The Number of the Killer
A Gardar Varinsson Saga
by Bertil Falk
Table of Contents|
parts: 1, 2, 3, 4
Aside from the drizzle, nothing important happened in the two-day, two-night passage to Pavika. They sailed into the sheltered bay late on the second afternoon. Near Pavika there was a wall similar to the one Gardar had seen in Birka.
The shipyard made a deep impression on him. A permanent noise filled the air as shipbuilders hammered and nailed inside the skeletons of wood taking shape on the beach. At the same time, old knarrs and shorter ships and lighters were pulled up onto the shore for repairs.
Gardar found many men occupied with building new ships and maintaining old hulls. They were surrounded by tools and rivets. Craftsmen worked in the small sheds. There were bronze casters; bone- and horn-makers who manufactured combs; glass smelters and forgers. Fish and dried meat were sold, pearls and amber were for sale, and bondsmen were exchanged for furs.
Gardar saw an Arab for the first time in his life. It was a man from Särkland, who put his cloak on the ground and, facing southwards, threw himself flat while uttering a stream of words Gardar did not understand.
Pavika was not as big as Birka, but Gardar felt that the place was more lively and animated. Strange languages were spoken as merchants from different parts of the world bargained and bid, bartered, or paid with coins from Byzantium.
Pavika was well protected against the elements, and there was lively activity within the walled land in the south along the coast. There were people from Holmgård and Birka, who used the nearby Garnet village as a base for business with the rest of the world. Transactions were performed and cargoes sold and bought. Some of them sometimes went to other destinations without transshipment.
Gardar had never before seen two places so close to each other and so spirited. Together the two spots constituted a demonstration of strength, and he realized that, when threatened, the shipbuilders and craftsmen in Pavika could find a shelter behind the walls of Garnet.
Gardar wandered about among the sheds and the merchants. He soon discovered that there was an undertone, an unpleasant tone under the efficient surface; a hollow, almost threatening mood reigned. The people regarded each other with nervousness and suspicion and they all seemed to be on their guard. Why?
“What’s going on here?” he asked a tall Viking, who was hanging around a mead house.
The Viking inspected Gardar through and through, stroking his black beard.
“One finds mutilated and slain people more or less each and every day here,” the man answered. “Four days ago they found a man with a crushed skull. His cock was cut off. He was found on the shore.”
The Viking pointed and Gardar followed with his eyes. There was nothing. Just the beach and a few vessels pulled up on the beach. The body had been carried away without leaving a trail.
“Eight days ago, a shipbuilder was found at the bottom of the knarr he was repairing. He’d been treated in a similar way,” the Viking continued. “Before that, an older man was found twelve days ago behind the forge over there. His skull was cloven. But he was not mutilated. Now everyone here is jumpy.”
“It seems to me that the perpetrator kills only men,” Gardar said. He now understood what Ragnar had been hinting at when he talked about the death riddles in Pavika.
“Unless the woman who was found cloven with a throwing axe between her legs sixteen days ago fell victim to the same monster,” the Viking replied.
“Is there someone who is suspected?”
The man shook his head. “We’re all suspected,” he said. “I am and you are.”
Gardar had already conceptualized the perpetrator. It could hardly be a woman but rather a man who had been on a lething, involved in attacks and who had become mad in the process. Not a berserker but a stealthy madman who seemed to be normal on a day-to-day basis but committed the cruelest crimes in order to satisfy his misguided passions at an opportune moment. But here in Pavika at least half of the men had been out on brigandage here and there in the world.
“Who are you?” the Viking asked. “Your red cloak looks expensive.”
“It’s not cheap,” Gardar admitted. “My name is Gardar Varinsson and I’ve come to this island to pick up my daughter at Visby. And who are you?”
“Kettil from Kaupang,” the man from Norway said. “Come and down a horn with me.”
They entered the mead house, where people crowded around the tables. A strong stench of intoxicating brew permeated the atmosphere around the guests, who were drinking and talking.
One wench or another sat in the lap of one Viking or another and asked the men to drink. Gardar guessed that they were daughters of the house and had the task of getting craftsmen and merchants, as well as Värings, in good spirits in order to make sure they drank and made the house richer.
Ragnar Halvdansson and many of his sailors were in the house. His men were having fun with the women. Ragnar was the only one who did not show any interest in the wenches, except that he now and then glanced insidiously at the activities of his men. He turned to Gardar. “They enthuse over the top when they’re here,” he said, “and it is fine as long as they’re sober when we return. They didn’t manage to load the knarr the last time we were here. I had to hire local people to do the job.”
“Strange manslaughters happen here,” Gardar remarked. “That was what you hinted at when we met, wasn’t it?” He noticed that Ragnar was only sipping at his mead horn. It was obviously his intention to be sober when the merchant knarr was to be loaded the next day.
Ragnar nodded. “Every time we’re here, someone’s prick is cut off,” Ragnar said. He looked thoughtfully at the increasingly boisterous women and men.
“It seems to be the same kind of incident every time,” Gardar stated, “no matter if the victim is a man or a woman.”
“Now that you mention it, yes,” Ragnar admitted, smiling his broad smile and trimming his light moustache with thumbs and forefinger. “It is like that! When are you going to Visby?”
“I’ll go early, at daybreak tomorrow,” Gardar said. “A lighter is bound for Visby, and I have a place on board. We will be at Visby around noon.”
Ragnar nodded again. “It’s a short route. We’ll meet on the rebound, for I guess you’ll go back with us?”
“We’ll see,” Gardar said evasively. “But I’m not sure I’ll return to Pavika. We’ll see.”
In reality, Gardar knew he would return to Pavika. The riddle of the repulsive lust murders had provoked him. Had someone asked him to solve the problem, he would have accepted the challenge straightaway. It was also difficult for him to swallow Ragnar’s statement that he would not be able to solve the murders. However, if he interfered on his own initiative, he would not get any reward.
Payment was not the only reason for him to refrain from interfering. He was on the island of the Guts in order to fetch his daughter. He was eager to get to Visby, and that eagerness took precedence over everything else. On the other hand, it was not a bad idea to return home aboard Ragnar’s merchantman. “When will you return to Pavika?” he asked.
“After overnight stays and transshipments, we are normally back here after about four days and nights,” Ragnar explained. “What do you think of these murders?”
“We’ll see,” Gardar said, avoiding Ragnar’s question. There was something in the air. He had felt it at once. Something that had been said, something that implied something about the perpetrator. But when and what? Gardar could not put his finger on the sensitive spot. He looked at Kettil. Hardly a possible perpetrator!
Ragnar smiled at Gardar’s vague pledge. “That’s what I thought,” he said. “The riddles are too difficult.”
A noisy rippling rose in step with the draining of the horns. Ragnar narrated with obvious pleasure his westbound and eastbound days, of attacks on Irish farmers, of lovemaking with captured Estonian women who were sold as slaves, and many other rough activities he had been involved with before he became a peaceful merchant in the waters of Eystrasalt.
Kettil from Kaupang did not want to be worse. He told them how as a Väring with the emperor in Miklagård he had led the other Värings of the vanguard when the great emperor of that big Greek land chose to show himself to his subjects on his way to the enormous place of worship called Egisif.
“The wealth and abundance in Miklagård has no counterpart in the whole world,” Kettil argued. “And what women there were along the rivers to Miklagård! They made a stand, but we took them upside down.”
Other Vikings joined them. A plump and brusque fighter called Einar the Autumnborn told them how he had competed in the Hippodrome and fallen off the vehicle. He, too, yawped laughingly about successful raping sprees. “I had five wenches at the same time,” he boasted, “and the more they cried and resisted, the better it was for me.”
Sigvard, a coarse old beast, who most probably went berserk on solemn occasions, revealed that he became rich when, after the death of Emperor Johannes Tzimikes, he was permitted to run through the treasury chamber of the palace snatching as much gold he could as long as he did not stop running.
“Ha, ha. Where is your gold now, Sigvard the Talkative?” his comrades goaded him.
“I was rich,” he hissed, “but you know how women are. They want more and more, and when you fall asleep by the mead container, they take whatever they can get.”
“You can’t handle women, Sigvard,” Orvar grinned, a small, blowzy man with hard eyes. “They should be kept on the carpet.”
Ragnar Halvdansson intervened with passion. “Not only women should be slapped down,” he said, “many men should be called to account.”
If any of the present company were responsible for the outrages and mutilations, it was certainly not easy to judge who they might be. Everyone here seems to know how to treat other people badly, Gardar thought.
One of the women of the house, Disa by name, stepped forward, putting her hands to her hips. “What kind of talk is that, you idiots! You take bad taste to new heights. The world’s most arrogant and inflated dogs always assemble here, showing us how stupid they are. If it weren’t for the fact that even a woman has been desecrated, I would have thought it was a woman who has been cutting off dicks.”
After Disa had said that, she bridled and stalked off to the next table, where someone immediately pinched her rump. They all laughed, and there was a lot of mirth in the mead house for the rest of the evening.
The gaiety was gone the next day. The recalcitrant Disa was found in the morning between two mead containers with an axe between her legs. Her skull was cleft.
Gardar did not learn the news until the lighter had left the harbor of Pavika. That was a blessing, for he knew that he could not have resisted the challenge of the riddle had he been in Pavika.
* * *
Gardar was well received by his friends in Visby. There was Sigurd, who was the uncle of Gardar’s daughter Gullveig who, ever since her birth, had been breast-fed by a slave woman, who had lost her own child at the time when Solveig was born. The owner of the slave woman, a cantankerous and coin-pinching farmer, did not want to sell the woman for a trifle and did what he could to push the price up.
The girl’s mother, Brynhild, who had cruelly killed her friend Gudrun that fateful midsummer night, did not want to keep the child. And the child was a pearl: a tiny bundle with small fingers that could barely reach around Gardar’s thumb, which she tried to grab and suck. Yellow, curly hair and big blue eyes! Her sweet potato-like nose, which she had inherited from Varin, her father’s father! That was what Gardar saw when he held the frail wonder in his arms.
The slave woman took care of the girl, and Gardar spent the last evening exchanging tidings with Siv and Sigurd and Gute. Many things had taken place since they met last time. Later that night, Bödvild arrived and asked Gardar if he had heard anything from Halvdan Svensson in Miklagård, but he knew less than she did about Halvdan.
The next morning the bargaining continued, but they reached no result. Disgruntled, Gardar had to stay one more night in Visby. He woke up with a row of numbers churning around in his head: four, eight, twelve, sixteen and nothing. It had some kind of meaning, but he could not figure out what it was. Neither could he remember where those numbers came from.
He lay down in order to fall asleep again but instead the numbers fell into their proper places; sixteen days, eight days, four days, no days at all. Of course: there had been four days between every murder. This mutilator of genitals, who killed men and women alike, did it at regular intervals. Two days ago it happened in Pavika. The next mutilation would happen in two days, if the perpetrator kept the same pace.
This insight caused Gardar to buck up. At noon the following day, he bought the slave woman, who was to feed Gullveig Gardarsdotter. “The child must have milk,” Gardar hissed, when he paid the disproportionate sum that the greedy farmer required.
Siv noted in a quizzical way that Gardar had paid three times the actual market value of the slave woman. At that, Gardar shook his head. “If she were only a slave, then you would be right. If she were only a slave breast-feeding children, then you would also be right. Now she is a woman who is breast-feeding my daughter, and that makes her worth gold. Thus, you’re wrong. The bargain is cheap at the price, and the seller is more than happy.”
“That’s right,” Bödvild said. “The best business is when the happiness is equal on both sides of a transaction.”
When the time came to say farewell, Sigurd said, “Remember that Gullveig is not only of your blood but also of my blood, since my unfortunate sister is the girl’s mother. We know you are a decent man who, in spite of being young, outshines all of us when it comes to knowledge, perhaps even wisdom. Therefore we expect that you will take care of Gullveig in a proper way and will give her a good rearing.”
Gardar nodded. “Be sure, Sigurd, that a daughter is as beloved by me as a son would have been. Gullveig will also have a mother, who is attached to me. She and my mother will give the girl all the care and attention she needs.”
Gardar made a long pause and looked at the spot of sacrifice and the sauna, where he less than a year ago had spent his most eventful midsummer. “As far as I am concerned, you can be sure that I’ll teach her everything I know about the world. I’m not very good at sejding, but that part of sorcery she will be able to master, since she is of the right gender.”
Gardar removed his red cloak and wrapped his little girl in it. He took her on board the lighter, while the träl brought the equipment that belonged to Gullveig. They reached Pavika in the afternoon.
* * *
Copyright © 2014 by Bertil Falk