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THE AFTERMATH OF THE NORTHMEN’S FUNERAL



 

THESE SCANDINAVIANS FIND NO CAUSE FOR GRIEF IN any man’s death. A poor man or a slave is a matter of indifference to them, and even a chieftain will provoke no sadness or tears. On the same evening of the funeral of the chief called Wyglif, there was a great feasting in the halls of the Northmen encampment.

Yet I perceived that all was not fitting among these barbarians. I sought counsel with my interpreter. He responded thusly: “It is the plan of Thorkel to see you die, and then to banish Buliwyf. Thorkel has gathered the support of some earls to himself, but there is dispute in every house and every quarter.”

Much distressed, I said, “I have no part in this affair. How shall I act?”

The interpreter said I should flee if I could, but if I were caught, this would be proof of my guilt and I would be treated as a thief. A thief is treated in this fashion: the Northmen lead him to a thick tree, fasten a strong rope about him, string him up, and let him hang until he rots to pieces by the action of the wind and the rain.

Remembering also that I had barely escaped death at the hands of ibn-al-Qatagan, I chose to act as I had before; that is, I remained among the Northmen until I should be given free passage to continue on my journey.

I inquired of the interpreter whether I should bear gifts to Buliwyf, and also to Thorkel, to favor my departure. He said that I could not bear gifts to both, and that the matter was undecided who would be the new chieftain. Then he said it would be clear in one day and night, and no longer.

For it is true among these Northmen that they have no established way of choosing a new chief when the old leader dies. Strength of arms counts high, but also allegiances of the warriors and the earls and noblemen. In some cases there is no clear successor to the rule, and this was one of such eventualities. My interpreter said that I should bide my time, and also pray. This I did.

Then there came a great storm on the banks of the river Volga, a storm that persisted two days, with driving rain and forceful winds, and after this storm a cold mist lay on the ground. It was thick and white, and a man could not see past a dozen paces.

Now, these same giant Northmen warriors, who by virtue of their enormity and strength of arms and cruel disposition, have nothing to fear in all the world, yet these men fear the mist or fog that comes with storms.

The men of their race are at some pains to conceal their fear, even one from another; the warriors laugh and joke overmuch, and make unreasonable display of carefree emotion. Thus do they prove the reverse; and in truth, their attempt to disguise is childish, so plainly do they pretend not to see the truth, yet verily, each and all of them, throughout their encampment, are making prayers and sacrifices of hens and cocks, and if a man is asked the reason of the sacrifice, he will say, “I make sacrifice for the safety of my faraway family”; or he will say, “I make sacrifice for the success of my trading”; or he will say, “I make sacrifice in honor of such or another deceased member of my family”; or he will say many another reason, and then he will add, “And also for the lifting of the mist.”

Now, I accounted it strange for such strong and warlike people to be so fearful of anything as to pretend a lack of fear; and of all the sensible reasons for fear, mist or fog seemed to my way of thinking very greatly inexplicable.

I said to my interpreter that a man could fear wind, or blasting storms of sand, or water floods, or heaving of the ground, or thunder and lightning within the sky, for all of these could injure a man, or kill him, or ruin his dwelling. Yet I said that fog, or mist, contained no threat of harm; in truth it was the least of any form of changing elements.

The interpreter answered to me that I was lacking the beliefs of a sailor. He said that many Arab sailors agreed with the Northmen, in the matter of uneasiness [7] within the wrapping of mist; so, also, he said all seafarers are made anxious of any mist or fog, because such a condition increases the peril of travel upon the waters.

I said this was sensible, but that when the mist lay upon the land and not the water, I did not understand the reason for any fear. To this the interpreter replied, “The fog is always feared, whenever it comes.” And he said that it made no difference, on land or water, according to the Northman view.

And then he said to me the Northmen did not, truly, much fear the mist. Also the interpreter said that he, as a man, did not fear the mist. He said that it was only a minor matter, of slight consequence. He said, “It is as a minor ache inside a limb joint, which may come with fog, but no more important.”

By this I saw that my interpreter, among the others, denied all manner of concern for the fog, and feigned indifference.

Now it happened that the mist did not lift, although it abated and became thin in the after-part of the day; the sun appeared as a circle in the sky, but also it was so weak that I could look directly to its light.

In this same day there arrived a Northman boat, containing a noble of their own race. He was a young man with a thin beard, and he traveled with only a small party of pages and slaves, and no women among them. Thus I believed he was no trader, for in this area the Northmen principally sell women.

This same visitor beached his boat, and remained standing with it until nightfall, and no man came near to him, or greeted him, although he was a stranger and in plain sight to all. My interpreter said: “He is a kin of Buliwyf, and will be received at the night banquet.”

I said, “Why does he stay at his ship?”

“Because of the mist,” answered the interpreter. “It is the custom he must stand in view for many hours, so all can see him and know he is no enemy coming from the mist.” This the interpreter said to me with much hesitation.

At the night banquet, I saw the young man come into the hall. Here was he warmly greeted and with much display of surprise; and in this most especially by Buliwyf, who acted as if the young man had just arrived, and had not been standing by his ship many hours. After the several greetings, the youth spoke a passionate speech, which Buliwyf attended with unusual interest: he did not drink and dally with the slave girls, but instead in silence heard the youth, who spoke in a high and cracking voice. At the finish of the tale, the youth seemed about to have tears, and was given a cup of drink.

I inquired of my interpreter what was said. Here was the reply: “He is Wulfgar, and he is the son of Rothgar, a great king in the North. He is kin of Buliwyf and seeks his aid and support on a hero’s mission. Wulfgar says the far country suffers a dread and nameless terror, which all the peoples are powerless to oppose, and he asks Buliwyf to make haste to return to the far country and save his people and the kingdom of his father, Rothgar.”

I inquired of the interpreter the nature of this terror. He said to me, “It has no name which I can tell.” [8] The interpreter seemed much disturbed by Wulfgar’s words, and so also were many of the other Northmen. I saw on the countenance of Buliwyf a dark and gloomy expression. I inquired of the interpreter details of the menace.

The interpreter said to me: “The name cannot be said, for it is forbidden to speak it, lest the utterance of the name call forth the demons.” And as he spoke I saw that he was fearful just to think upon these matters, and his pallor was marked, and so I ended my inquiry.

Buliwyf, sitting at the high stone throne, was silent. Verily the assembled earls and vassals and all the slaves and servants were silent, also. No man in the hall spoke. The messenger Wulfgar stood before the company with his head bowed. Never had I seen the merry and rambunctious North people so subdued.

Then into the hall entered the old crone called the angel of death, and she sat beside Buliwyf. From a hide bag she withdrew some bones-whether human or animal I do not know-and these bones she cast upon the ground, speaking low utterances, and she passed her hand over them.



The bones were gathered up, and cast again, and the process repeated with more incantations. Now again was the casting done, and finally she spoke to Buliwyf.

I asked the interpreter the meaning of her speech, but he did not attend me.

Then Buliwyf stood and raised his cup of strong drink, and called to the assembled earls and warriors, making a speech of some good length. One by one, several warriors stood at their places to face him. Not all stood; I counted eleven, and Buliwyf pronounced himself satisfied with this.

Now also I saw that Thorkel appeared much pleased by the proceedings and assumed a more kingly bearing, while Buliwyf paid him no heed, or showed any hatred of him, or even any interest, although they were formerly enemies a few minutes past.

Then the angel of death, this same crone, pointed to me and made some utterance, and then she departed the hall. Now at last my interpreter spoke, and he said: “Buliwyf is called by the gods to leave this place and swiftly, putting behind him all his cares and concerns, to act as a hero to repel the menace of the North. This is fitting, and he must also take eleven warriors with him. And so, also, must he take you.”

I said that I was on a mission to the Bulgars, and must follow the instructions of my Caliph, with no delay.

“The angel of death has spoken,” my interpreter said. “The party of Buliwyf must be thirteen, and of these one must be no Northman, and so you shall be the thirteenth.”

I protested I was not a warrior. Verily I made all the excuses and pleadings that I could imagine might have effect upon this rude company of beings. I demanded that the interpreter convey my words to Buliwyf, and yet he turned away and left the hall, saying this last speech: “Prepare yourself as you think best. You shall leave on the morning light.”

 







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