The Saga of the Flight Homewards
by Bertil Falk
The sun was at its highest spot in the sky when Einar stopped and signed at Gardar to keep quiet. They were in a longish valley on the way towards a meadow by a small lake. A few small cottages disclosed that they had reached a village.
Einar the Caresser pointed.
Gardar turned his eyes in that direction and there, near the village, he saw a number of men talking. One of them was Domalde and one was the wounded Bölverk. He did not recognize the others, but he guessed that they were the inhabitants of the village. He saw that Bölverk was showing his maimed arm and that Domalde was talking in a very eager manner. It was impossible to hear what he was saying, partly because he was far away and partly because the wind was blowing in the opposite direction.
Gardar understood that Domalde was telling a version of what had happened that would cause the village people to stand by him and oppose Gardar. His suspicion was confirmed as he saw a man, obviously the village chief, who began to distribute tasks to people, who now spread in all directions into the forest.
“That looks bad,” Gardar said. “What do we do now?”
“We do what they don’t expect us to do.”
Gardar grasped the meaning of Einar’s words and they carefully stole down towards the small village at the same time as the men spread out from the village in three different directions. They did not see anyone moving towards the lake — the fourth direction.
“That’s our escape route,” Einar said.
Now they approached the buildings at a somewhat faster pace and were soon down by the lake where a couple of boats were pulled out of the water on the shore. Not a single human being was seen. Just a few frightened hens fled in all directions as Gardar launched one of the boats at the same time as Einar crushed the bottoms of the remaining boats with Domalde’s throwing axe.
At the same moment that they made off a woman came out from one of the houses. She called out as she saw the boat leaving the shore and Gardar began rowing with powerful strokes. They had gotten about five hundred ells out on the lake when men came running from the forest to stop them.
One of them threw a javelin that stuck in the stern of the boat. Others shoved off the remaining boats and jumped into them, but soon discovered that the boats sank as water gushed through the broken bottoms under the weight of the men.
Einar went to the rear of the boat and pulled the spear out of the stern. He dropped it into the water and it sank immediately.
Lying on the bottom of the boat was a mast.
“Take over the oars for a while,” Gardar said and detached his cloak, which was partly cut to pieces. It was still good enough to be used as a sail and it was not long before the wind filled the red cloak, now hoisted on the mast.
Gardar sat down beside Einar. Each with both hands on an oar, they pulled in perfect time, forcing the boat forwards with powerful strokes while the wind assisted in moving them as far away as possible from their pursuers.
The villagers had not given up. They were running along the shore, but the ground they had to cover was long and difficult and they were far away when Gardar and Einar went ashore on the other side of the lake. Einar wanted to destroy the bottom of the boat, but Gardar hindered him, took down his cloak and pushed the boat into the water. Then they rushed southwards. They had to keep the distance to the followers and preferably widen the gap.
* * *
Two days and nights later, Gardar and Einar were far away from the drama by the lake. They had not seen a glimpse of a single human being during that time, but they reminded each other not to let themselves be lulled into a false sense of security.
Gardar felt the situation was better. Bölverk did probably not feel like continuing the hunt with his chopped-off arm. Domalde was now far away from his home district, in an area where he hardly could feel at home. Gardar had gathered bog moss, which he sun-dried and used to rebandage his wounds.
“Will you return home?” Gardar wondered.
“Of course,” Einar said. “I don’t have to be in hiding now that you’ve cleared me of suspicion of theft.”
“But Domlade is there and Dag and who knows — maybe Bölverk will stay in the village as well?”
“They may have their eyes on me,” Einar the Caresser admitted, “but Domalde is already an outcast. Dag too. Their cases will go to the Thing. Both Domalde and Bölverk can be outlawed, can’t they?”
“I don’t know,” Gardar said. “I don’t know what laws you have in this part of the land of the Goths.”
Their conversation ceased. There was not much to say.
* * *
They continued their journey. The terrain went through a distinct change. The conifers made room for broadleaf trees. Oaks and beeches became more and more common. The darkness of the pine forests was replaced by the darkness under the big leaf-shedding trees. Groves with giant oaks bordered their wandering.
They were walking through an arbour of beeches when they were attacked. Before them, Domalde emerged with a spear in his hand. Bölverk came from the side. He swung an axe in his left hand. Domalde threw his spear at Gardar, who turned a somersault forwards and succeeded in avoiding to be hit.
Bölverk was obviously unpractised in handling a weapon with his left hand, for the axe slipped out of his hand and fell down a few ells from him.
“Here is your old axe,” Gardar called out and threw the weapon with the futhark at Domalde.
Nothing was wrong with Gardar’s accuracy in throwing. The axe cleft the skull of its former owner. That single combat was over. Bölverk stood dejected and glared, but Gardar could not care less about him.
The victory was won.
There was no longer an avenger to fear.
Gardar turned to Einar and they shook hands in agreement. Einar bent down to pick up the axe by the fallen body of Domalde.
Einar did not see where from the arrow came, but it touched his cheek and got stuck in the ground beside the corpse.
The downy Dag, son of Domalde, sat up there on a branch in a huge beech. His face was deadly pale. For a second time he presented his bow at Einar. The arrow hit the ground beside Gardar at the same time that Einar draw himself up to his full height and turned his eyes towards Dag, the same Dag, who for the second time had tried to kill him.
“Come down, Dag. Stop this nonsense! There’s no reason to continue these meaningless acts of retribution,” Gardar screamed.
“Never,” the boy called out and fired another arrow that missed its target.
Einar the Caresser, who now fully realized that the boy was firmly resolved, raised his axe and swung it at the same moment that Dag drew his longbow and aimed another arrow at him. The two adversaries looked each other up and down. Then Einar threw his missile and Gardar saw how the axe penetrated the chest of the young boy at the same moment that the arrow left the drawn bowstring.
Dag sat balancing on his branch. Then he fell backwards and his head slammed on the ground. If the boy had not died from the blow of the axe, he would have died when his brain oozed out on the soil.
Gardar turned to Einar. He was lying on his back with an arrow in his eye. He smiled. Gardar bent down to the side of the sejdman.
“At last, Dag has learned how to handle a bow,” Einar murmured. And died.
Slowly, Gardar got to his feet and turned to Bölverk, who was sitting motionless on the ground as if expecting the final blow.
Gardar walked over to him and stood in front of him, his legs wide apart. “Are we happy now?” he said. “Or shall we continue this bloodshed?”
Bölverk kept silent.
“As you like,” Gardar said and left him to his fate.
Before sunset, Gardar had dug a grave for the three dead men. When the full moon rose, he had thrown up a small mound over the place where they were buried. He regarded his mournful work and improvised a lay:
Fine grave mound I made while
Swinging my spade-like thing.
Sharp spade shaping the heap.
Shallow pit shall be covered.
Friend and enemy will find
Bold sleep in the same fold.
Valkyrs bringing victims
to the halls of Valhalla.
And he let a thought go to the one that no one thought of, the fragile Menglöd, who had lost both a husband and a son to Odin. Had she not whispered in his ear, this might never have happened. But Einar the Caresser had not been found not guilty either. Of what use now that he was lying here in the mound?
“What about you?” he said and turned to Bölverk.
He glowered listlessly at Gardar and said not a word.
“As you like,” Gardar said a second time and turned his back to his victim.
When Gardar thought of everything he had taken part in lately, he found that he had experienced a real life-stretcher. It took him many more days and nights before he stepped into his mother’s house late one evening.
“You’re just in time for the evening meal,” said Ingegerd Halkesdotter.
Copyright © 2012 by Bertil Falk