"A story?" I breathed, though I hardly dared to speak.
Eric shifted me so that he could sit down on the couch with me between his legs. I did not argue, and happily settled my head against his chest, waiting for him to go on. I was staring into the growing flames of the fire when he began to talk, his voice rumbling his chest against my ear.
"Freyja, the Chooser of the Slain, was the first, perhaps the most powerful, but certainly not the fairest. She was the Mistress of the Valkyries and therefore demanded respect and worship. Even Odin paid tribute to her, though he did not have to do so kindly.
The Valkyrie were not so important in some ways. They were very minor deities, but mortal men recognized their strength. For it was their will that determined the victors of war. It was the Valkyries who deemed who would live and who would be taken. They were hero makers. They were present in every battle, every skirmish, and their desire was eternal.
Though they were battle maidens, they did not often fight and never willingly. They were no warriors. What they did was weave victory and defeat. They could bind a warrior with pain and terror as easily as they showed him favor."
"They sound horrible," I whispered.
"No," Eric's answer was firm. "No," he said more softly. "They were not so at all. What the Valkyries did, they did because it was their duty, not because they derived pleasure from it. It was said that when you lay upon the battlefield you might cry for their touch, for the mercy of their dominion. It was a great thing to be chosen by a Valkyrie. It was honorable.
Men were not always so honorable. A Valkyrie could change shape using her alftarham. But if a Valkyrie woman lost her alftarham to a man then she could be controlled. She could be made to serve as his wife, to mother his children, and live under his control. But she would never be happy. She would spend her days in tears until her children would grow old enough to ask her why she wept so. Only when she was reunited with her alftarham would she be her own again, free to return to her duties and her dominion. Even if it pained her to leave her children behind.
No Valkyrie has ever offered her alftarham freely, but occasionally a sort of love existed between a Valkyrie and her man. Then, she might choose to stay even after her alftarham had been returned, but eventually her purpose to all men and to Freyja would call her back to Valhalla, her home.
I worshiped Freyja when I was young, before I became what I am now. There were many times when I lay injured on the battlefield that I cried out for the touch of a Valkyrie, and begged to be chosen to reside in Valhalla. When my maker found me I thought that finally I had found my wish-maiden, my Valkyrie. But I had found nothing more than a malevolent Norn," this last was spit out with such distaste I gripped him tighter.
"It hasn't been until this past year that I realized I had finally found my Valkyrie," he went on more gently. "You say that you refuse to be mine, but you do not understand that you already command my thoughts. You hold me within your clutches, weaving these emotions through me. Emotions that I have not had reason to feel since I first cried out for Freyja's influence. Have I not paid tribute to you? Do you not offer your protection and mercy to me during every battle? You do not fight willingly or with pleasure, but you are quick to point out judgments." He laughed a bit at that before growing serious again. "For are you not given access to the people's innermost thoughts?"
"Not yours," I whispered, because I truly did not know what else to say. I felt lost, scrambling for the significance of all of this, trying to figure out what exactly Eric was telling me and wondering if I could ever be what he wanted.
"No," he repeated. "Not mine. But I am not human, I am not alive. I have been wandering these long years, waiting to gain entrance into Valhalla, waiting to be chosen by my Valkyrie."
He turned my body then, and I easily allowed myself to move to face him, still nestled against his chest. His eyes were rimmed in the red of unshed tears, and I knew that the fear and unease I felt was not all my own. "You will not be mine, Sookie Stackhouse, but you must know that I am already yours."
"This is…a lot to take in," I said, still not sure I understood what had happened.
"I understand," he said, and pressed my cheek against his chest again until I relaxed. His hand brushed absently through my hair. "You should have time to think on what I have told you."
"What is it that you want from me, Eric?" I asked after a while.
His hands stilled and I felt the intense affection through our bond. "I want all of you, Sookie. I want you to be mine, just as I want you to accept me as yours."
"But, I thought you said that Valkyries could not stay…" I hesitated to say it aloud, but now in this moment, held close against his chest I could not deny it. "With the men they loved."
"It is true that they were not able to stay with the men who stole their alftarham. But I would not steal what is freely given." He sighed with unneeded air, and I sat again so that I could see his eyes. "There will always be differences between us, Sookie. If I cannot have you, I will accept that in time, but you cannot change the bond that we already have. Why not explore it, why not embrace it?" I turned in time to see him close his eyes briefly. "You are unsure," he said before he opened his eyes again. "And you are scared. Perhaps it is easier to run away. Perhaps if you take this chance you will be hurt. But," his fingers brushed against my lips. "Perhaps not."
He stood abruptly. "I will drive you home now," he said.
I did not argue as we left the house, this time driving away with the headlights on full beams. That, too, I did not question. I didn't say a word all the long way home, and neither did he. Only when we pulled up on the softly crunching gravel that he had purchased for me did he turn to speak with me again.
"I will give you time to think, my bonded," He leaned forward just slightly and pressed his lips against my forehead once, and then he moved away again. "When you are ready you will contact me again."
I stood on the stairs of my back porch watching as Eric drove away in his flashy red Corvette, with its ostentatious vanity plate having not said a word since leaving his house. There seemed to be no words left to speak.
The lights were still on in the kitchen when I came in, but it since it was well past midnight I was not at all surprised to find the lower floor empty. Amelia and Dawson were likely sprawled across her bed upstairs, intertwined in their new love for each other. I was happy for them. Really.
I took my time unpinning my hair, and taking off the pretty new red dress. I hung it up again carefully, and draped it across the back of a chair to give to Amelia in the morning. It was easy to do the mindless tasks like brushing my teeth and washing the grit of the night from my face.
Only when I curled up in my bed again and reached to turn off the light did I have need to think again. My little swan, my mysterious nighttime visitor still sat on my bedside table.
I bypassed the light, and reached instead for the small carving. It was even lovelier than I remembered, with its arching neck and graceful wings. I ran my fingers down its beak once before placing it back where it belonged. Then I turned out the light, and feel deep into thoughts that I could not hide from in the dark and calm of the night.
I woke unsteadily, and unhappily to the sounds of Amelia and Dawson making breakfast together. Their happy voices and laughter was taunting to me, as was the sharp sunlight that streamed through Gran's old lace curtains.
It had been well into the morning before I had finally fallen asleep, if indeed I had slept at all. It felt more like a torrent of dreams where I had been some woman draped in golden robes, reaching out to bloodied and battered Eric.
My movements getting ready that morning were sluggish. I had jumped out of the shower, and toweled my body off before I realized that I hadn't rinsed the conditioner from my hair. Even pulling on my Merlotte's uniform was a struggle. It took me nearly twenty minutes to find my white shirt, only to find that it was tucked into my drawer like always.
The noise in the kitchen had somewhat subsided by the time I made my first appearance. Dawson was sitting at the kitchen table with the paper spread out before him and Amelia was busying herself with the dishes. It was the perfectly domestic scene that I had once dreamt of for myself. But I could never share a morning meal with a vampire lover.
"Good morning," said Amelia in a tone that was far too pleased. "Cup of coffee?"
"Sure," I accepted the mug with one hand, as I laid the red dress across the back of a chair with another. "I'll take your dress in to get dry-cleaned today and have it returned tonight."
Amelia was passing me the creamer with a puzzled look on her face. "Didn't he tell you?"
"Tell me what?" I asked slowly, clued in by the ever-ominous 'he.'
She traded a loaded look with Dawson who shrugged and returned to his paper with a clear 'none of my business' look on his face. "Eric bought that for you, he brought it over a few days ago. He didn't want you to know he'd been buying you gifts, so he told me to get you to wear it last night. But I figured he would tell you himself."
I sighed and looked down at the dress, noticing for the first time that the red really was more of a deep cranberry color. "No, he didn't tell me," I said.
"Did the two of you have a good talk?" She asked, taking her own seat beside Dawson as I gathered a plate of breakfast remains for my own meal.
"I guess," I said as I loaded up on eggs. If Dawson wasn't here I might be more inclined to elaborate, but as it was I was hardly going to start spilling my guts in front of him. "I'm still a little confused though."
"So are you guys together?" she asked as I took my seat.
I fixed a look on her over the table. "Maybe I should ask you. You appear to know much more than I do about all of this."
She didn't even have the good grace to blush. Instead she elbowed Dawson and smiled. "See, honey, I told you I could pull it off." She turned back to me. "He thought you'd know straight away what my game was."
Dawson looked up from his article. "Figured you could pull it right out of her head. Not like she's very good at hiding things." The smile he then shared with Amelia definitely spoke of a hidden meaning that I didn't care to know about.
"Right," I said. "Just, next time Eric—or Pam," I added. "Try to get you to do anything tell me first."
The shrug Amelia offered was not at all reassuring.
Octavia came in as I was finishing up, and since she offered to do the dishes I gladly left the chore to her in favor of heading into town. I had to be at work for the lunch shift today, but if I hurried I could swing by the library and drop off some books, and maybe have a chance to run to the post office and pick up some new stamps.
As it turned out, I only had enough time to check in my library books before I had to head out, since Sam called me in early. Our newest hire had quit unexpectedly, leaving us high and dry, so of course I had to step into her shoes.
"Thanks, Sookie," said Sam as I stormed into the bar. He politely did not notice the way the door had slammed back on its hinges when I came in. I hadn't been in the best of mood this morning, but being rushed into the bar to work the extra hours didn't do anything to help.
I stowed away my purse, tied on my apron and went about my business like a woman on a mission. Where this anger was coming from I really had no idea, and it wasn't until iced tea began splashing out of a cup that I realized my hands were shaking.
The little sleep I had managed last night was hardly restorative, and my mood was already foul so it was easier than usual for the thoughts of the people around me to invade me head. Luckily no one was paying me any attention at all, except to think that I was angrier than usual. I picked up from Terry that it had been a while since I had been my chipper self, which upset me even more. What had been going on with me lately?
Finally when I dropped and broke a frosted glass behind the bar Sam made me step back into his office with him.
"Sookie, what in the devil is wrong with you today?" he asked.
I collapsed into the little chair across from his desk and scowled. "There's nothing wrong with me, Sam Merlotte, I'm just tired is all."
His whole body sighed and he ran a hand down the contours of his face. "Alright, nothing's wrong with you. What's on your mind then?"
"Nothing," I snapped instantly, then seeing the truly caring look on his face I frowned. "It's just this stupid Valkyrie thing."
"Valkyrie?" Sam did not sound pleased. "Those swan-shifters bothering you?"
What I felt was not so much surprise as realization. "What swan-shifters?" I asked.
Sam waved a hand. "The Valkyries, they aren't anything but a bunch of swan-shifters, but they get high and mighty and try and pass themselves off as something unique when they take a mind to it. Don't listen to a word out of their twisted little beaks. Those crazy things spend more than a reasonable amount of time in their swan bodies and it warps their minds."
"So," I said slowly. "They aren't Valkyries?"
The face Sam pulled was not elegant. "No. Just shifters. Now you tell me what they've been saying to you, Sookie."
My mouth opened of its own accord, but since I didn't have anything truthful to say I shut it again and smiled. "Nothing at all, Sam, but thank you." Then I turned and walked right out of his office and back to the bar.
After that, my feet moved more easily and my hands carried each orders faithfully. I didn't frown once at a customer, and even my tips increased. I could tell Sam was confused by the way I smiled at him, but he didn't call me back in his office again.
My bliss lasted until the very end of my shift, so that I even kissed Sam and Terry on the cheek as a goodbye. Only when I was sitting back in my car again did some of the edge fade.
So, Eric was my nighttime visitor. Of that I was sure. Some part of me had suspected, and some part of me had hopped, but not knowing had been tugging on the edge of my mind all day.
I sighed as I started the engine and started on the short drive home. Knowing Eric had left me a small gift was nice, and it certainly made me feel good, but it hardly solved any other problems. Eric still saw me as what…something inhuman? Or did he see me exactly as I was?
It was almost easy to come up with excuses why I should continue to do as I had done and avoid Eric. He was controlling while I wanted a will of my own, he was manipulative and politically driven, and we weren't even the same species. But there was also that chance…that small chance that something could work between us. Weren't we already bonded? Wasn't I already spoiled for any human relationship? Even if I didn't try something with Eric, how could I explain our relationship to any other man? I couldn't imagine Quinn or even Bill tolerating Eric being as close to me as he was.
I pulled in behind my house under the porch light with my head full of conflicting thoughts. I had been afraid of submitting to Eric's will, but if what he had said last night was true and he really felt that we could belong to each other then should I really argue over his desire to claim me? Was the one word 'mine' really so terrifying. After all, I hadn't had too much of a problem allowing Bill to say as such. But then I had found out that Bill hadn't really loved me at all. Not then at least.
Octavia and Amelia were both at the kitchen table when I walked in. From what I could tell it looked like they were reading tealeaves.
"And you see how this one is all bunched up…oh hello, Sookie," Octavia fell silent as I entered the room. For whatever reason she didn't think it was appropriate to talk about witchy matters in front of me.
"Hello," I said, throwing down my purse. "What are you guys doing tonight?"
"Babysitting," said Octavia, with a definite scowl on her face. "My daughter decided that having me around last night was too handy."
"Why'd you even come back?" I asked. I knew Octavia's daughter leaved nearby, but not so close that it was a comfortable journey to make on a daily basis.
Amelia laughed. "She didn't call until an hour ago, and Octavia doesn't have the nerve to say no."
Hauntingly Octavia drew herself up to glare at her student. "It's not that I do not have the nerve, Amelia. I have grandchildren, this is a responsibility I accept gladly."
Amelia rolled her eyes and smiled at me. "Dawson's asked me over for dinner. Says he's going to return the favor." The suggestive waggle of her eyebrows was not needed.
"Hmm," I hummed, thinking. So, for once I had the house all to myself.
"Any plans?" Amelia asked. "Not driving down to Shreveport?"
I glared at her and picked my purse back up again. "No plans that would interest you," I told her. "I'm going to go take a shower. I'll see you guys tomorrow."
I left the room to sound of their goodbyes and Octavia picking up her lecturing tone again. I should probably tell her that her voice carried through the door to my bedroom, but since she would probably then start holding class in a closet somewhere I knew I wouldn't.
My eyes went instantly to the little swan on my bedside table. This time when I picked it up I cradled it in my palm, not stroking, just holding. Had Eric really made this? He had such big hands, that I couldn't even picture him holding a tool small enough to make these grooves. How long had he spent making sure that the Swan's neck arched just right?
I had hesitations. There were still too many things that could go wrong, but I remembered last night. I remembered listening to his voice as I pressed my head against his chest. I remembered the way the fire felt on my skin as he combed his fingers through my hair. I wanted to feel that way again. The way that I only felt with Eric, my bonded.
The story he had told me was symbolic—Eric's way of showing me how much I meant to him. His way of explaining that I had some control over him so that I would feel safe to give him something in return. I knew that, but knowing didn't make me any less moved. It was a personal touch, something from his history, something to make me a part of his entire life.
I looked down at the little swan again and smiled.
After that I moved more purposefully. I took my time in the shower, making sure every inch of my body was clean and smooth. I even pulled out my rarely used hairdryer to brush out every wave in my hair until it fell perfectly against my shoulders. I retrieved the red dress from the kitchen where I had left it that morning and found my hair clip.
I had checked to make sure Amelia and Octavia were both gone earlier so I knew that I was quite alone when I turned out all the lights in the house. Then, I turned on the light at my bedside and picked up the little swan. The light shone off its back as I set it down in my windowsill and waited for him to come.
He did not keep me waiting.