Eaters of the Dead

Chapter 11

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This answer made Herger laugh heartily yet again, and he repeated my words to all the Northmen, and they all laughed at what I had said. Then Buliwyf spoke a few words.

Herger said to me: "Buliwyf says that you shall lose your grip only if you release the ropes from your hands, and only a fool would do such a thing. Buliwyf says you are an Arab, but no fool."

Now, here is a true aspect of the nature of men: that in his fashion Buliwyf said that I could climb the ropes; and that for his speech, I believed it as much as he, and was cheered in my heart to a slight degree. This Herger saw, and he spoke these words: "Each person bears a fear which is special to him. One man fears a close space and another man fears drowning; each laughs at the other and calls him stupid. Thus fear is only a preference, to be counted the same as the preference for one woman or another, or mutton for pig, or cabbage for onion. We say, fear is fear."

I was not in a mood for his philosophies; this I expressed to him, for in truth I was growing closer to anger than to fear. Now Herger laughed at my face and spoke these words: "Praise Allah, for he put death at the end of life, and not at the beginning."

Curtly, I said in reply that I saw no benefit in hastening the end. "Indeed, no man does," Herger responded to me, and then he said, "Look to Buliwyf. See how he sits straight. See how he rides forward, though he knows he shall soon die."

I answered, "I do not know he shall die."

"Yes," Herger said, "but Buliwyf knows." Then Herger spoke nothing further to me, and we rode onward for a goodly period of time, until the sun was high and bright in the sky. Then at last Buliwyf gave the signal to halt, and all the horsemen dismounted, and prepared to enter the thunder caves.

Now, well I knew that these Northmen are brave to a fault, but as I looked at the precipice of the cliff below us, my heart twisted over inside my chest, and I thought I should be purging myself at any instant. Verily, the cliff was absolutely sheer, lacking the least grip for hand or feet, and it descended for the distance of perhaps four hundred paces. Verily, the crashing waves were so far beneath us that they appeared as miniature waves, tiny as the most delicate drawing of an artist. Yet I knew them to be large as any waves on earth, once one descended to that level far below.

To me, the climbing down of these cliffs was madness beyond the madness of a foaming dog. But the Northmen proceeded in normal fashion. Buliwyf directed the pounding of stout wooden stakes into the earth; around these the sealskin ropes were bound, and the trailing ends flung over the sides of the cliffs.

Verily, the ropes were not long enough for so distant a descent, and thus had to be hauled up again, and two ropes fastened together to make a single length to reach the waves at the bottom.

In due time, we had two such ropes that reached down the side of the cliff face. Then Buliwyf spoke to his gathering: "First I shall proceed, so that when I reach the bottom all shall know that the ropes are stout and the journey can be accomplished. I await you at the bottom, on the narrow ledge you see below."

I looked to this narrow ledge. To call it narrow is to call a camel kind. It was, in truth, the barest strip of flat rock, continually washed and pounded by the surf.

"When all have reached the bottom," Buliwyf said, "we can attack the mother of the wendol in the thunder caves." Thus he spoke, in a voice as ordinary as that which he would command a slave in the preparation of some ordinary stew or any other household chore. And without further speech, he went over the side of the cliff.

Now, here is the manner of his descent, which I found remarkable, but the Northmen account it no particular thing. Herger told me they use this method for gathering of sea-bird eggs at certain times of the year, when the sea birds build their nests on the cliff face. It is done in this fashion: a sling is placed around the waist of the descending man, and all the fellows strain to lower him down the cliff. Meanwhile, this same man grips, for support, on to the second rope, which dangles on the cliff face. Further, the descending man carries a stout staff of oaken wood, fitted at one end with a leather thong, or strap, about his wrist; this staff he employs for a prod to push himself hither and yon as he moves down the rocky surface.

As Buliwyf went down, becoming ever smaller to my eyes, I saw that he maneuvered with the sling, the rope, and the stick very agilely; but I was not deceived into thinking this some trivial matter, for I saw it to be difficult and requiring practice.

At length, he safely reached the bottom and stood on the narrow ledge with the surf crashing over him. In truth, he was so diminished we could hardly see him wave his hand, in signal that he was safe. Now the sling was hauled up; and also with it, the oaken staff. Herger turned tome, speaking: "You shall go next."

I said that I was feeling poorly. Also I said I wished to see another man descend, in order better to study the manner of the descent.

Herger said, "it is more difficult with each descent, because there are fewer here above to lower a man down. The last man must descend without the sling at all, and that shall be Ecthgow, for his arms are iron. It is a mark of our favor which allows you to be the second man to descend. Go now."

I saw in his eyes that there was no hope of delay, and so I was myself fitted into the sling, and I gripped the stout staff in my hands, which were slippery with sweat; and my whole body likewise was slippery with sweat; and I shivered in the wind as I went over the side of the cliff, and for the last time saw the five Northmen straining at the rope, and then they were lost from view. I made my descent.

I had in my mind to make many prayers to Allah, and also to record in the eye of my mind, in the memory of my soul, the many experiences that a man must undergo as he dangles from ropes down such a wind-torn rocky cliff. Once out of sight of my Northmen friends above, I forgot all my intentions, and whispered, "Allah be praised," over and over, like a mindless person, or one so old his brain no longer functions, or a child, or a fool.

In truth, I remember little from all that transpired. Only this: that the wind blows a person back and forth across the rock at such speed the eye cannot focus on the surface, which is a gray blur; and that many times I struck the rock, jarring my bones, splitting my skin; and once I banged my head and saw brilliant white spots like stars before my eyes, and I thought I would be faint, but I was not. And in due time, which in truth seemed as the whole duration of my life, and more, I reached the bottom, and Buliwyf clapped me on the shoulder and said I had done well.

Now the sling was raised up; and the waves crashed over me and over Buliwyf at my side. Now I fought to hold my balance upon this slippery ledge, and this so occupied my attention I did not watch the others coming down the cliff. My only desire was this: to keep from being swept away into the sea. Verily I saw with my own eyes that the waves were taller than three men standing one atop another, and when each wave struck, I was for a moment senseless in a swirl of chilled water and spinning force. Many times was I knocked from my feet by these waves; I was drenched over my whole body, and shivering so badly that my teeth clattered like a galloping horse. I could not speak words for the clacking of my teeth.

Now all the warriors of Buliwyf made their descent; and all were safe, Ecthgow being the last to come down, by brute force of his arms, and when at last he stood, his legs quivered without control as a man shudders with a death throe; we waited some moments until he was himself again.

Then Buliwyf spoke: "We shall descend into the water and swim into the cave. I shall be first. Carry your dagger in your teeth, so your arms shall be free to battle the currents."

These words of new madness came upon me at a time when I could endure nothing further. To my eyes, the plan of Buliwyf was folly beyond folly. I saw the waves crash in, bursting upon the jagged rocks; I saw the waves pull away again with the tug of a giant's strength, only to recover their power and crash forward anew. Verily, I watched and I believed that no man could swim in that water, but rather he would be dashed to bony splinters in an instant.

But I made no protest, for I was past any comprehension. To my way of thinking, I was close enough to death that it did not matter if I came closer still. Thus I took my dagger, which I jammed into my belt, for my teeth rattled too severely to grip it in my mouth. Of the other Northmen, they gave no sign of coldness or fatigue, but rather greeted each wave as a fresh invigoration; also they smiled with the happy anticipation of the coming battle, and for this last I hated them.

Buliwyf watched the movement of the waves, choosing his time, and then he leapt into the surf. I hesitated, and someone – I have always believed it to be Herger – pushed me. I fell deep in the swirling sea of numbing coldness; verily I was spun head over feet and sideward also; I could see nothing but green water. Then I perceived Buliwyf kicking down in the depths of the sea; and I followed after him, and he swam into a kind of passage in the rocks. In all things, I did as he. This was the fashion:

Upon one moment, the surf would tug after him, trying to pluck him into the wide ocean, and me also. At these moments, Buliwyf gripped onto a rock with his hands to hold against the current; this also I did. Mightily I held to the rocks, with my lungs bursting. Then in an instant the surge ran opposite, and I was propelled with frightful speed forward, bouncing off rocks and obstructions. And then again, the surge changed, and tugged backward as it had done previously; and I was obliged to follow the example of Buliwyf and cling to rocks. Now it is true that my lungs burned as if afire, and I knew in my heart that I could not continue much longer in this icy sea. Then the surge ran forward, and I was flung headlong, knocked here and there, and then suddenly I was up and breathing air.

Verily, this transpired with such swiftness that I was so surprised I did not think to feel relief, which was a proper feeling; nor did I think to praise Allah for my good fortune in surviving. I gasped air, and all about me the warriors of Buliwyf set their heads above the surface and gasped likewise.

Now, here is what I saw: we were in a kind of pond or lake, inside a cave with a smooth rocky dome and a seaward entrance through which we had just traversed. Directly ahead was a flat rocky space. I saw three or four dark shapes squatted about a fire; these creatures chanted in high voices. Now also I understood why this was called the cave of thunder, for with each crash of the surf the sound in the cave reverberated with such power that the ears ached and the very air seemed to shake and press.

In this place, this cave, Buliwyf and his warriors made their attack, and I joined in with them, and with our short daggers we killed the four demons in the cave. I saw them clearly for the first time, in the flickering light of the fire, whose flames leapt madly with each pounding of the thundering surf. The aspect of these demons was thus: they appeared to be manlike in every respect, but not as any man upon the face of the earth. They were short creatures, and broad and squat, and hairy on all parts of their bodies save their palms, the soles of their feet, and their faces. Their faces were very large, with mouth and jaws large and prominent, and of an ugly aspect; also their heads were larger. than the heads of normal men. Their eyes were sunk deep in their heads; the brows were large, and not by virtue of hairy brows, but of bone; also their teeth were large and sharp, although it is true the teeth of many were ground down and flattened.

In other respects of their bodily features and as to the organs of sex and the several orifices, they were also as men.  One of the creatures was slow to die, and with its tongue formed some sounds, which had to my ear a quality of speech; but I cannot know if this was so, and I tell it again with no conviction of the matter.

Now Buliwyf surveyed these four dead creatures, with their thick matted fur; then we heard a ghostly, echoing chant, a sound rising and falling in time to the thunder pounding of the surf, and this sound came from the recesses of the cave. Buliwyf led us into the depths.

There we came upon three of the creatures, prostrate upon the ground, faces pressed to the earth and their hands raised in supplication to an old creature lurking in the shadows. These suppliants were chanting, and did not perceive our arrival. But the creature saw us, and screamed hideously at our approach. This creature I took to be the mother of the wendol, but if she was female, I saw no sign, for she was old to the point of being sexless.

Buliwyf alone fell upon the suppliants and killed them all, while the mother-creature moved back into the shadows and screamed horribly. I could not see her well, but this much is true: that she was surrounded by serpents, which coiled at her feet, and upon her hands, and around her neck. These serpents hissed and flicked their tongues; and as they were all about her, upon her body and also on the ground, none of the warriors of Buliwyf dared make an approach.

Then Buliwyf attacked her, and she gave a fearful scream as he plunged his dagger deep into her breast, for he was heedless of the snakes. Many times he struck the mother of the wendol with his dagger. Never did this woman collapse, but always did she stand, though the blood poured from her as if from a fountain, and from the several wounds Buliwyf inflicted upon her. And all the time she screamed a most frightful sound.

Then at the last she toppled, and lay dead, and Buliwyf turned to face his warriors. Now we saw that this woman, the mother of the eaters of the dead, had wounded him. A silver pin, such as a pin for hair, was buried in his stomach; this same pin trembled with each heartbeat. Buliwyf plucked it forth, and there was a gush of blood. Yet he did not sink to his knees mortally wounded, but rather he stood and gave the order to leave the cave.

This we did, by the second and landward entrance; this entrance had been guarded, but all the wendol guards had fled before the screams of their dying mother. We departed without harassment. Buliwyf led us from the caves, and back to our horses, and then did he collapse upon the ground.

Ecthgow, with a face of sadness most uncommon among the Northmen, directed the fashioning of a stretcher  and with this we carried Buliwyf back across the fields to the kingdom of Rothgar. And all the while Buliwyf was of good cheer, and merry; many of the things he spoke I did not comprehend, but one time I heard him say: "Rothgar will not be happy to see us, for he must set out yet another banquet, and by now he is a most depleted host." The warriors laughed at this and other words of Buliwyf. I saw their laughter was honest.

Now we came to the kingdom of Rothgar, where we were greeted with cheers and happiness, and no sadness, although Buliwyf was direly injured, and his flesh turned gray, and his body shook, and his eyes were lit by the gleam of a sick and fevered soul. These signs did I know full well, and so, too, did the North people.

A bowl of onion broth was brought for him, and he refused it, saying, "I have the soup illness; do not trouble yourselves on my account." Then he called for a celebration, and insisted that he preside over it, sitting propped up on a stone couch at the side of King Rothgar, and he drank mead and he was merry. I was near to him when he said to King Rothgar, in the midst of the festivities, "I have no slaves."

"All of my slaves are your slaves," Rothgar said.

Then Buliwyf said, "I have no horses."

"All of my horses are yours," Rothgar answered. "Think no more on these matters."

And Buliwyf, his wounds bound, was happy, and he smiled, and the color returned to his cheeks that evening, and indeed he seemed to grow stronger with each passing minute of the night. And although I would not have thought it possible, he ravished a slave girl, and afterward he said to me, as a joke, "A dead man is no use to anyone."

And then Buliwyf fell into a sleep, and his color became more pale and his breathing more shallow; I feared he should never awake from this sleep. He may also have thought this, for as he slept he held his sword gripped tight in his hand.

THE DEATH THROES OF THE WENDOL

SO ALSO I FELL INTO A SLEEP. HERGER AWAKENED ME with these words: "You are to come quickly." Now I heard the sound of distant thunder. I looked to the bladder window  and it was not yet dawn, but I grabbed up my sword; in truth I had fallen asleep in my armor, not caring to remove it. Then I hastened outside. It was the hour before dawn, and the air was misty and thick, and filled with the thunder of distant hoofbeats.

Herger said to me, "The wendol come. They know of the mortal wounds of Buliwyf, and they seek a final revenge for the killing of their mother."

Each of the warriors of Buliwyf, myself among them, took a place at the perimeter of the fortifications that we had drawn up against the wendol. These defenses were poor, yet we had none else. We peered into the mists to glimpse the horsemen galloping down upon us. I expected great fear, but I did not feel this, for I had seen the aspect of the wendol and I knew them to be creatures, if not men, then like enough to men as monkeys are also like men; but I knew them to be mortal, and they could die.

Thus I had no fear, save the expectation of this final battle. In this manner was I alone, for I saw that the warriors of Buliwyf displayed much fear; and this despite their pains to conceal it. Verily, as we had killed the mother of the wendol, who was their leader, so also had we lost Buliwyf, who was our own leader, and there was no cheerfulness while we waited and heard the thunder approach.

And then I heard a commotion behind me, and upon my turning, I saw this: Buliwyf, pale as the mist itself, garbed in white and bound in his wounds, stood erect upon the land of the kingdom of Rothgar. And on his shoulders sat two black ravens, one to each side; and at this sight the Northmen screamed of his coming, and they raised their weapons into the air and howled for the battle.

Now Buliwyf never spoke, nor did he look to one side or another; nor did he give sign of recognition to any man; but he walked with measured pace forward, beyond the line of the fortifications, and there he awaited the onslaught of the wendol. The ravens flew off, and he gripped his sword Runding and met the attack.

No words can describe the final attack of the wendol in the dawn of the mist. No words will say what blood was spilled, what screams filled the thick air, what horses and horsemen died in hideous agony. With my own eyes I saw Ecthgow, with his arms of steel: verily his head was lopped off by a wendol sword and the head bounced upon the ground as a bauble, the tongue still flicking in the mouth. Also I saw Weath take a spear through his chest; in this way was he pinned to the ground, and there writhed like a fish taken from the sea. I saw a girl child trampled by the hooves of a horse and her body crushed flat and blood pouring from her ear. Also I saw a woman, a slave of King Rothgar: her body was cut in twain cleanly while she ran from a pursuing horseman. I saw many children likewise killed. I saw horses rear and plunge, their riders dismounted, to be fallen upon by old men and women, who slew the creatures as they lay stunned on their backs. Also I saw Wiglif, the son of Rothgar, run from the fray and conceal himself in cowardly safety. The herald I did not see that day.

I myself killed three of the wendol, and suffered a spear in the shoulder, which pain was like a plunge into fire; my blood boiled the length of my arm and also inside my chest; I thought I should collapse, and yet I fought on.

Now the sun burst through the mist, and the dawn was full upon us, and the mist slipped away, and the horsemen disappeared. In the broad light of day, I saw bodies everywhere, including many bodies of the wendol, for they had not collected their dead. This truly was the sign of their end, for they were in disarray and could not again attack Rothgar, and all the people of the kingdom of Rothgar knew this meaning and rejoiced.

Herger bathed my wound, and was elated, until they carried the body of Buliwyf into the great hall of Rothgar. Buliwyf was dead a score over: his body was hacked by the blades of a dozen adversaries; his visage and form were soaked in his own still-warm blood. Herger saw this sight and burst into tears, and hid his face from me, but there was no need, for I myself felt tears that misted my sight.

Buliwyf was laid before King Rothgar, whose duty it was to make a speech. But the old man was not able to do such a thing. He said only this: "Here is a warrior and a hero fit for the gods. Bury him as a great king," and then he left the hall. I believe he was ashamed, for he himself had not joined in the battle. Also his son Wiglif had run like a coward, and many had seen this, and called it a womanly act; this also may have abashed the father. Or there may be some reason which I do not know. In truth, he was a very old man.

Now it happened that in a low voice Wiglif spoke to the herald: "This Buliwyf has done us much service, all the greater for his death at the concluding of it." Thus he spoke when his father the King had departed the hall.

Herger heard these words, and I also did, and I was the first to draw my sword. Herger said to me, "Do not battle this man, for he is a fox, and you have wounds."

I said to him, "Who cares for that?" and I challenged the son Wiglif, and upon the spot. Wiglif drew his sword. Now Herger delivered me a mighty kick or manner of blow from behind, and as I was unprepared for this I fell sprawling; then Herger joined battle with the son Wiglif. Also the herald took up arms, and moved slyly, in the desire to stand behind Herger and slay him at the back. This herald I myself killed by plunging my sword deep into his belly, and the herald screamed at the instant of his impalement. The son Wiglif heard this, and although he had battled fearlessly before, now he showed much fear in his contest with Herger.

Then it happened that King Rothgar heard of the clashing; he came once more to the great hall and begged for a ceasing of the matter. In this, his efforts were to no avail. Herger was firm in his purpose. Verily I saw him stand astride the body of Buliwyf and swing his sword at Wiglif, and Herger slew Wiglif, who fell down upon the table of Rothgar, and gripped the cup of the King, and drew it toward his lips. But it is true that he died without drinking, and so the matter was finished.

Now of the party of Buliwyf, once of the number thirteen, only four remained. I among them, we set out Buliwyf beneath a wooden roof, and left his body with a cup of mead in his hands. Then Herger said to the assembled people, "Who shall die with this noble man?" and a woman, a slave of King Rothgar, said that she would die with Buliwyf. The usual preparations of the Northmen were then made.

Although Ibn Fadlan does not specify any passage of time, several days probably elapsed before the funeral ceremony.

Now a ship was fitted out upon the shore below the hall of Rothgar, and treasures of gold and silver were laid upon it, and the carcasses of two horses also. And a tent was erected, and Buliwyf, now stiff in death, placed inside. His body was the black color of death in this cold climate. Then the slave girl was taken to each of the warriors of Buliwyf, and to me also, and I had carnal knowledge of her, and she said to me, "My master thanks you." Her countenance and manner were most joyful, of a variety in excess of the general good cheer these people show. Whilst she dressed again in her garments, these garments including many splendid ornaments of gold and silver, I said to her that she was joyful.

I had in my mind that she was a fair maiden, and youthful, and yet soon to die, which she knew, as did I. She said to me, "I am joyful because I shall soon see my master." As yet she had drunk no mead, and she spoke the truth of her heart. Her countenance shone as does a happy child, or certain women when they are with child; this was the nature of the thing.

So, then, I said this: "Tell your master when you see him that I have lived to write." These words I do not know if she comprehended. I said to her, "It was the wish of your master."

"Then I will tell him," she said, and most cheerfully proceeded to the next warrior of Buliwyf. I do not know if she understood my meaning, for the only sense of writing these North people know is the carving of wood or stone, which they do but seldom. Also, my speech in the North tongue was not clear. Yet she was cheerful and went on.

Now in the evening, as the sun was making its descent into the sea, the ship of Buliwyf was prepared upon the beach, and the maiden was taken into the tent of the ship, and the old crone who is called the angel of death placed the dagger between her ribs, and I and Herger held the cord that strangled her, and we seated her alongside Buliwyf, and then we departed.

All of this day I had taken no food or drink, for I knew I must participate in these affairs, and I had no wish to suffer the embarrassment of purging myself. But I felt no revulsion at any of the deeds of that day, nor was I faint, or light of head. For this I was proud in secret. Also it is true that at the moment of her death the maiden smiled, and this expression afterward remained, so that she sat next to her master with this same smile upon her pale face. The face of Buliwyf was black and his eyes were closed, but his expression was calm. Thus did I last view these two North people.

Now the ship of Buliwyf was set aflame, and pushed out into the sea, and the Northmen stood upon the rocky shore and made many invocations to their gods. With my own eyes, I saw the ship carried by the currents as a burning pyre, and then it was lost to vision, and the darkness of night descended upon the Northlands.

THE RETURN FROM THE NORTH COUNTRY

NOW I PASSED SOME FURTHER WEEKS IN THE company of the warriors and nobles of the kingdom of Rothgar. This was a pleasant time, for the people were gracious and hospitable, and most attentive to my wounds, which healed well, praise Allah. But it happened soon enough that I desired to return to my own land. To King Rothgar I made known I was the emissary of the Caliph of Bagdad, and that I must complete the business he had sent me upon, or incur his wrath.

None of this mattered to Rothgar, who said I was a noble warrior, that he desired I should remain in his lands, to live the life of such an honored warrior. He said I was his friend forevermore, and that I should have whatever I desired within his means to give me. Yet he was reluctant to let me depart, and contrived all manner of excuses and delays. Rothgar said I must look to my wounds, although these injuries were plainly healed; also he said I must recover my strength, although my strength was evidently restored. Finally he said I must await the outfitting of a ship, which was no mean undertaking; and when I inquired after the time such a ship might be outfitted, the King made a vague reply, as if this did not matter to him overmuch. And upon those times when I pressed him to depart, he turned cross and asked if I was dissatisfied with his hospitality; to this I was obliged to respond with praise for his graciousness and all variety of expressions of contentment. Soon enough I thought the old King less a fool than I had previously.

Now I went to Herger, speaking of my plight and I said to him: "This King is not such a fool as I have taken him to be."

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