He stared at the sky and watched them soar. Watched them circle. Watched them prepare. They moved through the air so gracefully. They were angelic. He could hardly believe they served such a dark purpose.
He lifted the visor on his plate helm. “They’re so beautiful.”
The soldier next to him followed his gaze up to the sky. “They’re just vultures, kid.”
Drums began to beat. It was time to march.
He couldn’t take his eyes off of them. “I wasn’t talking about the birds.”
The man looked down at him, then back up to the sky and shook his head.
His unit began to move, and a shove from behind broke the spell which the scene above held over him. He slammed the visor down on his helmet and began to walk.
It was his first battle. He had lied about his age to be in it. He shrugged and found the plate armor to be far clunkier and heavier than he expected. It restricted his movement and limited his vision. The spear was too long, and unwieldy in his hands. It felt unnatural.
His father had chosen the life of a farmer over the life of a hero, and he was determined to be different. He was going to be a hero. The time had come to prove himself. There was no way his children were going look down on him with disdain.
Across the field he caught his first glimpse of the barbarian horde. His pulse quickened. They whooped and shrieked and smashed their weapons against their shields. His heart hammered in his chest. They sounded inhuman. He thought they might be. His body went cold.
Horns trumpeted, signaling that it was time to charge. Maybe his father was right. Maybe this was a mistake. He looked around for a way out, but found none.
The sea of soldiers surrounding him surged forward. Their momentum carried him across the field against his will. He struggled just to remain on his feet within the mass of bodies.
His unit crashed into the enemy and together they became a tangle of knotted sinew and steel. Each side thrusted and hacked at the other. Shields were pressed together. Faces were contorted into violent grimaces.
The Valkyries swooped down from the sky to begin their work.
His spear slipped from his hands as he watched the Choosers of the Slain dance amongst the battling men.
He watched as one of them guided a warhammer into the abdomen of a man to his right. It crushed his chest piece and knocked him from his feet. His limp body came to rest face down in the mud. Blood leaked from the joints in his armor.
Another adjusted the angle of an incoming spear to ensure it pierced the heart of the man to his right.
The front of his pants became warm and wet as he lost control of his bladder, but he couldn’t take his eyes off the creatures as they performed their enchanting work.
The world swirled around him, and he was at the center of it. Time slowed. For a moment he was standing in the fields of his farmland at home. The sun was shining on his face. His father looked up from his plow and waved.
A whisper in his ear brought him back to the battlefield. “Duck.” He turned to see her to his right. Her eyes were deep blue and her hair billowed in the wind like tendrils of golden smoke. Luminescent trails followed in her wake as she swam through the air around him.
He hesitated, so she pushed him to the ground.
He pulled his helmet off and looked up to see her in front of him, smiling. “It’s not your time,” she whispered.
An arrow sailed over his head and into the throat of a soldier behind him. Blood bubbled out of the wound and he fell to the ground, clutching his throat.
Her voice came again. “Crawl.”
He locked eyes with the dying man, and couldn’t turn away. “Crawl, now!” A backhand to his left cheek broke his stupor.
He crawled through the mud. She was in front of him, leading him towards the safety of the tree line. On all fours he scrambled between the legs of fighting men and over bodies of the wounded – or sometimes only parts of them.
Dying men crashed to the ground around him like felled trees.
Wounded soldiers clutched at him and begged him for help. The ground had come alive with them and was trying to drag him down into it. He kicked at some, shrugged off others.
His arms and legs burned, but he stayed low and kept pumping them. He had to keep following her. He had to keep moving towards the edge of the battlefield. It was the only way he would survive. It wasn’t his time, she’d said. He’d heard her say it. And he believed her.
“Roll right.” She was on his left now. He rolled onto his back and an ax sank deep into the ground next to his head. She floated over him. He smiled at her and nodded. Thank you.
“Stand.” It was just a whisper, but it echoed in his ears. Without hesitation he picked himself up off the ground.
The arrow was just a blur, and he hardly noticed its approach until it pierced his armor and sank deep into his chest.
She reached out and caressed his face. Her hand was soft and warm on his cheek. He looked past her to the safety of the trees. He was so close. Grasping the arrow with both hands he pushed on it, but lacked the strength to force it back out.
She kissed him on the forehead and whispered into his ear. “Go…”
He dropped to his knees, and then fell onto his back. The sound of men fighting was still all around him. Her voice came one last time. “…home.”
He watched the vultures circle high in the air above him. So Beautiful.
“John, are you even listening to me? John?” His father was calling to him from across the field. “You’re not joining the army, and that’s final. It’s two more years until you are of age anyways. Besides, these fields aren’t going to just plow themselves, you know?” It was a regular argument between he and his father. It always ended the same way.
“You’re right, Dad.”
His father sighed and shook his head. “No, I won’t hear another word about it, and don’t you even think about-” His head swung around to look at the boy.
She was there, floating in the air behind him with one hand on his shoulder
He shrugged, then pushed his own plow forward. “Maybe being a farmer isn’t so bad.”
She smiled, and then floated up into the sky.