The plan suddenly made sense.
“So… I’m bait?” I asked.
I stood, shoulders slouched, hands in pockets, engulfed by the shadows of five colossal warriors in our lantern-lit war-tent.
“No, you’re not bait,” Alruc said. “You’re our vanguard!” He threw up his hands, astounded that I could even pose the question. “You’ll cross enemy lines into Miramin Hill where you’ll fight off horde after horde of ghouls, orcs, and shades while we do the hard part of securing a route back to the capital.”
Alruc was a big man, a monument to everything our Viking tribe stood to be. Unlike me. I lacked not just his size, but also that impressive beard cleaned only by the ale he let escape his lips. Some claimed that to this day, the blood of his enemies from his first battles still lay caked deep within his proof of manhood. I barely had stubble.
I clasped my hands together, only occasionally glancing up. “I mean… it just feels like I’m distracting them while you guys run away.”
“Run away?” Alruc’s jaw dropped, he exchanged furtive glances with the four warriors behind him. “We are not running away. We are securing a route back to the capital. You know, Jaden, I wish I could do your job. Because when the sun’s set and campfires alight and the bards sing of our heroic battle, they’ll be singing about you even though we had the harder part of securing a route back to the capital!”
A silence fell around us. I dug my hands into my pockets until I hit the hole in my trousers. Alruc watched me like a hawk eyeing its prey, daring me to say more. And normally I wouldn’t. He was the hero of our tribe, the man who slew a thousand ghouls and was gifted bear fur garments by the king himself. But it was my life on the line.
“So, how do I get out?”
“I mean, I’m surrounded on all sides by an army. How do I get out?”
“Jaden!” Alruc smacked his face, dragging his face down with his fingers. “This is why you’ll never grow a beard like mine. You go into battle and the first thought on your mind is retreat. Have you no Viking pride?”
My face flushed. It was true. Even my father had told me that my stubble, my frail body, even my lack of a southern beard at fifteen years age — it was all because I lacked Viking pride. The Divine Odin would rather let a woman lead the army than me, so he refused to bless me with my proof of manhood. I had to earn it. So my father sent me to the frontlines with Alruc Thunderlord’s army, facing off the greatest threat our tribe had ever met. All for a little hair on my chin and down there.
“Well… I mean… Pride is one thing but…” I stopped when I glanced up at Alruc’s glare.
He crossed his arms. “The question was rhetorical.”
“Okay,” I squeaked.
“Look, Jaden” — Alruc clasped my shoulder — “imagine with me, for just a second. You, standing atop a hill, a fiery sun at your back, an army ten thousand broken before you. And as you fall, fatally wounded, you see our glorious king personally opening up the gates of Valhalla where his brethren greet you as their own. Does that not sound worthy of a little danger?”
I nodded. “Yes! And I want that, but don’t you feel like it’s a little unrealistic?”
“Odin smite you! Our armies lie broken, our women and children terrified, and our villages pillaged. You will do your Viking duty and decimate that army while I secure a route back to the capital!”
I pressed my lips into a thin line. Images of huddled women and crying toddlers flashed through my head. It was true, everything Alruc said — this was my Viking duty.
“Okay.” I nodded. “I’ll lead the vanguard.”
“Yes, Jaden,” Alruc exclaimed. “I can see the fire in your eyes!”
I felt it too — that fire. Warmth surged through my body like a fiery swell in my chest. “Alright, I’ll do it! Hand me a weapon.”
Five empty eyes stared back. Their jaws dropped.
“You don’t have a weapon?” Alruc asked, narrowing his eyes.
My fire simmered to smoke. I opened my mouth and for a while, nothing came out. Finally, I pushed out, “I mean… I think I lost it in the march and I haven’t really…” My voice faded.
“The march?” Alruc’s face turned a deep purple. “We marched a month ago. You’re telling me that you have been without weapon this entire time? How did you battle?”
My mouth opened too soon once again. At last, I shrugged my shoulders in defeat.
Alruc roared. Purple veins bulged from his neck, threatening to pop. “If we weren’t so pressed for men, I would strike you down myself!”
“I’m sorry,” I stammered. “It’s just that everybody was already making fun of me and it was embarrassing.”
Ten rigid finger hovered around my neck. “Embarrassing? Jaden Hammersmith, by my authority, you will take my axe, go to Miramin Hill and—”
“Alruc Thunderlord,” a deep voice said. One of the king’s guards entered our tent, papyrus scroll in hand.
The five warriors and I instantly stood at attention.
“The king has new orders,” the guard said. “Prepare for battle. We are to take Miramin Hill.”
Alruc’s face drained of color. Then he pressed his lips together and I saw behind his eyes the fire I once had. “For my king, anything.” He turned to me, a smile on his lips. “Jaden, Odin truly blesses us this day. We are to be given the highest honor of fighting beside the king himself.”
“Well, not necessarily,” the king’s guard said.
“Will the king not be joining us in battle?” Alruc asked.
The King’s guard shook his head. “He’ll be securing a route back to the capital.”
Jamie Wang writes as a hobby.