A group of warriors fights a desperate last stand against an unstoppable force of nature.
UNDER THE VEIL OF NIGHT
By Nate Davis
“Cattle die, kinsmen die,
And so one dies oneself.
One thing I know that never dies,
The fame of a dead man’s deeds.”
“. . . and there were King Harald of Norway and Earl Tostig slain, and numberless people with them, both Northmen and English, and the Northmen fled from the English. Then was there but one of the Norwegians who withstood the English folk, so that they could not pass over the bridge or gain victory. . . .”
—The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle
The noonday sun was well-hid behind a veil of thunderheads that sent loud rolling peals echoing through the valley. In between thunderclaps the cold northern rain poured down in sheets, swelling the mountain stream to a raging torrent and washing the blood and detritus from the bridge that spanned it. Booted feet kicked broken and dismembered human forms into the brown churning water, and grim blue eyes watched them being bashed and sundered against the rocks downstream. The driven rain, the rolling thunder, the churning river, and the howling wind sounding through the valley muffled, but could not silence, the bestial moans wafting up the worn track on the far side of the bridge.
A lone figure shuffled out of the dense pine wood, obscured by a haze of mountain fog and summer rain. It was dressed in bloodied and soiled buckskins and it approached the bridge with a painful shambling gate. When it started to traverse the span of the bridge, a man approached from the other side. This man was tall and broad, dressed all in animal skins, with a sword strapped to his waist and a big round shield hanging from his left arm. He raised his shield and with a loud cry smote the creature into the river to be swept away by the current and broken on the rocks.
Wiping the rain out of his eyes, he walked back across the bridge to rejoin his fellows. There were eight others like him, all tall and broad, dressed in skins, with grim blue eyes and wild shocks of red or blonde hair. They each had a sword and a shield, save for one who carried a big two-handed war axe.
The axeman nursed a wound on his forearm while he futilely tried to tune a rain-ruined harp. With a cry of frustration he pitched the harp into the flood and barked at the returning man, “Wulfstan! You have the sharpest ears. When the wind blows our way again, I want you to tell us how many are coming.”
The howling wind changed direction, blowing toward them from the other side of the river, and carried on it were numerous of those maddening, unearthly moans. Wulfstan cupped a hand to his ear and reported, “I cannot say for sure. But it must be at least ten dozen, very likely several more. And they are close.”
The bard looked back away from the river toward the mountains on the far side of the valley, their forested peaks shrouded in mist. He said, “Hilda and the others should be over the ridge by now. Do you think we will be able to hold until nightfall?”
Wulfstan scoffed. “You insult us, Caedmon! I could hold this bridge to nightfall by myself!”
The bard—Caedmon—grimaced, said: “I feel the poison coursing through me. You men may fight on, but I will be drinking with our fathers before the sun rises again.”
The nine of them sat in a circle on the muddy track, sharpening their swords and waiting for the enemy as the moans grew steadily louder. A figure much like the first shambled out of the forest and approached the bridge. It had mottled grey skin and torn clothes and was missing an arm; congealed black blood oozed out of the stump. Another figure emerged, followed by another, and yet more until the track on the far side of the river was thick with them. They opened their mouths and filled the air with their moans. As they piled onto the narrow bridge, their number was so great that many were forced to wade into the churning stream where they were caught by the current and smashed against the rocks.
The fighters rose up fearlessly to face their adversaries, their eyes grim with a cold and unfeeling fatalism. As the beasts shuffled closer, the stench of their rotten breath filling the air, Caedmon hefted his big Dane axe and chanted:
“The coward believes he will live forever
If the fight he does not face,
But age will not grant him a gift of peace
Though the spears may spare his life.”
He gave his axe a practice swing and barked, “Get to it! Time now to separate the dogs from the men!”
The bridge was narrow—only three men could stand abreast on it—and one of the fighters howled with blind battle-fury and jumped onto its span, driving his big rotund shield into the beasts with the full weight of his body behind it. He swung his sword and smote one across the throat, very nearly severing its head. With shield and sword he tore into them, but still they kept coming, biting and scratching, seemingly oblivious to the damage he was dealing.
Wulfstan brushed strings of rain-soaked blonde hair out of his eyes and said, “Caedmon, tell me: How did it come to this?”
The rain pounded the slat roof of the mead-hall, and a howling wind powerful enough to uproot trees battered at its stout log walls, but the air inside was warm and dry. Even the howling wind and the rolling thunder were muffled, drowned out by the sounds of feasting and merry-making. Men, women, and children drank deeply from horns of beer, feasted on joints of beef, laughed, talked, boasted, and listened eagerly to Caedmon’s tales.
“. . . Loudly spoke Thrym the giant-king,” the bard chanted as he strummed his harp,
“’Bring for the hammer to bless my bride.
Let Mjollnir lie upon her knees
That its strength may bless our vows.’”
The men and women and children chuckled in anticipation; this was an old tale and a favorite, one they all knew well.
“The fighter’s heart laughed in his breast
When hard-soul’d Thor beheld his hammer.
Grim Thrym he dropped first, the giant-king,
And then all the folk of the giants.”
The crowd were applauding him now. Caedmon paused to take a draft of beer fro ma proffered horn and resumed chanting; he had reached the end of the story.
“The giant’s old sister then he dropped,
She who’d begged for bridal gifts.
A knock on the head in the shilling’s stead
And hammer-blows for rings!
And so did Odin’s son get his hammer back.”
The crowd applauded and laughed. Caedmon smiled. “Any others you’d like to hear?”, he asked.
“Tell it again!”, demanded one of the children. “Tell it again, about Thor killing all the giants. It’s my very favorite.”
“I like the part where Thor puts on a dress,” said a little girl.
A man wizened, grayed, and bent but still as strong as a bear stepped up and said, “It is a good tale, to be sure, but this is not a night for tales of laughter. Sing us a song that befits the weather. Tell them of Grendel, Caedmon.”
“A good idea,” Caedmon answered. He fiddled with the tuning pegs on his harp until he found a sound he liked, strummed a few chords, and chanted:
“A powerful monster, living deep
In the dark, growled in impatient pain
As music rang day after day
Loud in the mead-hall, the harp’s
Call and the poet’s songs, sung of
Ancient heroes to us all, and of the gods
Shaping the earth, unfolded over the
Haunted moors where the monster stirred.
The fiend, the demon Grendel who
Was spawned in the slime from a pair
Of monsters born of Cain.
Banished by God, punished forever,
When darkness had dropped the demon
Grendel went up when night fell,
Up from the swamps to the mead-hall
To slip through the door, steal sleeping men
From their beds to devour them, drink
Their dripping blood, and off again
To his lair beneath the swamp.
With hands forged in Hell, he—“
“I hear something!”, Wulfstan interrupted.
The old man laughed. “Seems Caedmon’s tale has got to our young friend’s head, and he thinks he hears old Grendel sneaking up to the hall door!”
Wulfstan glared at him, and above the mocking laughter quipped: “Do not make sport of me, Theodric. I might wish I heard Grendel, the sound out there is so chilling. Listen!”
Theodric cupped a hand to his ear, said: “That is just the wild, Wulfstan, and the rain. Do not let the old tales go to your head so.”
“By the gods, that is not the wind if wind I ever heard! I say we go outside and have a look around.”
“Into the storm? If it will put your mind at ease, I suppose we can. But I tell you it’s only the wind.”
It took four men to push open the big oak doors upon which the wind was battering, and the men had to keep their shields held close to their chests to keep from being blown backward. Thunderheads hid the moon and stars, and rain and fog obscured the distant woods.
“See, Wulfstan?”, Theodric shouted over the wind and rain. “There is nothing out here but the weather.”
A thunderbolt smote the peak of a nearby mountain, bathing all the valley in pale, flickering witch-light for the briefest of moments. Through the haze of fog and rain they could see the outlines of human figures, hundreds, edging closer.
“That does not look like wind to me, old man,” Wulfstan snapped.
“This is no time to joke, boy! We could be under attack.”
“Why do they carry no torches?”
“I suspect they’re using the storm as cover.
“But why do they not attack us while we’re vulnerable? They must’ve seen us, and they’re far more than our number.”
“It’s the whole village they’re after, I’ll warrant. Back to the hall! Quickly!”
As they fled back to the hall, the wind picked up yet more and Caedmon thought he could smell rancid meat. That inhuman moaning—faint before, but now perfectly clear—followed at their heels.
The hall doors were still wide open when they returned through the fog and driving rain. Though they all tried, the big hunks of oak were too heavy and caught too much wind. The main entrance to the hall would remain open.
“What is going on?”, demanded a woman, tall and blonde.
“We’re under attack,” Theodric said, “and we can’t get the doors closed for the wind. Put those benches up against the entrance! Ready your weapons! Let us see what sort of men we face.”
They built a barricade of tables and benches a few feet inside the mead-hall and a line of fighters—men and women both—stood across the span of the doors with shield, sword, axe, and spear.
“That smell is horrible!”, someone shouted over the storm and the moaning. “Like bad beef.”
“And that moaning! Like the tortures of the underworld or the wolves of Hell herself.”
Dim figures stepped out of the fog and into the flickering torchlight. Lightning flashed again, revealing a mass of such figures that stretched all the way to the end of the valley. Theodric raised up his sword and shouted, “Hail, there! Do you mean us good or ill?” He got no answer.
Caedmon scratched his thick beard introspectively. He said, “I think that the keening and the smell are coming from our new friends.”
“What are you saying?”
Caedmon hefted his axe and stepped out into the storm. One of the figures drew close enough for them to see it was a man, but with mottled grey skin covered in mud and gore. Its left arm hung limply at its side, and in its right hand it clutched a cobblestone. Its mouth opened menacingly and it let out a horrible moan. Caedmon swung his axe and the hardened steel bit deep into the beast’s shoulder, lopping off the limp arm and severing the spine. It fell to the ground with its lower body as limp as a dead fish, but its jaws kept snapping and it kept coming, pulling itself along on the ground with its one good arm.
“Dead!”, Caedmon shouted as he returned. “As dead as stones, but up and walking around!”
“It’s the end-times!”, someone keened. “The last battle is near at hand!”
Theodric shook his head. “I doubt that, but that does not mean that this is any good.” Lightning flashed again, and they saw that the hall was surrounded. “We will divide up into two groups; one will fight while the other rests.” He turned to the woman who’d addressed him upon their return: “Hilda! See to our stores.”
They lined up with their shields tight together and their swords brandished. The creatures came on them slowly, biting, scratching, blindly swinging cobblestones and sticks of split stovewood. The warriors hacked, slashed, stabbed with their weapons, but the reeking beasts pressing against their shields didn’t seem even to notice. Occasionally an arm or spine would be severed, but it seemed to have little effect. Sensing something odd, Wulfstan looked down and saw a creature that had been slashed nearly in two, its legs dragging along limply but all its faculties above the cut still functioning, trying to wrap a hand around one of his thick boots. With a grunt, he raised his foot and brought it crashing down on the creature’s head, which burst like a carbuncle. Its body lay still.
Exclaiming with the excitement of discovery, Wulfstan reared back with his sword and shouted above the wind, above the rain, above the sounds of battle, above the horrible moaning, “Their heads! Go for the heads!”
To illustrate his point, he swung the sword foreward and struck a creature clean between the eyes. The powerful blow shattered bone and sheared flesh, splitting the thing’s skull nearly in two. The other warriors howled with approval and followed suit. Thus they fought for nearly five hours without letup, until old Theodric sheathed his sword and shouted, “Caedmon! Spell us!”
The exhausted fighters walked back to the welcome hearth-fire, changed out of their wet clothes, sharpened their notched and dulled swords, tried desperately to catch a few minutes’ sleep and to shake some warmth into their numb bodies. Theodric nursed a wounded hand.
“I think they hunger for us,” he said. “The lore says that the dead are always hungry, that they hunger for life while hating the living. One of the sons of whores bit me, nearly took my thumb off. That was good thinking, Wulfstan, how to bring them down.”
“I just thought about what Caedmon had said,” Wulfstan responded. “They’re dead. They’re all messed up.”
Hilda came up and handed Theodric a drinking-horn full of warm beer. She said, “We should have enough meat and drink to last a full month.”
Theodric shook his head. “It will not be enough.”
“Not enough?”, Wulfstan scoffed. “It is no trouble for us to hold the door; surely we will be fine until help arrives.”
“From where, good Wulfstan, will help come? From the same direction as those things? Surely not. From Wyglaf’s villages over the ridge? You know as well as I that raiders press him from the sea. We are alone in our little valley.”
“What will we do, then?”
The old man scoffed. “We will die, Wulfstan. But I would like to die fighting, if at all possible.”
“My lord,” interjected Hilda, “there is something you can do.”
“And what is that, Hilda?”
“If you gather your forces and meet them—“
“Meet them? Are you insane, woman? We have thirteen men, and there are hundreds of them out there! Hundreds!”
Hilda sighed and spoke slowly, as one might speak to a child. “The hall is a death-trap, my lord. We will die in glory, to be sure, but . . . what is it that Caedmon is always singing?
“‘The lame rides a horse, the handless is herdsman,
The deaf in battle is bold;
The blind man is better than one that is buried.
No good can come from a corpse.’”
“To form up and meet them would kill us just as well. We can live a few more weeks at least, holding the door.”
“These beasts are slow, and the arts of fighting are beyond them. We can form up around the children and escape.”
“They number in the hundreds, and we know not how many may be waiting in the hills. They’ll pull us down like dogs loosed on swine.”
Hilda thought for a moment. “We make for the river, and leave a group to guard the bridge. You’ll be well into Wyglaf’s territory and will have warned him of the danger by the time the bridge is taken. I beg you, my lord, do not sacrifice the children. I know the mind of the women; we would gladly die fighting alongside our husbands. But what of the children?”
Old Theodric nodded, said, “It is a good plan, Hilda. You speak with wisdom unbecoming of a woman.” He stood up. “Caedmon! Get me Caedmon!”
Caedmon was fetched, as were all the others one at a time, and all were filled in on the plan;; they would form up into a wedge with the children in the center, the men and fighting women on the sides, and Caedmon’s big bearded Dane axe at the tip. Upon Theodric’s signal, they all rushed to the back of the hall and formed their wedge. When the dead had filled the front half of the hall, they charged. The formation, with sharp swords along the sides and Caedmon’s wide-bladed axe at the head, cut through their ranks effortlessly, and even slowing down so as not to overtake the children they made excellent time. They had to fight their way all down the forest track to within a hundred yards of the bridge, but they made it without incident save for the bite on shieldless Caedmon’s hand.
Theodric, who had been looking steadily paler since his injury, dropped his sword and collapsed at the foot of the bridge. Wulfstan tried to pull him up, but the old man refused help.
“My doom is upon me. I haven’t power enough even to stand. The bridge is narrow and the river too rough to ford; nine should be enough to hold it. The rest must protect the women and children. Go, and fear no darkness.”
So passed Theodric, and they cast him laid him on his shield and cast him into the river. The thirteen of them drew lots, and Caedmon, Wulfstan, and seven others were chosen to stay behind. The rest struck off into the wilderness, passing out of their knowing forever.
Wulfstan pointed to the lone man on the bridge and laughed. “Look at that! Old Harald is making short work of them, all by himself. Those things are so worthless that a part of me dares hope we’ll survive this fight, numbers be damned.”
Caedmon shook his head, answered, “I am not so sure.”
“You’re just mad that the rain got into your harp.”
“You don’t seem to get it, Wulfstan, or maybe you just know not enough of the lore. The dead are a force of nature, without even as much mental faculty as the dumbest beast. If we were fighting on a bridge over a canyon nine miles deep, they would keep coming until none were left or until their corpses filled the emptiness.”
“Too gloomy are your thoughts, Caedmon. Have a little hope.”
“Hope is the cruelest curse of the gods, Wulfstan. I am only being realistic. Look at that.”
Wulfstan looked to where Caedmon was pointing. The river had risen to where the deck of the bridge was mere inches above the water, and it seemed almost as if the flow of the river had stopped. The reason for this, he saw to his horror, was that the broken bodies of the dead had filled the gaps between the rocks, damming the flood. The dead who could not fit on the bridge walked into the river and were not washed away. Soon a head broke the still surface, followed by a neck, shoulders, and a torso as the creature trod into shallower water. Another joined it, and another. The men knew they’d soon be surrounded.
For the briefest of moments the rain broke and the fog rolled back, revealing a forest that teemed with scores upon scores of the walking dead. Caedmon grimaced, steeling himself for his fate. Trying to fight back his fear, he cleared his throat and chanted, “Where now the horse? Where now the rider? Where now the giver of rings?”
The other eight chanted along as the circle of undead tightened. “Where now the horse? Where now the rider? Where now the giver of rings?
Where now the house of the feasting? Where now the loud joys of the hall?
Alas, o shining cup! O proudly-decked fighter!
O proud prince! O, how that time is departed,
Gone under the veil of night, as though it had never been!”
Caedmon dove into them, swinging his axe in a wide arch and laying several low. The others followed suit, fighting like mad dogs, like cornered wolves. The sun was touching the tips of the western hills by the time exhaustion and the enemy’s numbers finally overcame them.
The blistering wind was worst on the lip of the ridge where the bare bones of the hills stuck out as naked as a newborn babe without so much as a shrub able to cling on, and Hilda and the others had to be careful when crossing over; a single misstep would send one tumbling thousands of feet down into Theodric’s valley on one side and Wyglaf’s on the other. Standing tall and proudly against the wind, Hilda fingered the pommel of the sword strapped to her hip and looked first up at the obscured noonday sun and then back down the hill. The river was nothing but a thin brown line zig-zagging along the base of the ridge, the fighters and dead nothing but a mass of black dots, and the lot of it was barely visible through the fog and driven rain. Wyglaf’s side of the ridge was truly unknown territory: The sea-fog was so thick that all the valley, from one hundred feet below the tip of the ridge and on downward, was obscured by a white veil.
“I can no longer hear the moans over the wind,” Hilda commented.
A warrior, big and broad and shock-headed, put a comforting hand on her shoulder and said, “We are safe now. They can hold the bridge for some hours yet.”
Sullenly, reverently, the refugees crossed to the other side of the ridge and trekked down into the unknown.