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Eaters of the Dead(12)
Author: Michael Crichton

Then passed eight more days upon the vessel, still traveling the Volga River, and the land was more mountainous about the valley of the river. Now we came to another branching of the river, where it is called by the Northmen the Oker River, and here we took the leftmost branch and continued on for ten days farther. The air was chill and the wind strong, and much snow lay still upon the ground. They have many great forests also in this region, which the Northmen call Vada.

Then we came to a camp of North people which was Massborg. This was hardly a town but a camp of a few wooden houses, built large in the North fashion; and this town lives by sale of foodstuff to traders who come back and forth along this route. At Massborg we left our vessel, and traveled overland by horse for eighteen days. This was a difficult mountain region, and exceedingly cold, and I was much exhausted by the rigors of the journey. These North people never travel at night. Nor do they often sail at night, but prefer every evening to beach their ship and await the light of dawn before continuing farther.

Yet this was the occurrence: during our travels, the period of the night became so short you could not cook a pot of meat in the time of it. Verily it seemed that as soon as I lay down to sleep I was awakened by the Northmen who said, "Come, it is day, we must continue the journey." Nor was the sleep refreshing in these cold places.

Also, Herger explained to me that in this North country the day is long in the summer, and the night is long in the winter, and rarely are they equal. Then he said to me I should watch in the night for the sky curtain; and upon one evening I did, and I saw in the sky shimmering pale lights, of green and yellow and sometimes blue, which hung as a curtain in the high air. I was much amazed by the sight of this sky curtain but the Northmen count it nothing strange.

Now we traveled for five days down from the mountains, into a region of forests. The forests of the Northlands are cold and dense with gigantic trees. It is a wet and chilling land, in some locations so green that the eyes ache from the brightness of the color; yet in other locations it is black and dark and menacing.

Now we traveled seven days farther, through the forests, and we experienced much rain. Often it is the nature of this rain that it falls with such thickness as to be oppressive; upon one time or another I thought I might drown, so much was the very air filled with water. At other periods, when the wind blew the rain, it was as a sandstorm, stinging the flesh and burning the eyes, and blinding the vision.

Coming from a desert region, Ibn Fadlan would naturally be impressed by the lush green colors, and the abundant rainfall.

These Northmen feared no robbers in the forests, and whether from their own great strength or the lack of any bandits, in truth we saw no one in the forests. The North country has few people of any sort, or so it appeared during my sojourn there. We often traveled seven days, or ten, without viewing any settlement or farm or dwelling.

The manner of our journey was this: in the morning we arose, and lacking any ablutions, mounted upon our horses and rode until the middle of the day. Then one or another of the warriors would hunt some game, a small animal or a bird. If it was raining, this food would be consumed without cooking. It rained many days, and in the first instance I chose not to eat the raw flesh, which also was not dabah [ritually slaughtered], but after a period I also ate, saying quietly "in the name of God" under my breath, and trusting to God that my predicament should be understood. If it was not raining, a fire was lit with a small ember that was carried with the party, and the food cooked. Also we ate berries and grasses, the names of which I do not know. Then we traveled for the after-part of each day, which was considerable, until the coming of night, when again we rested, and ate.

Many times at night it rained, and we sought shelter beneath large trees, yet we arose drenched, and our sleeping skins drenched likewise. The Northmen did not grumble at this, for they are cheerful at all times; I alone grumbled, and mightily. They paid me no attention.

Finally I said to Herger, "The rain is cold." To this he laughed. "How can the rain be cold?" he said. "You are cold and you are unhappy. The rain is not cold or unhappy."

I saw that he believed this foolishness, and truly thought me foolish to think otherwise, and yet I did.

Now it happened that one night, while we ate, I said over my food "in the name of God, and Buliwyf inquired of Herger what it was I said. I told to Herger that I believed food must be consecrated, and so I did this according to my beliefs. Buliwyf said to me, "This is the way of the Arabs?" Herger was the translator.

I made this reply: "No, for in truth he who kills the food must make the consecration. I speak the words so as to be not forgetful."

This the Northmen found a reason for humor. They laughed heartily. Then Buliwyf said to me, "Can you draw sounds?" I did not comprehend his meaning, and inquired of Herger, and there was some talking back and forth, and finally I understood he meant writing. The Northmen call the speech of Arabs noise or sound. I replied to Buliwyf that I could write, and also read.

He said that I should write for him upon the ground. In the light of the evening fire, I took a stick and wrote, "Praise be to God." All the Northmen looked at the writing. I was commanded to speak what it said, and this I did. Now Buliwyf stared at the writing for a long period, his head sunk upon his chest.

Herger said to me, "Which God do you praise?" I answered that I praised the one God whose name was Allah.

Herger said, "One God cannot be enough."

Now we traveled another day, and passed another night, and then another day. And on the next evening, Buliwyf took a stick and drew in the earth what I had formerly drawn, and commanded me to read.

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