Thorgaut reached back with this hand and kept the second ax pressed in place. He wrapped his fingers all the way around it and pulled down on the handle. He couldn’t pull the shaft all the way out of its bindings.
The handles were longer than most. Thorgaut had taken them to the best blacksmith in the region to have them extended. He wanted longer handles to give him extra reach in battle.
His friends laughed at him because his arms already had such a long reach anyway. They said that with the extra length on his handles, he was ready to fight Loki and the giants.
Thorgaut had laughed right along with them. He was a massive warrior, so the handles were proportional to his size and felt right when he gripped them. But now he wished he hadn’t made them quite so long.
He continued to press on the ax up against his back as he slid his fingers farther down the handle. He gave it a firm tug and pulled it out as far as it would come. Then he pressed it back against his body while he slid his fingers back down the handle to get it another tug. It took him several tries before he could finally pull it free.
He had to pause once to stretch and relax his arm. The fact that he was hanging upside down and couldn’t keep himself steady didn’t help any either. He kept swinging and spinning around every time he reached around his back or pulled on the battle ax.
The ax kept getting bunched up between the leather binding straps. Thorgaut had them crisscrossing down the length of the handle. His father told him that they would increase the strength of his grip in battle.
Thorgaut had to work to get the ax off to the side and loosen the bindings. He wiggled it around and twisted it back and forth trying to pull it free. It took him a bit of time and effort to get the ax completely loose.
He felt the bow coming loose, but he didn’t try to hold it in place. If he could get the bow out of the way, it would be easier to get the ax out. He kept wiggling till he felt the bow come loose and let it drop to the ground below.
After that, it was easier to slide the ax out. It still took a few minutes before he was able to work the handle completely out though. But he finally got the ax around the front of his body where he could hold it between both hands.
They were shaking from the effort. The strain of reaching that far behind his back while hanging upside down left them feeling sore. He paused for a few moments to catch his breath and also to stop swinging.
Thorgaut tried to reach the blade of the ax up towards the rope, but it didn’t quite get high enough. He slid his hand as far down the handle as he could while keeping his grip on it. It still didn’t reach the rope though.
He tried to twist his body up and to the side and managed to touch the blade to the rope that way. However, his body bent too far to the right and felt very uncomfortable. So, he centered the ax with both hands between his legs and scrunched his abs to pull himself up towards his feet.
The blade of the ax reached the rope between his feet in a more comfortable position. He tried taking a light swing at the cord, but it didn’t cut into it. All it did was tighten the rope around his feet and jerk them off to the side. His body, of course, followed soon after and he swung around for a bit until he swayed back to a stop.
That didn’t work, so Thorgaut tried sawing the rope with the edge of the ax. The blade seemed to be making progress and cutting through the fibers. It was slow going, but from his position, it looked like he was almost halfway through. His arms and stomach ached from the effort though, so he paused to stretch and relax his muscles.
Thorgaut took a deep breath and pulled himself back up to continue cutting through the rope. It was coming along well, and he had almost cut all the way through when a flash of movement caught his eye. He twisted to get a better view, but it was gone. He turned his body around to get a complete view of the area around him.
He didn’t see anything but gave himself another turn around in both directions to make sure. That was when he saw the giant gray wolf slinking in the opposite direction. “Oh, schmack!” he sighed. He twisted around for a better look and tightened his grip on the ax.
It was the biggest wolf Thorgaut had ever seen in his life. Massive bulk. A huge neck. If he had been standing, it would have come up to his shoulders. For once, Thorgaut felt happy to be off the ground. Not that he was high enough to be out of its reach. Judging by its size and muscular frame, Thorgaut figured it could reach him if it wanted to.
The wolf continued watching him from a distance. It looked like it was trying to decide what to do with this strange two-legged creature. Thorgaut wondered if it had ever seen a human out here in these woods. Much less one that was hanging upside down.
Thorgaut felt like a sitting duck waiting to get eaten. He twisted back up to continue sawing at the rope while keeping an eye on the wolf out of the corner of his eye.
The wolf circled in much closer and crouched lower in attack mode. Thorgaut stopped sawing at the rope. He twisted down into position and swung around to face the wolf.
He overtwisted and swung past his view of the wolf to the point where he couldn’t see it. He tried to twist back as the wolf charged and leaped. Thorgaut swung out with the ax. He swung his arm out too far and completely missed the wolf. But even though his swing was too broad to harm the wolf, it still served to swing his body out of the way.
The wolf’s body shot passed him. The wolf twisted his neck and body in the air. Its jaws snapping inches from his ears. He heard the menacing growl and snap. Relieved he hadn’t been bitten, Thorgaut still shivered at how close its teeth had come.
Thorgaut twisted around looking for the wolf behind him. The wolf had landed and spun back around to face him again. It was gathering itself for another leap. The look in its eyes shocked Thorgaut. The fire and fury in his eyes blazed. It looked strangely like one of the enemy soldiers he faced in battle. Not like any animal on the prowl that he had hunted before.
The wolf leaped into the air towards him once again. Thorgaut swung the ax forward and under towards the wolf. The weapon connected with the wolf, but Thorgaut didn’t have enough power behind it to hurt the wolf from that angle. The swing also didn’t propel Thorgaut out of the wolf’s path.
The wolf snapped out towards his throat. The ax did partially block the wolf’s attack, so it didn’t sink its teeth into his neck. But it still managed to bite into his shoulder. The wolf’s murderous teeth sank through the outer covering of his clothing and into his flesh.
It snapped its jaws shut around his shoulder and gave a sharp pull. The force of its leap and the effect of gravity pulled the wolf’s body away from him giving it even more power. Fortunately, its teeth didn’t get too far into his muscle, but it still managed to draw blood and yank out some flesh. It hurt, and Thorgaut yelled out in pain and fury.
The wolf snarled as it landed. Invigorated by the taste of warm, fresh blood, the wolf howled with excitement.
“Great!” Thorgaut muttered. “Why don’t you go ahead and invite the rest of the pack over for supper, you dumb mutt.”
The wolf prepared for another violent attack. It came in closer underneath him this time before leaping.
The proximity of the wolf allowed Thorgaut to get a solid blow in across the top of its head. Unfortunately, for Thorgaut the blade twisted away in the opposite direction. It didn’t cut into the wolf, but the solid object still made for a nice, firm blow to the side of its skull. The shock of the solid steel at the base of its skull left the wolf stunned. The gray creature fell back down to the ground and whimpered off to the side still circling him.
Thorgaut twisted his body to follow the wolf’s pace and keep an eye on it. His arms ached from the weight of the ax. The blood rushing to his head made his ears roar and his head throb.
The rope had twisted around as far as it was going to go, and had now started to spin back in the opposite direction. Thorgaut couldn’t keep an eye on the wolf. He only saw it once each time he spun around past it.
The wolf didn’t understand what he was doing and had backed up a bit with an angry snarl. Thorgaut reached the ax down and managed to push the head against the ground to slow down his spinning.
The wolf hunched up its hind legs like it was going to attack again. Thorgaut pulled his ax back up in preparation for the attack.
Thorgaut finally gave up looking for his sword. He decided to head back the way he had come until he found something that looked familiar. He knew he must have made a wrong turn somewhere along the way.
He hoped to find something familiar that would point him in the right direction. If that didn’t work, he could always head back towards the sun until he came to the plains. But he didn’t know how he would find his way back to his friends from there.
He walked slowly, paying close attention to everything around him. He often paused to look at the view from the way he had come. It was slow going, but still, he didn’t see anything familiar.
Thorgaut kicked himself mentally for not waiting until his men were ready. He should have brought them all along with him. He knew they didn’t mind having the day off yesterday to kick back and relax. They deserved it after the all the raiding and looting they had done on this trip. Their ship was already full, and they wanted to get home.
But Thorgaut had wanted to press inland a bit farther to see what the opportunities the land held and were available. Opportunitmeaning cities to raid and kingdoms to conquer.
Thorgaut and his friends had left most of the men guarding the ship. Then he had traveled up the river towards the black mountains. He had brought Liut, Bior, and Grimar, three of his best soldiers and closest friends. Katla, the shieldmaiden wanted to tag along, so he had let her come too.
But after three days he had decided to turn back. They hadn’t seen anything impressive. Besides, his friends were chomping at the bits to return to the comfort of their village and loved ones. They had left the town more than two moons ago, and they were already coming upon the third.
They were running low on supplies, so Thorgaut told them to take the day to hunt and fish to restock. It hadn’t been entirely necessary. They could have made it back to the ship with what they had, and even killed some game along the way. But Thorgaut’s adventurous spirit urged him on just a little bit further. He told them he was going hunting, but they all knew he what he was up too and his desire to explore.
Thorgaut trusted them and had confided in them of his plans to take the King Mar Bolverksson’s place. They knew he planned to conquer the Northern regions. They knew he was ambitious and respected him for his leadership and fighting skills. He also knew they each of them had their own secret dreams and ambitions of gaining a commanding position by his side.
So, his friends had taken the time to lash up some simple shelters and set up camp for a few days. Then they had gone fishing for the night. They were still sleeping when he left them. He imagined they had fished all day and then feasted well into the night. But by now, they would be worried about him and wondering what to do.
Most likely they would be out looking for him by now. Liut was an excellent tracker. He would be able to find Thorgaut with the help of those two hounds of his as long as it didn’t rain. If worse came to worse, Thorgaut knew he could set up camp and wait for a day or two till they showed up.
Thorgaut didn’t like the idea of stopping, but it would be better than wandering in circles. It would take his friends longer to find him. Thinking about them made him feel happy. It was good to have a group of loyal friends he could count on. He smiled as he thought of them.
But at the same time, he wanted to find Halldora again. If his friends showed up, they would make him head back to the ship and go home. And then he never would locate Halldora again. She couldn’t be far though. All he had to do was…
Thorgaut heard a loud crack and something pulling at his feet. The ground slipped away from under him. The whole world flipped upside down, and the trees spun wildly around him. He waved his arms and tried to make sense of what was going on. He felt nauseous and almost lost his breakfast. The spinning started to slow down, and the trees stopped whirling around his head. He looked at his feet and saw a rope tied around them.
“Oh, great!” he muttered. “Caught in a trap. Just what I needed.”
Looking on the bright side, he hoped someone would come along soon to check it.
“Hey! Hello. Anyone out there.” he yelled. He paused to listen, but there was only silence. He instinctively reached for his sword and knife belt but came up empty-handed. He remembered that he hadn’t found it earlier. He swore under his breath.
Thorgaut reached behind his neck for the pair of axes he kept with his quiver of arrows. The pair of battle axes were made from the finest steel. The man who sold it to him said it had been forged in the most potent furnaces of the mountain dwarves.
Not that Thorgaut believed him. He grew up hearing stories about elves and dwarves all his life. But he had never seen them. His mother often told him stories of dwarves and other strange creatures. She was a great storyteller. She told the stories as if they had happened to her. She even claimed to have seen the dwarves herself in the lands beyond. That was before Thorgaut’s father had raided her village and slaughtered her family. Then he had made her his shieldmaiden.
His mother was smart. She had wooed her master and convinced him to marry her. She was a good woman and bore him many children. She performed as dutifully as any earl’s wife ever did to keep her position.
Jorwen was a beautiful woman and made for a lovely wife, and mother, and queen. Thorgaut had always been able to tell though that she didn’t truly love his father. Not that she had too. Most earl’s and other members of the royal clan, married for convenience and to expand their power; not necessarily because they were looking for love.
But still, his father hadn’t chosen to marry her to extend his throne and power. He had chosen her for some other unknown reason. Well, he always said it was because he loved her, but Thorgaut knew there was more to the story then he was letting on.
There were whispers that his mother had elven blood flowing through her veins. Others even said that she had used her elven powers to cast a spell and charm his father. He had asked her about it once, but she had laughed it off and denied it.
Thorgaut continued to tug at the axes and pull them out, but they were heavy and pulled down on his neck. They had scrunched up under the quiver since he was hanging upside down. He could only reach back and touch them with his right hand because of the way they had shifted off to the side. He tried to hold the first one between his fingers and pull it free. But it was too heavy, and he lost his grip on it.
The first battle ax slipped from his fingers and fell to the ground below him. Thorgaut sighed in frustration. Things were going so badly for him these days. He was always on top of things and in control. But nothing seemed to go his way out here in these woods. It would have been embarrassing if anyone had been around to see him like this.
Thorgaut knew she wanted to kiss him. He thought about insisting and trying again. But the firmness of her voice made him realize that it would be better to wait for a more opportune moment. He stared at her longingly as if willing her to change her mind. But she didn’t. Halldora turned and walked back to the kitchen.
He sighed in frustration and turned around to step back outside. Vriobrum stood behind him right outside the doorway. The sight of the shuffler standing so close caught him off guard. He jerked backward involuntarily.
“Holy cow! You gave me quite a start there, Vriobrum.” Thorgaut gasped. “Excuse me. Move back. Let me get by.”
Vriobrum didn’t move. He stood there staring Thorgaut down with a challenging look in his eye. He didn’t budge, nor look like he was in any hurry to go anywhere. So, Thorgaut stepped off the path into one of the flower beds to get past the shuffler.
The Viking prince walked out into the woods for a way to clear his head. He needed to find his friends and get back to his camp. But at the same time, he didn’t want to leave Halldora here. Maybe he could convince her toD go with him. She could come in handy down the line.
Halldora could help him with his conquests when he became king. He could march into battle and fight the enemy. If his army started to lose, she could raise those who had died in battle to turn them against their enemy. That would be brilliant.
He would be undefeatable. His army would be unstoppable. He could conquer the Northern kingdoms even faster and easier with her help. Halldora’s army of shufflers was the thing he had been looking for all this time. All of his explorations and adventures had been leading him here even though he hadn’t known what he was looking for exactly.
Thorgaut smiled and started walking back to the house. He would have to go easy on her and find a way to convince her to help him. He couldn’t come right out and ask her to build him an army of the undead. She didn’t seem like the kind who would go for that. No, he would have to be more subtle.
He walked back in the direction he had come, but couldn’t find his way back into the meadow. “This is ridiculous,” he thought. “How come I keep getting lost in these woods,” he muttered. Something was off, but he couldn’t place it.
After walking around for another fifteen minutes, he stopped underneath a large tree. He sat down to catch his breath. It was early, so the sun was still in the East. That meant if he walked into the sun, he should come back out to the open plains he had been on yesterday. From there, he could find the jacket that marked the trail back into the woods. Then he could follow it back into Halldora’s glade.
Everything had been so strange around these woods. Directions seemed to be fluid and changing. Just when Thorgaut thought he was getting somewhere, he ended up being someplace unexpected.
He had heard of places like this. Locations full of magic where time and space were different. “Halldora could have something to do with it. She could have placed a spell over it to protect herself and the shufflers from being discovered.” he thought to himself.
Thorgaut decided to climb the tree to get a look around and get his bearings. He unbuckled the belt that held his sheath and put it under a bush near the roots of the tree. He climbed as high as he felt comfortable with the branches holding his weight.
He looked around but didn’t see anything familiar. He should have been able to see Halldora’s glade. He couldn’t even tell where the forest ended and the plains began. The only thing he could see were trees spreading out in all directions. He did see a mountain range off in the distance that looked somewhat familiar. It may have been the one he had seen across the plains during yesterday’s trek. But he couldn’t be sure from here. And he sure didn’t want to risk getting even more lost.
This was such a frustrating feeling. By Thorgaut’s calculations, he should be right near Halldora’s glade. Granted, she did have it well hidden from outsiders. Anyone who didn’t know what they were looking for wouldn’t even notice it. But now that he knew where she was, he should be able to find it. Or at least see something that looked familiar.
“Halldora! Halldora!” he yelled at the top of his lungs. “Are you there? Can you hear me? Helloooooooo!”
Thogaut paused to listen if she answered back. But there was nothing out of the ordinary. He heard the usual sounds of the forest and the wind in the trees. He yelled a few more times, but no one replied.
He sighed and climbed back down. This was ridiculous. Here he had found a lovely woman out here in the middle of the woods who could help him conquer the North. And now he had gotten himself lost again for the third time in a row, and he might not be able to find her.
Why did he keep turned around in these woods? And who was the woman that had been screaming the night before? It apparently couldn’t have been Halldora. Those were a few of the thousand unanswered questions swirling around in his mind.
When Thorgaut reached the bottom of the tree, he walked over to the bush where he had left his sword. He reached down to pick it up, but it wasn’t there. He knelt down and felt around. He pulled the branches and leaves back, but he couldn’t find it. Thorgaut looked around to see if other bushes looked similar. Maybe he was looking under the wrong shrub.
But there weren’t any that looked like that particular thicket. There was no way he could have confused it. He looked around to see if some animal had dragged it off. There were no tracks or trails to show what could have happened though.
There was something going on around here. That was for sure. This whole situation was starting to feel like one of those scary stories Thorgaut’s mother used to tell him before putting him to bed. They would leave him feeling sleepless and terrified in the dark long after she had gone from his room. She said the tales were to toughen him up and make a man out of him. But he never remembered her telling any of those stories to his brothers.
Thorgaut walked out from under the shade of the house and trees. He basked for a moment in the sunshine. Then he took a deep breath and exhaled with a loud sigh.
He barely noticed the scent of the flowers wafting up from the garden. The chirping of the purple birds flitting from tree to tree escaped his senses as well.
His mind was spinning a million miles an hour. He tried to process everything he had learned about the shufflers. So, Halldora had created and surrounded herself with a small group of undead corpses. And she could control them at will.
Vriobrum shuffled by on his way to the flowerbed. Thorgaut watched him go past and then followed from a short distance. Vriobrum glanced back once, but then ignored Thorgaut after that. He watched Vriobrum trying to pick weeds from among the flowers.
It was uncomfortable to watch him bend over and work at such weird, stiff angles. Vriobrum’s clumsy fingers often missed the weeds entirely. Sometimes he would even uproot a flowering plant.
Thorgaut drew closer within talking distance and waited until the shuffler looked up. “Hello!” Thorgaut said as he raised a hand in acknowledgment. The shuffler didn’t say anything but did maintain eye contact.
“It’s a nice day. Huh?” Thorgaut said. He looked up at the light blue sky and blazing white sun above him. He wondered if Vriobrum noticed the details of the things around him.
Vriobrum returned to picking the weeds. Thorgaut took a few steps forward until he stood on the opposite side of the flowerbed. The shuffler stopped what he was doing but didn’t look up this time. Thorgaut reached out a hand and picked a few of the ornery sprouts too.
“So, Halldora tells me that you were a mighty warrior once,” Thorgaut said. Vriobrum didn’t answer. He continued picking more weeds.
“It must be frustrating to be stuck like this,” Thorgaut said quietly. “You wanted me to put you out of your misery last night along with your friends. Didn’t you?”
The shuffler didn’t say anything. It stood up without looking at him and shuffled off towards the house. Thorgaut finished pulling a few final weeds that Vriobrum had missed. Then he walked back to the house too.
Halldora was standing in the doorway watching him. He caught her eye and fixed his gaze on her as he walked toward the hut. He admired her slim, lithe figure. The way her dark hair swirled around her face and neck as she swept the floor.
She wasn’t the most beautiful woman he had ever seen. But she wasn’t ugly either. Her only real defect was her height. She was shorter than he preferred. He liked women who came up to his eyes. He couldn’t complain though. Who expected to get lost in the unexplored woods of the North and then stumble across a pretty woman anyway.
He found her to be pretty in her own way. Maybe it was just because she was different than most of the woman in his region. Most of the princesses and royal women he met were all too pale and pasty looking. They looked like they didn’t get much sun. But he could tell that Halldora spent plenty of time in the outdoors by the sheen of her sunkissed skin.
He stood in the doorway and watched her sweep the floor. Each stroke of the broom bringing her closer in his direction until she was directly in front of him. She was so close the swirls of her dress brushed against him. He caught a whiff of her scent and took a deep breath. She smelled like wild daisies. It was intoxicating.
Thorgaut started to reach out and touch her. He wanted to take her in his arms and draw her in close. Kiss her and be kissed back by those soft lips.
Halldora stopped sweeping just inches away from him. She wiped a few strands of hair out of her face and pulled them back to fix them in place. A few stray strands she had missed still hung over her eyes. She jerked her head to the side to toss them back, but that didn’t work either.
The stubborn strands still stuck to her cheeks. So, she tried to puff at them with her breath to blow them out of the way. Her hands were still busy tying back the rest of her hair.
She didn’t break eye contact with Thorgaut the entire time. He stood mesmerized, watching with bated breath. She had an aura of beauty and charm that left him transfixed.
She noticed the intentness of his gaze and blushed. “What is it?” she asked.
It had been a long time since he had felt this way around a woman. Most of the silly girls who came to see him at his father’s lodge bored him. He realized he had been staring and shrugged nonchalantly. You remind me of someone I once knew.”
Halldora smiled revealing a perfect set of white teeth and finished tying her hair back.
Thorgaut reached out and grabbed the few stray strands that were still there. The hair swayed and escaped his grasp. His large fingers felt clumsy like the shufflers he had seen earlier. He didn’t want to poke Halldora in the eye, so he brushed them to the side with a single finger. The tip of his finger trailed along the edges of her cheekbones. Her skin felt so soft and smooth under his touch.
Halldora caught her breath and closed her eyes. She turned her face up and to the side to follow the trail of his finger caressing her cheek and into her hair. He let the rest of his fingers trail into and down her curls. He squeezed his fingers and thumb together to apply pressure as he pulled down on the locks of her hair.
When he reached the ends of her hair, he played with the loose strands between his fingers. He ran his hand back down through her hair several times, gathering more each time.
Halldora opened her eyes and gazed into his. Thorgaut tugged at her hair, guiding her head closer to his. He glanced down at her lips and then back up into her eyes. Then he slid his hand around the nape of her neck and grasped her gently but firmly.
He pulled her in for a kiss, and his lips almost brushed against hers. But at the last instant Halldora pushed the broom that was still in her hands against his chest to hold him back. She turned her head right before he could kiss her.
“No, Thorgaut. Stop,” she whispered in a low, husky voice. “We shouldn’t. I can’t. I’m sorry.”
Thorgaut was ready to crash. The event of the evening left him feeling wound up and tense. It also felt wrong to lie down in the bed of a man he had just killed. So, he didn’t think he would get much sleep as he prepared to lie down.
But exhaustion got the best of him, and he fell asleep even before his head hit the pillow. He had a strange dream of himself walking around like a shuffler in the forest still looking for his friends.
But the sensation of transforming into a shuffler became more vivid and realistic. He felt unable to breathe as if he was slowly suffocating. When he awoke, he realized why. The sheet had somehow wrapped itself around his face and neck during the night.
Thorgaut unwrapped the sheet and pulled it off his face. Then he laid back down and tried to sleep again. His anxious mind wouldn’t allow it though. It whirled along at a furious pace and refused to let fall asleep again.
The smell of meat roasting over an open fire also didn’t help any, and his stomach started growling. He tossed and turned for a few minutes longer, then finally rolled out of bed to get dressed. He followed his nose to the kitchen where Halldora was setting the table. She smiled warmly.
“Did you sleep well?” she asked as she handed him a cup of tea.
Thorgaut grunted and shrugged as he took the cup.
“Are you feeling okay this morning?” she asked.
He shook his head and sighed. Halldora reached out a hand to touch his forehead. He reflexively slapped it away. He saw a flicker of fear on her face.
“Are you able to say anything, Thorgaut?” she asked him gently.
“Of course,” he growled. “Why wouldn’t I be.”
She smiled and turned around to pour a bowl of porridge. Halldora put it on the table in front of him. She sliced some bread and spread a generous helping of butter across it.
Thorgaut realized why she had seemed so interested in his silence.
“You thought I was becoming a shuffler. Didn’t you?” he asked her. He stared at her intently as she took a bite of her bread.
She chewed slowly and swallowed her food before looking up at him. “It could have been a possibility, I suppose, after your fight with them last night?”
“How so?” Thorgaut asked. He continued to watch her for any sign of reaction.
“Aren’t you going to eat?” she asked. Halldora pointed to the bowl that he hadn’t yet touched. Thorgaut shook his head. He no longer felt hungry. A mix of smoldering anger and burning curiosity took hold of him. Curiosity about how she created and controlled these creatures. And at the same time, anger that she had put his life in danger.
“I dreamt that I had become one of those things,” he said.
She looked at him in shock. “Really? What happened?” she asked.
“Nothing much. I was out looking for my friends in the woods, but I couldn’t breathe and woke up.” He continued to watch her, but couldn’t read any of her expressions. She hid them well.
“It’s possible that you’re in the process of turning.”
“Turning?” he asked. “You mean, like becoming one of those things myself.”
“Did any of them bite or scratch you in the scuffle? Or did their vomit and blood splatter on you?”
Thorgaut stirred his porridge slowly as he tried to remember the events of the night before. He looked up at her and shook his head.
“I don’t think so,” Thorgaut replied. “They weren’t very fast, and they weren’t armed. So, they didn’t harm me. One did throw up near me though.”
Her face showed no expression, and she still displayed no sign of emotion. So, Thorgaut couldn’t get a read on what she was thinking.
The idea that he might be turning into one of the shufflers terrified him like no battle ever had. His father had raised him to fight to the death.
Death was not something he had been taught to fear. His people believed that death was merely another step forward into the afterlife. One more step in his life experience and journey.
But the thought of not being able to die. Or worse yet transformed into one of those things was horrifying. If Thorgaut were unable to fight and die a warrior’s death, he would continue to suffer on forever. And once turned, he would no longer be able to fulfill his duties and earn his position as a warrior worthy of Odin’s hall.
Everything around Thorgaut seemed to slow down and come to a standstill. Even time itself seemed to slow down and pause to allow the realization to sink in. His life was ending, and there was nothing he could do. Everything became crystal clear, and his senses seemed to magnify everything around him.
The buzz of a fly around the bread was deafening. The smell of the freshly baked bread and roasting meat made his mouth water. The glint of the sun rays shining through the window reflected in Halldora’s bright blue eyes. The taste of the herbs on his tongue that lingered on his taste buds long after he had finished drinking his tea.
Every cell in his body suddenly seemed to come alive and pulse with rhythm and life. The moment seemed to stretch on as fear and denial swept over him.
Then the rage began to build. Thorgaut wanted to slam his fist on the table and then throw it over. He wanted to grab Halldora and choke the life out of her, and then chop off that stupid shuffler’s head. But he squeezed his fists and tried to control himself.
“How do I know if I’m turning into one of those things?” he roared. He looked down at his hands and realized he was shaking. Thorgaut took a deep breath and placed his hands on his lap. He looked up again and saw that Halldora had backed away. There was fear in her eyes.
“I’m sorry,” he said and sat back. “I just don’t want to become one of those things.”
Halldora stepped forward and placed her hand on his shoulder. “I don’t think you are,” she said. “I only asked you that because you didn’t answer my questions this morning. Inability to speak is one of the first noticeable signs. Shufflers can’t talk, so I just thought…” Her voice trailed off.
Thorgaut gave a sigh of relief and chuckled nervously. “You gave me a real scare there for a minute.”
She smiled back at him. He noticed that her eyes twinkled in a way that took his breath away. Halldora turned away under his gaze and started to clear the table.
“So, how did you create these shufflers?” he asked. “You just collect some shuffler vomit and sprinkle on your friends as they lay dying.”
She returned to the table and shook her head sadly.
“Creating a true shuffler is an ancient art of the necromancers among my people. My father grew up among them and learned their ways. He made sure my brothers and I all learned the ancient arts as part of our education.”
“So, you chant a spell, wave your hands, and voila. Out comes a shuffler?” he asked.
“Not exactly. It involves invoking Hades and making a blood pact. Hades is a bloodthirsty creature and always requires a sacrifice. He is the original shuffler master.”
“You invoked Hades and sold your soul in exchange for the lives of your friends?”
Thorgaut shook his head in awe. “I knew you had some real gumption living out here in the woods by yourself, but that’s crazy.”
Halldora had her head down and sat quietly.
“So, what did Hades demand in exchange?” he asked.
“Everything. Hades required everything I had and even what I didn’t have,” she said glumly. “But at the time, I had already lost my family and everything I held dear. I didn’t think I had anything left to lose. All I wanted was to avenge the deaths of my family and friends.”
“He’s coming to collect his due,” Thorgaut stated. He knew. He had heard the legends and tales of old. Halldora would pay the ultimate price. He didn’t know what it was yet and wasn’t sure he wanted to. So, he changed the topic back to the shufflers.
“So, when shuffler blood or vomit touches someone, they turn into a shuffler as well?” he asked?
“Yes,” she replied. “The true shufflers are the reanimated corpses of the dead or almost dead. But the second generation of shufflers turned by blood or vomit are still living souls. The effects aren’t as strong in them, and they can’t be controlled as easily.”
“That’s why Vriobrum is different from the other shufflers,” Thorgaut exclaimed.
She nodded. “The effects become weaker with each passing generation. After several generations, a person doesn’t fully change. They just get sick. I’ve even heard that a seventh generation shuffler eventually healed himself.”
Thorgaut cleaned his sword and gathered up his stuff that had been scattered around in the scuffle. He wasn’t about to yell out or make any more noise that would attract another horde of these nasty things. Then he tied a bundle of sticks together to make a torch and then set off down the trail. The shuffler followed him and Thorgaut stopped.
“Now, wait! You can’t walk behind me. I don’t trust you. You stay. Got it?”
The creature continued to stare at him without saying a thing. Thorgaut sighed. He took off running to put some distance between himself and the shuffler. After running a little way, he looked back. It was following him at his normal shuffling pace. So, he ran a little more just to put plenty of distance between himself and the creepy creature.
Thorgaut followed the trail all the way back to where it had ended earlier. He stopped when he came to the dead end again. He walked around trying to find a way to get around it. Thorgaut didn’t find anything though and came back to the trail.
By this time, the shuffler had almost reached him. Thorgaut waited for him to catch up with him and then stop, but this time it kept on walking. It stepped right into the bushes and pushed on through until it disappeared.
Thorgaut kept watching and listening, but nothing happened.He waited for a bit to see if the shuffler would return. Nothing. Thorgaut pushed tentatively at the branches. They gave way fairly easily. He slipped through and came out into a small clearing.
He saw a woman in the middle of the clearing with a broom in her hand. She was sweeping the ground around the fire. It was such a surreal sight that Thorgaut couldn’t say anything. He just looked on and observed the strange and unexpected scene.
The woman looked up and smiled pleasantly. “Come on in,” she said warmly. “Sit here by the fire and have a cup of tea with me.”
Thorgaut walked forward numbly trying to process what was going. Who was this lady? What was she doing in the middle of the forest at night? A witch? Was this a dream?
“Hi!” he stammered. He was at a loss for words. The woman pointed to a seat on the ground and picked up a cup to pour him some tea.
He took the cup and then sat down. He looked at it suspiciously. She smiled when she realized what he was thinking.
“Oh, c’mon now. You don’t think I’m going to poison the first good-looking guy that shows up in my forest in over a year do you?” The woman laughed again and took the cup from his hands. She took a sip and handed it back to him.
“See! Perfectly good tea made from freshly plucked forest herbs. Nothing deadly enough to kill a nice big man like you.” she said ominously. Her eyes flickered over to the shuffler that was still standing off to the side. “I’m Halldora Grimardottir of Dysjǫrð. It’s nice to meet you.”
Thorgaut burst out laughing. Deep spasms of nervous laughter that he couldn’t have stopped even if he had wanted to. She just stood and watched him with a smile on her face until he got himself under control.
“It’s okay. I understand. You must be a shy guy, and get nervous around a confident, self-assured woman. No?”
Thorgaut shook his head vigorously. “No, that’s not it at all. Sorry. I’m Thorgaut Kabbisson of Jorundarfell. I really don’t know why I laughed. This whole situation is just so surreal.”
“I understand,” she said with a mischevious glint in her eye. “It’s not every night that you meet a shuffler.”
Thorgaut grunted and glanced over in the creature’s direction. He turned back and scowled at her. “Dysjǫrð the Grave World? Huh. I guess you take that quite literally. Huh?”
She looked down at the ground and sighed. “Yeah! Well, the forest can be a dangerous place for a woman on her own. They help me keep the place up and protect me from strangers.”
“Strangers like me? Is that what you mean?” he asked angrily. “You just send your minions out to kill anyone who enters your forest without question.”
“No, of course not,” she replied. “I heard someone screaming, and sent them out to see what was going on. You were the one who attacked first and killed Vriobrum.”
Vriobrum,” he said. “You mean you actually give each of these things a name? What? Are they like pets or something?”
“No. They’re not pets, but they are real people with a birth name.” she retorted. “Do you think the undead are just born that way?”
Thorgaut put his cup down and stood up. He paced around the fire in silence. “This is messed up. You living all alone out here in the woods with a bunch of these undead creatures.’
“They were my friends,” she said softly. “Our kingdom was overthrown, and my family was put to death. I alone escaped with their help. They died defending me. I felt guilty that they died for me. They could have stayed behind, but they chose to follow me. So, I brought them back. And now, you’ve slaughtered them.”
“I’m sorry.” he stammered and hung his head in shame under her gaze. “I didn’t know that. I just assumed that they were coming to kill me.”
Halldora smiled sadly and shook her head. “I understand why you did it. It’s best for them. Their souls have been released to the afterlife again. But I will miss them.”
Thorgaut sat down in shock, trying to wrap his head around the events of the evening and the information he had just learned. Not that he felt guilty. He was a warrior, and warriors killed. But learning of the existence of the shufflers and how they came to be, just blew his mind.
Halldora wiped a tear from her eye and stood up. She walked over to a hut and went inside. She stepped back out through the door and motioned him over.
He had so many questions whirling through his head. Thorgaut opened his mouth, but she shook her head and placed her fingers on his lips.
“Please. Let’s talk about this tomorrow.” Halldora said. “I know you have a lot of question, but it’s late. We should get some sleep.”
The door was low, so Thorgaut had to duck to get through. But on the inside, the house was much bigger then he expected. The floor slanted down below the level of the ground and opened into a spacious living area that looked fit for a queen.
A bit more rustic than what she would have been used to having in a palace. Nothing made of ivory and marble. She was alone in the forest of course, but everything was still very nicely made.
Thorgaut let out a long, slow whistle as he looked around at the surroundings and decoration. He glanced at Halldora out of the corner of her and she was beaming with pleasure at the genuine admiration that was so evident on his face.
The fourth shuffler that had stopped to help its ‘friend’ had managed to pull out a part of the arrow. The shuffler pointed the arrow in Thorgaut’s direction as it charged him. Thorgaut wanted to laugh because it was shuffling in slow motion.
He imagined that it may have been a soldier at one time before becoming undead. He deflected the arrow with his sword and sidestepped the creatures attack. The creature turned around and stared at him. He could have run it through with his sword, but Thorgaut actually felt sorry for the slow shuffling thing. He hesitated for a moment.
It looked at him with eyes wide open. This creature wasn’t as decayed and disgusting looking as the others. It looked like it was aware of what it was doing. Its eyes seemed as if they were pleading with him silently to put it out of its misery.
Thorgaut wasn’t quite sure what to do. Should he just stab it and run it through with his sword. That felt so heartless and cruel. Maybe the creature would just turn around and move on back into the forest where it could live out the rest of its days in peace.
The shuffler leaned forward a bit, and Thorgaut took a step backward. He shook his head when he realized what he was thinking. The Viking prince had never felt like this before over killing an enemy. He had always enjoyed killing those he fought. Especial when using his sword. The feel of warm blood running down the hilt of his sword and over his hands. Maybe it was just because this creature was unarmed.
Thorgaut relaxed his stance and shifted to the side. Suddenly, he heard a noise behind him. It was the shuffler he had shot in the shoulder. It walked toward him with its good arm stretched out in his direction. It was so close that its fingers were almost touching his shoulder. He leaped back out of the way and bumped into the other shuffler.
It roared when he touched it and tried to grab him. He threw himself off to the side and away from either of them. He lost his balance and tripped. He stumbled and fell off to the side. He kept right on rolling and got up as fast as he could. Both creatures were approaching him and he kept moving backward while stumbling over himself as he tried to get back up.
After gaining his balance, he managed to get his feet under him to stand up again. Thorgaut had somehow managed to keep his grip on the sword. He readied himself and pulled back into an attack stance.
Both the shufflers had stopped and were now standing in front of him. It was really eerie. Almost like the expected him to do or say something. Again, he stood there silently watching them. And they watched him back.
The shuffler he had shot in the shoulder started to gag and vomit at his feet almost without warning. Thorgaut snapped his feet apart to prevent any of the vomit from spattering on his boots. But when he looked down, Thorgaut noticed that some of it had dirtied his shoes. He made a mental note to not touch them and to dispose of them as soon as possible.
The shuffler looked like it was about to puke again. Thorgaut was already upset that it had ruined his shoes. He pulled back his sword and let it fly. The blade seemed to sing as it swung through the air and sliced cleanly through the shuffler’s neck. Blood from the sword’s arc splattered across the other shuffler. It did nothing, but just continue to stand there as if it was waiting for something.
“What do you want?” Thorgaut asked.
The creature didn’t say anything. It just continued to stand there.
“That’s pretty creepy you know,” Thorgaut said.
He backed up slowly toward the fire. The shuffler continued to follow him. It matched his pace and took a step forward for each one he took backward toward the fire.
Thorgaut reached the fire and jumped over it to the other side. The shuffler stood there looking like it was trying to decide what to do. He took a few more steps backward, but the creepy creature remained still.
Thorgaut noticed the smoldering remains of the shuffler that he had kicked into the fire. Most of his body had burned up and completely disintegrated. They burned up so easily in the heat. He pushed the logs and pieces of wood together, and the flames started to grow once again. The shuffler moved back a few paces but continued to stand there watching Thorgaut and the fire.
Thorgaut picked up a medium-sized piece of wood from the fire. He walked around the fire towards the bodies of dead shufflers he had killed. The standing shuffler took a few steps toward him but stopped when he waved the fire in its face.
It watched him as he touched the flame to the body of one the dead shuffler. The shuffler’s body caught fire easily and started burning where ever he touched it with the flame. Whenever the flame came into contact with blood, there was a small explosion as the flames burst up even higher and hotter.
Thorgaut turned and moved over to the other body. He touched the flame to the stump of its neck where he had beheaded it. The whole pool of blood that had run out exploded into a fireball that knocked him back. The heat singed the hair on his head and body. He pulled himself up and watched for a minute as the entire body was quickly engulfed and consumed by the flames. He also burned up the arms he had cut off one of the shufflers as well.
The living shuffler watched him intently and but didn’t move around after he started burning the corpses. Thorgaut kept a close eye on him though to make sure it didn’t try anything. He got the impression that the creature was waiting for him to do something, but he had no idea what it was. There was an alertness and awareness in his eyes that the others hadn’t had. There was something different about him and it piqued Thorgaut’s curiosity.
“What is it?” he asked. “Is there something you want to tell me. You seem fresher and more alive than the others. You’re still not totally taken are you?”
Thorgaut took a step closer and stretched out the stick with fire in front of its face. The shuffler didn’t flinch or move.
“You just joined this clan recently. You’re under their control,” he said. “If you are still aware of what’s going on, go ahead and blink twice.”
The shuffler didn’t blink, but it did keep staring at him intently. Staring at him in a way that unnerved Thorgaut.
“That’s creepy. Stop it. Go back into the woods and do your thing.” he commanded, but the creature just stood there.
“Better yet, let’s go find that woman,” he muttered. “Where is she? And how many more of you are there?”
Thorgaut watched the creature moving slowly and methodically across the camp. It glanced up in his direction and he held his breath. One eye was missing from its socket, and the other was covered with hair. No wonder the ugly thing hadn’t been able to see him very well earlier.
He let it walk around the camp for a bit and then watched as it started to shuffle off in the other direction. He threw a stick out into the middle of the camp near the fire. The noise attracted the Shuffler’s attention.
It walked back towards the fire with its back to Thorgaut. It was time to see what this thing was made of. He pulled back an arrow and let loose. The arrow found its mark and dug deep into its back right about where its heart should have been.
The Shuffler let out a loud high-pitched scream that sounded almost like a squeal. It clawed around madly, trying to grab the arrow coming out its back. But it didn’t fall down. It kept moving around in circles as it tried to get a grip on the arrow.
It managed to reach around far enough to get its hand on the arrow. It tugged at the arrow but screamed at the pain. It was facing him now, and he fired off another arrow directly into its throat. The Shuffler tried to scream, but this time only a gurgling rasp came out.
Thorgaut waited, but it didn’t fall. So, he fired another arrow directly into his forehead just above the bridge of the nose. This time the creature fell backward onto the ground. It tried to get up again, but was unable to and fell back over into the dirt. It continued to move it’s hands and feet around though as if it were trying to get up.
Thorgaut climbed down the tree by grabbing on to the branch and swinging his legs down over the edge. From there it was just a short drop to the forest floor.
He walked over to the undead shuffler and circled it slowly. The stench coming up off this thing was awful. Thorgaut had to cover his face to keep from puking.
It realized he was there and reached out in his direction. Thorgaut stepped back and was careful not to let it touch him. The Shuffler moaned loudly and started chomping its teeth as if it were already biting him.
The creature tried to roll over, but the arrows in its throat and forehead prevented it from turning over. It started to vomit and Thorgaut backed up even more.
The stories he heard as a child said that the vomit was how they killed their victims. It poisoned them and paralyzed all who came in contact with it.
When it had finished puking and doing its thing, Thorgaut raised his sword and sliced off its head. The shuffler lay there twitching as he drove his sword into the soft dirt to clean the blade of blood.
Thorgaut grabbed the arrow shot into its forehead and pulled it over to the fire. He tossed the head into the flames. The blood that dripped from its neck and head burst into a fiery mass as soon as it hit the flames. He had to step back and let it settle down a bit before moving back in to finish up. He pushed the ends of the logs together to refuel the flames.
Then he wiped off his hands on his pants and smiled proudly at killing his first Broken Shuffler. He hoped that it would find peace and make its way into the afterlife. Technically, it had died in battle, but he didn’t know if the Valkyries would allow it into Odin’s hall.
Thorgaut turned around and froze at what he saw. Four more of the same foul creatures all coming his way.
Thorgaut pulled his sword out of the ground and gathered his stuff quickly. The shufflers moved slowly. Two of them paused and bent over to vomit. That was what worried him. He knew he could kill them easily because they were so slow. The only thing he had to be careful of was to not get any vomit or blood on his body.
He knew he could outrun them and hide in the safety of the darkness. He considered it for a moment. They wouldn’t be able to see him. And he could just wait for the darkness to pass and the sun to rise in the morning.
He wanted to turn and run into the woods. He could take them on later that day after it was light, but his Viking training and upbringing was ingrained too deeply. He had been taught to always stand his ground against his enemy.
It didn’t matter that these were undead beings, nor that he had nothing to defend. It was his duty to fearlessly fight anything and anyone who opposed him.
He whipped out an arrow and notched it in the string. Thorgaut pulled back the taut with all his strength to get as much power out of it as he could. His fingers pulling back on the string touched the base of his ear and trembled from the force of the bow waiting for release.
Thorgaut leveled it in the direction of the closest shuffler and let go of the arrow. It hit the one-eyed shuffler and drove deep into the creatures cheekbone below the right eye. The blow stopped its forward trajectory. It stopped and stood still turning its face back toward the Viking. It shrieked in fury and then started walking again.
By this time, Thorgaut had already notched and released a second arrow. He had aimed for the second shuffler’s heart, but the zigzagging walk caused it to hit its shoulder. The first one was walking faster and pretty close. So, Thorgaut shot it again.
The arrow found its mark directly in it’s one remaining eye. It screamed again and threw it’s head down between its legs as it tugged and pulled at the arrow.
One of the other shufflers had stopped to help pull the arrow that was still stuck in the shoulder of the second creature Thorgaut had shot. That left only one shuffler that was an immediate threat to Thorgaut at the moment. So, he took his time aiming right between its eyes like he had done with the first shuffler he had killed.
This time, the arrow found its mark and sank deep into the creatures foul head. Thorgaut expected it would fall over, but it didn’t. It still kept coming. It was too close to get off another shot, so he pulled out his sword. The shuffler had raised its hands at an awkward angle. It looked like it wanted to shake his hand, but had a sore shoulder.
When it got close enough, Thorgaut dodged out of its reach and sliced off its right arm. That didn’t seem to phase it because it just kept right on coming at him. Thorgaut spun around to the other side and sliced off its other arm. It still kept walking at him even though it didn’t have any arms.
It paused and gagged in preparation to vomit. Thorgaut spun around to the side and raised his sword high into the air. He brought it down with all his might across the back of the shuffler’s neck just as it started to puke. Its head rolled off into the darkness, and its body fell into a mess of blood and vomit.
Thorgaut didn’t pause to admire his handiwork. He turned towards the original one-eyed shuffler that was now blind. It was still stumbling around close to the fire. Thorgaut walked around behind it and kicked it into the fire. It stumbled and tried to catch itself. Unable to keep itself upright, it fell into the fire and rolled out on the other side. Its body had burst into flame and kept right on burning even after it had rolled out of the fire.
He heard something behind him and spun around.
Thorgaut froze for an instant. He ducked and moved to the side while looking around quickly. Nothing attacked him which was a relief. So, the Viking warrior resumed walking after a few seconds of bated breath.
He reached his little camp clearing without incident. Thorgaut had never felt so happy to see a fire before. The flickering flames made him realize how cold he was.
Thorgaut rushed to sit down beside it so he could warm himself up. He placed another log of wood in the fire. Then stretched out his hands to bask in the warm glow of the coals.
He heard the woman scream again and sighed. But this time he didn’t move. He sat there and watched the flames dancing in the darkness.
Thorgaut wanted to help her. He really did. But deep down he had a feeling that this was a ruse. Someone trying to get him deeper into the woods.
He peered into the darkness and realized that the creature could be out there looking for him. He pulled the logs away from each other so the flames would die down. He sat there and continued to warm his hands over the embers that glowed red and hot in the cold darkness of the forest.
The woman continued screaming, but Thorgaut tried to ignore it. After a while, she stopped. Thorgaut pulled his coat tighter and lay down.
He curled up as close as he dared to the embers to suck up their warmth without bursting into flames himself. That was the last thing he needed tonight out here alone in the dark.
Then the woman started screaming for help once again. He sighed and rolled over trying to block out the sound. He realized her screams didn’t seem to be out of desperation. At least it didn’t sound like the kind of noise someone made when they were hurting or in pain.
He figured she had been tied up and held against her will somewhere. That is if she really did need help. He didn’t like to think about what kind of person would do something like that to trick someone else.
Thorgaut closed his eyes and tried to fall asleep so he could get some rest before morning. He would head out as soon as there was light enough for him to see what was going on. There wasn’t much he could do to try to find her in the dark anyway. That dark creature would attack him again if he made any noise.
He closed his eyes and tried to sleep, but a thought kept nagging at the back of his mind. What if the screaming woman didn’t survive until morning.
Thorgaut tried to rationalize the feeling away, but it kept bugging him. He knew he would never forgive himself if she did need help, and he hadn’t done anything to save her.
His friends would call him a coward for sure. Not that he cared what his friends thought because he would be the first to hold himself responsible.
Besides, what if this was an opportunity in disguise. Maybe a challenge from the fates to test his mettle and courage in the face of danger.
Or what if was his soulmate, and this was Destiny’s way of drawing them together? He smiled into the darkness. His mother always said he was a hopeless romantic.
The screaming and yelling started up again. Thorgaut knew he couldn’t lie there all night and wait for the light. He had to take action, and it had to be now. He stood up and worked speedily on the execution of his plan.
Thorgaut gathered his stuff in preparation for battle. He piled the rest of the wood he had cut earlier onto the fire. He broke and tore several more branches off the dead tree to toss into the flames as well. He knew the noise would attract the dark thing in his direction, so he worked as fast as possible.
When he was ready, he pulled out his pouch of mushrooms and took a large bite. He would need all his courage to fight this thing. Whatever ‘it’ was. Thorgaut knew this would be a fight to the death for one of them. He was ready for it.
He pulled out his canteen and took a swig to wash down the rest of the mushroom in his mouth. He felt a wave of fresh courage and boldness wash over him. It had been several weeks since he had been in a good fight. And he was ready for it.
“Hey! I’m over here you ugly monster.” Thorgaut yelled into the woods. “Come and get me. What are you waiting for?”
Thorgaut picked up the bow and quiver of arrows that he had left leaning against the tree. He turned away from the fire and walked into the darkness of the woods.
He went in the opposite direction from which it would come. He wanted it to walk through the light of the campfire to get to him. He wanted to see what it was that he would be fighting.
Then once he killed it, he would find the screaming woman. If she were in trouble, he would help her. Otherwise, he would kill her himself for all this trouble she had put him through.
Thorgaut hid behind a tree and waited outside the circle of campfire’s light. Everything was silent and still. Even her screams had subsided.
Thorgaut wanted to yell again. But the memory of that the dark thing attacking him mid-yell earlier held him back. He didn’t want to make it too easy for the creature to find him.
He realized he would be safer in the tree and climbed up it. He sat there for a bit, but nothing happened.
“Where are you? Come and get me you ugly creep.” Thorgaut finally yelled.
He continued to sit there for a bit, but still no movement or sound. He stood up on the branch to change position and stretch his legs.
Thorgaut had just taken a deep breath to yell again when he noticed some movement at the edge of his camp. He lowered himself back down on the branch to get a better view through the leaves.
He couldn’t tell what it was at first in the low light from the fire but continued to watch as it moved closer to the fire. The flickering light from the flames revealed more of its features with each step it took.
It was a man, or at least it used to be a man at one time. Now, it looked like a walking corpse. It walked hunched forward with its arms pointed out and down at a stiff, awkward angle.
“Broken Shufflers,” Thorgaut growled. He never understood why they were called that before. Now that he had seen one though, he realized the name made perfect sense.
These were the undead walkers who were controlled by wizards of old to do their bidding. He had heard of such creatures when he was a child. His mother and others had spoken of them. There were other names.
Venom vomiters. Scuttlers. Swarmers.
But he never actually believed they existed. He thought they were just old wive’s tales told to keep children in line and make them behave. At most legends of old that no longer existed.
Yet, here it was. One of these creatures was right there in front of him. The strange-looking being filled him with morbid fascination and dread. According to the legends he had grown up hearing, these creatures couldn’t be killed. They were already dead. The only way to destroy them was to cut off their heads and burn their bodies.
Thorgaut watched as the slow creature shuffled towards the fire. He found the sight of the strange creature fascinating.
The skin around the lower half of its face was gone exposing decaying yellow teeth. Its matted black hair was missing large chunks, but other parts of it stuck out wildly in all directions.
It was horrid looking. No wonder the poor woman had been screaming for help. He, Thorgaut Kabbisson of Ulfvergr, would kill this creature. He would save the damsel in distress. And he would make his mother proud.
Thorgaut gripped his sword tighter. He spread his legs wider and crouched lower into a fighting stance. He cocked his head to the side and listened intently into the darkness.
Listening for the sound of footsteps. Listening for the sound of anything strange that might be going on out there in the darkness.
“Are you still there?” he yelled out to the woman. “Come over here. I’ve got…”
Something large and dark came barreling out of the woods straight towards him. He could sense it before he heard it or saw it. It rammed right into him and knocked him over.
Thorgaut fell on the ground several feet away. The blow dazed him for a minute. The dark, bulky creature shuffled around the area where he had been standing. It was making strange sniffing sounds like it was trying to catch a whiff of his scent in the dark.
From his position where he lay, Thorgaut could see the massive dark form outlined against the sky. He couldn’t tell what that thing was, but it was no woman. He was sure of that. There was no way a small woman could have knocked him over like that. Thorgaut figured that whatever this thing was, it must be at least as big as he was, if not bigger.
Thorgaut’s dark clothes must have blended well into the ground in the dark. He was grateful for that. He raised his head and saw a glimmer of light in the darkness. His sword. He stretched out his hand. It was out of reach.
Thorgaut rolled to the side and pulled himself up. A twig cracked under the movement, and the creature stopped snuffling. It turned in his direction and took a step forward.
He stayed still for a minute, and the creature continued snuffling around in the darkness. Closer this time than before.
Thorgaut couldn’t see the sword any longer from his current position. He knew it was in front of him though and kept his hand still so as not to lose his place.
He felt about in the dirt for some small pebbles and twigs. His fingers found some in the darkness and he picked up a small handful. Thorgaut tossed one as far as he could into the darkness beyond the creature.
The pebble bounced off a tree trunk and made a loud thunking noise. The foul creature immediately stopped sniffing. Thorgaut caught whiff of the creature, and it really did stink. The stench emanating from it was horrible. He almost gagged and covered his face to keep from making any noise.
The foul-smelling creature whirled in the direction of the pebble’s sound and crouched down a bit as it listened for the sound. Thorgaut threw another pebble in the same direction. Only harder so it would go farther. He wanted the creature to think that he was moving in that direction.
The ruse worked, and the creature began walking back into the darkness of the forest the way it had come. Thorgaut stretched out his hand quietly in the direction of his sword. His fingers touched the blade, and he was able to pick it up without making any noise.
Thorgaut wished he had brought his bow and arrow with him, but he had left back by the fire. He rose from the ground with the sword grasped tightly in his hands. Thorgaut waited for a minute.
He couldn’t hear the creature moving around in the underbrush which was strange. He wondered how something that size could move around in the dark without making any noise. Especially since it hadn’t even seen him lying on the ground close by.
Thorgaut shook his head. That crazy woman screaming must have been a ruse to locate him. But who would be trying to get him? And why did they want him?
A dark cloud rolled out from under the moon which shined a little more light for Thorgaut to see. He took a slow, careful step forward while trying not to step on anything that would make noise. But that would be almost impossible till he got back onto the path.
So, he knelt down and felt around with his hands to remove any dry leaves or twigs from in front of him. When the area in front of him was free of debris, he crawled forward on his hands and knees.
Thorgaut felt silly for sneaking around in the dark. He was a Viking warrior by nature. He had never flinched when facing his enemies. Even when staring down the blade of their sword.
He had never been afraid to fight. He did not fear death. He wanted to die in battle so the Valkyries would take him to Odin’s lodge. He wanted to feast with the mighty warriors of old.
But this felt different. He felt like a thief sneaking around in the dark stealing someone’s chickens in the night. This wasn’t how he wanted to die here because this wasn’t a battle. If he died here, he doubted any Valkyries would come to take him to be with Odin.
This was ridiculous. He couldn’t even see his enemy to challenge him to a fight. He didn’t want to be murdered in the middle of a dark forest all alone at night. There would be no one around to give him a proper funeral burial.
So, he continued clearing the area in front of him quietly and crawling forward little by little. Thorgaut found his way back onto the path again. He breathed a sigh of relief and stood still in the center of the trail to catch his breath.
Thorgaut walked back up the trail ever so carefully step-by-step. Putting one foot tentatively in front of the other. Feeling his way along for anything that might make noise.
It took him awhile to get far enough back up the trail to see the fire. The flames had died down quite a bit in the short time since he had left camp.
He felt like it had been a lifetime since he had left the camp, but then everything had seemed so strange that day. He saw the fire and felt encouraged.
Thorgaut breathed easier at seeing he was back in his camp and hadn’t gotten lost again. Once he got back up into the light, he would at least be able to see what that thing was if it tried to attack him again.
He picked up his pace and started walking normally again. Then, halfway up the path, Thorgaut stepped on a small twig that cracked loudly under his feet.