Rating: Still G, I know I know I'm working on it! :D
Notes: I've used quite a bit of creative license in this chapter, namely completely eliminating Hatalf the Boy to make room for my char. He was too young to fight anyway!!
Enjoy, and I enjoyed writing it! More to come!
The next morning, after standing before his ship for the better part of an hour, a young boy entered the tent. He introduced himself to Buliwyf as Wulfgar, the younger son of Hrothgar, who ruled a city far to the North. He told us that his city was plagued by an evil that has no name…I shudder to think of it. This must have been what Skeld fought in the High Mountains. Fighting back tears, the boy pleaded for help against this terror. There was a deep silence, and finally Buliwyf called for the Angel of Death. At the name, I thought I saw the color drain from the Arabs’ faces. She was an oracle; deaf, blind, and bent with years beyond count. She overturned a turtle shell that she held in her gnarled hands. Bones, carved with runes and symbols, fell to the floor. She flung herself upon them like a wild dog descends upon meat. Her voice was strangled as she called out, her words echoed in the silence. Thirteen warriors, she said, must go. She held up a bone in her claw-like hand.
“Who will be the first man?”
Buliwyf volunteered. Then the second, then the third, then the fourth. When time came for the fifth, I saw a young boy prepare to stand. He could not have been more than twelve, and if this unnamed enemy was the one I feared, he would never survive. Before the boy could rise, I stood up.
“I will be the fifth man,” I said, noticing the defeated face of the boy, and the relief of his mother, as he returned to his chair.
The men were hesitant to cheer as loudly as they had for the others, but the Angel of Death smiled and handed me the bone, which I took and held tightly. Buliwyf’s eyes were on me, but I could not read his gaze. I smiled and cheered with the others as Herger took the bone of the Eleventh man, spilling his horn of mead as he did so. Skeld, after some hesitation, took up the call for the twelfth man. The last man, the Angel said, could be no Northman. Automatically, and with no say at all, the dark-robed Arab was picked as the 13th warrior.
I had returned to the ship, making preparations just as the other men did. I now wore armor, and a thick fur cloak whose hood covered my face; my axes were crossed over my shoulders. I walked toward the tent, growing nervous. I did not have a horse, as the other men did. Skeld led his mount before him, leading a second behind.
“This one,” He told me, tugging on the reins of a great grey gelding with white speckles on his rump. “Is for you. He carried one of our company through the High Mountains, and he is a good horse, even though his rider fell.”
“Does he have a name?” I asked, taking the reins and stroking his mane—which, like his tail, was black as night.
Skeld just shrugged as he mounted his own horse. I scratched the gelding’s ear and whispered.
“I will call you Aska, I think.”
The gelding blew air from his nostrils; I took the snort as a sign of approval. I mounted quickly, looking down at my father as he approached.
“How will you get married fighting in Hrothgar’s city?” He asked me, a smile on his face.
“Do not worry, Voltarr,” Herger said. “I will keep her company.”
“That is what I am afraid of,” Father replied.
The men laughed. Buliwyf was the last to come out of the tent. He stopped when he reached my father, putting a hand on his shoulder and whispering in his ear. My father gave a stern nod, and then Buliwyf mounted his horse. Herger spoke to the Arab, who had just been fuming over his horse being compared to a dog. It was a small mount, to be sure, but I saw the control the Arab had over her—he would not falter so easily, I did not think. Buliwyf asked Herger what the Arab’s name was.
“I am Ahmed ibn Fahdlan ibn al-Abbas ibn Rasid ibn Hammad,” The Arab said.
The only thing I caught was “Eben”, which Herger repeated to Buliwyf. No matter what we called him, I was certain of one thing: this was going to be a very long journey.
Many of the men were gathered around the campfire that night. Edgtho, our scout who spoke very little, threw down an armful of kindling he had been carrying before seating himself next to Helfdane. The large man was friendly to me, reminding me in many ways of a kinder version of my father. Rather than socialize, I remained outside the circle, busying myself with my whittling instead. The Arab, I noticed, was watching the men intently. He had his eyes on their mouths, like he was trying to read their lips as they spoke our language. I couldn’t help but be impressed at his determination.
“Walk with me?” Buliwyf’s voice in my ear, more of a statement than a question.
I followed him. We made a wide, slow circle around the camp.
“What do you think of this quest?” He asked me, his words low and measured.
I did not reply. He looked over to me, and must have seen the worry in my face.
“Do not be afraid to speak to me, girl,” He said.
I nodded. “I did not think that the Wendol remained in this land.”
I said the name of the creatures in a whisper, but Buliwyf did not flinch.
“Why did you come, then?”
I sighed. “To avoid getting married, partly.”
Buliwyf laughed, a sound that mirrored his voice of low thunder.
“You are a woman,” He said to me. “If your father wishes it of you, there is no argument. You know this.”
I frowned. “I remember you, from long ago. I was a child, then. Herger and I watched you fight a man for the right to court is sister.”
He thought for a moment, and I saw visible recognition cross his face.
“You looked at me,” He said.
“Yes. Did you win?”
Buliwyf shook his head. “No. I was too clumsy; her brother was the only victor.”
I smiled. He was not clumsy, now. On the contrary, he moved with a grace I had not expected to find in a warrior. He had grown comfortable in his own skin, and become the most beautiful man I had ever seen.
“You are close to Skeld?” He asked me after a silence.
“He is my cousin,” I said. “I care for him very much. We thought him dead, after so long in the High Mountains. It was a great relief to see him alive.”
“He is very…superstitious.” I could tell Buliwyf had been searching for the right word.
I laughed, and that seemed to ease some of the tension in his shoulders. “Aye, he is that. His beliefs are his own.”
“You have no siblings, then? I only saw you with your father.”
He chuckled. “I cannot imagine a man dueling with Skeld for your affections.”
“They did not last long,” I agreed with a smile. “He is a good fighter.”
Buliwyf was about to reply, when a loud voice interrupted.
“Valka!” Helfdane called out from the campfire, about fifteen feet away. “Valka, come and tell us of your voyage to Warm Country!”
Buliwyf did not stop me as I turned to go. Helfdane clapped me on the shoulder as I took a seat between him and Edgtho.
“It was not an easy voyage,” I said. “The storms were angry, as if Odin himself forbid us venture out.”
“Worst case of sea stomach I’ve ever had!” Herger said, to the roaring laughter of the others.
“What were the people like?” Skeld asked.
“Their language was strange, like that of this Arab. Their clothing was bright, bizarre colors like nothing we have here. The men were ugly, for the most part, but clean.”
The others laughed.
“The women!” One named Roneth cried. “Tell us about the women!”
“Not much too tell, really,” I said, bringing about more laughter. “I only saw the eyes of some.”
Skeld spoke again. “No matter,” He said. “It was probably just some smoke-colored camp girl! Like that one’s mother!”
He pointed to the Arab as he said this last line.
What came next startled us all. The Arab, silent for so many days and nights, spoke up.
“My mother…was…pure woman. From…a noble family, and I…at least…know who my father is, you pig-eating son-of-a-whore.”
Skeld rose to his feet and ran toward him, fury in his eyes. He was restrained by Helfdane and Edgtho, while Herger confronted the Arab.
“Where did you learn our language?” He asked him warily.
The Arab stood up, moving to within inches of Herger’s face.
Herger laughed after a moment, and continued laughing as he sat down again, adding another log to the fire. Skeld stormed off, and I knew he would not take kindly to this insult. I debated following him, and Helfdane seemed to see the struggle on my face.
“Best to let him go, Valka,” He said to me.
I nodded. Helfdane was probably right, and he knew Skeld less than I. I returned instead to my whittling, using Aska as a model. Later, I saw Buliwyf and the Arab speaking some distance away, then drawing symbols into the sand. I knew how to write our language, as well as read. I had my father to thank for this. Slowly, I walked to my horse. I brought my hand up to his face and stroked it in long, slow movements. He whinnied at me, sniffing my palm for any food.
“Nothing today, friend,” I said to him. “You’ll have to wait until we reach Hrothgar.”
I moved to the Arab’s horse, who was standing next to mine, a full head and shoulders smaller.
“What is so special about you?” I asked her, petting her white neck. “There must be something.”
“She jumps high,” The Arab said behind me. “Her gait is steady.”
I looked at him and nodded. “I do not think she is a dog.”
He smiled. “At least I have one friend here.”
I put a hand on his shoulder. “You will have more, I think. Give them time, and you will see.”
He did not seem convinced. I laughed at him and gave him a reassuring smile before leading Aska away toward a copse of trees. I took off my fur cloak and spread it on the ground. With a yawn, I lay down, my axes at my side. It was cold, and if I had planned ahead I would have brought a blanket. Aska needed his, and far be it from me to deprive him of it on such a night. Flakes began to fall—large, slow flakes that I knew would not stick into morning. I curled up and closed my eyes. The shouts of the others died down after a while, and I felt myself drifting off into sleep. Sudden warmth came over me, and without opening my eyes I felt thick fur against my cheek. It bore the aroma of wood smoke, a scent I knew as a girl and loved dearly because it reminded me of home. Footsteps walked away from me, and when I could no longer hear them, I chanced a look. Buliwyf’s cloak was drawn over my shoulders. I smiled and returned to resting, the darkness of the night falling around me like a curtain.
I woke before dawn, folding Buliwyf’s cloak and placing it beside his still-sleeping form. I walked down to a small creek that ran through our camp, washing my face and hands. The only one awake was Edgtho, which did not surprise me.
“Should we go?” I asked him.
“Soon,” He said. “The longest part of our journey lies ahead; we must take a ship to Hrothgar’s kingdom.”
I nodded. The Arab would not like that.
Along the way, he demonstrated the skills of his mount to the others as we passed an abandoned farmstead. He jumped over fences and hay bales, coming at last to Weath, the Musician of the group who had spent many years in the Celtic countries. The horse cleared his mount, but not before knocking Weath face-first into the mud. We all laughed, but I knew better. The Arab, with his skillful horsemanship, had gained a fair amount of respect. I’m sure that was his aim, and I knew it would please him. Herger seemed particularly fascinated with him, always stealing glances when he thought no one was looking. It was like he had never seen anything like this Arab before, but of course I knew he had. Even Skeld controlled his tongue after that.
Our first night on the ship proved to be a perilous one. I sat near the shivering Arab; rain pouring down on us as waves the size of several wagons swelled and pitched the vessel around like a toy. Helfdane, wrapped in a black cloak, walked over to us. He held out two steaming bowls of stew, which I took. I had tasted this before; I knew the smell of it. I handed one to the Arab, who hesitated.
“No pork!” I said to him, remembering his strange aversion to pig. “Venison! Deer!”
He nodded and began to eat, though it was very hot.
“This is delicious, Helfdane,” I said to the cook, who smiled through a rain-soaked beard.
“It won’t last more than a couple of days,” He told me. “We had better hope this rain clears!”
I nodded, and continued to eat.
“Shouldn’t we stay closer to land?” The Arab cried.
“No, boy!” Helfdane laughed. “This is no day to stay close to land!”
With that, he walked on, to where Herger lay, fast asleep. My father always said he could sleep through anything, on a fence-post if he had to be. Helfdane shook him roughly, trying to wake him up.
“Leave him,” I said. “May as well let someone get some rest.”
The cook rolled his eyes and continued on.
“You were born here, at sea?” The Arab asked me.
“On a much clearer day, yes!” I said. “It was very hot, my father tells me.”
“I would prefer that!” He said. “In my country, it is always warm!”
“I do not know how you stand it,” I replied. “I could not live with so much heat.”
His next sentence was drowned out by a crash of thunder, and we stopped speaking after that.
“Odin!” Buliwyf called through the mists, standing at the bow. “Odin!”
“What, what is that—” The Arab started to speak to Herger, who put a hand on his back.
Once the Arab ducked, Rethel (the archer of the group) fired a flaming arrow over his head.
“Odin!” Buliwyf called again. “Odin!”
Another fire-arrow followed the first, and this time, after a silence, there was a ‘thwack’ as it collided with something. We could see the flames after a moment, and Edgtho confirmed it when he called from the crow’s nest:
“Finally!” The Arab cried.
I couldn’t help but smile. Once the horses had been released from below deck, I mounted Aska in water up to my knees, trotting to shore and waiting for the others.
“Arab!” Buliwyf said once he reached land, leading his horse behind him. “Speak what I draw.”
He took a stick in his hand and drew strange symbols in the sand. The Arab’s language, perhaps?
“There is only one god,” Eben said. “And Muhammad is his…” He leaned over and added a tail to the last symbol. “Prophet.”
Buliwyf looked pleased. He nodded and mounted his horse, sending Edgtho ahead. The scout came back just moments later, his eyes alert.
“A rider,” he said.
Rethel hopped from his horse, bow in hand. He placed himself behind a pine and waited for Edgtho’s report as the rest of us readied our weapons. I drew my axes from their place across my back, ready for whatever came through those trees.
“Well-fed on a light mount,” He continued, pausing for a moment to sniff the air. “Perfume.”
“Ack,” Rethel said, irritated. “A woman!”
I shot him an angry glare, but nothing more. Ragnar, a young man with good sense of humor, pointed ahead of us.
“A herald!” He said, as if in answer to Rethel’s complaint.
Hyglak, a surly man with a quarrelsome disposition, scoffed as the newcomer rode up, carrying a white flag emblazoned with a red serpent.
“It’s a silk-swaddled messenger boy,” He said, distaste in his words.
“Tell me your names, quickly!” The herald said.
“I am son to Hygilliak, called Buliwyf! We all know of your great Lord.”
The herald seemed to recognize us, then. “My Lord Hrothgar will want to welcome you himself!”
Our path laid out for us, we followed him as he led us into the trees.