The Saga of the Murdered Bedfellow
by Bertil Falk
|part 1 of 3|
Loaded with furs, the merchant knarr sailed out of the harbor of Birka, went eastwards through Lake Lögen and slipped through the narrow sound between an islet rock and the mainland. As time went by it reached the open sea of the Baltic, where it heaved to in the direction of the southeast for a stop-over at the commercial village of Vi, a place of sacrifice on the island of Gotland.
They were going there to take in brooches manufactured on the island before they sailed on to Hauthabu where the articles would be transshipped to other merchant vessels bound for distant places of destination like Jorvik and Dublin. Some of the goods from Birka would be transferred to a ship waiting at Visby and bound for Miklagård, as the people called Constantinople. For Visby in the North was one of the centres of world trade between East and West.
Gardar the Riddle-Solver, son of Varin, was pleased with his achievements in Birka. He had solved the riddle of the cross-murders. Now he was standing in the stern and looked across the sea. His yellow hair was covered with the blue cap matching his blue eyes. He struck his red beard and smiled. He wrapped his blood-red cloak round his shoulders.
One of his fellow travellers was a tall Viking with hands as big as spades. Gardar had glimpsed him in Birka. Now they shared the same spot on board the ship. It turned out that this man, whose name was Halvdan Svensson, had been in the south travelling on the rivers in the east and spent time as a mercenary with the emperor in Constantinople.
“Constantinople?” Gardar wondered.
“That’s what they call the place. Or Byzantium. You call it Miklagård. The emperor has a wet fire. It’s called Greek fire. It sets fire to warships trying to capture his city.”
“That place is very far away,” Gardar replied.
Halvdan had dark skin. His eyes were greenish and he always seemed to have a friendly smile on his lips. He was a head taller than the majority of people and he wore a huge sword. Gardar judged from his swelling muscles that he was richly endowed as far as handling his heavy weapon was concerned.
Halvdan’s nose was flattened, which showed that he was not a man who kept away from a good scuffle. He and Gardar became friends, and Halvdan told about his adventures in the big city, overwhelming cock-and-bull stories.
“Here we only have paltry villages with trifling houses, places like Birka, Hauthabu, Upsala and Visby,” Halvdan said. “In Miklagård the houses are three, four, yes, even more storeys tall. There are more people in the palace of the emperor than you see during a whole lifetime in Birka, Hauthabu, Upsala and Visby together. And as far as the hippodrome is concerned—”
“The hippowhat?” Gardar interrupted.
“The Hippdrome is a race track, It’s enormous. Much bigger than Birka, Hauthabu, Upsala and Visby taken together. Right now a ship bound for Constantinople is waiting in the harbor of Visby. I’ll go with it. Why don’t you join me?”
Gardar laughed. “Good idea, but I’m on my way home.”
“There’s been some trouble with the Gotlanders recently,” Halvdan said. “But it’s over by now.”
“What kind of trouble?”
“Well,” Halvdan said and looked out at the sea. “The followers of Odin, Thor and Frey destroyed a church a man called Botair had built at Kulstäde.”
“Botair is a Christian.”
“The decision was taken at the Thing to set fire to the church.”
“And that’s what they did?”
“That’s for sure, but then Botair built another church at Visby. Once more the Thing decided that the wooden house should be burnt. Botair went into his church and said that they had to burn him as well.
“Then his father-in-law stepped in. His name is Likair the Wise. And believe me, he is a mighty man. ‘Do not dare burn this man and his church, even though it is built in Visby’, he said.
“Reluctantly, they gave in. Some people have embraced the new faith, and it’s rumored that Likair the Wise, too, is thinking of abandoning the faith of his forefathers. But most people still perform blood sacrifice.”
“And now it’s all over?”
“Yes and no. Botair wants them to stop sacrificing their sons and daughters at the sacrificing-vi. Even the followers of Thor and Frey agree on that, but the followers of Odin want to stick to the old customs. What do you worship?”
“I’m a follower of the old faith,” Gardar replied. “I’m clever at the runic magic of Odin and I know the old invocations by heart. But even though I, as a thul, am well versed in the runes and also know something about shamanic galdering, I’ve also become conscious of how restricted our gods’ power is. They are too too limited, except Odin, the Allfather. He knows all secrets. But you know how the High One is: you can’t trust him. He lies when it suits him. Wasn’t he the one who sang:
If you deal with some
Whom you do not trust
But you wish for his goodwill,
Then be fair in your speech
But be false in your thought
And for every lie give a lie.
“I’m not totally against the new faith,” Gardar added. “But the Christians want sole rights. That I don’t like. Why do you ask?”
“Because you assisted the Christians at Birka?”
Gardar laughed. “Not at all. What I did was in tune with the old words of wisdom. If some man — whether he hews to the Æsir cult, practices the Christian or whatever cult there is — if such a man is accused of a crime he has not committed, then he should be defended. And what about you?”
“When you see the enormous temple called Egisif in Miklagård you must ask yourself a simple question.”
“Can’t you, being a riddle-solver, guess what? Their god seems to be much mightier than all our gods taken together.”
“Mightier than Odin?”
“I’m afraid so. When I was in Constantinople, I was quite sure that that’s how it is. Here with our own tribe I’m no longer so sure. Nevertheless, the temple of Miklagård overshadows all the places of sacrifice we have in Birka, Hauthabu, Upsala and Visby.”
Halvdan paused and looked out across the waves of the Baltic Sea. “So, you’re versed in the runes,” he said. “I’ve never been able to learn the meaning of the rune staffs.“ He turned around and smiled at Gardar. “I’ve been doing well anyhow.”
“Who knows? Maybe that’s the reason?” Gardar said.
The crossing to Gutaland went without problem, except a lack of wind at the beginning of the voyage. The crew was made of the right stuff and accustomed to calm. They were all well-trained oarsmen and they made a good pull on their oars. After a while they could leave their wooden seats, since a calm breeze had blown up and the seahorse, riding on the tops of the wave crests, sailed before a fair wind.
* * *
Two days later the ship arrived at Visby the same day that the sun stood at her highest spot in the sky. A long reef created a natural harbor. Only smaller boats were pulled out of the sea. Their own knarr had to ride at anchor outside the reef together with other, deeper-draft merchant vessels.
Gardar’s eye immediately fell on a well-modeled Viking ship. On board were some tall Vikings. They were strong and dirty. Their swords and shields were kept in a pile aboard the ship. The craft was middle-sized and obviously built to travel along rivers to the capital of Byzantium, where the great emperor lived in his incredible palace.
Gardar’s new friend justified his observation. “That’s the ship that will take me to Miklagård,” Halvdan Svensson said. “There are many harbors along the coast of Gotland, but the seahorses bound for Constantinple mostly stay here at Visby.”
The place turned out to have similar but somewhat simpler huts and stalls of clay and tree with thatched roofs like those in Birka and had alleys of a similar kind with beaten soil. But the spot seemed to be deserted.
The only person Gardar saw was a doddering old woman, who dragged her feet while she loudly cried curses. “Pig-shit, horse-muck and cow-piss.” She moved slowly on the beach along the water without showing the least attention to the new arrivals.
Soon Gardar and Halvdan discovered the reason for the lack of people. The inhabitants were celebrating the summer solstice at the place of sacrifice. While the Viking crew loaded furs into the river-elk bound for Miklagård and the crew of the knarr brought on board big barrels filled with brooches for the women in Jorvik and Dublin, Gardar and Halvdan went ashore and took part in the festivities.
They found that the people blood-sacrificed to the gods in a grove of trees beyond the village. In that grove stood a multicolored picture stone, formed like a male organ. It was six ells tall and showed Odin seated on his eight-footed horse Sleipner.
Yggdrasil, the evergreen world-tree, was portrayed in front of the multifaceted Æsir god on his stallion. A sacrificed man was hanging from one of the branches of the holy tree. A sun and a ship were also reproduced on the stone.
Bloodstained women and men were busy slaughtering swine with long knives. The hlaut, as they called the blood of the sacrificial animals, flowed into hlaut-bowls that were handed over to two priests, one female and one male. Using hlaut-whisks, they splashed blood and smeared the big picture stone with the thick red fluid.
Sacrificed horses were hanging from the branches of the birch-trees surrounding the spot of sacrifice, but Gardar saw no human body swinging in the wind. When he asked why, he was told that they no longer offered up human beings because of an unholy agreement between the followers of Thor and Frey on the one hand and, on the other, the Christians. The followers of Odin were furious.
“And what about the Christians?” Gardar asked.
“Staying home,” was a young man’s terse reply.
“Midsummer is of no consequence to them,” an older woman interposed. “The only Christian here today is Gudrun. She takes part in our sports. Right now she’s tossing the caber. She is not bad at pushing that huge log.”
Gardar removed his blue cap and his sanguine cloak and assisted the officiating priests in splashing blood. Afterwards he looked around to find somewhere to wash his hands. He saw how slaughtered pigs were taken away to a place outside the place of sacrifice. Gardar had never before seen that many pigs simultaneously roasted whole over so many slow fires.
Halvdan pointed out a small wooden house by a hill of the village, not far from the place of sacrifice, and he told Gardar that it was the house of the Christians.
* * *
Very close to the sacrificial group of trees was a sauna house beside a small pond, and that was where Gardar washed his hands. A temporarily pitched mead-tent had been put up at the place of festivities. In front of it a tug-of-war was going on between young women and men from surrounding villages, while other people were throwing a stone disc called the varpa. Gardar found that people were busy practising many different Gotland sports. He was himself familiar with tossing the caber. He had once tried his hand at it in Jorvik.
Throwing the heavy, five-ells long pole is not the easiest thing to do. One had to press the thin end with the right hand and simultaneously heave the cumbersome log with the left hand using the knee as a lever. With the caber resting on the shoulder, the competitor catches hold of the thin end with both hands. Then he moves forward and throws the log at an angle upwards in the hope of it hitting the ground with the thick end first. If that happens, everything is well. If not, the toss will not be approved.
Gardar made a couple of reasonable attempts, but his log did not hit the ground in the right way. Laughing, he stepped aside and watched how the local inhabitants showed their undisputed skill in the art of caber tossing.
Many of the best thrusters turned out to be women. One of best was Brynhild. Gardar found her very attractive. Her hair was yellow like flax. It fell behind her back down to her knees, a custom that seemed to be common among the young women. She had light blue eyes and a fine face. Dressed in a long brace shift with short sleeves, she had a willowy figure. Over her shift she wore a tube-formed red cloth. Two oval brooches furnished with dragon’s heads with protruding eyes held the cloth in place.
Most of the women used the same kind of brooches and it turned out that they all were cast in the same mould in a workshop outside the village. Gardar understood that these were the kind of mass-produced brooches taken aboard the knarr.
Brynhild wore a broad, semicircular bracelet with impressed patterns on her sunburnt right arm. Though she looked frail, her ability at tossing the caber showed that her frailty concealed great skill.
“Since you’re that bad at tossing, why don’t you try wrestling instead?” Brynhild asked him mischievously with an inviting smile.
Gardar opened his mouth and pointed at the black hole in his sligthly yellowish row of teeth. “I lost that tooth while glima-wrestling,” he explained.
“So, you’re a glima-wrestler,” Brynhild said and added mockingly, “So what? Are you afraid of losing another tooth?”
“I sure am,” Gardar answered. My maternal grandmother lost all her teeth and could not eat, only drink like an infant at the end of her life. Very much like king Ane the Old One in Upsala in a dim past. Glima is no longer my horn of mead.”
A beardless man, short in stature, came over to them and Brynhild turned to him. “Sigurd, this is Gardar Varinsson. He says that he’s a runic sorcerer and a problem solver, but his power is not good enough to make him a good log-tosser.”
“Well, Gardar, son of Varin, don’t listen to my sister’s chat,” the man called Sigurd said. “I saw you tossing the caber. It was not that bad.”
“But the result was not good,” Gardar admitted.
“We all meet with that now and then.”
Brynhild gave Gardar a friendly smile, shrugged her shoulders and turned her back to them. Gardar watched her walking towards the pond. He hoped that smile would not be the only friendly gesture she would make for him that day.
“You see, the pond is very important to our women,” Sigurd said.
“In what way?”
“They love wearing splendid and colorful garments. Their vanity makes them try on each other’s clothes. Then they look at themselves in the pond. They compare and exchange opinions.”
“At least they don’t pull each other’s eyes out ,” Gardar commented.
“Don’t be too sure about that,” Sigurd replied.
“Do you see the man over there?” Sigurd pointed at a handsome Viking with black beard, who was talking to a woman. “His name is Gute and the woman he talks to is Gudrun.”
“Gudrun?” Gardar said. “The Christian woman good at tossing the log?”
“That same woman, yes. Gute has been together with my sister Brynhild two solar years, but recently he left her for the sake of Gudrun. My sister doesn’t say anything, but our women are very proud and they don’t easily forget such an insult. I’m afraid that we’ll face a feud of some kind.”
“A feud? Why?”
“Even though we island people don’t have such long memories of revenge as Icelanders, Norwegians and Swedes and prefer to settle disputes at the Thing, a put-off woman is not to be trifled with here. I can assure you that my sister Brynhild will neither forget nor forgive for a very long time.”
* * *
Copyright © 2012 by Bertil Falk