The Cross Murders
by Bertil Falk
While the other people rushed to the side of Sigurd Halfdansson, Gardar got some young men to row him over to the king’s island. It took no time at all. He asked for his namesake Gardar Torkilsson, the man closer to the king than anyone else. And Gardar Torkilsson bade him welcome.
“Your fame as a wise and skilful sorcerer arrived here last year,” Gardar Torkilsson said, “and now that you’re here to find out who the killer in Birka is, I hope that you will be successful. There have been so many rumors and the king is annoyed.”
“Tell me if you think that anyone of the king’s men wants your job and kills your colleagues in order to get closer in order of preference to the king?”
Gardar Torkilsson leaned towards Gardar Varinsson and said, “That may always be a possibility, but no. I don’t think so. The hird here is a closely knit group of men, depending on each other.”
“So you don’t think that anyone of the king’s hird is the perpetrator?”
“Not for such a reason as you suggest. For other reasons, maybe, but not in order to get closer to the king.”
“Can you think of any other motive?”
* * *
The next day Gardar Varinsson went back to Birka. Sigurd Halfdansson was back on his feet. He could not tell, who it was that overpowered him from the behind, but he said it was more than one person. There was a lot of excitement in the town and people gathered in the open near the town wall in order to discuss what to do.
Many had brought their broadswords and the atmosphere surrounding the meeting was like the final preparations for a riot. When Gardar arrived, a verbal rowdy named Sverker Alesson stood on a hill and stirred up hundreds of women and men, who surrounded the place. His big hands rested on the hilt of his sword, which was put into the soil.
“The Christians hate our gods and they permit worshipping only their own god,” said a woman in a white dress. “Now they’ve killed three of our men and tried to kill one more yesterday. Every time they’ve put their mark on the victims. It’s about time we take care of the Christians.”
A murmur of consent met him. Frideborg Rolfsdaughter run up to his side and screamed. “Don’t listen to Sverker. He has no evidence. Anyone could cut a bloody cross on the bodies of my husband and the other victims.”
“Don’t do this, Frideborg. It’s dangerous.” It was Sigurd Halfdansson, who entered the hill and interfered. “They may kill you.”
“They will kill all Christians if this man is permitted to spread his unfounded lies against us,” Frideborg said.
Gardar rushed up to the hill and raised his arms, thus bidding silence. “Listen to me. It’s about time that we put an end to the crimes committed here. You think that the Christians are responsible, don’t you?”
“Yes,” the crowd screamed.
“But Frideborg Rolfsdaughter is right. There is no proof at all.”
“How about the bloody crosses on the bodies?” a voice screamed.
“If you killed a person and wanted to throw suspicion on someone else, what would you do? Well, I think you would plant some evidence that would lead people astray and throw them off the track. Anyone could, as Frideborg said, have cut such a cross in order to get us on the wrong track.”
Total silence met his words. Gardar almost heard how his argument penetrated the crowd.
“Frideborg is a Christian. So why should we listen to her?” a voice protested.
“I’m not a Christan,” Gardar replied, “so why not listen to me?”
“Because you defend the Christians!”
“My dear friend. That is not the kind of justice that Odin taught you in his song.”
“Tell us then. Who killed those men?” another voice insisted.
Gardar smiled. “Now we are talking business,” he said. “For that is exactly what I’m going to do. To begin with, the Christians have the peculiar rule that they shall not kill. They may not always stick to that rule, but I would say that it’s a little bit over the top that they would deliberately kill three of the king’s men here, especially since they are in a minority and their situation here is very frail, to say the least.”
Gardar paused and looked over the crowd. He found that they now listened to him. “In other words. Even though it’s possible that a Christian could have perpetrated these crimes, it’s not really probable. Not here. Not now.”
“Since all the people who have fallen victim to this murderer have been the king’s men, some people have thought that a power struggle has taken place among the men in the king’s hird. But there is no sign of such a struggle for power. On the contrary, I’ve been told that they’re a closely connected group of men. But who knows what thoughts that lurk in the minds of the king’s men? Nevertheless, the evidence is not there and most facts points in a different direction.”
“Who is the murderer?”
“Don’t be impatient now,” Gardar responded. “I, Gardar, the son of Varin, will soon reveal the truth to you. To begin with, I was confident at a very early phase of my investigation that the murderer is NOT a Christian. How do I know that? Because, when handling the bodies the murderer displayed all signs of being a follower of the Aesir cult.”
“In what way?” Sigurd Halfdansson asked.
“The perpetrator cut the hair from the skulls of his victims and removed the nails from their hands and feet. A Christian would never do anything like that, because a Christian does not believe that the ship Naglfar, which will cause the twilight of the gods at Ragnarök, is built in Hel using the hair and the nails of the deceased. If you don’t believe that, there is no reason to remove the hair and the nails in order to postpone Ragnarök. It proves that the perpetrator is not a Christian but — one of us.”
A strong murmur rose from the crowd.
“The person who killed Eirik Arngrimsson had a very special reason for the wicked deed. But in order to cover up the motive, the killer killed two more men. And last night the person or persons in question hit again, but this time the murderer only partly did his job.”
“They must have been disturbed before they were able to kill me,” said Sigurd Halfdansson.
“No. You’re alive because it wasn’t the intention that you should be killed. What happened to you was another try to mislead us.”
“What bullshit is this? I don’t understand what you’re talking about,” the brute Sverker Alesson bawled, raising his sword.
“I must admit that I don’t get this either,” Frideborg Rolfsdaughter said.
“There are only two people here who understand what I say,” Gardar Varinsson replied and at the same time he turned to Sigurd Halfdansson, stuck a hand under his armpit and tore the golden brooch from him. “The murderer and I.” Sigurd’s cloak fell to the ground and Gardar held up the penannular brooch in the air.
“This is the murder weapon,” he exclaimed, pointing the brooch at Sigurd Halfdansson. “And he is the murderer.”
Sigurd stepped back and said, “You’re out of your mind. Why should I kill my best friend?”
“Because you, the only unmarried member of the king’s men, fell in love with your best friend’s woman. In order to get her, you killed him from behind using the long pin of your golden brooch. Then you cut the cross on his chest in order to throw suspicion on the Christians. After that you made a big mistake by cutting his hair and removing his nails before you buried him, which proved to me that the murderer was not a Christian at all.”
“You told me and you told that old man Asvidr that Eirik had been killed on the same spot where he was later buried. If that’s true, the only one who could have known that was the murderer.”
“What’s this? I just took for granted that he was killed where he was found,” said Sigurd Halfdansson.
At this stage Frideborg interrupted. “Sigurd is right. We all thought that Eirik was killed at the spot where he was found.”
“And if I did all that, why should I kill the other two?” Sigurd challenged Gardar.
“That’s easily explained,” Gardar riposted. “When you found that the Christians were not suspected enough, you killed another of your friends and then one more. And you repeated the same procedure as when you killed Eirik Arngrimsson. Everything in order to make sure that the Christians would be blamed.”
The silence was total now.
“Yesterday, when I arrived and began asking people about the murders, you panicked and went out to the town wall and scratched that cross on your own chest with the penannular pin.”
“I was not even in Birka, when Eirik was killed,” Sigurd protested. “I was on Adelsisland.”
“It takes no time at all to row from Adelsisland to the outskirts of Birchisland. Yesterday, I went there. You could easily have slipped back here without being seen. I know you were here.”
“Do you have any witness to that I was here. No, you don’t. You can’t prove it,” Sigurd Halfdansson shouted.
“Yes, I can prove that you murdered all three,” Gardar shouted back triumphantly. “For what did I see that first time when I met you in Frideborg’s house? Your cloak fastened by a golden brooch with a strange brown color — similar to old blood — on this pin.”
Gardar held up the brooch with the long, dirty pin. “See for yourself. Dried blood on this deadly pin. Would you deny that this belongs to you? All the people here have seen that this is the thing that kept your cloak in place.”
Sigurd Halfdansson took a step backwards. His mouth was open with surprise. Guilt was written all over him.
“You bastard,” Frideborg Rolfsdaughter screamed and snatched the broad sword from the surprised troublemaker Sverker Alesson, who stood there completely taken aback. “So, that’s why you were so kind to me after Eirik’s death. Now, draw your sword and fight this out with me like a man. Or do you want to do everything in a cowardly way, as you put it? Sneaking from behind. Not a good man to man struggle face to face.”
Gardar turned around and looked straight into her eyes. “He has no sword,” he reminded her.
At that moment, someone rushed up to the top of the hill and stuck a sword in the hand of Sigurd Halfdansson. More or less instinctively Sigurd raised it in defense and there was the clang of blades when their heavy broad swords crossed. And next... Her sword hit his throat. With a surprised facial expression his head trundled down the hill.
Gardar Varinsson turned to brother Godfred who had come up the hill. “I think we have a substantial case of accidental Christian relapse into heathen behavior here,” he said calmly. The friar did not appreciate the comment. But the strong-minded lady lowered her sword and without a word she let the monk lead her down the hill.
* * *
A few days before midsummer... Skilled craftsmen in the harbor of Birka had repaired the mast. When it was time for sailing they were all gathered on the landing-bridge to say farewell to Gardar.
Brother Godfred, who would stay in Birka over the winter, was there. Olga was there, the slave-girl, who thanks to brother Godfred’s preaching no longer was an owned thrall but an employed maid, of whatever difference it made. The old man Asvidr was there led by no less a man than the berserk Sverker Alesson. Even the king’s number one housecarl Gardar Torkilsson had come. As had all the many new friends from taverns and mead-houses.
Before the ship put off, another merchantman glided into the harbor. On board that ship Gardar saw Randver Seggrson sitting on his cage. Gardar realized that a new sensation in the shape of a living baby-dragon named Crocodile was to hit Birka.
In his knapsack, Gardar had a most precious golden neck-ring from Kiev. It was payment for solving the murder case. But there was also another piece of gold, which now was his.
A penannular brooch with a blood-stained, deadly pin.
“Thou shalt not kill,” he murmured. And the more he thought of it, the more he found that there was something that appealed to him in that strange rule.
Copyright © 2010 by Bertil Falk