Eaters of the Dead

Chapter 6




FOR THE SPACE OF TWO DAYS WE SAILED ALONG A FLAT coast among many islands that are called the land of Dans, coming finally to a region of marsh with a crisscross of narrow rivers that pour onto the sea. These rivers have no names themselves but are each one called "wyk," and the peoples of the narrow rivers are called "wykings," which means the Northmen warriors who sail their ships up the rivers and attack settlements in such fashion.

Now in this marshy region we stopped at a place they called Trelburg, which was a wonder to me. Here is no town, but rather a military camp, and its people are warriors, with few women or children among them. The defenses of this camp of Trelburg are constructed with great care and skill of workmanship in the Roman fashion.

Trelburg lies at the joining point of two wyks, which then run to the sea. The main part of the town is encircled by a round earthwork wall, as tall as five men standing one atop the other. Above this earthen ring there stands a wooden fence for greater protection. Outside the earthen ring there is a ditch filled with water, the depth I do not know.

These earthworks are excellently made, of a symmetry and quality to rival anything we know. And there is this further: on the landward side of the town, a second semicircle of high wall, and a second ditch beyond.

The town itself lies within the inner ring, which is broken by four gates, facing the four corners of the earth. Each gate is barred by strong oaken doors with heavy fittings of iron, and many guards. Many guards also walk the ramparts, keeping watch day and night.

Inside the town stand sixteen wooden dwellings, all the same: they are long houses, for so the Northmen call them, with walls that curve so that they resemble overturned boats with the ends cut flat front and back. In length they are thirty paces, and wider in the middle portion than either end. They are arranged thus: four long houses precisely set, so as to form a square. Four squares are arranged to make sixteen houses in all.

Every long house has but one entrance, and no house has its entrance within sight of another. I inquired why this was so, and Herger said thus: "If the camp is attacked, the men. must run to defense, and the doorways are such that the men can hasten without mingling and confusion, but on the contrary each man can proceed freely to the task of defense."

Thus it is within the square that one house has a north door, the next house an east door, the next house a south door, the next house a west door; so also each of the four squares.

Then also I saw that while the Northmen are gigantic, these doorways were so low that even I must bend in two to enter one of the houses. I inquired of Herger, who said: "If we are attacked, a single warrior may remain inside the house, and with his sword cut off the heads of all who enter. The door is low so that heads will be bent for cutting."

Verily, I saw that in all respects the Trelburg town was constructed for warfare and for defense. No trading is conducted here at all, as I have said. Inside the long houses, there are three sections or rooms, each with a door. The center room is the largest, and it also has a pit for rubbish.

Now I saw that the Trelburg people were not as the Northmen along the Volga. These were clean people for their race. They washed in the river, and relieved their waste out of doors, and were in all ways much superior to what I had known. Yet they are not truly clean, except in comparison.

The society of Trelburg is mostly men, and the women are all slaves. There are no wives among the women, and all women are taken freely as the men desire. The people of Trelburg live on fish, and some little bread; they do no agriculture or farming, although the marshlands surrounding the town contain areas suitable for growing. I asked of Herger why there was no agriculture, and he said to me, "These are warriors. They do not till the soil."

Buliwyf and his company were graciously received by the chiefs of Trelburg, who are several, foremost among them one who is called Sagard. Sagard is a strong and fierce man, almost as huge as Buliwyf himself.

During the night banquet, Sagard inquired of Buliwyf his mission and the reasons for his travels, and Buliwyf reported of the supplication of Wulfgar. Herger translated all for me, although in truth I had spent sufficient time among these heathens to learn a word or two in their tongue. Here is the meaning of the conversation of Sagard and Buliwyf.

Sagard spoke thus: "It is sensible for Wulfgar to carry out the errand of a messenger, though he is the son of the King Rothgar, for the several sons of Rothgar have set upon one another."

Buliwyf said that he did not know of this, or words to that meaning. But I perceived that he was not greatly surprised. Yet it is true that Buliwyf was seldom surprised by any thing. Such was his role as leader of the warriors and hero to them.

Sagard spoke again: "Indeed, Rothgar had five sons, and three are dead at the hand of one of them, Wiglif, a cunning man,  whose conspirator in this affair is the herald of the old King. Only Wulfgar remains faithful, and he has departed."

Buliwyf said to Sagard that he was glad to know of this news, and would hold it in his mind, and there the conversation ended. Never did Buliwyf or any of his warriors show surprise at the words of Sagard, and from this I took that it is ordinary for the sons of a king to dispose of one another to gain the throne.

Also it is true that from time to time a son may murder his father the king to gain the throne, and this is likewise counted nothing remarkable, for the Northmen see it the same as any drunken brawl among warriors. The Northmen have a proverb which is "Look to your back," and they believe that a man must always be prepared to defend himself, even a father against his own son.

Upon our departure, I inquired of Herger why there should be another fortification on the landward side of Trelburg, and yet no such additional fortification on the seaward side. These Northmen are seafaring men who attack from the sea, and yet Herger said, "It is the land that is dangerous."

I asked of him, "Why is the land dangerous?" And he replied, "Because of the mists.

Upon our departure from Trelburg, the warriors assembled there beat their staves upon their shields, raising a loud noise for our ship which set sail. This, I was told, was to draw the attention of Odin, one of the number of their gods, so that this Odin would look with favor upon the journey of Buliwyf and his twelve men.

Also, this I learned: that the number thirteen is significant to the Norsemen, because the moon grows and dies thirteen times in the passage of one year, by their reckoning. For this reason, all important accountings must include the number thirteen. Thus Herger said to me that the number of dwellings in Trelburg was thirteen and also three more, instead of sixteen, as I have expressed it.

Further, I learned that these Northmen have some notion that the year does not fit with exactitude into thirteen passages of the moon, and thus the number thirteen is not stable and fixed in their minds. The thirteenth passage is called magical and foreign, and Herger says, "Thus for the thirteenth man you were chosen as foreign."

Verily these Northmen are superstitious, with no recourse to sense or reason or law. They seemed to my eyes to be fierce children, and yet I was among them, and so held my tongue. Soon enough I was glad for my discretion, for these events followed:

We were sailing some time from Trelburg when I recalled that never previously had the inhabitants of a town made a departure ceremony with beating of shields to call up Odin. I spoke as much to Herger.

"It is true," he responded. "There is a special reason for the call to Odin, for we are now upon the sea of monsters."

This seemed to me proof of their superstition. I inquired if any of the warriors had ever seen such monsters. "Indeed, we have all seen them," Herger said. "Why else should we know of them?" By the tone of his voice, I could recognize that he thought me a fool for my disbelief.

Some further time passed, when there was a shout, and all the warriors of Buliwyf stood pointing to the sea, watching, shouting amongst themselves. I asked Herger what had happened. "We are among the monsters now," he said, pointing.

Now the ocean in this region is most turbulent. The wind blows with fierce force, turning the curls of the sea white with foam, spitting water into the face of a sailor, and playing tricks with his sight. I watched the sea for many minutes and had no view of this sea monster, and I had no reason to believe what they said.

Then one of their number shouted to Odin, a scream of prayer, repeating the name many times in supplication, and then I also saw with my own eyes the sea monster. It was in the shape of a giant snake that never raised its head above the surface, yet I saw its body curl and twist over, and it was very long, and wider than the Northmen's boat, and black in color. The sea monster spat water into the air, like a fountain, and then plunged down, raising a tail that was cleft in two, like the forked tongue of a snake. Yet it was enormous, each section of the tail being broader than the largest palm frond.

Now I saw another monster, and another, and another after that; there appeared to be four and perhaps six or seven. Each behaved as his fellows, curving through the water, spitting �� fountain, and raising a giant tail split in two. At the sight, the Northmen shouted to Odin for aid, and not a few of their number fell to their knees on the deck trembling.

Verily I saw with my own eyes the sea monsters all about us in the ocean, and then, after some time had passed, they were gone and we did not see them again. The warriors of Buliwyf resumed their sailing efforts, and no man spoke of the monsters, but I was much afraid long afterward, and Herger told me that my face was white as the face of a North person, and he laughed. "What does Allah say to this?" he asked of me, and to that I had no answer.

In the evening, we beached and made a fire, and I inquired of Herger if the sea monsters ever attacked a ship on the sea, and if so, what was the manner of it, for I had seen the heads of none of these monsters.

Herger answered by calling Ecthgow, one of the nobles and the lieutenant of Buliwyf. Ecthgow was a solemn warrior who was not merry except when drunk. Herger said that he had been on a ship that was attacked. Ecthgow said this to me: that the sea monsters are larger than anything on the surface of the land, and larger than any ship on the sea, and when they attack they ride under a ship and lift it in the air, and toss it aside like a bit of wood, and crush it with their forked tongue. Ecthgow said that there had been thirty men on his ship, and only he and two others beside had survived, by the graciousness of the gods. Ecthgow spoke in an ordinary manner of talking, which for him was very serious, and I believed him to be speaking the truth.

Also Ecthgow told me that the Northmen know that the monsters attack ships because they desire to mate with the ship, mistaking it for one of their own. For this reason, the Northmen do not build their ships over-large.

Herger said to me that Ecthgow is a great warrior renowned in battle, and that he is to be believed in all things.

For the next two days, we sailed among the islands of the Dan country, and then on the third day we crossed a passage of open water. Here I was afraid to see more of the sea monsters, but we did not, and eventually arrived at the territory called Venden. These lands of Venden are mountainous and forbidding, and the men of Buliwyf in his boat approached with some trepidation and the killing of a hen, which was thrown into the ocean thus: the head was thrown from the bow of the ship, and the body of the hen was thrown from the stern, near the helmsman.

We did not beach directly on this new land of Venden, but sailed along the coast, coming at last to the kingdom of Rothgar. I first saw it thus. High upon a cliff, commanding a view of the raging gray sea, was a huge great hall of wood, strong and imposing. I said to Herger it was a magnificent sight, but Herger and all his company, led by Buliwyf, were groaning and shaking their heads. I inquired of Herger why this was so. He said, "Rothgar is called Rothgar the Vain, and his great hall is the mark of a vain man."

I said, "Why do you speak thus? Because of its size and splendor?" For verily, as we came closer, I saw that the hall was richly ornamented with carvings and silver chasing, which sparkled from a distance.

"No," said Herger. "I say that Rothgar is vain because of the way he has placed his settlement. He dares the gods to strike him down, and he pretends he is more than a man, and so he is punished."

Never have I seen a more impregnable great hall, and I said to Herger, "This hall cannot be attacked; how can Rothgar be struck down?"

Herger laughed at me, and said thus: "You Arabs are stupid beyond counting, and know nothing of the ways of the world. Rothgar deserves the misfortune that has come to him, and it is only we who shall save him, and perhaps not even so."

These words puzzled me further. I looked at Ecthgow, the lieutenant of Buliwyf, and saw that he stood in the boat and made a brave face, and yet his knees trembled, and it was not the stiffness of the wind that made them tremble so. He was afraid; they were all afraid; and I did not know why.


THE SHIP WAS BEACHED AT THE TIME OF THE afternoon prayer, and I begged the forgiveness of Allah for not making supplication. Yet I had not been able to do so in the presence of the Northmen, who thought my prayers to be a curse upon them, and threatened to kill me if I prayed in their sight.

Each warrior in the boat dressed in the garments of battle, which were thus: first, boots and leggings of rough wool, and over this a coat of heavy fur, which reached to the knees. Over this they placed coats of mail, which all had save me. Then each man took his sword and clasped it to his belt; each man took up his white shield of hide, and his spear; each man placed a helmet of metal or leather upon his head;  in this all the men were the same except for Buliwyf, who alone carried his sword in his hand, so large was it. The warriors looked up to the great hall of Rothgar, and marveled at its gleaming roof and skilled workmanship, and agreed that there was none like it in the world, with its lofty gables and rich carving. Yet there was no respect in their speech.

At length we decamped from the ship, and traveled a road paved in stone up to the great hall. The clanking of swords and the clatter of mail raised a goodly noise. After we had gone some short distance, we saw by the roadway the severed head of an ox, set upon a stick. This animal was freshly killed.

All the Northmen sighed and made sad faces at this portent, though it had no meaning to me. I was by now adjusted to their custom of killing some beast at the slightest nervousness or provocation. Yet this oxhead had especial significance.

Buliwyf looked away, across the fields of the lands of Rothgar, and saw there an isolated farming house, of the sort that is common in Rothgar lands. The walls of this house were of wood, and sealed with a paste of mud and straw, which must be replenished after the frequent rains. The roof is thatched material and wood also. Inside the houses there is only an earthen floor and a hearth, and the dung of animals, for the farm people sleep with their animals indoors for the warmth afforded by their bodies, and then they burn the dung for fires.

Buliwyf gave an order that we should go to this farmhouse, and so we set out across the fields, which were verdant but soggy with dampness underfoot. Once or twice the company halted to examine the ground before continuing on, but they never saw anything that mattered to them. I myself saw nothing.

Yet again Buliwyf halted his company, and pointed to the dark earth. Verily, I saw with my own eyes the bare imprint of a foot – indeed, of many feet. They were flat and uglier than anything known to creation. At each toe, there was the sharp digging mark of a horned nail or claw; thus the shape appeared human, but yet not human. This I saw with my own eyes, and could scarcely believe the witness of my sight.

Buliwyf and his warriors shook their heads at the sight, and I heard them repeat one word over and over: "wendol" or "wendlon," or some such. The meaning of the name was not known to me, and I sensed that Herger should not be asked at this moment, for he was as apprehensive as all the rest. We pressed on to the farmhouse, now and again seeing more of these horned footprints in the earth. Buliwyf and his warriors walked slowly, but it was not caution; no man drew his weapon; rather it was some dread that I did not comprehend and yet felt with them.

At length we came to the farming dwelling and entered it. In the farmhouse I saw, with my own eyes, this sight: there was a man, of young age and graceful proportion, whose body had been torn limb from limb. The torso was here, an arm there, a leg there. Blood lay in thick pools upon the floor, and on the walls, on the roof, on every surface in such profusion that the house seemed to have been painted in red blood. Also there was a woman, in like fashion rended limb from limb. Also a male child, an infant of two years or less, whose head was wrenched from the shoulders, leaving the body a bleeding stump.

All this I saw with my own eyes, and it was the most fearsome sight I ever witnessed. I purged myself and was faint for an hour, purging myself yet again.

Never will I comprehend the manner of the Northmen, for even as I was sick, so they became calm and dispassionate at the aspect of this horror; they viewed all they saw in quiet fashion; they discussed the claw marks upon the limbs, and the manner of tearing of flesh. Much attention was given to the fact that all the heads were missing; also, they remarked the most devilish aspect of all, which even now I recall with trepidation.

The body of the male child had been chewed by some fiendish teeth, upon the soft flesh of the back of the thigh. So also had been chewed the area of the shoulder. This very horror I saw with my own eyes.

The warriors of Buliwyf were grim-countenanced and glowering as they departed the farmhouse. They continued to pay much heed to the soft earth about the house, noting that there were no hoofmarks of horses; this was a matter of significance to them. I did not understand why. Nor was I much attentive, still feeling faint of heart and sick of body.

As we crossed the fields, Ecthgow made a discovery which was of this nature: it was a small bit of stone, smaller than a child's fist, and it was polished and carved in crude fashion. All the warriors crowded around to examine it, I among them.

I saw it to be the torso of a pregnant female. There was no head, no arms, and no legs; only the torso with a greatly swollen belly and, above that, two pendulous swollen breasts.  I accounted this creation exceedingly crude and ugly, but nothing more. Yet the Northmen were suddenly overcome and pale and tremulous; their hands shook to touch it, and finally Buliwyf flung it to the ground and shattered it with the handle of his sword, until it lay in splintered stone fragments. And then were several of the warriors sick, and purged themselves upon the ground. And the general horror was very great, to my mystification.

Now they set off for the great hall of King Rothgar. No man spoke during our travel, which was the better part of an hour; every one of the Northmen seemed to be wrapped in bitter and consuming thought, and yet they showed no fear anymore.

At length, a herald upon a horse met us and barred our path. He noted the arms we carried and the bearing of the company and of Buliwyf, and shouted a warning.

Herger said to me, "He craves to know our names, and curtly, too."

Buliwyf made some answer to the herald, and from his tone I knew that Buliwyf was in no mood for courtly pleasantries. Herger said to me: "Buliwyf tells him we are subjects of King Higlac, of the kingdom of Yatlam, and we are on an errand to the King Rothgar, and would speak to him." And Herger added, "Buliwyf says that Rothgar is a most worthy king," but the tone of Herger conveyed the opposite sense of the matter.

This herald bade us continue to the great hall and wait outside while he told the King of our arrival. This we did, although Buliwyf and his party were not pleased at such treatment; there was grumbling and muttering, for it is the Northman's way to be hospitable and this did not seem gracious, to be kept outside. Yet they waited, and also removed their weapons, their swords and spears, but not their armor, and they left the weapons outside the doors to the hall.

Now the hall was surrounded on all sides by several dwellings in the fashion of the North people. These were long with curved sides, as at Trelburg; but they differed in the arrangement, for there were no squares here. Nor were there fortifications or earthworks to be seen. Rather, from the great hall and the long houses about it, the ground sloped to a long flat green plain, here and there a farmhouse, and then, beyond, the hills and the edge of a forest.

I inquired of Herger whose long houses were these, and he said to me, "Some belong to the King, and others are for his royal family, and others for his nobles, and also for the servants and lower members of his court." He said also that it was a difficult place, though I did not comprehend his meaning in this.

Then we were allowed entry into the great hall of King Rothgar, which verily I say is to be counted one of the marvels of all the world, and all the more for its presence in the crude North country. This hall is called, among the Rothgar peoples, by the name of Hurot, for the Northmen give the names of people to the things of their life, to the buildings and boats and especially to the weapons. Now I say: this Hurot, the great hall of Rothgar, was as large as the Caliph's main palace, and richly inlaid with silver and even some gold, which is most rare in the North. On all sides were designs and ornaments of the greatest splendor and richness of artistry. It was truly a monument to the power and majesty of King Rothgar.

This King Rothgar sat at the distant end of Hurot Hall, a space so vast that he was so far we could hardly discern him. Standing behind his right shoulder was the same herald who had halted us. The herald made a speech, which Herger told me was thus: "Here, O King, is a band of warriors from the kingdom of Yatlam. They are newly arrived from the sea, and their leader is a man of the name Buliwyf. They beg leave to tell you of their errand, O King. Do not forbid them entry; they have the manner of earls, and from his bearing their chieftain is a mighty warrior. Greet them as earls, O King Rothgar."

Thus we were bid approach the King Rothgar.

King Rothgar appeared a man near death. He was not young, his hair was white, his skin was very pale, and his face was grooved with, sorrow and fear. He regarded us with suspicion, wrinkling his eyes, or perhaps he was near blind, I do not know. Finally he broke into speech, which Herger says was thus: "I know of this man, for I have sent for him on a hero's mission. He is Buliwyf, and I knew him as a child, when I traveled across the waters to the kingdom of Yatlam. He is the son of Higlac, who was my gracious host, and now this son comes to me in my time of need and sorrow."

Rothgar then called for the warriors to be summoned to the great hall, and gifts brought, and celebrations made.

Buliwyf then spoke, a long speech that Herger did not translate for me, since to speak when Buliwyf spoke would be a disrespect. However, the meaning was this: that Buliwyf had heard of the troubles of Rothgar, that he was sorry for these troubles, and that his own father's kingdom had been destroyed by these same troubles, and that he had come to save the kingdom of Rothgar from the evils that had beset them.

Still, I did not know what the Northmen called these evils, or how they thought of them, though I had viewed the handiwork of the beasts that tore men to pieces.


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