Chapter 19
Beyond the River

South of Uthcaster, Pendragon

When the Pendragons conquered the land and took possession of it, they sought out their neighbors to the South. The people of the High City spoke of a nation to the south called Kyanopolis in their tongue, otherwise known as the Blue Haven. It was a land that was despised in their eyes, said to be founded by traitors and scoundrels. King Lother wished to send a mission to them to see what manner of nation it was, whether it would be ripe for conquest or for tribute or for trade.
The people of the High City warned him strongly that to take the overland route across the River was death. Only by sea was the way safe. Now there were no boats in those days as all the boats in Norland had been burned and the King would not have trusted his mission to Norlander boats and Norlanders sailors in any case.
A bridge was built to cross the River and the first time twenty men were sent. When they did not return, fifty were sent, then a hundred. When the hundred did not return, the King burned the bridge in his anger and so none crossed the River until the bridge was rebuilt by order of King Seth five years ago. Only he did not send any mission to the Blue Haven, yet Dale and his patrol would venture across once in a season to survey the land close to the River, though they had never followed the full length of its course from shore to shore.
Dale's greater concern was the forest, but before he went ranging there in search of the resurgent Goblins, he did not want to neglect the borderlands. They were to spend two weeks ranging and then they would return to Uthcaster, rest for a few days, then venture into the forest.
As they were crossing the bridge, Swegen--a Norlander yet loyal to the King--said, "I got a bad feelin' 'bout this rangin'."
"You always say that, Swegen Thorkellsson," Dale replied. "Has any great misfortune ever befallen us?"
"The All-Father is wise," Swegen said. "He tests men."
Officially, all forms of paganism were to be suppressed throughout the kingdom, but Dale was no great defender of the Faith. In truth, he household still had their idols they venerated in secret and so he let each of his men believe as they would so long as it did not sow conflict in the ranks. King Seth seemed to have much the same view and with the most fervent of the faithful secluded in the Sanctuary, there was little cause for concern.
"You worry too much," Dale said, "but we shall keep our wits about us all the same."
Several miles beyond the River, the grass turned dry and brown, as in the dead of winter, yet it remained so all the year round. It was neither truly living nor truly dead. Dale's men had taken to calling it corpsegrass and they were never too willing to venture deeply into the blighted land.
The corpsegrass spread as far as the eye could see. There were no trees or an other plant to be found. Dale knew this land was bound by the sea to the east and the west and by the River to the north, but how far south did it extend? He longed to know, but with no sign of game or water, how much would you need to bring in provisions to survive the journey there and back?
"Sir, let's turn back," one of the men said. "There's naught to be found here."
Dale raised his hand for the man to hold his peace. He then dismounted from his horse, took the spade from his kit and dug up a patch of corpsegrass. The blades were dry and brittle as any dead grass, but as he rubbed away the dirt and felt the roots, they were certainly moist and alive, almost like worms. They even seemed to move, but surely that was his eyes playing tricks on him.
"How does such a plant survive?" he wondered aloud.
"The dead feed it," Swegen said, "an' the grass takes Death inta itself an' becomes the livin' dead. They say the gate ta Helheim's here an' so it's a lann a' the dead in the livin' world. Let's not stay any longer, sir, les' we 'come food for the corpsegrass too."
Though he considered Swegen's fears to be simple superstition, Dale could not deny the sense of foreboding that crept into his very bones. Even if none of what Swegen said were true, this was certainly no place for the living.
"Yes, let's go," he said.
Before he could stand up, though, a hand burst from the ground and seized him by the wrist. Struggling with the hand at first, he drew his sword when it did not release him and cut it off, yet even then it still clung to him. He sank his sword into the ground and wrested himself free. The hand was like that of a long-dead corpse, yet there was still flesh on it and it had strength in it as a man in full vigor.
Then there was a horrible shriek. Dale turned to see his horse pierced by many long spears that hand sprung out of the ground. More spears emerged to skewer man and beast throughout the company. Dale himself only narrowly dodged one that came up near his feet.
"Fall back beyond the River!" he shouted. "Every man, fall back!"
Swegen called out to him, reaching out with his hand, "Sir!"
Before Dale could take Swegen's hand, an arrow went through his neck and he fell from his horse.
"No!"
As Dale knelt by Swegen's side while he was in his death throes, he saw the dead rise up from the ground. Some were little more than bare skeletons. Most were clad in rotting rags for clothes and armor that was rusted over and crumbling.
"Draugar," Swegen said, choking on his own blood. "Flee..."
One of the dead warriors clambered toward him with an ancient sword in his hand. Dale sprang to his feet, took hold of his own sword and met the dead warrior's swing, breaking the rusty blade in twain. But a broken sword did not deter it in the slightest. Even with half a sword, it continued to attack. Dale lopped off its swordarm and then its head, but even all this did not stop it.
An arrow struck him in the shoulder, perhaps the same archer who killed Swegen. Then Swegen himself rose up, along with the other newly dead men of his patrol. Their skin was an ashen grey and their eyes misted over. Many still bore in their bodies the spears and arrows that killed them.
"Swegen?"
It may have been Swegen's body, but it was no longer Swegen, nor were any of the other fallen the men they were. More and more were rising from the ground. There was nothing for Dale to do but run. He was blessed to be fleet-footed, but the perils were too many. Spears continued to rise up from the ground, killing more of his men as they tried to retreat. He was grazed across the arm once, then again along the side of his belly. Another arrow struck him, this one in the back near the kidney. Many more came close but missed. A third arrow caught him in the ankle, dropping him to the ground. As he landed, hands reached up to take hold of his head, but he was able to break free, limping along until the corpsegrass gave way to green.
Though weak and on the verge of collapse, he refused to die here, lest he rise again like the others. He caught sight of a horse with no rider. Though it shied from him as he approached, he was able to take hold of the reins and mount it, though doing so was painful beyond imagining. He drove the horse on, making for the bridge.
The further he went, the more distant it seemed. His vision was growing hazy, but he pressed on. When he heard the sound of the horse's shoes clacking on the timbers of the bridge, he closed his eyes and rested easy. Surely this would be the one and only time.