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Eaters of the Dead(11)
Author: Michael Crichton

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."

Chapter 3


IN THIS MANNER WAS I PREVENTED FROM CONTINUING my travels to the kingdom of the Yiltawar, King of the Saqaliba, and thus was I unable to discharge the trust of al-Muqtadir, Commander of the Faithful and Caliph of the City of Peace. I gave such instructions as I could to Dadir al-Hurami, and also to the ambassador, Abdallah ibn-Bastu al-Hazari, and also to the pages Takin and Bars. Then I took my leave of them, and how they fared further I never knew.

For myself, I counted my condition no different from a dead man. I was on board one of the Northman vessels, and sailing up the Volga River, northward, with twelve of their company. The others were named thus:

Buliwyf, the chief, his lieutenant or captain, Ecthgow; his earls and nobles, Higlak, Skeld, Weath, Roneth, Halga; his warriors and brave fighters, Helfdane, Edgtho, Rethel, Haltaf, and Herger.  And also I was among them, unable to speak their language or to understand their ways, for my interpreter had been left behind. It was only happenstance and the grace of Allah that one of their warriors, Herger, should be a man of parts and knowing some of the Latin tongue. Thus I could understand from Herger what meant the events that transpired. Herger was a young warrior, and very merry; he seemed to find jest in everything, and especially in my own gloom at the departure.

These Northmen are by their own accounting the best sailors in the world, and I saw much love of the oceans and waters in their demeanor. Of the ship there is this: it was as long as twenty-five paces, and as broad as eight and a little more than that, and of excellent construction, of oak wood. Its color was black at every place. It was fitted with a square sail of cloth and trimmed with sealskin ropes.  The helmsman stood upon a small platform near the stern and worked a rudder attached to the side of the vessel in the Roman fashion. The ship was fitted with benches for oars, but never were the oars employed; rather we progressed by sailing alone. At the head of the ship was the wooden carving of a fierce sea monster, such as appears on some Northman vessels; also there was a tail at the stern. In water this ship was stable and quite pleasant for traveling, and the confidence of the warriors elevated my spirits.

Near the helmsman was a bed of skins arranged upon a network of ropes, with a skin covering. This was the bed of Buliwyf, the other warriors slept upon the deck here and there, wrapping skins about them, and I did as much also.

We traveled upon the river for three days, passing many small settlements at the edge of the water. At none of these did we stop. Then we came upon a large encampment in a bend in the river Volga. Here were many hundreds of peoples, and a town of good size, and in the center of the town a kremlin, or fortress, with earthen walls and all of impressive dimensions. I asked Herger what was this place.

Herger said to me, "This is the city of Bulgar, of the kingdom of the Saqaliba. That is the kremlin of the Yiltawar, King of the Saqaliba."

I replied, "This is the very King I was sent to see as emissary from my Caliph," and with many entreaties I requested to be put upon the shore to do the mission of my Caliph; also I demanded, and made a show of anger, to the extent that I dared.

Verily the Northmen paid me no heed. Herger would not reply to my requests and demands, and finally he laughed into my face, and turned his attention to the sailing of the ship. Thus the Northmen's vessels sailed past the city of Bulgar, so close upon the shore that I heard the shouts of merchants and the bleating of sheep, and yet I was helpless and could do nothing, save witness the sight with my eyes. After the passing of an hour even this was refused me, for the Bulgar city is at the bend of the river, as I have said, and soon absent from my view. Thus did I enter and leave Bulgaria.

The reader may now be hopelessly confused about the geography. Modern Bulgaria is one of the Balkan states; it is bordered by Greece, Yugoslavia, Rumania, and Turkey. But from the ninth to the fifteenth centuries there was another Bulgaria, on the banks of the Volga, roughly 600 miles east of modern Moscow, and this is where Ibn Fadlan was heading. Bulgaria on the Volga was a loose-knit kingdom of some importance, and its capital city, Bulgar, was famous and rich when the Mongols occupied it in A.D. 1237. It is generally believed that Volga Bulgaria and Balkan Bulgaria were populated by related groups of immigrants moving out from the region around the Black Sea during the period A.D. 400-600, but little of substance is known. The old city of Bulgar is in the region of modern Kazan.

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