Thorgaut cleaned his sword and gathered up his stuff that had been scattered around in the scuffle. He wasn't about to yell out or make any more noise that would attract another horde of these nasty things. Then he tied a bundle of sticks together to make a torch and then set off down the trail. The shuffler followed him and Thorgaut stopped.
"Now, wait! You can't walk behind me. I don't trust you. You stay. Got it?"
The creature continued to stare at him without saying a thing. Thorgaut sighed. He took off running to put some distance between himself and the shuffler. After running a little way, he looked back. It was following him at his normal shuffling pace. So, he ran a little more just to put plenty of distance between himself and the creepy creature.
Thorgaut followed the trail all the way back to where it had ended earlier. He stopped when he came to the dead end again. He walked around trying to find a way to get around it. Thorgaut didn't find anything though and came back to the trail.
By this time, the shuffler had almost reached him. Thorgaut waited for him to catch up with him and then stop, but this time it kept on walking. It stepped right into the bushes and pushed on through until it disappeared.
Thorgaut kept watching and listening, but nothing happened.He waited for a bit to see if the shuffler would return. Nothing. Thorgaut pushed tentatively at the branches. They gave way fairly easily. He slipped through and came out into a small clearing.
He saw a woman in the middle of the clearing with a broom in her hand. She was sweeping the ground around the fire. It was such a surreal sight that Thorgaut couldn't say anything. He just looked on and observed the strange and unexpected scene.
The woman looked up and smiled pleasantly. "Come on in," she said warmly. "Sit here by the fire and have a cup of tea with me."
Thorgaut walked forward numbly trying to process what was going. Who was this lady? What was she doing in the middle of the forest at night? A witch? Was this a dream?
"Hi!" he stammered. He was at a loss for words. The woman pointed to a seat on the ground and picked up a cup to pour him some tea.
He took the cup and then sat down. He looked at it suspiciously. She smiled when she realized what he was thinking.
"Oh, c'mon now. You don't think I'm going to poison the first good-looking guy that shows up in my forest in over a year do you?" The woman laughed again and took the cup from his hands. She took a sip and handed it back to him.
"See! Perfectly good tea made from freshly plucked forest herbs. Nothing deadly enough to kill a nice big man like you." she said ominously. Her eyes flickered over to the shuffler that was still standing off to the side. "I'm Halldora Grimardottir of Dysjǫrð. It's nice to meet you."
Thorgaut burst out laughing. Deep spasms of nervous laughter that he couldn't have stopped even if he had wanted to. She just stood and watched him with a smile on her face until he got himself under control.
"It's okay. I understand. You must be a shy guy, and get nervous around a confident, self-assured woman. No?"
Thorgaut shook his head vigorously. "No, that's not it at all. Sorry. I'm Thorgaut Kabbisson of Jorundarfell. I really don't know why I laughed. This whole situation is just so surreal."
"I understand," she said with a mischevious glint in her eye. "It's not every night that you meet a shuffler."
Thorgaut grunted and glanced over in the creature's direction. He turned back and scowled at her. "Dysjǫrð the Grave World? Huh. I guess you take that quite literally. Huh?"
She looked down at the ground and sighed. "Yeah! Well, the forest can be a dangerous place for a woman on her own. They help me keep the place up and protect me from strangers."
"Strangers like me? Is that what you mean?" he asked angrily. "You just send your minions out to kill anyone who enters your forest without question."
"No, of course not," she replied. "I heard someone screaming, and sent them out to see what was going on. You were the one who attacked first and killed Vriobrum."
Vriobrum," he said. "You mean you actually give each of these things a name? What? Are they like pets or something?"
"No. They're not pets, but they are real people with a birth name." she retorted. "Do you think the undead are just born that way?"
Thorgaut put his cup down and stood up. He paced around the fire in silence. "This is messed up. You living all alone out here in the woods with a bunch of these undead creatures.'
"They were my friends," she said softly. "Our kingdom was overthrown, and my family was put to death. I alone escaped with their help. They died defending me. I felt guilty that they died for me. They could have stayed behind, but they chose to follow me. So, I brought them back. And now, you've slaughtered them."
"I'm sorry." he stammered and hung his head in shame under her gaze. "I didn't know that. I just assumed that they were coming to kill me."
Halldora smiled sadly and shook her head. "I understand why you did it. It's best for them. Their souls have been released to the afterlife again. But I will miss them."
Thorgaut sat down in shock, trying to wrap his head around the events of the evening and the information he had just learned. Not that he felt guilty. He was a warrior, and warriors killed. But learning of the existence of the shufflers and how they came to be, just blew his mind.
Halldora wiped a tear from her eye and stood up. She walked over to a hut and went inside. She stepped back out through the door and motioned him over.
He had so many questions whirling through his head. Thorgaut opened his mouth, but she shook her head and placed her fingers on his lips.
"Please. Let's talk about this tomorrow." Halldora said. "I know you have a lot of question, but it's late. We should get some sleep."
The door was low, so Thorgaut had to duck to get through. But on the inside, the house was much bigger then he expected. The floor slanted down below the level of the ground and opened into a spacious living area that looked fit for a queen.
A bit more rustic than what she would have been used to having in a palace. Nothing made of ivory and marble. She was alone in the forest of course, but everything was still very nicely made.
Thorgaut let out a long, slow whistle as he looked around at the surroundings and decoration. He glanced at Halldora out of the corner of her and she was beaming with pleasure at the genuine admiration that was so evident on his face.