The Saga of the Stolen Wooden God
by Bertil Falk
There was already hustling life in the village. Clucking hens, rooting pigs and barking dogs met him and soon people surrounded him, most of them dressed in simple garments without the least sign of adornment apart from one or two female brooches.
A short man who seemed to be the chieftain of the village looked him up and down and demanded his name and the purpose of his visit. “Another stranger,” the man said, his voice stern. “One came yesterday. He had fled from Vikings. And now another one.”
“I, too, was aboard the attacked knarr,” Gardar said.
“It bodes no good,” the man said, turning to his people. “We must prepare ourselves. Friends as well as enemies could turn up. What do you want? Looking for food or lodging? Or both?”
”Neither of them! There is a riddle of a theft to be solved,” Gardar said. “That’s why I’m here.”
Before the short chieftain replied, Bölverk the Baldheaded came out from one of the longhouses. He gave a whistle at the sight of Gardar. “So you escaped. I saw how you handled the broadsword as if it was a javelin. Where did you pick up that habit? I’ve never seen anything like it before.”
“I never learned that,” Gardar said. ”It was the work of the instant, when I stood there, sword in hand.”
A young girl walked up at a rapid pace, her body swaying. She seemed to be anxious, but the village chief paid no attention to her.
“I’m Orvar Magnesson,” he told Gardar. “Who told you that something has been stolen here? And what makes you think that you could poke your nose into what’s no concern of yours?”
“Odin came to me and told me that Frey had disappeared.”
”Odin? And why would he take notice of a brat like you?”
“Father, don’t you understand who he is?” the girl intervened. Gardar realized that she was Liv the Walkeress. “I’ve heard about him. A young man with a red cloak. Can’t you see the red cloak?”
She was at least two heads taller than her father but did not look like him at all. Her air did not make anyone happy. She looked forbidding and stern.
Orvar turned to his daughter. “What are you trying to say, Liv? Who is he?”
“He must be Gardar Varinsson, the riddle-solver from the south. He knows the runes. He solves riddles for people. And after solving those riddles, he expects to be well rewarded. Don’t you?”
Liv had turned around with a sudden movement and looked straight into Gardar’s eyes. She was red-eyed. Her nose was broad, as was her rump. Her red hair was long but set in a bun according to an old fashion that had been abandoned long ago in Birka and Vi and, for that matter, even in Gardar’s own home area. Like all the other people in the village, she was dressed in gray homespun.
“Nobody has sent for me. I can’t ask for payment if I happen to solve the riddle that haunts you.”
“I ask you here and now to do me the favor of finding where Frey is,” Liv said, “and who is at the bottom of this wicked deed of stealing him.”
Gardar looked at her without replying and wondered why she was so keen on getting the problem solved. She looked back at him, her eyes watery, without avoiding his gaze.
“You’re silent,” Liv said. ”Maybe you think that I can’t afford to reward you? You heard what I said. I know that you expect a fine requital.”
“I don’t mind, but then I want to talk to you and other people. One at a time.”
Liv the Walkeress turned around and walked away. Gardar did not hesitate. He followed her. The girl could be about fifteen summers or so, but obviously she had skin on her nose as they said of people who had a mind of their own.
She led him to one of the longhouses of the village and stopped by a wooden bench in the external gallery they called a swallow’s walk, which extended along the long side of the huge house.
“You may wonder how I, who am so young, can promise you a good payment. But I have many precious golden ornaments from my mother, who died during the last solar turn.” She smiled as if she were thinking of something beautiful. Whether it was the memory of her mother or the joy at the golden inheritance was not easy to know. It was in any case the first time that a smile had brightened up her otherwise grim countenance, and she almost became beautiful in Gardar’s eyes. Not really, but almost.
”It’s said that you’ve been kind towards Einar the Caresser,” he said. ”Why is that so?”
“Oh, he’s to be pitied. He’s held in contempt. His lust is primarily directed towards other men. My mother always gave him food. I’ve continued doing that.”
“Why did your mother give him food?”
“I don’t know.”
Gardar regarded her without saying a word. Did she really not know?
It was as if she saw the question in his eyes, for she said, “I mean what I say. I don’t know why she was so kind to Einar. For sure he’s sort of warped, but he is also kind and he can tell you a lot of things. And when sejding should be done, he’s restored to favor, but it has not happened for some time now. It’s as if people are moving away from old customs.”
”Are there Christians in this village?”
“No, they’re only at the marts. We only hear rumors of those new ideas here in the forests.”
“It’s because of the memory of your mother that you’re shielding Einar?”
“It’s also for his own sake,” she said. “They think that he has stolen Frey. It’s ludicrous! Why would Einar begin stealing now when he never has done it before?
“Nonetheless, Frey has disappeared at a very ill-timed moment. We’ve had poor crops over the last years. It’s above all Domalde Dyggveson, who has seen vary bad results on his grounds. This spring we carried Frey around the village. Domalde wanted us to take a special walk with Frey around his grounds, but by a show of hands it was decided that everything should be done according to the old customs.”
She looked at Gardar. ”We take Frey three turns around the village and the fields every year to get good crops. In the last few years, Frey has given us bad crops. Now we’re short of seed for sowing.”
Gardar kept turning over in his mind what Liv said. Why did the villagers not comply with Domalde’s request? He asked Liv outright.
“Because it had never before been done that way and therefore it was against our inherited customs.”
“What was Domalde’s reaction?”
”He was as sour as a rowanberry. Now, let me get some food.”
Gardar enjoyed the skyrke, which was kept in a chip-basket. He untied his wooden ladle from his belt and shoveled down the ropy milk. The egg wrapped up in moss was cooked. Round loaves made of elder, apples, honey and rose hips made the meal complete, and Gardar was in a very good mood.
“We still have food, but the crop is not good this year,” Liv said. “We collect as much as we can from the forest to be prepared when the winter with Yuletide and sacrifice is at hand.”
The vi with the wooden idols stood in a clump of birches. The idols were both one ell tall. Odin consisted of a rough-hewn bit of wood with simple lines. His bugged one-eyedness was prominent. Thor was similarly cut and held in a firm grip something that was supposed to be a hammer. To the left of the group was a dent in the soil where Frey had stood.
Carefully, Gardar searched the spot. Behind the idols lay a bed of spruce twigs. Gardar understood that this was where Einar the Caresser used to sleep before he was forced to leave the village like an outlaw.
There was a wooden ladle by the bed. It had a covering in the form of a yellowy sludge. Gardar sniffed at it. Cowbane! With a smile of recognition, he nodded. Or water hemlock as they also called it. But he did not say anything to Liv. Instead he asked if she recognized the ladle.
”It looks like any wooden ladle, but I think that it belonged to Einar.”
“And you don’t believe that Einar stole Frey?”
“Why should he?”
“Don’t you think that he should have noticed when it was stolen? It happened during the night, didn’t it?”
“True, true. He says that he had fallen into an unusually profound sleep that night. As if he was unconscious. And he felt very sick. He woke up a couple of times and vomited.”
The same that Einar had told him.
“You are said to have given him something to drink that evening?”
“Yes, and I also gave him whey porridge.”
Thoughtfully, Gardar stroke his reddish beard. Food, drink and sleep. Could someone have put something inappropriate into the honey brew, in order to get Einar into a deeper sleep than usual? The yellowish covering suggested something like that.
“Where did you get the mead you gave to him? And the whey porridge? Was someone else nearby then?”
“Many could have put something into the mead or the porridge,” she said, since she had guessed the thoughts behind his question. “My father and Domalde were there. But so were Domalde’s wife Menglöd and their son Dag. Over there,” she pointed,” is Domalde’s patch of tilled ground.”
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Copyright © 2012 by Bertil Falk