“This motel’s the worst.” Grumbling, Altera’s feet stomped over the sideway. “And I once had to sleep in a dirt hole we had dug.”
“Hey, wait for me.”
Ragna hurried after her. Her smaller legs barely kept up with Altera’s pace. The sun shone into their faces, and cars drove on the highway in and out of the city. Occasionally they would honk and compliment Altera or ask crude questions about her hips, and each time, Altera grumbled more, and her angry walk became more pronounced. Altera pulled her hood closer to her face.
Ragna wasn’t in the news so far, but that could change, and any time someone noticed Altera, the chance they saw her increased. Didn’t Altera realize how she looked when she walked like that? Or why did they only honk for her?
Ragna shook her head.
She shouldn’t justify or normalize the behavior of these horn dogs. But still, since when was Altera so irritable? Even when she supervised her, the times when she had lost her cool were few and far between. If one had asked her, she would have said, that Altera didn’t have the energy to become angry. But in the last few days, she had shown a variety of outbursts she shouldn’t have been capable of. Did that prove how little she knew about Altera?
Once she caught up to her, Ragna grabbed Altera’s arm.
“We need to talk,” said Ragna. “Now.”
“About what?” Altera stopped and crossed her arms.
Ragna turned her back towards the highway. “About us, and this journey. I’ve no idea what we will be up against, but we have too much at stake.”
Altera nodded but didn’t say a word. She dropped her shoulders and let her arms fall.
She knew as well. If they failed this journey or mission, or whatever one would want to call it, then their lives were over. She had nowhere to return. Aura might have to pretend that she didn’t know who had attacked her, and Veil would continue to hunt her as a criminal. And if she returned, she would live without her father and Sven. And if Altera failed, she would never become a Valkyrie. Her career in the Vikings – the military – would be over. Their happiness and dreams would be forever gone. They might as well die – if they didn’t die on their journey.
“We have to get along and work as a team, or we will fail,” said Ragna. “And we had our differences and fights. I don’t want to argue if you were right or I. We can’t give a fuck about that.”
Again, Altera nodded.
“So, let’s turn a new leaf and start over. But for that, we need some ground rules.”
“I agree,” said Altera. “What do you have in mind?”
“I’m not gonna list a bunch of things we’ve to keep up with, or stuff that we shouldn’t do. That would fuck everything up.”
Altera raised her eyebrows and nodded.
Good, she agreed. If she didn’t word her sentences carefully, Altera could take offense or dismiss her proposals. She was probably about to ask that she stopped with the swear words.
“Honestly, I just want one thing. I want us to be equals.” Ragna looked up. Her blue eyes gazed into Altera’s; her body tensed up. Displaying her determination, Ragna didn’t waver. “Let’s forget ranks. We’re in this together. We work together, we listen to each other, and we respect each other. I’m not going to say there won’t be fights. We’re too different for that, but please don’t look down on me. This isn’t just your journey. It’s mine too.”
Altera took a step back. Startled, she lowered her eyelids, and her lips trembled. “I…I didn’t mean…I didn’t know…” She grabbed her arm and paused. “Okay…but there’s something I want too.”
“I have more experience than you, so please consider my advice. Don’t just brush it off. And be nice to me.”
Ragna tilted her head in confusion.
Why did Altera ask for her to be nice? Wasn’t she always? But if that’s what Altera wanted, then she would comply.
“And there’s one last thing I want.”
That ain’t good.
“Once we leave the continent, we need to train. And when we train, I am your superior. You listen to me and don’t complain. We will need to be stronger if we want to find your father in Utgard.”
“What’s so special about Utgard?”
“I’ll tell you once we’re there. But I really need your word on this.”
Ragna shrugged. “Okay.” As much of a pain in the ass it would be, if it made her stronger, she would endure it. “Once we’re out of Midgard, you’ll train me as your superior.”
“Thank you.” Altera’s body relaxed.
“Then, let’s do our best so that we’ll reach our goals.” Ragna offered her hand. “To our victory.”
Altera hesitated, but then she reached out with her hand and accepted. “To our future.”
The two started to walk again.
“How long until we’ve to be at the train station?” Ragna asked.
Altera took out her phone. “We’ve still got enough time. Why?”
“There’s something I need to do.”
The river Iswafa winded its way through the city of Veil, creating numerous canals the citizens used to relax, party, or ride on gondolas. Its water flowed through the southern parts of Midgard until it reached the Ultimate Sea and the frozen continent Minanaught.
On one of its riverbanks, Ragna kneeled. From her bag, she took out a sheet of paper and put it on the ground. She folded it in half. Her face lacked even an ounce of joy, expressing concentration, that one would need for surgery. The entire world disappeared as Ragna’s eyes and mind focused on her actions. She folded the two corners towards the middle to form a point. Then she put the loose rectangular edge on the top side of the paper up over the flaps and folded down the overlapping triangles at the ends. Ragna turned the paper over and repeated the process on the other side, making it resemble a hat. She turned it by 90 degrees, opened it, and lay the upper and lower parts on each other. The lower triangle flap, she folded upward onto the upper one. Again, she turned the hat over and repeated the process with the other side. Ragna opened the resulting square, putting the upper part on the lower. She opened the flaps, and her paper boat was ready.
“What are you doing?” Altera asked.
“A funeral.” Ragna took a wooden box small enough to fit her fist and opened it. “For Sven.” Inside it was a single ginger hair lock. “Sven was conscious that he had no body to burn, so he left a part of him behind.” She put the lock on the paper boat. “He will never enter Valhalla, but at least I can soothe his stay in Hel.” Her finger drew a vertical line under her eye. “I can’t even cry anymore.”
“I’m sorry,” Altera said.
“He took his own life, and Skyfrost’s still alive. Was that how his story’s supposed to end?” She looked up to Altera. “Say, does it ever get easier?”
“It’s different for everyone. But I wonder if that’s a good thing. Doesn’t that mean we lose our ability to feel? What would that make us? I know he wasn’t the first friend you lost, and he won’t be the last. If the hundredth loss hurts as much as the first, then it means you have retained your empathy, your emotions, your humanity. The pain you feel now, it’s horrible. It hurts so much, and I don’t wish that upon anyone. But being empty inside, believe me when I say this: it’s much worse.”
Ragna nodded in silence. She took out a lighter, lit up the hair lock, and put the paper boat on the river. It didn’t move; no wind would make it sail.
Ragna let her head down. “Of course. Why would anything ever be easy.”
“I can help you.” Altera kneeled. She reached for the boat, obscuring Ragna’s view on it, and when she stood up, the boat started to float across the river. Its paper body steered through the water, creating small rings that showed the rocks and plants beneath the surface.
“Thank you,” said Ragna.
“Don’t. That’s the least I can do.”
“I do this because of my love for you.” Ragna stood up. “Sven, do you see your father and mother? Do you see your relatives and your comrades and enemies past? Do you see the green and beautiful? They call to you, seek your place among them. Live there forever and find your bliss.”
Ragna looked at Altera. “Please, don’t treat me like a widow. I don’t want the kid gloves. We’re equal now. That means I’m not better than you, no matter what impression I give. Treat me like you’d do if Sven was alive and my father at home.”
The fire enveloped the hair lock, and a sliver of smoke escaped from the paper boat. By the time the fire had spread and started to burn it, where would it be? Would it still be in Veil? Or would a miracle occur and allow it to navigate through the southern parts of Midgard? Until the paper boat arrived in the Ultimate Sea and its last piece burned at the border of Minanaught.