By C.J. Adrien
Two men fished in ankle deep water for mollusks during low tide when they heard a peculiar sound. They stood in the shallows of a beach wedged between two cliff faces looking out over the ocean. Silently they listened for the strange noise which had only moments prior echoed around them. Again the sound echoed into the oceanic recess, inciting fear in the fishermen. From around the bend in the cliff face emerged the head of a dragon. The fishermen dropped their buckets and shovels and ran for the adjacent hills. As the dragon’s head glided further into the open, a ship came into full sight.
“Fishermen!” yelled Abriel Haraldsson, captain of the imposing vessel. His long, golden brown hair flowed in the wind as he stood tall at the bow of his ship.
“It would seem we are not the first Northmen to have arrived on these shores,” proposed the mystical Oddr, an Angel of Death, who peered intensely over the ship’s railing from his dark black cloak at the fishermen in flight.
The Northmen set their oars to the water and rowed into the gap between the cliffs. With a loud thud, the ship beached in the sandy cove. Warriors leaped over the side of the boat into the shallow waters with their arms and armor at the ready. Abriel disembarked with his wife Kenna, both of whom had donned their finest battle attire. The small band of warriors walked cautiously up the hill to where the sand turned to grass.
“Cnut!” Abriel called out. A thin, sickly man with sunken eyes and short hair approached him. “Cnut, take two men and scout the surrounding hills. Look for villages, farms, or anything useful to us.” Cnut nodded in affirmation. “The rest of us will stay here and set up camp,” Abriel said to the crew. “We do not know what lies ahead. Defenses should be built in case of trouble.”
Cnut confidently left for the hills with two men as ordered. Kenna returned to the ship to gather supplies and tools to make camp while Abriel and a few of his men ventured further into the steep hillside to find wood. The shoreline the Northmen had come across rose steeply from the ocean to form rolling hills and mountains in the distance. The land appeared devoid of settlement. Most of the countryside was grassy with thinly treed woodlands. As dusk approached, the Northmen felled their last tree which they worked into a pike and placed among the others to form a defensive wall around the perimeter of the encampment. Two tents were erected for the crew where the men would lounge after a few hard days at sea.
In the light of the roaring campfire, a few men remained awake to watch the hillside for movement. Cnut had not yet returned from his scouting mission which troubled the King. Surely, Abriel thought, Cnut had enough experience not venture so far as to lose his way. Perhaps the scouting party had made camp elsewhere to wait for dawn before finding their way home. In any case, Abriel resolved to follow their trail in the morning with a larger contingent of warriors. At dawn, Kenna rose from her slumber to gather water from the ocean, now at high tide and much closer to the camp than expected, when she heard the sound of clashing metal from the surrounding hills. Alarmed, she returned to the tent and prodded her husband to wake him. The two exited the tent cautiously and gazed studiously upon the hillside.
Two men emerged from the hilly woodlands working together to carry a massive, ornamented chest over the grassy crest of a steep outcrop in the hillside. They worked well together denoting a tradition of cooperation between the two of them. Following their difficult labor, the men dropped lamentably to their knees at the chest’s side to rest. Abriel immediately moved to meet them. As he approached the two men, he realized to his dismay that they were in fact Northmen, but not the ones he had sent to investigate the countryside. Both men wore irons clamped to their wrists and to their ankles.
“I am King Abriel Haraldsson of Herius,” said the king cautiously as he raised his right hand in a formal salute.
“Ulfr Ketillsson,” replied one of the men out of breath. He breathed heavily for a moment before speaking again. “We have been sent by the King of Asturias to deliver a message.”
Ulfr motioned to Abriel to approach the chest. The chained men opened the top to reveal to Abriel its contents. Amid a fervent stench of rotting flesh lay a mass of hair and blood within which the King observed the long-severed heads of men.
“The King of Asturias is holding your men hostage. These are the remains of our crew following our negotiations with him,” said Ulfr. “We have since been his prisoners to serve as translators to any other Northmen who might think it wise to pillage these lands.”
“How might I recover my men?” asked Abriel angrily.
“The King of Asturias wishes to discuss the terms of their release and of your departure in person. He asks that you raise a white flag of truce and meet with him alone and unarmed,” Ulfr explained as he closed the lid to the chest.
“That’s suicide!” Kenna exclaimed inimically at the proposal.
“And not going would be sentencing Cnut and the others to death,” replied Abriel spitefully. He turned to face Ulfr. “You will show me the way then?”
“They should have died fighting. There is nothing honorable about being taken prisoner!” Kenna shouted in protest.
“We do not know the circumstances of their capture,” Abriel began before Kenna abruptly cut him off.
“Knowing Cnut, he probably put down his arms at the first sign of trouble!”
Abriel held firm.
“I cannot leave my friends behind,” he snapped back.
Kenna stormed off in a fury. Abriel continued to interrogate the two Northmen who were standing by the chest. Oddr emerged in his cloak from one of the tents having overheard the shouting match between the royal couple. He followed Kenna to the ship where she stood silently to think.
“Marital troubles?” asked Oddr.
“No, that’s not it,” replied the young woman.
“What troubles you, then?”
Kenna said nothing as she held back tears.
“Your husband is a king now, not just a husband. You must allow him to do what he thinks is right,” said Oddr with a concerned countenance.
“I know that,” Kenna snapped back. “I just wish he would listen to me. He refuses my advice!”
“Is it advice you give?” asked Oddr cautiously. “Or are you attempting to command him?”
Kenna shot a menacing look at Oddr.
“I did not mean to offend, my Queen,” he said. “I only wish to help you reexamine your role in all of this. Would you allow him to question you before your warriors?”
“I suppose not,” said Kenna as she sat in the sand, frustrated.
The queen turned to face Oddr, but when she looked in his direction, he had suddenly vanished. She looked to the hillside where Abriel had prepared a white flag and had begun marching into the rolling hills pursuing Cnut’s trail. Kenna felt dismayed.
Among the rolling hills of Asturias, Abriel and his shackled guides walked heedfully along a beaten winding path. They remained silent as Abriel wished to listen for any sounds out of the ordinary. The trail led them into a lightly wooded forest resting between two steep-sided hills. Abriel saw much wildlife, including deer, foxes, and wild boar. At the edge of the forest, the landscape leveled into a vast, flat expanse, dense with cultivated farms. Surrounding the farms were the vast rolling hills Abriel had come to expect from the area.
“How much further?” asked Abriel.
“Not far,” replied Ulfr. “The city of Oviedo is down below, closer to the river.”
Abriel gazed into the distance, but the farmland curved downward from his position obscuring any sign of a city. The sound of galloping hooves suddenly echoed throughout the small valley. Ulfr and his companion sat on the ground and crossed their arms as if they had been trained to do so. Horsemen approached quickly, but Abriel could not immediately see the riders. In a preemptive move, Abriel rose his white flag and waved it into the mountain breeze.
“Pausa!” Abriel heard someone shout from behind him. “Pausa! Iacta arma pedum tuorum!”
“He says to throw down your arms,” said Ulfr.
“Yes, I know what he said!” shouted Abriel among the thundering sound of galloping horses. “It’s Latin! Why are they speaking Latin to us?”
Four horsemen surrounded Abriel with lances. They wore tan tunics with thick leather cuirasses and polished leather greaves on their shins. Each horseman wore a leather band around his forehead with a Latin inscription etched across it.
“Normannus,” one of the riders called to Ulfr. “Dic ei ut iret.”
“Ego potest loqui de me,” replied Abriel confidently while concealing his racing heart.
“You speak Latin?” the leading horseman asked with a scowl. “It appears the Roman language has remained somewhat universal.”
“I studied in a monastery for most of my youth,” explained Abriel. “I am well versed in Latin, Greek, Frankish, and the Northman language.”
The horsemen looked upon Abriel with great intrigue. The King of Herius stood tall, seemingly unfettered by their aggressive stance. One of the horsemen dismounted and approached him. In a quick movement, the horseman patted down Abriel’s armor and clothing searching for weapons. Once finished, he nervously nodded to the apparent leader of the riders.
“Follow us to Oviedo,” said the lead horseman.
Abriel followed the small cohort through the fields, down the hill, and into a glen where there was a modest settlement not unlike the town of Herius. On the outskirts of the settlement stood tall, wooden watchtowers, each equipped with a large, circular bronze bell. At Oviedo’s center sat a tall stone church gleaming in the evening sunlight. A small palace stood adjacent to it along the opposite edge of the main square. Unlike the builders in Frankish territory, these stone edifices were built from a material unknown to Abriel. Rather than the pristine white color from the limestone used in the Loire River Valley, the church and palace of Oviedo were light browns with a vibrant orange tinge which glimmered beautifully in the late afternoon sun. At the palace gates, stood an odd looking figure surrounded by a dozen guards, all donning the same equipment and armor as the horsemen. The central figure wore an ornate white robe with gold trimmings and some large gold rings on his fingers. His hair was black and straight and fell to his shoulders. Upon his brow, the figure wore a modest gold crown denoting his status in the city.
“My King,” the lead horseman called out as they arrived, “we bring you the leader of the Northman ship which has landed on our coast. He speaks Latin, and therefore does not need a translator.”
The riders presented Abriel before the King of Asturias.
“I am Alfonso, King of Asturias. What is your name, traveler?”
“I am known to my people as Abriel Haraldsson, King of Herius. Or Abriel, the Traveller, if you wish. That is my earned name among the Northmen.” Abriel gulped nervously. Despite his non-frightening appearance, Alphonso made Abriel anxious.
“What brings you to my coasts, Abriel, King of Herius?”
“Trade,” replied Abriel who worked hard to prevent a tremble in his voice.
“You are not the first Northmen to visit us!” declared the King of Asturias from across the courtyard. “The last ship sought to kill our people and steal from our church! We survived their attack, but only because we are so militarized from our wars with the Saracens. How are you any different from them?”
“I am not merely a Northman. I lived among the Franks for most of my life. I was raised in a monastery. Only recently did I discover my heritage and place amongst the men of the North. But I am a man of God, and I seek only to trade,” explained Abriel steadily. His apparent coolness made some of the guards nervous, but beneath his thick exterior, Abriel quaked. Alfonso crossed his arms at the explanation.
“What is it you have to trade then?” Alfonso asked stolidly.
A murmur erupted among the soldiers. The surrounding village’s peasantry had begun to gather to watch the exchange. Alfonso raised his hand to silence the crowd. Abriel heard in the murmurs a language he did not recognize. He surmised that the Asturians used Latin to speak with outsiders, but used their own language amongst themselves. Alfonso continued.
“We have a great need for quality sea salts,” he said. “We are at war, and our stores are often low. We could use a fresh supply to cure our meats so that they do not spoil.”
“That is precisely why I am here,” said Abriel. “If you would like, I can return to my camp to fetch some samples for you.”
“No,” replied Alfonso. “I still do not trust you.”
“What then, might I do to earn your trust?” asked Abriel.
“You say you were raised in a monastery. Were you instructed in Greek?” asked Alfonso as he began to stroke his finely shaven chin.
“As I mentioned before,” Alfonso began, “we are at war with the Saracens. They have been encroaching on our lands for many years. Last spring we came close to forming a truce, but the Saracen translator had difficulties with our Latin, and our negotiations fell apart. I know that he is much better versed in Greek, but we do not know it. My proposal is this: if you come with me to the next negotiations and help to form a truce with the Saracens, I will release your men and establish trade with you. I am only proposing this because you seem to me to be an honest man.”
“Release my men now, and I will go with you,” Abriel proposed in return.
The king of Asturias thought for a moment before making his decision. Then he smiled and clapped his hands together with delight.
“Agreed, Abriel Haraldsson, King of Herius!” he shouted joyfully.
Alfonso returned to his small palace followed by his entourage. Abriel sifted through his surroundings for any sign of trouble from the soldiers. A short, bald man emerged from behind the palace pillars and approached Abriel with a piece of parchment. The man had dark brown eyes and a short beard below his cleanly shaven head. He wore a silky blue tunic with a silver five point star drawn upon the torso.
“You’ll need to sign this contract,” the man said as he walked closer to Abriel.
“A contract? For what?” asked the King of Herius, sounding a bit confused.
“Legal affirmation of your commitment to the diplomatic mission,” said the man.
Abriel snatched the contract forcefully from the small man’s fingers. He read through a series of provisions written in corrupted Latin. It was a simple draft of the agreement he had made with Alfonso, but the corruption of the written language made reading the contract difficult. The small man held out a plume wetted with black ink and smiled. Reluctantly, Abriel signed the contract.
“Good,” said the little man. “Now I must prepare you for your mission. My name is Ari, and I am the former diplomat.”
“Ari?” Abriel uttered pensively. “Where is that name from?”
“It is Hebraic,” replied Ari. Abriel shot him a perplexed look. “Yes, I understand your confusion. Jews are not known to live in these parts. But the Sultan of Cordoba trusts Jews more than his own people in matters of law. Alfonso thought it prudent to find a Jewish person to settle his legal affairs with the Saracens since they often send Jews to negotiate with him.”
“If the Saracens send Jews as diplomats, and you are Jewish, why not negotiate in Hebrew?” asked Abriel.
“Good question!” Ari exclaimed. “Simply because I do not know it. My father was captured by the Asturians, and he was forced to serve as the official diplomat. Back then, they did negotiate in Hebrew or Greek. Alphonso forced my father to convert to Christianity and to take a Christian concubine. As a child, I was barred from observing Jewish traditions and thus never learned Hebrew. Upon my father’s death, Alphonso made me the replacement. He believes I can accomplish the same tasks as my father because of my heritage, as if diplomacy and language were a product of blood relation, not of education or upbringing.”
Abriel smiled and patted the man on the shoulder. He was no stranger to the xenophobia of men in matters of land and faith. Ari proceeded to lead Abriel into the palace where they walked past a variety of meetings among the locals. Alphonso had retired out of sight while men met to discuss the city’s business. In the rear of the main hall, Ari used a key from his pocket to unlock a rickety wooden door which led to a small library filled with books along the walls and a small desk pushed against the far corner. A small aperture let in the setting sun’s rays, but not enough to illuminate the entire room. Ari lit a candle and sat Abriel at the desk.
“The Saracens prefer to be called Moors,” Ari began. “They are a highly civilized people and expect to be treated as such. They call the Asturians ‘Unfortunate Pale Men’ because they think a white complexion makes men susceptible to disease and madness. They will treat you as an inferior. Expect that at the very least.”
“If they think the Asturians pale, what are they?” asked Abriel whose own complexion was much paler than that of the people of Oviedo.
“The Asturians call them black,” Ari answered frankly. “But they’re really not. They simply appear to be black, especially when wearing white which they often do. If you’ve never seen a Moor, then make up your own mind about what they are. At this point, it’s impossible to convince the Asturians that they are anything other than demons.”
Abriel chuckled. “Surely they can’t be that frightening,” he said lightheartedly.
“I’m sure it is different for you. You are a Northman,” Ari said nervously. “It is said you fear nothing. Even the Moors have heard of your prowess.”
“That may give me an advantage,” said Abriel as he stroked his short red beard.
Three knocks at the doors jolted Ari to his feet. He rushed to answer it. Abriel saw that Ari feared the wrath of the Asturians who apparently did not treat him well. At the door stood one of Alphonso’s guards. Behind him, he delivered three badly beaten men. Their eyes were swollen, their faces bruised, and their brows bloodied.
“Pickup for the Northman,” said the guard with a chuckle.
Three armed guards stood beside the prisoners. They forced their way into the small study chamber and pushed Ari aside. Ari’s facial expression denoted a sense of shock. Abriel instinctively stood to his feet to confront the men.
“I’m truly sorry!” Ari yelled to Abriel with a crack in his voice. “I didn’t know!”
Abriel’s eyes opened wide. He regretfully realized he had fallen into a trap. The guards lunged toward the Northman with their large clubs raised over their heads. In a quick effort to ward them off, Abriel unsheathed a hidden dagger from his trousers and ran the blade up under one Asturian guard’s chin. The others managed to inflict several blows upon the Northman with their clubs which quickly incapacitated him. As Abriel fell to the ground, the guards continued to beat him mercilessly.
“That’s enough!” shouted Ari, but the beating continued. “Enough I said!” he shouted again without success. Ari forced his way between the guards and their victim. “Lay a hand on me, and the king will have your head too!”
The Asturians ceased their violence. They lifted Abriel from the floor and carried him into the main chamber of the palace along with the other three prisoners. Under the dim lighting of candles, the Asturian king sat pensively at the head of a large wooden table. This was not a tall, glorious hall to which the Northmen were accustomed. Instead, the stone archways and domed ceilings sank low above their heads. Abriel slowly regained consciousness. He examined his surroundings for possible weapons to use in an escape attempt. Before he could find anything useful, the Asturian king spoke in his language, and then translated his orders for the Northmen.
“We are sending you to The Valley of Death. May God have mercy on your souls.”
The Asturians placed cloth sacks over the Northmen’s heads to obscure their vision. Abriel breathed heavily. A loud crack echoed in the hall, and Abriel faded to black again.
* * *
A strange smell filled Abriel’s nostrils. Its sharp, acute aroma immediately awoke him and brought him back into the world of the living. When he opened his eyes, he was greeted by a dark-skinned man dressed in a thick white cloak, who upon seeing Abriel regaining consciousness, smiled. The man pulled back the herbs that he had held under Abriel’s nose to wake him. Then the man spoke in the Asturian language.
“We are not from Asturias,” Abriel replied in Latin with the hope that he and this man shared a common language. The man stared thoughtfully at Abriel.
“Hello,” the dark-skinned man replied in the Frankish language.
Abriel looked upon his new captor with surprise. “How did you know that is my first language?”
“Your accent in Latin,” said the man laughing.
“How did you learn it?” Abriel inquired.
“They speak it as far south as the Pyrenees, and we do trade with them,” said the man with immaculate pronunciation. “I am Mohammadu. What is your name?”
“Tell me, Abriel. What is your business in this land? Why does the King of Asturias want you dead?”
“That is a good question,” replied Abriel. His head pounded with agony as he placed his hand on his forehead. “I suppose he does not enjoy our company.”
Mohammadu laughed at the Northman’s answer. “You!” he bellowed. “You suppose…he…haha!”
“I fail to see the humor in all of this,” said Abriel, confused.
“Apologies,” said Mohammadu. “You were nearly killed and…well, your reaction is not what I expected. So tell me, visitor, where are you from?”
Mohammadu’s cheerful demeanor diminished at Abriel’s reply. “Your answer insults me,” he retorted.
Abriel realized his host’s emotional state had made a drastic turn for the worse.
“Look around, pale man,” said Mohammadu. “This is no place for someone of your kind to be rude.”
Abriel quickly glanced away from Mohammadu into the surrounding countryside where he saw a terrible carnage. A horse-drawn carriage had been overturned and its contents strewn across the grassy flats along the side of the beaten path. Asturian soldiers’ corpses littered the nearby fields. Several men of the same complexion as Mohammadu dragged the bodies of the slain to a massive fire in the adjacent pasture.
“Where are you from, Abriel?” Mohammadu asked again.
“Perhaps you have heard of our people, the Northmen,” said Abriel remembering his conversation with Ari. “My men and I, we are those Northmen. Our ship waits for us on the coast.”
“Fascinating!” Mohammadu cried out with excitement. “I have heard of your people. It is said you are fearless warriors. And your ships, oh how I wish I could see one of the famed dragonhead ships!”
“If you do not kill me, you may yet have the chance,” said Abriel.
“Praise be to Allah! This is good news!” Mohammadu cried out.
“Allah? Is he your king?” asked Abriel with a certain naïveté.
“No,” Mohammadu said sternly. “He is the one true God on this earth.”
Abriel shamefully placed his face in the palm of his hand and shook his head with regret.
“My apologies, Mohammadu. My head is still in a fog. I have read about your people. The Muslims, yes?”
“Yes,” said Mohammadu suspiciously.
“I have read about your prophet. Although, most of what I know comes from the writings of John of Damascus.”
Mohammadu frowned at the reference. “That is not a good source,” he said.
“I did not say it was, but that is what I know.”
Mohammadu smiled again. “Come, Abriel. Let us mend you and feed you. I will tell you about our prophet, and you can tell me how a Northman came to read the writings of John of Damascus.”
Mohammadu and his men led Abriel down from the hills into the valley below where they entered a quiet village similar to Oviedo in its architecture. The people there resembled the Asturians; only the soldiers and their leader were dark skinned. Throughout the town, the people appeared better fed, better clothed, and healthier than their Asturian counterparts. The Moors were undoubtedly not oppressing the inhabitants of this village. Mohammadu brought Abriel and the other Northmen into a small stone house with a wide archway entrance. From the archway, they saw billowing steam.
“Come,” said Mohammadu. “We must cleanse in the bathhouse before we eat.”
Abriel’s men murmured with excitement. It had been several weeks since they had bathed in their own steam house on Herius, and the thought of washing themselves clean made them joyous and cheerful.
“Your men seem to recognize the bathhouse. Do Northmen bathe as we do?” Mohammadu asked with intrigue.
“We have steam houses where we wash, yes,” replied Abriel.
In the bathhouse, the men stripped down and entered a large enclosed room filled with steam emanating from a large central pool. Abriel and his men smiled with joy as they washed the impurities from their bodies. Cnut patted his leader on the back.
“Just a few hours ago, we were dead men,” Cnut said laughing.
“Yes, but let us not allow our rejoicing to cloud our judgment,” said Abriel. “We do not want to offend these people. Keep on your guard at all times. Speak when spoken to, eat and drink when it is offered, but do not be bold.”
Mohammadu called for towels and fresh clothes for his guests. Servants—all men—brought clean white robes for the Northmen to wear and they took them eagerly. After the bathhouse, the group moved to a large dining hall where an array of exotic foods had been placed on the table. The Northmen approached the new food cautiously at first.
“Where is the mead or wine?” asked Cnut disappointedly.
“Where are the women?” asked another among the Northmen. “All these servants are men. Does that not seem strange to all of you?”
They stared at the modest meal blankly for a moment, but after some urging from Abriel, they feasted.
“Your men seem to enjoy our food,” said Mohammadu with a smile. “Come, try the lamb. It is an old family recipe!”
“I hope their manners do not offend,” said Abriel.
“No, no,” said Mohammadu cheerfully. “I wish to learn about your people. Let them be!”
Mohammadu then asked Abriel to tell of how a Northman had come to learn so much about Islam and Christianity and learned how to read and write. Abriel indulged his host with the tale of how he had been raised in a monastery but left that life to discover his heritage as a Northman. He told of the war in the north, the discovery of the identity of his father, and of how Northmen came to settle the Island of Herius. He also told of the horrors committed on Herius by the Christian church.
“My people are not free from sin either,” said Mohammadu sorrowfully. “Our prophet was forced by unbelievers to do them harm. It is a great shame.”
Mohammadu continued with the story of his faith. He told Abriel of the prophet Muhammad and his connection to Allah. Then he explained the conquest of Iberia, parts of which Abriel recognized from the stories told at Grand Lieu Lake about Charles the Hammer, who had stopped the Muslims from conquering the Frankish Empire. As they talked, the two men developed a kinship and a particular understanding between each other. The night grew long, and Abriel’s men retired to a dormitory prepared for them by Mohammadu’s servants.
“I need to return to my ship tomorrow,” said Abriel. “If I do not return by sundown, they will think I am dead and leave.”
“It is a dangerous road through the mountains to the coast,” explained Mohammadu. “The Asturians are ever watchful of their lands and will hunt down any intruders. Even we the Moors, with our vast armies, seldom enter the mountains of Asturias. They use the mountains to their advantage. That is how they have remained independent from us all this time.”
“I must take the road regardless of the danger. I must return to my wife,” said Abriel.
“What courage!” exclaimed the Moor. “Then I will go with you. We will take our finest horses and ride to your ship!” he said enthusiastically.
“You do not have to—” Abriel began.
“Do not be foolish!” Mohammadu said with a laugh. “I want to see your famed ship and perhaps even sail on it! Come! Let us sleep a deep sleep and awake tomorrow with clear minds and a thirst for adventure!”
At those words, the leader of the small Muslim community retired. Abriel joined his men in the dormitory for the night. At first light, the village bustled with activity. The Northmen slept still, but Abriel had awakened and listened to the sounds outside in the streets. The door to the small chamber suddenly burst open, and through it came Mohammadu in full battle regalia. Over his usual white cloak, he wore a thick leather breastplate fastened tightly around the waist and around the shoulders. His belt held two fastened swords whose hilts overlapped in front of his stomach.
“Awaken, Abriel! Time to leave!” he yelled excitedly.
The Northmen rose from their slumber slowly. They were greeted outside the dormitory by more servants—all men—who gave them back their clothes and armor which had all been thoroughly washed and perfumed. Abriel’s curiosity grew over the absence of women.
“Mohammadu,” Abriel asked cautiously, “where are all the women of the village?”
“At home with their husbands. Why?”
“My men wonder why no women are serving or roaming the streets.”
“We protect our women very closely. To us, they are highly valued, and they are the pride of their husbands. Their husbands are the only ones who merit to look upon them. To look upon an unveiled woman who is not your wife is a high offense to us.”
Abriel felt satisfied by the answer, albeit slightly confused. He and his men donned their clothes and armor and made for the stables with Mohammadu. Each man was given a well-bred horse to ride which surprised them because horses were exceedingly expensive to breed farther north. The fact that the Moors offered to let them ride the steeds denoted great wealth and largesse. Once mounted, the group of four Northmen with twelve Moors rode from the village into the mountains. They journeyed most of the day peaceably and without incident. Mohammadu led the group down a narrow mountain pass, eventually leading the small fellowship to a series of rolling hills which cut off steeply over cliffs at the ocean.
“I have not seen this ocean in a long while,” said Mohammadu into the strong coastal breeze. “Now, Abriel, tell me where you left your ship!”
“A distance up the coast still. We beached in an inlet along the cliffs!” Abriel yelled into the wind.
As if a spark had ignited in Mohammadu’s eyes, he turned swiftly west along the cliffs and rode hard upon his mount. The others struggled to follow. Not long after they had reached the ocean, the travelers arrived at the coastal recess in the cliffs where the Northmen had left their ship and their friends.
“Is that it? Is that your ship?” Mohammadu yelled with wonderment.
“It is,” replied Abriel joyously.
“It is more spectacular than I could have ever imagined!” said the Moor enthusiastically.
They rode on and entered the encampment excitedly. As the group approached closer, not a soul stirred from the tents. Each Northman anxiously called out to individuals who should have been present. The Moors watched on studiously.
“It is empty,” said Cnut sorrowfully. “They have left us.”
“No,” Abriel replied with a firm tone. “They have been taken.”
The King of Herius pointed to a pile of bodies which had been obscured by one of the tents. He quickly dismounted and vehemently searched the mound for his wife. The other Northmen joined in the search. Kenna was not among the dead.
“And someone has taken all the salt,” added Cnut.
Mohammadu unhorsed to survey the camp for other signs of trouble. “These are fresh corpses,” he said quietly. “The Asturians must have attacked in the night to take your wares. So they have been busy! That must be why we had such an easy passage.”
“Thank you for all your help, Mohammadu,” said Abriel. “I am pleased to have made your acquaintance. But the trials we face are our own. I cannot ask you to help us in what we must now do.”
Mohammadu laughed. “Your humility is very, eh…Muslim. You have done me a great favor by showing me your ship. And I am the person who can most help you. Say nothing. Do not make me change my mind. We will pay a visit to Oviedo and send them a message they will never forget.”
As night fell over the city of Oviedo, the townspeople retired to their homes after a long day in the fields. A handful of soldiers watched over the city streets from their wooden towers, and the palace fires dimmed for the night. Below the city in a dungeon of stone and iron, the Northmen from Abriel’s ship sat quietly in their shackles. Among them was the king’s wife, Kenna, who sat against the cold stone wall with her head back and her eyes fixed on the ceiling. No tears flowed down her face. Instead, her eyes remained open with fury. How she would strangle her husband if she could, she thought. His arrogance had landed half the crew in a dungeon and sent the other half to Valhalla.
From the blackness of the surrounding countryside emerged figures moving swiftly toward the city. One of the guards atop a tall wooden bell tower spotted the shadows in the dark but dismissed them as wild animals attracted to the firelight. A whistling sound suddenly echoed in the sky and grew louder. The guards in the bell tower listened as more and more of these strange sounds broke the night’s crisp silence. Below them, the guards of the night’s watch began to fall from their posts. Dark figures moved along the road and extinguished the fires that illuminated the streets. As the guards contemplated sounding the alarm, they turned toward the bell where, to their utter surprise, stood a tall figure who appeared as dark as a moonless night. Both guards felt cold steel run across their throats.
The Moors moved silently and swiftly through the city. They arrived at the barracks where most of the king’s soldiers slept. With excellent cooperation, the Moors passed hay and kindling amongst one another into a pile set against the large wooden barracks building. Quietly, they lit the fuel. The dry wood of the barracks wall took to flame, and amidst the thickening smoke, the men inside realized their misfortune. The Asturian soldiers bolted for the barracks door which had been barricaded shut by the Moorish infiltrators. Screams from the barracks filled Oviedo’s streets. Mohammadu stood confidently on the palace steps awaiting the King of Asturias. As expected, the king emerged from his bedchamber unready for combat and was followed by a dozen guards.
“Mohammadu?” Alphonso yelled as he faced his attacker.
“My friend!” replied the Moor with a broad smile and hands held open as if to embrace Alphonso.
The king’s men charged Mohammadu who retreated swiftly toward the flaming barracks where the Asturians met with the other Moorish soldiers, and a furious struggle ensued. Alphonso quickly realized what had been done. His garrison in Oviedo had been destroyed in one cunning move. Rather than fight, the king retreated with his men into the surrounding hills, leaving his people at the mercy of the Moors.
Meanwhile, Abriel and his men had infiltrated Oviedo’s dungeon. They subdued the guards at the entrance and barged through the wooden doors. Using the keys they had snatched from one of the guards, they began unlocking the shackles from their friends. Abriel unshackled his wife. She stood to her feet, gazed into her husband’s eyes, and slapped him across the face.
“Let us go home,” she said spitefully as she stormed out of the dungeon.
“Where’s Oddr?” asked Abriel quickly.
“I don’t know. He disappeared again after you left,” Kenna replied.
As he exited the dungeon, Abriel found Ulfr Ketillsson shackled to a wall in one of the side corridors. Taking pity on him, Abriel unshackled the man and picked him up by the shoulders. The freed Northmen arrived in the courtyard led by their king. Under the light from the blaze, the Moors stood relaxed and waiting.
“What will happen to the town now?” Abriel asked of his new friend.
“If I were a Christian and this was a Muslim town, I would kill every man, woman, and child,” replied Mohammadu.
“What would a Muslim do?” Abriel asked.
“Go home and pray Allah to be merciful for what we have done. But I believe it was a good deed to help you.” Mohammadu approached Abriel and placed his hand on the Northman’s shoulder. “My friend, we Muslims have a hard fight ahead of us as well. I wish to trade with you.” Slowly, he removed a gold necklace from his neck and placed it in Abriel’s hand. “This is the purest gold you will ever find. Take it. And we will take your salt.”
Abriel agreed. The two bowed to each other in respect.
“You know where to find me,” said Mohammadu. “Come to visit any time!”
The Moors exited the city into the dark fields to their horses. Abriel and his men began their march to their ship on the coast. Behind them, the fire engineered by the Moors spread and swept through the rest of Oviedo. Light from the blaze illuminated the path into the fields, which the Northmen used to find their way into the lightly wooded forest outside the city. Silently they walked.
Once arrived at the ship, Abriel gave the order to depart immediately for fear of an Asturian retaliation. Alphonso had escaped into the nearby foothills, and Abriel surmised that the Asturian king might rally support by morning to stage another attack. With heavy ropes, the remaining crewmen heaved their vessel toward the deeper waters of the small cove under the dim light of a crescent moon. Kenna boarded the ship on her own to begin erecting a tarp over the midsection of the boat where the men could rest at sea. Abriel followed to speak with her.
“Have you nothing to say, my love?” he asked. Kenna remained silent. “I apologize for the failure of this voyage. I tried with all my power to make this mission a success, but the people of this land were never going to allow us to succeed.”
“We knew that from the time they captured Cnut,” said Kenna spitefully.
“Kenna, you must understand. They are my friends and allies. I could not let them rot in a foreign dungeon—”
“And you didn’t,” Kenna said. “You took an unnecessary risk to save them, and it cost you half the crew. Were those men not your friends and allies as well?”
“I regret what happened.”
“Regret won’t bring those men back. They have families at home and children to feed. And in your arrogance, you threw away their lives.”
Abriel clenched his fists in anger. “How dare you use our misfortunes against me? I could not have predicted what happened to us! It was out of my control!”
“But you are king, Abriel!” Kenna screamed back at him. “You are responsible for these people!” Tears ran down her face as she sat on a chest on the ship’s deck. “You are not invincible, Abriel. We have a daughter at home, too. We came here to trade, not fight. Why could you not listen to my advice when I had some to give?”
Seeing that she would never convince her husband of her perspective, Kenna finished tying the last knot to the tarp and walked to the rear of the ship to help load the supplies. The Northmen managed to drag their boat into the deeper water, and all the survivors boarded it to their relief. Oars quietly hit the waters below, and the ship glided into the open ocean. Kenna rested in her corner of the deck alone as Abriel stood at the bow and stared pensively into the unfathomable vastness of the sea of the night. Oddr appeared again as if from the depth of the sea and stood silently by the king’s side. Kenna wept as she watched. When she turned away to hide her tears, she felt the coldness of metal touch her shoulder. She looked back and found Abriel who had placed Mohammadu’s gift around her neck. Abriel whispered softly to his wife.
“Let this necklace of gold serve as a reminder of our duty to our people.”
This short story is an excerpt of C.J. Adrien’s second novel, The Oath of the Father. Click the image to read more: