Valhalla. It's said to be a place where warriors go when they're done fighting. It's said to be past the statues. "They watch over and only permit the worthy." Father's words have stayed with me since I was a child. "We train to become the best and defend our way of life. And should we do it well, we will beable to enter Valhalla." I've spent my whole life doing that. I've sent many friends down the river, and even more enemies.
I'm not the only member of my clan who wondered what lies past those statues, but I am the only one who's going to return, I decided as I watch the waters. I don't need to tell anyone what Valhalla looks like or anything. But I do need to know myself. What if it's not the wonderful place we all think it is? What if it's not even real? Do you even get to see your family and friends again once they're there? Even if they're not deemed worthy? I need to know.
It's the itch I can't scratch. And so, here I stand as storm clouds roll in. The water starts to get choppy, and the wind kicks up. I should put my fire out and return home. But not tonight. Tonight, I plan. Tomorrow, I go.
I pack my Gear as the sun rises. The storm has passed, but now it's sticky out and later, it will be hot. Likely even on the water. Food, water, blankets, extra clothes, my weapons. These are the most important things. I arrange them carefully in my boat before pushing off.
The water looks gentle, but the current is strong. I don't need to do much other than keep myself from spinning around. With luck, the rest of my trip will be this easy.
As I travel, I notice there aren't any villages by the river. It's strange. Water is vital for survival. Why is this river unpopulated? It will make it harder when my food starts running low. Hunting may be problematic too. I haven't seen any fish. Hopefully when I make camp, I'll be able to find some. Or rabbits and the like on shore.
The statues loom over me. It took days to get here. Far longer than I thought. I'm hungry, but not yet starving. At least a second storm replenished my water supply.
As I near the house before the statues, I expect to be yelled at. I've never seen a living soul pass beneath these statues. Am I the first?
Nothing stirs. Even the wind and water are still. I can't see much past the glare the sun throws, but far off in the distance there's a mountain top poking up from the clouds. It seems to loom in reproach. But the statues' spears don't come crashing down to sweep me back home or someplace worse. Their scowls beneath their horned helmets seem to speak of disapproval.
I turn to look back them. I've never seen them from behind. But I don't see the statues. I see how far I've come. I can't even see the cliff I've always stood watch from. What's going on back home? Who's taking my shifts? How long did it take them to realize I left? It was selfish of me to leave without saying goodbye, but they would have tried to stop me. I will not be stopped.
My boat picking up speed draws my attention back forward. Now I can hear a roaring noise. How I couldn't hear it before is beyond me. I have little time to realize what it is before my boat goes over the edge, taking me with it. I hold on for dear life. If there are sharp rocks at the bottom of this waterfall, I'll die. I may die anyway. It seems like a long drop.
Water splashes up as I land. By some miracle, my boat doesn't shatter. I don't die. In this moment, I've never been so grateful for anything else.
I'm in a pool. Aside from the waterfall, the pool is still. It's clear enough I can see the bottom and my reflection. I've gotten sunburn. My hair is longer too. I'm filthy from days of travel despite cleaning myself daily.
I slide out of my boat and guide it to shore. The water is cool and refreshing rather than icy cold as I expected. The grass is thick and lush. Soft. The sky is a bright blue. I can't see the statues behind me. The waterfall is too tall. Nor the mountain that had been in front of me. I gather my things. Everything I can carry, I carry. The rest I leave in the boat. I won't be following the river any longer. But I cannot leave my boat. I've prepared for this though and I take the rope I've secured to it before I started my journey. I tie the rope around myself and begin walking, pulling my boat. It's not easy, but to me, it's necessary. I go straight. I've no better direction to go.
"You are not done fighting, Young Warrior." My weapon is ready before he finishes speaking. The old man doesn't seem to care about it though. "You'd best move on through. Or better yet, go back the way you came." And the old man laughed. A high pitch cackle that is far from what I expected his laugh would have been like. I glance back at the waterfall again and can understand the old man's laughter. There is no way to climb the walls. They look far too smooth. Even if I had climbing gear, I'm not sure I could do it.
I turn back to the old man, but he's gone. I sheathe my weapon and resume my trek forward. The sun beats down on me. My boat drags, occasionally snagging, but not so bad that I can't free it relatively easily. I'm starting to look for a good place to make camp for the night when I find them.
A pair of gates. They stand opposite each other. Both gates are open. The trail I have been following curves into the gate on the right. Beyond the gate, I see only more of the terrain I've seen all day, but it looks like it may fade into some sort of desert near the edge of my sight.
Past the gate on the left, people mill about, talking, eating, drinking, dancing, laughing. Some are even singing and playing instruments. There isn't a weapon in sight. There are tables full of food and drink. Soft looking chairs surround the table. Piles of pillows are scattered about. It looks like a village with no worries or cares about anything. Not even the basic needs for survival. I don't even see any buildings. It looks boring.
Yet one thing beyond those gates draws me and I find myself taking a step forward only to find the old man in my way again. "You cannot pass this gate. Only those who have laid down their sword may enter."
I frown. "This... is Valhalla?" I imagined a huge building as wide and long as they eye can see, filled with... well this. But to see this in the middle of the wilds, protected only by this metal gate... It was disappointing really. And there are no guards. No sparring warriors fighting just for fun or to stay strong. Where were the friendly competitions?
The old man laughs. "This is the journey's end and yours has not. Should you choose to stay, you must give up all that you are, all you have dreamt. There is no going back."
I have no interest in staying here. I only wanted to find Valhalla. I'm ready to leave when the same thing that attracted me before, catches my eye again. It's clearer this time and I have no doubt what I'm seeing. "Father!" I jerk forward and the old man shoves me back.
"I told you, you cannot pass." Whatever kindness I might have seen in the old man's face vanishes.
"I won't stay. I just want to speak to my father." I draw my weapon, but don't yet point it at the old man."
"You cannot. You'd best put that away. You will not win."
I grit my teeth. "Then bring him here."
"I will speak to my father." I swing my weapon at him and go flying backwards. I have no idea what happened, but I charge the old man. Again and again. I approach the old man with different strategies. Again and again, I am knocked back. The old man doesn't even have a scratch.
While I've been struggling, the sun has set. I'm panting, sweaty, dirty. My weapon goes flying and I'm on my back, blinking up at the night sky. The gate in front of me slams shut. "Go home, Young Warrior." The old man joins the mass of people, none of which have noticed my struggles.
"You are still here." The old man greets me the next morning. I have been sitting here all night. I will not leave until I have spoken to my father. "How long will you wait, Young Warrior? You do not strike me as the patient kind." He isn't wrong. The gate stays closed all day. I only leave to relieve myself and find food. I don't see the old man for days. The gate doesn't open. I have gotten restless. I can't sit still and watch the gate. I need to move.
"Is this Valhalla?" The girl is just barely out of childhood. She has no weapons. I can use her to get through the gate. The girl will be one of the few young people beyond the gate. She is not from my clan.
Today has been a busy day. Aside from the girl, two older women, a grizzled elder, and three warriors have come to the gate. None of them have weapons. One of the warriors is sent through the other gate with the same words I was greeted with. He accepts it better than I did.
None have been from my clan. This is good. I don't know what I would do if I saw one of them.
I have only thought of using the girl to get past. The old man has been too wary. But I have found people let their guard down around children, especially girls.
The old man doesn't acknowledge me. I ready myself to spring through the gate. "Do not try it," the old man says. I try anyway. The girl passes. I am right behind her, not even a step apart. Still the old man throws me back. Without even touching the girl. "You have not figured it out yet. Valhalla is not a place, Young Warrior. It is a state of mind. You are not yet ready to stop fighting, and so, you cannot find Valhalla. You cannot speak to your kin. Not yet. Go home. Fight until there is no more fight in you. Then, only then will you pass through this gate." The old man goes back to wherever he goes to beyond that gate.
With the old man's words, I realize I've noticed things that say he's right. But still I refuse to give up. I analyze everyone that comes to the gate. It is not until I see an elder from my own clan days later that I understand. On top of that, I've been a selfish lout, leaving my clan one body short. I gather my things and start jogging down the path, leaving my boat behind. I don't wait for my elder, and I hear the gate open behind me. As I go, the old man calls after me.
"Valhalla will be here for you when you are ready, Young Warrior."