The Ballad of Sigurd Jorsalfare

Chapter 35

As Halvar Night Hawk and the Berserkers reached Insalada, the dust of Sigurd’s joyous flight was still settling on the amused crowd. The townsfolk agreed that Sigurd was the strangest Franj they had encountered to date, including a group of Jerusalem-bound devout Alsatian pilgrims dressed in Riesling skins they had seen chanting by the roadside a year ago.

Halvar scanned the scene. Halvar looked down at his map.

Halvar looked up at the stone gate and then back down at his map again.

“What is wrong?” asked Tvet Nilson and Nils Tveta.

“It’s not on the map,” said Halvar and spat on the dirt.

“Where are we?” Asked the Swedes, as Swedes were wont to ask.

“I don’t know,” said Halvar, “but I’m pretty sure we’re south of wherever it is we ought to be.”

Papa Modestus approached Halvar and the Berserkers and looked at the gate. His face turned white as a sheet.

“The Schismatics,” hissed Papa Modestus. “We are in grave, grave danger, brave one,” he whispered.

Halvar turned to the whimpering priest.

“Why?” he asked.

Papa Modestus leaned in on Halvar and whispered in his ear.

Halvar looked at Papa Modestus with disgust.

“It’s the truth,” swore the priest.

“The whole town!?” asked Halvar in disbelief.

“Every last one of them,” said Papa Modestus and stole a glance towards the townsfolk. “They are famous for it throughout Outremer.”

Halvar turned slowly and squinted at the town.

Banners and flags had been raised; music was playing now and people were dancing, kissing, drinking, eating, singing, chatting and all manner of disgusting human behavior only agnostics are capable of.

“I need to think,” said the old warrior.

“The longer you give them…” Papa Modestus trailed off.

Halvar turned to the assembling Norwegians. He motioned them to gather closer around him.

“I want everyone to spread out and circle the town,” he said. “You can look, but don’t talk to any of them and whatever you do — don’t let them touch you.”

“For how long?” asked Olaf the Boar, dreading stagnation.

“Until you hear the horns sound,” said Halvar.

He turned to Tvet Nilson and Nils Tveta: “Gather your idiots. We need to talk.”

The Swedes turned to their actors.

Nils screeched.

Tvet flapped his arms.

The acting company assembled like chastened osprey around their artistic directors.

“This is a very serious moment,” said Halvar and cleared his throat. Aware of the seriousness of the moment, Halvar refrained from spitting.

“What would you like us to do?” Asked the mirror images.

“Whatever it takes to get into character” said Halvar and kicked a clump of dust.

The actors stepped aside and gathered under a giant oak tree.

“Group hug,” said Tvet. Nils fetched his bag and pulled out some horridly shriveled bits of dirty somethings.

“Sit,” said Tvet and they sat. Nils passed around the shriveled bits and each actor took one.

“Eat,” said Tvet and they ate.

The expressions on the actors’ faces ranged from mild disgust to nauseous horror to sheer panic. A few began vomiting right away before passing out; others waited at least seven seconds before rolling over on their backs.

Thirty seconds more, at most, and the rest of the company turned a gray shade of purple, twitched like orphaned hatchlings, and fell to the ground flat on their faces.

The Overbal Fiskgjuse Teater had found the truth of its mission, nonverbal to the core.

Night fell early that evening, as if taunting the crusaders. The rudderless townsfolk ate meat until they couldn’t eat any more. They danced themselves into a sweaty mess and sang themselves horse with frivolous joy. The Festival of the Cumbersome Number was nearing its conclusion.

The final act of the Festival, at Nine Thirty Two in the evening, annually, was the Distribution of Ill-Gotten Gains. The entire Town would form concentric circles in the center of the town. Everyone donned sacks on their heads and waited.

At the sound of a broken heart played upon a Bedouin flute, a designated reader would chant from the book of Lamentations in Latin, to intensify the mystery. Any person who had committed any manner of dishonest commerce during the year would drop a bag filled with their ill-gotten gains on the ground and take one step back. Once the flute stopped playing, every participant would turn one hundred and eighty degrees to their right and take three steps forward.

“Widows and Orphans, come forth,” cried the town crier, and into the center of the circle came the unfortunate to gather the loot.

“Dance,” cried the town crier and the townsfolk removed the sacks from their heads, flung them into the air and cried: “Tzedek” — “Justice.”

The agnostics draped their arms around their neighbors’ shoulders and broke into a rousing Debka, stomping the dirt with their feet, their heads held proudly, upper bodies stiff with rectitude, men, women, and the ambivalent, all as one.

The noise was extraordinary: thumping, hooting and hollering, drums and reeds and stringed instruments chasing each other through accelerating scales, rhythms, beats, until they could not play another note, until all music was exhausted and the sky threatened to crack open and fall upon the celebrants.

Papa Modestus lurched forward in a cold sweat. The heat of the day had gotten to him and he had dozed off right after nightfall. Now the sound of the Festival’s climax had startled him from his sleep.

“Circle the town seven times!” he cried.

Halvar walked over to the frenzied priest.

“What is the matter?” he asked

“Seven times!” yelled the priest, on fire, “Seven times sounding the horns and circling the town and she is ours.”

Halvar wasn’t sure he wanted the town.

Papa Modestus ran to a nearby soldier, grabbed his horn and blew it at the top of his lungs.

“Sweechk!!!” breath, breath, breath. The Overbal Fiskgjuse Teater came to life, so to speak.

“I had a vision. A dream,” The hysterical priest called out, running in circles around himself.

“Angfurx,” Cough, flap twice the wings and spit hard. “Blangshtuphy,” Tvet Nilson stood up upon exceptionally wobbly legs and called his company to order.

“Aykah aykah aykah Hoff!” cried Nils Tveta the fast and furious cheer.

The passed out actors, stoned, hallucinating and dehydrated, attempted, feebly, to rise, stumbling, falling back down and rising again to their knees in disbelief.

“Ahoooooo!” Screamed Tvet Nilson and ran into a tree trunk. The Berserkers charged forward in multiple directions, flailing their arms, hopping, jumping, lurching, some even running on all fours, like rabid dogs.

“Ahoooooo, Ahoooooo, Ahoooooo!” They howled, drooling, licking stones, eating thorns, urinating on each other’s legs. One of them attacked an especially arrogant clump of air, accusing it of mocking his virility. The air made a transparent attempt to deny its culpability but the actor was having none of it.

“Fuck your mother’s giblets!” screamed the Swede and vomited right into the air, nailing it with a perfectly hurtled projectile. “Die, stefghukhte schmuck!!!” and the air vanished.

“Aykah aykah aykah Hoff!” cried the mob.

Max Carlson, the effervescent Socialist, had been admiring the ceremony of the Ill Begotten Gains from his post on the southeastern corner of Insalada, writing down his thoughts on the sand by the light of a torch, so as not to forget. For a moment he thought he heard the sound of a horn blowing, followed by some strange animal calls blowing in from the north.

A few minutes more and Max was sure he was not imagining the blood curdling sounds piercing the night. Gathering his comrades around him, Max decided they should all walk north towards the sounds, which became louder and more eerie the farther north they walked.

Max signaled his fellow social degenerates and out came their axes and knives. Archers readied their bows, shields were rattled and spears raised, ready for whatever was awaiting them ahead.

On the western side of Insalada, Olaf the Boar, having had just about enough stagnation as he could stomach, as Halvar feared he would, jumped over a low hanging branch of a weeping willow upon hearing Papa Modestus blow the horn.

“Ahoy!” he roared, wild boar that he was. His trigger happy posse grabbed their weapons and charged the town, torches lit, spinning above their heads, running towards the first row of stone houses, nestled behind the oleander bushes that adorned the town with poisonous kisses.

The southwestern corner of the town was under the watch of Einar the Librarian and his prematurely aging son, Thorvald the gray.

The two intellectuals, in total disregard of Halvar’s clear instructions to avoid contact with the town’s people, had been walking through the town for hours now, introducing themselves to the curious agnostics, exchanging gifts and engaging in stimulating conversation in Latin, Greek, and some Northern French, which neither the Norwegians nor the townsfolk actually spoke.

What they learned, after downing many, many gullets of lion’s milk, was that the women of Insalada were astonishingly beautiful, friendly and eager and that the townsfolk were pacifists.

The Norwegians, who had no capacity for understanding the willful eschewing of weaponry, were dumbfounded. The more the concept was explained to them, the more confused they grew. The more they grew, the more the town’s women yearned to explain it to them, which they finally did, undressing the drunk Vikings and tossing them into the fountain.

Into the fountain dove the women. The waters roiled and steamed as the impossibly perplexing concept was hammered onto the thick Norwegians.

Lying on his back underneath a brown mermaid lay Thorvald the Gray, chin barely above water, regaining his senses as the horn sounded. Einar the Librarian stood up in the fountain, nude as a Greek statue, two women holding on to his legs, biting at his knees.

The two men looked around in alarm, realizing they were all alone in the middle of friendly territory, with no means of defending themselves, a shocking realization for a soldier.

The two dashed out of the water, running stark naked through the town, chased by some of the more energetic nymphs — all naked as well. Thinking this must be a new holiday tradition, many onlookers quickly shed their clothes and joined the naked marathon, running towards Olaf the Boar and his advancing soldiers.

Tvet Nilson gave up his attempt to free himself from the acacia he’d rammed into. He uprooted the tree with a wild tug and spun around, shedding leaves and scattering owls into the night’s air. Tree and man began rolling on the ground, branches breaking, shrieking “Aykah aykah aykah Hoff!” towards the center of Insalada.

The sight of their arboreal leader rolling into battle filled the hearts of his actors with unspeakable courage. Some flapped their arms so hard they began flying like dog birds; others swam through rocks, uprooting trees and bushes, displacing stones with their nostrils.

Papa Modestus grabbed his Crucifix and climbed over the advancing Berserkers.

“Me first! It’s my vision, you motherfuckers!” he screeched, drooling green lava, his hair on fire and his heart a fountain of molten lead.

From the nearby dark and rolling hills to the east of the town, packs of jackals and hyenas, heeding the magnificent calls of their fellow creatures from the infamous Overbal Fiskgjuse Teater, crept nearer and nearer to Insalada, losing their foolish fear of fire, smelling the sweat and urine, glimpsing the tasty children through the fence.

Teeth bared, tongues wagging, tails tucked between their lecherous hinds, the murderous scavengers ran serpentine, growling past heat stricken Norwegians, chasing their heroic brethren, the awesome and mighty Berserkers, their bear skins, dog heads, fox tails and elk horns all a blur of stampeding wickedness.

Tvet the tree hit the barbecue first, scattering flaming meat morsels through the air. The revelers looked in horror as the horizon thundered and vomited an apocalyptic cacophony of beasts and demons right at them.

Screaming, they began running, fools that they were, in all directions, no order, no thought, no plan in mind. Idiots.

Children froze.

Mistake!

“Ahoooooo,” wailed the jackals and the Berserkers as one.

The jackals got to them first, grabbing toddlers and babies by their heads, dragging them away from the fire pits towards the sweet dark hills of their malevolent lairs.

Hyenas attacked the meatier, older children, thrashing wildly to break their necks and slit their throats, gurgling and singing their lurid gibberish.

Mothers, fathers, brothers and sisters came running back, screaming, to wrest their children from the demon beasts.

“Harlots!” screamed Papa Modestus, spitting at the terrified agnostics.

“Kill the fucking Godless fuckers!” he shrieked, kicking the air around him like a windmill run amok.

The Berserkers were right behind him.

Swooping on the crowd, the hallucinating maniacs tore limbs right off the defenseless celebrants, biting noses off and spitting them back at the defaced victims.

“Kasap det Szhpuke!” howled the Berserkers and butchered every agnostic standing in their way, goring them with their antlers, clawing out their eyes, devouring their hearts and stomping their brains out.

Blood, blood, blood everywhere. Bloody blood; steaming blood; screaming blood; why blood how much so much blood?

Mothers spun in circles like whirling Dervishes, dancing the song of why; blood spewing from their clawed breasts, garments ripped not by rapists -

- Oh there were rapists, please! Please! There were enough raping machines to fuck the Indian subcontinent six time over — Torn by their own hands, by their own bleeding fingernails. Gnawed by their own teeth. If only they could have torn their hearts out they would have, but how feeble, how sad is the human being? How pathetic are we that even the butchering of our children is not enough to stop our beating hearts at will?

Max Carlson and his socialists broke through an oleander fence and stumbled into the town, weapons drawn. Children, women, dogs, men, even olive trees were running in sheer panic, uprooting themselves after centuries of unbending loyalty, tearing through the burning streets of Inshalla, God willing, maybe, looking for shelter, for a shadow of a crevice in which to hide themselves.

The socialists froze. Max spun around, scanning the chaos.

“Kill them!” he cried and they all knew who he meant.

Arrows whistled their deadly song through the night towards the advancing Berserkers. One by one the arrows pierced the actors, wounding them fatally, but not stopping their advance.

“Kill them better!” He bellowed, and axes whined through the chilling air, lodging themselves in chests, shoulders, legs, even beheading a maniac or two.

“Finish them!” he screamed and thrust his spear forward like a lightening bolt.

His men speared a herd of Berserkers, nailing them to walls, trees, even boulders. There they hung, dangled, splayed in a wondrous macabre installation, testifying to the triumph of modern art over ancient evil.

“Get the children,” said Max.

The socialists gathered every living child and widow they could find, scraping them off tree limbs, hauling them down from roof tops, pulling them out of rat holes, trembling, weeping, astonished.

“We are done here,” said Max, “let’s go.” And off to the hills they headed into the dark, leaving behind the burning town, carrying children in their arms, holding women close to them, hushing the weeping flock, herding them all towards safety, away, forever, from the crusades, from the loving arms of God.

*

Halvar Night Hawk stood in the middle of the smoldering ashes of Insalada. Rotating to his left, he completed a full circle around himself very slowly

“Where are the weapons?” he asked.

“We found no weapons,” said Skelsjok Lindman, traumatized once more.

“What do you mean, you found no weapons?” asked Halvar in disbelief.

“No weapons,” said Skelsjok.

“Then who killed the Berserkers?” he asked.

“Max Carlson and the socialists,” said Feltet Mouse the Minor, a soldier of little consequence.

Halvar gave him one hard look.

The soldier swallowed. “I saw them do it,” he said. “It wasn’t the heathens — they were all running away and they didn’t have any weapons.”

“Don’t be absurd,” roared Halvar at him and spat between his quivering legs, “everyone has weapons.”

A very naked Einar appeared, followed by three exquisitely naked women, dragging an impressively naked Thorvald the Gray behind them, tied to a rope.

“They were pacifists,” said Einar the Librarian, demurely covering his page marker.

“Meaning what?” barked Halvar at him, squinting at the nudist group, “and where are your clothes?”

“Devils,” hissed Papa Modestus, emerging from behind a tree stump, covered with soot, “immodest, fornicating, Godless devils,” his face a contorted mask of hatred.

Halvar Night Hawk grabbed the priest’s demonic face with his left hand and squeezed. Papa Modestus tried to yell, but Halvar squeezed harder, broke his jaw and dropped him to the ground.

“It will probably hurt too much,” said the old warrior, “But if you feel the pain letting up just enough for you to speak again — don’t, I’ll kill you,” said Halvar.

He glanced to his right and saw a lone jackal poking through a heap of charred limbs. Halvar tossed his axe at him so fast, the scavenger never saw it coming.

Halvar walked over to the animal, removed the axe from his head and cut its tail off with one clean motion. He picked the bloody appendage up and walked back to the writhing priest. He leaned over and stuffed the tail in his mouth.

“There,” he said, “That ought to shut the fucking Byzantine up until we reach Jerusalem.”

“Where are the Boars?” asked Halvar, seeing neither Olaf the Boar, nor any of his hyperactive men.

“They ran after the naked parade,” said Thorvald, giggling nervously.

“The…?” asked Halvar, not sure he wanted to know.

“A new tradition we started earlier this evening,” explained Einar, ever the librarian. “The townsfolk took to it immediately,” he said with a certain pride in his voice and an amused glint in his eye.

“They ran towards the sea,” said Thorvald and pointed west.

“I know where the sea is, you idiot,” snapped Halvar, who had almost exhausted his entire vocabulary for the month.

“How many dead? “ He asked Skelsjok.

“Can’t really say. We counted more than seven hundred, but we saw jackals and hyenas carrying bodies away. Even eagles and giant owls were in on it.”

An unusually vituperative serpent slithered past Halvar and chuckled, hearing some internal joke. Halvar kicked a stone at the viper but missed.

High above them, the Norwegians were being observed by a large flock of buzzards and vultures, circling the warriors, mocking them, waiting for the victors to push on towards Jerusalem, the holiest of cities.”