Here is one of the late Frank Frazetta's greatest paintings, in my opinion. I have a print of it hanging on my wall. As awesome as the warrior is, the bit that set me to thinking (for many years actually, since the thought hit me when I was very young and first saw this paining) was the skeleton lying at the warrior's feet. My thinking was, "What is his story?"
This poor fellow once lived and had dreams and a family just like all of us. What is the story that led him to be lying in this awful place, being trampled unnoticed by this fantastical barbarian warrior?
This led me to incorporate a scenario during a Dungeons & Dragons game that I DM'd as a teen, and the spookiness of the party traveling through a dark forest littered with mysterious skeletons always lingered in my imagination.
So while writing my first fantasy novel, I reached a place where the party finally escapes from the terrors of passing under a mountain and they come to what seems to be a pleasant forest. I decided this was the perfect opportunity to inject a supernatural element into the book.
I dreamed up a scenario in which, five thousand years earlier, a battle had taken place in the wood between an evil wizard and his minions against an outnumbered army of dwarves and elves. The wizard's army seemed to be winning, but Dwarven reinforcements issued from their mountain city and came in time to turn the battle. As he escaped, the wizard cursed the battlefield, and ever since then the remnants of the battle have refused to crumble away as they should.
There's more to it than that, but the party finds out what that is later. For now I will give you a fragment of the chapter where they encounter the ancient battlefield. Geldrath, Alekas, and Antos are teenaged budding warriors.
Geldrath felt nervous and walked slowly. He had always enjoyed spooky stories as a boy, but he had no desire to meet any real ghosts. He looked at the brothers and asked, “Do you believe in spirits and curses? Are they real?”
“I don’t know,” Alekas said.
Antos said, “I know an old crone in Welby town who says she can speak to the dead. She’s a nice lady, but I always thought she was a tad crazy. I always said I don’t believe in spirits, but I have to admit I’m not so sure right now.”
“I’m with you,” Geldrath said. “It doesn’t feel right. Why is there mist in the trees? Why is it so dark with the sun directly overhead?”
Both brothers shook their heads and everyone fell silent. Their footfalls sounded more muffled than usual, and there were no sounds from birds or animals. The birch trees here all had bare branches, while the ones behind had full green canopies.
Soon Geldrath saw the first of the corpses. Half of a ribcage rose from a tangle of grass, mushrooms growing where a heart had once lodged. Rusty ring mail armor lay about the torso in tatters. He looked closer at the skull and saw needle-sharp teeth on an elongated jaw. A goblin, he thought. He shuddered and stepped past the remains only to nearly cut his foot on a rusty, curved sword blade hidden in a tussock.
“Watch where you walk,” he called out. “I just stepped on a sword.”
Now the bodies were all around. He saw skeletons of dwarves and goblins everywhere he looked. Here and there he saw the remains of a horse. He saw taller corpses, but without stopping he wasn’t sure if they were orcs or elves. All of the remains looked ancient, but when he thought about how long ago the war was--more than five thousand years--he knew there should be no sign of the battle.
Alvanaria knelt down near one tall skeleton and traced a finger over the skull’s cranium while murmuring softly to herself.
Alekas and Antos stopped abruptly and Geldrath went to see what they were looking at. It was the skeleton of an enormous troll. This one was much larger than the ones they had seen in Kaldorn. The ribs jutted up nearly to shoulder height. The rusty iron head of a huge mace lay in the grass nearby. Geldrath stared into the empty eye sockets of the skull and shivered.
“Let’s move faster,” he said. “I want to get out of this place as soon as possible.”
Alvanaria rose and joined the boys. Geldrath saw wet streaks on her cheeks. She said, “I’m afraid this was a large battlefield. Even moving quickly we will not pass it by this day.”
“You knew some of these people, didn’t you?” whispered Geldrath.
“Many were my friends.”
Walking became ever more difficult as individual remains gave way to piles of bones and weapons. Some of the weapons--the ones made by dwarf or elven craftsmen--were in perfect condition except for a coat of grime. Once Ismar tripped on something and landed in a pile of mixed dwarf and orc bones. He shoved himself out of the pile, shrieking in horror, not even concerned about the deep scratches he sustained from the fall.
The afternoon was the longest one that any of them could remember. It became a numbness of one unsettling scene after another; a banquet of death such as none of the companions--save Alvanaria and Xax--had ever imagined. The sun dropping behind the mountain was a blessing, as a deeper darkness settled over the forest and the band could no longer see clearly. All wished to go on and put this place far behind them, but it was impossible to continue without the risk of injury.
Midas called a halt when he came upon a small clearing. The company worked by torchlight for more than an hour to move all of the bones, armor and weapons from the clearing so they could set up camp.
Geldrath rolled out his blanket next to Alekas’s. When he sat down, something sharp bit into the heel of his right foot. He lifted the blanket, felt around the spot where his foot had been, and uncovered an arrowhead buried in the dirt. He thought for a moment of pocketing the arrowhead, but thought better of it and tossed it away into the trees. This place is cursed indeed! I want nothing to do with it.