The Cross Murders
by Bertil Falk
|part 2 of 4|
After a couple of days they reached an area of islands, islets, skerries and rocks. The dragon turned westwards and sailed through sounds, narrows and guts, which passed into broad bays. And these bays suddenly narrowed into more sounds and straits and small inlets.
There were green holms, wooded islands and treeless rocks, a land- and waterscape of a kind that he never before had seen, for this was Gardar’s first visit to this part of the world. Sometimes the ship passed through inlets so narrow that it was possible to touch tree-branches sticking out above the water on both sides of the ship.
Clouds gathered in the west, and after a while drizzle caused the crew to put up a covering canvas. Thunder was heard in the distance. The tradesmen and the monk took shelter under the tent. Gardar preferred to stay in the stem with its frightening dragon’s head. Thus he and the monster head were the first to see the island ahead.
Within minutes dark clouds swept the sky. The dragon ship changed its direction towards the harbor of Birka at the same time as the drizzle developed into a downpour and the fury of Thor was over them with flashes of lightning meandering over the sky followed by rumble and thunder.
Gardar had to take cover like the others. Now the ship seemed to crawl towards the wind, while it went up on the top of heavy waves only to sink down again into valleys of water. A sudden flash hit the mast and split it in two. The mast fell. The seamen rushed to save the sail lest it trail on the water and be pulled away.
Gardar looked at the friar. His face was ghastly pale. There was fear in his eyes and his lips moved instantly, while his fingers clutched a string of beads tight. Gardar understood that brother Godfred was worshipping his god.
Gardar peeped under the canvas and for a moment he glimpsed the pilework in the water in front of the bay, which provided the town with a natural harbor. The Vikings were practiced sailors, and the dragon ship slipped through the opening of the pilework. At the same time the rain stopped as suddenly as it had started and the sun shone between scudding clouds, which rapidly disappeared eastwards. The wind abated.
Never before had Gardar seen that many ships gathered at the same place, dragons by the landing stages and merchant knarrs by the wharves. The harbor was so crowded that a few boats had to ride at anchor in the roadstead. Gardar knew that most of them were merchant-ships from Upsala and Hedeby, others from as far away as Jorvik, Dublin, Miklagård and even Jorsala. They brought luxury goods from all over to Birka in exchange for furs and iron from the inner parts of Sweden. But he could see that some of the ships were sea-pirates, peopled by armed Varjags and brutal Vikings.
A painter was thrown to a young man. He caught it and shortly afterwards the ship was moored to a wharf with the only vacant berthing-place in the harbor. Greetings were exchanged. It was obvious that the sailors knew the helpers who came down to the ship.
A group of men and women were very happy when they saw the friar. Gardar understood that those people belonged to the new faith. A young woman with dark eyes and dressed in a simple gray tunic and a brace skirt looked at him. She was obviously a thrall. Gardar jumped ashore and she immediately turned to him.
“Gardar Varinsson?” she asked and he nodded. “My mistress is waiting for you.” Her face was totally straight.
She walked ahead of him between the rows of plain houses lining the muddy alley. Everywhere craftsmen were busy in their workshops. Comb-makers, blacksmiths, mead-brewers, bronze-founders, potters and glass bead makers working in their melt-houses. This was very different from his own village, where they had to do all things themselves in the family. The only one specialized in his village was the blacksmith. In this big town everyone seemed to be specialized.
The thrall-girl guided him. After four houses they turned to the left and she stopped outside the third house on the right-hand side of the by-lane. He went inside and there she sat waiting for him, Frideborg Rolfsdaughter, the widow of the murdered housecarl.
* * *
She was beautiful, not older than thirty, dressed in an exquisite brace skirt, sewn out of expensive imported cloth, woven with diamonds. Her black eyes were penetrating and her small mouth had a resolute trait. Yes, of course, what else could he expect from an energetic woman who had sent a message to him all the way from Birka to Alevi.
She greeted him with a friendly smile and said. “Welcome, Gardar Varinsson. Your reputation as a problem-solver caused me to send that runic message to you. Please sit down and eat some food.”
The lady turned to the thrall, “Olga, get some cabbage soup and some chicken legs for our guest.”
“Tell me the story,” he said and she sat down by his side.
“Many moon days ago, my husband went away in the evening. He was going to see Sigurd Halfdanson.”
“Who is that?”
“One of the king’s men, a housecarl of the king’s hird like my husband. Sigurd was his best friend and Sigurd often visited our house. He still does. He has been very helpful after Eirik’s death. Now, Eirik did not return that night. I thought that he had gone to Adelsisland.”
“That’s the island on the other side of the sound were the king’s house is located, isn’t it?”
“Yes, most of the time the housecarls stay with the king, but many of them have their families here in Birka, as my husband did. Now it turned out that he had not met Sigurd that evening. Sigurd had been at Adelsisland. And Eirik never turned up there. He was gone. Had disappeared. Nobody knew where he was.”
She paused and looked grimly at the stew-pan hanging over the fire. “They found him six days later. He was buried outside the town rampart. Someone had cowardly stuck a pointed needle through his heart from behind. Then the perpetrator cut a cross on his chest.
“I’m a baptized Christian. My husband was not. Because of the cross people think that some Christian killed Eirik. I understand that some even think that I killed him. Which is incredible! We had a good life together and this winter I will give birth to our child. If I still had been a heathen, I would have prayed to Frey for a son who could avenge his father’s death. Now, as a Christian I’m not permitted to have such thoughts.”
“But you have,” Gardar suggested.
She nodded. “It’s not easy to stop sinning,” she said and continued, “Other people think that a Christian thrall did it.”
“What do the Christians say?”
“We don’t know what to say. Some of us think that the king’s men settle their differences through these killings.”
“What kind of differences?”
“Some people claim that there is an ongoing competition as to who will be number one of the king’s hird. But according to Sigurd there is no rivalry and no hostility between the housecarls.”
“What about those other victims?”
“They were members of the king’s hird and they similarly disappeared and were found in the same condition as my husband. Murdered from behind and with a bloody cross on their chests.”
“Nothing specific, the usual thing. The killer had of course cut off the hair of his victims and pulled off the nails of all fingers and toes before burying them. One has to make sure that they don’t complete Naglfar too fast down in Hel. People want to postpone the end of the world, the Ragnarök, as long as possible.”
“I see. Who found the bodies?”
“Different people. They were buried not far from each other.”
“Did anyone see all three bodies?”
“I think that the old man Asvidr saw them all. He’s very old. The oldest man in Birka. He knows much. He’s our storytelling thul and a very wise man.”
“What happened to the bodies after they were found?”
“They were burned.”
A stately man dressed in a helmet with a nose-shield entered. His eyes were pale blue and the long yellow hair stuck out from under the helmet. He took off his helmet as he bowed through the door. He wore trousers of leather and like Gardar he had a cloak — but a bright blue one — fastened under his arm with a clearly visible penannular brooch. It was a very expensive brooch, most certainly manufactured outside Birka and imported. It was made of gold and had a long brownish pin. Its terminals were mounts with male filigree-faces.
Gardar pondered on what he saw. No doubt this was a rich man. But who? The answer came instantly.
“I am Sigurd,” the new arrival said, “I guess that you are the renowned young sorcerer from the south. I hope you are able to solve this murder so that Frideborg can go on with her life without further brooding.”
“I have just told Gardar, son of Varin, that you’ve been so supportive after Eirik’s death.”
“What else could I do for my best friend’s widow?” he said and looked admiringly at her.
The thrall came with the food, which obviously had been prepared in some other house. They sat down and began eating.
“What’s your status with the king?” Gardar asked as he took the chicken drumstick with both hands and bit a big bite out of it.
“I’m the least among the best,” Sigurd answered. “I’m the youngest. I’m the only one who is not married, and the king has talked to me only once.”
“What did he say to you?”
“Go outside before you spit. That’s what he said.”
“How close was Eirik Arngrimsson to the king?”
“He was number three.”
“And who was number one and number two?”
There was silence for a moment.
“Number one is your namesake, Gardar Torkilsson. He is still alive, but number two, Eyvind Eyvindsson, was one of the men who were killed.”
“And who was the third man they found killed?”
“A friend of Eyvind Eyvindsson and a new member of the king’s hird.”
“It points towards some kind of interest in the king’s men, doesn’t it?”
“I personally think that the Christian thralls did it,” Sigurd said.
“Because it was done in such a timorous way. Sneaking from behind. Not a good man to man struggle face to face.”
Gardar turned to Frideborg. “What do you think?”
“I can’t figure any reason on the part of the Christian slaves to kill Eirik. As a matter of fact I can’t see any reason for anyone at all to kill him,” she said. “I don’t know. But I want to know. That’s why I sent for you.”
“Tell me, Sigurd, about that meeting between you and Eirik, the meeting that never took place. How come?”
“Oh, there was nothing specific about that. We had only agreed on that we should meet in the evening and play chess.”
“Certainly not. I wasn’t here. I was there.”
Gardar stroked his chin slowly. “If I have understood things rightly, Eirik was killed outside the town?”
“Yes, he was killed on the spot where he was found buried,” Sigurd said.
“How do you know that?”
“I take it for granted.”
“One should never take things for granted,” Gardar said in a thoughtful way. “I think that I am slowly coming to grips with this case. The tidings I have obtained now combined with the ones I got before I arrived here seemingly contain some clues to the truth. I can’t say anything for certain right now. But I want to walk around and talk to people.”
“He seems to be as good as they say,” Sigurd said after Gardar was gone.
“I don’t know,” Frideborg replied and grimaced. Sigurd did not know how to interpret that grimace. Maybe she did not trust the ability of the young man she had sent for.
* * *
Copyright © 2010 by Bertil Falk