The Saga of the Flight Homewards
by Bertil Falk
The Saga of the Stolen Wooden God begins in issue 496.
Gardar Varinsson, riddle-solver and rune-reader, has solved the mystery of the missing idol of Frey and the parentage of Liv Ovarsdotter. He has taken his leave and is now heading for home. His way is far from clear: the guilty will stop at nothing to take revenge. Gardar can trust to luck and rely on his own skills only so far. He will need more to survive pursuing outlaws in the northern forests of medieval Sweden.
Gardar, the son of Varin, was satisfied with his achievements. He had rapidly solved the riddle of the stolen Frey at the same time as he exposed the one who had tried to kill the old sejd-man Einar the Caresser. It was all settled, and in the morning hours of this new day, he had already walked quite a long way on his wandering southwards.
He walked on a path, stopped now and then and provided himself with edibles. In that way he gathered rose hip and some reed mace rootstocks, which he put in his rucksack. He had some ham and cheese and curdled milk that Liv the Walkeress had given him.
He paused by a reedy lake, where he stoked a fire and cored a handful of rose hips. He cooked them in a wooden vessel of birch-bark, which he quickly made on the spot. Everything was peaceful. A great calm embraced the late summer forest. An eagle come gliding in a tranquil course. Quick as lightning it dived steeply on a prey in a grove. But it was only a casual element of violence in the windless environment. The peace returned immediately.
Gardar finished his meal and began walking again. The path wound between mighty conifers and shrubs. It was then that the silence became a little too peaceful. Nature fell silent. Gardar stopped and looked about. There was nothing but total silence.
Someone or something had caused birds to stop chirping and animals to seek shelter. Gardar bided his time. The only thing he heard was his own heartbeat and muffled breathing. Carefully he tiptoed away from the path and made for a protecting cliff-face while he tried to find out what had caused life to calm down. He crouched down to avoid a branch.
That movement saved him!
At that moment a battle axe whistled above his head and penetrated into a tree trunk behind him. Now Gardar knew that he himself was the game, the hunted one, whom another human being was pursuing. He made a quick somersault towards the tree trunk, got to his feet and jerked loose the battle axe, whereupon he threw himself behind another tree. From that place he spied in the direction the axe had come from. Some ten ells away a copse swayed. There the axe thrower had stood.
It was hardly probable that the unknown enemy had two battle axes, but he could have light armament of some kind. It was a matter of being very observant and not be taken by surprise.
Who was the perpetrator? A prowling outlaw? A common highwayman? Whoever it was, Gardar had every reason to take warning and look out.
Gardar inspected the axe. A triangular, very sharp weapon with a long handle. And the magic runic alphabet: the futhark. Domalde’s battleaxe! In a fit of rage at having been exposed as a common thief, the revengeful Domalde thirsted for retaliation.
Gardar smiled. “The two of us will fight this out,” he whispered. He had no idea how wrong he was!
Gardar pressed himself against the ground for a long while before he carefully began to move away from the path and into the depths of the forest. He had to force his way through enormous shrubbery. His mantle had kept getting stuck in the thorns of the rosebushes. He took it off, folded it, and put it on the top of his rucksack.
The throwable battle-axe — actually an unusually big tveita — came in handy for cutting through the thick vegetation and avoiding long detours. He counted his steps. When he had moved some 120 ells he stopped by the side of a mountain.
The surroundings were silent. If it was the result only of his own advances through the vegetation he could not determine. He sought a depression in the rock face and spied back at the way he had taken. A bird gave a chirp. Then another one and soon all the sounds Gardar demanded in order to be sure that nobody moved in the brush.
He waited a while longer, whereupon he began to climb up the forested mountain. Since the vegetation was heavy even along the sloping cliff face nobody could see him from the ground. He stopped and surveyed the area a couple of times.
At last he reached the ridge of the mountain and found that it stretched southwards. It suited him excellently, and he began to walk in that direction. The sun had passed its highest point for the day. After satisfying his hunger with food for the journey from his rucksack and slaking his thirst with water from a little brook, he continued his wandering, trying to put as much forest as possible between himself and his pursuer.
Now Gardar moved very fast. He rested two more times and found a cave, where he made his bed for the night. The narrow cave was excellent, not least because he had an unobstructed view of the forest below the ridge. Before he fell asleep, he piled brushwood at the opening, which was about one ell wide, so that it could not be seen from the outside.
It was important not to attract attention. He dared not make a fire and boil water for a hot rose hip drink. Instead he removed the pips from the fruits and chewed the pulp as it was. He took out his blood-red cloak and wrapped himself up in it.
* * *
He was woken by a barking dog. It could mean two things. At best, it was a hunter out hunting from some nearby forest village. At worst he had not been able to shake off his pursuer. Carefully, he moved the brushwood aside from the opening and looked out. Some minor morning fogs moved among the trees and just below the mountain a huntsman passed by with his dog. The man was a total stranger. Gardar watched him closely as he disappeared northwards.
In this the early morning, Gardar gave a shiver and wrapped himself up in his cloak. He ate the last leftovers of his meat and the curdled milk he still had in his lid-furnished wooden vessel, whereupon he went out collecting dew-drops. He drank the cool dew with zest, put on his cloak and resumed his wandering with axe in hand.
He had not walked many hundred ells when he heard a twig snap above his head and at the next moment his head was hit by something hard, and he fell over. He was entangled in and dazzled by his own cloak and he felt hands groping for his throat.
At random, Gardar struck out blindly from his weak position, using the futhark-axe. An angry howl mixed with pain revealed that he had hit the mark as the axe came to a stop. Now his agility came in handy. He turned a somersault backwards and at the next moment he stood face to face with Bölverk the Baldheaded.
Gardar had no time to ponder on what this ship leader, who had lost his merchant knarr, intended with his attack. But certainly he was surprised at that it was Bölverk and not Domalde, who had turned out to be his enemy.
“You’re good at spiteful outrage, ship king,” Gardar cried out in a wily way and leveled a blow with his sharp-edged axe at Bölverk, who held a big knife in his hand. Gardar glimpsed that Bölverk bled substantially from one leg, where the axe had hit. At the next moment, the axe hit the Bölverk’s arm above the ellbow. The knife flew out over the edge of the mountain together with the hand that held it in a firm grasp and was attached to the part of the arm that Gardar had cut away.
Bölverk’s eyes turned big and round of surprise. When Gardar once more leveled a blow — now at the throat of his enemy — Bölverk threw himself aside, fell and rolled down the mountainside like a big stone. Gardar prepared himself to follow the man when he felt a vehement pain in his arm. He almost lost his axe. An arrow fired off at a short distance had penetrated his arm and now the arrowhead was sticking out on the other side.
Gardar had no time to give his attention to the wound. He rushed at the arrow shooter, who was reloading his bow some ten ells away. Now Gardar saw that Domalde was the one who had shot at him. And Domalde realized that he would not manage to ready his bow, take aim and fire off another arrow before Gardar, brandishing the axe, reached him.
With furious eyes, Domalde turned about and rushed away on the ridge. Gardar pursued him, but Domalde dived down the mountainside and disappeared into a cleft. Gardar hurried back to the place for his duel with Bölverk and looked down. There, below the mountain, the mutilated perpetrator had risen to his feet while blood streamed from his lopped-off arm. Gardar saw that Domalde was rushing toward him in order to assist him and stop the bleeding.
“Now the three of us will fight this out,” Gardar hissed between his teeth while carefully fingering the bloodstained edge, the one edge that was dangerously sharp, something Bölverk had reason remember ruefully for the rest of his life.
Gardar had no time to find out whether there was someone else in the company of the two men, but it would not surprise him if there were. Now he was prepared for anything and everything. It was a matter of getting away as fast as possible.
It would take Domalde some time to take care of Bölverk’s wound. Gardar intended to make the most of that time if that was the will of the Weird Sisters: Urd, who shaped his fate and measured up his length of life, and Verdandi, who carved the present time on rune staffs.
So far, both of the Sisters and maybe also their harmless and unfit woman-friend Skuld had been on his side during this fight with the enemy. He did not want to turn to Odin; that untrustworthy possessor of power among the gods was treacherous and let the bravest of his warrior followers depart their lives prematurely for Valhalla.
In order to take out the arrow, he had to snap off the part that protruded from his arm on the breastside of his body. Then he could pull out the part that remained on the other side. There was no time to boil lichens or goldenrod for treating the wound, but Gardar found bog moss, which he cleaned in a brook. He squeezed and wrung out as much moisture as possible and removed some needles.
There was neither time to dry the bog moss in the sun. Instead he ripped off on the spot a pair of pieces of cloth from his flaming red cloak, put them on the two wounds and placed bog moss on top of them, whereupon he ripped a long and shred from the cloak and tied up the bandage. Then he got to his feet and improvised a lay:
Evil deed’s frisky fault’s need
Facing pained body’s mind.
Stray honor’s act of gyp
Abolished foolish fight.
I could have tried the trick
Had I known the downslope.
Frey is witness of work.
Woe is him who stole the god.
Then he went off. He hastened along at a pace that he knew he could maintain all day long without getting tired. Now he was allowed free space for thinking as well.
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Copyright © 2012 by Bertil Falk