The Saga of the Stolen Wooden God
by Bertil Falk
A previous episode,
The attack was unexpected. Indeed, the first ship had been sighted at an early stage far away on portside. It looked peaceful. When another ship emerged on starboard, there was still no sign of danger. It was not until a third karve became visible in the direction of travel that the crew aboard the knarr began to smell a rat.
As if at a given sign, the three floating things were turned into dragonships at the same time that they hoisted pennants to their spars and it emerged plainly that the trading knarr would be besieged by hostile Vikings, prepared to attack. The snare closed in as the three longships approached from three different directions.
Gardar saw clearly the dragon head at the prow of the enemy ship on portside. It had been put in place at the same time as the streamers of all the three sea-steeds went aloft. The merchant vessel changed direction, heading straight for the mainland, but Gardar knew that the agile dragons were faster and would catch up with the freighter. Even if against all probability the knarr reached the shore before the longships, the Vikings could easily catch up with it.
The Vikings would rapidly jump overboard when the ship’s bottom ran aground, and they would pull the dragons up on the shore. To them it would just take a moment. Then their rage could seriously break out. The raiders were determined to cut down everything obstructing them. Their victims would be stripped to the skin, the knarr would be robbed of its cargo of furs from Birka and penannular brooches from Vi. Gardar saw all this in his head for he knew how it used to be.
The ship’s master had commanded all his men to man the oars. The crew rowed, while the sail filled with wind. Not that it helped. The hostile longships had bigger sails and bigger crews with stronger arms, and they did not slacken at their oarlocks. On the contrary, sensing the taste of blood they became thirsty.
The knarr was approaching land at full speed, but the dragons were overtaking the knarr even faster. The vessel that had been ahead of the other two before they changed direction had now turned about and was riding on the waves with its big, colorful sail swelling like the breast of one of Odin’s shield-maidens. It was the fastest sea-horse of them all.
A young boy, with fuzz on his upper lip, whose duty was to keep the fire burning on the hearth aboard the knarr, sat nervously fumbling with the arrows fitted with heads dipped in tar.
Then, all of a sudden, the dragon heads were taken down from the three attacking ships. The skipper of the knarr took it as a sign that the fight that never had begun was called off, but Gardar knew better.
He explained to the ship-leader that taking down the dragon heads did not signal a discontinued combat. They had been removed because it was not advisable to approach land showing the dragonheads, for the landvættirs might resent it. Since the enemies had removed the dragon heads because the ships were now approaching shore at a very fast clip.
“Shut up, you snotty brat,” the skipper said. ”Who are you to tell me the rules of the sea? They have changed their minds and won’t attack us.”
”Why do they continue following us?”
“Don’t poke your nose!”
”What about the pennants?” Gardar said and pointed at the nearest longhorse. ”They are still hoisted as a sign of attack!”
The skipper, who had climbed up to the gunwale, looked in the direction Gardar pointed. His eyes bugged when he understood that Gardar was right. Without replying he screamed to the rowers to hurry up. That was his last scream. In the next moment an arrow hit his chest, he fell backwards across the gunwale and disappeared into the sea.
The first mate, who was called Bölverk the Baldheaded, came rushing and looked down into the water where his captain had disappeared. Then he grasped how serious the situation was and urged the men to row for their lives. And that they did, not least because a rain of arrows reached the knarr with a whining sound. For sure, now the enemy was just at a distance of one arrow-shot away.
The fact that dragonheads had been removed showed that the enemy considered the land to be their own. Foreign Vikings would ignore the feelings of the vættirs of a hostile country. Thus Gardar concluded that the aggressors were göts who did not consider it robbery to attack a foreign trading boat in their own waters.
Gardar watched the closest enemy ship. He saw that there were several bowmen standing along the bulwarks. Luckily the powerful crossbows had not yet been adopted in this country. Their bolts had a much longer reach than regular arrows. When they hit they impaled almost anything. Gardar had himself seen crossbows at the home of fair Sigryn, daughter of Sigfather. Her brother Sigurd had brought two powerful crossbows he had acquired while in the south.
“You there,” Bölverk the Baldheaded screamed at Gardar. “Come on! Here travellers must give a helping hand!”
Bölverk pointed at an oarsman who had collapsed with an arrow in his back. Gardar immediately knew what to do. He caught the man under his arms and removed him from his seat. The man was still alive, but his gaze died at the same moment that Gardar let him go and took his seat. It all happened very fast and Gardar had not shed his blood-red cloak and his rucksack, which was firmly rooted to his back as if it were a part of his body. The cloak was getting in his way when he tried to row and he had to put it aside as well as he could, for there was no time to remove it.
Gardar had not pulled many times on the oar when ferocious screams were heard from the attacking dragon. The song of weapons and the clang of battle grow into an endless din and new showers of arrows hit. The man in front of Gardar got an arrow through his throat. Wounded men whimpered and the boats collided with a crash. So many Vikings boarded the knarr across the starboard bow that the ship began to capsize.
Gardar let his oar go and stood up at the same moment as a man with a jet-black beard rushed at him, swinging a huge broadsword. Now Gardar’s cloak came in handy. He succeeded in snaring the broadsword as well as the face of the combatant into the cloth and tripped the man up. The Viking stumbled and fell across the man with the pierced throat.
Quickly Gardar pulled the sword from the enemy, who was groping in the air. Then he draw himself up to his full height and climbed onto the gunwale that was now high above the surface of the water. The opposite side of the knarr was weighed down by all the Vikings who had climbed into the boat in a swift stream from the three sea-elks. Gardar found himself facing a crowd of murderous marauders equipped with heavy broadswords and frightful battle-axes.
There was only one thing he could do. He threw the broadsword with all the strength he could muster against one of the varjags and jumped. Before he hit the water, Gardar saw the sword cleave the man’s skull.
In the water, he once again found the cloak ensnaring him. He removed it and let it go. To his surprise he touched bottom. The water only reached up to his armpits. Gardar looked around. He was between the knarr and one of the dragons. The fight was going on above him. Under cover of the dragon he waded to the end of the ship and saw that the beach was just a few hundred ells away.
He did not want to lose his cloak. When it came floating toward him, he picked up the fabric now heavy with water and slung it over his shoulder. Then he walked towards the beach, all the time looking back. But no one noticed him in the heat of the combat. He hastened to the beach, where a huge pine-forest almost reached to the water’s edge. He disappeared into the forest.
The sun had managed to move a short stretch in the sky before he stopped on the top of a forested mountain overlooking the sea. All four of the boats were clustered together and burning. The boy with the arrows dipped in tar had obviously succeeded in setting at least one of the Viking ships on fire, and the blaze had spread to the other ships.
It meant that friends as well as enemies would come ashore. Gardar had thought of hanging out his rucksack, cloak and clothing to dry, but it was too risky now. The pirates might find him. He decided to put as much forest as possible between himself and the possible pursuers.
He found north by studying the moss on tree-trunks. He checked his observation: many big ant hills were on the opposite side of the tree trunks, facing south.
Gardar began walking southwards, towards home. He did not stop until the sun was disappearing behind the tree-tops. His clothes had only partly dried in the sun during his long walk. He found a small cave with dirt floor. He snapped off fir twigs and made a bed of them on the floor.
After that it was about time to open the rucksack, which all the time had been firmly fixed to his back. On top of it was food for his journey: a piece of dried ham and sour milk preserved in the form of a lump of skyrke called skörost.
At the bottom of the rucksack, he kept two things given to him in Birka: the necklace of gold from Kiev and the murder-brooch with the blood-stained pin. And the egg-like piece of amber he had received in Vi. There were pieces of birch bark with no writing. And, above all, the pouch with flint, touchwood and steel, which he always kept with him.
Gardar had picked hazelnuts and rose hips during his walk. Now he made a fire at the entrance of the cave. His rucksack, cloak and clothes were still wet. He let them hang near the fire. Naked he then went out and picked a piece of birch bark, which he turned into a kåsa, a wooden drinking vessel. He hung it above the fire and filled it with water from a nearby brook. He could now boil his rose hips.
He cut up slices of ham and the skyrke and enjoyed his meal while he drank the tea, ate the rose hips and nuts and chewed the smoked ham and dried milk. Before he fell asleep, he spread out the dry clothes like a skin rug on the bed of spruce twigs. He wrapped himself up in the warmed cloak.
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Copyright © 2012 by Bertil Falk