Eaters of the Dead

Chapter 9

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These Northmen are skilled in all the manners of warfare and killing with the several weapons that they prize. They speak of the lines of warfare, which has no sense of arrangements of soldiers; for all to them is the combat of one man to another who is his enemy. The two lines of warfare differ as to the weapon. For the broadsword, which is always swung in an arc and never employed in stabbing, they say: "The sword seeks the breath line," which means to them the neck, and thereby the cutting off of the head from the body. For the spear, the arrow, the hand axe, the dagger, and the other tools of stabbing, they say: "These weapons seek the fat line."  By these words they intend to center part of the body from head to groin; a wound in this center line means to them certain death to their opponent. Also they believe it is foremost to strike the belly for its softness than to strike the chest or head portion.

Verily, Buliwyf and all his company kept watchful vigil that night, and I among them. I experienced much fatigue in this alertness, and soon enough was tired as if I had fought a battle, yet none had occurred. The Northmen were not fatigued, but ready at any moment. It is true that they are the most vigilant persons on the face of all the world, ever prepared for any battle or danger; and they find nothing tiresome in this posture, which for them is ordinary from birth. At all times are they prudent and watchful.

After a time I slept, and Herger woke me thus and brusquely: I felt a great thumping and a whistle of air near my head, and upon the opening of my eyes saw an arrow shivering in the wood at the breadth of a hair from my nose. This arrow Herger had shot, and he and all the others laughed mightily at my discomfiture. To me he said, "If you sleep, you will miss the battle." I said in response that that would be no hardship according to my own way of thinking.

Now Herger retrieved his arrow and, observing that I was offended with his prank, sat alongside me and spoke in a manner of friendliness. Herger this night was in a pronounced mood of joking and fun. He shared with me a cup of mead, and spoke thus: "Skeld is bewitched." At this he laughed.

Skeld was not far off, and Herger spoke loudly, so I recognized that Skeld was to overhear us; yet Herger spoke in Latin, unintelligible to Skeld; so perhaps there was some other reason I do not know. Skeld in this time sharpened the points of his arrows and awaited the battle. To Herger I said: "How is he bewitched?"

In reply Herger said: "If he is not bewitched, he may be turning Arab, for he washes his undergarments and also his body each day. Have you not observed this for yourself?"

I answered that I had not. Herger, laughing much, said, "Skeld does this for such and such a freeborn woman, who has captured his fancy. For her he washes each day, and acts a delicate timid fool. Have you not observed this?"

Again I answered that I had not. To this Herger spoke: "What do you see instead?" and laughed much at his own wit, which I did not share, or even pretend, for I was not of a mood to laugh. Now Herger says, "You Arabs are too dour. You grumble all the while. Nothing is laughable to your eyes."

Here I said that he spoke wrongly. He challenged me to speak a humorous story, and I told him of the sermon of the famous preacher. You know this well. A famous preacher stands in the pulpit of the mosque, and from all around men and women have gathered to hear his noble words. A man, Hamid, puts on a robe and veil and sits among the women. The famous preacher says: "According to Islam, it is desirable that one should not let his or her pubic hair grow too long." A person asks: "How long is too long, O preacher?" All know this story; it is a rude joke, indeed. The preacher replies: "It should not be longer than a barley." Now Hamid asks the woman next to him: "Sister, please check to tell me if my pubic hair is longer than a barley." The woman reaches under Hamid's robes to feel the pubic hair, whereupon her hand touches his organ. In her surprise she utters a cry. The preacher hears this and is much pleased. To the audience he says: "You should all learn the art of attending a sermon, as this lady does, for you can see how it touched her heart." And the woman, still shocked, makes this reply: "It didn't touch my heart, O preacher; it touched my hand." Herger listened to all my words with a flat countenance. Never did he laugh nor even smile. At my conclusion he said, "What is a preacher?"

To this I said he was a stupid Northman who knew nothing of the wideness of the world. And to this he laughed, whereas he did not laugh at the fable.

Now Skeld gave a shout, and all the warriors of Buliwyf, myself among them, turned to look at the hills, behind the blanket of mist. Here is what I saw: high in the air, a glowing fiery point of light, like a blazing star, and a distance off. All the warriors saw it, and there was murmuring and exclamation among them.

Soon appeared a second point of light, and yet another, and then another. I counted past a dozen and then ceased to count further. These glowing fire-points appeared in a line, which undulated like a snake, or verily like the undulating body of a dragon.

"Be ready now," Herger said to me, and also the Northmen's saying: "Luck in battle." This wish I repeated back to him in the same words, and he moved away.

The glowing fire-points were still distant, yet they came closer. Now I heard a sound which I took as thunder. This was a deep distant rumbling that swelled in the misty air, as all sounds do in mist. For verily it is true that in mist a man's whisper can be heard a hundred paces distant, clear as if he whispered in your own ear.

Now I watched, and listened, and all the warriors of Buliwyf gripped their weapons and watched and listened likewise, and the glowworm dragon of Korgon bore down upon us in thunder and flame. Each blazing point grew larger, and baleful red, flickering and licking; the body of the dragon was long and shimmering, a vision most fierce of aspect, and yet I was not afraid, for I determined now that these were horsemen with torches, and this proved true.

Soon, then, from out of the mist the horsemen emerged, black shapes with raised torches, black steeds hissing and charging, and the battle was joined. Immediately the night air filled with dreadful screams and cries of agony, for the first charge of horsemen had struck the trench, and many mounts tumbled and fell, spilling their riders, and the torches sputtered in the water. Other horses tried to leap the fence, to be impaled on the sharp stakes. A section of the fence caught fire. Warriors ran in all directions.

Now I saw one of the horsemen ride through the burning section of fence, and I could see this wendol clearly for the first time, and verily I saw this: on a black steed rode a human figure in black, but his head was the head of a bear. I was startled with a time of most horrible fright, and I feared I should die from fear alone, for never had I witnessed such a nightmare vision; yet at the same moment the hand axe of Ecthgow was buried deep into the back of the rider, who toppled and fell, and the bear's head rolled from his body, and I saw that he had beneath the head of a man.

Quick as a lightning bolt, Ecthgow leapt upon the fallen creature, stabbed deep into the chest, turned the corpse and withdrew his hand axe from the back, and ran to join the battle. I also joined the battle, for I was knocked spinning from my feet by the blow of a lance. Many riders were now within the fence, their torches blazing; some had the heads of bears and some did not; they circled and tried to set the buildings and the hall of Hurot afire. Against this, Buliwyf and his men battled valiantly.

I came to my feet just as one of the mist monsters bore down upon me with charging steed. Verily I did this: I stood firm my ground and held my lance upward, and the impact I thought would rend me. Yet the lance passed through the body of the rider, and he screamed most horribly, but he did not fall from his mount, and rode on. I fell gasping with pain in my stomach, but I was not truly injured save for the moment.

During the time of this battle, Herger and Skeld loosed their many arrows, and the air was filled with their whistles, and they reached many marks. I saw the arrow of Skeld pass through the neck of one rider, and lodge there; yet again I saw Skeld and Herger both pierce a rider in the chest, and so quickly did they unsheathe and draw again that this same rider soon bore four shafts buried in his body, and his screaming was most dreadful as he rode.

Yet I learned this deed was accounted poor fighting by Herger and Skeld, for the Northmen believe that there is nothing sacred in animals; so to them the proper use of arrows is the killing of horses, to dislodge the rider. They say of this: "A man off his horse is half a man, and twice killable." Thus they proceed with no hesitations.

Now I also saw this: a rider swept into the compound, bent low on his galloping black horse, and he caught up the body of the monster Ecthgow had slain, swung it over his horse's neck, and rode off, for as I have said, these mist monsters leave no dead to be found in the morning light.

The battle raged on a goodly period of time by the light of the blazing fire through the mist. I saw Herger in mortal combat with one of the demons; taking up a fresh lance, I drove it deep into the creature's back. Herger, dripping blood, raised an arm in thanks and plunged back into the combat. Here I felt great pride.

Now I tried to withdraw my lance, and whilst so doing, was knocked aside by some passing horseman, and from that time in truth I remember little. I saw that one of the dwellings of the nobles of Rothgar was burning in licking spitting flame, but that the doused hall of Hurot was still untouched, and I was glad as if I were myself a Northman, and such were my final thoughts.

Upon the dawn, I was roused by some manner of bathing upon the flesh of my face, and was pleased for the gentle touch. Soon then, I saw that I received the ministrations of a licking dog, and felt much the drunken fool, and was mortified, as may be imagined.

Now I saw that I lay in the ditch, where the water was red as blood itself, I arose and walked through the smoking compound, past all manner of death and destruction. I saw that the earth was soaked in blood, as from a rain, with many puddles. I saw the bodies of slain nobles, and dead women and children likewise. So, also, I saw three or four whose bodies were charred and crusted from fire. All these bodies lay everywhere upon the ground and I was obliged to cast my eyes downward lest I step upon them, so thickly were they spread.

Of the defense works, much of the pole fence had been burned away. Upon other sections, horses lay impaled and cold. Torches were scattered here and there. I saw none of the warriors of Buliwyf.

No cries or mourning came from the kingdom of Rothgar, for the North people do not lament any death, but on the contrary there was unusual stillness in the air. I heard the crowing of a cock, and the bark of a dog, but no human voices in the daylight.

Then I entered the great hall of Hurot, and here found two bodies laid upon the rushes, with their helmets upon their chests. There was Skeld, an earl of Buliwyf; there was Helfdane, earlier injured and now cold and pale. Both were dead. Also there was Rethel, youngest of the warriors, who sat upright in a corner and was attended by slavewomen. Rethel had been wounded previously but he had a fresh injury in his stomach, and there was much blood; surely it pained him greatly, and yet he showed only cheer, and he smiled and teased the slavewomen by the practice of pinching their breasts and buttocks, and often they chided him for causing their distraction as they attempted to bind his wounds.

Here is the manner of the treatment of wounds, according to their nature. If a warrior be wounded in the extremity, either the arm or the leg, a ligature is tied about the extremity, and cloths boiled in water placed over the wound to cover it. Also, I was told that spider webs or bits of lamb's wool may be placed into the wound to thicken the blood and stop its flow; this I never observed.

If a warrior be wounded in the head or the neck, his injury is bathed clean and examined by the slavewomen. If the skin is rent but the white bones whole, then they say of such a wound, "It is no matter." But if the bones are cracked, or broken open in some fashion, then they say, "His life issues out and soon escapes."

If a warrior be wounded in the chest, they feel his hands and feet, and if these are warm, they say of such a wound, "It is no matter." Yet if this warrior coughs or vomits blood, they say, "He speaks in blood," and count this most serious. A man may die of the blood-speaking illness, or he may not, as is his fate.

If a warrior is wounded in the abdomen, they feed him a soup of onions and herbs; then the women smell about his wounds, and if they smell onions, they say, "He has the soup illness," and they know he shall die.

I saw with my own eyes the women prepare a soup of onion for Rethel, who drank a quantity of this; and the slavewoman smelled at his wound, and they smelled the odor of onion. At this, Rethel laughed and made some manner of hearty joke, and called for mead, which was brought him, and he showed no trace of any care.

Now Buliwyf, the leader, and all his warriors conferred in another place in the great hall. I joined their company, but was accorded no greeting. Herger, whose life I had saved, made no notice of me, for the warriors were deep in solemn conversation. I had learned some of the Norse speech, but not sufficient to follow their low and quickly spoken words, and so I walked to another place and drank some mead, and felt the aches of my body. Then a slavewoman came to bathe my wounds. These were a cut in the calf and another on my chest. These injuries I had been insensible to until the time she made offer of her ministrations.

The Northmen bathe wounds with ocean seawater, believing this water to possess more curative powers than spring water. Such bathing with seawater is not agreeable to the wound. In truth I groaned and at this, Rethel laughed and spoke to a slavewoman: "He is still an Arab." Here I was ashamed.

Also the Northmen will bathe wounds in the heated urine of cows. This I refused, when it was offered me.

The North people think cow urine an admirable substance, and store it up in wooden containers. In the ordinary way of things, they boil it until it is dense and stinging to the nostrils, and then employ this vile liquid for washing, especially of coarse white garments.

Also I was told that, upon one time or another, the North people may be engaged in a long sea voyage and have at hand no supplies of fresh water, and therefore each man drinks his own urine, and in this way they can survive until they reach shore. This I was told but never saw, by the grace of Allah.

Now Herger came to me, for the conference of the warriors was at an end. The slavewoman attending me had made my wounds burn most distractingly; yet I was determined to maintain a Northman show of great cheer. I said to Herger, "What trifling matter shall we undertake next?"

Herger looked to my wounds, and said to me, "You can ride well enough." I inquired where I would be riding, and in truth at once lost all my good cheer, for I had great weariness, and no strength for aught but resting. Herger said: "Tonight, the glowworm dragon will attack again. But we are now too weak, and our numbers too few. Our defenses are burned and destroyed. The glowworm dragon will kill us all."

These words he spoke calmly. I saw this, and said to Herger: "Where, then, do we ride?" I had in mind that by reason of their heavy losses, Buliwyf and his company might be abandoning the kingdom of Rothgar. In this I was not opposed.

Herger said to me: "A wolf that lies in its lair never gets meat, or a sleeping man victory." This is a Northman proverb, and from it I took a different plan: that we were going to attack on horseback the mist monsters where they lay, in the mountains or the hills. With no great heart I inquired of Herger when this should be, and Herger told me in the middle part of the day.

Now I saw also that a child entered the hall, and carried in his hands some object of stone. This was examined by Herger, and it was another of the headless stone carvings of a pregnant woman, bloated and ugly. Herger shouted an oath, and dropped the stone from his trembling hands. He called upon the slavewoman, who took the stone and placed it in the fire, where the heat of the flames caused it to crack and splinter into fragments. These fragments were then thrown into the sea, or so I was informed by Herger.

I inquired what was the meaning of the carved stone, and he said to me, "That is the image of the mother of the eaters of the dead, she who presides over them, and directs them in the eating."

Now I saw that Buliwyf, who stood in the center of the great hall, was looking up at the arm of one of the fiends, which still hung from the rafters. Then he looked down at the two bodies of his slain companions, and at the waning Rethel, and his shoulders fell, and his chin sank to his chest. And then he walked past them and out of the door, and I saw him put on his armor, and take up his sword, and prepare for battle anew.

THE DESERT OF DREAD

BULIWYF CALLED FOR SEVEN STURDY HORSES, AND IN the early part of the day we rode from the great hall of Rothgar out into the flat plain, and thence toward the hills beyond. With us also were four hounds of pure white color, great animals which I should count nearer to wolves than dogs, so fierce was their demeanor. This made the totality of our attacking forces, and I believed it a weak gesture against so formidable an opponent, yet the Northmen place great faith upon surprise and a sly attack. Also, by their own reckoning they are each man the equal of three or four of any other.

I was not disposed to embark upon another venture of warfare, and was much amazed that the Northmen did not reflect such a view, springing as it did from the fatigue of my body. Herger said of this: "It is always thus, now and in Valhalla," which is their idea of heaven. In this heaven, which is to them a great hall, warriors battle from dawn to dusk; then those who are dead are revived, and all share a feast in the night, with endless food and drink; and then upon the day they battle again; and those who die are revived, and there is a feast; and this is the nature of their heaven through all eternity.  Thus they never count it strange to do battle day upon day while on the earth.

Our direction of travel was determined by the trail of blood the retreating horsemen had left from the night. The hounds led, racing along this red dripping trail. We paused but once upon the flat plain, to retrieve a weapon dropped by the departing demons. Here is the nature of the weapon: it was a hand axe with a haft of some wood, and a blade of chipped stone bound to the haft with hide thongs. The edge of this axe was exceedingly sharp, and the blade fashioned with skill, as much as if this stone were some gemstone to be chiseled to delight a rich lady's vanity. Such was the degree of workmanship, and the weapon was formidable for the sharpness of its edge. Never have I seen such an object before on the face of all the earth. Herger told me that the wendol made all their tools and weapons of this stone, or so the Northmen believe.

Yet we traveled onward with good speed, led by the barking dogs, and their barking cheered me. At length we came to the hills. We rode into the hills without hesitation or ceremony, each of the warriors of Buliwyf intent upon his purpose, a silent and grim-faced company of men. They held the marks of fear upon their faces, and yet no man paused or faltered, but pressed onward.

Now it was cold in the hills, in the forests of dark green trees, and a chill wind blew at our clothing, and we saw the hissing breath of the steeds, and white plumes of breath from the running dogs, and we pressed onward still. After some travel until the middle period of the day, we arrived at a new landscape. Here was a brackish tarn, no moor, or heath – a desolate land, most resembling a desert, yet not sandy and dry, but damp and soggy, and over this land lay the faintest wisps of mist. The Northmen call this place the desert of dread.

Now I saw with my own eyes that this mist lay upon the land in small pockets or clusterings, like tiny clouds seated upon the earth. In one area, the air is clear; then in another place there are small mists that hang near the ground, rising to the height of a horse's knees, and in such a place we would lose sight of the dogs, who were enveloped in these mists. Then, a moment later, the mist would clear, and we would be in another open space again. Such was the landscape of the heath.

I found this sight remarkable, but the Northmen took it to be nothing special; they said the land in this region has many brackish pools and bubbling hot springs, which rise from rents in the ground; in these places, a small fog collects, and remains there all the day and night. They call this the place of steaming lakes.

The land is difficult for horses, and we made slower progress. The dogs also ventured more slowly, and I noted that they barked less vigorously. Soon our company had changed wholly: from a gallop, with yelping dogs in the forefront, to a slow walk, with silent dogs hardly willing to lead the way, and instead falling back until they were underfoot the horses, thus causing some occasional difficulty. It was still very cold, indeed colder than before, and I saw here and there a small patch of snow upon the ground, though this was, by my best reckoning, the summer period.

At a slow pace, we proceeded for a goodly distance, and I had wonder that we should be lost, and never find our way back through this heath. Now at a place the dogs halted. There was no difference in the terrain, or any mark or object upon the ground; yet the dogs stopped as if they had arrived upon some fence or palpable obstruction. Our party halted at this place, and looked about in this direction and that. There was no wind, and no sounds were here; not the sound of birds or of any living animal, but only silence.

Buliwyf said, "Here begins the land of the wendol," and the warriors patted their steeds upon the necks to comfort them, for the horses were skittish and nervous in this region. So also were the riders. Buliwyf kept his lips tight; Ecthgow's hands trembled as he held the reins of his horse; Herger was gone quite pale, and his eyes darted to this way and that; so also the others in their way.

The Northmen say, "Fear has a white mouth," and now I saw that this is true, for they were all pale around the lips and mouth. No man spoke of his fear.

Now we left the dogs behind, and rode onward into more snow, which was thin and crunching underfoot, and into thicker mists. No man spoke, save to the horses. At each step these beasts were more difficult to prod onward; the warriors were obliged to urge them with soft words and sharp kicks. Soon we saw shadowy forms in the mist ahead of us, which we approached with caution. Now I saw with my own eyes this: on either side of the path, mounted high on stout poles, were the skulls of enormous beasts, their jaws opened in a posture of attack. We continued, and I saw these were the skulls of giant bears, which the wendol worship. Herger said to me that the bear skulls protect the borders of the land of the wendol.

Now we sighted another obstacle, gray and distant and large. Here was a giant rock, as high as a horse's saddle, and it was carved in the shape of a pregnant woman, with bulging belly and breasts, and no head or arms or legs. This rock was spattered with the blood of some sacrifices; verily it dripped with streaks of red, and was gruesome to look upon.

No man spoke of what was observed. We rode on apace. The warriors drew out their swords and held them in readiness. Now here is a quality to the Northmen: that previously they showed fear, but having entered into the land of the wendol, close to the source of the fear, their own apprehensions disappeared. Thus do they seem to do all things backward, and in perplexing manner, for verily they now appeared at ease. It was only the horses that were ever more difficult to prod onward.

I smelled, now, the rotting-carcass odor that I had smelled before in the great hall of Rothgar; and as it reached my nostrils anew, I was faint of heart. Herger rode alongside me and said in a soft voice, "How do you fare?"

Not being capable of concealing my emotions, I said to him, "I am afraid."

Herger replied to me: "That is because you think upon what is to come, and imagine fearsome things that would stop the blood of any man. Do not think ahead, and be cheerful by knowing that no man lives forever."

I saw the truth of his words. "In my society," I said, "we have a saying which is: 'Thank Allah, for in his wisdom he put death at the end of life, and not at the beginning.' "

Herger smiled at this, and laughed briefly. "In fear, even Arabs speak the truth," he said, and then rode forward to tell my words to Buliwyf, who also laughed. The warriors of Buliwyf were glad for a joke at that time.

Now we came to a hill and, reaching the crest, paused and looked down upon the encampment of the wendol. Here is how it lay before us, as I saw with my own eyes: there was a valley, and in the valley a circle of rude huts of mud and straw, of poor construction as a child might erect; and in the center of the circle a large fire, now smoldering. Yet there were no horses, no animals, no movement, no sign of life of any kind; and this we saw through the shifting gauze of the mist.

Buliwyf dismounted his steed, and the warriors did likewise, myself among them. In truth, my heart pounded and I was short of breath as I looked down at the savage encampment of the demons. We spoke in whispers. "Why is there no activity?" I inquired.

"The wendol are creatures of the night even as owls or bats, Herger replied, "and they sleep during the hours of the day. So are they sleeping now, and we shall descend into their company, and fall upon them, and slay them in their dreams."

"We are so few," I said, for there were many huts below which I perceived.

"We are enough," Herger said, and then he gave me a draught of mead, which I drank gratefully, with praise to Allah that it is not forbidden, or even disapproved of.  In truth, I was finding my tongue hospitable to this very substance I once thought vile; thus do strange things cease to be strange upon repetition. In like fashion, I no longer attended the hideous stench of the wendol, for I had been smelling it a goodly time and I no longer was aware of the odor.

The North people are most peculiar in the matter of smelling. They are not clean, as I have said; and they eat all manner of evil food and drink; and yet it is true that they value the nose above all parts of the body. In battle, the loss of an ear is no great matter; the loss of a finger or toe or a hand little more; and such scars and injuries they bear indifferently. But the loss of a nose they count equal to death itself, and this even to the loss of a piece of the fleshy tip, which other people would say is a most minor injury.

The breaking of the bones of the nose, through battle and blows, is no matter; many of them have crooked noses for that cause. I do not know the reason for this fear of cutting the nose.

Fortified, the warriors of Buliwyf and I among them left our steeds upon the hill, but these animals could not go unattended, so affrighted were they. One of our party was to remain with them, and I had hopes to be selected to this task; yet it was Haltaf, he being already injured and of least use. Thus we others warily descended the hill among the sickly scrub and dying bushes down the slope to the encampment of the wendol. We moved in stealth, and no alarm was raised, and soon we were in the very heart of the village of the demons.

Buliwyf never spoke, but gave all directions and orders with his hands. And from him I took the meaning that we were to go in groups of two warriors, each pair in a different direction. Herger and I were to attack the nearest of the mud huts, and the others were to attack others. All waited until the groups were stationed outside the huts, and then, with a howl, Buliwyf raised his great sword Runding and led the attack.

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