It was late that night when I recieved the summons.
For an aspiring monarch, Buliwyf lived in a state of near-poverty that would have been unheard of in my land. His shabby tent was only slightly bigger than those which the others occupied, only slightly more protection against the constant rain in this strange Northern country.
I ducked inside, grateful to be out of the eternally driving, grey rain, and made my obeisance. An honor usually afforded none lower than a calif, but Buliwyf, as leader of his people, deserved such respects.
The heat was the first thing I noticed. The inside of the tent was warmed by a brazier of coals; for the first time since we entered the land of the Tartars, I felt truly comfortable.
Of course, in Baghdad, the air would have been perfumed with cloves, aloes, cinnamon not steel and fur and animal skins. But one learns to make do with what one has.
Buliwyf was seated at a low wooden table and he gestured for me to do likewise.
I do not know much of Northern manners, but I know that the thin undershirt he wore over his trews meant that he found the heat unusual and uncomfortable, and had only warmed the tent out of consideration for me, his guest.
Manners being what they are in my country, I sought to make him more at ease by removing my outer garments as well.
We had been sitting in silence for a while before he spoke, in that voice of low thunder that rattled its way up from the base of my spine. Arabs do not speak in voices like that.
"You have come with us to fight though these are not your people." His broad, impassive face grave in the flickering light of the lamp on the table. "For that I thank you."
I inclined my head, a smile coming easily. Courtly graces I have in my blood; it is the broadsword which unmans me. "I am honored to be counted among your warriors."
He seemed relieved that this was out of the way, this thank you, and set a cup of water in front of me. Like the rest of these men, Buliwyf was very perceptive a quality you could overlook in men who were built as the trunks of trees.
Clearing his throat, Buliwyf smiled, leaning back and draping one large forearm over his knee. "In your country, you do much drawing of sounds?"
Familiar ground; I nodded, spreading my hands to encourage him. "In my country, I am a shaper of sounds. I draw many sounds together into words and paint a picture with them, that all may read of these thoughts and deeds and never forget, for all of time."
It heartened me to see the interest in his pale eyes, to see that I had touched a noble stirring in his heart. "Herger!" Buliwyf called suddenly, startling me.
Herger came charging into the tent dripping with rain and splashed with mud, sparing me a grin before receiving instructions from his liege and dashing out again. Moments later, he returned with my saddlebags, dumping them next to me and shaking water from his hair and beard.
"Trust an Arab to bring his poems to war," he jibed, backing out and snapping the tent flaps shut.
Bemused, I turned back to Buliwyf.
"Your name," he intoned. "Draw your name."
Sighing, I drew out my precious supply of paper and ink. Melchisidek would probably not die of grief if my letters did not come for a month or two, in any case....
"My name," I said slowly, dipping the pen into the ink, "is Ahmed ibn Fahdlan ibn...well, we'll stay with ibn Fahdlan for now."
His eyes followed as I trailed the pen along the dry, reedy paper, leaving elegant curves pressed in black upon its sandy brown surface. The movements were smooth and soothing; the sharp, acrid smell of ink, the dust and warmth of the paper...for a moment, I almost felt as if I were back among the silken veils and reddened skies of Baghdad.
I turned the paper to show Buliwyf, and he creased his broad forehead, squinting at the words. "This is Arabic writing," I told him. "This is the language of mathematicians, poets, singers, doctors...this is the language of kings."
He nodded, once, curtly, and slid the paper back toward me. "Write more," he said.
I bent my head and wrote again, my nose almost touching the paper. I wanted to smell it, feel it, taste it. I wanted to feel like a learned man again.
When I was finished, I moved around to the other side of the table, sitting close to Buliwyf to show him the marks of the ink.
"Before the dawn of the second millenium," I read, hearing my voice hushed under the pelting rain, "an evil arose in the cold lands of the North, darkening and stealing life from all whom it touched. Twelve brave warriors were chosen, among them Herger the Joyous, Helfdane the Large "
Buliwyf's voice, quieter now as well, interrupted my litany of names. "Read it in your language," he rumbled.
I took a breath and continued, listing off name after name before reaching the end. "And the leader of these formidable men, the greatest and best warrior of all...was a strong and noble king named Buliwyf."
I stopped there, catching my breath. It had been so long since I had spoken my own lilting tongue, so long since I had pronounced the delicate precision of Arabic and not these harsh North words that sounded broken in my mouth. I shook my head; I could not go on. My longing for the refined comforts of home, of a glimpse of the lush minarets or the sweep of Shaharazad's eyelashes...too overwhelming.
Bowing my head, I closed my eyes, desperately trying not to seem weak and effete in front of this man. "I am sorry," I gasped. "I cannot...."
The weight of Buliwyf's arm around my shoulders was unexpected but not unwelcome. His large, calloused hand pulled me closer to him and I went, seeking the solidity of flesh and bone, seeking warmth. The sound of his even, measured breathing steadied me and comforted me; the regular thump of his strong heart calmed my skittish blood.
And the warmth, the feeling of being against this man was sensuous in a way I had never imagined. Had never dared to dream of.
His fingers, thick fingers, moved across my brow with startling carefulness. I looked up, wondrous, and saw in his pale Northern eyes an emotion I had not thought to see. A warmth...a fire.
"You will teach me," he pronounced, and I watched the way his mouth formed the words, each clear, each gently forceful. My fingers, cold even in the close heat of the tent, found the powerful corner of his jaw, the hard muscles of his back.
"Yes," I murmured, dizzy in the flickering light.