After the early morning sacrifice rituals were finished, Eric watched his comrades psyching up in preparation for battle. He quietly sat alone, his tunic and cloak soaked with rain, and thought only of Freya, as he waited for the inevitable signal to attack.
He closed his eyes, remembering the way she had held him on the night before his departure. ‘Make me proud of you,’ she’d said. He’d noticed tears in her pale blue eyes.
‘I will come back,’ he’d said, stroking her fair hair. ‘You believe that, don’t you?’
Eric’s reverie was broken by boisterous roars: it was time to attack.
The men’s shouts grew to a deafening crescendo as thunder growled like a huge ferocious dog and lightning flashed across the inky sky: it was a sign that Thor was with them, on their side.
Eric looked up and gasped. He saw Thor, a colossal figure in the heavens, wielding his hammer, and glowering down on him. He lowered his eyes, knowing that Thor hated cowards.
Grabbing his axe, Eric looked around at his stern-faced, battle-hardened comrades, wondering if any of them secretly felt as he did: nauseous, cramp pains in his stomach, his legs suddenly feeling too weak to support him. He wanted to slink off in the opposite direction, but he remembered his hero father: cowardice would shame his father’s memory. His thoughts strayed to his mother; her last words seeming to echo in his ears. ‘Remember you’re all that’s left of your father, son.’
He looked up and saw Thor still watching him. Trembling, his breath coming in gasps, Eric followed the others, afraid of being seen to be afraid.
None of his training could have prepared him for the real thing. The disgusting stench of blood; the sounds of men and horses screaming in agony; the bloody, muddy ground littered with dismembered limbs, the dying, and the dead. Such horror shook him to the core as, huge-eyed and trembling, he watched men he’d known all his life being struck down in front of him.
‘Remember you’re my son, Eric.’
He could have sworn that he heard his father’s voice above the din, and almost searched the twisted and mangled bodies for his face.
‘Yes, Father,’ he said aloud; and then he rushed forward, viciously swinging his axe.
He scored his first kill. It had been a savage fight. Hacking and slashing at one another, Eric and the man had been close enough to smell one another’s breath. A lucky hit, followed up by savage blow to his opponent’s chest swung it in Eric’s favour. As he retrieved his axe from the man’s ribcage, Eric couldn’t help wondering if the dead man had thought he looked like a terrified boy or a hulking Dane warrior.
He felt like a different person – the gentle farmer was gone forever. He looked up and was sure he’d seen Thor wink. Splattered with enemy blood, he surged on, not stopping to watch other men die.
Adrenalin made him ignore his exhaustion, his fear also forgotten, and he felt he could fight all day long. He imagined how proud Freya would be when he told her of his bravery. He would look into her beautiful blue eyes once again and tell her, ‘I said I’d come back –’
Eric gasped with pain and shock as a sword sliced his axe arm off at the elbow. Looking in disbelief at the blood spurting from his stump of an arm, his grip tightened instinctively on the dagger in his other hand. He drove it into the man’s neck, snapping the blade with the ferocity.
He glanced up. Thor was still watching, his mighty hammer beating a tattoo.
Seconds later, Eric fell sideways into the gore-soaked mud as another swordsman ran him through.
His eyes filmed with pain, he looked up at Thor. Thor nodded at him and then continued to watch the battle.
‘Freya?’ Eric said, his blue eyes staring at the blurred female figure approaching him. ‘Be proud of me.’
No, it wasn’t Freya. He gazed up at the tall, blonde female. He wasn’t sure if the others had seen Thor, but he knew that only a few lucky ones – the bravest warriors – would see her that day. Despite the pain, he smiled as she knelt by him. And then he died.
‘Freya will be proud when she hears how bravely you fought,’ the Valkyrie promised as she mounted her horse. ‘But Odin and your father are waiting for you at Valhalla.’
Smiling, and realising that his body was whole again, a new strength coursing through him, Eric climbed onto the steed behind her. He took one last look at the bloody battle field as the horse took off, its hooves galloping on air.
AUTHOR BIO: Jack Horne is married and lives in Plymouth, England, where he works for the local theatre. Many of his short stories, poems and articles have appeared in magazines, anthologies and webzines. His work has also been read out on the radio, and he’s had some competition success.