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A Place for Heroes
    by Myke Cole

The sky is black with feathered shafts. I feel a thousand trembling bowstrings stirring the air long before I hear them.

" 'Ware arrows!"

"Shields up!"

My shield goes up out of instinct, not that it can protect much. There is little left of it after all this time; a few scraps of worm eaten wood, a battered and rusted metal center.

Three or four of the darts pierce my arm, one my shoulder. Only one remains lodged this time. The pain has become second nature by now. It is the same tale told yet again to long-suffering nerves. Hearing nothing new in the bard's voice, they listen only with the least of their attention.

Illugi rushes past me, axe held high. The notches in the axe-head are so deep that I wonder when it will break in two. But there is no shortage of weapons littering the battlefiled. "At them, Einarr!" he cries. Illugi charges into the fray as befits a hero.

I should follow. I am a hero as well. We are all heroes here.

This place is the final reward for heroism.

My father would be ecstatic. I thought I saw him once in the throng, his cracked teeth grinning over a dirty beard, overjoyed at his good fortune. His voice still echoes in my mind: With your sword in hand, boy! With your sword in hand or not at all!

Yes, papa. The arrow has lodged behind my collarbone, making it hard to move.

I stop Ofeigr as he passes. Half his face is gone. What remains peers at me from beneath a leather cap so rotten that it is hard to distinguish from his own moldering scalp. "Pull this out, will you?" I ask, pointing to the arrow. He pauses only to snap off the shaft, and hurries on. There is a battle to be fought.

And fought.

And fought.

Me heerth, my battle clan, has joined the fight now. I can either stand with them or remain here at the valhal, the hall of slain heroes, where the roof of shields reflect the churning sky.

So I join them. My feet pass over those bodies too damaged to rise. Warrior trunks with their limbs hacked off snap at my heels with blackened mouths. A corpse that is only a head, shoulder, and arm waves a sword at me. "Take it," he croaks, "it will serve you well!" My father said the same words to me at my man-making, when I first joined the heerth.

I meet my first opponent. Have I faced him before? Is he an enemy, a friend? It's hard to tell. He slashes at me with his good arm. The other hangs in fetid ribbons. "Well met, hero!" he sings at me. Our swords clash together in a shower of rust and flaking metal. I can barely hear him above the din of screaming men.

I am too tired for the usual exchange of words. I only want to be done with this and quickly. But he is laughing with the joy of the contest. He leans in over our locked blades and smiles with what's left of his mouth. "Good day for it, eh?"

Of course it's a good day for it. It's the same day for it. It is dusk, and the sky is violent with thick, boiling clouds and jagged fangs of lightning. It has been so for as long as any of us can remember.

But I remember other skies. I remember ripples of leisurely azure, and warm golden hands. Groa's hair sweeping around me. Her soft eyelids under my lips before I picked up my sword and boarded the longship, drunk and singing of riches and glory. I remember Gora's pleading eyes, imploring me to stay and tend the burgeoning crop with her. I remember ship's grapples and fire.

I remember a time when I did not fight.

The memory is faint, growing fainter with each hour. But it is never gone entirely.

He drives his helmeted head into my ace. I feel something snap on impact. The pain is a background noise. I want it ended quickly, so I slash at his good arm. My blade has long since been too dull to cut through cheese, but it breaks his shoulder with a satisfying crunch. There is little he can do now but grimace. "Ah! Well struck, hero!"

Well struck indeed. Now get out of my way.

I kick him down into the press of the writhing limbless as the heerth takes up the familiar call. The clusters of archers have reloaded and are shooting indiscriminately into the crowd."

" 'Ware arrows!"

"Shields up!"

My shoulder pumps the ragged remains of my shield into the air to ward off what it can. It is a habit. Apart from one arrow skipping off my helmet, I am spared this time.

My vision swims with motes, but out of the corner of my eye I can see one of the valkyr, the warrior-maidens who brought us here. My father had regaled me with stories of their beauty, of how they would sing as they carried us from where we had fallen. He had learned it from the bards. The tales had promised us a paradise. Their stories lied.

This valkyr is like all the others. There is no singing. She only stands dispassionate, a statue with her head lost in the storm-tossed sky, giving no indication that she is even aware of the constant battle raging around her.

My father's voice echoes in my mind, caring little for immobile contemplation of anything, even a valkyr. It ill suits a hero. Come on, my son! On to their hall. Deprive them of their drinking benches! On to victory! On to glorious death! Shut up. Shut up. Get out of my head. On to nothing. We are all already dead. I look at the writhing bodies underfoot, limbless but still desperate to rejoin the fray. In life we rotted to death, in death we rot to uselessness.

The rot is all.

I'm tired, papa. I want to lie down. I don't want to be a hero anymore.

I lower my shield. Across the short distance from me is another warrior. No, he can't be a warrior. Is he even a man? I stare for moments, motionless before I realize what is wrong.

He has no weapon. His hands are open and empty.

And that isn't all. He is like no Northman I have ever seen. What remains of his skin is dark and patchy, like a Greek trader. His black hair is bound with a green rag bearing some white script I have never seen.

A thick belt holds his mid-section together, punctuated by what looks like long scroll-tubes burned hideously black. Most of the rest of him is gone.

He shambles towards me. I cannot move. I keep looking to his hands. My eyes do not lie. He is weaponless.

He throws his arms around my neck and whispers to me.

"Please . . . Lie down. You don't have . . ."

His words are strange and yet I understand them

"Who are you? Where is your sword?" I ask. He stares. I cannot move. Finally I manage, "What are you doing here?"

"Want to go home," he whispers. "Back to the queen of cities."

The queen of cities. What the Greeks call Constantinople. So, he is a man of Mikkelgard. Perhaps it is not so strange to find him here, then. The Varangian seed has given some of the Mikkelgard Greeks the blood of Northmen. But I have still never seen a Greek here before. The newness of it overwhelms me.

At last, I find my feet. I begin to walk backwards; his grip on my neck carries him with me. Something is wrong. This man is no hero. He can't belong here.

"Please."

A flash of emotion breaks the tired monotony of my time here. It takes me a moment to recognize it as fear.

This strange man terrifies me.

"Get off!" I scream. "Let go of me!"

"Please . . ." he hisses, his eyes are wide and mad. The burned smell is overwhelming. "You don't have to . . ."

And then Illugi crashes into him, tearing him from me and smashing him to the ground. Illugi stomps viciously on him. Unlike the other heroes here, inured to pain, the strange man screams.

I strain for a glance at the man, but the heerth surges forward, carrying me with it. The benches. I must.

The "enemy" hall is not the incorruptible valhal. Like my shield, it gave way to axe strokes, flames and the bite of wood-worms long ago. Little stands apart from the foundation stones. A few rotting benches remain, and the defenders cluster around them, back-to-back. They snarl at us, feral in their desire to protect them.

Oddr is beside me. In life he was one of our baersarks, our battle-mad warriors. His insanity was legendary. He would spark it by chewing his shield edge. Here, the shield has been chewed to fragments, and much of his hand as well.

"Heroes!" he croaks at me over the crunching of his hand. My father echoes the word in my mind. Oddr's face does not appear convinced by his own words. I don't have a chance to confirm this before the frenzy takes hold and he goes spinning into the melee, tossing bodies like rag-dolls with great sweeps of his battle hammer.

The heerth presses towards the benches, stomping the defenders underfoot. Something glints from the twirling heavens. It was probably lightning. No, it was too soft. Gentler. A shaft of wafting wheat. Groa's beautiful hair, falling from her neck to tickle my nose as I lay in her lap. Then there are wide eyes, a whispering voice, begging me, telling me that I don't have to . . .

Too fast. Too fast. The benches. I must. Stupid of course, the same thing happens every time.

Just as the defenders look as if they will finally give way before us, the signal about goes up from the heerth as if for the first time.

" 'Ware arrows!"

"Shields up!"

My arm is so tired. The exhaustion, like the pain, is a dull undercurrent.

The hail of fire lets the defenders regroup. It throws us back from the benches and the ruins of the hall, as it has a thousand times before. Ten thousand. Who can remember?

Sword in your hand lad! Glorious! Glorious! Shut up, you fool.

My back fetches up against something hard. I turn and crane my neck to see a valkyr, motionless, one arm outstretched in warning or encouragement. Her glass eyes stare blankly over the throng. One marble breast is exposed. Lightning reflects off the hard surface of the areola.

I stare up at her. "What do you want from us?" I shriek.

She does not reply. She doesn't have to. I can feel her like a tremor in my head. We fight because it amuses them. It is not for us to know why.

"It must end! When does it end?" But I already know the answer. It will end when they decide it should.

Until then, we fight like the heroes we are.

My father's voice explodes across my thoughts. Hero! Back into it! The fray! I stand and stare up at the valkyr. My father's voice repeats, more loudly this time.

Wide, mad eyes in my mind. The eyes of a Greek, a man of Mikkelgard. My nose fills with the stench of burning flesh. Something is different. The pain is no longer a background noise. It is genuine. Sharp, driving in my skull. Unpleasant, but a change.

I pound the hilt of my sword into the valkyr's legs. The rust finally wins out and the pommel snaps off.

"Enough, you bitch! Enough!" I scream up at her. My voice croaks out as dust.

If she notices she gives no sign. She towers silently.

A voice whispers "please." I feel something brush my foot, but it is only a severed arm grasping my ankle. I try to kick it away and give up.

What are you doing? Back to it! Shut up, old man.

This is not glory.

Oddr is watching me like a furtive child; he chews sheepishly.

"You're no hero," I try to say. It doesn't come out right. I'm not sure he understands me.

I look back to the valkyr. Her eyes are fixed far away.

Oddr casts a nervous glance over his shoulder. The heerth is being driven back. The line will reach us soon.

The pain in my head is fresh and real, and I can feel it moving through me. It brings with it warm memories. Gora and sun and waving grass. Skies without lightning.

How long has it been since I unclenched my right hand? It takes some doing, flexing of fingers, muscles locked in rigor mortis. I pound on it with my shield. Some bones snap and that pain is real too. I scream in spite of myself.

Oddr continues to watch. The battle has moved closer, the noise is rising.

Another shot and the sword comes loose, dropping onto the arm and about my ankle.

Sword in hand, you fool! Pick it up! Pick it up!

Oddr and I both stare stupidly at my hand. It looks short and withered without a weapon. The valkyr pays no attention.

The sky flickers again. I raise my sword hand to my head in what I realize is a pained gesture. Oddr looks afraid.

Then he is swept away as the battle reaches us.

My father's screaming has become agonizing. The pain is fresh, real and most importantly, altogether new. Pick it up! Up! Up! Up! You're a hero! Sword in hand!

No, papa. I'm no hero. Illugi runs towards me, axe held high, shrieking a war cry. He doesn't even recognize me without my sword. Not that it matters

"Illugi," I yell, the pain giving my voice pitch and edge, "drop your blade. Let's lie down together."

Illugi picks up short of me, his eyes clouded with confusion. He keeps staring at my empty hand.

"Come on, Illugi. Enough of this. This goes nowhere. We will fight until we're twitching meat. There is no death here. No glory."

Illugi sputters. "We are heroes! The songs have said . . ."

"The songs lied, Illugi. I don't want to be a song anymore. I'm tired."

I try to jerk my thumb in the direction of the valkyr before I realize the digit is missing. "Don't give her the satisfaction."

Illugi looks around him as if to confirm his surroundings. An armless corpse knee-walks towards him, biting at his legs. He decapitates it absentmindedly.

"I'm tired, Illugi. Aren't you?"

In answer, he buries his axe in my chest. The pain is again real, the fatigue overwhelming. I let it carry me into the dust and swarming bodies.

He shakes his head, freeing himself and then moves back into the fighting, shouting reassurance, though I can't tell for whom.

Hands under my arms. Oddr is dragging me back to the valhal. Let him. I'm too tired to move anyway. I gesture to the hole between my ribs where Illugi's weapon pierced me. "Hurts!" I say, grinning. Oddr grins back. His teeth have long since been filed into yellow points. I notice for the first time that he is missing an eye and an ear, both on the same side of his head. His nose is a gray hole in his face.

He drops me by the hall and regards me for one more moment. I prop myself up on my elbows and watch him.

His torn face stretches into a grin as he props his hammer against the hall. He flexes his empty hands and looks at them as if for the first time.

The battle spins and pulses, shouts of greeting and of rage echo out to me.

That's fine. This battle has gone on for as long as any of us can remember. This dawn spans centuries. Time is my ally. We can reach them. With time we can reach them all.

Hands around my neck, a voice pleading, begging me to lie down.

My head is still throbbing, but there is a curious silence.

I can't hear my father.

We have time. I stand to reenter the melee, no weapons in my hands, my shield a useless nub of rusted metal. Oddr, also weaponless, jogs along at my side.

The familiar cry rises to welcome us.

" 'Ware arrows!"

"Shields up."

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