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The Cross Murders

by Bertil Falk

The Saga of the Cattle Killer
appeared in issue 322.

part 1 of 4

Gardar, the Riddle-Solver, son of Varin, returned from Ullergaard to the village of Alevi. He was still thinking of Sigryn, the wench whose mother turned out to be a cattle-killer. He had solved the problem and put up a strong spell to prevent further perpetration. Now he passed the sacrificial cult place of his own village and walked down the trampled road. The dogs came running and danced around him, wild with happiness.

He entered the pit-house, unfastened the brooch with the long pin under his right arm and removed his cloak, red as fire. His mother Ingegerd was preparing the mid-day meal. She told him that his father Varin was gone to the continent with a shipment of amber and furs.

The meal his mother prepared was a pike. She had gutted it and twisted it into a ring-shaped piece and put it on a foundation of coltsfoot leaves at the bottom of a bowl of brass. She added water and smoked salt and a weak fire made it simmering. She served the dish with boiled eggs. Gardar eat it heartily.

“How was your trip?”

“I cannot complain,” Gardar said.

“How did you manage?”

“Not bad.”

“Did he show respect for you?”

“More than I deserve at my age.”

“Which means?”

“I slept by the hearth.”

“Did he pay you well?”

Gardar took a spiral, solid gold rod out of his knapsack.

“Take care of it for me.”

“So he broke his arm-ring like a king and gave it to you,” she said. There was scorn in her voice.

Gardar shook his head. “This twisted rod was already broken. I think it was his only fortune. What I did for him, his house and the village was worth it.”

By that his mother was satisfied. She took the partly twisted piece of the rod of gold, and Gardar knew that his mother would guard it as if it were her own gold.

There was a message for him. It was written on a scrolled piece of birch-bark. He read the brief runic sentences with growing surprise.

“From Frideborg Rolfsdaughter, a very famous lady in Birka,” he said. “Who brought this? When did it arrive?”

“Two days ago,” his mother said. “Torstein brought it here.”

“He has been to Birka?” Gardar inquired.

“Not at all. It was given to him a few days ago in the harbor village. It came over the sea. What is it about?”

“The woman asks me to come to Birka far away in the north and find out who killed her husband, Eirik Arngrimsson, a man who belonged to the king’s guard.”

“So, he was a housecarl?”

“That’s for sure.”

“And what will you do?”

“I’ll think it over.”

Ingegerd nodded approvingly. “You had better do that,” she said.

* * *

The next day Gardar got up before sunrise, dressed and fastened his blood-red cloak with the penannular brooch of silver, which had been brought from Ireland by Vikings. One of Gardar’s thankful customers had given it to him as a long-overdue payment for a service Gardar had performed a few years earlier.

He put on his rucksack, took his staff, inscribed with runes — another payment — and walked away. After a short while the happily barking dogs left him and returned to the village.

Early in the morning three days later, Gardar arrived at the open sea. It was just a few weeks before midsummer. The heat was on. A merchant vessel had just arrived from the continent. It made a stop-over on its way to Birka. Purchasers and traders, furriers and tradesmen went ashore, some with their freight, others only in order to drain mead horns to the dregs in the simple tavern by the wooden landing stage.

The waterside was lined with pit-houses. On a height, thralls worked side by side with villagers. Gardar was told that the Danish king wanted the old stronghold turned into a round fortification, a Trelleborg.

One man in particular attracted the attention of the landlubbers. He was a rather small person. He wore threadbare trousers, worn leather shoes and a fur-trimmed cape over the naked upper part of his body. Gardar recognized him as Randver Seggrson, an itinerant who earned his living as a juggler and always came up with new conjuring tricks.

Gardar knew that the man went to the continent every now and then, where he earned his living during the early summer and learned new tricks from his colleagues. Now, just before the midsummer solstice, he returned home. His performances would entertain many people during the dark days of the winter season.

This time the man had brought a wooden tree cage. It was about two yards long and inside it was a small dragon. It was alive. People were astonished at the sight, but the itinerant entertainer laughed at them and said that it was about time that people acquainted themselves with the species that both Sigurd the Slayer of Fafnir and Beowulf the Dragon-Killer had brought down in the past. He told them that he had bought the dragon in the big city of Rome. He called his pet Crocodile.

At some distance Gardar contemplated the people who gathered around the juggler. There were women dressed in colorful outfits, ordinary farmers in gray sackclothes, weatherbeaten Vikings, trappers wearing fur coats and fishermen spreading a putrid smell of decaying fish.

Gardar felt a certain kinship with Ranver. In a way Gardar was himself an entertaining traveler. He used to tell the ancient legends of the gods to the inhabitants gathered around the hearth in the longhouses.

But Gardar was much more than an entertainer. He cut runic inscriptions and spells on stones and bones. And he had a reputation of being a good trouble-shooter. He had solved the problem of many a wicked deed. Some considered him a good sorcerer. Chiefly he was a solver of problems, and people called him Gardar, the Riddle-Solver.

Another merchant-knarr came sailing into the harbor. When Gardar realized that it had come from Birka on its way to Hammaburg, he went down to the port of call. A stream of thirsty men left the ship heading for the tavern. A plump man with big muscles and a long red beard remained on the ship. Gardar went over to his side of the landing stage.

“Any news from Birka?” he asked.

“Well, young man, the tidings are that people disappear and they are found murdered and buried outside the rampart. In that way three men have been killed. All of them marked with a cross on their chests, caused by the use of some pointed awl or something like that.”

“Who were killed?”

“They were all important men, close to the Swedish king on the neighboring Adelsisland.”

“Who killed them?”

“Some say that the followers of White Christ did. Others say that it’s some kind of rivalry among the housecarls.”

“The killed people were all housecarls?”

“At least two of them. Probably all three.”

“Why are the Christians suspected?”

“Because all the killed men were followers of our traditional gods. And... then you have the bloody cross-markings on the dead bodies.”

The man had not much more to tell him, so Gardar embarked the ship bound for Birka. It was filled with goods: pearls, swords, funnel shaped cups of glass, textiles and many other things. When the men had quenched their thirst in the tavern, they returned to the ship. Soon after it was time for departure.

* * *

A Christian monk crossed himself and prayed for a safe journey as the ship put off from the harbor. A smooth breeze filled the large sail and it bulged out from the mast. To begin with the ship went eastwards but before nightfall it had changed course and was heading north. Gardar got to know brother Godfred, a Benedictine friar from Bremen, who told him about severe problems in Birka for his mission.

“The people of Birka accepted the Christian faith when Saint Ansgar went there many years ago,” the monk said, “but now we have received tidings to the effect that my fellow-believers have been assaulted and accused of many evil things by the idol-worshippers, who are still in a majority.”

Gardar listened without any comment. He knew very little about the new faith and its shining god — the White Christ. He had nothing against new gods, but he was opposed to the claim of the baptizers to a monopoly of faith. Gardar took for granted that it was that claim which had caused trouble in Birka.

“One of our people, Frideborg Rolfsdaughter, sent a message and told us that our people have been accused of being responsible for the death of her husband, Eirik Arngrimsson.”

“Tell me about that,” said Gardar, who now became very interested.

“There’s not much I can tell,” said the friar. “She was married to one of the king’s men. Eirik Arngrimsson was still a heathen, while she embraced the only true faith. She tried to convince him about his delusion, but he was murdered before she succeeded.”

“Murdered? How?”

“That I don’t know. Her message reached Hammaburg recently and was very short.”

Gardar asked the monk many questions and listened carefully to the answers. He was not surprised to hear that any Christian who was killed because of his faith more or less instantly went to heaven, which obviously was the Valhalla of the Christians. That was very similar to what happened to Vikings who died fighting. They went straight to Valhalla. But he was surprised to hear that Christians were not supposed to kill any other human being, no matter what the reason could be.

“Thou shalt not kill,” the monk explained. “People, who kill go to Hell.” And that did not surprise Gardar. For those who did not die fighting should of course go to Hel, where the goddess Hel herself embraced the dead. She took the nails from the fingers of the deceased and built the ship Naglfar with them.

Then she took the hair from their skulls and wove sailcloth of them. The day when her shipbuilders had built the ship and her sail-makers had completed the sail-area, then Naglfar would be launched into the world and Ragnarök, the end of the world, would be at hand.

Hel or Hell — it all comes to the same thing in the end. Obviously the difference between the Christian faith and his own belief was not that big. But the friar explained to Gardar that in his Hell no ship was built with nails and hair from the deceased and that people would go to his Hell only after Ragnarök, which he called Armageddon.

Gardar found the information about Frideborg Rolfsdaughter a little bit disturbing. She had sent a message to her fellow believers in Hammaburg and Bremen at the same time as she had sent a message to himself, a fellow-believer of her husband. Why? He asked brother Godfred about his mission to Birka.

“I’m going there to preach the holy gospel in order to change the minds of the heathen Northmen,” he said.

“So you’re not going to solve the murder of Frideborg Rolfsdaughter’s husband?”

The friar stared at Gardar. “How could I possibly do that?” he said. “Only with the help of Jesus Christ, Our Father, the Lord in Heaven and the Holy Ghost is anything like that possible. With God’s help we can do anything. But to solve that murder is not important. The important thing is to save the souls of the living from the flames of Hell.”

Gardar pondered on the meaning of that statement, but he could not reach any other conclusion than that the monk was more interested in spreading his faith than in solving the murder of a man who had not been a Christian. Which in a way made sense to Gardar.

* * *

Proceed to part 2...

Copyright © 2010 by Bertil Falk

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