I am Ahmed Ibn Fahdlan Ibn Al-Abbas Ibn Rashid Ibn Hamad. For the crime of loving another man's woman, I was sent by the Caliph to be an ambassador to the Tossuck Vlad.
I never made it there.
Instead, I became caught up in the most extraordinary of events and witnessed bravery of a kind that I have never heard of before or seen since.
This is the tale of Buliwyf of the Northmen.
The Northmen are tall, fair people, with no concept of modesty or cleanliness. And, yet, there is a nobility in them in the way in which they embrace life and death and all in between. Even among them, Buliwyf stood out, radiating the essence of a leader among strong-willed people.
Nearly my first sight of him was as he casually killed another who attacked him, juxtaposed with his desire to hear me tell a tale from another land.
A messenger from another kingdom came, asking for help from Buliwyf to battle an evil that cast a fearful pall on all who heard him. An oracle was called for, the Angel of the Death, who read the portents in thrown bones. She called for the party to number 13, to equal the number of moons in a year. Buliwyf was the first volunteer. Following him were Helfdane the fat, Hyglar the quarrelsome, Edgtho the silent, Rethel the archer, Roneth the horseman, Haltaf the boy, Weath the musician, Ragnar the dour, Halga the wise, Herger the joyous, and Skeld the superstititious.
But when the time came to name the thirteenth man, silence echoed. They all looked to me. For the thirteenth man must be no Northman. And so, I joined their party to fight a nameless evil with people whose language I didn't speak.
We journeyed through rain and cold, through dense green forests, across a sea whipped and frozen by fierce winds. We traveled through the mist and came ashore on a land much like that we had left. Tall green trees, dark, wet earth, and a people fair enough in skin that I was an oddity.
We stood before Lord Hrothgar, and found an old man, clutching his throne and his glories as his shifty son, Wigliff, stood behind him, ready to take it all from him.
At a nearby farmstead, we found signs that the old superstitious tales were true; that the Wendol still roamed. That they were hunting this settlement.
The Wendol were said to be not men, but some huge beasts, with fangs and claws and fur. The Wendol came with the mist, the dark of the night, and melted away with the day. They fought and killed, beheading their prey and taking that trophy with them as they left. They would leave no sign of their own behind, dead or wounded. And they commanded a fire worm.
I had not believed all that was said, but at that time, I knew that one thing at least was true.
They ate the dead.
The mist came and at the gathering hall, we set about our defenses. Buliwyf graciously deflected old Hrothgar from joining us as he had wished, minding his pride and his daughter's worry both at the same time.
We settled down to sleep and be the first living barrier between the Wendol and the rest of the people.
The Wendol came. Harsh, animal sounds outside the door; the shifting of shadow and light across us, and they came in, splintering the door, the wall. They came, and we fought. Torchlight gleamed on fangs, shone on fur, on claws. The battle was to me a confusion of blood and death and pain.
In the end - they left. And took with them the heads of Hyglar and Ragnar.
The Northmen's view of death can be summarized by what Herger told to me.
The All-father wove the skein of your life a long time ago. Go and hide in a hole if you wish. But you won't live one instant longer. Your fate is fixed. Fear profits a man nothing.
There was no mourning; there was merely the disposal of the bodies, and the shoring up of defenses. And battling trickery. Lord Hrothgar's son feared the power of Buliwyf, and did all that he could to undermine it, even if it was to the detriment of his own people. With trickery of his own and the blessing of Buliwyf, Herger killed a key follower of Wigliff, and so established an uneasy peace.
Before the peace could be broken, the mists came down again.
This time, they came with the fire worm.
A serpent made of flames wound its way down the distant mountain, horns blowing, coming closer and closer.
A girl had been left outside of the barrier; I rushed out to bring her back. As I did - I saw the worm.
It was no serpent made of fire. It was men, hundreds upon hundreds of cavalry, bearing torches. Advancing on us. Coming back, I spread the word of what the 'fire worm' truly was. Taking in the knowledge, and changing his plans in an instant, Buliwyf redistributed his warriors.
And the Wendol came. Wave upon wave, throwing their torches too fast and too high for the water we had to quench them. Fires raged, arrows flew. Skeld died on the rooftop, pinned in place. Rethel crouched, backlit, on a roof, and picked the Wendol off; each of his arrows killing a Wendel, and yet the Wendol kept coming. The barricade killed their horses, but they kept coming. They climbed the wall, and were forced back by sword and axe and bow. And they kept coming. They tore the gate apart, and thundered in.
And we broke. The thin line of defenders ran screaming before them.
All, but Buliwyf and his men. He found a chokepoint, an area where two men could stand and hold off many. With him, I stood, makeshift pike in hand. We stood, and they died.
Before we could be overrun, the horns sounded again - and the Wendol left. Left us in ruin and all but broken, our defenses shattered, our warriors mostly dead. Skeld, Halga, Roneth and Rethel left for the halls of Valhalla, the Northmen's land of the dead, that night.
In the flickering firelight, with the darkness masking the worst of the damage, it was still quite clear that another attack like this would see all of us dead.
But one thing this battle won us was knowledge. These were no monsters of mist and legend. These were men, who could and would be killed.
In desperation, Buliwyf sought the advice of a woman old beyond belief, who had some knowledge of how the past had dealt with the Wendol.
She was mad, but the words she said were true. She saw the mantle of leadership on Buliwyf; saw the face of the boy he had been in the man he was then.
She told us thus:
They show you the way, you will not see. Slaughter them till you rot, you'll accomplish nothing. Find the root. Strike the will. The mother of the Wen - she they revere. She is the will. She is the Earth. Seek her in the earth. And Buliwyf, beware the leader of the their warriors. He wears the horns of power. He too you must kill.
On that thin guide of words, we rode out. There was nothing else to do; we could not withstand another attack such as the one that the mists had brought.
We followed their trail back, to a place adorned by bear skulls. Then it was that I finally realized all the clues that the Wendol had thrown to us, unthinking. They thought they were bear-kin. They acted as bears do, lived as bears do - in the ground, in the caves. In the earth.
With this realization, we had a purpose to our hunt.
We followed the trails that led to a cave. They did not use sentry animals; as such, we were able to work our way deep into their caverns undetected. We slithered past them on our bellies, crawling through heaps of obliviously sleeping warriors. The trail led down, and down, until we reached a raging river deep in the caverns. Across the river and below us was a small flat area with a circle of Wendol chanting, a shadow of a cave behind them. We swung across the gap, and climbed down the cliff. In the icy water, we swam to the far shore. Climbing up, we stood, and the Wendol kept chanting, seemingly unaware of us all.
We slaughtered them, but not before they raised the alarm.
We fought them, bought Buliwyf time to hunt the Mother. For my part, all I saw was blood and chaos. But, these are the words of Buliwyf of what he saw in his solitary journey.
I walked down the tunnel and came upon a latticework of roots. Heads hung upon it, held by their hair, mouths agape. Past it, was the Mother. A bright snake wound about her shoulders, bone decorated her head. She was engrossed in some dark liquid before her - poison from the snake she carried. A warrior who was with her sprung at me and died. She blinked once; she did not flinch. It was as if his death was nothing to her. She stood, at her leisure, to greet me, claw in hand, dipped once in the poison. She growled at me, and tried to strike. I dodged then, and again, and struck at her. She scored with her claw, and as she gloated at her strike, I beheaded her.
Though I could feel her poison coursing through me, I counted it a small price to pay for her death.
By the time Buliwyf made it back to us, we had lost Haltaf to the Wendol. And more were coming.
I could see the Other Lands in Buliwyf's eyes as he looked at the swarming Wendol with only a distant interest.
Weath found a passage leading us downward, away from the Wendol. We stayed just ahead of them, running with all the speed we could muster. The pace, on top of his wounds, was too much for Helfdane, and he stood, stopped, spat blood, and turned to protect the rest of us, to delay the Wendol just a bit more.
We fled, downward, following a stream - a stream that fled where we could not go, under the rock. As if to punctuate the magnitude of our disaster, Buliwyf fell, the poison gaining ground. He was in no shape to fight, and there were only the five of us left.
We prepared to stand, and die, and take as many with us as we could. Then we heard the thunder of the surf. Our choices were bleak - stand and fight, or swim and probably drown. Even with the poison eating at him, it was to Buliwyf that we looked - and he chose to swim. A long time, gripping rocks, pushing further, the air burning in our lungs, the weight of our clothes dragging us down - but we made it.
Made it back, to the hall of Hrothgar.
But Buliwyf was beyond any healing of theirs. His concerns now, were for his life after death, rather than for the living. He had lost all - armor, weapons, horse - on the trail to hunt the Wendol mother. All the things that were burned with a warrior for his use after death he lacked. To ease his mind, Hrothgar offered to him that he could, and promised him a funeral for a King.
I could not watch; I could not stand to see him fight the poison of the Wendol mother and lose. I left, heartsick, and stared out into the misty mountains.
And the horns blew.
The Wendol were coming again. We had not killed their leader; they wanted vengeance for the death of their mother. They came, this time without their torches, as the rain fell. Our barrier now was a thing made in minutes rather than hours.
This was the end.
I commended myself to Allah, the words of my prayer graven into my mind to this day.
Merciful father, I have squandered my days with plans of many things. This was not among them. But at this moment, I beg only, to live the next few minutes well.
For all that we ought to have thought and we have not thought.
For all that we ought to have said that we have not said.
For all that we ought to have done that we have not done
I pray thee, God, for forgiveness.
As the Wendol thundered down, we prepared as much as we could, as best as we could.
And Buliwyf came. Through the poison that paralyzed him, that weakened him, he came to stand before the gates, with us. He came with no armor, with just his will and a borrowed sword. And he stood. With these words, he gained strength, and we gained strength with him.
Lo there do I see my father
Lo there do I see my mother, my sisters, and my brothers
Lo there do I see the line of my people back to the beginning
Lo they do call to me.
They bid me take my place among them in the halls of Valhalla where the brave may live forever.
And the Wendol came. It was blood and ruin and chaos, as war ever is. They came to slaughter us, and yet, with Buliwyf before us, they could not. Through the chaos, through the death, I believe Buliwyf knew what he had to do. He saw the leader of the Wendol. And struck him down. And struck, again, and again, despite wounds that would have sent another whimpering to the ground, kept striking until the death cry of the leader rang through the battlefield. With that cry - the horns blew, and the Wendol fled, broken.
Buliwyf sat, the last view of his eyes of his numberless enemies fleeing before his might.
I am Ahmed Ibn Fahdlan Ibn Al-Abbas Ibn Rashid Ibn Hamad. I am a man, and a useful servant of God, because of this. Share in what I learned and wonder at the might of Buliwyf of the Northmen.