A special Halloween treat for all you special horror readers: my Viking-era horror short story
Name the Dead
Men from the other side of the river carry the dead on broken backs. They plod across the bridge, and the wagon’s wooden wheels click over it.
They are watching.
Two by two, the mourners process in a single line. They hang their heads and grit their teeth. Behind them are the villagers waiting for death.
A woman tries to be strong. Her lip trembles. “My son, not my son,” she wails.
“Do not touch the body. There is bad luck in this,” a man tells her.
“That is not a body, but is my child.”
“There is only disease now. It waits for us all.”
“Disease.” She spits. “It’s more than disease.”
The men who carry the dead stop before a great bone fire. Each mourner steps forward with some personal item, flowers, or a thing of comfort. These are laid atop the bodies.
No one looks at another, and no one speaks to the living.
“We will meet once more,” a woman says, and others echo her words. Their eyes glisten in the firelight—the worlds of the dead are not faraway places.
The bodies are fed into the flames. That way, they can’t come back.
Torchlight flashes, and all are gathered in the great hall. Long fingers of light trace the shadowed faces there. This is the longest night. The winter solstice, start of Jól.
The dead have spoken, their voices growing louder. Curse, their rotted throats croak, as if it isn’t evident. The milk curdles, the food spoils, and no one thinks to ask why but Magnús. Ergi, they call him—weak. Because he is a sorcerer. Yet he hears a warning that others would ignore.
Like many others, Magnús sits off to himself on a bench. Single people, those in twos and, more rarely, in threes, sit or stand. They drink and feast, far removed from one another in the longhouse.
A single woman spins and giggles to flute music. This place was alive with singing and dancing last Jól. But the village has changed. Most are strangers to each other now.
A sweet song, full of sorrow but love, lilts through the air.
Fire pops from the hall’s center. Wood is piled in a high triangle there. Magnús’s heartbeat slows, and his eyes are dragged toward the embers. The images come quickly, a vision within the flames.
Draugur. Once men. Once women. . . but changed by death. They are coming out of the ground, out of the sea. Nine have eyes made of stone, mouths filled with seaweed and soil. The blackest soil. All the others look almost human, but their skin is ash and they are dead.
Magnús jumps to his feet, gasping. The curse that has plagued them will come in full force tonight. His eyes find Einar across the hall, and he strides toward him, close and whispering. “I have news.”
“News can wait.” Einar, a tall soldier, claps a hand on his scrawny shoulder. “Come and celebrate life with us, lad.”
“I would rather cling to my own,” young Magnús whispers. “Your counsel is a precious thing.”
“Aye. Let’s go outside then.”
The sea churns in the distance. Snow-dipped mountains stand behind the village, far away, and a forest stands near. The village and its path snakes just above the valley.
People laugh and shout in the hall, but their noise fades like wolves in the distance as the two men confer.
“Do you hear them coming?” Magnús asks.
“Who?” Einar shakes ale from his beard and grins.
“You are the only true warrior here. The others are not ready. I am not ready.”
“Speak free, lad. Who is coming?”
“The dead and their army.”
Einar laughs and slaps him on the back. “The dead are smiling on us, my own daughter among them. Have no fear, small one.” Then he stumbles back through the hall.
Magnús follows him, spying the man on the highseat across from the entrance. “I must tell the jarl.”
“Nay, you will sour his mood with your child’s play.”
“It should be sour. You are all fools.” The curse, death and all its poisons, had been coming since last midwinter.
“Let it be on your head.” Einar walks toward the dancing maid.
On the highseat, Jarl Rognvald sits alone, but people circulate around him.
“Jarl?” Magnús clears his throat.
“Boy! Are you enjoying yourself?”
“My lord, I am Magnús, not a boy. But yes, the feast is…”
“Not much of one, I am aware. Things have hit the crops hard.”
“And the people.”
“Aye, and the people. Find yourself pleasure, Magnús.” The jarl waves him off.
“I… I, um, had a vision. About draugur, my lord.” His voice drops low. “They will invade this eve.”
“Oh ho, will they now? Who can speak on your behalf, Magnús? You of the visions.”
“No one. My parents have gone on to the mound.”
“Witch!” the jarl shouts to an old woman in a dark corner of the longhouse.
Men talk and call her mad, but others say she knows and sees all.
“This… man says that the dead are rising and will come for us tonight,” Jarl Rognvald tells the witch. “What say you?”
She walks toward them.
Mud covered and dressed in tatters, she kneels on the wooden floor and throws bones. Her face creases and she rubs her chin, trying to read their meaning. “Ekki!” She reaches to put them in her bag.
Magnús stays her hand.
“They’ll burn the village, Amma. Don’t you see it?
She kicks the bones. “My eyes itch.”
The jarl shakes his head but orders guards posted around the village.
Soldiers are scarce, and it won’t be enough.
Whispers hiss from some secret place where only Magnús can hear. The susurrations are a tone so familiar. His parents, both dead, speak from the mound, yet he can only sense their unrest.
Don’t let the torches go out.
They speak to Magnús, the others who have died in the village, and warn him.
Outside, he stands near the river and looks at its inky, reflective surface. Images of his parents froth in the water, their movement chaotic. Magnús bends to the icy river and runs his fingers through it. “I will give you peace,” he says. Their likenesses dissolve.
He should run, get out while he is able. But a man would not leave his home or those he loved. He wouldn’t run. He wouldn’t cry. He would stay and fight. That’s what he means to do.
Magnús warns the villagers of what’s to come, but it falls on deaf ears. Neighbors tuck their heads into their chests and look away. None thinks to help another. Still, he approaches all and asks after them.
Always, people depend on each other to get through the hard times.
Only a girl, frail and tall and with a long single braid, not quite a woman, accepts his help with relief. The firewood is heavy, too much for her arms. He takes most of the load from her with a smile that she returns with a suspicious eye.
This is a village where most are named Stranger.
Yet even as he helps this girl, something bad has gathered.
From the dark, in the trees, he hears it. We come to take the heart. The voice startles him, and Magnús drops the wood he was carrying. An image appears inside his eye, within his mind. The revenant looks as if a tree had decided to uproot itself. Eyes of stone, mouth filled with seaweed. We come to take the heart.
No one else can hear it.
“Talk to me,” he whispers, but receives no answer. The image fades.
Magnús grabs an axe from his house.
His parents are gone. Dead. The word spits in his ear, all ugliness. If he rids this place of its monsters, maybe they will know rest.
A single draugr rides a corpse horse down the main road. Nothing but black bones, its hair made of fire, the once-animal canters along the path.
War horns drone through the village, bleating its alarm. Jarl Rognvald emerges from the longhouse carrying a sword. A couple others hold weapons, but most race to their homes to get whatever they can to fight with.
“Where is the battle?” Jarl Rognvald’s words slur with too much drink.
“Before us, my lord.”
They all stand on the path now, watching the draugr with wide eyes. This is the longest night, a time when darkness itself can live inside the village.
Screams peal the air, and some hold their hands against their mouths or bite back fearful sounds. Just stay quiet, and maybe they won’t see you. A few men hold ancestral swords and axes. Farmers grasp their adzes, sickles, or sharpened hoes.
The draugr stares into the unseen distance. He gallops past and a single torch winks out. Like the draugr, Magnús knows these revenant beasts will soon swarm the village.
Everyone calms and lets their weapons hang limply in their hands as the thing passes to the far side of their homes.
A man falls to the ground. No one touches him. Somehow everyone knows that the dead have claimed another. The man doesn’t move, but his skin turns to ash and his voice makes the death rattle. There is no torchlight nearby, only shadow.
Magnús leans over him. “Help us.”
The nine are coming, the dead man wheezes. But no one else hears it.
The horses land on the beach, their hooves grazing the air and puffing up the wet sand around them. These are more than horses.
Out of the darkness, the dead rise. Out of the sea, the dead rise.
Heavy footsteps thump the sand.
The draugur’s foot bones dig into the marsh and the dirt. This is not a weakened force but a battalion ready to fight and never fade.
No longer men—now instruments of death.
They blacken the skies with their numbers, and the nine are still coming.
Draugur move toward the village, slow and fragile except for the nine, who have finally come. The first three grab torches that line the path and toss them as they go by.
Thatched roofs catch fire and blaze.
Screaming, people run from their homes and into the arms of death.
The girl is the size of a very small dog and holds three flowers by her side, standing in the road.
“Get out of the path.” Magnús grasps his axe, afraid for her.
“Flowers are for the dead.”
Magnús leans down to pick her up and run, but it’s too late.
The rotted breath of a draugr is upon them. Eyes and mouth smiling and full of joy, the yellow-haired child offers the thing a small blue flower. The corpse walker tucks it into his helmet with a nod. The others keep their distance from her, a signal she will not be harmed.
Without warning, this draugr falls to bones and dust. All that remains is the flower on the path.
Now there are eight.
Magnús lets out the breath he was holding. Flowers are for the dead. Still, he grabs the flower from beneath the ash and tucks it into his belt.
“Hide in the woods, girl,” he says.
“I’m safe from them.”
There’s no time to argue.
A swarm of corpse walkers have come, different from the eight—slower, fragile, less human.
Villagers watch a draugr take a slow swipe at a farmer’s head. The revenant pushes his bony hand and arm through the dead man’s chest and pulls out the heart, then places it in his own ribcage. He grows a thin layer of skin.
Hearts strengthen them.
Voices whisper to Magnús, but no one else hears. I was but a traveler. A traveler. A traveler. A traveler. The word repeats, eight voices. You turned me away. You turned me away. Away. Inside his head, the words guttural.
Another torch puffs out in the cold wind. Snow drifts sideways down from a place that cannot be the sky. This has to be revenge.
People scatter from the road and into the woods. Some shelter in the longhouse, holding their weapons for a final stand. But Magnús stays outside, near the road.
The metallic ring of a sword echoes in the village, and a man runs toward the draugur with a battle cry. Three more torches wink out.
This place of poison. Mistreatment. Mistreatment. Mistreatment.
White mist shrouds all things. Wiping his eyes does no good, as in the past. The vision comes: nine dead bodies on the road. Left to die. No one stopped. They knocked on doors. No one answered. They were left to die alone. Once men. But they form, again, into their previous shape. The fog clears, old images gone.
Magnús feels great shame. Someone should have helped them. The road is hard to travel alone.
Stones that fill their eye sockets pop out and turn wolfish and bright green. Their nose holes shift like clay until they have long snouts and bristle with fur. The tallest among them lets out a long howl and pants as he runs.
It’s known that draugur can change shape, but only the eight turned to wolves. The others remain walking dead.
A breath tickles Magnús’s ear, and it smells of Mother before her death. She is trying to tell him something. His chest warms, the hearth.
No other corpse walker but the eight has great power, else they wouldn’t gather the hearts.
Click click click go the revenants’ every movement. Then, they halt. Even the wind stops. The longhouse is before them.
Draugr wolves claw the wooden doors and walls, growling, barking, snarling, and letting out snorts when any human gets too close to the window.
From the longhouse, he hears a baby’s scream.
“No!” Magnus cries.
Eight heads whip his way.
But they batter the wooden boards all at once and beat down the building. A loud craaaaack makes them howl.
As the splintered wood opens into a gaping hole, they shift their bodies back into the shape of human draugur, corpse walkers, and amble through. These are the ones with stones for eyes and blackened mouths.
Draugur pour through the building.
“Someone take that blade from the jarl. He’ll lose his footing and kill us all,” an anonymous voice in the night says.
The jarl does not reply but follows Magnús. Wise as he is, master strategist, Jarl Rognvald is clumsy at war, and there is no time for verbal sparring.
Magnús lets out a battle cry, not thinking, and rushes into the great hall with his axe over his head. The draugur turn and walk toward him. His eyes widen, and he wants to let the axe drop and run the other direction. The first is too strong for him. Magnús hits the thing’s neck with his axe, but it barely bites into raw skin before the draugr grabs him by the throat and throws him against the far wall.
You’re vultures that only take, take, take.
Head ringing, his mind is faint. Two revenants are taken by the jarl with some difficulty. A swarm of the weaker corpse walkers close in, but before they can do anything, Einar slashes three of them with his dull sword, then offers his hand to Magnús.
“Aye,” Einar says. Einar’s eyes shine with battle joy as he slashes two more draugur. “Is there a plan? Three of these ugly ones have gotten hearts already.”
“We can’t let that happen. It makes them stronger.”
Magnús stands, glad to find his axe nearby. Flesh Ripper. Holding it steady, he thinks of his parents and bringing them peace.
The dusty ones, their clothes ragged, fall first. He only has to graze their bellies to weaken them. Other farmers are doing the same, one woman smacking their heads with a shovel. It’s not been long—the torches still show some light—but people are growing tired. They slow.
The jarl falls, and someone takes up his sword.
A faint blue glimmers in the shadowed torchlight. The flower has fallen from Magnús’s belt, mashed into the floor. He picks it up, feels its soft but dirty petals. Flowers are for the dead. They are a tribute, an offering.
As men, the draugur were awarded nothing. The village mistreated them, denied them hospitality, and left them to die in the winter. The little girl honored one of their kind with a flower. These men just want to be remembered and given warmth in the cold.
“Come in by the fire,” Magnús says to the eight, “and have a bite to eat.”
There is a change in their stance.
Magnús turns toward the doorway, as if directing them to follow him home, and welcomes them.
A high-pitched squeal emits from the draugur’s direction, and green light wraps itself around them in a fog. Foxfire. Brighter and brighter and brighter, the light so bright that they should set fire, their bodies quake and shudder.
Bang! The light spreads and rolls outward. They fall, human again but dead.
Fighting ceases. Smoke curls through the village as every fire has gone out.
They have survived the night.
The otherworldly horses march into the ocean, disappearing into the horizon. Then the sun rises.
Still breathing heavily from fighting and fear, the villagers wait for the dead to return. They stare into the distance. They stand frozen.
The faint whispers of his parents are gone, and Magnús lets out a breath. His body is heavy with grief. He drops Flesh Ripper, his axe.
Bones and ashes and bodies from the draugur litter the area.
Men from the other side of the river plod down the path. Ivar, a trader, asks what aid they can give.
“We need to bury the dead.”
The trader nods.
Others emerge from the longhouse, the forest, and the path, joining them.
The dead stay in the ground, and no one thinks to burn them.