The Saga of the Murdered Bedfellow
by Bertil Falk
Gardar’s awakening was brutal. Someone poured saltwater full in his face. His eyes were smarting. When he at last could see, it was Sigurd’s grim face he saw. Gardar sensed that something was wrong, terribly wrong.
“Why did you kill her?” Sigurd screamed.
Gardar discerned a crowd of Vikings behind Sigurd. He tried to get to his feet, but Sigurd pushed him back.
“Why did you kill my sister?” Sigurd continued, still screaming.
Gardar began to understand the gravity of the situation. “Of course I’ve not killed Brynhild!” he said. “I’ve no reason at all to do that.”
“You walked away with her last night. Can you deny that?”
“I spent some time with her before I came here and fell asleep at the bottom of the knarr. When I left her, she was asleep.”
“I think you killed her,” Sigurd snarled.
Gardar was still dismayed at this unexpected tiding, but now he got furious, stretched his muscles and got to his feet so quickly that Sigurd could not hinder him. “Unlike me, you had a good reason to put your sister to death,” Gardar said in a loud voice.
Sigurd shrank back at this sudden charge. “You talk horse shit,” he said.
“Do I?” Gardar replied. “You and your sister were at loggerheads with each other, weren’t you?”
“I would never kill my own sister.”
“Don’t give me that!” Gardar said. “Stranger homicides have been committed. You look somewhat pale, Sigurd. Coming like this accusing me, who have no reason to kill your sister, while you yourself indeed had a very good reason to get rid of her.”
“What the Hel are you talking about?”
“Pure greed. Do you remember a certain piece of amber?”
A murmur rose out of the Viking ranks behind Sigurd.
“Accusations and counter-arguments,” Gardar said. “That’s enough for now. There are at least three more people to suspect.”
Gardar regarded the men, who gathered round him. “I want to see her,” he said.
Brynhild’s body was lying in a distorted position between the limpid water of the pond and the sauna-hut. Immediately, Gardar noticed her gray shift and her red cloth tied up by the two brooches furnished with dragon heads. Brynhild’s almost two-ells long hair, which partly covered the body, was daubed all over with blood. Gardar thought of the lovely face he had kissed only a few hours before. The face he now looked at was a grisly mass of pulpy flesh and blood. It seemed as if the murderer had pounded her face over and over again in a fury. It was not recognizable. But something was missing. The thought had barely occurred to Gardar when Sigurd said, “The perpetrator stole her bracelet.”
A trickle of blood had run from her face along her whitish right arm, and there was no bracelet. Puzzled, Gardar looked at her arm. There was something else he found strange, but he could not for the life of him put his finger on it.
He looked around. There was the pond, its surface shone like radiant metal. The log they had used for tossing the day before was four or five ells further away. There was blood on the thick end. Was it from butchered pigs or from the victim? He took a few steps and examined the log, but he could not make out where the blood came from.
The small sauna-house looked the same as it had the night before, but the temporary mead-tent was gone. On the other side, the crowd of Vikings and villagers was growing.
Once more he turned to the body. It was obvious to him that she had been killed on the spot. There were no signs the body had been dragged across the green grass. The blood was limited to the body. There was a big wound on her head. It seemed as if she had gotten a hard blow and that the perpetrator had completed the crime by grinding her face over and over again.
“Who are the others you think could’ve committed this wicked deed?” Sigurd said.
“Where’s Gute?” Gardar asked instead of answering the question.
“I’m here.” Gute stepped forward.
“You think I slew her?” Gute asked.
“That’s possible. For Brynhild was your lover for two sun-years before you turned your back on her.”
“That would rather be a good reason for her to kill me or my new woman.”
“Good idea, but what make you think that it means anything in this particular case?”
Gute regarded the body and shook his head. “Probably not,” he murmured.
“Or you may for some reason be right,” Gardar said, “but since she most certainly was angry at you, isn’t it possible that you found her like a millstone around your neck? Right now I want to know how you spent the night.”
“I was with Gudrun. She was with me,” he said. “But...”
“She left me soon after the sunrise and walked to her home village.”
“Where is it?”
“Not far from here, at a walking distance.”
“And you’re sure she went home?”
Gute looked uncertain. “Afterwards she used to go home, yes.”
Gardar looked at the crowd. “I think someone should go to that village and bring Gudrun here.”
A young man stepped forward and said that he could do it.
“That’s it,” Gardar said. “Now we have four suspects. Sigurd, Gute, Gudrun and me, There’s one more. Where’s Siv.”
“She’s here,” stray voices said, and there she was.
Proudly, she stepped forward. “What make you think I killed Brynhild?” she said patronizingly.
“Pure greed combined with pure vanity,” Gardar said.
“What proof do you have?”
“Nothing at all. Just a few circumstances.”
“A few what?”
“Circumstances. In this particular case the circumstance that I’ve been told that women here are very, very anxious when it comes to their appearance and how they dress. You even try on each other’s clothes right here and compare each other, using the pond as a mirror.”
“We do. But that’s another matter and it’s irrelevant when it comes to murder. That bracelet she wore is made here on this island. I don’t understand why someone would have stolen it. One may get as many as one wants of the same kind.”
She made a pause and looked at him with victory in her eyes before she continued. “And they’re not at all expensive.” She stood self-assured, and her voice was scoffing and elusive.
Gardar nodded. “Siv,” he said. “You’re an observant woman. I’ve also thought of that. But I’m not talking about the bracelet now. I’m hinting at another fact, that is to say the desirable piece of amber your bedfellow and his sister have quarreled about.”
“What about that?”
“You may well have been behind Sigurd’s quarrel with his sister about that piece of amber.”
“You’re too clever for me, Gardar,” Siv said and her voice was filled with contempt.
She turned her back to Gardar and walked down the hillside towards the harbor.
At that moment Halvdan Svensson and Bödvild stepped forward through the crowd.
“Gardar, son of Varin,” said Halvdan. “Now I’m going to Miklagård. The seahorse will soon put off. Are you sure that you won’t came with me? I think that...?” Halvdan looked at the body. “What’s going on here?
“There could be no question of that, Halvdan,” Gardar replied, “As you can see something happened here during the night. Go to Miklagård. Remember me to the emperor if you happen to stumble upon him when you’ve had a drop too much. Here I have a riddle. It must be solved.”
Gardar suddenly realized what it was that had puzzled him. Something very important was missing and now he knew what it was. At the same time a slight movement was noticeable in the crowd. It was the young man returning and he was very upset.
“She’s not there,” he exclaimed. “She never came home last night.”
“I’ve just realized that myself,” Gardar said and made a face. “The murder is solved and the murderer is trying to escape.”
“You mean that Gunhild killed Brynhild? I can’t believe it,” Gute screamed.
“It could as well have been Siv,” Bödvild said. “Didn’t she just run away down to the harbor?”
“And what about you, evil witch?” a young Viking interjected. “You and your mother Völva can do anything that is bad.”
“There’s no time to lose,” Gardar explained. “I bet that the perpetrator is on board that ship bound for Miklagård. Come on.”
Side by side, they all ran down the slope that Siv had taken to the harbor, Gardar, Halvdan and Sigurd were followed by a reluctant Gute. They reached the shore at the last moment. The square sail of the craft was hoisted up at the same moment as they took the ferry out to the reef and climbed aboard.
They found the murderer hiding under a piece of canvas in the stern. The Vikings on their way to Constantinople laughed as the perpetrator was pulled out and carried ashore up to the pond. When the crowd recognized the perpetrator, a murmur of surprise went through the air.
“By Odin! How is this possible?” people asked.
“I’ll explain everything,” Gardar said. “This was a cleverly planned murder. Last night Brynhild made love to me and as far as I’m concerned I’ve nothing to complain about, even though she indeed used me as a kind of justification.
“I thought she was asleep when I left her at sunrise and returned to the ship. But after I was gone, she got to her feet and went to the pond. There she happened to meet her rival Gudrun, who was on her way home.”
Gardar looked across the crowd. “Now, Brynhild most probably praised Gudrun’s dress, and Gudrun, flattered Brynhild’s interest, let herself be talked into exchanging clothes, so that Brynhild got to try on her garment. When Brynhild was wearing Gudrun’s clothes and Gudrun, Brynhild’s, the stage was set for murder.”
Gardar cleared his throat. “They were both good at handling the caber. So when Brynhild raised up the unwieldy log, Gudrun fell in with the idea at once. But instead of tossing the caber, Brynhild immediately dashed out Gudrun’s brains with the log.
“Strong and well-trained as she is, she then used the clumsy log like an enormous pestle and she totally destroyed Gudrun’s face by crushing it and turning it into a bloody mess. If you look at the log, you’ll find that the thick end is bloodstained. The idea was that when we found the body, we would think that it was Brynhild, since the body wore Brynhild’s clothes.
“When she had taken revenge on the woman who had deprived her of Gute, Brynhild’s plan was to hide aboard the ship bound for Miklagård. Here Gudrun would have been buried or burned as if she had been Brynhild and all people would think that Gudrun had fled from Gotland.”
“How did you find out?”
“It took a while before I understood that the bracelet was the clue to the solution. Gudrun had white arms and wore no bracelet. Brynhild had tanned arms and did wear a bracelet on her right arm.
“Sigurd saw that the bracelet was missing and thought that the murderer had stolen it from his sister. Which would have been a feeble-minded thing to do. As Siv has quite rightly pointed out, the bracelet was manufactured here on the island and is very cheap. Why should anyone steal something when you easily can obtain as many as you like? Anyhow, if we remove the bracelet from Brynhild now...”
Halvdan took the bracelet from Brynhild, who was silent.
“You can all see that there is a clear white mark of a bracelet standing out on her tanned arm. The lack of a bracelet and the obvious thing that there was not the slightest sign of a bracelet on the white arm of the victim revealed the truth.
“Then it was easy for me to figure out that the two women had exchanged clothes by the pond, as women use to do here. When I heard that Gudrun never returned home this morning, well, then I was totally convinced that Brynhild was the perpetrator and Gudrun the victim. But where could Brynhild be? It was simple for me to draw the conclusion that she was hiding aboard the craft bound for Miklagård.”
“Why not on board the knarr bound for Hauthabu?”
“Too risky. Hauthabu is to close to Visby. Merchants, seafarers and other travelers would soon have recognized her. But everything was cleverly concocted. Thinking that Gudrun was Brynhild, she would have been burned or buried as a follower of the Æsir cult, while Brynhild would have been free.
“If somebody happened to discover that the body was not hers, she would no longer have been here to be held responsible. Finally, the rumor that she had been seen in far away Miklagård may have reached Visby after many years. Of what use would that have been?”
The excitement caused by the murder drama had gotten the Miklagård-travellers to postpone their departure. But now it was time to go.
“Why don’t you change your mind? Come on!” Halvdan said to Gardar. “In Miklagård everything is bigger than—”
“in Birka, Hauthabu, Upsala and Visby taken together,” Gardar interrupted him with a big grin. “Yes, I know, but you forgot to mention Jorvik and Dublin and the Trelleborgs.”
“Why don’t you stay here instead of going to Miklagård?” Bödvild said to Halvdan.
“I want to be rich again,” Halvdan said. “I was rich when I returned from Miklagård last year, but unfortunately I lost everything gambling with dice in Birka.”
“You’ll lose another fortune the same way,” Bödvild said.
“This time I’ll be careful,” Halvdan explained.
She shook her head. “You don’t know yourself,” she said.
At that moment the sound of ringing a bell filled the air. A group people came walking down the slope. They were lead by a monk holding a wooden cross in his hands.
“The Christians carry Gudrun to their chapel,” Sigurd explained.
Halvdan Svensson bid farewell and the ferryman brought him to the vessel. Gardar and Bödvild saw its sail fill the wind as the ship turned towards Miklagård. Gardar’s knarr would put off later.
The old hag, who went shuffling along, came towards them while she loudly articulated a row of expressive curses.
“Mother, this is Gardar, who is even better than you when it comes to galdering and things like that,” Bödvild said.
“Pig-shit, horse-muck and cow-piss,” Völva said turned to Gardar and that was just about all the words of wisdom she said in his presence.
Gardar looked out across the sea. He sensed a weight on his chest and despair in the midst of his success. He could not free himself from it without speaking. With his right hand he stroke his left hand and improvised a loose verse using the ringing meter of kings:
Let the waves of water
Weave a mat of fine leaves.
Murder yours, most evil,
Guilty must get rusty.
Her killer shall dwell here,
Where there is no haven.
Never will Frey free you!
Face your deed’s disgrace.
Purified by the power of the scaldic mead, Gardar felt at ease.
When the ferryman returned to the shore Gardar went down to the ferry. He was on the verge of boarding it when Sigurd and Siv came down to the beach.
“I think I have something that rather belongs to you than to me or to anyone else, for that matter,” Sigurd said.
Gardar looked at the piece of precious amber. He saw that strange thing inside it, which looked like a butterfly, but he was not sure that it really was a butterfly. He looked bewilderedly at Sigurd.
“Yes,” Sigurd said, “you’ve earned it.”
Copyright © 2012 by Bertil Falk