Surrendered to the Berserkers by Lee Savino
The forest wasthick with towering trees. Thick moss grew between the pines, the bark on the southern sides bearing moss up to the lowest branches. In the deepest thicket, there was no light, just the burnished gold of my hair slipping from its braid, and the eerie glow from the dagger strung on a leather cord around my neck. When I lost my way, I pulled the dagger out of its hiding place and held it aloft, waiting for the moonstone affixed to the pommel to come alive in a blue blaze of eldritch light. The dagger seemed to hum in my hand when I pointed it the correct way. I ignored both the hum of the dagger and its uneasy echo, deep in my breast.
If I could, I’d throw the dagger into the thicket, moonstone and all. But that was not a choice I could make. So I tucked the blade away, and continued on my unwanted quest.
When I’d started walking a day ago, the air had been crisp with winter, the forest floor covered in snow. The further I walked, the warmer it got. I could not mark the spot where the earth turned from the snowy spring to humid summer. My winter clothes grew heavier with each step. Sweat trickled down my back under the heavy brocade cloak.
You will face many challenges, the witches told me. The Corpse King loves to pervert the laws of nature and the natural order. He toys with the weather, with the life and death of every creature. But by far his favorite target is the mind.
I dared not take off the cloak, no matter the growing heat. I would need this cloak at night when the world turned dark. Even if I didn’t, I wouldn’t set it aside. It was finer than anything I'd ever worn. The hood was fringed with fur. Thick fur lined the boots encasing my feet. As an orphan I’d never been given shoes or nice clothes but it seemed I would be well-dressed as I walked to my death.
My boots left no trace on the carpet of leaves and moss. Even when I stepped too near the stream and sank into the black mud, the water quickly filled in the print. A mere minute after I’d gone, there was no sign that I had passed.
Would the stories tell of me? Rosalind, who carried the world’s last weapon into the lair of the enemy? Or would I be forgotten, like a beam of sunlight lingering on a leafy branch, dancing on the surface of a lake—here one moment, gone the next?
I climbed a hill, skirting past thick banks of mountain laurel, pushing past the branches covered with dark green, glossy leaves. My legs ached, and it wasn’t even midday. My waterskin was cracked and would hold no more water. I licked my dry lips and soldiered on, keeping close to a stream, trying not to think about where each step was leading me.
We will send help, the witches had told me. But like so many others in my life, they’d lied. And I was alone.
The longer I walked, the more my sense of dread grew. A sound made me pause, but then I realized: there was no sound. The birdsong and the buzz of insects, even the hum of the dagger, had gone quiet.
Then: a slow, shuffling sound. The wind picked up and blew past me, carrying the stench of rot.
I scrambled back from the top of the rise and hid behind an outcropping of boulders, pressing myself to the lichen-clad stone. I must go carefully now. I edged along, keeping the rocks between myself and the creatures below. When I slipped and landed hard on my right ankle, turning it, I did not cry out. My fingernails tore on the rough stone, but I bit my lip and steadied myself. I must make no sound for the enemy to hear.
I leaned on my good leg and hobbled along, ignoring the flashes of pain that went up my right shin. I had more important things to worry about. I limped along until I could peep out of my hiding place.
Below me marched an army of the undead. Grey shapes clad in rags, rotting as they moved. Above the stink, another sickly smell rose—burnt spice and incense, the scent of the herbs they used to cleanse the dead.
I drew back, scrubbing my nose, eyes watering. The longer I lingered, the more I would smell it. And if I stayed too long, it would drive me mad.
The scent came not from herbs or any living thing. It existed only in my mind—the Corpse King’s magic made manifest. Not everyone could smell it as I could. And that was another reason I’d been chosen for this quest.
“You have the Corpse King's kiss, my dear.” The blind crone passed her thumb over my forehead. “You see him here. And he is burrowing deeper every day.”
“I do not want this,” I said, clenching my fist so I would not rub my face. “I do not want to have his magic upon me. Remove it. I wish to be ordinary.”
“But you were not made to be an ordinary girl. And you know this.”
“Why can I not simply remain on the mountain?”
“Do you wish to take a mate?” another witch asked.
“No, but I will if I must.” My voice sounded sullen, even to me.
The crone just patted my cheek.
I drew my cloak over my mouth and nose, and pressed a hand to my chest where the dagger lay between my breasts. Under my gown, the moonstone affixed to the dagger’s pommel gleamed as it would in the presence of the Corpse King, a tiny spot of blue fire.
I dared not draw the dagger out. It was said the servants of the Corpse King were drawn to the moonstone—first to the moonstone, and then to deliver it to their master. I knew this to be true because I’d once been in the grip of the Corpse King, and felt the same sinister pull to bring the moonstone to him.
Even now, I felt it.
I had to get away from this place.
The sea of draugr—the undead—stretched before me. How was I going to slip past? My fingers fumbled at my pouch. Amid the crumbs of traveling biscuits and scraps of dried meat—my rations that had lasted only a day—were a few weapons the witches had given me.
Use them sparingly, the crone had told me, and only when you see no way forward. I closed my fingers around a rune stone. I had only three of them, and I faced an army of the undead.
Perhaps I would show myself, and they would take me straight to the Corpse King. I could simply walk up to the lurching soldiers and lie down in surrender.
Walk of your own volition into the front gate. This will help deter the Corpse King’s hold upon you.
I could not give up so easily. I would have to go around. This would mean leaving the brook, my only source of water. There was no promise I’d find another way around the Corpse King’s forces, but I had to try. I could not risk the draugr capturing me.
I crept back down the hill, holding my breath, as if that would help me move more silently. If the undead sensed me here, they would come for me. I had to sneak around them.
But first, a drink from the stream. It was my only source of water, and if I were to leave it, I did not know when I would drink again.
I brushed past the towering ferns, trying to keep my boots out of the muck. Despite my efforts, my left foot got stuck in the black mud. I pulled it free with a sucking sound, staggering a little. A teeth-jarring wave of pain went up my right leg. I’d hurt my ankle more than I originally thought, but there was nothing to do but go on.
I gritted my teeth and limped along a few more steps. Then I halted.
A warrior crouched beside the stream, still as a stump, looking like he’d been there all along. But he hadn’t been there a moment before.
I froze, my foot in the air, and stared into his blue eyes. The warrior wore no shirt, only leggings and boots. Leather straps crisscrossed his broad chest. Still crouching, he swiveled towards me with the eerie grace of a man who is not completely human.
“There you are, lass,” he said. “I’ve been looking all over for you.”
I licked my lips but could not find my voice. He made no move to come to me, but I took a step back towards the way I came.
The witches had told me they’d send someone to help me. Was this him?
He cocked his head, raising his nose to the breeze. His nostrils flared, and his eyes lit up like torches for the briefest second. “There are draugr over that rise. You're not going that way, are you?”
I rubbed the front of my gown, molding my fingers to the dagger’s comforting shape. “It's none of your concern.”
The warrior rose to his feet in a fluid, gliding motion, holding my eyes the entire time. While crouching, his bulk had been hidden from me. Now, he reached my height and kept rising, growing into a mountain of muscle and leather and weaponry.
“Ah, lass, but it is my concern.” He held out a hand, still moving slowly, as if in water. I jerked back as if he was offering me a snake. “I’m here to take you back.”