Eaters of the Dead

Chapter 7

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King Rothgar spoke again, in some haste. I took from the manner of his speaking that he wished to say some words before all his warriors and earls arrived. He said thus (from Herger): "O Buliwyf, I knew your father when I was myself a young man, new to my throne. Now I am old and heartsick. My head bows. My eyes weep with shame to acknowledge my weakness. As you see, my throne is almost a barren spot. My lands are becoming a wild place. What the fiends have wrought to my kingdom I cannot say. Often at night, my warriors, brave with drink, swear to topple the fiends. And then when the bleak light of dawn creeps over the misty fields, we see bloody bodies everywhere. Thus is the sorrow of my life, and I shall speak no more of it."

Now a bench was brought out and a meal set before us, and I inquired of Herger what was the meaning of the "fiends" of which the King spoke. Herger was angry, and said I was never to ask again.

That evening there was a great celebration, and King Rothgar and his Queen Weilew, in a garment dripping gemstones and gold, presided over the nobles and warriors and earls of the kingdom of Rothgar. These nobles were a paltry lot; they were old men and drank overmuch and many were crippled or wounded. In the eyes of all of them was the hollow stare of fear, and there was hollowness in their merriment, too.

Also there was the son named Wiglif, of whom I have earlier spoken, the son of Rothgar who murdered three of his brothers. This man was young and slender with a blond beard and with eyes that never settled on anything, but moved about here and there constantly; also he never met the gaze of another. Herger saw him and said, "He is a fox." By this he meant that he was a slippery and changeable person of false demeanor, for the North people believe the fox is an animal that can assume any form it pleases.

Now, in the middle portion of the festivities, Rothgar sent his herald to the doors of Hurot Hall, and this herald reported that the mist would not descend that night. There was much happiness and celebration over this announcement that the night was clear; all were pleased save Wiglif.

At a particular time, the son Wiglif rose to his feet and said, "I drink honor to our guests, and especially Buliwyf, a brave and true warrior who has come to aid us in our plight – although it may prove too great an obstacle for him to overcome." Herger whispered these words to me, and I caught that it was praise and insult in one breath.

All eyes turned to Buliwyf for his response. Buliwyf stood, and looked to Wiglif, and then said, "I have no fear of anything, even the callow fiend that creeps at night to murder men in their sleep. This I took to refer to the "wendol," but Wiglif turned pale and gripped the chair in which he sat.

"Do you speak of me?" Wiglif said, in a trembling tongue.

Buliwyf made this response: "No, but I do not fear you any more than the monsters of the mist."

The young man Wiglif persisted, although Rothgar the King called for him to be seated. Wiglif said to all the assembled nobles: "This Buliwyf, arrived from foreign shores, has by appearance great pride and great strength. Yet have I arranged to test his mettle, for pride may cover any man's eyes."

Now I saw this thing happen: a strong warrior, seated at a table near the door, behind Buliwyf, rose with speed, plucked up a spear, and charged at the back of Buliwyf. All this happened in less time than it takes a man to suck in his breath.  Yet also Buliwyf turned, plucked up a spear, and with this he caught the warrior full into the chest, and lifted him by the shaft of the spear high over his head and flung him against a wall. Thus was this warrior skewered on the spear, his feet dangling above the floor, kicking; the shaft of the spear was buried into the wall of the hall of Hurot. The warrior died with a sound.

Now there came much commotion, and Buliwyf turned to face Wiglif, and said, "So shall I dispatch any menace," and then with great immediacy Herger spoke, in an overloud voice, and made many gestures toward my person. I was much confused by these events, and in truth my eyes were stuck upon this dead warrior pinned to the wall.

Then Herger turned to me, and said in Latin, "You shall sing a song for the court of King Rothgar. All desire it."

I asked of him, "What shall I sing? I know no song." He made this reply: "You will sing something that entertains the heart." And he added, "Do not speak of your one God. No one cares for such nonsense."

In truth, I did not know what to sing, for I am no minstrel. A time passed while all stared toward me, and there was silence in the hall. Then Herger said to me, "Sing a song of kings and valor in battle."

I said that I knew no such songs, but that I could tell them a fable, which in my country was accounted funny and entertaining. To this he said that I had made a wise choice. Then I told them – King Rothgar, his Queen Weilew, his son Wiglif, and all the assembled earls and warriors – the story of Abu Kassim's slippers, which all know. I spoke lightly, and smiled all the while, and in the first instance the Northmen were pleased, and laughed and slapped their bellies.

But now this strange event occurred. As I continued in my telling, the Northmen ceased to laugh, and turned gloomy by degrees, ever more so, and when I had finished the tale, there was no laughter, but dire silence.

Herger said to me, "You could not know, but that is no tale for laughter, and now I must make amends," and thereupon he said some speech that I took to be a joke at my own expense, and there was general laughter, and at length the celebration recommenced.

The story of Abu Kassim's slippers is ancient in Arabic culture, and was well known to Ibn Fadlan and his fellow Bagdad citizens.

The story exists in many versions, and can be told briefly or elaborately, depending upon the enthusiasm of the teller. Briefly, Abu Kassim is a rich merchant and a miser who wishes to hide the fact of his wealth, in order to strike better bargains in his trade. To give the appearance of poverty, he wears a pair of particularly tawdry, miserable slippers, hoping that people will be fooled, but nobody is. Instead, the people around him think he is silly and preposterous.

One day, Abu Kassim strikes a particularly favorable bargain in glassware, and decides to celebrate, not in the accepted manner of treating his friends to a feast, but by treating himself to the small selfish luxury of a visit to the public baths. He leaves his clothes and shoes in the anteroom, and a friend berates him for his worn and inappropriate shoes. Abu Kassim replies that they are still serviceable, and he enters the bath with his friend. Later, a powerful judge also comes to the baths, and disrobes, leaving behind an elegant pair of slippers. Meanwhile, Abu Kassim departs from the bath and cannot find his old slippers; in their place he finds a new and beautiful pair of shoes, and, presuming these to be a present from his friend, he puts them on and leaves.

When the judge leaves, his own slippers are missing, and all he can find are a miserable, tawdry pair of slippers, which everyone knows belong to the miser Abu Kassim. The judge is angry; servants are dispatched to retrieve the missing slippers; and they are soon found upon the very feet of the thief, who is hauled into court before the magistrate and severely fined.

Abu Kassim curses his bad luck, and once home flings the unlucky slippers out of his window, where they fall into the muddy Tigris River. Some days later, a group of fishermen haul in their catch, and find along with some fish the slippers of Abu Kassim; the hobnails of these slippers have torn their nets. Enraged, they throw the soggy slippers through an open window. The window happens to be that of Abu Kassim; the slippers fall upon the newly purchased glassware and smash it all.

Abu Kassim is heartbroken, and grieves as only a stingy miser can. He vows the wretched slippers shall do him no further harm and, to be certain, goes to his garden with a shovel and buries them. As it happens, his next-door neighbor sees Abu Kassim digging, a menial task fit only for a servant. The neighbor assumes that if the master of the house is doing this chore himself, it must be in order to bury treasure. Thus the neighbor goes to the Caliph and informs on Abu Kassim, for according to the laws of the land, any treasure found in the ground is the property of the Caliph.

Abu Kassim is called before the Caliph, and when he reports that he buried only a pair of old slippers, the court laughs uproariously at the obviousness of the merchant's attempt to conceal his true, and illegal, purpose. The Caliph is angry to be thought such a fool as to be given this silly lie, and increases the magnitude of his fine accordingly. Abu Kassim is thunderstruck when sentence is passed, and yet he is obliged to pay.

Abu Kassim is now determined to be rid of his slippers once and for all. To be certain of no further trouble, he makes a pilgrimage far from town and drops the slippers into a distant pond, watching them sink to the bottom with satisfaction. But the pond feeds the city's water supply, and eventually the slippers clog the pipe guards dispatched to release the stricture find the slippers and recognize them, for everyone knows the slippers of this notorious miser. Abu Kassim is again brought before the Caliph, on a charge of befouling the water of the town, and his fine is much greater than before. The slippers are returned to him.

Now Abu Kassim determines to burn the slippers, but they are still wet, so he sets them on the balcony to dry. A dog sees them and plays with them; one of the slippers falls from his jaws and drops to the street far below, where it strikes a woman passing by. The woman is pregnant, and the force of the blow causes a miscarriage. Her husband runs to the court to seek damages, which are awarded plentifully, and Abu Kassim, now a broken and impoverished man, is obliged to pay.

The slyly literal Arabic moral states that this story illustrates what evils can befall a man who does not change his slippers often enough. But undoubtedly the undercurrent to the tale, the idea of a man who cannot shake off some burden, was what disturbed the Northmen.

Now the night passed with further celebrations, and all the warriors of Buliwyf disported in a carefree fashion. I saw the son Wiglif glaring at Buliwyf before leaving the hall, but Buliwyf paid no attention, preferring the ministrations of slave girls and freeborn women. After a time I slept.

In the morning, I awoke to the sounds of hammering and, venturing from the great hall of Hurot, I found all the peoples of the kingdom of Rothgar at work on defenses. These were being laid out in preliminary fashion: horses drew up quantities of fence posts, which warriors sharpened to points; Buliwyf himself directed the placement of defense works, by marking scratches in the ground with the tip of his sword. For this he did not use his great sword Runding, but rather some other sword; I do not know if there was a reason for this.

Upon the middle portion of the day, the woman who was called the angel of death  came and cast bones on the ground, and made incantations over them, and announced that the mist would come that night. Upon hearing this, Buliwyf called for all work to cease, and a great banquet to be prepared. In this matter, all the people concurred, and ceased their efforts. I inquired of Herger why there should be a banquet, but he replied to me that I had too many questions. It is also true that I had timed my inquiry badly, for he was posturing before a blond slave girl who smiled warmly in his direction.

Now, in the later part of the day, Buliwyf called together all his warriors and said to them, "Prepare for battle," and they agreed, and wished luck one to another, while all about us the banquet was being made ready.

The night banquet was much as the previous one, although there were fewer of Rothgar's nobles and earls. Indeed, I learned that many nobles would not attend at all, for fear of what would happen in the Hurot Hall that night, for it seemed that this place was the center of the fiend's interest in the area; that he coveted Hurot Hall, or some similar thing – I could not be sure of the meaning.

This banquet was not enjoyable to me, for reason of my apprehension of coming events. However, this event occurred: one of the elderly nobles spoke some Latin, and also some of the Iberian dialects, for he had traveled to the region of the caliphate of Cordova as a younger man, and I engaged him in conversation. In this circumstance, I feigned knowledge that I did not have, as you shall see.

He spoke to me thus: "So you are the foreigner who shall be the number thirteen?" And I said that I was such. "You must be exceedingly brave," the old man said, "and for your bravery I salute you." To this I made some trifling polite response, of the sense that I was a coward compared to the others of Buliwyf's company; which indeed was more than true.

"No matter," said the old man, who was deep in his cups, having drunk the liquor of the region – a vile substance they call mead, yet it is potent – "you are still a brave man to face the wendol."

Now I sensed that I might finally learn some matters of substance. I repeated to this old man a saying of the Northmen, which Herger had once said to me. I said, "Animals die, friends die, and I shall die, but one thing never dies, and that is the reputation we leave behind at our death."

The old man cackled toothlessly at this; he was pleased I knew a Northman proverb. He said, "That is so, but the wendol have a reputation, too." And I replied, with the utmost indifference: "Truly? I am not aware of it."

At this the old man said that I was a foreigner, and he would consent to enlighten me, and he told me this: the name of "wendol," or "windon," is a very ancient name, as old as any of the peoples of the North country, and it means "the black mist." To the Northmen, this means a mist that brings, under cover of night, black fiends who murder and kill and eat the flesh of human beings.  The fiends are hairy and loathsome to touch and smell; they are fierce and cunning; they speak no language of any man and yet converse among themselves; they come with the night fog, and disappear by day-to where, no man durst follow.

The old man said to me thus: "You can know the regions where dwell the fiends of the black mist by many ways. From time to time, warriors on horse may hunt a stag with dogs, chasing the stag over hill and dale for many miles of forest and open land. And then the stag comes to some marshy tarn or brackish swamp, and here it will halt, preferring to be torn to bits by the hounds rather than enter that loathsome region. Thus we know of the areas where the wendol live, and we know that even the animals will not enter thence."

I expressed over-great wonderment at his tale, in order to draw further words from the old man. Herger saw me then, gave me a menacing look, but I paid him no heed.

The old man continued thus: "In olden days, the black mist was feared by all the Northmen of every region. Since my father and his father and his father before, no Northman has seen the black mist, and some of the young warriors counted us old fools to remember the ancient tales of their horror and depredations. Yet the chiefs of the Northmen in all the kingdoms, even in Norway, have always been prepared for the return of the black mist. All of our towns and our fortresses are protected and defended from the land. Since the time of the father of my father's father, our peoples have thus acted, and never have we seen the black mist. Now it has returned."

I inquired why the black mist had returned, and he lowered his voice to speak this reply: "The black mist has come from the vanity and weakness of Rothgar, who has offended the gods with his foolish splendor and tempted the fiends with the siting of his great hall, which has no protection from the land. Rothgar is old and he knows he will not be remembered for battles fought and won, and so he built this splendid hall, which is the talk of all the world, and pleases his vanity. Rothgar acts as a god, yet he is a man, and the gods have sent the black mist to strike him down and show him humility."

I said to this old man that perhaps Rothgar was resented in the kingdom. He replied thus: "No man is so good as to be free from all evil, nor so bad as to be worth nothing. Rothgar is a just king and his people prospered all of his life. The wisdom and richness of his rule are here, in Hurot Hall, and they are splendid. His only fault is this, that he forgot defense, for we have a saying among us: 'A man should never move a step from his weapons.' Rothgar has no weapons; he is toothless and weak; and the black mist seeps freely over the land."

I desired to know more, but the old man was tired, and turned away from me, and soon was asleep. Verily, the food and drink of Rothgar's hospitality were much, and many of the number of earls and nobles were drowsy.

Of the table of Rothgar I shall say this: that every man had a tablecloth and plate, and spoon and knife; that the meal was boiled pork and goat, and some fish, too, for the Northmen much prefer boiled meat to roasted. Then there were cabbages and onions in abundance, and apples and hazelnuts. A sweetish fleshy meat was given me that I had not tasted before; this, I was told, was elk, or rain-deer.

The dreadful foul drink called mead is made from honey, then fermented. It is the sourest, blackest, vilest stuff ever invented by any man, and yet it is potent beyond all knowing; a few drinks, and the world spins. But I did not drink, praise Allah.

Now I noticed that Buliwyf and all his company did not drink that night, or only sparingly, and Rothgar took this as no insult, but rather acknowledged it as the natural course of things. There was no wind that night; the candles and flames of Hurot Hall did not flicker, and yet it was damp, and chill. I saw with my own eyes that out of doors the mist was rolling in from the hills, blocking the silvered light of the moon, cloaking all in blackness.

As the night continued, King Rothgar and his Queen departed for sleep, and the massive doors of Hurot Hall were locked and barred, and the nobles and earls remaining there fell into a drunken stupor and snored loudly.

Then Buliwyf and his men, still wearing their armor, went about the room, dousing the candles and seeing to the fires, that they should burn low and weak. I asked Herger the meaning of this, and he told me to pray for my life, and to feign sleep. I was given a weapon, a short sword, but it was little comfort to me; I was not a warrior and knew it full well.

Verily, all the men feigned sleep. Buliwyf and his men joined the slumbering bodies of the King Rothgar's earls, who were truly snoring. How long we waited I do not know, for I think I slept awhile myself. Then all at once I was awake, in a manner of unnatural sharp alertness; I was not drowsy but instantly tense and alert, still lying on a bearskin cloth on the floor of the great hall. It was dark night; the candles in the hall burned low, and a faint breeze whispered through the hall and fluttered the yellow flames.

And then I heard a low grunting sound, like the rooting of a pig, carried to me by the breeze, and I smelled a rank odor like the rot of a carcass after a month, and I feared greatly. This rooting sound, for I can call it none else, this grumbling, grunting, snorting sound, grew louder and more excited. It came from outdoors, at one side of the hall. Then I heard it from another side, and then another, and another. Verily the hall was surrounded.

I sat up on one elbow, my heart pounding, and I looked about the hall. No man among the sleeping warriors moved, and yet there was Herger, lying with his eyes wide open. And there, too, Buliwyf, breathing in a snore, with his eyes also wide open. From this I gathered that all the warriors of Buliwyf were waiting to do battle with the wendol, whose sounds now filled the air.

By Allah, there is no fear greater than that of a man when he does not know the cause. How long I lay upon the bearskin, hearing the grunting of the wendol and smelling their foul odors! How long I waited for I knew not what, the start of some battle more fearsome in the prospect than it could be in the fighting! I remembered this: that the Northmen have a saying of praise that they carve upon the tombstones of noble warriors, which is this: "He did not flee battle." None of the company of Buliwyf fled that night, though the sounds and the stink were all around them, now louder, now fainter, now from one direction, now another. And yet they waited.

Then came the most fearsome moment. All sounds ceased. There was utter silence, except for the snoring of the men and the low crackle of the fire. Still none of the warriors of Buliwyf stirred.

And then there was a mighty crash upon the solid doors of the hall of Hurot, and these doors burst open, and a rush of reeking air gutted all the lights, and the black mist entered the room. I did not count their number: verily it seemed thousands of black grunting shapes, and yet it might have been no more than five or six, huge black shapes hardly in the manner of men, and yet also manlike. The air stank of blood and death; I was cold beyond reason, and shivered. Yet still no warrior moved.

Then, with a curdling scream to wake the dead, Buliwyf leapt up, and in his arms he swung the giant sword Runding, which sang like a sizzling flame as it cut the air. And his warriors leapt up with him, and all joined the battle. The shouts of the men mingled with the pig-grunts and the odors of the black mist, and there was terror and confusion and great wracking and rending of the Hurot Hall.

I myself had no stomach for battle, and yet I was set upon by one of these mist monsters, who came close to me, and I saw gleaming red eyes – verily I saw eyes that shone like fire, and I smelled the reek, and I was lifted bodily and flung across the room as a child flings a pebble. I struck the wall and fell to the ground, and was greatly dazed for the next period, so all around me was more confused than true.

I remember, most distinctly, the touch of these monsters upon me, especially the furry aspect of the bodies, for these mist monsters have hair as long as a hairy dog, and as thick, on all parts of their bodies. And I remember the fetid smell of the breath of the monster who flung me.

The battle raged for how long I cannot know, but it concluded most suddenly of a moment. And then the black mist was gone, slunk away, grunting and panting and stinking, leaving behind destruction and death that we could not know until we had lighted fresh tapers.

Here is how the battle waged. Of the company of Buliwyf, three were dead, Roneth and Halga, both earls, and Edgtho, a warrior. The first had his chest torn open. The second had his spine broken. The third had his head torn off in the manner I had already witnessed. All these warriors were dead.

Wounded were two others, Haltaf and Rethel. Haltaf had lost an ear, and Rethel two fingers of his right hand. Both men were not mortally injured, and made no complaint, for it is the Northman way to bear the wounds of battle cheerfully, and to praise above all the retaining of life.

As for Buliwyf and Herger and all the others, they were soaked in blood as if they had bathed in it. Now I shall say what many will not believe, and yet it was so: our company had killed not one of the mist monsters. Each had slunk away, some perhaps mortally wounded, and yet they had escaped.

Herger said thus: "I saw two of their number carrying a third, who was dead." Perhaps this was so, for all generally agreed upon it. I learned that the mist monsters never leave one of their kind to the society of men, but rather will risk great dangers to retrieve him from human purview. So also will they go to extreme lengths to keep a victim's head, and we could not find the head of Edgtho in any place; the monsters had carried it off with them.

Then Buliwyf spoke, and Herger told me his words thus: "Look, I have retained a trophy of the night's bloody deeds. See, here is an arm of one of the fiends."

And, true to his word, Buliwyf held the arm of one of the mist monsters, cut off at the shoulder by the great sword Runding. All the warriors crowded around to examine it. I perceived it thusly: it appeared to be small, with a hand of abnormally large size. But the forearm and upper arm were not large to match it, although the muscles were powerful. There was long black matted hair on all parts of the arm except the palm of the hand. Finally it is to say that the arm stank as the whole beast stank, with the fetid smell of the black mist.

Now all the warriors cheered Buliwyf, and his sword Runding. The fiend's arm was hung from the rafters of the great hall of Hurot, and marveled at by all the people of the kingdom of Rothgar. Thus ended the first battle with the wendol.

THE EVENTS THAT FOLLOWED THE FIRST BATTLE

VERILY, THE PEOPLE OF THE NORTH COUNTRY NEVER act as human beings of reason and sense. After the attack of the mist monsters, and their beating back by Buliwyf and his company, with me amongst them, the men of the kingdom of Rothgar did nothing.

There was no celebration, no feasting, no jubilation or display of happiness. From far and wide, the people of the kingdom came to view the dangling arm of the fiend, which hung in the great hall, and this they greeted with much amazement and astonishment. But Rothgar himself, the half-blind old man, expressed no pleasure, and presented Buliwyf and his company with no gifts, planned no feasts, gave him no slaves, no silver, no precious garments, or any other sign of honor.

Contrary to any expression of pleasure, King Rothgar made a long face and was solemn, and seemed more fearful than he had been before. I myself, though I did not speak it aloud, suspected that Rothgar preferred his earlier condition, before the black mist was beaten.

Nor was Buliwyf different in manner. He called for no ceremonies, no feasting, no drinking or eating of food. The nobles who had died valiantly in the battle of the night were quickly placed in pits with a wooden roof over the top, and left there for the assigned ten days. There was haste in this matter.

Yet it was only in the laying out of the dead warriors that Buliwyf and his comrades showed happiness, or allowed themselves any smiles. After further time among the Northmen, I learned that they smile upon any death in battle, for this is pleasure taken on behalf of the dead person, and not the living. They are pleased when any man dies a warrior's death. Also the opposite is held true by them; they show distress when a man dies in his sleep, or in a bed. They say of such a man, "He died as a cow in the straw." This is no insult, but it is a reason for mourning the death.

The Northmen believe that how a man dies determines his condition in the afterlife, and they value the death of a warrior in battle above all. A "straw death" is shameful.

Any man who dies in his sleep is said by them to be strangled by the maran, or mare of the night. This creature is a woman, which makes such a death shameful, for to die at the hands of a woman is degrading above all things.

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