If This Be Hell...

by John A. Gilmore

I die.

But what really galls is that irritatingly superior smile on the face of my best friend Wyglif as he twists the knife. The last thing I see is that damnable smirk. The last thing I hear is Wyglif’s smug laugh. The last thing I feel is the certain dread of having to face him again.

I live again. And as certain as Allah is merciful, there it is, that grating, irking smirk. It hangs in a fuzzy brown and pink cloud that gradually condenses into Wyglif’s face. “You, Abdallah,” the big Northman says as he shakes his shaggy, ginger-colored mane in disgust, “are a miserable excuse for a warrior.” Can there be any doubt Allah is punishing me? I have been sentenced to eternity in this Hell these Nordic demons call Valhalla.

The slave girl Wyglif himself gave me at my funeral centuries ago, thrusts a huge drinking horn at my face. Groping, I finally manage to grab it and half drain the hollowed-out auroch bull’s horn before I draw the second breath of my newly restored life. Before I came to these barbarians in their frozen, northern homeland, my palate was better acclimated to those more subtle, if illegal, beverages of the Mediterranean. At first I hated the blunt, powerful, honey-based home brew they call mead, but after nearly eleven hundred years, I must admit I have developed a fondness for it. My debauchery knows no bounds. May Allah, in all his mercy, forgive me.

“Thank you,” I say to my slave girl. Wyglif snorts mockingly. He does not believe slave girls require any such courtesies. I smile at her as I hand the empty drinking horn back to her. The well-defined muscles in her heathen body ripple as she hoists the strap of the horn over her back. How much she reminds me of my lost Miral. Until I see her eyes. Those disturbing blue eyes smile playfully at me over her shoulder as she glides away between the boulders scattered around this place. I shudder. In my homeland, old ladies tell their grand children stories of the Stealer of Souls, Shaitan. They say his eyes are blue like those I now peer into longingly. Indeed, once, I saw a painting of the Dark One. The same haunting blue eyes I saw that day, lock onto mine now and I am unable to turn away. Allah forgive me, I do not want to turn away. I am a sinner beyond redemption. Allah was right to condemn me to this place.

Now Wyglif is slouched forward, one finger trailing in the dank sea sand between his monstrous boots. Wyglif slowly lets out a sigh. “Do you know something, Abdallah? Wodin knows I have tried every thing I can think of to turn you into a real warrior, to get rid of all that softness you brought with you from the south. I have failed and there is no one to blame but me. I fear you will embarrass yourself on the Plain of Vigrid.”

“Would that be that last battle you speak of sometimes?” I ask. “The one where gods and demons and dead people and ghosts and everything else, fight? The one where everybody dies?”


His disappointment in me hurts more than the knife he plunged into my heart just a few hours before. Stalling for time, I allow the potent drink to burn the last taste of death from my mouth and then settle to a slow boil in my stomach. Real warriors are supposed to know their craft by the time they reach Valhalla, the peculiar Nordic Hell-like version of Paradise. They hone their combat skills during the day by hacking each other to pieces. Then their corpses are reassembled at twilight so that they can wallow in sin together all night. I have been fighting and dying for centuries and still a simple ruse like grabbing a knife hidden in a boot killed me today. All these centuries of post-mortem combat should have taught me that there are few rules in a fight to the death and these Northmen are nothing if not tricky devils. I turn my own eyes down to study the cold salty sand at our feet, anything to avoid looking at Wyglif. This sand is so unlike the sand of my native Baghdad. The sand of my home is as warm and pure as Allah’s love for his faithful. This sand reeks of the cold, haunted, supernatural sea it borders. Wyglif makes a lewd sound like the passing of gas as he blows out his breath between his tightened lips. I steal a quick glance. His massive frame slumps so sadly.

I owe him much for what few moments of peace I experience here. When I arrived, I had practically no combat skills. I spent every conscious moment being hacked to pieces by the blue eyed demons in this place. I was truly alone. I prayed desperately, to Allah for some relief, though I knew I deserved none. Allah sent Wyglif. When he arrived, he took me under his tutelage. He did not have to do so. I have been a constant burden to him since. I wonder sometimes, if I am his punishment. We are already in eternity, but these few moments seem to drag. The irony is not lost on me.

The cold of this forsaken place creeps into my bones. The old neck wound Wyglif gave me several centuries back with that enormous battle-axe of his, begins to ache. I rub my arms and legs and stamp my feet to stay warm. Not for the first time, I wish I had known how cold Hell really was. I would have lived a much less sinful life. “Hoorah!” a voice booms. I welcome the opportunity to stand and search for the source. I spy a hulking behemoth of a Norse warrior on the sandy, grass covered hill above us. As he sees me, his jaw drops but he pushes his way toward us. His eyes are locked on me. The intensity is unnerving. Perhaps I have, in some way, offended him or his in the past. I have never been able to understand the entangled blood feuds of these Northmen; much less what starts them. As the largest man I have ever seen comes to rest directly in front of me, I scour my memory. He stares at me. Yet I am certain I have never seen him before. I just hope this creature remembers that even such a forsaken place as this has its rules. It speaks, after a fashion. “You…” He begins. I wait, enthralled, for his next word to form but Wyglif understands immediately and finishes the question for him, “… are black?” “Yes,” the giant responds though his eyes remained fixed on me.

“May I help you?” I ask, trying to keep the fear in my heart out of my eyes and voice. I note that despite his size, this massive Northman is little more than a child. In this light he presents an odd mix of the innocent child and bloodthirsty demon. This titan looks me up and down.

“This I was told but would not believe,” the massive youth finally mutters to himself, but with a timidity that belies his bulk. He almost stammers as he speaks. I am unaccustomed to seeing this from these ferocious barbarians. “I am called Lars. I have come to ask a question of you.”

“Of course,” I answer, as if I could stop him.

“May I?” he asks tentatively and reaches out to me, indicating he wants to touch my hair. Yes, I have forgotten. I have grown accustomed to being with Wyglif, who has also grown accustomed to me. When they first meet me, they need to touch my skin to see if the color rubs off. But especially, they need to feel my hair. I extend an arm. Lars is curiously gentle as he rubs it, as if some evil genie will issue forth from me. Then he reaches for my head. Somewhat dubious because it is a vulnerable position, I finally lean forward. His fingers tickle as he feels my scalp. After some time I ask, “Is that all you wish?”

“No, I have questions.” He crooks an eyebrow as if to ask permission. The innumerable questions. But I see no alternative. I nod. “I was told, and now I can believe, that you are from a land far away.” “Yes, My home is Baghdad.” “And that your land has different gods?”

“No,” I reply. Lars looks surprised, but not Wyglif. “We do not have different gods. There is only one God. Allah; all-powerful, all knowing and everywhere. He is even here, though you don’t realize it.” This Lars looks confused, like all these pagans do when I speak to them of Allah and The Truth. They seem unable to grasp the concept. I suppose it is too much for simple barbarians, especially those already condemned to Hell. Like most of the others, he deals with his confusion by pretending he has not heard me.

“How is it that your God allowed you to come here?”

That is the question, is it not? How did an African who is a devout follower of Islam, end up in Valhalla, the Hell these Northmen believe is a reward for dying in battle? My stomach lurches. I am again forced to remember that I am forever denied the bliss of being in the presence of Allah. I cannot recall how many times I have died in this forsaken, frozen form of Perdition, but none has ever come close to the pain I feel every time I ponder the gulf that I have created between sweet Allah and me. My grief, more massive than these boulders around us, crushes me. I slap my head repeatedly, to drive the shame out of my mind. I cannot speak. Lars, embarrassed and not knowing what to do, shuffles from foot to foot. Once again my old friend Wyglif comes to my aid. “His answer will surprise you, whelp.” He laughs and, thankfully, this hulking youth takes no notice of Wyglif’s mild insult. Allah above, but these Northmen can find mortal insult in the most obscure and benign places. “My friend,” Wyglif continues, “believes he is being punished by his gods for some great evil he has done.” Wyglif’s sincere, yet blasphemous comment stirs me from my stupor. He knows me well enough that perhaps he calculated it to happen that way. “No! My gods are not punishing me! Allah, in his wisdom, is punishing me! And Allah does not belong to me. All of us are his creations. We belong to him.”

“I see,” the giant Lars answers, though clearly he does not see. “And what great evil has Abdallah here done, you ask?” Wyglif continues, as if I have not spoken. “As far as I can tell, nothing.”

“This is not so!” I interject. “I have imbibed wine until I...”

“A drink like mead,” Wyglif explains to the perplexed young warrior, “though not as potent, or so I have been told. Abdallah is saying he drinks too much. After you’ve been around him a while, you begin to understand his strange way of speaking.”

“Is drinking too much a sin?” Lars asks.

“It seems this is possible in civilized places like where Abdallah is from,” answers Wyglif. “Thank Wodin I am a barbarian.” Lars nods in agreement.

“I have committed adultery many…” “Had sex with women he was not married to,” Wyglif continues to translate. “I have killed.” “Defeated his enemies in battle.” “I have been gluttonous.” “Eaten too much.” “For these and other sins too numerous to name, I deserve to be sent here to be punished."

“How…” Lars begins, pauses, rewords his question and starts again. “But how can this be? You are here to be punished. We are here to be rewarded. We are all in the same place. I do not understand.” Lars mutters as he begins to rub his temples. Wyglif smirks back.

“Yes,” Wyglif laughs. “It has been too long since last I heard this tale. I would like to hear it again. But we must also eat and drink. Come my friends, we will finish this after we have eaten.” As we clear the field of boulders, the place Wyglif calls Wodin’s Marbles, Wyglif smiles and raises his free arm. He points toward our destination. Ahead and aloft Valhalla hovers. If such things are possible, this massive drinking hall menaces the rest of Asgard. We climb the sand hills, cross a narrow plain, and ford the bone-chilling Dismal River, which guards the approach to Valhalla’s great oaken gates. These twin portals, each three spans wide and six times as tall as a man, have been stained black by centuries of mead and smoke and sweat and blood and sin. We pass through and I peer down into a world illuminated only by the golden flicker of firelight. The scene below is a smoky, chaotic, pagan, and carnal celebration of the damned. I am too ashamed to describe what I see. Nevertheless, I cannot tear my eyes away from the debauchery and depravity. I know I will succumb to temptation once more. May Allah forgive me, I long to plunge headfirst into this depravity. At the moment, I do not care to recount to Lars how I came to my current shameful state. I take one glance at Wyglif and Lars, then plummet from grace. Centuries ago I gave up all pretenses at the cleanliness and moral rectitude my parents tried to instill in me. I take wicked joy in gobbling the flesh of roasted swine using nothing but my own unwashed hands. I gulp cupfuls of mead until it rolls down my face and defiles the silk blouse my mother’s pure and blessed hands had embroidered for me. My mother. Her sad face wafts through my imagination as my impure hands may grope the naked flesh of these hot demons pretending to be slave girls. I purge her visage by abandoning myself to all forms of depravity.

Wyglif’s huge hand grabs my neck and brings my revelry to an abrupt end. “Let’s find a place less noisy,” he shouts above the din as he grabs a huge barrel of mead, shoves it upon one massive shoulder and wedges three drinking horns between the fingers of the same hand. Wyglif wades into the sea of sin and half turns back to see if we follow. He need not worry. I have already been yanked into his wake. The young mountain of a warrior follows. I had hoped once we started our celebrations, these two would forget about my past shame. However, it appears I will have no choice. Wyglif gently pulls me along with his booming stage whisper and with good-natured tugs from his free hand on my poor hair and ears. We settle in an unoccupied nook. Wyglif breaks open the oak cask with one blow of his prodigious fist. Heedless of splinters or the filth on his hands, he dips the cups into the brew and hands one to each of us. I quickly drain my drinking horn, taking pains to strain the splinters between my clinched teeth and pass it back to him to be refilled before I begin my tale of infamy.

“It must be almost eleven hundred years ago now,” I sighed. I look at the two Northmen. Lars is already listening raptly. Even Wyglif props his huge head between his massive fists as he prepares to listen to a story he has heard at least a hundred times. These people love their stories, no matter how many times the stories are told. After an uncomfortably long pause, I begin again. “I was very happy in Baghdad, my home city far to the south, even if I was a source of great shame to my family. My father is… no, my father was proud of his African heritage. However, because he was best friend and military advisor to the Caliph, he had to be especially sensitive about the way he and his family observed his faith. He was a paragon of Islam. He demanded no less from his family. He considered me his problem child. I remember him saying that often.”

“I can see why,” Wyglif offers unnecessarily.

“Wine was my first love,” I continue, darting an irritated but useless glance at Wyglif, “but I grew to love Miral even more.”

“Miral?” Lars asks, unfamiliar with the names people give each other in the south lands.

“Some woman,” Wyglif answers as he teases me with a nonchalant wave of his hand.

“Ah,” says Lars, as if he understands.

“Not some woman!” I snap at Wyglif. “She was the love of my life.”

“My apologies,” Wyglif says. I don’t believe he is sincere but I continue. “I must confess I was bedazzled. She was favored with many admirable traits. First, was her womanliness, with which she had been more than amply blessed. Second, was her passion for the fruit of the vine, which rivaled my own. Third was the... skill with which she used her ample blessings to persuade me to help finance her passion. We were a match and spent many a blissful moment wrapped immodestly in each other’s arms, floating in a white alcoholic cloud, in her chambers, located above my favorite coffee house.

“I have no idea how long things went on in such a sinful state, but I do recall one day hearing her whisper float to me through that fog. At first, I could not comprehend what she was saying, but after several attempts I came to understand that we two were soon to be three. I am ashamed to admit my first reaction was less than honorable. I was greatly distressed when she suggested we should marry. I was particularly alarmed at what my parents might think. However, after two more delightful bottles of ambrosia and an exceptionally creative and athletic reminder of her ample blessings, I warmed to the idea. At her suggestion, I resolved to inform my parents immediately of my unshakable decision to make Miral my wife. I stumbled boldly out of her chambers. My resolve was only momentarily shaken by my need to return to her chambers so that I might gather sufficient clothing to avoid instant arrest.

“Miral would not have been my parents' first choice as my wife. To be honest, Miral would not even have been their last choice as my wife. Those very qualities, which I found most endearing in Miral, seemed, somehow, to disqualify her in my parents’ narrow view. Despite my best arguments, my parents remained adamant. Finally, I declared I would marry Miral no matter what my parents thought or did. I was quite proud of my brave show as I delivered my ultimatum, turned and left the room. Fool that I was, I did not anticipate my parents' resolve might be greater than my own. Especially, I did not appreciate what my father was capable of in his zealousness to steer me back to the path of righteousness.

“He must have spoken with the Caliph about my potentially embarrassing behavior. Together, they must have decided what would be best for me. It so happened that the Caliph had already decided to send another troublesome young man named Ahmad Ibn Fadlan on an embassy to the far north. They decided that I would accompany him on this mission, which was certain to take at least a year. In the meantime, my ardor for Miral was meant to cool. At the very least, Miral and my as yet unborn child would be comfortably situated in some frontier town, the location of which would remain undisclosed to me.

“Now this,” says Wyglif, interjecting his unwelcome opinion, “is one part of your story I don’t understand.”

“Wyglif!” I declare, warning him not to interrupt, but one might as well try to hold back a desert sandstorm with one’s bare hands.

“It looks to me like your father found a perfect solution,” he continues. “The woman and her child are taken care of and you are free to pursue manly glory and a woman more befitting your station.”

“But I didn’t want another woman. I loved only Miral!”

“Well you can still find pleasure in other women,” says Lars.

“I meant I must remain faithful to the woman I marry.”

“But you did not marry her.”

“But I wanted to marry her.”

“I do not understand,” Lars says as he turns a baffled face toward Wyglif, looking for a translation. Wyglif shrugs in reply. I am very irritated at Wyglif. He is deliberately toying with me again.

“My point is,” I answer, “that it is a sin for anyone to engage in the act of intercourse outside the sacred boundaries of marriage.”

“What?” asks Lars.

“Sex,” Wyglif translates again and again the giant Northmen exchange looks of disbelief and confusion. “Abdallah thinks it is evil to have sex with anyone but his wife.” “Being already in Hell,” I reply haughtily, “I am not surprised you would be bewildered by questions of morality.” “But you are in Hell with us,” Wyglif points out rudely. I hate him when he gets like this. “And you were not wed to this Miral,” he notes maliciously.

“But I wanted to marry her,” I argue.

“And you are to remain faithful even then?” Lars asks.

“Yes!” I answer triumphantly, hoping that I have at least gotten through to Lars. But Wyglif pounces. “If you are so faithful to this Miral, why can’t you keep your hands off the slave girls?”

“May we speak of this at some later time?” I beg, giving up in frustration. A sharp pain has developed between my ears. “I thought you wanted to hear about how I came to be here.” Wyglif smirks but nods mercifully.

“Where was I?” “Your father’s plan,” says Wyglif. “Yes, thank you.” I pause to gather my wits. “The first glimmer I had of my Father’s plan, was when his personal guards burst through the door of Miral’s private chambers. Without regard for our modesty, they wrenched me from her clutching, totally nude arms and dragged me out the door. With every step, Miral wailed and reached out for me. She was mostly disheveled and heedless of her state of undress as she struggled against the clutching hands of two of my father’s men. I recall being incensed that they were just a little too familiar in their attempts to restrain her. I was also a little puzzled that she didn’t seem to take offense to their wandering hands. I have since come to the conclusion she was too concerned for me to notice their untoward behavior. Now Lars is smirking too. Barbarians are incapable of understanding the sacrifices true love can make. I ignore their lewd expressions and continue my narrative. “Unfortunately, I did not know that vision of Miral would be my last. I confess that I have often secretly pulled out that last specter of my beloved Miral to help keep me warm during these cold and lonely nights.

“The guards seemed to be enjoying themselves as they pushed and shoved me through the streets of Baghdad. Apparently already aware of my reputation, my desperate pleas for help only brought laughter from passersby. When we arrived at my father’s house, I was hauled directly into the central courtyard garden through a gate reserved for the lowest of servants, animals and the removal of household refuse. I protested the indignity loudly but they ignored me. I made a mental note to report their conduct to my father as soon as I was able, but I should have realized my father’s guards would not have behaved so badly unless they knew something.

“I was surprised to hear my father immediately call to me from the third floor balcony. I squinted up at him. Though he seemed to be in good humor, his smile did not reach his eyes. Standing discretely behind her husband, I could discern my mother weeping behind her hijab, her modesty veil, as if a close family member had just died. Beside my father stood my younger brother Yakut. I always thought of him as “The Rat” because he enjoyed my discomfiture whenever I was caught in one of my little transgressions, but carefully feigned shock and sadness when my parents were watching. I have no doubt Yakut did well in my rightful place at Court.

“His fierce little grin did not worry me nearly as much as my father’s pleasant smile. I sensed great danger and reasoned that a properly respectful attitude was safest. ‘Father,’ I said to him, 'I had hoped I might have time to properly prepare myself before coming to you.'

‘You have been with that woman again,’ my father said very deliberately and too quietly. I sensed his monumental effort as he choked back the words he really wanted to say. Nevertheless, a new thought seemed to cross his mind, and this time the smile touched his eyes. A chill swept through me despite the burning Persian air. I knew I needed to act swiftly. ‘Father, I am glad for this opportunity...’ I began to say. ‘No need to continue,’ my father said pleasantly, cutting me off by raising his hand. ‘I would not put you in a position to have to commit another sin, especially in this house.’ ‘Oh Father, I would never…’ I began to lie but my Father interrupted me again. ‘I have good news for you.’ He said, then paused cruelly. He was enjoying himself now, allowing me to stew in my imagination. Everything in the garden seemed to pause with him, watching me squirm. The only sound was the garden fountain as water trickled from one tier to the next. One unbearably long moment stretched to the next. He watched me perspired in the harsh noonday sun. Finally, my mother reached out and touched him from behind, asking with her hand that he put an end to this cruelty. ‘It is my pleasure to inform you that you have been given a great opportunity to heap glory and honor upon yourself and this family. The Caliph, himself, has hand picked you for an important mission. You are to accompany Ahmad Ibn Fadlan on his embassy to the King of the Bulgars.’ “This was worse than I thought possible and far outweighed my supposed crime. I was to be exiled from Baghdad, my family, my known suppliers of wine, and Miral. Only Allah knew how long I would be gone. I opened my mouth to speak, but could say nothing. My mother renewed her wailing. Yakut almost choked on his stifled laughter. Realizing he had finally gotten through to me, my father’s smile spread. Even the guards began to snicker quietly, unconcerned that my father might see. This was bad indeed.

I finally found my tongue. ‘But Father…’ I began to say.

‘You leave immediately,’ my Father said for all to hear. Then his fierce black eyes locked onto mine as he lowered his voice. ‘Use this time wisely, my son. Find your way back to Allah.’ With that, he and Yakut turned their backs on me and pushed my sobbing mother before them as they disappeared into the house. Outside of my memories, that was the last I ever saw of any of them. Allah, but I would give anything to see any of them, even that weasel, Yakut.

I pause so that my audience may appreciate the gravity of my loss. Instead, both huge Northmen giggle. This is annoying. I wonder if any of these barbarians are capable of a civilized thought. “Well?” I ask of them, not sure I even want to know.

“This is old wisdom that even children understand,” Lars explains. “Be wary of the stranger. Be doubly wary of the friend. Be triply wary of the family.” He almost can’t finish the sentence, he begins to laugh so hard.

“Now what is that supposed to mean?” I ask.

“It means, of course,” Wyglif explains patiently through his tears of laughter, “that you can be most easily taken advantage of by those closest to you.” I shrug. What else can I do? But these two find even that amusing. My shrug sends them off into another round of hysterical giggles. These Northmen truly are barbarians. They are not even embarrassed that they titter like little girls. “May I continue?” I ask, unable to bear their asinine behavior any longer.

“Our apologies,” answers Wyglif as he bows, but spews out another guffaw when he looks at Lars. This, of course, sends the huge youth off into his own round of laughter. “Barbarians,” I mutter. “Oh,” Wyglif says to Lars, “Now we’ve gone and hurt his feelings.” “How can you tell?” asks Lars. “He starts calling me a barbarian.” Finding themselves humorous, both erupt into another storm of laughter. I persevere. “I was bound hand and foot, gagged, and hauled out to the already-packed camels. I presume my father decided on camels just in case I did not return. They are not as costly to loose as horses. That idea stuck me profoundly. I was tossed across the back of one like a sack of dung. For modesty’s sake, a rough blanket was cast over me. In that ignominious state, they led me out of town to join Fadlan, who was already some miles on his way.

“My father’s guards escorted me for the next week, refusing to untie me unless at least four of them were present. Even then, they did not wholly untie me; only as much as was absolutely necessary to allow me to perform the few functions needed to keep me alive. Try as I might, I could not escaped my bonds. Finally, when they did leave, they delivered a sealed order from the Caliph directing Fadlan not to untie me for at least another two months. Despite my sometimes-tearful pleas, Fadlan remained unmoved. The two months passed painfully and slowly. I do not wish to recount more of that experience here.

“We crossed so many valleys, climbed so many hills and forded so many rivers that I lost count. We plunged into vast virgin forests with as many trees as there are grains of sand in the Sahara. We scaled high mountain passes, where I experienced snow for the first time. Never having been a traveler, I was so hopelessly lost I knew I would never have been able to find my way home. With no reason to fear I might attempt to return to Baghdad on my own, Fadlan finally untied me.

“As the landscape around me became wilder, it became colder. As I became colder, I become more depressed. I began to wallow in my despondency. By day, I rocked back and forth on the cold back of my camel, wrapped in wool blankets and a state of semi-consciousness. By night I huddled near the fire, seeing my mother and Miral in the flames. “Often, I prayed to Allah to deliver me. But He would not. I prayed that He might at least deliver to me a bottle of nice port. Allah, in his wisdom, remained deaf to my pleas. One particularly difficult evening, when my body shook from craving for wine, I began to realize that perhaps my plight was just punishment for my sins. And despite my best efforts, I came to terms with my status. The sores on my backside became calluses, and my depression began to lift. “And after a great while, we arrived in the land of the Rus. Or at least that is what Fadlan told me.”

“I know of the Rus,” Lars beamed, glad no doubt he finally had a landmark to grasp. “They live far to the east and south of my people.” “Yes, well, it was there that I had my first encounter with you Northmen. I witnessed a most barbaric funeral, during which the body of one of your chieftains and the bodies of several recently murdered young slave girls were tossed into a perfectly good ship and burned. Of course, none of this is new to you, but I recall it was horrifying to me at the time.

“That would have been the funeral of Wyglif the Black,” Wyglif explains to Lars. “Ah,” Lars replies, as if this Wyglif the Black and his funeral are common knowledge. They probably are to these barbarians. “After the funeral, for reasons I could not comprehend at the time, there was a great celebration. I swear to you, Wyglif, I do not understand how you Northmen take such great joy from death. “I missed my libations greatly and I missed Miral. The Lord of Darkness saw his chance and tempted me. Mead and slave girls were offered to me in enormous quantities. The aroma of the alcohol wafted toward me, insinuating its wicked, invisible tendrils into my brain. And I could not take my eyes off these northern women. Their eyes of ice and bodies of pale fire promised illicit delights. Their coupling seemed more like combat but their vigor captured my imagination. Added to this already head-spinning mixture were the wild spirit of heathen carnival and so much exotic food that the oak tables groaned. Smells and tastes and sights overwhelmed me. I feared for my eternal soul should I succumb to temptation; and I knew I would succumb. “But then I spied a kind of remedy. As to the slave girls, I realized they were already lost souls. They would remain just as lost whether I took pleasure from them or not. Surely a small dalliance with a lost soul was no great risk to my own soul. As to the alcoholic beverages, I reasoned that it might be safer to give in only a little to temptation. After all, taking one drink was certainly no mortal sin. And if I were to take just one drink, I could satisfy my craving and avoid the greater sin of over indulgence. Besides, was it not a great sin to turn down the hospitality of my hosts?

“I firmly resolved that I would strictly limit myself to no more than one, no two, ... maybe … three cups of mead and no more than one ... well … yes, one interlude with a slave girl. My limits clearly set in my mind, I set out to enjoy my hosts’ hospitality, assured my soul was safe.

“Alas, I reached my self-imposed boundaries much more quickly than I had anticipated. Fortunately, I realized one more cup of mead and one more slave girl were almost no more sinful than what I had already done. And since I had strictly limited myself to just two, or rather a few more cups of mead, I thought the cups should be large cups, to make sure I adequately slacked my thirst and avoided further temptation. As for the slave girls, I found two who were equally tempting. Rather than risk later temptation, I reached the reasonable conclusion that I had best partake of both immediately.

“Again, I reached my boundaries much more quickly than anticipated. Happily, I realized that no further damage could come to my soul if I continued to partake. In fact, I realized that my soul might be at even greater risk should I stop, only to succumb later, thereby committing two sinful episodes instead of just one. Besides, from this point on, I calculated I could no longer be held accountable for any sins I might commit because my judgment had been so completely impaired by the amount of alcohol I had consumed. Understanding for the sake of my soul it was safer to continue, I stopped thinking and partook greatly. “It was some time during that night that I believe I first met Wyglif. First he was my teacher, then we became competitors and finally we became friends in all forms of debauchery. “Let me tell you,” Wyglif says, “Abdallah didn’t need much teaching.” “Do you mind?” I ask Wyglif as I stretch my arms out to my sides, pleadingly. “I’d like to get this done before dawn.” He nods. “When I finally recovered my senses some days later, I stumbled toward Fadlan’s camp. All I found were a few gnawed bones, one scrap of dirty gray cloth, and some charred brands in several cold hearths. Fadlan had already departed and left me behind. I panicked. I dashed about, questioning everyone. However, back then I could not speak your language. What few words I learned from Wyglif during my days and nights of debauchery, were not appropriate in this situation. Even so, I surmised that Fadlan had left by ship several days before. “I desperately sought out my new friend Wyglif. With grunts and crude hand gestures, we worked out a deal. I would give him all the gold in my possessions and the fine sword my father had giving me when I reached manhood. In exchange, Wyglif would take me on his ship to catch up with Fadlan, or so I believed.

Wyglif interrupts my story and laughs. “How was I supposed to know that Abdallah wanted to follow his chieftain? Wasn’t it only natural to think that Abdallah stayed behind on purpose?” The youthful listener nods his understanding. “Anyone with half a brain should have known,” I state, “and how could you possibly think I wanted to go way up north to your kingdom?” “I had orders from my Lord Elderic to immediately deliver a message to King Olaf.” Wyglif looks to Lars for support. “I thought he wanted to come along for some adventure. That’s what any normal man would want do. Why would I presume otherwise?” Again, Lars nods in agreement. Barbarians.

“Wyglif,” I sigh, “you ought to know by now that I am not a hero. It is vanity to seek glory and vanity is a sin.”

“Nonsense,” Wyglif counters. “And besides, I differ with you about your low opinion of yourself, at least most of the time.” He turned to our young listener. “In this next part of the story, you will see what I mean.” He stood and delivered a good-natured blow to the top of my head that felt as if it would drive my spine into the bench upon which I was seated. “This outlander has the true spirit of a mighty warrior in his tiny little body.”

“I do not know about that,” I respond humbly. He does not realize the risk such well-meant praise creates for my soul. I still have some small hope Allah may one day reclaim my soul. Nevertheless, it does feel good coming from him. “If you will allow me to continue...?”

“Certainly,” he says and leans back, lacing his fingers together behind his head, and sighs, “though you men from the south are not very good storytellers.”

“Thank you,” I give him one more pointed glance and we both smile. “Having no knowledge of travel or these northern lands, I did not think it particularly odd that Wyglif took me farther west and north. We finally emerged from a river into a great green ocean, boiling with monstrous storms. When I expressed concern, Wyglif laughed and said it was only a little sea and the storms were only gentle spring showers. Indeed, he and his men seemed unconcerned as the ship crashed through waves taller than a man.

“I am surprised you noticed,” smiles Wyglif. “If I recall correctly, you spent all your time emptying your stomach over the side.” Even though it was so many years ago, the embarrassment still stings. He and the young warrior take far too much pleasure from my embarrassment.

“As I was saying, after several days, we crossed the ocean. During this time and despite my better judgment, I grew to like Wyglif and his men. I also began to learn your tongue. Not long after that I learned the enormity of our misunderstanding.” “And you never saw some one so upset in all your life,” Wyglif interrupts. “He was dancing around and squawking like some wounded bird.” Wyglif stands so that he can imitate my frustration. I fear for another great eruption of laughter, so I hurry them back to the story. “To my great relief, we finally reached land. Wyglif wanted to push straight through. He said we could reach his village early the next morning if we continued to sail. However, it was so close to sundown and the wind was slack. Besides, we needed fresh water. Wyglif reluctantly decided to stop at the mouth of a small stream and hope to catch a strong morning breeze. We filled our water skins and set up camp. “Now we come to the good part,” says Wyglif. He rubs his hands together in gleeful anticipation.

“Most of the men were off chasing some animal called a stag. I’ve never been very skillful at hunting. I saw no pleasure in making a fool of myself and so did not go with them. Wyglif and a few others had stayed behind to discuss some political intrigue or other. Since I knew none of the principals and had barely begun to speak your language anyway, I felt no great desire to sit with them. Instead I decided to go off into the woods to relieve myself of a pressing anatomical burden.

“A what?” the young warrior asks.

“He had to pee,” Wyglif explains crudely.

“Oh,” the young warrior says. “Why didn’t he just say so?” Wyglif shrugs.

“Anyway,” I frown at Wyglif, “I was day dreaming about the reception Wyglif’s men had told me we would receive at his village. I was really looking forward to sampling the mead and the slave girls he had boasted about. Suddenly, I heard yelling and the unmistakable clang of weapons.

“Ah,” said Lars as he smiled.

“Enemies of King Olaf the Gray had picked that time and place to ambush my mission,” Wyglif steals the narrative, speaking in quick bursts. “They must have noticed so many gone on the hunt. We were outnumbered four to nine and they had the element of surprise.” Wyglif pauses and laughs heartily, “Ah, there were many valiant deeds done that day. In the initial rush, three of theirs went down, but so did two of mine. That left only me and my brother-in-law, Anders, to deal with the remaining six of them. Anders had all he could handle as two of them drove him toward the stream. I was left with the other four.”

“That is when I came running back into camp,” I take the narrative back. “I saw those cowardly monsters around Wyglif. I was so frightened, I was unable to move.”

“Then why did you do what you did later?” asks Wyglif.

“I still do not understand,” I answer humbly. “Tell him about the Sword with No Name.” Wyglif’s thoughts change course that suddenly. He gets all excited and discombobulated by these adventure stories. Sometimes I believe that giant body of his houses the soul of some wonderful, brawling little boy. “If you’ll stop interrupting, I’ll get to that part,” I say. Glaring until I am certain I will not be interrupted again, I continue. “It was the most spectacular battle I have ever seen. I stood there and just watched in awe. They attacked from all sides at once. He blocked a blow from one attacker, dodged a blow from another, and swung his mighty ax…”

“Skull Splitter,” Wyglif interjected with a broad, silly grin. “Right. He swung mighty Skull Splitter at the third attacker, instantly killing him. The fourth managed to draw blood as he slashed at Wyglif’s back, but my friend here did not seem to notice. He turned and attacked the others, taking one down immediately. The two remaining attackers threw their swords down on the ground then fell to their knees crying. They wept like women as they begged for mercy. I was not familiar with the warlike ways of you Northmen, but even I was offended by their groveling. “Wyglif spared them when they swore allegiance to King Olaf the Gray, Lord Elderic and himself. Accepting their word as honorable men, Wyglif turned and started off to help Anders, who was still struggling with the other two down at the stream. As soon as Wyglif turned, the dogs picked up their swords and moved to strike him in the back. It offended my sense of fair play. I suppose I became angry.”

Wyglif takes the narrative back. “I heard an awful scream, like some devil caught in a trap. I turned and caught sight of a tiny blur as it flashed by to my right from behind. For a moment, I thought he was another attacker, but then I recognized it was Abdallah. He had a strange ferocious look that I had never seen on his face before, kind of like one of those little dogs the Saxon princesses sometimes keep. As I turned to follow him with my eye I saw what those two oath breakers were up to. Before I could even prepare myself, I saw him neatly slice off the head of one of my attackers with that remarkable curved blade of his.” “The Sword with No Name,” asked Lars, enthralled. “The very same. Abdallah drew back in time to parry a sword thrust from the second man. Unfortunately for Abdallah, the second man also had a knife. My good friend here was slashed in the gut most savagely. I keep trying to teach him about that move, but he refuses to learn.”

“I got that son of a dog, though,” I blurt out, perhaps too proudly.

“Yes,” Wyglif laughs then winks. He seems to think these occasional outbursts of mine are evidence that I really like it here. He turns once again to our young listener. “I tell you Lars, it was the kind of death every warrior dreams about. As his last bit of strength failed him, Abdallah crashed The Sword with No Name down on the head of the second man, splitting his helmet and most of his head. Oh,” says Wyglif, enraptured, “it was one of those special deaths Wodin so seldom grants.” “You must be beloved of Wodin,” Lars says with awe. Wyglif beams a smile. Then the young warrior looks me up and down, reassessing me. He nods with approval and just a scrap of admiration. I swell with sinful pride.

“It was disgusting,” I mutter. Allah, in his infinite wisdom, was right to send me here to be punished. I quickly change the subject. “Then you botched my funeral, you big stupid ox.”

“How many times must I apologize?” Wyglif quickly turns defensive, practically begging our listener for support. “I didn’t know the ways of his people. I gave him the best warrior’s funeral anyone has ever had in my village. It was better than my own, as I recall. I even gave him my best, most enthusiastic slave girl.” He turns back to me, “Now didn’t I? Haven’t you been satisfied with her?” I refuse to answer. Then he asks, “Well then, can I have her back?”

“I cannot say which is worse,” I respond, “being torn apart by you fiends by day or that Nordic imp by night,” I try to sound upset but can not suppress my sinful grin. Wyglif and our new friend laugh heartily. Despite my best efforts, so do I.

Lars stands to leave. The massive young man clasps my hand in thanks, crushing it. “It would be an honor and a pleasure to met you and your Sword with No Name on the field one day.” “Yes, wouldn’t it?” I lie and pump his hand again. May the day I meet Lars on the field of battle never come. However, just in case, I think I should begin to formulate a plan of defense. Lars allows me to extract my hand from his massive paw. With that, he is on his way. I look to the sky and scratch the rough stubble on my chin. From behind, the new morning sun dabs the edges of the craggy, frozen Nordic peaks and the underbellies of the clouds with blood red. It is daylight, time for battle. Wyglif stands and hefts mighty Skull Splitter, smiling in anticipation. I wipe the grogginess from my eyes, yawn, stand, and draw the Sword with No Name. It occurs to me that if these Northmen have a weakness, it is their exuberance. Sometimes they get so wound up that they forget to think.

“Abdallah?” Wyglif says as he smiles warmly. “I believe that in your heart you are a Northman and a warrior. What does it matter where a man is born as long as he finds his place in the world? Admit it, Abdallah, you really do enjoy being here. You don’t really believe your God has sent you to Hell.”

One again he flashes that irking smirk of his. Then he charges out to greet the morning sun. To avoid suspicion, I follow, but allow his zeal to carry him just a couple of steps ahead of me. Let him think I lag behind because he is bigger, faster and stronger. His back is now exposed.

I draw back my sword and aim its razor sharp tip at the soft spot between the ribs protecting Wyglif’s heart. He is wrong, of course. I take no joy in this after life. I have been sent to this Hell to be punished for my sins. “IF THIS BE HELL,” I shriek just before I plunge the Sword with No Name into Wyglif, “LET US MAKE THE MOST OF IT!”


© 2000 John A. Gilmore

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