The Cross Murders
by Bertil Falk
|part 3 of 4|
Outside the house Gardar spotted Olga, the slave girl. She tried to avoid him, but he took her arm. “Don’t worry. I just want to ask you a few questions.”
Silent, she stood waiting for his question.
“How long have you been in Birka?”
“Five years,” she said.
“Where do you come from?”
“From the other side of the sea. The Varjags raided our town, killed all the men, burned the houses and took many slaves. I was brought here together with a few others.”
“You’re a Christian?”
“Most of the thralls are. Like livestock we’ve been lifted by Vikings and brought here. And we are often treated like cattle as well.”
“But your mistress is a Christian too.”
“Yes, I’m very fond of her, but I didn’t like her husband.”
“He was not kind to her. Now Sigurd is there and he is so good to her. But she doesn’t realize that he is a better man than her husband was. Sigurd likes her, but she does not seem to see that. As to her husband, you know that she will give birth to his child around Christmas?”
“Christmas? What’s that?”
“I forgot that you’re not a Christian. Christmas is the time of the year you heathen people call Yule.”
“I knew she was going to have a baby, yes. But I didn’t know that it would be at Yuletide.”
“She will have a child then, and so will I,” Olga said. “Her husband was not kind to me either. He raped me many times.”
Gardar looked at her. “In other words, you had a good reason for killing him.”
“Yes, I had and I still have. He may be dead but the reason is still alive. It’s kicking inside me. If Eirik had been alive and I had given birth to a son, I would have seen to it that my son killed his own father.” She looked Gardar straight in his eyes.
“Thou shalt not kill!” the strange words escaped Gardar. “You’re a Christian. You’re not supposed to.”
“I can see that you’re asking yourself if I killed Eirik. Could be. But then tell me who killed the others? I had no reason to kill them. I did not even know them.”
“Does your mistress know about this?”
“That I’m pregnant. Yes. That her Eirik is the father of my child. No.”
“You’re sure about that?”
“That’s what I believe.”
“Who do you think is guilty of this murder?”
“I think that someone who is very clever and scheming is behind this. Someone nobody suspects.”
“I will remember that possibility,” Gardar said.
* * *
The town was bigger than Gardar had thought. There were at least two hundred houses. He passed a weaving-shop, a bronze foundry, a tannery with skin dressing and a bone- and horn workshop.
He went into a small tavern filled with people around two small tables. They asked him about his part of the world and he told them about the small village where he lived. He stood mead lag om as they called all round. Vikings and merchants treated him back and once it was all on the house.
The mead flowed and when he left the house he knew that the people were convinced that the Christians were behind the murders and that if the king did not do anything soon, they would themselves see to it that justice was done.
Assisted by a merchant of his own age, Gardar went to the waterfront outside the rows of houses. He now realized that it was not by accident that the island was called Birchisland and the town Birka. Everywhere there were birch trees with white stems. And there, in a small cabin he found that old man Asvidr. Sitting on a stone, seemingly looking towards the king’s house on Adelsisland, the old man was combing his enormous white beard.
“Who is it?” he asked. “I can’t see you.”
Gardar’s expectations fell apart when he understood that the old man was nearly blind. But he nevertheless asked about the three bodies.
“Yes, I was there,” the old man said. “They used to ask me to come when things happen that they don’t know how to handle. But what can I do? People don’t understand that when you get older you also lose touch with reality. In my case, I can hardly see. It’s true that I was good at things in the past, but in my case the past is very long ago.
“What do you want to know and why do you want to know what you want to know, stranger? For I can hear that you’re not from this part of the country.”
“I’ve been asked by Frideborg Rolfsdaughter to find out who killed her husband,” Gardar said bluntly.
“That hag,” the old man puffed. “Eirik Arngrimsson can be happy that he was killed. Otherwise he would have probably never got rid of her. She was always crazy about him and from what you say I can understand that she still is. But isn’t she baptized or at least prime-signed?”
“They make the sign of the cross as a kind of preparation for baptizing them.”
“Yes, she is a Christian now. But please tell me of the three bodies. Do you know anything?”
“Since I’m almost blind I must use my other senses. The smell was not the best, I can tell you. So I covered my nose and felt the bodies with my hands. I can tell you that all three were killed with some kind of thin metal needle.”
“How could you possibly feel that?”
“I could not feel that,” the old man admitted. “But they showed me the little wounds on their backs and I touched them. I asked what it looked like. When they told me about the small size I asked them to find something to put into the holes. We used spearheads.”
“Sounds too big to me,” Gardar said
“Not if you use the very slim pointed part that you put into the socket of the longer wooden part of the spear.”
“Of course not,” Gardar admitted and the fact sank into his mind as an important observation made by a blind man. “And what about the crosses on their chests?”
“Made with the same very slim pointed instrument. Whatever it was.”
Gardar thought for a while. The he asked. “Were they murdered where they were buried?”
“I think so. At least Eirik was.”
How do you know?”
“Good question. Let me think.”
The man was silent for a while. Then he said. “Because one of the king’s men told me that.”
“I don’t know. Remember, I can’t see.”
“You must’ve recognized his voice?”
“No,” the old man said. “I did not recognize his voice. I don’t know any of the king’s men. But he was the one who told me that Eirik had been killed with a long needle of some kind and that the same needle had been used to cut the cross on his chest.”
“Do you think the Christians did it?”
“I may have done it. Are you a Christian?”
“Then you may have done it.”
“I understand that you’ve heard that the Christians are not permitted to kill other human beings?”
“Yes, they have some rule to that effect. It doesn’t mean that they necessarily follow that rule. No, my friend, there are other things that in my opinion points to one of us and none of them.”
“I think I know what you are talking about,” Gardar said. “Is there anything else you can tell me?”
“I’m not sure,” the old man said, “but I’ve a slight feeling that the two last murders were committed in order to cover up the first one and misdirect suspicions in one or two different directions.”
“I’ve thought of that too,” Gardar said.
“Then good luck,” the old man said. “And now, what will you do for me?”
“I know your habit of gifts and countergifts here in Birka and I brought this for you.” He took the man’s right arm and put a few coins in his hand.
“Of what metal?” the man asked.
“That’s too much for this,” the old man said.
“I would say it’s not enough. Your information has been of the highest value to me. By the way. I have a feeling that something more may happen.”
“I would not be surprised,” the old man said and smiled.
* * *
Gardar went back to Frideborg Rolfsdaughter’s house. He arrived there at the same time as a bell began to toll. At that moment she came out of the door, locked it and hastened along the road. Gardar sped up but before he caught up with her, she disappeared into a house. He looked at the door and when he saw the cross on it he understood that this was the place where the Christians worshipped White Christ. He hesitated for a second and then he entered.
A big wooden cross was at the one short side of the house. Some fifteen people had gathered. In front of the cross, turning his back to the audience, brother Godfred stood. The air was filled with an unpleasant smell. It came in the form of smoke from something, which looked like two female brooches put together into one oblong thing formed like an egg. It hung in a metal chain that a small boy was swinging to and fro. What Gardar saw was a censer, but that he did not know.
He sat down by the door and followed the strange rituals. Peculiar songs and incantations said in a foreign tongue filled the house. At the end of the service a small bell rang and the people drank from a big cup.
Afterwards most people left but Frideborg Rolfsdaughter stayed on and talked with brother Godfred. Gardar stepped out of the shadows.
“This is my friend from the journey,” brother Godfred said.
“I know him,” Frideborg said. “Have you found something?”
“Something I’ve found,” Gardar said. “If the king doesn’t intervene, the people here are prepared to take care of you Christians. I think you should be very careful. However, I may be able to carry this case to a peaceful solution. But now I want to talk to you alone, Frideborg Rolsfdaughter. There are a few things I want you to explain.”
“I’ve no secrets from brother Godfred, who is my father confessor while he is here.”
“Your what?” Gardar asked.
Frideborg shook her head in disbelief and resignation. “It doesn’t matter. But you can ask me anything in front of brother Godfred.”
“To begin with. Do you know whether your husband was faithful to you or not.”
“He certainly was.”
“What about Olga?”
“As a thrall she belonged to the family, so he had every right to sleep with her.”
Brother Godfred looked very unhappy when she said that. But he didn’t say anything.
“So you were not opposed to his liaison with her?”
“Why should I be?”
“To the point. Are you sure you weren’t jealous of her?”
Frideborg laughed heartily. “You think that I killed him because he did what all men here do. If I had been jealous, I would perhaps have killed her, not him.”
“Did you realize that she didn’t like your husband’s advances?”
She did not smile any more. “I sometimes had such a feeling, yes.”
“She told me that he raped her. Took her against her will.”
“What could I do? We owned her. He was permitted to do anything with her.”
At that brother Godfred cleared his throat and said, “Now, remember that you and Olga are both Christians and that...”
“What is all this about,” Frideborg Rolfsdaughter screamed. “I sent for both of you and now you both turn against me!”
“As far as I’m concerned I’m turning against no one,” Gardar said. “I’m just trying to solve the problem you want me to solve.”
“Then do that and don’t pester me.”
Brother Godfred started talking, but the door slammed open and Olga came rushing in. “Sigurd Halfdansson has been found unconscious with a cross cut in his chest,” she exclaimed.
“Outside the town rampart, where the others were found.”
“I had a feeling that something like this would happen,” Gardar said. “I think that we soon will know the truth behind all this.” And Gardar thought of the clever old man. How blind he was and how clever.
* * *
Copyright © 2010 by Bertil Falk