Eaters of the Dead

Chapter 10

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I dashed with Herger into one of the huts, blood pounding in my head, my sword light as a feather in my hands. Verily I was ready for the mightiest battle of my life. I saw nothing inside; the but was deserted and barren as well, save for rude beds of straw, so clumsy in their appearance they seemed more to resemble nests of some animal.

We dashed outside, and attacked the next of these mud huts. Again we found it empty. Verily, all the huts were empty, and the warriors of Buliwyf were sorely vexed and stared one to the next with expression of surprise and astonishment.

Then Ecthgow called to us, and we gathered at one of these huts, larger than any of the others. And here I saw that it was deserted as they were all deserted, but the interior was not barren. Rather, the floor of the hut was littered with fragile bones, which crunched underfoot like the bones of birds, delicate and frail. I was much surprised at this, and stooped to see the nature of these bones. With a shock, I saw the curved line of an eye socket here, and a few teeth there. Verily we stood upon a carpet of the bones of human faces, and for further proofs of this ghastly truth, piled high upon one wall of the hut were the head portions of the human skulls, stacked inverted like so many pottery bowls, but glistening white. I was sick, and departed the hut to purge myself. Herger said to me that the wendol eat the brains of their victims, as a human person might eat eggs or cheese. This is their custom; vile as it is to contemplate such a matter, yet it is true.

Now another of the warriors called to us, and we entered another hut. Here I saw this: the but was bare, except for a large throne-like chair, carved of a single piece of enormous wood. This chair had a high fanning back, carved into the shape of snakes and demons. At the foot of the chair were littered bones of skulls, and upon the arms of the chair, where its owner might rest his hands there was blood and remnants of whitish cheesy substance, which was human brain material. The odor of this room was ghastly.

Placed all around this chair there were small pregnant stone carvings, such as I have described before; these carvings formed a circle or perimeter about the chair.

Herger said, "This is where she rules," and his voice was low and awed.

I was not able to comprehend his meaning, and was sick in heart and stomach. I emptied my stomach upon the soil. Herger and Buliwyf and the others were also distressed, though no man purged himself, but rather they took glowing embers from the fire and set the huts aflame. They burned slowly, for they were damp.

And thus we climbed up the hill, mounted our horses, and left the region of the wendol, and departed the desert of dread. And all the warriors of Buliwyf were now sad of aspect, for the wendol had surpassed them in cunning and cleverness, abandoning their lair in anticipation of the attack, and they would count the burning of their dwellings no great loss.

THE COUNSEL OF THE DWARF

WE RETURNED AS WE HAD COME, BUT RODE WITH greater speed, for the horses now were eager, and eventually came down from the hills and saw the flat plain and, in the distance, at the ocean's edge, the settlement and the great hall of Rothgar.

Now Buliwyf veered away and led us in another direction, toward high rocky crags swept by the ocean winds. I rode alongside Herger and inquired the reason for this, and he said we were to seek out the dwarves of the region.

At this I was much surprised, for the men of the North have no dwarves among their society; they are never seen in the streets, nor do any sit at the feet of kings, nor are any to be found counting money or keeping records or any of the things that we know of dwarves.  Never had any Northman mentioned dwarves to me, and I had presumed that so giant a people  would never produce dwarves.

Now we came to a region of caves, hollowed and windswept, and Buliwyf dismounted from his horse, and all the warriors of Buliwyf did likewise, and proceeded by foot. I heard a hissing sound, and verily I saw puffs of steam issue from one and another of these several caves. We entered one cave and there found dwarves.

They were in appearance thus: of the ordinary size of dwarf, but distinguished by hands of great size, and bearing features that appeared exceedingly aged. There were both male and female dwarves and all had the appearance of great age. The males were bearded and solemn; the women also had some hair upon the face, so they appeared manlike. Each dwarf wore a garment of fur or sable; each also wore a thin belt of hide decorated with bits of hammered gold.

The dwarves greeted our arrival politely, with no sign of fear. Herger said these creatures have magic powers and need fear no man on earth; however, they are apprehensive of horses, and for this reason we had left the mounts behind us. Herger said also that the powers of a dwarf reside in his thin belt, and that a dwarf will do anything to retrieve his belt if it is lost.

Herger said this also: that the appearance of great age among the dwarves was a true thing, and that a dwarf lived beyond the span of any ordinary man. Also he said to me that these dwarves are virile from their earliest youth; that even as infants they have hair at the groin, and members of uncommon size. Indeed, it is in this way that the parents first come to know that their infant child is a dwarf, and a creature of magic, who must be taken to the hills to live with others of his kind. This done, the parents give thanks to the gods and sacrifice some animal or other, for to give birth to a dwarf is accounted high good fortune.

This is the belief of the North people, as Herger spoke it, and I do not know the truth of the matter, and report only what was told to me.

Now I saw that the hissing and steam issued from great cauldrons, into which hammered-steel blades were plunged to temper the metal, for the dwarves make weapons that are highly prized by the Northmen. Indeed, I saw the warriors of Buliwyf looking about the caves eagerly, as any woman in a bazaar shop selling precious silks.

Buliwyf made inquiries of these creatures, and was directed to the topmost of the caves, wherein sat a single dwarf, older than all the others, with a beard and hair of purest white, and a creased and wrinkled face. This dwarf was called "tengol," which means a judge of good and evil, and also a soothsayer.

This tengol must have had the magical powers that all said he did, for he immediately greeted Buliwyf by his name, and bade him sit with him. Buliwyf sat, and we gathered a short distance away, standing.

Now Buliwyf did not present the tengol with gifts; the Northmen make no obeisance to the little people; they believe that the favors of the dwarves must be freely given, and it is wrong to encourage the favors of a dwarf with gifts. Thus Buliwyf sat, and the tengol looked at him, and then closed his eyes and began to speak, rocking back and forth as he sat. The tengol spoke in a high voice as a child, and Herger told me the meaning was thus:

"O Buliwyf, you are a great warrior but you have met your match in the monsters of the mist, the eaters of the dead. This shall be a struggle to the death, and you shall need all your strength and wisdom to overcome the challenge." And he went on in this manner for some good time, rocking back and forth. The import was that Buliwyf faced a difficult adversary, which I already knew well enough and so did Buliwyf himself. Yet Buliwyf was patient.

Also I saw that Buliwyf took no offense when the dwarf laughed at him, which frequently he did. The dwarf spoke: "You have come to me because you attacked the monsters in the brackish marsh and tarn, and this availed you nothing. Therefore you come to me for advice and admonishment, as a child to his father, saying what shall I do now, for all my plans have failed me." The tengol laughed long at this speech. Then his old face turned solemn.

"O Buliwyf," he said, "I see the future, but I can tell you no more than you already know. You and all your brave warriors gathered your skill and your courage to make an attack upon the monsters in the desert of dread. In this you cheated yourself, for such was not a true hero's enterprise."

I heard these words with astonishment, for it had seemed heroic work enough for me.

"No, no, noble Buliwyf," the tengol said. "You set out upon a false mission, and deep in your hero's heart you knew it was unworthy. So, too, was your battle against the glowworm dragon Korgon unworthy, and it cost you many fine warriors. To what end are all your plans?"

Still Buliwyf did not answer. He sat with the dwarf and waited.

"A hero's great challenge," the dwarf said, "is in the heart, and not in the adversary. What matter if you had come upon the wendol in their lair and had killed many of their number as they slept? You could kill many, yet this would not end the struggle, any more than cutting off the fingers will kill the man. To kill the man, you must pierce the head or the heart, and thus it is with the wendol. All this you know, and need not my counsel to know it."

Thus the dwarf, rocking back and forth, chastised Buliwyf. And thus Buliwyf accepted his rebuke, for he did not reply, but only lowered his head.

"You have done the work of a mere man," the tengol continued, "and not a proper hero. A hero does what no man dares to undertake. To kill the wendol, you must strike at the head and the heart: you must overcome their very mother, in the thunder caves."

I did not understand the meaning of these words.

"You know of this, for it has always been true, through all the ages of man. Shall your brave warriors die, one by one? Or shall you strike at the mother in the caves? Here is no prophecy, only the choice of a man or a hero."

Now Buliwyf made some response, but it was low, and lost to me in the howl of the wind that raked the entrance to the cave. Whatever the words, the dwarf spoke further:

"That is the hero's answer, Buliwyf, and I would expect none other from you. Thus shall I help your quest." Then a number of his kind came forward into the light from the dark recesses of the cave. And they bore many objects.

"Here," said the tengol, "are lengths of rope, made from the skins of seals caught at the first melting of the ice. These ropes will help you to attain the ocean entrance to the thunder caves."

"I thank you," Buliwyf said.

"And here also," the tengol said, "are seven daggers, forged with steam and magic, for you and your warriors. Great swords will be of no avail in the thunder caves. Carry these new weapons bravely, and you shall accomplish all you desire."

Buliwyf took the daggers, and thanked the dwarf. He stood. "When shall we do this thing?" he asked.

"Yesterday is better than today," the tengol replied, "and tomorrow is better than the day which follows that. So make haste, and carry out your intentions with a firm heart and a strong arm."

"And what follows if we succeed?" Buliwyf asked.

"Then the wendol shall be mortally wounded, and thrash in its death throes a final time, and after this last agony the land shall have peace and sunlight forevermore. And your name shall be sung glorious in all the halls of the Northlands, forevermore."

"The deeds of dead men are so sung," Buliwyf said.

"That is true," the dwarf said, and laughed again, the giggle of a child or a young girl. "And also the deeds of heroes who live, but never are sung the deeds of ordinary men. All this you know."

Now Buliwyf departed from the cave, and gave to each of us the dagger of the dwarves, and we descended from the rocky windswept crags, and returned to the kingdom and the great hall of Rothgar as night was falling.

All these things took place, and I saw them with my own eyes.

THE EVENTS OF THE NIGHT BEFORE THE ATTACK

NO MIST CAME THAT NIGHT; THE FOG DESCENDED from the hills but hung back among the trees, and did not creep out onto the plain. In the great hall of Rothgar, a mighty feast was held, and Buliwyf and all his warriors joined in great celebration. Two great horned sheep  were slaughtered and consumed; each man drank vast quantities of mead; Buliwyf himself ravished half a dozen slave girls, and perhaps more; but despite merrymaking neither he nor his warriors were truly cheerful. From one time to another, I saw them glance at the ropes of sealskin and the dwarf daggers, which had been set apart to one side.

Now I joined in the general revelry, for I felt as one of them, having spent much time in their company, or so it seemed. Indeed, that night I felt I had been born a Northman.

Herger, much intoxicated, told me freely of the mother of the wendol. He said this: "The mother of the wendol is very old and she lives in the caves of thunder. These thunder caves lie in the rock of cliffs, not far from here. The caves have two openings, one from the land and another from the sea. But the entrance from the land is guarded by the wendol, who protect their old mother; so it is that we cannot attack from the side of the land, for in this way we would all be killed. Therefore we shall attack from the sea."

I inquired of him: "What is the nature of this mother of the wendol?"

Herger said that no Northman knew this thing, but that it was said among them that she was old, older than the old crone they call the angel of death; and also that she was frightful to look upon; and also that she wore snakes upon her head as a wreath; and also, too, that she was strong beyond all accounting. And he said at the last that the wendol called upon her to direct them in all their affairs of life.  Then Herger turned from me and slept.

Now this event occurred: in the depths of the night, as the celebrations were drawing to a close and the warriors were drifting into sleep, Buliwyf sought me out. He sat beside me and drank mead from a horned cup. He was not intoxicated, I saw, and he spoke slowly in the North tongue, so that I should understand his meaning.

He said first to me: "Did you comprehend the words of the dwarf tengol?"

I replied that I did, with the help of Herger, who now snored near to us.

Buliwyf said to me: "Then you know I shall die." He spoke thus, with his eyes clear and his gaze firm. I did not know any reply, or response to make, but finally said to him in the North fashion, "Believe no prophecy until it bears fruit."

Buliwyf said: "You have seen much of our ways. Tell me what is true. Do you draw sounds?" I answered that I did. "Then look to your safety, and do not be overbrave. You dress and now you speak as a Northman, and not a foreign man. See that you live."

I placed my hand upon his shoulder, as I had seen his fellow warriors do to him in greeting.

He smiled then. "I fear no thing," he said, "and need no comfort. I tell you to look to your own safety, for your own account. Now it is wisest to sleep."

So speaking, he turned away from me, and devoted his attention to a slave girl, whom he pleasured not a dozen paces from where I sat, and I turned away hearing the moans and laughter of this woman. And at length I fell into a sleep.

THE THUNDER CAVES

BEFORE THE FIRST PINK STREAKS OF DAWN LIGHTED the sky, Buliwyf and his warriors, myself among them, rode out from the kingdom of Rothgar and followed the cliff edge above the sea. On this day I did not feel fit, for my head ached; also was my stomach sour from the celebration of the previous night. Surely all the warriors of Buliwyf were in like condition, yet no man gave signal of these discomforts. We rode briskly, skirting the border of the cliffs which on all this coast are high and forbidding, and sheer; in a sheet of gray stone they drop to the foaming and turbulent sea below. In some places along this coastline there are rocky beaches, but often the land and the sea meet directly, and the waves crash like thunder upon the rocks; and this was the circumstance for the most part.

I saw Herger, who carried upon his horse the sealskin ropes of the dwarves, and I rode up to travel alongside him. I inquired what was our purpose on this day. In truth, I did not care greatly, so badly did my head ache and my stomach burn.

Herger said to me, "On this morning, we attack the mother of the wendol in the thunder caves. This we shall do by attacking from the sea, as I have told you yesterday."

While I rode, I looked from my horse down at the sea, which smashed upon the rock cliffs. "Do we attack by boat?" I inquired of Herger.

"No," Herger said, and slapped his hand upon the sealskin ropes.

Then I took his meaning to be that we should climb down the cliffs on the ropes, and thereby in some fashion make an entrance into the caves. I was much frightened at this prospect, for never have I liked to be exposed upon high places; even high buildings in the City of Peace have I avoided. I said as much.

Herger said to me, "Be thankful, for you are fortunate."

I inquired the source of my fortune. Herger said in reply, "If you have the fear of high places, then this day you shall overcome it; and so you shall have faced a great challenge; and so you shall be adjudged a hero."

I said to him, "I do not want to be a hero."

At this he laughed and said that I expressed such an opinion only because I was an Arab. Then also he said that I had a stiff head, by which the Northmen mean the aftermath of drinking. This was true, as I have already told.

Also it is true that I was much aggrieved at the prospect of climbing down the cliff. Verily I felt in this manner: that I should rather do any action upon the face of the earth, whether to lie with a woman in menses, to drink from a gold cup, to eat the excrement of a pig, to put out my eyes, even to die itself – any or all of these things should I prefer to the climbing of that accursed cliff. Also I was in ill temper. To Herger I said, "You and Buliwyf and all your company may be heroes as suits your temper, but I have no part in this affair, and shall not number as one of you."

At this speech, Herger laughed. Then he called to Buliwyf, and spoke a rapid speech; Buliwyf answered him back, over his shoulder. Then Herger spoke to me: "Buliwyf says that you will do as we do."

In truth, now I sank into despairing, and said to Herger, "I cannot do this thing. If you force me to do it, I shall surely die."

Herger said, "How shall you die?"

I said to him, "I shall lose my grip from the ropes."

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