A short, multi-part commission for the very patient and very benevolent Ben, who asked for: ‘How about something about a necromancer getting annoyed at having to resurrect her berserker girlfriend after her heroic and tragic death in every second battle?’
My life was unextraordinary. While I was alive, I thought it was special and unique—I had the sort of marriage that bards sing about, two beautiful little girls and enough food on the table for all of us. Truly, I thought I’d been blessed by God.
Since my death, however, I have come to see how very mislead I was.
I died as anyone might have then: of pneumonia. It was a little cough at first. Irritating, at the back of my throat, and it kept me up at night. I had a headache the next day, and a fever the next, and before long my husband was scooping me off the floor of our chicken coop and carrying me indoors to the bed. The doctor came, put leeches at my feet and wet towels on my forehead, but it was to no avail. Eventually, they woke the town priest from his bed to read me the final blessing for my Last Journey.
As if standing at the foot of my own bed, I watched my breathless body shudder with delirium and fade from life as my beautiful husband—my beautiful Jerrik—sobbed and held it: the empty vessel that had once been filled with the woman he loved.
My children didn’t understand, they were too young. In the morning, they asked for me. My sister (who let her in my house?) hugged them and told them I had gone away and wouldn’t return. They cried for me too, and I cried for them, for Jerrik, and for the life I’d lost just as it had really begun.
Time slips past when you’re dead—a minute, a year. They feel the same. But how much time has passed is irrelevant when you watch how people treat your death.
My lovely Jerrik grieved. I have no idea how long; the many nights and many tears blended together. I lay beside him, in our bed as he hugged my pillow and cried into it. I spoke to him, but he didn’t hear. I wrapped my arms around him, but he didn’t feel them. He just cried, half-whispering, half-mouthing my name over, and over, and over: Orla, Orla, Orla… He couldn’t hear my answer.
Night after night, month after month, I watched my little girls wandering around the farm looking for me, waiting at the window for me to return home along the road, asking Jerrik when I’d be back.
But my sister. My sister, I seethed to watch her. I’d never told anyone she was allowed back in my house, what cheek she had to be there after my death when I couldn’t drive her out! She did cry a little—crocodile tears, no doubt—but she stopped sooner than Jerrik did. Much sooner.
Then, I watched her slipping into my house more and more. ‘I thought everyone might be hungry,’ she’d say, bringing in the World’s Most Perfect roast chicken. ‘I thought my nieces might like some new clothes,’ she’d say, bringing in meticulously plotted pretty Sunday clothes. Little but little, hour by hour, she crept into my house. Over how long, I don’t know. Time is irrelevant when you begin to watch your so-called loving sister’s comforting hugs linger on your husband more than they should. When you watch her eyes dip to his broad chest, when you watch her stay more nights, more days, to ‘take care of your children’…
When you watch your sister, your own sister, kiss your poor grieving husband, comforting him with her lips and her body, and when you watch him let her. You watch him forget your pillow. You watch him reaching out to her at night when he has bad dreams.
You watch her belly swell with their child.
You watch her continue your life. Your life, the life you’d lovingly built with the man of your dreams, you watch her slip into it perfectly like a hand into a glove, just like she always had to everything of yours—I pray that you will never feel that pain.
There are no words for it. I had no body of my own to claw at, no throat to scream with, no knees to sink to. Just writhing, twisting, searing pain that filled my being—whatever my being now was—and when I wailed it was some sort of deep, existential noise that cut through realms and sent my poor tom cat rushing under the dinner table.
I don’t remember much more than that, not much at all. I was suspended somewhere, missing my Jerrik, missing my babies, and knowing deep in my tortured, twisting soul that they no longer missed me. Coiling, spiralling, aching and hating, until I was wrenched downwards, forwards, and hurtling through space and time.
It all stopped abruptly, somewhere in a thick pine forest.
I was still. It was quiet.
Morning mist hung around me, and there was snow beneath my feet. That was odd in itself; I had feet? I looked down at them, confused. They extended down into the snow, glowing in a faintly ethereal manner, but holding form. The nightgown I’d died in hung about my knees as well, thin and faded. In this weather, I should have been bitterly cold if this was all I was wearing, but I wasn’t. I was still uncomfortable, though. I couldn’t determine the source of my discomfort.
It might have been because of how exotic the land around me looked: I was somewhere in the north, I thought; somewhere I hadn’t been before. This was in the mountains, and far off in the distance I could see smoke drifting upwards into the air and hear the clash of battle.
I felt very… here. After so long of feeling anchorless, drifting through time and space, the feeling of time slipping through my fingers like sand had very abruptly ended. Finally, I felt each second comfortably. Was I in Heaven?
This wasn’t exactly what I’d imagined Heaven to be like—I thought I was supposed to be surrounded by everyone who’d loved me and passed on, with all the most delicious food I could eat, warm and comfortable forever. Standing here, I wasn’t cold, but also I wasn’t comfortable, and I couldn’t see anyone I loved.
I’d heard the priests talk many times of a soul’s Last Journey: the longest, most important journey one makes after death to finally take a seat in Heaven, in peace and at rest.
I was probably on that my Last Journey now, I decided. I supposed if that were the case, I should probably start journeying, shouldn’t I? I lifted one bare foot after the other, trudging through the snow towards the billowing smoke and battle.
I didn’t get very far. I reached a point where my steps wouldn’t take me any further. Each step felt like a step, I felt like I was propelling myself forward, but when I looked up, I was beside the same tree on the same hill, and the battle was no closer. Something felt tight and hot around my wrists.
Curious, I stopped and raised my wrists to inspect them. There were two rings of light around them, tight like shackles and hot to touch. I couldn’t dislodge them. Dangling from them like a chain was another glowing thread leading back where I’d come from in completely the opposite direction.
Perhaps I was journeying the wrong way? Assuming that was the case and the light shackles were part of my Last Journey, I figured that I should probably follow the thread—or whatever it was. Turning, I walked in the other direction, following its trail like breadcrumbs.
I didn’t have to walk long. Ahead of me, I could see a smaller pillar of smoke billowing upwards, two shaggy horses tethered to a tree and, as I approached them, I could see two women were seated arguing by a waning fire.
One of them was enormously tall and broad, even while sitting down—a mountain woman, I thought. I’d seen paintings of them: long blonde hair in a dozen thick, messy plaits hung down their backs, just like this one had. Her thick and muscular arms were bare even in this cold weather, as was her neck and generous cleavage, and her skin was covered in hap-hazard streaks of paint that looked suspiciously blood-coloured. The rest of her was clad in thick furs already caked with snow. She looked huge and terrifying, just how the paintings had always shown mountain women to be.
When she spoke though, she sounded not at all like I’d expected from her appearance. “Ingrid, you’re such a stick-in-the-mud!” she announced in a booming, cheerful voice. I could hear a smile in it. “Have you no sense of sport?”
Her companion—Ingrid?—a much smaller and darker woman in both colour and spirit, raised her head slowly from her hands and gave the mountain woman a very tired look. “It’s dawn. It’s snowing. We haven’t been back to Northport in nearly a year. The last thing I need is you running off and getting yourself killed in battle you’ve no part in.”
The mountain woman scoffed. “There’s no such thing as a battle I have no part in. One side is always the oppressed, and the other side is always the oppressor!”
“And I suppose you can determine that on sight?” Ingrid’s voice was very, very dry.
“I can smell imperialist arrogance from 100 feet!” she declared, and then nudged the woman with one tree-trunk arm. “Perhaps that’s what lead me to you.”
Ingrid gave her a hard stare. “I’ve changed my mind. Please feel free to get yourself killed.”
The mountain woman spent a few moments in a full-throated laugh. “Don’t pretend you don’t want to join me,” she said eventually. “There will be bodies everywhere!”
“Golde, I have enough trouble with your body.”
‘Golde’ looked very entertained by that. She had a rather cheeky expression. “You’ve never had any trouble with my body, Ingrid.”
I watched Ingrid roll her eyes at that (maybe she was a doctor?) replying, “Aren’t you gone yet?”
Laughing again, Golde heaved her huge body out of the snow, unsheathed a simply enormous broadsword, and closed the short distance between her and Ingrid with a single step. Then, as if her companion weighed no more than a feather, she lifted her clean off the ground to a standing position with one arm—much to Ingrid’s displeasure, by the look of it—and bent towards the woman.
It took me a few moments to realise that Golde wasn’t just firmly hugging her, she was passionately and soundly kissing her.
My jaw dropped.
It was the most bizarre sight; two women kissing like husband and wife.
For a moment I wondered if I was mistaken and one of them was a man—but no. Their hair may have been done in foreign styles but I recognised those styles as feminine, and now that Ingrid’s thick fur had fallen in puddle around her calves, I could see a woman’s figure under her robes.
They stopped before I’d managed to come to terms with what was happening.
“Don’t worry, Ingrid,” Golde told her stoically, having her bent backwards in her arms like a new bride, “I’m a master warrior! I shall return soon!” She placed the glowering woman very gently back into her furs on the ground.
Then, she let out the most un-gentle, ear-splitting battle-cry (I saw Ingrid flinch), raised the enormous sword aloft as if it were lighter than even her companion, turned towards me and ran.
I froze, already paralysed by my earlier confusion. What was she doing?
Still bellowing, she surged towards me on her huge and muscular legs if to run me down. I didn’t know what to do—I couldn’t escape her, and I definitely couldn’t escape the long reach of that sword she had aloft. I stood there mutely, wondering if this were a test, or a challenge as part of my Last Journey, or if I wasn’t dead and I was somehow about to be killed and if it would hurt as dying had—
—she passed right through me.
As if I were nothing; as if I weren’t even there. I looked down at my body, faintly shimmering in the dull morning light and the fog. Behind me, I could hear Golde’s enthusiastic bellowing grow further away. If I had any doubt that I was dead before, I certainly didn’t now.
I let out a long, slow breath I hadn’t even been aware I’d been holding. I was still in one piece, as far as I could see—and still in those shackles, too. I moved my wrists a little in them, and then followed the glowing thread with my eyes along the ground in the direction I’d been travelling in.
It led through the snow, past the horses, right through the dying fire.
I followed it with my eyes, my skin prickling. I already half-guessed where it was going to lead:
Right up to Ingrid.
We locked eyes. She was glaring at me; not through me, not past me, at me. She didn’t look very impressed, either. It was the expression someone might give you if you interrupted their warm bath unexpectedly. “Did you enjoy the show?” she asked, her voice dripping with sarcasm.
I didn’t miss the note of danger in it.