Journey to the Northmen :

A follow-up to 'Eaters of the Dead' by Michael Crichton

" I gripped his shoulder, and he mine, and then I set out upon the black ship, which carried me to the land of the Dans. As this ship with her stout crew slipped away from the shores of Venden, I had view of the gleaming rooftops of the great hall of Hurot, and, turning away, of the gray and vast ocean before us. Now as it happened … "

Now as it happened, I believed my adventures with the Northmen to have ended. My mission was complete and the Eaters of the Dead had been vanquished, the tale of Buliwyf drawn with sounds. Verily, the tome had not been closed forever … Little did I know that my line was to return to the Northman's lands.

- - -

I had never been one for boats. We had them at home in Baghdad, along the river Tigris, and I had always done my best to avoid them. The way the water licked up at the sides, always threatening to pull you down in made me uncomfortable beyond belief. My father, however, seemed to spend all his time on the decks of a long ship of his own creation. Every inch of it was painted black, and it stretched out long enough for at least fifty men. He said this was in the style of the people of the North, and I had asked him why many times, but he would never tell me. All I knew of his love for the North was that he had been gone at the time I was born, sent on a mission by the Caliph, and that my mother had never understood why he didn't just stay behind. This always brought up an uncomfortable conversation between the two, something that I was never allowed to hear. It was adult speak, they said, though I knew it was an argument.

Father often offered to let me spar with him. This I was confused by: around our neighbors he would be as calm and collected as the most well-trained animal, but when we two were alone, he acted as if he were some wild spirit. I had not once taken him up on this, seeing as my mother always thought it to be silly, and I did not want to be silly. There was never any need for me to fight, apart from the occasional teases of the other neighborhood boys, but even then I preferred my words.

It was not until I discovered the dusty tome of my fathers writing that I began to take interest in his offers. The writings were entitled "The Life of Buliwyf, King of the North," and were hidden in several different places in my fathers study. Parts of them were written in a foreign language, ugly to the eye, but the parts I could read written in my own Arabic language were of great magnificence.

The stories told of, from what I could gather, a great and brave warrior who led his men in the battle against an army of demons, called in some places the wendol and in others the Eaters of the Dead. He, with his band of 13 warriors, defeated the wendol in order to protect the kingdom of Rothgar, yet Buliwyf himself was poisoned by their mother. He died shortly after, but not before killing the leader of the wendol's army forces, ending their reign of terror over the North. It was a valiant story of a brave man, but what was most surprising to me was the fact that my own father had fought beside him as the 13th warrior. I was stunned. My father, who seemed nothing more than a crazy man who spent too much time away from home, a warrior.

- - -

"Father," I began, swallowing what felt like a rock. He, myself, my mother, and my two sisters were sitting around the small table we used for meals one night, exactly three months after I had first read the story of Buliwyf. Of course my immediate instinct was to consult my father, but I had not had the opportunity - nor the courage - to do so until now. This felt like something that could wait no longer. "Who was Buliwyf?" There was an awkward moment of silence as he set down his eating utensils, ignoring my mother's disapproving glances.

"How did you hear of this man?" Was his response, not as welcoming as I thought it would be. Had it been wrong of me to ask? Should I not have read that story? Was it supposed to be a secret? Biting my lip, I spoke up again, quieter this time.

"I … I read the story you wrote … I just thought that … Erm …" My lungs felt like they were choking for air, even though I had been gasping throughout my speech. I had just as much right to know as he did, didn't I? Why did I feel that I was about to cry? Maybe this was the story my mother had never let me hear. This was the adult talk. "Was he … a friend of yours?" Mother coughed, signaling that it was time for my sisters to clear the table. Sadly, as if recounting and ancient memory, my father rested his arms on the table.

"He was … my brother, of sorts," Ahmad replied, looking down. Perhaps I wasn't in trouble after all! "There were 13 of us, up in the North -- you have heard this?" I shook my head, reminding him that I had never been allowed before. Looking back at Mother as she reached an arm out to stroke his arm, Father replied, "It is time you heard. After all, Buliwyf once said to me that a man might feel wealthy if his story were to be drawn out, and I don't see how I am to fulfill his wish if no one ever knows."

- - -

It was late at night, and the two of us were seated outside by the river. A few boats passed by quietly, illuminated by torches, and father's sat, bobbing in the water, sleek and black and beautiful. Being the middle of the summer, we were both dressed in a loose white cloth and sandals, he in a turban, casual for men in Baghdad. Bright stars twinkled overhead, and thanks to my Father's teachings, I was able to recognize a few of the constellations. We sat for a while more in silence, listening to the sounds of the water, until father had finally finished organizing his thoughts.

"When you were born, this I'm sure you know, I was not here." I nodded, pulling my legs about me in the sand. "I was on a mission of the Caliph, to teach Yiltawar the ways of Islam. However, throughout my journey, I was introduced to a group of Northmen who were on their journey back to the North. At the time of my arrival, their king had died, and a new one was to be chosen. One of these men was Buliwyf. He and his warriors were preparing to return to Buliwyf's home of Yatlam, a village in the North, farther than you shall perhaps ever go. Before their departure, an old Crone of the village with the dead king, the Angel of Death as she was called, informed him that his party must have a total of 13 men, and the 13th could be no Northman. This is how I came upon the epic tale of my lifetime, and we set sail for the North as soon as possible."

Listening in deep interest and respect, I listened as my father recounted the tales of he and the warriors, Buliwyf included. By the end of his story, I had been moved to tears, and had to hide my face in my hands. Father seemed somewhat pleased with this, yet distressed at the same time. How wrong my mother, sisters, and I had been! He was not crazy with the North -- he was speaking the truth. I could not fathom why he had returned home.

"Because," he replied when I asked him this, "I had you to come home to. And also, I don't think the Caliph would be pleased if I had not completed my mission." Nodding subtly, I spread out on the sand, looking up at the stars. Were they the same that shone over the warriors as they slept tonight? "Ihsan," Father said after a moment or two. Looking up at him, I responded: "Yes, father?"

"Do not let this trouble you," he said with a bit of difficulty. I could see that it indeed troubled him. With a tinge of discomfort, I nodded. Of course my own father should have known me better than that. These Northmen were my business now.