Legend has it that Gretchen the Broad was a fierce and mighty shield maiden. Feared across the old land for her obstinance and ruthless heart in the heat of battle. She was not a sizable woman nor a ravaging beauty, but she did have a presence far beyond her years. Like a berzerker, she fought in a trance-like state. A swirling torrent of steel and wicked screams. She could move like lightning and had the strength of an ox. Gretchen was fiercely dedicated to her husband and the Johnson Clan. A feared warrior himself, they made a formidable couple. Why did they call her Gretchen the Broad? Because of the large broadsword, she favored in battle.
Gretchen the Broad left the battlefield behind once she secured her husband in the Elder seat. She took up ruling their lands with the same vigor she applied to war. A more respected Elder Woman in the Johnson clan there was not. One of her largest challenges was protecting their lands and people when her husband went a-Viking. He would load up the majority of fighting men in the long boats and set out to raid in far-off lands. This could take him away for a season, a year, or even more. The uncertainty was all part of the Norse life at the time. How to keep the homesteads safe while the raiding party was gone became an obsession for Gretchen. During a time of heightened conflicts between rival clans, her husband was planning on sailing farther west than ever before. When or if they would return was anyone’s guess. But, one thing was certain- they would leave, and the homelands would be unprotected.
One cold, early winter day Gretchen walked through her trading port village of Stroden. The village was alive with markets and the bustling slave trade. As she bargained for some venison a scream and a bustle down by the docks caught her attention. A group of grubby young girls huddled about two other girls wrestling about the ground. She walked up on the group, and upon seeing the Elder Woman, the girls parted and started to scurry away.
“Hold where you stand!” Gretchen’s firm voice sounded above the remaining shouts. They all stopped in their tracks.
One of the two fighting girls stopped her struggle once she noticed Gretchen standing above them. The other girl, much smaller, saw her opportunity and slugged the larger girl in the rib cage. The larger girl dropped the half loaf of bread they were fighting over. The smaller girl grabbed the bread and started to run. Gretchen’s snake-like hand swung and caught the running girl across the side of her head. The girl went to her knees, spun and raised her fists ready to take on her new attacker. The girl showed no sign of backing down. She was in a battle trance and she was ready to defend her self no matter the foe.
“Ah, you are a fierce one, aren’t’ you?” Gretchen spoke with an even tone. “Just remember that making battle for battle’s sake is a risky way to go through life, but I do understand your fury. Go ahead. Try and take me down.” Gretchen’s eyes turned grey.
Gretchen’s tone and blank eyes eased the battle craze in the small girl. Her eyes softened and she then realized her situation. All eyes were on her. All were shocked at the girl’s pugnacious behavior. No one stands up to the Elder Woman. Especially a worthless street girl. Gretchen understood the intoxication of the battle trance. How the brain switched over to a premortal place where survival and death become one. Where killing your enemy is all that matters and your own personal safety is secondary. She had spent a number of hours and even days under that trance.
“Who do you girls belong to?” Gretchen asked, but she knew the answer. These girls were a result of a problem that Gretchen had long tried to solve. These girls were the bastard children of the clansmen. Daughters of whores and slaves. Lost souls in their society. Soon to become just as their mothers.
“We belong to no one and everyone, all at the same time.” The small girl said with defiance and sadness, and then she began to cry. Another side effect of the battle trance is the release of an emotional floodgate when all is done. Gretchen had sat among many a dead man after a battle and wept. Mainly because she was still alive and would have to fight again. She loved the battle, but she despised it, all the same. The death, the smell, the sounds and most of all, cheers. Cheers, for what exactly? The cheers escaped her better reasoning. But, this was their way.
Somewhat stunned by the thoughtful response, she softly nodded. “Yes, that is right.” She slowly turned, looking into all the eyes of the surrounding girls. “For those of you that want to belong to something? If you want to belong to yourselves? You will meet me by the stable barns tomorrow at dawn. Tell all the damned girls of the clan that if they want to be the saviors of this village, then they should come.”
Turning to leave a small voice asked. “If you don’t mind me asking, what will we be doing at the stables ma’am?”
Gretchen strode away and with a coldness, in her voice, she said, “You will become everything and nothing at all.”
They moved slowly out of the cold, early morning mist. Not a word was spoken between them as they walked towards the lone figure standing in the middle of the riding paddock. Gretchen was dressed in her leather armor with a broadsword hanging by her side and a battle ax strapped to her back. A count of 12 girls stood around her in a semi-circle. More than Gretchen had thought would come. This was a good start and it made her think that this idea just might work. The girls fidgeted as Gretchen sized them up. She figured they ranged from ages 10 to 18. The small girl from the previous, day’s fight was there and standing the closest to Gretchen.
Taking a deep breath, she began to speak in a regimented cadence, “If you so choose you will be given a great opportunity upon this early morning.” If you stay, you will be part of something never done before. It will not be easy, nor will it be fun, but I promise it will be fulfilling. You will work harder than you have ever thought possible. You will be pushed well beyond the ends of your strength and mental capabilities. But!” She paused and looked at each one in the eye. “You will do it all together. In the end, you will belong to a unit bound in honor and blood. Who of you that stand here today want to be part of something? Who of you want to belong? Who of you will sacrifice to be something more?” She turned her gaze skyward. They were unsure, so Gretchen gave them a cue. “Step forward or walk away.”
They all stepped forward. Some more eager than others but they all stepped forward. Gretchen was pleased and she nodded to her left. Two more women dressed in leather armor joined her side. Gretchen opened her arms and said to the women, “Kelda, Petrin. Here are our warriors. Here are our protectors. We will train them as we see fit in the arts of war and death.” The girls then looked at one another in confusion.
“We are to be warriors?” a small voice asked.
“Yes, and not just any warriors. You will be charged with the protection of our lands while the men are gone a-Viking.”
“But we are just girls,” another shaking voice called out.
“How old are you?” Gretchen asked
“Fifteen, I think.”
“I was in my first shield wall at fourteen. I killed four men that day. Or so they say. I don’t remember much of it. So, no you are not too young and you are not just girls.”
The small girl spoke up clear and loud. “Will we carry swords and wear armor such as you?”
“You will not just carry them, my girl, you will wield them, and you will be cunning, swift and deadly.” Gretchen’s voice was cold and her eyes turned from green to grey.
The girls all sealed their oaths with a bloody fingerprint on parchment. Their training had begun. They started each day at dawn with a run to the top of the sea cliffs. This was followed by weapons training until mid-morning. Then they were sent home to tend to their family’s needs. That is, for the ones that had families. The orphans worked at the stables. At mid-afternoon, a bell was rung to call them back to the training grounds. The first part of the afternoon was spent studying the tactics of warfare. Then they finished up the day with hand to hand combat. Dinner was eaten together in a small barn behind the stables where a makeshift bunk room was fashioned. After dinner, they worked on their writing and reading. This was extremely odd for the time. Very few people in the northlands knew how to read and write. Some thought it to be the works of the evil gods. Gretchen had learned how and now she was teaching the girls.
The girls were now a part of the Elder Family guard. They lived together as a unit in the bunkhouse. Their real family was now the unit. Gretchen had named them the Girls of Ritualistic Learning Skills. Most everyone referred to them as simply “The Girls.” More joined their ranks until finally the door was closed at 30. Gretchen and her family could not support anymore. Nor could they train anymore before the spring when the time would come for the men to leave. The time when they would be the force protecting the Johnson lands.
Olson Iron Wolf, Gretchen’s husband, was skeptical of his wife’s plan but he trusted her to know the way. She had stood by him for many a year and always seemed to have the right mind for strategy. Plus, he knew there was no changing her mind once it was set upon something.
One day, about two months into their training, Olson decided to stop in. Until now he had been busy traveling the towns to garner support for the spring voyage and secure ships. He and a few of his soldiers came during the hand to hand combat session. What he saw impressed him. Standing next to Gretchen he said, “You have done well my wife, but have they trained against anyone but themselves?”
Gretchen didn’t stop watching the girls train. “Not as of yet, my husband. It seems the men find it below them to fight with a girl. I figure it is fear that keeps them away.” A bit of sarcasm in her tone.
Olson nodded and then pointed to a tall, agile girl who had just taken down her opponent in quick form. “You! Yes, you with the ratty yellow hair. Come here.!”
The girl quickly made her way, standing tall in front of the Elder. “You are quick. Do you think you can outmaneuver an experienced warrior?” Olson looked to his left. “Like this strong young fellow here.”
The girl looked sideways at the man standing next to Olson with suspecting eyes. The rest of the girls had stopped fighting and were now watching the interaction between their fellow warrior and Olson. The young soldier just smirked as he looked over the tall, lanky girl.
“Will he be fighting with that silly looking grin on his face? I don’t know if I could stop laughing long enough to hit him.” the girl said.
The young soldier’s expression quickly changed to a scowl.
“Well, then!” Olson said with an amused tone. “Let us see what you can do.”
Confident, Gretchen gave her young warrior a slight nod and motioned for her to step into the middle of the training grounds. Aloof and quite confident in himself, the young man strode in behind. Lista, the girl, took her ready stance. Trevor, the soldier, stood straight with arms crossed as if just an observer. He was a strong man with true battle experience and was by no means a pushover. Lista would truly be lucky to land but one blow.
Lista moved first, coming in low and quick. She moved before Trevor thought the fight had started. Grabbing his left leg in a bear hug and leveraging upwards, Trevor was lifted and slammed back on the hard dirt before he could even get his hands out to break the fall. Lista rolled over her right shoulder and was now kneeling behind Trevor ready to land a blow down on his exposed face. A veteran fighter, it took but a few seconds for Trevor to gain his thoughts. Before her fist could connect he rolled to his right and stood facing Lista in a ready position. She pulled back her swing at the now empty space on the ground and sprung to her feet. They circled while sizing each other up.
Trevor figured he would just overpower her with a sudden rush, but Lista was too quick and jumped back and to the side. She landed a blow to the back of his head as he passed. Trevor pulled up, turned with a smile. “Is that the best you can muster? I have had flies run into me with more force.”
Lista narrowed her eyes and came at him fast and high. Feigning with a wild left hook she moved her right hand up for an uppercut. Trevor grabbed her left arm and fell back. Pulling away from the right fist of Lista and launching her over his body to slam on the ground behind them. Lista rebounded off the ground pulling herself back towards Trevor and landed her right leg on his chest. This released Trevor’s grip on her arm and the two jumped back to facing each other once again. Trevor was getting angry. He should easily be able to take this girl down. He had underestimated her. Some snickers came from his fellow soldiers. A few even offering to lend him a hand.
Lista tried to go low again, but Trevor saw it coming. He jumped back and landed a solid blow to the back of Lista’s head. She sprawled out flat and before she knew it, Trevor was sitting on her back and holding her face to the dirt. Lista was not happy by this turn of events and she struggled to try and get free. The more she struggled, the more pressure Trevor put on the back of her head. With a mouth full of dirt she started to settle down.
Trevor leaned over and said, “Your eyes give you away. Don’t look where you are going to attack. Attack where your mind’s eye wants to attack.”
Olson spoke up, “Enough.” Trevor released the girl and they both stood to face their Elders. “Nicely done. You have a ways to go before you become a formidable warrior but I see the promise in you. If you all have come this far in such a short time, I believe you will be very useful.”
Gretchen looked hard at Lista. Lista quickly thanked her Elder for the compliment.
Olson then looked at Trevor. “You have given good advice Trevor. You will now be one of their trainers. Choose three of your fellow warriors and have them train with the girls every day. If you are all to fight against and among men you’d better start training with them.”
Trevor was not happy about this new arrangement, but he was not about to challenge his Elder when a raiding voyage was so close at hand. The last thing he wanted was to be relegated to rowing for four months. Gretchen was pleased with the outcome. This brought legitimacy to her experiment. She also knew Olson was right. Without practical training with real warriors, her girls would not stand a chance against a raiding party from another clan.
That early summer Olson had gone a-Viking and had taken a larger sum of men for the long voyage. The village of Stroden was seemingly left woefully unprotected. A younger leader of a small clan, keen on gaining some respect and attention, decided he would take advantage of this situation. His band of thirty or so men easily entered the village and quickly made their way to the elders great hall. They figured this might be the easiest plunder they ever earned. Yet, upon approaching the hall there stood a small band of fifteen young women in full battle gear. At first, the raiders were a bit confused as to what they were seeing. A girl stepped forward and warned them to leave in peace or pay for their treachery in blood. At this, the men laughed loudly.
The young, upstart leader leveled his sword at the girls, “So, the mighty Olson Iron Wolf leaves the protection of his lands to a group of sniveling little bitches. You girls! Move aside, or you will be cut down or worse- we will take you as whores and slaves.”
Instead of moving aside, the girls formed a shield wall and began a slow advance on the men. Outnumbering the girls two to one the men let them come. The laughter got louder as they slowly moved forward. Thirty feet. Twenty feet.
Ten feet away a piercing scream rose up from behind the shield wall as the two girls in the center parted. Before the men knew it, Gretchen was through the gap with her broadsword arcing down on a large bear of a man. Her sword landed at the base of the man’s neck. Half cutting off his head. He stood for a moment with a stunned look in his eye, then fell to the ground. The laughter stopped and confusion set in. A hail of spears rained down on the men and many dropped. Some were lucky enough to get their shields up in time. The other fifteen girls had snuck out of the great hall with Gretchen during the distraction of forming the shield wall. The men now faced even odds.
Then came the rush of screams, battle axes, and short swords. Moving with alarming speed and agility the girls cut down man after man and within minutes the band of raiders had been halved. The remaining men turned and ran. If they were fast enough, they escaped, but most were run down and killed. All of The Girls survived but a few cuts and scrapes.
Gretchen pinned down the young clan leader. Swordpoint to his throat, he was stripped of his weapons and valuables. He was told he would be set free to spread the word. If any other clans want to sack the lands of Stroden, The Girls of the Johnson Clan will show no mercy upon their enemies. Their lands and families will always be protected. Thus the Girls of Ritual Learning Skills (GRLS) was ingrained into the Johnson clan.
Nowadays The Girl’s ranks are filled with both legitimate and illegitimate daughters of the Clan. The sages read the girls’ futures when they are very young. They are chosen in this way. Not a perfect system but a necessary one. After all, in any large organization, there are certain practices that although they are not endearing, they are enduring.
The 5,000-acre Lazy J ranch looks like any other northwestern Colorado cattle ranch. A rolling mixture of sagebrush, hay fields, small canyons, and willow stands. Nothing stands out and that is just the way it should be. Here The Girls live and hone their skills until they are set out in the world. The Girls represent an elite covert force used as special operatives across all facets of the clan organization. Not just inside the clan, they keep positions in many local, state and federal governments as well as other crime syndicate organizations. A few have even been installed inside the CIA, FBI and similar organizations around the world. Others are used as simple muscle or mercenaries. The Girls all have specified skills and they are always applied to a useful end.
They are not just trained in covert military operations. They are taught languages, history, politics, social etiquette, multiculturalism, espionage, survival skills and many other trades of the world. When graduated, these girls could get dropped in a jungle and fight their way through a horde of tribal warriors or dazzle an Arabian prince at a debutante ball in Morocco.
Let’s be fully clear, the GRLS is not a fun time and is very much a one-way program. Once you are in you, do not come out. At least not alive. Once a Girl always a Girl. If one was to try and leave they are never seen or heard from again. The Clan could not risk a bad apple spoiling the heretical bunch. To this day only one has ever left and stayed alive. She was a very strong girl from the highest Clan family. Very smart, very strong and very brutal. Some of her classmates said she was not fully human. They would say, only a half-bread could move as she did and think as fast too. A half-bread was the offspring of the gods. It is believed that the gods have visited earth and bear children with us humans. Favored by Odin, she was not just a great warrior but a great leader as well. But, this young woman did not want to be at the Lazy J ranch. She knew she was meant for more than just serving the Clan. She was going to run it and that she could not do from the confines of the ranch or the simple ranks of the clan on the outside. So, she trained and bided her time.
On her 18th birthday, just eight months from graduation, she left the ranch and was never seen again. Her classmates say that as they celebrated her birthday, she just stepped back into the shadows and was gone. No sound, no light or footsteps to trace. Some say that Odin himself must have taken her back to Asgard. Taken her back to her true home. Others say she was just a foolish, spoiled elders’ daughter who wanted her way or no other.
The truth of the matter is only two people knew what happened to her. Bridget and Reynor. They created the shadows for Sanna to disappear into and live among. A place where she could learn the detailed operations of the Clan with no distractions and in secret. Where she could work directly towards what she always knew was her rightful place. The hardest part was leaving her baby brother behind. But, she always knew that someday she would see him again and now and then she would visit him in the shadows. Staying just out of sight but close enough to let him know she was there. Somewhere close.