It seemed sometimes that it would be so easy to forget, so easy to imagine that it had always been this way. Already, Eldgrim struggled to remember the way he had lived before the gods had fallen.
Eldgrim had not been a warrior - or, at least, he had not placed fighting above all other things the way some men seemed to. Eldgrim was, or rather had been, a farmer. He had been a husband. Most of all, he had been father to two strong sons and three troublesome daughters. Now, he was none of those things.
Perhaps it truly would be better to let himself forget.
Only… when Eldgrim decided that it was, he found that he couldn’t. How could any man forget working the way Eldgrim had just to try to keep his crops from dying? They had frozen in the fields, the green, half-grown corn withering away on its stems to nothing despite Eldgrim’s best efforts.
How could he forget the expressions on his daughters’ faces as he had sent them away further south? They would stay with their cousins until times were better, he had told them.
Don’t make me leave, Inga had pleaded. I fear that, if I go, I will never see you again. And she was right, Eldgrim thought.
Or - worst of all, perhaps - the look in his wife’s eye on that last night… If he could choose only one thing to forget, it would be that.
The mead horn, when it reached him, was almost empty although more than half of their number had yet to take a drink. There was never enough these days. Even if Eldgrim had drained it, it wouldn’t have been enough for him to make himself forget. And for it to satisfy all of them? For that, there was nowhere near.
Eldgrim held the horn to his lips and tilted it a little, pretending to drink deeply. Then, he passed it on, watching wistfully as it made its way around the fire. He know from experience that it would be empty long before it reached him again.
Eldgrim had used to make his own mead, a dark, strong blend flavoured with lingonberries and meadowsweet - he had prided himself on the recipe. When they were older, he had planned to hand it down to his sons. Now, they would never know… They would never… Eldgrim pushed himself to his feet, wrapping his cloak more tightly around his shoulders. He moved a little way from the fire, distancing himself from the others so that there was room enough for his grief to expand. Turning to face into the darkness, he scolded himself quietly for having stared into the flames. If they came now, he would not see them.
Perhaps that would be best for all of them.
Every night, they picked off a few more of the little group which Eldgrim had become a part of. He recognised their faces, sometimes. Both of his sons were amongst them, as were many of his neighbours.
Of course, they had known that it would happen. The stories had been passed down through the generations, a long-standing part of their heritage. When the time comes, it will happen like this. Only, Eldgrim had never expected that he would still be alive when the time came. None of them had.
Eldgrim could smell them coming long before he could see them; they had about them the putrid-sweet smell of rotting flesh. Their voices next, carried on the same fetid breeze as the stench:
“Are you there Manni? Come join your brother…”
“It's me - Freygerd! Don’t you remember me?”
Hollow, emotionless voices. Eldgrim’s hand closed eflexively around the hilt of his sword.
And then he could see them, as if the mist had congealed without him realising. There were hundreds of them now; maybe even more.
From under the dark canopy of trees, the Draugar came.
“We’re remnants - revenants, almost - just like them. We‘re already dead, all of us; we just don‘t know it yet.” Thorald sighed. The Draugar had drifted away at dawn like mist, slipping back under the cover of the trees. Despite the group’s best efforts, three of their number had joined them. Two more lay dying by the fire - they kept it burning all the time now, even during the day - beyond any help which the group could give them. By nightfall, they too would become Draugar.
Eldgrim sighed. “Yes, but…” But what? he found himself thinking. They all knew the stories, had known them since they were children. Two humans would survive, a man and a woman. The rest…
“But nothing, Eldgrim!” Thorald snapped. “My sons! My daughters! My father! They sit amongst the trees and wait for me to join them. What is there for me here that I should fight? What glory for men such as us?
“I dedicated my life to my boys, Eldgrim, the same as you did. They were meant to be my legacy. To outlive me. Now… My boys are out there under those trees, the blood hardening in their veins. Isn‘t that enough for a man to bear? How can any man stand to hear his children - his dead children - calling his name, night after night? ‘We’re right here, father.’ Even in my dreams, Eldgrim; they whisper into my gods-damned dreams! How is any man meant to bear that?”
There should have been an answer. Once, Eldgrim would have said that they fought on because they were men. Norsemen - and Norsewomen too, some of them. It was not in them to surrender, to go easily. The halls of Valhalla and Fólkvangr waited for those of them who died bravely. Only… The end-times had come and gone. The heroes would have fought their final battle and those halls would now be empty.
When the gods have fallen, Eldgrim thought, what hope can there be for mortal men such as us?
“I have nothing left, Eldgrim.” Thorald cradled his head in his hands. “There is nothing left.”
“Eldgrim? Are you there?” Gunnhild’s voice had been flat, as though all of the joy had been drained out of it. Even so, it was definitely her.
Eldgrim’s nails had still had dirt under them from digging her grave.
“Eldgrim, I’m frightened. Please come out. I need you.” He hadn’t slept that night, too afraid that she would be in his dreams. None of them had. Instead, they had crouched together by the hearth, ignoring the tears which soaked each other’s cheeks.
She had called to them. Begged. Pleaded, even.
“Do you not love me any more, my darling? My boys, my own sons, do you reject your own mother?”
When Eldgrim slept, she called to him again. In his dreams she walked towards him, the white dress which they had buried her in stained by mud and the fluids of decaying flesh. Her skin would be bluish-grey. Corpse blue. Her eyes would be deep and distant.
In his dreams, she wrapped her arms around his shoulders and buried her cold, rotting face in his chest, digging her broken nails into his flesh. If Eldgrim had stayed there one more night, perhaps he would have joined her. In a way, he wished that he had. Instead they had left at dawn, taking with them what they could carry.
There were more of them every night, it seemed. Eldgrim could see them moving under the trees, swarming like moths drawn to their warmth.
“Its me! Osvald!”
“Johan, come and sit with your grandfather awhile…”
“Eldgrim! Father, please!” Eldgrim clenched his teeth, the bones of his jaw locking tightly together. “Father, we’re right here!”
They wouldn’t be rotting away yet, he thought, not like some of the ones he had seen. Kabbi had only been taken a night ago, Galti the night before that. He imagined their handsome young faces, pale but not yet decaying. Their bodies, dead but not yet cold.
Galti had always been afraid of the dark when he was little. Eldgrim wondered whether he would be frightened now. The woods were dark. Cold. And to be surrounded by those… things. Only… he was one of those things now. Galti was dead. Gone. And Eldgrim? I, Eldgrim thought, am dead too.
No halls for heroes, no battle to come. The gods are dead, and we… we are nothing.
Behind him, the few remaining survivors clustered around the campfire. Tomorrow, there would be fewer of them. The next night, fewer still. And the next? And after that?
Eldgrim’s blade slipped smoothly from it’s sheathe. The firelight reflected back from the metal, making it glow like a torch. When death is a certainty, choose to die well, he thought.
Turning his back on the fire, he walked towards the trees.
© Rebecca L. Brown 2012
Rebecca L. Brown is a British writer. She specialises in horror, SF, humour, surreal and experimental fiction, although her writing often wanders off into other genres and gets horribly lost. Rebecca has a first class degree in Archaeology from Cardiff University. She is an active member of the Pagan community and recently spent a year editing a popular Pagan webzine. For exclusive updates, news and upcoming publications visit Rebecca's blog at http://rebeccabrownupdates.wordpress.com/.