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Eaters of the Dead(9)
Author: Michael Crichton

Two oxen were then brought forward, cut into pieces, and flung into the ship. Finally they brought a cock and a hen, killed them, and threw them in also.

The girl who had devoted herself to death meanwhile walked to and fro, entering one after another of the tents that they had there. The occupant of each tent lay with her, saying, "Tell your master I did this only for love of him."

Now it was late in the afternoon. They led the girl to an object they had constructed, which looked like the frame of a door. She placed her feet on the extended hands of the men, who raised her above the framework. She uttered something in her language, whereupon they let her down. Then again they raised her, and she did as before. Once more they let her down, and then lifted her a third time. Then they handed her a hen, whose head she cut off and threw away.

I inquired of the interpreter what it was she had done. He replied: "The first time she said, 'Lo, I see here my father and mother'; the second time, 'Lo, now I see all my deceased relatives sitting'; the third time, 'Lo, there is my master, who is sitting in Paradise. Paradise is so beautiful, so green. With him are his men and boys. He calls me, so bring me to him.' "

Then they led her away to the ship. Here she took off her two bracelets and gave them to the old woman who was called the angel of death, and she was to murder her. She also drew off her two anklets, and passed them to the two serving maids, who were the daughters of the angel of death. Then they lifted her into the ship, but did not yet admit her to the tent.

Now men came up with shields and staves, and handed her a cup of strong drink. This she took, sang over it, and emptied it. The interpreter told me she said, "With this, I take leave of those who are dear to me." Then another cup was handed to her, which she also took, and began a lengthy song. The crone admonished her to drain the cup without lingering, and to enter the tent where her master lay.

By this time, it seemed to me the girl had become dazed.  She made as though she would enter the tent, when suddenly the hag seized her by the head and dragged her in. At this moment the men began to beat upon their shields with the staves, in order to drown the noise of her outcries, which might have terrified the other girls and deterred them from seeking death with their masters in the future.

Six men followed her into the tent, and each and every one of them had carnal companionship with her. Then they laid her down by her master's side, while two of the men seized her feet, and two the hands. The old woman known as the angel of death now knotted a rope around her neck, and handed the ends to two of the men to pull. Then, with a broad-bladed dagger, she smote her between the ribs, and drew the blade forth, while the two men strangled her with the rope till she died.

The kin of the dead Wyglif now drew near and, taking a piece of lighted wood, walked backward naked toward the ship and ignited the ship without ever looking at it. The funeral pyre was soon aflame, and the ship, the tent, the man and the girl, and everything else blew up in a blazing storm of fire.

At my side, one of the Northmen made some comment to the interpreter. I asked the interpreter what was said, and received this answer. "You Arabs," he said, "must be a stupid lot. You take your most beloved and revered man and cast him into the ground to be devoured by creeping things and worms. We, on the other hand, burn him in a twinkling, so that instantly, without a moment's delay, he enters into Paradise."

And in truth, before an hour had passed, ship, wood, and girl had, with the man, turned to ashes.


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.

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