fires. Finally, just before her warriors crest the ridge above the village, Valka realizes what’s wrong.
It’s too bright. There shouldn’t be that many fires in the village of the Rakni. Someone else—
Then they see it, and it’s too late. There are eight or ten tents pitched around the Rakni village, each big enough for half a dozen warriors. And above them, plainly visible in the firelight, are the banners of the Rakni’s guests, a black raven on a red field.
“Isgerd,” breathes Valka.
Grimolf’s home clan. Here, with the Rakni. Next to her, Svala swears.
“Back to the boats,” Valka says quietly. “Back to the boats, now. They knew we were coming. This is a trap.”
Then a horn blows, and another, and it is too late. Warriors, Rakni and Isgerd together, swarm from the great hall and rush from their tents.
“Fight your way out!” shouts Valka. “Try to stick together. Back to the boats!”
Their enemies are all around them. Valka swings her axe, dealing glancing blows to clear a path. Her warriors acquit themselves well, each accounting for two or three of the enemy. But there are too many. One by one, her warriors fall around her.
“Take a few warriors and break through,” shouts Svala beside her. “The rest of us will hold them off.”
Valka’s axe bites deep into one of the Isgerd, who falls in a spray of blood.
“Like hell,” snarls Valka. “You go. I’ll stay behind.”
“Your father needs you!” says Svala. “Grimolf could be behind this. Go!”
“Gods go with you,” says Valka.
Then Valka points to the four nearest warriors and gives the order to charge—away from the Rakni village, back to the boats.
They break through the enemy and out into the darkness, leaving the sound of battle behind. Valka has never run from battle before, a feeling like the taste of ashes.
She and her warriors run as quickly as they dare, with only the stars to see by. But the sky lightens ahead of them, and it’s wrong, all wrong. Gods, how did it come to this?
The boats are burning, surrounded by dark figures and bodies on the ground. Her rear guard, and an ambush party. She growls, deep in her throat. But then one of the dark figures shouts and points, and the shadows move toward them.
“Go!” says one young man. Traggvi, is it? Troggvi? “We’ll hold them, like Svala did. You go. Go home, Valka. For the clan.”
Gods. The only survivor. She’ll be lucky if her father doesn’t exile her. But someone has to know. Someone has to know what the Isgerd and the Rakni have done.
“What’s your name?” asks Valka.
“Troggvi Ereksson,” he says.
She looks to her other three companions, and each says their name in turn. Harkvald. Ingrid. Sanni.
“Fight hard,” she says. “Die well. I’ll see that you’re remembered, and that you’re avenged. You and all the others.”
Grim nods all around. Then four warriors turn to face the oncoming enemy, while Valka, who is supposed to be the best of them, slinks into the darkness of the forest.
Valka stands for a moment on the last ridge, taking in the sight of the Nokkvi home village. After a month in the wilderness, she is home.
Then she sees that her father’s personal banner no longer flies above the great hall. Didrik’s hangs in its place, with Grimolf’s beside it in a place of honor. So.
She is leaner, but not starving. Dying for a sip of ale, but she has managed to get enough water at least. And she is angry, angry beyond measure or reason.
She walks into the village in her ragged clothing, her axe slung on her back. People call out her name, but she ignores them. They begin to follow her, until half the village is trailing her up the hill. Someone sprints to the great hall to spread the news. To warn them, presumably.
Valka walks up the steps to the great hall and shoves the massive oaken doors open.
Didrik stands up from his place on the seat of honor. Grimolf rises beside him. Off to one side, Oddi grips his lyre and gapes at her. Around the room she sees envoys from half a dozen clans, no doubt here to curry favor with what was evidently Nokkvi’s new lord.
“What in the gods’ name is this?” asks Valka. “Where is my father?”
“You’re alive!” says Grimolf. “P—praise the gods, we thought you were—”
“Shut up,” says Valka.
“You will treat my chief advisor with respect,” says Didrik. But his eyes dart from side to side, unsure where the people’s loyalty lies.
“My father,” says Valka. “Where?”
“He’s dead,” says Oddi, in a loud voice. “He fell ill quite suddenly after we heard news of your, ah, defeat. Didrik was elected by the clan.”
She’d known. Some part of her had hoped he was merely in exile, overthrown by some trickery, but she’d known as soon as she saw Didrik’s banner that her father would never have yielded.
“He was heartbroken to lose you,” says Grimolf. “And who can blame him? If only he could see you now!”
Garbage. She does not believe it. Her father was stronger than that.
“I said shut your mouth,” says Valka. She turns to the young man standing by the throne. “Chief Didrik, is it? You gonna let your advisor here speak for you?”
“I trust his counsel,” says Didrik quietly, stepping between her and Grimolf. “You should too.”
“Really!” snaps Valka. “And did he counsel you about the Isgerd warriors waiting to ambush us at the Rakni home village?”
Her audience turns toward Grimolf. Didrik’s eyes go wide.
“The… the Isgerd?” stammers Grimolf. “But, but, why would they—”
“They knew we were coming,” says Valka. “Rakni and Isgerd both. They were waiting for us. For me. And because of that, a dozen good warriors are dead, my cousins and kin among them. They burned our boats. And yes, I fled.”
There are mutterings at that, darkened faces and darker words.
“I fled,” she says loudly, “at the insistence of my warriors, to make sure that the treachery that put the Isgerd in our path would be punished. I didn’t run from that battle. I ran toward this one.”
“But how could they have found out?” asks Oddi, loudly. “Who would have told them?”
Gods, it’s good when someone has your back.
“A kinsman might have told them,” says Valka. “Maybe a treacherous kinsman who sought to unseat my father and replace him with someone more easily manipulated.”
“Excuse me!” bellows Grimolf. “That’s, that’s preposterous. I would never—”
Valka draws her axe.
“Chief Didrik,” she says. “I challenge—”
“I yield,” says Didrik quickly. He draws his axe and tosses it aside.
“What?” says Valka.
“What?” spits Grimolf.
Didrik removes the chief’s bear-skin cloak and sets it on the throne.
“I will not spill honest blood for a traitor’s lies,” snarls Didrik. “Mine or hers.”
“This is insane,” says Grimolf. “She brings, what? Her word? Listen to her! Her raid failed, her warriors died, and now she seeks to, to slander me, and unseat you with lies! Don’t you see?”
There is quiet in the hall.
“I’d take Valka’s word over yours,” says Oddi, and there’s a murmur of agreement in the hall. “She can’t keep a secret worth a damn. Everyone knows that.”
“Thanks, Oddi,” mutters Valka.
“Grimolf’s lying,” says Didrik. “I know my word’s worth less than Valka’s, but it’s the truth.” He turns to Valka. “He told me that with you dead… your father wouldn’t last long. I could claim I didn’t know what he meant, but I did. And I let him do it.”
Valka’s vision goes red, and her knuckles whiten on her axe-handle.
“He yielded,” Oddi reminds her, quietly.
“I am at your mercy,” says Didrik, proud but resigned. “I knew what he was doing, and I believed it was best for the clan. But if I’d known about the Isgerd, if I’d known you were alive… I would never have dared. That’s the truth.”
He kneels for a moment, head bowed, awaiting execution.
“Go,” says Valka. “Take whoever you’re taking and provisions for a week. The truth earns you a graceful exit. But if I ever see your face again, I will split it in half.”
Didrik nods, gathers up his axe, and walks out, leaving no one between Valka and Grimolf.
The old man drops to his knees, blubbering, as Valka walks toward him.
“Please,” he says, snot and tears streaming down his face. “It’s all a misunderstanding, I, I told the Isgerd to double-cross the Rakni, but they must have—”
“SHUT UP!” bellows Valka. “Just shut your mouth! No more lies!”
Her axe is heavy in her hand.
“I’ll go into exile,” he whispers. “You’ll never see me again. I swear it, on, on Auros’ beard—”
“No,” says Valka. “Don’t. Don’t even speak his name.”
“Please,” sobs Grimolf.
Valka screams in rage and cleaves the man’s head from his shoulders.
There are gasps in the crowd. Oddi looks away. Valka watches in grim satisfaction as Grimolf’s head bounces away, his body collapses like a doll, and his life’s blood pumps from the stump of his neck, all over the floor of the great hall. She has killed more people than she can count, but only ever in the chaos of battle. She has never had cause to slow down and watch it happen.
“I spill this traitor’s blood in Auros’ name,” she says. The blood on her axe-head begins to glow, weaving itself into the delicate knotwork of the axe, binding her to what she has done.
She turns to the assembled crowd, whose eyes are wide. The weight of her crime settles on her.
“Your chief has yielded to me,” she says. “But that does not make me chief. His predecessor was my father, but that does not make me chief. And if I am not your chief then I am a murderer—but that doesn’t make me chief, either. I’ll accept the consequences.”
She looks around the grim, quiet faces, and mourns for the happy village she left behind, for her father’s gentle hand at the tiller.
“What makes a chief is a vote of the clan,” she says. “This is a dark day, and you must choose who will lead you to a brighter one.”
“I nominate Valka Skardistotter,” says Oddi.
“Seconded!” yells someone.
“Does anyone else wish to put a name forward?” asks Oddi.
There is silence, and Oddi nods.
“Then I choose Valka!” he shouts.
“Valka!” shout the others. “Valka! Valka!”
Valka holds up a hand.
“I am honored,” she says. “You are my people, and I would do anything for you. But know this: I will make our clan no friends. We are weakened by our losses, but the betrayal of the Isgerd cannot go unpunished.”
Oddi catches her eye, frowning.
“And it will not stop with them,” says Valka. “While the clans throw our lives away on squabbles over who gets to sit in the biggest chair, our enemies across the sea grow stronger. While we kill each other over cousins and cattle, they sharpen their knives. No longer!”
Oddi smiles now, and backs her up with a strum or two on his lyre. Valka half-recognizes the tune.
“You!” shouts Valka, pointing around the room. “You envoys who came to curry favor with the new lord of Nokkvi, and ignored the craven treachery that gave him that title! I see you!”
The envoys have backed to the edge of the hall, but the Nokkvi will not yet let them leave.
“Isgerd and Rakni, you will pay in blood no matter what you do,” she says. “The rest of you—Harruk, Temni, whoever else is skulking around! Your lords face a simple choice: join me in vengeance, or die. Anyone who fights us is our enemy. Noncombatants will be spared. Clans who surrender will earn a place at my side. Go and tell them.”
The envoys hurry out, faces grim.
“We will feast tonight,” says Valka. “To celebrate our restoration.”
Valka turns to the throne and the mess on the ground in front of it.
“Hang up that bearskin,” she says, to the members of what is now her clan. “That was my father’s. I aim to be lord of far more than Nokkvi before this is over. And clean this up.”
She gestures to Grimolf’s body. But then she looks down at her axe, where Grimolf’s blood has taken up permanent residence as a dull red glow. A blessing? A curse? Whatever it is, she’ll carry it with her forever.
“Wait,” she says. “Give the body to the dogs. Send the head to his kin among the Isgerd, with my personal seal. And the blood…”
She bends down and looks at her reflection in the congealing pool of red.
“Leave it,” she says. “Let it stain. I’ll rest my feet on it.”
She sits uncomfortably on her father’s throne, and Oddi stands beside her.
“I’m sorry about your father,” he says. “We all knew it stank, but with Didrik’s goons—”
“I know,” says Valka. “It’s alright. I don’t blame you, or anyone else in the clan. I don’t even blame Didrik, not really. He saw his chance, and he took it. It was Grimolf’s work, and he’s taken care of.”
“It may take the people some time to trust that you won’t be rooting out more traitors,” says Oddi. “A feast is a good idea. Unity among the clans… is a better one.”
Valka rolls her eyes.
“The unity was your idea, if you’ll recall.”
“And it’s a good one,” says Oddi. “That’s why I suggested it.”
Valka nods, a dismissal. But Oddi is still looking at her.
“Oh, fine,” she says. “Get it over with.”
Oddi smiles, and begins to sing the Ballad of Hragrim the Mighty.
Grand Hall of the Clan Council
“So there we were!” shouts Valka, waving a leg of lamb. “Surrounded by wolf-changers, pressed against the ice cliffs, with nothing more than our weapons and our wits!”
Valka sits at a table in the enormous Grand Hall that long ago replaced Nokkvi’s modest great hall, surrounded by kin and friends. Sitting never really suited her, but she makes an exception for good food and pleasant company. Her feet rest on the faded bloodstain on the stone floor, preserved when the new hall was built on the foundations of the old.
“Hey!” shouts Oddi from down the table. Her voice has finally penetrated the din of the hall at mealtime. “Hey! That’s my job, damn it! I wrote a song and everything!”
“Well, unless you can sing and chew at the same time,” says Valka, taking a bite, “I sugghesht hyou eat quinkly!”
“Gods, you’re a slob!” yells Oddi.
“I am a chief!” yells Valka back, and her people cheer her.
There are three long tables in the room, seating nearly her whole clan and the emissaries of a dozen others, assembled through diplomacy and kinship and conquest. The clans are not united, not yet, but they are closer than they have ever been. If her father could see her now!
She looks to the side, where young Aram sits with one of his aunties, listening attentively to everything at once. Aram. Her son. Eight years old, now—born on a longship, with eyes the color of stormclouds that always seem to find Valka in a crowd. If her father could see…
Valka finishes her story, and the diners lapse into a happy din of chewing sounds and cross-talk.
Valka sighs and fidgets with her axe-handle under the table. She knows it is hard for Aram and all the rest when she is away on campaign. She knows, too, that if she falls in battle now, her bid to unite the clans may fall apart. So she stays here, much of the time, and tells stories of old victories while others go out to win new ones in her name.
But gods, the waiting is hell. She would rather go into combat herself and face mortal danger than wait around for news of it. At least the rest of the clan doesn’t seem to feel the wait too badly. As far as they’re concerned, her cause cannot fail. Gods grant they’re right.
Finally, as the meal is wrapping up, the gates of the Grand Hall open with a blast of cold air, and one of her sentries rushes inside. She composes herself and stands.
“News?” she asks, loud enough to echo through the whole hall.
The sentry rushes up and kneels, but Valka gestures for the woman to stand.
“Word from the fleet,” says the sentry. “Victory.”
“Victory!” repeats Valka, and the whole hall takes up the cry.
Relief washes over her. The fleet had gone out to engage the Isgerd, the only navy left that could rival hers. Valka’s forces had numbers and the blessing of the gods, but it was no sure thing. She exhales, and feels as though she has been holding her breath for a week.
Then the doors blow open of their own accord and the cold night air whips in. But the wind stirs up the torches and the hearthfire instead of buffeting them, filling the room with light and heat.
“Valka,” says a voice.
A figure of iron and flame walks through the doorway, an apparition out of darkest myth. The thing is twelve feet tall, and it ducks to fit through. The figure gestures, and people and tables glide gently to the side of the hall, the table legs scraping on stone. The old, old blood beneath Valka’s feet looks as red as the day she spilled it.
Valka’s warriors scramble to their feet, weapons at the ready. Valka draws her axe—then sees that it is glowing brightly, the same glow that fills it when she spills blood.
She examines the figure. A great beard of flame. A chain of crowns…
Valka drops to her knees.
“Lord Auros!” she proclaims, and the rest of her people kneel as well.
“Rise,” says Auros—and it is Auros, the God of War himself, twice her height and wreathed in majesty and flame.
Valka stands, and looks her god in his fiery eyes.
“You have won many victories in my name,” booms Auros. “Exposed lies. Routed weakness. Made your people strong and your enemies fearful. You bear my blessing in your hand, and worship me with every swing.”
Valka nods. What does one say to that?
“I call upon you now to join a greater contest,” says Auros. “You will be the Champion of War, strong and proud and deadly.”
Valka draws her axe and holds it in front of her, her hand high on the handle.
“I swore myself to you a long time ago.”
Auros snorts, smoke pouring from his nostrils.
“What about my people?” asks Valka. “Am I leaving them behind?”
“Your followers,” says Auros, “and more, in every clan, who do not yet follow you—I name them Valknir, the people of Valka. You will leave them, yes, to fight for me. But you will return, and they will not forget you.”
“Valknir!” shouts someone, and every voice in the hall takes up the cry. “Valknir! Valknir!”
Valka holds up a hand for quiet.
“Lord Auros, may I set a few things in order?”
The hulking being, the god standing in her hall, nods.
“Aram!” she yells, and the boy squirms out of his auntie’s arms and runs to her.
She kneels down and hugs him tightly.
“I’m going away for a while, just like when I go on campaign.”
“You’ll come back?” says Aram, clear-eyed. He is no stranger to farewells, but now he is old enough to think of death, to glance at it out of the corner of his eye and wonder when it will come for those he loves.
Valka looks to her towering god, the embodiment of chaos and strife. She thinks of the bloodstain on the floor, the bodies her axe has torn apart, the close calls and injuries she’s escaped.
“I’ll come back,” she says, and rises. “You do what your aunties say, just like always. Learn new things. Hear?
He nods and steps back, and she addresses the hall.
“My people,” she says. “Valknir.”
“Valknir!” comes the cry, and now she can see that Oddi is leading it. Of course he is.
“I’ve left you before,” she says. “This is no different. You know who’s in charge. You know what to do. You will prevail!”
“Come,” says Auros. “It’s time.”
Valka looks at Aram one last time and nods, and the God of War and his champion vanish in a whirl of flame.
Kelly Digges is a narrative designer and creative consultant for games, with 90 credits across more than 50 products for Magic: The Gathering and other games. Find him on Twitter at @kellydigges.