Eaters of the Dead

Chapter 8

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Also they say to die without your weapons is degrading, and a Northman warrior will always sleep with his weapons, so that if the maran comes at night, he will have his weapons at hand. Seldom does a warrior die of some illness, or of the enfeeblement of age. I heard of one king, of the name Ane, who lived to such an age that he became as an infant, toothless and existing upon the food of an infant, and he spent all his days in his bed drinking milk from a horn. But this was told to me as most uncommon in the North country. With my own eyes I saw few men grown very old, by which I mean grown old to the time when the beard is not only white but falling out from the chin and face.

Several of their women live to great age, especially such as the old crone they call the angel of death; these old women are counted as having magical powers in healing of wounds, casting of spells, banishing evil influences, and foretelling the future of events.

The women of the North people do not fight among themselves, and often did I see them intercede in a growing brawl or duel of two men, to quench the rising anger. This they will do especially if the warriors are thickened and slow with drink. This is often the circumstance.

Now, the Northmen, who drink much liquor, and at all hours of the day and night, drink nothing on the day after the battle. Seldom did the people of Rothgar offer them a cup, and when it happened, the cup was refused. This I found most puzzling, and spoke of it finally to Herger.

Herger shook his shoulders in the Northmen's gesture of unconcern, or indifference. "Everyone is afraid," he said.

I inquired why there should still be a reason to fear. He spoke thus: "It is because they know that the black mist will return."

Now I admit that I was puffed with the arrogance of a fighting man, though in truth I knew I did not deserve such a posture. Even so, I felt exhilaration at my survival, and the people of Rothgar treated me as one of a company of mighty warriors. I said boldly, "Who cares for that? If they come again, we shall beat them a second time."

Indeed, I was vain as a young cock, and I am abashed now to think upon my strutting. Herger responded: "The kingdom of Rothgar has no fighting warriors or earls; they are all long since dead, and we alone must defend the kingdom. Yesterday we were thirteen. Today we are ten, and of that ten two are wounded and cannot fight as full men. The black mist is angered, and it will take a terrible vengeance."

I said to Herger, who had suffered some minor wounds in the fray – but nothing so fierce as the claw marks upon my own face, which I bore proudly – that I feared nothing the demons would do.

He answered curtly that I was an Arab and understood nothing of the ways of the North country, and he told me that the vengeance of the black mist would be terrible and profound. He said, "They will return as Korgon."

I did not know the sense of the word. "What is Korgon?"

He said to me, "The glowworm dragon, which swoops down through the air."

Now this seemed fanciful, but I had already seen the sea monsters just as they said that such beasts truly lived, and also I saw Herger's strained and tired countenance, and I perceived that he believed in the glowworm dragon. I said, "When will Korgon come?"

"Perhaps tonight," Herger said.

Verily, even as he spoke, I saw that Buliwyf, though he had slept not at all during the night and his eyes were red and heavy with fatigue, was directing anew the building of defenses around the hall of Hurot. All the people of the kingdom worked, the children and the women and the old men, and the slaves as well, under the direction of Buliwyf and his lieutenant Ecthgow.

This is what they did: about the perimeter of Hurot and the adjacent buildings, those being the dwellings of the King Rothgar and some of his nobles, and the rude huts of the slaves of these families, and one or another of the farmers who lived closest to the sea, all around this area Buliwyf erected a kind of fence of crossed lances and poles with sharpened points. This fence was not higher than a man's shoulders, and although the points were sharp and menacing, I could not see the value of this defense, for men could scale it easily.

I spoke of this to Herger, who called me a stupid Arab. Herger was in an ill temper.

Now a further defense was constructed, a ditch outside the pole fence, one and a half paces beyond. This ditch was most peculiar. It was not deep, never more than a man's knees, and often less. It was unevenly dug, so that in places it was shallow, and in other places deeper, with small pits. And in places short lances were sunk into the earth, points upward.

I understood the value of this paltry ditch no better than the fence, but I did not inquire of Herger, already knowing his mood. Instead I aided in the work as best I could, pausing only once to have my way with a slavewoman in the Northman's fashion, for in the excitement of the night's battle and the day's preparations I was most energetic.

Now, during my journey with Buliwyf and his warriors up the Volga, Herger had told me that unknown women, especially if attractive or seductive, were to be mistrusted. Herger said to me that within the forests and wild places of the North country there live women who are called woodwomen. These woodwomen entice men by their beauty and soft words, yet when a man approaches them, he finds that they are hollow at the back part, and are apparitions. Then the woodwomen cast a spell upon the seduced man and he becomes their captive.

Now, Herger had thus warned me, and verily it is true that I approached this slavewoman with trepidation, because I did not know her. And I felt her back with my hand, and she laughed; for she knew the reason of the touch, to assure myself that she was no wood spirit. I felt a fool at that time, and cursed myself for placing faith in a heathen superstition. Yet I have discovered that if all those around you believe some particular thing, you will soon be tempted to share in that belief, and so it was with me.

The women of the North people are pale as the men, and equally as tall in stature; the greater number of them looked down upon my head. The women have blue eyes and wear their hair very long, but the hair is fine and easily snarled. Therefore they bundle it up about their necks and upon their heads; to aid in this, they have fashioned for themselves all manner of clasps and pins of ornamented silver or wood. This constitutes their principal adornment. Also the wife of a rich man wears neck chains of gold and silver, as I have earlier said; so, too, do the women favor bracelets of silver, formed in the shape of dragons and snakes, and these they wear upon the arm between the elbow and shoulder. The designs of the North people are intricate and interlaced, as if to portray the weaving of tree branches or serpents; these designs are most beautiful.

The North people account themselves keen judges of beauty in women. But in truth, all their women seemed to my eyes to be emaciated, their bodies all angles and lumpy with bones; their faces, too, are bony and the cheeks set high. These qualities the Northmen value and praise, although such a woman would not attract a glance in the City of Peace but would be accounted no better than a half-starved dog with protruding ribs. The Northwomen have ribs that protrude in just such a fashion.

I do not know why the women are so thin, for they eat lustily, and as much as the men, yet gain no flesh upon their bodies.

Also the women show no deference, or any demure behavior; they are never veiled, and they relieve themselves in public places, as suits their urge. Similarly they will make bold advances to any man who catches their fancy, as if they were men themselves; and the warriors never chide them for this. Such is the case even if the woman be a slave, for as I have said, the Northmen are most kind and forbearing to their slaves, especially the women slaves.

With the progression of the day, I saw clearly that the defenses of Buliwyf would not be completed by nightfall, neither the pole fence nor the shallow ditch. Buliwyf saw it also, and called to King Rothgar, who summoned the old crone. This old crone, who was withered and had the beard of a man, killed a sheep and spread the entrails  on the ground. Then she made a variety of chanting song, which lasted a lengthy time, and much supplication to the sky.

I still did not ask Herger of this, because of his mood. Instead I watched the other warriors of Buliwyf, who looked to the sea. The ocean was gray and rough, the sky leaden, but a strong breeze blew toward the land. This satisfied the warriors, and I guessed the reason: that an ocean breeze toward the land would prevent the mist from descending from the hills. This was true.

Upon nightfall, work was halted on the defenses, and to my perplexity Rothgar held another banquet of splendid proportions; and this evening while I watched, Buliwyf, and Herger, and all the other warriors drank much mead and reveled as if they lacked any worldly cares, and had their way with the slavewomen, and then all sank into a stuporous droning sleep.

Now this also I learned: that each of the warriors of Buliwyf had chosen from among the slavewomen one whom in particular they favored, although not to the exclusion of others. In intoxication, Herger said to me of the woman he had favored, "She shall die with me, if need be." From this I took as the meaning that each of the warriors of Buliwyf had selected some woman who would die for him upon the funeral pyre, and this woman they treated with more courtesy and attention than the others; for they were visitors to this country, and had no slavewomen of their own who could be ordered by kin to do their bidding.

Now, in the early period of my time among the Venden, the Northwomen would not approach me, on account of my darkness of skin and hair, but there was much whispering and glancing in my direction, and giggles one to another. I saw that these unveiled women would nonetheless make a veil with their hands from time to time, and especially when they were laughing. Then I had asked of Herger: "Why do they do this thing?" for I wished not to behave in a manner contrary to the North custom.

Herger made this reply: "The women believe that the Arabs are as stallions, for so they have heard as a rumor." Nor was this any amazement to me, for this reason: in all the lands I have traveled, and so also within the round walls of the City of Peace, verily in every location where men gather and make for themselves a society, I have learned these things to be truths. First, that the peoples of a particular land believe their customs to be fitting and proper and better than any other. Second, that any stranger, a man or also a woman, is accounted inferior in all ways save in the matter of generation. Thus the Turks believe the Persians gifted lovers; the Persians stand in awe of the black-skinned peoples; and they in turn of some others, severally; and so it continues, sometimes by reason given of proportion of genitalia, sometimes by reason given of endurance in the act, sometimes by reason given of especial skill or posturing.

I cannot say whether the Northwomen truly believe as Herger spoke, but verily I discovered that they were much amazed at me by virtue of my surgery,  which practice is unknown among them, as they are dirty heathens. Of the manner of thrusting, these women are noisy and energetic, and of such odor that I was obliged to stop my breath for the duration; also they are given to bucking and twisting, scratching and biting, so that a man may be thrown from his mount, as the Northmen speak of it. For myself I accounted the whole business more pain than pleasure.

The Northmen say of the act, "I did battle with such a woman or another," and proudly show their blue marks and abrasions to their comrades, as if these were true wounds of warfare. However, the men never did injury to any woman that I could see.

Now this night, while all the warriors of Buliwyf slept, I was too afraid to drink or laugh; I feared the return of the wendol. Yet they did not return, and I also eventually slept, but fitfully.

Now in the following day there was no wind, and all the people of the kingdom of Rothgar worked with dedication and fear; there was talk everywhere of the Korgon, and the certainty that it would attack upon the night. The clawmark wounds on my face now pained me, for they pinched as they healed, and ached whenever I moved my mouth to eat or speak. Also it is true that my warrior's fever had left me. I was afraid once more, and I worked in silence alongside the women and old men.

Toward the middle time of the day, I was visited by the old and toothless noble whom I had spoken to in the banquet hall. This old noble sought me out, and said thus in Latin, "I will have words with you." He led me to step a few paces apart from the workers at the defenses. Now he made a great show of examining my wounds, which in truth were not serious, and while he examined these cuts he said to me, "I have a warning for your company. There is unrest in the heart of Rothgar." This he spoke in Latin.

"What is the cause?" I said.

"It is the herald, and also the son Wiglif, who stands at the ear of the King," the old nobleman said. "And also the friend of Wiglif. Wiglif speaks to Rothgar that Buliwyf and his company plan to kill the King and rule the kingdom."

"That is not the truth," I said, although I did not know this. In honest fact, I had thought upon this matter from time to time; Buliwyf was young and vital, and Rothgar old and weak, and while it is true that the ways of the Northmen are strange, it is also true that all men are the same.

"The herald and Wiglif are envious of Buliwyf," the old noble spoke to me. "They poison the air in the ear of the King. All this I tell to you so that you may tell the others to be wary, for this is a matter fit for a basilisk." And then he pronounced my wounds to be minor, and turned away.

Then the noble came back once more. He said, "The friend of Wiglif is Ragnar," and he went away a second time, not looking back upon me further.

In great consternation, I dug and worked at the defenses until I found myself near to Herger. The mood of Herger was still as grim as it had been upon the day previous. He greeted me with these words: "I do not want to hear the questions of a fool."

I said to him that I had no questions, and I reported to him what the old noble had spoken to me; also I told him it was a matter fit for a basilisk.  At my speech, Herger frowned and swore oaths and stamped his foot, and bid me accompany him to Buliwyf.

Buliwyf directed work on the ditch at the other side of the encampment; Herger drew him aside, and spoke rapidly in the Norse tongue, with gestures to my person. Buliwyf frowned, and swore oaths and stamped his foot much as Herger, and then asked a question. Herger said to me, "Buliwyf asks who is the friend of Wiglif? Did the old man tell you who is the friend of Wiglif?"

I responded that he had, and the friend was of the name Ragnar. At this report, Herger and Buliwyf spoke further among themselves, and disputed briefly, and then Buliwyf turned away and left me with Herger. "It is decided," Herger said.

"What is decided?" I inquired.

"Keep your teeth together," Herger said, which is a North expression meaning do not talk.

Thus I returned to my labors, understanding no more than I had at the beginning of the matter. Once again I thought these Northmen to be the most peculiar and contrary men on the face of the earth, for in no matter do they behave as one would expect sensible beings to behave. Yet I worked upon their silly fence, and their shallow ditch; and I watched, and waited.

At the time of the afternoon prayer, I observed that Herger had taken up a work position near to a strapping, giant youth. Herger and this youth toiled side by side in the ditch for some time, and it appeared to my way of seeing that Herger took some pains to fling dirt into the face of the youth, who was in truth a head taller than Herger, and younger, too.

The youth protested, and Herger apologized; but soon was flinging dirt again. Again, Herger apologized; now the youth was angry and his face was red. No more than a short time passed before Herger was again flinging dirt, and the youth sputtered and spat it and was angry in the extreme. He shouted at Herger, who later told me the words of their conversation, although the meaning was evident enough at the time.

The youth spoke: "You dig as a dog."

Herger spoke in answer: "Do you call me a dog?"

To this, the youth said: "No, I said that you dig as a dog, flinging  earth carelessly, as an animal."

Herger spoke: "Do you then call me an animal?"

The youth replied: "You mistake my words."

Now Herger said, "Indeed, for your words are twisted and timid as a feeble old woman."

"This old woman shall see you taste death," the youth said, and drew forth his sword. Then Herger drew his, for the youth was the same Ragnar, the friend of Wiglif, and thus I saw manifested the intention of Buliwyf in the matter.

These Northmen are most sensitive and touchy about their honor. Among their company, duels occur as frequently as micturition, and a battle to the death is counted ordinary. It may occur on the spot of the insult, or if it is to be formally conducted, the combatants meet at the joining place of three roads. It was thus that Ragnar challenged Herger to fight him.

Now this is the Northman custom: at the appointed time, the friends and kin of the duelers assemble at the place of battle and stretch a hide upon the ground. This they fix with four laurel poles. The battle must be fought upon the hide, each man keeping a foot, or both, on the skin all the while; in this fashion they remain close one to another. The two combatants each arrive with one sword and three shields. If a man's three shields all break, he must fight on without protection, and the battle is to the death.

Such were the rules, chanted by the old crone, the angel of death, at the position of the stretched hide, with all the people of Buliwyf and the people of the kingdom of Rothgar gathered around. I was myself there, not so close to the front, and I marveled that these people should forget the threat of the Korgon which had so terrified them earlier; no one cared anything for aught but the duel.

This was the manner of the duel between Ragnar and Herger. Herger struck the first blow, since he had been challenged, and his sword rang mightily on the shield of Ragnar. I myself had fear for Herger, since this youth was so much larger and stronger than he, and indeed Ragnar's first blow smote Herger's shield from its handgrip, and Herger called for his second shield.

Then the battle was joined, and fiercely. I looked once to Buliwyf, whose face was without expression; and to Wiglif and the herald, on the opposite side, who often looked to Buliwyf while the battle raged.

Herger's second shield was likewise broken, and he called for his third and final shield. Herger was much fatigued, and his face damp and red with exertion; the youth Ragnar appeared easy as he battled, with little exertion.

Then the third shield was broken, and Herger's plight was most desperate, or so it seemed for a fleeting moment. Herger stood with both feet solid on the ground, bent and gasping for his air, and most direly fatigued. Ragnar chose this time to fall upon him. Then Herger side-stepped like the flick of a bird's wings, and the youth Ragnar plunged his sword through empty air. Then, Herger threw his own sword from one hand to the other, for these Northmen can fight as well with either hand, and equally strong. And quickly Herger turned and cut off Ragnar's head from behind with a single blow of his sword.

Verily I saw the blood spurt from the neck of Ragnar and the head flew across the air into the crowd, and I saw with my own eyes that the head struck the ground before the body also struck the ground. Now Herger stepped aside, and then I perceived that the battle had been a sham, for Herger no longer puffed and panted, but stood with no sign of fatigue and no heaving of his chest, and he held his sword lightly, and he looked as if he could kill a dozen such men. And he looked at Wiglif and said, "Honor your friend," meaning to see to the burial.

Herger said to me, as we departed the dueling place, that he had acted a sham so that Wiglif should know the men of Buliwyf were not merely strong and brave warriors, but cunning as well. "This will give him more fear," Herger said, "and he will not dare to speak against us."

I doubted his plan would have this effect, but it is true that the Northmen prize deceit more than the most deceitful Hazar, indeed more than the most lying Bahrain trader, for whom deceit is a form of art. Cleverness in battle and manly things is accounted a greater virtue than pure strength in warriorship.

Yet Herger was not happy, and I perceived that Buliwyf was not happy, either. As the evening approached, the beginnings of the mist formed in the high inland hills. I believed that they were thinking of the dead Ragnar, who was young and strong and brave, and who would be useful in the coming battle. Herger said as much to me: "A dead man is of no use to anyone."

THE ATTACK OF THE GLOWWORM DRAGON KORGON

NOW WITH THE FALL OF DARKNESS, THE MIST crept down from the hills, slinking as fingers around the trees, seeping over the green fields toward the hall of Hurot and the waiting warriors of Buliwyf. Here there was a respite in work; from a fresh spring, water was diverted to fill the shallow ditch, and then I understood the sense of the plan, for the water concealed the stakes and deeper holes, and thus the moat was treacherous to any invader.

Further still, the women of Rothgar carried goatskin sacks of water from the well, and doused the fence, and the dwelling, and all the surface of the hall of Hurot with water. So, also, the warriors of Buliwyf drenched themselves in their armor with water from the spring. The night was damp cold and, thinking this some heathen ritual, I begged excuses, but to no end: Herger doused me head to foot like the rest. I stood dripping and shivering: in truth I cried aloud at the shock of the cold water, and demanded to know the reason. "The glowworm dragon breathes fire," Herger said to me.

Then he offered me a cup of mead to ease the chill, and I drank this cup of mead without a pause, and was glad for it.

Now the night was fully black, and the warriors of Buliwyf awaited the coming of the dragon Korgon. All eyes were turned toward the hills, now lost in the mist of night. Buliwyf himself strode the length of the fortifications, carrying his great sword Runding, speaking low words of encouragement to his warriors. All waited quietly, save one, the lieutenant Ecthgow. This Ecthgow is a master of the hand axe; he had set up a sturdy post of wood some distance from him, and he practiced the throw of his hand axe to this wooden post, over and again. Indeed, many hand axes had been given him; I counted five or six clipped to his broad belt, and others in his hands, and scattered on the ground about him.

In like manner was Herger stringing and testing with his bow and arrow, and also Skeld, for these were the most skilled in marksmanship of the Northmen warriors. The Northmen arrows have iron points and are most excellently constructed, with shafts straight as a taut line. They have within each village or camp a man who is often crippled or lame, and he is known as the almsmann; he fashions the arrows, and also the bows, for the warriors of the region, and for these alms is paid with gold or shells or, as have myself seen, with food and meat.

The bows of the Northmen are near the length of their own bodies, and made of birch. The fashion of shooting is this: the arrow shaft is drawn back to the ear, not to the eye, and thence let fly; and the power is such that the shaft may pass cleanly through the body of a man, and not lodge therein; so also may the shaft penetrate a sheet of wood of the thickness of a man's fist. Verily I have seen such power with an arrow with my own eyes, and I myself tried to wield one of their bows, but discovered it ungainly; for it was too large and resistant to me.

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