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THE EVENTS OF THE NIGHT BEFORE THE ATTACK



 

NO MIST CAME THAT NIGHT; THE FOG DESCENDED from the hills but hung back among the trees, and did not creep out onto the plain. In the great hall of Rothgar, a mighty feast was held, and Buliwyf and all his warriors joined in great celebration. Two great horned sheep [38] were slaughtered and consumed; each man drank vast quantities of mead; Buliwyf himself ravished half a dozen slave girls, and perhaps more; but despite merrymaking neither he nor his warriors were truly cheerful. From one time to another, I saw them glance at the ropes of sealskin and the dwarf daggers, which had been set apart to one side.

Now I joined in the general revelry, for I felt as one of them, having spent much time in their company, or so it seemed. Indeed, that night I felt I had been born a Northman.

Herger, much intoxicated, told me freely of the mother of the wendol. He said this: “The mother of the wendol is very old and she lives in the caves of thunder. These thunder caves lie in the rock of cliffs, not far from here. The caves have two openings, one from the land and another from the sea. But the entrance from the land is guarded by the wendol, who protect their old mother; so it is that we cannot attack from the side of the land, for in this way we would all be killed. Therefore we shall attack from the sea.”

I inquired of him: “What is the nature of this mother of the wendol?”

Herger said that no Northman knew this thing, but that it was said among them that she was old, older than the old crone they call the angel of death; and also that she was frightful to look upon; and also that she wore snakes upon her head as a wreath; and also, too, that she was strong beyond all accounting. And he said at the last that the wendol called upon her to direct them in all their affairs of life. [39] Then Herger turned from me and slept.

Now this event occurred: in the depths of the night, as the celebrations were drawing to a close and the warriors were drifting into sleep, Buliwyf sought me out. He sat beside me and drank mead from a horned cup. He was not intoxicated, I saw, and he spoke slowly in the North tongue, so that I should understand his meaning.

He said first to me: “Did you comprehend the words of the dwarf tengol?”

I replied that I did, with the help of Herger, who now snored near to us.

Buliwyf said to me: “Then you know I shall die.” He spoke thus, with his eyes clear and his gaze firm. I did not know any reply, or response to make, but finally said to him in the North fashion, “Believe no prophecy until it bears fruit.” [40]

Buliwyf said: “You have seen much of our ways. Tell me what is true. Do you draw sounds?” I answered that I did. “Then look to your safety, and do not be overbrave. You dress and now you speak as a Northman, and not a foreign man. See that you live.”

I placed my hand upon his shoulder, as I had seen his fellow warriors do to him in greeting.

He smiled then. “I fear no thing,” he said, “and need no comfort. I tell you to look to your own safety, for your own account. Now it is wisest to sleep.”

So speaking, he turned away from me, and devoted his attention to a slave girl, whom he pleasured not a dozen paces from where I sat, and I turned away hearing the moans and laughter of this woman. And at length I fell into a sleep.

 

THE THUNDER CAVES

 

BEFORE THE FIRST PINK STREAKS OF DAWN LIGHTED the sky, Buliwyf and his warriors, myself among them, rode out from the kingdom of Rothgar and followed the cliff edge above the sea. On this day I did not feel fit, for my head ached; also was my stomach sour from the celebration of the previous night. Surely all the warriors of Buliwyf were in like condition, yet no man gave signal of these discomforts. We rode briskly, skirting the border of the cliffs which on all this coast are high and forbidding, and sheer; in a sheet of gray stone they drop to the foaming and turbulent sea below. In some places along this coastline there are rocky beaches, but often the land and the sea meet directly, and the waves crash like thunder upon the rocks; and this was the circumstance for the most part.

I saw Herger, who carried upon his horse the sealskin ropes of the dwarves, and I rode up to travel alongside him. I inquired what was our purpose on this day. In truth, I did not care greatly, so badly did my head ache and my stomach burn.

Herger said to me, “On this morning, we attack the mother of the wendol in the thunder caves. This we shall do by attacking from the sea, as I have told you yesterday.”

While I rode, I looked from my horse down at the sea, which smashed upon the rock cliffs. “Do we attack by boat?” I inquired of Herger.

“No,” Herger said, and slapped his hand upon the sealskin ropes.

Then I took his meaning to be that we should climb down the cliffs on the ropes, and thereby in some fashion make an entrance into the caves. I was much frightened at this prospect, for never have I liked to be exposed upon high places; even high buildings in the City of Peace have I avoided. I said as much.

Herger said to me, “Be thankful, for you are fortunate.”

I inquired the source of my fortune. Herger said in reply, “If you have the fear of high places, then this day you shall overcome it; and so you shall have faced a great challenge; and so you shall be adjudged a hero.”

I said to him, “I do not want to be a hero.”

At this he laughed and said that I expressed such an opinion only because I was an Arab. Then also he said that I had a stiff head, by which the Northmen mean the aftermath of drinking. This was true, as I have already told.

Also it is true that I was much aggrieved at the prospect of climbing down the cliff. Verily I felt in this manner: that I should rather do any action upon the face of the earth, whether to lie with a woman in menses, to drink from a gold cup, to eat the excrement of a pig, to put out my eyes, even to die itself-any or all of these things should I prefer to the climbing of that accursed cliff. Also I was in ill temper. To Herger I said, “You and Buliwyf and all your company may be heroes as suits your temper, but I have no part in this affair, and shall not number as one of you.”

At this speech, Herger laughed. Then he called to Buliwyf, and spoke a rapid speech; Buliwyf answered him back, over his shoulder. Then Herger spoke to me: “Buliwyf says that you will do as we do.”

In truth, now I sank into despairing, and said to Herger, “I cannot do this thing. If you force me to do it, I shall surely die.”

Herger said, “How shall you die?”

I said to him, “I shall lose my grip from the ropes.”

This answer made Herger laugh heartily yet again, and he repeated my words to all the Northmen, and they all laughed at what I had said. Then Buliwyf spoke a few words.

Herger said to me: “Buliwyf says that you shall lose your grip only if you release the ropes from your hands, and only a fool would do such a thing. Buliwyf says you are an Arab, but no fool.”

Now, here is a true aspect of the nature of men: that in his fashion Buliwyf said that I could climb the ropes; and that for his speech, I believed it as much as he, and was cheered in my heart to a slight degree. This Herger saw, and he spoke these words: “Each person bears a fear which is special to him. One man fears a close space and another man fears drowning; each laughs at the other and calls him stupid. Thus fear is only a preference, to be counted the same as the preference for one woman or another, or mutton for pig, or cabbage for onion. We say, fear is fear.”

I was not in a mood for his philosophies; this I expressed to him, for in truth I was growing closer to anger than to fear. Now Herger laughed at my face and spoke these words: “Praise Allah, for he put death at the end of life, and not at the beginning.”

Curtly, I said in reply that I saw no benefit in hastening the end. “Indeed, no man does,” Herger responded to me, and then he said, “Look to Buliwyf. See how he sits straight. See how he rides forward, though he knows he shall soon die.”

I answered, “I do not know he shall die.”



“Yes,” Herger said, “but Buliwyf knows.” Then Herger spoke nothing further to me, and we rode onward for a goodly period of time, until the sun was high and bright in the sky. Then at last Buliwyf gave the signal to halt, and all the horsemen dismounted, and prepared to enter the thunder caves.

Now, well I knew that these Northmen are brave to a fault, but as I looked at the precipice of the cliff below us, my heart twisted over inside my chest, and I thought I should be purging myself at any instant. Verily, the cliff was absolutely sheer, lacking the least grip for hand or feet, and it descended for the distance of perhaps four hundred paces. Verily, the crashing waves were so far beneath us that they appeared as miniature waves, tiny as the most delicate drawing of an artist. Yet I knew them to be large as any waves on earth, once one descended to that level far below.

To me, the climbing down of these cliffs was madness beyond the madness of a foaming dog. But the Northmen proceeded in normal fashion. Buliwyf directed the pounding of stout wooden stakes into the earth; around these the sealskin ropes were bound, and the trailing ends flung over the sides of the cliffs.

Verily, the ropes were not long enough for so distant a descent, and thus had to be hauled up again, and two ropes fastened together to make a single length to reach the waves at the bottom.

In due time, we had two such ropes that reached down the side of the cliff face. Then Buliwyf spoke to his gathering: “First I shall proceed, so that when I reach the bottom all shall know that the ropes are stout and the journey can be accomplished. I await you at the bottom, on the narrow ledge you see below.”

I looked to this narrow ledge. To call it narrow is to call a camel kind. It was, in truth, the barest strip of flat rock, continually washed and pounded by the surf.

“When all have reached the bottom,” Buliwyf said, “we can attack the mother of the wendol in the thunder caves.” Thus he spoke, in a voice as ordinary as that which he would command a slave in the preparation of some ordinary stew or any other household chore. And without further speech, he went over the side of the cliff.

Now, here is the manner of his descent, which I found remarkable, but the Northmen account it no particular thing. Herger told me they use this method for gathering of sea-bird eggs at certain times of the year, when the sea birds build their nests on the cliff face. It is done in this fashion: a sling is placed around the waist of the descending man, and all the fellows strain to lower him down the cliff. Meanwhile, this same man grips, for support, on to the second rope, which dangles on the cliff face. Further, the descending man carries a stout staff of oaken wood, fitted at one end with a leather thong, or strap, about his wrist; this staff he employs for a prod to push himself hither and yon as he moves down the rocky surface. [41]

As Buliwyf went down, becoming ever smaller to my eyes, I saw that he maneuvered with the sling, the rope, and the stick very agilely; but I was not deceived into thinking this some trivial matter, for I saw it to be difficult and requiring practice.

At length, he safely reached the bottom and stood on the narrow ledge with the surf crashing over him. In truth, he was so diminished we could hardly see him wave his hand, in signal that he was safe. Now the sling was hauled up; and also with it, the oaken staff. Herger turned tome, speaking: “You shall go next.”

I said that I was feeling poorly. Also I said I wished to see another man descend, in order better to study the manner of the descent.

Herger said, “it is more difficult with each descent, because there are fewer here above to lower a man down. The last man must descend without the sling at all, and that shall be Ecthgow, for his arms are iron. It is a mark of our favor which allows you to be the second man to descend. Go now.”

I saw in his eyes that there was no hope of delay, and so I was myself fitted into the sling, and I gripped the stout staff in my hands, which were slippery with sweat; and my whole body likewise was slippery with sweat; and I shivered in the wind as I went over the side of the cliff, and for the last time saw the five Northmen straining at the rope, and then they were lost from view. I made my descent.

I had in my mind to make many prayers to Allah, and also to record in the eye of my mind, in the memory of my soul, the many experiences that a man must undergo as he dangles from ropes down such a wind-torn rocky cliff. Once out of sight of my Northmen friends above, I forgot all my intentions, and whispered, “Allah be praised,” over and over, like a mindless person, or one so old his brain no longer functions, or a child, or a fool.

In truth, I remember little from all that transpired. Only this: that the wind blows a person back and forth across the rock at such speed the eye cannot focus on the surface, which is a gray blur; and that many times I struck the rock, jarring my bones, splitting my skin; and once I banged my head and saw brilliant white spots like stars before my eyes, and I thought I would be faint, but I was not. And in due time, which in truth seemed as the whole duration of my life, and more, I reached the bottom, and Buliwyf clapped me on the shoulder and said I had done well.

Now the sling was raised up; and the waves crashed over me and over Buliwyf at my side. Now I fought to hold my balance upon this slippery ledge, and this so occupied my attention I did not watch the others coming down the cliff. My only desire was this: to keep from being swept away into the sea. Verily I saw with my own eyes that the waves were taller than three men standing one atop another, and when each wave struck, I was for a moment senseless in a swirl of chilled water and spinning force. Many times was I knocked from my feet by these waves; I was drenched over my whole body, and shivering so badly that my teeth clattered like a galloping horse. I could not speak words for the clacking of my teeth.

Now all the warriors of Buliwyf made their descent; and all were safe, Ecthgow being the last to come down, by brute force of his arms, and when at last he stood, his legs quivered without control as a man shudders with a death throe; we waited some moments until he was himself again.

Then Buliwyf spoke: “We shall descend into the water and swim into the cave. I shall be first. Carry your dagger in your teeth, so your arms shall be free to battle the currents.”

These words of new madness came upon me at a time when I could endure nothing further. To my eyes, the plan of Buliwyf was folly beyond folly. I saw the waves crash in, bursting upon the jagged rocks; I saw the waves pull away again with the tug of a giant’s strength, only to recover their power and crash forward anew. Verily, I watched and I believed that no man could swim in that water, but rather he would be dashed to bony splinters in an instant.

But I made no protest, for I was past any comprehension. To my way of thinking, I was close enough to death that it did not matter if I came closer still. Thus I took my dagger, which I jammed into my belt, for my teeth rattled too severely to grip it in my mouth. Of the other Northmen, they gave no sign of coldness or fatigue, but rather greeted each wave as a fresh invigoration; also they smiled with the happy anticipation of the coming battle, and for this last I hated them.

Buliwyf watched the movement of the waves, choosing his time, and then he leapt into the surf. I hesitated, and someone-I have always believed it to be Herger-pushed me. I fell deep in the swirling sea of numbing coldness; verily I was spun head over feet and sideward also; I could see nothing but green water. Then I perceived Buliwyf kicking down in the depths of the sea; and I followed after him, and he swam into a kind of passage in the rocks. In all things, I did as he. This was the fashion:

Upon one moment, the surf would tug after him, trying to pluck him into the wide ocean, and me also. At these moments, Buliwyf gripped onto a rock with his hands to hold against the current; this also I did. Mightily I held to the rocks, with my lungs bursting. Then in an instant the surge ran opposite, and I was propelled with frightful speed forward, bouncing off rocks and obstructions. And then again, the surge changed, and tugged backward as it had done previously; and I was obliged to follow the example of Buliwyf and cling to rocks. Now it is true that my lungs burned as if afire, and I knew in my heart that I could not continue much longer in this icy sea. Then the surge ran forward, and I was flung headlong, knocked here and there, and then suddenly I was up and breathing air.

Verily, this transpired with such swiftness that I was so surprised I did not think to feel relief, which was a proper feeling; nor did I think to praise Allah for my good fortune in surviving. I gasped air, and all about me the warriors of Buliwyf set their heads above the surface and gasped likewise.

Now, here is what I saw: we were in a kind of pond or lake, inside a cave with a smooth rocky dome and a seaward entrance through which we had just traversed. Directly ahead was a flat rocky space. I saw three or four dark shapes squatted about a fire; these creatures chanted in high voices. Now also I understood why this was called the cave of thunder, for with each crash of the surf the sound in the cave reverberated with such power that the ears ached and the very air seemed to shake and press.

In this place, this cave, Buliwyf and his warriors made their attack, and I joined in with them, and with our short daggers we killed the four demons in the cave. I saw them clearly for the first time, in the flickering light of the fire, whose flames leapt madly with each pounding of the thundering surf. The aspect of these demons was thus: they appeared to be manlike in every respect, but not as any man upon the face of the earth. They were short creatures, and broad and squat, and hairy on all parts of their bodies save their palms, the soles of their feet, and their faces. Their faces were very large, with mouth and jaws large and prominent, and of an ugly aspect; also their heads were larger. than the heads of normal men. Their eyes were sunk deep in their heads; the brows were large, and not by virtue of hairy brows, but of bone; also their teeth were large and sharp, although it is true the teeth of many were ground down and flattened.

In other respects of their bodily features and as to the organs of sex and the several orifices, they were also as men. [42] One of the creatures was slow to die, and with its tongue formed some sounds, which had to my ear a quality of speech; but I cannot know if this was so, and I tell it again with no conviction of the matter.

Now Buliwyf surveyed these four dead creatures, with their thick matted fur; then we heard a ghostly, echoing chant, a sound rising and falling in time to the thunder pounding of the surf, and this sound came from the recesses of the cave. Buliwyf led us into the depths.

There we came upon three of the creatures, prostrate upon the ground, faces pressed to the earth and their hands raised in supplication to an old creature lurking in the shadows. These suppliants were chanting, and did not perceive our arrival. But the creature saw us, and screamed hideously at our approach. This creature I took to be the mother of the wendol, but if she was female, I saw no sign, for she was old to the point of being sexless.

Buliwyf alone fell upon the suppliants and killed them all, while the mother-creature moved back into the shadows and screamed horribly. I could not see her well, but this much is true: that she was surrounded by serpents, which coiled at her feet, and upon her hands, and around her neck. These serpents hissed and flicked their tongues; and as they were all about her, upon her body and also on the ground, none of the warriors of Buliwyf dared make an approach.

Then Buliwyf attacked her, and she gave a fearful scream as he plunged his dagger deep into her breast, for he was heedless of the snakes. Many times he struck the mother of the wendol with his dagger. Never did this woman collapse, but always did she stand, though the blood poured from her as if from a fountain, and from the several wounds Buliwyf inflicted upon her. And all the time she screamed a most frightful sound.

Then at the last she toppled, and lay dead, and Buliwyf turned to face his warriors. Now we saw that this woman, the mother of the eaters of the dead, had wounded him. A silver pin, such as a pin for hair, was buried in his stomach; this same pin trembled with each heartbeat. Buliwyf plucked it forth, and there was a gush of blood. Yet he did not sink to his knees mortally wounded, but rather he stood and gave the order to leave the cave.

This we did, by the second and landward entrance; this entrance had been guarded, but all the wendol guards had fled before the screams of their dying mother. We departed without harassment. Buliwyf led us from the caves, and back to our horses, and then did he collapse upon the ground.

Ecthgow, with a face of sadness most uncommon among the Northmen, directed the fashioning of a stretcher [43] and with this we carried Buliwyf back across the fields to the kingdom of Rothgar. And all the while Buliwyf was of good cheer, and merry; many of the things he spoke I did not comprehend, but one time I heard him say: “Rothgar will not be happy to see us, for he must set out yet another banquet, and by now he is a most depleted host.” The warriors laughed at this and other words of Buliwyf. I saw their laughter was honest.

Now we came to the kingdom of Rothgar, where we were greeted with cheers and happiness, and no sadness, although Buliwyf was direly injured, and his flesh turned gray, and his body shook, and his eyes were lit by the gleam of a sick and fevered soul. These signs did I know full well, and so, too, did the North people.

A bowl of onion broth was brought for him, and he refused it, saying, “I have the soup illness; do not trouble yourselves on my account.” Then he called for a celebration, and insisted that he preside over it, sitting propped up on a stone couch at the side of King Rothgar, and he drank mead and he was merry. I was near to him when he said to King Rothgar, in the midst of the festivities, “I have no slaves.”

“All of my slaves are your slaves,” Rothgar said.

Then Buliwyf said, “I have no horses.”

“All of my horses are yours,” Rothgar answered. “Think no more on these matters.”

And Buliwyf, his wounds bound, was happy, and he smiled, and the color returned to his cheeks that evening, and indeed he seemed to grow stronger with each passing minute of the night. And although I would not have thought it possible, he ravished a slave girl, and afterward he said to me, as a joke, “A dead man is no use to anyone.”

And then Buliwyf fell into a sleep, and his color became more pale and his breathing more shallow; I feared he should never awake from this sleep. He may also have thought this, for as he slept he held his sword gripped tight in his hand.

 







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