The winters in the North are fierce beyond all imagining. Verily I saw with my own eyes a tree shatter with a noise as loud as thunder from nothing more than the cold. Of course I was struck with awe, but even the Northmen seemed uncomfortable despite an otherwise cheerful willingness to live in such a savage climate. They muttered about Frost Giants and would say nothing more.
Ahmed Ibn Fahdlan gazed across the snowy ridge. With such a clear sky, the sun's rays turned the snow-covered landscape painfully bright, but it did little to alleviate the cold seeping to his bones. Yet it was the warmest day he'd experienced in what seemed an eternity, and something to appreciate in the depths of winter. Also an excuse to be alone, if only for a few hours.
He repeated the words again in his head, unhurriedly letting them settle so he could commit them to memory. He had no pens or parchment here, and Allah only knew the next time he would have a chance to write them down. At best, it would be spring (although such a thing as the end of winter seemed impossible to imagine in this place), when the land and sea would unfreeze and he would again be able to travel. A long time off, according to his companions, for even the middle of winter was still twelve days away.
Ahmed had no choice but carefully memorize and set aside these observations – this was part of his duty to the Caliph. He would meticulously remember them as he would the story of Buliwyf – his final duty to the dead Northman king. It had been a month since the last of the thirteen sent their leader to the halls of Valhalla and several months more since they defeated the wendol and with them King Rothgar's curse. Despite the passage of time, the sadness had yet to lift entirely from his heart.
In no mood to reminisce, his horse let out a snort, pawing at the ground in impatience, and Ahmed shook himself to clear the fog of memories from his mind. With an apology, he picked up the reins. His steed had been bred for speed, intelligence and endurance under the hot Arabian sun. No doubt she missed the more tolerable climes nearer to civilization as much as he did.
Clucking, he flicked the reins and directed her back toward Rothgar's palace. Tonight was the start of their winter festival that would continue until solstice. It was a celebration and offering to the Northmen's many gods before deep winter truly began. Ahmed shuddered at the thought of something even colder and more gloomy, suddenly more appreciative of even this meager bit of sun.
The snow made for slow going as he retraced his steps, yet when it vanished under a densely knit grove of evergreen trees, he immediately regretted the loss. Without the snow, he no longer had a trail to guide him back toward the encampment. He slowed again, eyes carefully scanning the ground in front of him seeking the trail he ought to follow.
He set off in what felt like a promising direction, but after several minutes of walking, he began to doubt himself. He turned around. He realized his mistake moments later when it became clear that he was now completely disoriented. Peering up through the needles and branches, Ahmed tried to assess the level and direction of the sun. The sun itself eluded him, but even he could tell from the brightness that the sun was low.
Too low. Especially in this land where the hours of the day grew so short. He kneed his horse into a trot. They continued for what seemed like hours, every second dragging longer and longer as Ahmed's heart began to pound in the back of his ears.
Lost was the equivalent of dead in this place. Even he knew that. Foolish to go so far by himself, even more foolish to lose track of his location. The experience with the wendol helped him keep his fear in check, but he felt as he had back in his first days as a warrior – sword awkward in his hand, senses at their most alert, body tense against the possibility of attack yet oh-so afraid.
He heard a rustle from the underbrush, and turned just in time to see two beady yellow eyes and a pair of gleaming sharp tusks emerge from the shadows. A boar, no doubt awakened by his directionless stomping, stepped forward. Their eyes met then locked and, as if sensing Ahmed's weakness, the boar began to paw at the ground.
For a moment, the Arab could do nothing but stare, somewhere between shock and fear, but this was at last broken when the animal squealed an enraged cry. Ahmed did not wait to see if it was going to charge – he turned and kneed his horse into a full gallop. His horse moved swiftly and obediently, but she still had to mind her footing and weave between the trees, and this felt painfully slow as Ahmed listened to the squeals of anger that never seemed to fall farther behind.
A branch whipped across his face, cutting the exposed skin across his nose and eyebrow as he moved from the cover of branches into a field. The sudden brightness of light temporarily blinded him, but then he saw two riders moving toward him. Instinct more than reasoning made him duck, pressing his head close to the horse's hot neck, and he heard the now familiar whiz of arrows speed past his ears.
Herger (even from this distance he could recognize his friend) drew a third arrow as Edgtho rode past Ahmed, sword in hand. Ahmed did not turn around – he just kept riding toward Herger until he heard the sound of squealing and the unmistakable thwack of metal hitting bone.
At last he reigned in his horse and allowed himself to turn. Edgtho had dismounted and stood as close to the beast as its thrashing allowed. He plunged his sword in one final time and the animal's struggles ceased.
"That's my little brother, making friends where ever he goes." Herger's voice was welcome, but the mockery was not.
Ahmed, heart still pounding, met Herger's grin with a glare. "I do not believe this situation warrants such humor."
Herger merely laughed and secured the bow across his back. He kneed his horse toward Edgtho and the boar corpse, and Ahmed, after a moment, followed.
"When you did not return to camp, we set out to find you." Herger called over his shoulder.
Edgtho looked over at the Arab as he wiped his blade off. "The trail was not hard to follow."
Ahmed felt his face flush, but Herger smiled encouragingly. "Lucky for you, little brother. And for us."
"Of course." Herger slid off his horse and unwound a length of rope secured to the saddle. As he tied it around the boars legs, binding them together, he grinned, "One more offering for the festivities."
The festivities, as Ahmed discovered, were similar to all Northmen festivities. At once they began to involve themselves in as much drinking, eating and debauchery as humanly possible. Through battle, he had earned a place among them, so both his companions and the people of the kingdom treated him as a Northman.
This meant he found himself with plates of pig shoved in his face and women draped across his lap. Many of his Arab sensibilities had dulled from living so long among these people, and he had grown accustomed to waving away blasphemous things with a smile. Yet as the night continued, he felt more and more uncomfortable, increasingly aware that he acted somewhere between an Arab and a Northman – too serious to throw himself entirely into the celebrations, but too easy-going to behave as a diligent Muslim.
As if sensing his uncertainty, Herger flopped down beside him, horn of mead in hand.
"Something wrong, Arab?" He offered the drink to Ahmed.
"Hn," Ahmed smiled a little for his friend and took it. "I was just thinking how sometimes I feel more like a Northman than an Arab."
Herger slapped him across the back. "That's because you are one of us now. You have fought the wendol. None but a true warrior can claim such a thing, and only our people are true warriors."
Ahmed smiled a little wistfully but said nothing. In response, the Northman tightened his grip on Ahmed's shoulder.
"Do not worry, little brother. There's still plenty of Arab in you."
"Your one God, for example. No Northman could put his trust in only one God. That sort of certainty is dangerous."
Ahmed smiled and bowed his head a fraction. "And no Arab would want to live without that certainty. Tell me, who do we honor now?"
"All of them, though these boars are for Frey," Herger gestured to the steaming piles of meat carried past by a slave girl. "He is the one that will provide a good harvest in the summer and fall."
Ahmed blanched, his stomach curling at the stench of burnt pig. Pig was something he would never make an exception for – the mere smell of it made him want to retch. Herger must have noticed, because he chuckled, "Better in our stomaches than goring you, eh?"
"Your stomach, perhaps," Ahmed muttered back.
Herger laughed again, and looked him over. He ran a finger across Ahmed's nose and eyebrow ridge, tracing the dressed cut. Ahmed winced in pain, which just made Herger's smile grow. "So you missed your warrior wounds that much, eh?"
Ahmed narrowed his eyes but smiled back, "I much prefer fighting trees to fighting the wendol."
Herger stared at him a moment longer, eyes strangely intense from the alcohol, then burst into laughter. He clapped Ahmed hard on the shoulder before standing up and making his way toward one of the free women. Ahmed's eyes lingered on him until the other man began to dance, and then he took another swig of mead.
After participating in two funerals for kings, Ahmed thought he understood the scope of Northmen festivities, but the Midwinter Feast was beyond anything he could have imagined. Twelve days the feast lasted, but for all Ahmed knew it could have been an eternity. All around him men and women danced and sang, the fires blazing hot so that the freezing cold outside became almost a welcome relief. They offered prayers and gifts to the gods and spirits, perhaps wishing for spring to return swiftly or perhaps praying for a good harvest, but Ahmed had difficulty telling.
Herger seemed more interested in enjoying the drink and women than explaining customs that should be obvious even to a small child, and Ahmed soon found his own head reeling, clouded by the drink and heat and frenetic energy of the people around him. His mental notes, carefully remembered then filed away, were hazy at best and as the days and nights blurred together – wake up hungover, sober up enough to prepare for the evening that arrived all too quickly, begin celebrating all over again, pass out – he gave up entirely, content to enjoy the companionship and warmth before the long cold of true winter.
In this whirl of constant activity, the laughing faces, dancing women, prayers and fire became distant and unintelligible. Yet sometimes there was Herger. Herger laughing the loudest, standing the closest, the smell of sweat and leather and mead overwhelming but strangely comforting.
And sometimes, just sometimes, he felt lips pressed against his, a rough beard scratching his own growing stubble, and piercing blue eyes, so close, staring into him. All the while, his mind continued to spin and all these things seemed as vivid and improbable as a fever-dream. Intense yet distant. Not entirely unwelcome.
On the twelfth day, the revelry reached its peak, and its intensity was almost more than he could bear. His whole body felt on fire until he could no longer distinguish the ground from the sky. Ahmed remembered falling and someone catching him, hands rough and ungentle. He blinked up to see Herger fondly smiling down at him before the Northman let go and Ahmed stumbled back and sat hard on a bed of furs.
His head continued to reel from the sudden movement, but he was grateful to the Northman. He did not wish for Herger to treat him as a woman or child. They were supposed to be comrades now. They were supposed to be equals. Herger regarded him with amusement as he kneeled by his side.
"Rest, Arab. The Yulelog has burnt down to ash. Solstice has passed."
Herger made as if to stand, but Ahmed felt his fingers reach out, tangling in Herger's sleeve. He did not mean to, and at once he began to apologize, to let go, yet instead his fingers gripped tighter and he said, "Stay."
Herger regarded him for a moment, perhaps considering, perhaps giving Ahmed a chance to retract his request, but after a moment of silence, he lowered himself down, body to body and cheek to cheek, and stayed.
When Ahmed woke, sunlight dully shining through the pig bladders with which they covered the windows, he had a massive headache and the sickly foul aftertaste of mead in his mouth. Herger lay beside him, pressed close with a hand up under Ahmed's shirt and his beard scratching the top of the Arab's head. Ahmed sat up with a start, hastily backing away as he regarded the room with panic.
None of the other revelers seemed to notice. Most were still asleep or otherwise occupied rolling on the ground with their own hangovers. Even Edgtho and Weath, who had managed to rise, looked worse for wear and in no condition to think beyond alleviating their pain.
The sudden fear and surprise somewhat cleared Ahmed's head and he began muttering apologies to Allah. As his eyes settled on Herger, who was awake and blinking up at him through dulled eyes, the apologies trickled to a stop.
"You're looking lively today, Arab," Herger croaked, humor somewhat subdued from his obvious discomfort.
Ahmed flushed, "I apologize for the events of last night. I hope that we can both forget the incident and, and...continue as if it never happened." The words were mechanical and only half thought-out so he couldn't help wincing as he finished.
"What are you yammering about?" Herger gripped his head as he shifted into a sitting position. "You didn't enjoy the Midwinter Feast? Truly you Arabs are the most dour people in the world."
"No, that is not it," Ahmed shook his head, ignoring the throbbing that such movement caused. "I...you...what we...what we started to do last night is not permitted by Allah. I know you Northmen have a different attitude about these things, but I cannot. I –"
"You what?" Herger interrupted. "You cannot enjoy yourself?" Herger looked upset, but it easily could have been the hangover. He glared up at Ahmed through his unbrushed hair and looked about to say something more when he suddenly gave up with a sigh of frustration.
"Fine. That is fine, Arab. I will keep my teeth together."
Ahmed nodded with relief, but felt his face flush with guilt as Herger looked away and rose. The Northman stumbled toward the morning water bowl to refresh himself. Ahmed's eyes followed the other man until, with some effort, he looked away and turned his attention to finding his own bedding and supplies, which were long since misplaced in the chaos. It was slow going, made more difficult by the bodies still prone on the floor, but at last he found his shaving kit – a simple blade and hammered metal plate that fit neatly in his hand.
As he set to work – using as little of their communal "water" as possible – he poured all his concentration into the otherwise simple act. His hand and head were still not quite steady, so he worked with caution, careful not to nick himself.
So focused on the task was he that when a hand set itself on his shoulder, he immediately jumped in surprise, blade cutting into his jawline. With a curse, he turned, and came face to face with Herger. Herger's eyes were noticeably clearer although his hair and beard remained a tangled mess. This close, his breath was hot and moist, sour from food and drink, on Ahmed's face.
"Little brother, the winter has just begun here. The days will grow longer, but the nights will still be cold beyond anything you've felt up till now. It is a hard time, but nothing that a true warrior fears."
"I'd like to see spring with you. When the ice begins to thaw and the ground turns from white to green. I'm not sure an Arab will appreciate such things – not like a Northman does."
Ahmed met Herger's pale blue eyes that pierced deep, deep into him. He knew that Northmen liked to say things without saying them, so after a moment, Ahmed nodded with understanding. He chose his words with care. "When spring comes, I will continue my journey to the king of the Bulgars, and once again become an Arab. But I would like to see the winter end as a Northman. Surely I will need a Northman's courage to survive it in this place."
Herger's smile grew ever-so-slowly into something fierce and mischievous. He raised a thumb to wipe the blood that dripped from Ahmed's jaw.
"Spoken like a true Northman."