“Pray for life or pray for death, it does not matter. In the end, only one outcome is inevitable.”
That night, King Wulfbrok addressed the remaining men of his army at a banquet held in honor of their fallen brethren.
“With great bravery, comes great sacrifice. And it is with heavy hearts that we honor the sacrifices made by the greatest warriors in all of the Five Kingdoms. We shall never forget the names of those who fought and died so bravely on the Holy Plains of Thodornia.” A roar of cheers erupted throughout the Grand Hall. Once the noise subsided, the King began again, “If it be the way of the Gods, may we one day dine with them in the afterlife. And be it the way of man, may we relish their victory now. Tonight, we feast for our great warriors. May the Gods bless us once more.”
With that, another eruption of cheers rang out, and the merriment continued long into the night. But the King wasn’t among the revelers. He had more pressing matters to attend to. He had to prepare for his upcoming death.
A soft orange glow flickered on a distant hill, playing against the purple backdrop of the night sky. The snow had ceased but the wind sliced through the man like the blades of a thousand daggers. His body weary and weather-beaten, he was mere moments from collapse. But when all seemed hopeless, his warrior spirit rose up from within and pushed him forward through the pain and exhaustion.
Labored step after labored step, he climbed the hill toward the light until an oval hut came into view. A gentle crackling escaped through the open doorway of the hut and the promise of a warm fire reinvigorated him.
Upon reaching the entrance, a squat old man with a bushy beard and bushier eyebrows greeted him.
“Say, ‘tis not the time of year to be traveling through these parts,” the old man said in a strange accent.
“Where am I?” The warrior could barely raise his voice above the ripping wind.
“Quickly, come inside ‘fore you catch a case of death. That’s one ailment you shan’t recover from,” the old man said with a chuckle.
Once inside, the bearded man gave the warrior a wool blanket and told him to sit on the floor and warm himself in front of the fire. After pinning a curtain across the entrance of the hut, he joined his new companion.
“Name is Olvin of Kurmits. That be where you are as well.”
“Do not blame ye for never hearing of it. Not many folks live in these hills nowadays. Kurmits is a part of Thodornia.” Olvin pulled a wooden jug from a box and fixed two mugs of wine. “Weather be too harsh for most.” He handed a mug to the man who downed the bitter wine in two long slugs.
“I am sorry to have bothered you. My name is Ashur Kang. I am a soldier of Sansylgate.” His voice still retained the painful rasp induced by his injured throat.
“Well tickle me with a goose feather. Ye be a long ways from Sansylgate.” Olvin took a sip of wine that stained half of his gray mustache red. “What kind of name is Kang, if ye care to tell?” He gazed curiously at his guest’s partially covered face. “That be a northern name, no?”
The warrior, Ashur Kang, explained how during his teenage years, the chief of his village in the country of Cangro sent him to a noble family in Sansylgate. It was the head of the family who had changed his last name to Kang so the boy could one day enlist with the northern army.
“Back then, they did not allow tribal warriors from the south to fight with northerners.” Ashur accepted another mug of wine. “They believed we were not educated enough for organized battle. But by giving me the surname of their noble family, my education never came into question.”
Olvin raised a bushy eyebrow. “Ye means to tell me ye battled with the best of the Five Kingdoms?”
“Aye,” Ashur grunted.
“How old when ye first took up the sword for the family Kang?”
Ashur took a sip from his mug while he thought in silence. Not being much of a wine drinker, his head had already succumbed to a slow spin.
“My people do not keep track of the years like they do in the north. When I first experienced battle in these lands, I was no longer a boy, nor was I yet a man.” He set his mug aside and removed his head wrap, revealing in full a rugged black beard and a head of hair that was braided into a tight, intricate pattern of rows. “That was many winters ago. Many battles waged and many men since passed.”
“Aye.” Olvin raised his mug skyward and began to speak in a singsong rhythm, “A drink to the fight, to the man and his might, may he forever be blessed, for this, we drink on the night.”
The two men tapped their mugs and downed their wine. Ashur had managed to shake the chill from his bones and felt the warm embrace of sleep edging its way into his consciousness.
“Ye welcome to rest here ‘til the morn.”
But Ashur did not hear the old man’s words; the world of dreams had already taken hold. And in his dreams, a thundering army of the undead marched through the snow-covered hills. Their shadowy figures pushing forward beneath the pale radiance of the full moon.
Ceaseless was their pursuit—only hampered by the grotesque injuries their frozen bodies donned. All they knew was rage. The relentless fury of battle filled their non-beating hearts. There was more blood to be shed, for even in death their battle was far from over. They were the Draugr. A legend born in Hell.
The rhythmic clacking of wooden wheels and horse hooves echoed throughout the still streets of Sansylgate.
During the grand banquet, King Wulfbrok had finally received news of the battle from two of his scouts. While he had already learned of the outcome from the Garnarian, he had nearly choked on ale when he had heard that many of the bodies had vanished from the battlefield. He had pressed the scouts for more information but they had nothing else to tell. It was as if all the corpses with intact legs had simply gotten up and walked off into the wilderness. There were many indents of boot-crushed ice corroborating this impossible theory, but the wind and snow had erased all other evidence.
“We must hurry,” the King said to the carriage driver.
The driver nodded in acknowledgment and whipped the horses to quicken their pace. The moon hung high above the world and they hoped it would illuminate their way as they rushed to see the Oracle at the Caves of Divinity. If they did not reach the Oracle before daybreak, the Five Kingdoms would be no more.