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The Saga of the Cattle Killer

by Bertil Falk

part 1 of 3

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There was a man called Gardar, the son of Varin, the son of Erik, the son of Styr. He was a skald and storyteller. Above all, he was a master of runic inscriptions.

Gardar was welcome and handsome. Many a woman had felt his skilful hands. He was too young to be among the old men. He was, however, very knowledgeable. Gardar knew the old poems and stories by heart. He was well versed in magic.

As a runic master he was second to none. He had become well known as a problem-solver. Competent and clever he was. Because of all this, there was no lack of men who bore him grudge. But other people held him in esteem and awe.

Sigfather Sigtyrsson was a peasant, who lived at a farm called Ullergaard. Frey had blessed him with fertile ground, huge harvests, cattle and two children.

He had a son, named Sigurd Sigfathersson, who used to go on predatory raids to Britain and other places, and a daughter, called Sigryn Sigfathersdaughter, said to be the most desirable female within five days on horseback.

But a miscreant pestered Sigfather Sigtyrsson. Someone had been killing his animals. The farmer decided to put up a runic spell in order to stop the senseless killings. To do so he sent for Gardar Varinsson.

Thus, Gardar, son of Varin, came walking out of the forest into the clear-felled area where Sigfather Sigtyrsson lived with his family. Gardar’s tight trousers were flaming red and his tunic bright blue. The wide cloak, as fiery red as his trousers, was lined with colorful decorations, consisting of the runic futhark. The cloak was attached with a small brooch under his right arm. It covered his left side down to the knees. He wore leather shoes.

His blue eyes were curious and observant. Yellow hair fell over his ears from under a blue cap. His moustache and beard were a somewhat reddish color. When he smiled, two rows of slightly yellowish teeth with a black hole became visible. He had lost that one tooth in his upper row during a friendly glima-struggle some solar cycles ago. Now his days of glima-wrestling were over. He was a man — at least in his own opinion. And he was on his own, and as such he was hardworking and most successful.

Gardar stopped. He knew that someone was stealing up on him from behind. He had heard the sound of twigs carefully turned back somewhere to the right of the track he came from. He looked at the farm. Sigfather Sigtyrsson’s long-house was not a very big one. The wattle walls were set in a framework of oak and plastered with clay. The roof of birchbark was covered with tufts of grass.

Gardar smiled, turned hastily around and looked back down the narrow track, which wound through the forest.

Whatever it was, it was not fast enough. Gardar glimpsed an oval brooch. He laughed.

A girl. Why not?

A woman came out of the house. When she saw him she walked towards him. She wore a long gray sark with sleeves. A brooch bearing the face of the One-Eyed Odin glimmered on her left breast. Her eyes were gray and grim, her face somewhat tanned. She inspected him, head to foot.

“So you are Gardar, son of Varin,” she said, her arms akimbo. “Well, you must take after your mother, for Varin was not nice to look at. Not at all. And he was not well dressed either. I guess you have already met our man-mad daughter.”

“I have only felt her presence,” he said.

“That is bad enough,” she muttered. “The master of the house is waiting for you.”

“I can see that you are the wife of Sigfather Sigtyrsson,” Gardar said. “But what is your name?”

“I am Gunnlaug Egilsdaughter.”

He went after her into the house. Sigfather Sigtyrsson sat by the hearth and welcomed him with a nod. “I have been waiting for you,” he said and stroked his long beard. He was completely bald. “I knew that you were a young man, but I am surprised to see that you are such a youngster.”

“I have not come here to discuss my age,” Gardar said, while his eyes slowly got used to the darkness inside the almost windowless room. There were only three small openings, covered with slightly transparent, stretched sheep bladders.

“You are right. Sit down here by my side and I will tell you the story.”

Gardar did as he was told. When Sigfather Sigtyrsson began telling his story, the door opened and for a fraction of a second Gardar glimpsed the outline of a slim girl with long, dark hair.

“During the past few years someone has been killing my goats and sheep by driving a sharp weapon into their hearts and then poking out one of their eyes. The weapon seems to be a knife.

“The wicked deed has been committed sometimes when the animals are grazing outside the house. Sometimes during the winter-season, we have found the ill-treated animals in one of the stalls inside the building on the other side of this house.”

“Do you have any suspicions?”

“Perhaps, perhaps,” Sigfather Sigtyrsson said. “One of my neighbors may well want to take revenge on me, because once I happened to kill one of his horses.”

“Happened to kill?”

“It was an accident. I ran a sword through it.”

“By accident?”

“You do not believe me. But I will tell you the story. I had been away to the annual Thing. As you may know it takes two days to walk through the forest from here to the Thing. I was on my way back, the same way that you walked here.

“I was almost here, when I was surprised by a thunderstorm. When I go to the Thing, I always take out one of my swords from the weapon-chest in order not to be defenseless when walking through the forest. In this case, it was my luck that I had the sword by my side when that thundery rain hit, for all of a sudden a runaway horse came running at me.”

“What happened?”

“The horse, which belonged to my neighbor, was terrified. Thor, who was chasing through the heavens, swinging his hammer Mjölnir, had driven the horse mad with fear. There were strokes of lightning and thunderclaps. The runaway horse knocked me down and fell on top of me. I had to take my sword and kill it from underneath in order to save myself.”

”The way Sigurd killed Fafnir.”

“Just the same,” Sigfather Sigtyrsson nodded. “I paid Svavar for that, but ever since I have had the feeling that my neighbor is my enemy. For after that, the killings of my animals began.”

“Who is that neighbor of yours?”

“Svavar the Gray-haired.”

“He is a peasant like you?”

“He is more like a hunter. And he has been a very successful huntsman over the past two or three years. That’s what people say.”

“And what do you want me to do?”

“I have asked you to come, because I have been told that there is no one better when it comes to inscribing stones with magic threats and preventive spells.”

“I am not bad at that,” Gardar admitted.

“I want you to cut a stone with the most efficient runic curse possible, so that the killings will cease.”

“I am prepared to do my best,” Gardar said. “That is, if you can afford it? Can you?”

“I know your price,” Sigfather Sigtyrsson replied.

Gardar discovered a chess set on a shelf. It had not been used for a long time. It was covered with cobwebs.

The two men went outside the house, where they met the two thralls in charge of the cattle. There was Harald the Blind, who could hardly see. He was an old man of no visible value. Being the oldest of the thralls, he was, however, important. He was the one who by tradition was in charge of the key to the lock of the chest, where the weapons of the house were kept. Long ago, Harald had been taken prisoner by Vikings on a raid to the East.

The other thrall was his son Knut, a young man with green eyes. He was born in the house, but his mother had been dead for many years. Unlike his father, he had very far-reaching eyes. They were both small men, and their fear of water was obvious to anyone who came too close to them. They lived with the cattle in the opposite end of the house.

Gardar greeted them in a friendly way. “How often do you count the weapons?” he asked Harald.

“Every week,” he answered. “They are all there. Not a single sword or knife is missing.”

“Good,” Gardar said. “We will look at that later.” He turned to Sigfather. “Have you selected a stone for the inscription?”

Sigfather Sigtyrsson pointed towards a rock standing by the edge of the wood.

Gardar examined the stone. It was moss-covered on one side. He had seen smoother surfaces. He stroked it with his hand. “I think it will do,” he said. “Let us now decide on the wording.”

It was Gardar’s intention to make a preventive curse in the name of Odin, but to his surprise Sigfather, who was the namesake of the god, vehemently objected. “I want it to be in the name of Thor. I am a Thor worshipper. Thor is for us peasants. Odin is for kings and thiefs.” He paused. “And for women.”

Since Sigfather was the customer and his demand was fair enough, Gardar yielded without any discussion.

Later that day Harald the Blind took him to the chest, which was placed in a sunken spot of the floor in the room between the stalls and the dwelling-quarters, where the family slept together with a few servants and thralls. It was a surprisingly big chest. It was square and every side was twelve feet long.

Out of his dirty tunic Harald the Blind brought a key. He opened the chest and Gardar looked down at the weapons. There were ten sheathed swords. There was, however, something else, which surprised him but also explained the size of the chest. Two crossbows of the kind he only had seen on the other side of the sea, among Roman soldiers. They called them arbalests, but other people called them armbrusts.

“Where did you get these from?” Gardar asked.

“Sigurd brought them.”

It made sense. The son of the house had been on a raid and brought them back with him. Then Gardar looked at the knives. There were many of them. They were all sacrificial ones. The blades of some of them were dark-red. He carefully studied them and found that they were colored by blood, dried blood.

“What are the knives used for?” he asked.

“We take them out for the midwinter sacrifice.”

“Only then?”

“Well, every time when there is a reason to sacrifice, otherwise no. But here the midwinter sacrifice is the most important one.”

“What about midsummer?”

“Never. Not here.”

“Are they not cleaned afterwards?”

Harry the Blind sounded puzzled, when he answered, “We do clean them. It is part of the sacrificial ceremony. Why do you ask?”

Instead of answering, Gardar said, “Are you totally blind?”

“I can see enough to grope my way. That is all.”

“How about the swords and the crossbows?”

“I do not understand your question.”

“When are they used? When do you open the chest to take them out?”

“When Sigfather goes to the Thing, then he takes one of the swords, of course. The crossbows belong to his son. He is not here. He is away one or two years at a time.”

“Where do you keep the key?”

“In a small bag of leather. It is attached around my neck with a leather strap and placed in my armpit.”

Gardar was invited to sleep next to the oblong hearth. Beyond him some thralls and servants had their places. On the other side of the hearth the master slept, and the mistress had her place by his side. On her other side their daughter had her bed. Beyond her, other servants slept.

From all that Gardar understood, he was held in esteem. He had been given a space as favorable as that of the master himself. Gardar’s sleep that first night was sound.

Early in the morning he got to his feet. He had the soup one of the servants poured out for him.

He began working on the inscription. He slowly created the arabesque, shaped as the body of a dragon. His tool was a square-shaped chisel of iron. It was about two feet long and its four sides were less than a thumb wide. Using a heavy hammer of oak wood he hit the chisel at the blunt end, so that the wrought point made marks on the stone. Every now and then he had to sharpen the chisel.

A tall man dressed in a fur-trimmed, gray tunic and leather trousers come walking from the opposite side of the clearing and went straight to Gardar.

“So you are the guest of Sigfather,” he said. “I can see now that you must be Gardar Varinsson himself. No one else could be that young and skilled at runes at the same time. I am Svavar, a neighbor of Sigfather. What is the idea?”

Gardar looked at the visitor. Svavar the Gray-haired was certainly gray-haired. His face was weather-beaten and his big lips wore a friendly smile. Gardar smiled back at the visitor.

“The idea is to prevent the killing of cattle which has taken place here over the past years. Sigfather Sigtyrsson has sent for me, because he heard that I am good at runic spells.”

The friendly smile on the man’s face disappeared. “Sigfather is playing with fire,” he said. “Be careful, young man.”

“Do you have any idea about these killings?”

“Once Sigfather killed one of my horses. That was the beginning of the killings. But I do not understand why he should continue and kill his own animals.”

“So you think that he himself is responsible? Then why should he ask me to come here and create a preventing spell?”

Proceed to part 2...

Copyright © 2009 by Bertil Falk

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