Arvid, Aslaug and the Undead
The meadow was wet this time of year when the rains fell heavy and hard. The river nearby – Prima Veni, known colloquially as the Vein, for it ran throughout the country, providing for all – had evidently overflown.
Arvid Erlandson did not mind, for the temperature hadn’t turned yet and it was still comparatively warm, despite the season. The old man sloshed across the meadow, ankle-deep in water, humming to himself, absorbed in his own business. He had folded his burlap trousers up to his knees so that they wouldn’t get soaked. He wore a woollen tunic and a brown muskrat-fur coat to combat the cold wind and a straw hat to keep the sun out of his eyes. He puffed on a little wooden pipe and blew out white baui smoke. He had come down to the meadow to find some herbs, both for his dinner and to soothe the old war wounds in his leg and shoulder. The wounds made his right leg stiff, and he couldn’t lift his left arm above his head. He glanced up at the sky. A cloudbank had rolled in and he had lost sight of the sun, but from the level of light he estimated it was late morning nearing noon. He had time before lunch.
Ploughing a path through tall rushes and grasses, Arvid made his way toward the water chestnuts; the sedges with the edible corms. They would make a fine addition to his dinner, and the sedge leaves could be used for mulch to fertilise his own grown vegetables. Once he had plucked a few, he waded over toward the orchids he had spotted. His movement disturbed the nearby geese and ducks, who squawked indignantly at the intrusion and took haughty flight. A flock of seagulls overhead cawed that the poor birds were not welcome in the sky, either. Arvid had known gulls to eat baby ducks, so he was unsurprised by the hostility. It sometimes seemed like the whole world was at war.
He harvested the orchids and stuffed them in the leather pouch tied at his belt, knowing his wife would stick them in his dinner, too. She said they were good for his wounds, for battling infection and for healing.
It had been years since he had received the wounds at the feet of the Crawlers. The giant bugs’ raptorial forelegs were vicious weapons; one such serrated, black leg had slashed his hip and leg when he was young, and another had pronged his shoulder, years later, and flung him yards through the air. He had dozens of other, smaller wounds from the Crawlers, too. He had, after all, spent the majority of his life at Northbane fortress, fighting the enormous insects. He had spent every winter of his prime in the pass at Jaata Murgen, keeping the bugs at bay, keeping them from invading the Highlands of Fjelburg, and he had succeeded. One of the few to survive until old age, he had not only succeeded but had retired; a rarity among Highlanders, who normally fought until they died.
At almost a hundred years of age, Arvid felt like he had earned his retirement. He had been glad to leave Northbane behind and move into the Golden Fir Woods between Jaata Murgen and Baldr’s Safe, the capital. He had been glad to build his little lodge and settle down for the quiet life. He did not miss the fighting now, and yet he did not regret it either. He was sure that all the warfare, all the exercise, was the reason he was still alive now when so many of his friends lay dead in the dirt. Old he may have been, but he was still spry. His once-bulky frame was now stick-thin, and the skin that had once covered bulging muscles now hung slack. His pale face was as wrinkly as dry, cracked leather, and his snow-white hair was tied up in a topknot. His ivory beard was braided down to his chest. His eyes were the only part of him that retained the vigour of youth; green as fresh grass and unrelenting, they scoured the world rather than seeing it.
Now, as he looked around, his eyes widened in alarm. He saw people stumbling across the marshland in the distance. The amount of splashing around them suggested they were moving his way fast. Something about the way they moved – jerkily, stiffly, unnaturally – put Arvid on edge, made his teeth itch. He studied them as they came, and when they were close enough that he could see more detail, he gasped in shock.
There were fifty men and women half-staggering, half-running across the wet meadow, and all of them looked dead. Their hair was falling out, their skin was grey and flaky like a leper’s, and their veins had swollen and shoved to the surface of the skin to stand out like a web of blood, like some foul substance was coursing through and distorting their arteries. Some carried weapons, and some did not. Some had gaping, festering wounds or limbs missing, and others did not. One was walking along with no head. All of their eyes glowed a supernatural blood-red. They appeared dead, and yet they were still walking, still coming for him.
“Skalda’s icy tits!” Arvid cursed under his breath.
Like everyone else, he had heard legends of the undead; like everyone else, he had always assumed they were nonsense. Now, he was not so sure.
He turned away from the monstrous people while the closest of them was still fifty feet away and began to hurry north across the meadow, towards Skalda’s Teeth. He made a beeline for the forest of golden firs at the base of the mountains; the forest where he had built his home. It was the only stand of golden firs in Fjelburg, so far as he knew, an anomaly growing beside the Tongue. The trees were unusually tall, too, stroking the sky with their feathery tops. He was no expert on such things, but his wife reckoned they must be hundreds of years old. She forbade him from cutting them down or harming them in any way. He was only to pick up fallen branches for firewood, she always said.
He shoved through the red-leaved bushes rimming the wood, the deciduous trees that had died and would come back to life next year. Then, he was among the firs, moving fast for his age at a steady lope. Despite his fitness, he was soon sweating, however; it was an uphill trek back to his home.
When he reached his home, a wooden lodge on a small plateau in a little clearing in the forest, he rushed through the door. His wife, Aslaug, was chopping leeks for lunch and looked up in surprise when the door banged open. Even at ninety odd years of age, she was still beautiful to him, with her morning-sky-blue eyes, her long, braided silver hair, and her round, pale, open face. She was short for a Highland woman, less than six feet tall, so the six-and-a-half-foot-tall Arvid always had to stoop to kiss her, but he did not mind. She had become plump in her old age, but it took nothing from her beauty in her husband’s eyes.
“Aslaug,” said Arvid without preamble; he and his wife were taciturn folk, “we have to leave now. The undead are coming for us.”
“The undead?” she repeated in shock, her mouth hanging slack and revealing her cute buck teeth.
He nodded patiently. “Yes, the undead. I know it sounds crazy, but I know what I saw. They are out there in the meadow. They saw me and they followed me. We have to leave now.”
“Right then,” said Aslaug, asking no further questions, “we’d best get ready then. We’ll need clothes and blankets, food and water, weapons and tools and –”
She was interrupted by a bang on the wall, and they both fell silent.
“Get everything we need together quickly,” Arvid said quietly. “I’ll lock the front door and make sure the back way out is clear.”
“The back way?”
“We don’t want to go back the way I came, trust me. We’ll just have to make it to that ford up among the ridges somehow, and go east from there and see if we can get to Baldr’s Safe or some other town.”
She nodded, her eyes wide, and hurried off to find sacks for travelling. Arvid lowered the bar into place on the front door and then set off for the back, moving quietly. He could see movement among the trees out the windows; jerky, lurching movements that sent chills running up and down his spine. It seemed like the house was already surrounded, somehow.
Passing through the kitchen, he added the largest two knives to his belt where his axe was already slung. Then, he slowly creaked open the back door an inch and peeked out.
“Surtr’s fiery cock!” he hissed, invoking the God of Fire.
Again, there was movement among the golden firs, and then he saw one of the undead emerge from the treeline and shuffle towards the house. It had been a woman once, that much was clear, but her clothes were in tatters and her hair looked like dead reeds. Her veins stood out like brands on her grey skin, and her eyes were like little red lanterns. She wasn’t moving as fast as the ones in the meadow he had seen, so he assumed she didn’t know he was inside – not yet. She must have stumbled on the house by accident, by chance, he thought.
He watched through the crack in the door until Aslaug appeared behind him, carrying two hemp sacks full of clothes and rations. She handed one to Arvid, who took it and slung the strap over his shoulder. He saw that Aslaug was dressed for travel now, too, in a big grey wolf-fur coat.
He put his lips close to her ear and whispered, “The undead are out there already, don’t ask me how. We should try sneaking past them. We don’t want to be followed.”
She nodded, her face set, and he stooped and kissed her on impulse. She smiled grimly and nodded again, knowing it might be their last. He led the way out the door without further words. The sun had come out from behind the clouds, and the clearing was inconveniently well-lit.
They almost made it to the treeline without being seen. The tatter-clothed, reed-haired woman Arvid had seen had moved out of his line of sight, so they snuck out of the house and tiptoed across the leaf-strewn rock toward the golden firs some fifteen feet away. Their hearts thudded their ribs like hammers on anvils. Their palms were clammy where they held hands, and their mouths were dry. They could see three people wandering in and out of the trees on the right, and two on the left who appeared to be standing still. Luckily, none of them were looking at the house.
Padding carefully across the clearing, avoiding any dry twigs that might snap, Arvid and Aslaug began to think they were going to make it when they traversed a fallen branch without a sound. Then, disaster struck, and it struck hard like a sucker punch to the belly. The tatter-clothed, reed-haired woman moseyed back around the corner of the house and spotted them just before they reached the safety of the treeline, where they could have hid.
The undead woman let out a load moan so full of hunger it almost sounded like lust, and then she started after them. All of the other undead in the trees heard her moan, turned and saw the living two among them. They started going after Arvid and Aslaug as well. To top it all off, more undead appeared around the corner of the house and started giving chase, too.
Arvid and Aslaug looked around in fear and horror for a split second, and then Arvid was hauling his wife on, into the trees, cursing the God of Luck.
“El Vandu shits all over me yet again!”
The need for subtlety had abruptly evaporated like morning dew, and the need for speed had become paramount. Husband and wife ran into the woods and on up the mountainside.
The forest grew high up on the mountains, the golden firs being as hardy as any other conifer in the Highlands. So, the couple were able to use the trunks to pull themselves up the steep slopes while the stupider undead slipped and fell far more often. Arvid and Aslaug had therefore etched out a small lead over their pursuers by the time they reached the ford up in the mountains. The ford itself was more of a way over the river than a way through it; leaning peaks on either side provided the perfect start and finish for a leap to clear the burbling waters. It was not a short leap, however, nor an easy one, and any misstep would plunge the leaper into the roiling, frothing waters below, which gushed along fast up here.
To compound problems, even though they had outdistanced those pursuing them, there were undead waiting for them by the ford. A dozen corpses milled around aimlessly in sight of the two peaks, on the rocky ledges and among the trees, and many of them looked around and saw the couple when they came scrambling up the mountainside. The undead started chasing the old couple, their hollow, hungry moans alerting their oblivious fellows.
Arvid growled in annoyance, “They’re everywhere! Where in the Gods’ name did these freaks all come from?”
“It doesn’t matter where they came from right now,” said Aslaug, panting. “Let’s just get to the ford!”
Arvid could see it was going to be a close race. He and his wife were approaching the peaks from the south, while the undead were converging on them from the slopes to the north and the woods to the east. Arvid and Aslaud tried to hurry, but age was a shackle, holding them back. The undead reached the peaks first and blocked the old couple’s way, howling their hunger.
Arvid stopped and looked to his wife. “Is there anything you can do, Aslaug?”
She knew what he meant. She nodded. “It’s been a long time, but I’ll try. You might have to carry me afterwards, though; I’ll be weak as a new-born calf. For now, keep them off my back.”
He nodded and put his back to hers. Aslaug closed her eyes and started to murmur words in a tongue her husband did not recognise, waving her arms in strange patterns in the air all the while. The words made Arvid’s hairs all stand on end and gave him goosebumps. He thought he could feel electricity in the air, like a storm was rolling in, but the sky was blue and speckled only lightly by white clouds.
“Surtur kambal!” she kept saying. “Surtur kambal!”
The undead from the woods to the east came the fastest, reaching the couple while Aslaug still stood, stroking and speaking to the air. Arvid put himself between his wife and the undead and tugged his axe from his belt. It was a war-axe, the very weapon he had used during his days at Northbane fighting against the Crawlers. It had a short haft, a bearded blade and a spike opposite. It felt snug in his palm, fitting like a glove even after all those years.
He tried talking to and shouting at a few of them, but they ignored him. Their only response was the moan they all shared; that empty, greedy noise that held no iota of intelligence of civilisation, only the basest of animal urges.
His practised swing clove the first of the undead’s skull in twain in a single blow. Then, the axe got stuck and somehow the little man in leather with the split skull was not incapacitated. He continued to grab and claw at Arvid as though he hadn’t even noticed the big blade lodged in his brain.
“What in Baldr’s balls is going on?” Arvid raged, finally yanking free his axe and grimacing as cold, dark blood and brains spurted over him. He retched and spat; the gore smelled like old fish mouldering on a pile of dung. “What in the Gods’ name are you monsters?”
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