Buliwyf led me to a hill, some distance away from the Great Hall. A ring of people had gathered there—it looked like a duel was about to take place. Indeed, Eben ran up to Herger, who stood by three shields, a sword in one hand.
“What happened?” The Arab asked, barely containing himself.
Herger smiled. “An engineering dispute!”
“You notice he is bigger than you?” Eben asked, pointing to the giant red-headed man with arms like fir trees. I recognized him as one of Prince Wyglif’s friends.
“Yes,” Herger said, nonchalant.
“Yes! Bet on him, if you like!”
“I may!” Eben cried.
The Arab scoffed as Herger strode out into the ring, tapping his shield twice to begin the round. I looked at Buliwyf, who was fully absorbed in the match. I had never seen him out of armor. He wore a simple white tunic, the sleeves rolled to his elbows, and a pair of tan leather trousers and boots. It suited him. The more I looked at him, the more I wanted to touch his face, feel the muscles in his arms, run my fingers through his hair. I looked at the Arab, instead, who came marching up to us where we stood.
“You must stop it!” He said to Buliwyf.
When Buliwyf said nothing, Eben turned to me.
“No,” I said to him, before he could speak. “I am a spectator, nothing more. He is the one you talk to.”
Defeated, Eben stormed off and tried to shift his focus to the mountains on the horizon.
“You are friends with the Arab?” Buliwyf asked me.
“I consider myself so, yes.”
A pause. Herger’s second shield had broken, and he took in a loud gulp of air before picking up the third.
“For three and thirty years I have been here, in this life,” Buliwyf said. “I never thought I would travel with an Arab in my company.”
I smiled. “He is determined; it has served him well so far.”
“Your wound is healing well,” He said.
I realized he must have been looking at me, but I did not meet his eyes. Rather, I changed the subject.
“How long do we have before they attack again?”
“Tonight, I think.”
So soon! Before I could reply, Eben came to us a second time.
“He is going to get killed!” He said through gritted teeth.
“It is possible,” Buliwyf said calmly, enraging the Arab further.
I couldn’t help but smile at his devotion to Herger.
“You think this is funny?” He asked me.
“When will you learn?” I asked him. “Our fates are fixed, Eben.”
He frowned, but stood near me. Herger lost his last shield, and leaned on his sword as the red-head went in for the killing blow. At the last possible moment, Herger rolled out of the way, throwing the other man off balance. As he stumbled forward, Herger whirled around and brought his sword down, decapitating the younger man with one swift stroke. He came over to us, and I blinked twice. For a moment, I thought I saw smoke coming out of Eben’s ears.
“You!” The Arab said, pointing to Herger, who had just doused his head in a bucket of water. “You could have killed him at will!”
“Wha—why the deception?”
“Deception is the point!” Herger cried. “Any fool can calculate strength—that one has been doing it since the moment he saw us!”
Herger gestured to the prince, who was walking away through the crowd at a quick, furious pace.
“Now,” Herger continued. “He has to calculate what he can’t see!”
Eben thought for a moment. “And fear…what he doesn’t know.”
Herger struck his hand against his own forehead, signaling that Eben was correct.
“As you say, foolish,” Buliwyf said, his voice sending a shiver up my spine. “And expensive…we will miss his sword.”
I smiled and spoke to Herger before returning to work. “Well done, my friend.”
He nodded, and continued his conversation with Eben.
I worked well into the night, taking little rest. With the distraction gone, my mind returned to marriage. I had a sinking feeling in my stomach that my fate would lay in a hearth and home, not a death in battle that I so longed for. There would be no place in Valhalla for me, and I was terrified at the thought.
“Valka!” Helfdane called to me from the Great Hall. “Odin’s sake, girl, stop working and come eat!”
I threw down my pickaxe. “I’ll be at the watch-tower!” I said to him, suddenly desperate for solitude.
“Be on your guard, then—there is no watch tonight!”
I nodded to him and went to the stables, mounting Aska and riding away at a fierce gallop. At that moment, I debated going on. The crossroads stood before me, empty and eerie in the sunset. Left was the watchtower; right was the unknown North Road, leading to the High Mountains.
“What do you think, Aska?” I asked him.
He whinnied and began to go left.
“Left it is.”
I tied him to the watchtower and climbed a nearby pine, finding a crook and settling in. Once I was hidden from view, I relaxed. The sunset was beautiful from up here—the quiet even more precious. My eyelids grew heavy after a long while. Just as they closed, I heard hooves coming closer. Like a fool, I had left my axes mounted to Aska’s saddle. I saw a great brown horse, with Edgtho astride it, wearing his leather armor. He dismounted in one fluid motion, looking at the watchtower. After a minute, he walked slowly to the tree.
“Your horse is not a very good guard, even with your axes. Besides,” He called up to me. “That’s my spot.”
I couldn’t help but smile. I climbed down, jumping to the ground.
“Take it,” I said. “Not very comfortable.”
Edgtho handed me some food wrapped in a linen cloth. I thanked him and began to eat, watching as he climbed the tree faster than I thought possible. I turned my gaze to the horizon. I could see some of the townspeople working in the fields, as well as fog coming over the mountains.
“A mist is forming!” I called up to Edgtho, hoping he could understand me through a mouthful of bread and cheese.
“I see it,” He said.
Some minutes passed. I finished my meal quickly, my shoulders flexing as I felt the tension in the air. When a horn sounded a moment later, I was not surprised. Edgtho craned his neck backwards, his eyes falling on something in the distance.
“The worm!” I heard him say, muttering it like a curse on his breath. “They’ve roused the fire-worm!”
I ran to the watch tower and picked up the mallet, hitting the metal plate that hung there. It sent a warning across the stillness, one that made the townspeople in the fields run for the safety of the Hall.
“Ride ahead,” Edgtho cried. “I will follow presently!”
I did as he asked, coming through the gates as the defenses were readied. The spikes we built to spear the horses were lowered—Halga, the strongest of our number, drove a heavy hammer into logs to keep them in place.
“Where is Edgtho?” Weath asked me as I dismounted.
“He is not far behind me!”
Sure enough, the Scout rode into the city before five minutes had passed. Helfdane put a hand on my shoulder, holding my mail and leather jacket in his free hand. I thanked him and hastily put them on, taking my axes from Aska’s saddle. A stable-boy led the mount away, and our attention turned to the fire-dragon. The mist had spread, covering the land before us and the fields to the east. The flame slithered down the hillside like a serpent, and I could not quell the terror or the bile that rose in my throat.
“Come, little brother!” I heard Herger say to the Arab. “It is beginning!”
I smiled at Eben as he passed. It was reassuring to know that I was not the only one who was nervous. He returned the gesture and followed Herger down the trench, where they waited. At first, there was nothing but fog.
“What’s that in the field, below the watch tower?” Weath asked, speaking to no one directly.
We all strained our eyes to see, but Rethel had better vision.
“It is a child,” He said.
“Look at her,” Herger mused. His voice was solemn; the fire-worm was not far from her.
“Open the gate,” the Arab said. “Open it!”
He ran for his horse, as Weath and the others reached the gates.
“Push!” Weath cried, throwing his weight against the barriers.
“No!” Skeld cried. “You need to raise the spikes first, help me!”
Herger, meanwhile, walked calmly to where Skeld was and put a hand on his back.
The Arab and his horse leapt over the gates just as Herger and Skeld landed face-down in the dirt.
He rode until he was swallowed by the mists. I couldn’t see him anymore, and I found myself praying to Odin to protect him. It was agonizing minutes before he returned, the men slamming the gate shut behind him. Once the spikes were in place, Herger spoke up.
“So you saw the fire worm?” He asked Eben.
The Arab shook his head. “Cavalry, hundreds of them, with torches!”
Herger’s eyes rolled back into his head. “I would have preferred a dragon.”
I fought off the urge to laugh, instead taking my place at the walls, between Helfdane and Skeld.
“This will be a good battle, cousin,” Skeld said to me.
“Don’t do anything foolish.”
He laughed, genuinely amused. “Me? Foolish? I am wounded by your words, Valka.”
I elbowed him in the side. “I want to celebrate our victory with you when this is over, Skeld.”
He smiled. “We will have many tales to tell, I am sure of that.”
Then, all conversation ceased. The only thing to do now was wait; the sound of horses became ever louder.
In no time at all, they were upon us. I ducked behind the spikes as the Wendol hurled their torches at us, several of them catching on the thatched roofs. Torches were soon followed by spears and arrows. They began to come over the gates, even as their horses reared up against the spikes, unable to clear them. I swung at one that jumped down above me, my axe hitting him with a satisfying crack in the shin. He fell to the ground, and I finished him with a swift stroke to his throat. I took down another, and another, and another. The Arab hadn’t lied when he said how great the Wendol’s numbers were. They just kept coming! I looked up as a torch flew past, igniting the stable roof. Skeld climbed up the side of the structure and reached out for it. He managed to dislodge it, but not before a spear pinned him to the thatch. Four more pierced his body, and he was dead within moments.
“No!” I cried out and jumped onto the next enemy I saw, fury and adrenaline coursing through me. I took the Wendol from his perch on the fence with an axe to his stomach, pulling it out with a cry of rage before I moved on to the next. It did not take long for them to breach the gate. They rode in lines of cavalry, four across, and there seemed to be no stopping them.
“On me!” I heard Buliwyf’s cry across the courtyard.
Dodging bodies and flames, I sprinted toward him, keeping my eyes on his sliver-plated armor. Once I was in range, he threw me a wooden spike.
“Arab!” He called, doing the same for him.
“What do I do with it?” Eben cried.
“Put your foot on it, and stand!”
We did as directed, and waited. The cavalry line came closer, until finally they were upon us. At about the same moment, the reality that the horses were not going to stop hit home, for both Eben and I. The Arab cried out, partly from fear, as the horses were speared through the chest by our guard. The Wendol fell to the ground, and we slew them as they came. Their main defense broken, it did not take long for the enemy to retreat. Buliwyf raised his sword in triumph, but I did not stay there. I threw down my spike and ran to the stables, climbing to the roof and wrenching the spears from Skeld’s lifeless body. I rolled him onto his back and took his head into my lap, no longer able to mask my sorrow behind anger and war. I sobbed into his hair, stroking his face with one hand. Soon, I felt someone try to take his body from me, and I held tighter.
“Valka, you must let him go!” Edgtho’s voice. “He must go to Valhalla.”
At this, I relented. I dried my eyes and followed him from the roof, walking back to the courtyard in a daze. I saw Herger talking to the Arab, then coming towards me as a woman with long blonde hair took Eben’s hand into her own.
“Skeld, Halga, Roneth, and Rethel go to Valhalla this night,” He said to me.
I nodded, resigned. Now, there were only seven of us: Buliwyf, Herger, Edgtho, Helfdane, Weath, the Arab, and myself. If the Wendol launched another cavalry attack like this one, our chances were slim indeed. Herger handed me a horn of honey-mead; where he had gotten it, I did not know. I let it go down to my stomach, but I felt nothing except the fires around us. Even as they burned down, our fallen warriors turning to ash with them, I knew no relief.
“Come,” Herger said at last. “This is no place for us.”
He put an arm over my shoulders as we walked, and I was grateful for it; I returned the gesture, moving listlessly into the Great Hall.