I traveled deep into the dark wood, camping when I tired, hunting small critters when I was hungry. I was always hungry. Insects and squirrels could never satiate my hunger, but I had begun to suspect that I didn’t need to eat. Perhaps hunger was a habit of my living body that my corpse could not be rid of.
Still, I ate when I could, and slept when I must. Several times I had lost my way. I climbed a tall tree to look to the mountains, regaining my bearing. Mists rolled in and melted away. Winds shook the branches overhead, only to calm, too still. Rains came in a torrent, soaking me to the bone, and leaving with the same abrupt violence they had come. Sometimes the call of animals reached my ears. Wolves howling, owls hooting, grunting reindeer, none to be seen. It was as if I walked through a dead shadow of the living world I knew. The sun never rose above the horizon or dipped too low to cast a meager light across the sky.
Twilight ruled here, and the creatures of night kept the order in this world. The hall of my fathers had better be worth the journey across this wretched place.
The drake skin jerkin I had fashioned was crude, but it would do what I had intended. The scales were tough enough to stop an arrow and the leather could glance a blade. I tied scraps of drake skin to my feet as improvised boots. They protected me from sharp rocks and fruitless brambles, though they pinched at times. The curved knife I had taken from the first goblin I had killed was holding well to the abuse of everyday use. The sword, however, was notched, bent, and dull. I suspect those goblins didn’t make the knife if the sword was a testament to their craftsmanship. I would have to find a replacement.
I stepped into a clearing and cast my eyes about me. It was as if the gods heard my plea and answered me. A sword gleamed, catching my eye. It had been stuck into the ground with its hilt in the air. Drawing my bent and notched sword, I approached cautiously.
Something crunched under my foot and I looked down to see what it was. I had stepped into a rib cage. The rest of the skeleton was half-buried in the ground, with grass growing through it. Upon seeing this, I noticed several other skeletons like it. Each crushed, broken, half-buried, and overgrown. As I drew closer, I could see that the sword was embedded at the head of a slender mound covered in stone.
As I walked, more and more skeletons became apparent. Hundreds of fallen men lay in this clearing, with only one grave.
Though the sword had been exposed to the elements for an unknown time, it’s blade was unrusted. Instead, it seemed to give off a slight shimmer in the half-light. Letters etched on the flat of the blade spelled a name. Though I could not read, I recognized the name.
The name was not of whoever was buried here, but the maker of the sword, I suspected. I had faced swords of the same name on the battlefield twice. They seemed to possess a magic unknown to most smiths. Where a sword might break, Ulfberhts flexed and returned to their straight shape. Where a sword might chip, Ulfberhts would retain their edge. My eyes danced over it. The crossguard and pommel were simple enough, yet elegant. The grip was wrapped in dark leather.
I lusted for this superior craftsmanship.
Wrapping my hand around the hilt, I pulled it from the black earth, lifting the blade up to inspect it. The sword felt light in my hand. What weight it did have, was balanced with the pommel. I effortlessly gave the blade several swings when something pale laying in the tall grass caught my eye.
I stepped closer, and a foul stench assaulted my nose. A cloud of flies parted, and a face looked up at me. The body lay in the grass like the others but this one was much fresher. This man had been lying here for a fortnight at the most. Buzzards and wolves had picked him over, leaving the rest to the flies. Their squirming larvae wriggled in and out of every soft part of him.
The longer I looked at him, the more I realized I was looking at his back and his face at the same time. His head had been turned around completely on his body.
Then the ground beneath my feet trembled. I turned back to the lone grave just as a hand burst from within it. Then another shot up through the dirt and stone. Blackened flesh clung to bone and sinew. Those fingers clawed into the ground on either side of the grave and the mound began to rise. As the dark earth sloughed away, I could see the undead thing beneath.
As it stood in the grave, I could see it had once been a man. A gray beard was matted with roots and mud, worms tunneled through bloated flesh, and those eyes pierced into my soul.
A draugr or revenant lay restless in the grave, protecting treasure buried there.
I looked at the spectacular sword in my hand and suddenly knew I would have to fight for it.
“Return my treasure and I will allow you to leave in peace,” the draugr said in a hissing voice that seemed to ride on a breeze.
“I cannot,” I said, puffing my chest and lifting my chin.
“Then you must die like the rest,” the draugr said, but not as a threat. As a matter-of-fact.
The undead creature stood to its full height and I could see that it was taller than me, but it kept growing taller and taller. Before long, the revenant stood at almost twelve feet tall and it stretched its rotting lips into a sickening grin.
Without another word, it lunged forward to stomp me flat beneath a massive black foot. I rolled out of the way with not a moment to spare. The draugr’s giant heel impacted the earth with such force as to leave a divot, throwing clumps of sod to either side.
I slashed and the Ulfbehrt’s blade bit deeply into the draugr’s leg, but it did not seem to notice. The draugr swatted me away with the back of its hand. I flew through the air and tumbled through the grass, Ulfberht slipping from my grasp. I struggled to stay conscious as I searched for the sword. A gleaming caught my eye. I found it and reached to grasp it.
Before I could wrap my hand around the grip, I was yanked backward. The draugr had me by the foot and was pulling me to itself. It lifted me by one leg and held me dangling in front of it. The stench was overwhelming. Every movement the creature made, released noxious gasses of rot and decay into the air. It stood in a cloud of stink.
The draugr gripped my flailing arm with its free hand and I feared it would rip me apart by my ankle and wrist. I kicked desperately at its knuckles, but it would not release its grasp. I drew the curved knife from my belt and slashed at the hand holding my wrist.
The curved blade severed two fingers and left the third hanging by a bit of gristle. The creature wailed into the twilight, dropping me to the ground. I scrambled up, noticing only then that I had also cut my own hand with the knife. I ran to where the Ulfbhert lay and scooped it up. I crouched low, hiding the sword behind my back.
The draugr regained its ghoulish composure and stomped to me, rumbling the earth. I stayed low, keeping the sword hidden, holding the curved knife out in front of me. I bore my teeth in a snarl. The draugr bent low to grasp me with both hands. The intent to break me in half was apparent on its face. Still, I waited.
When the draugr was close enough, I whipped the Ulfbhert around, putting all my force behind the cut. Just as it had once again wrapped it’s bony fingers around me, the draugr’s arms fell limp to its sides. A strange expression washed over the draugr’s face as it watched the length of its beard fall to the ground.
Then, the revenant’s body collapsed under its immense weight, and its head rolled away into the grass. I stood slowly, making sure the body would not reanimate and kill me. It lay still and I relaxed. I searched the body for a scabbard, but there was none.
“You still have not vanquished me,” the draugr’s voice called from within the tall grass.
After a brief search, I came upon the severed head and lifted it with some effort. The draugr snapped its jaws at me, still hoping to do any damage it could. I held it before me by the ears. The draugr’s breath almost killed me right then.
“Where is the scabbard?" I asked.
“You cannot have it,” the draugr said. “You still have not defeated me.”
Of course, I have, I thought.
“I will defeat you once I have the scabbard,” I said.
The draugr remained silent for several moments before parting its rancid lips to grin with those rotting teeth.
“It remains in my grave,” the draugr said.
I went to the grave and there it was. Black leather with elegant steel reinforcing the tip and the opening. I tossed the head into the hole and retrieved my prize. I thought about leaving the revenant like that, but a deal is a deal.
I stabbed the sword down, puncturing the top of the draugr’s skull and plummeting all the way through. The draugr gave a brief look of relief before his rotting face fell slack. I put a foot on the skull and removed the sword. I wiped the foul-smelling fluid from the blade before inserting it into its scabbard.
As I walked through the clearing, I found the chipped and bent goblin sword in the grass. I picked it up and stabbed it down into the Ulfbhert’s place at the head of the grave. Once I had done this, I noticed a dark figure standing in the woodline, watching me.
It had the shape of a man, but It was almost as if I could see through it. The low light plays tricks on the eyes. Knowing this, I closed them and shook my head. Once I opened them again, the figure was gone.
This was a strange place indeed.
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