The Number of the Killer
A Gardar Varinsson Saga
by Bertil Falk
Table of Contents|
parts: 1, 2, 3, 4
As always when he returned home, Gardar, the son of Varin, handed over to his mother Ingegerd Hakesdotter the rewards he had earned. This time he brought an unusually large number of gifts from different places. His mother examined the various objects with a critical gaze before she put them into the chest where she kept the growing wealth of the family.
“Your father Varin is expected to come home from the other side of the sea after the Yule sacrifice,” Ingegerd said. “I received a message from him recently.”
Gardar allowed himself to enjoy his first evening supper at home. It was long ago since he had last eaten bread baked of nettle seeds. Even barley porridge made with apple, honey and rosehip flour was something he had missed. He had also missed smoke-dried elk meat while travelling through the countries of the Swedes, the Guts and the Göts.
“That wench you charmed during one of your sprees has been here, asking about you,” Gardar’s mother said. “It was something about wanting you to find her brother.”
So, Sigryn Sigvarsdotter had not forgotten him. Was the brother a pretext, or did she really want Vardar to find him? Perhaps it was both.
“She is a fair wench, quite desired here and there, I understand,” Ingegerd continued, “and it’s about time you settled down with someone. You’ve always been precocious in other ways, and you should have had a bunch of sons and daughters by now.” She went on, dwelling on one of her favorite topics. Gardar found her nagging a punishment. “But of course you prefer to sleep around here and there, without obligations.”
* * *
The first thing Gardar did the day after coming home was to repair his red cloak. Afterwards he helped his mother with a few duties. That autumn and winter he stayed in the village. He assisted in the harvest and performed the blood sacrifice during the midwinter rituals. They took place while the grass was still green and there was no snow, for this was turning out to be a warm winter.
On the sauna days, he would tell the old sagas by the fire. The people of the village surrounded him in the longhouse, and the main farmer was very pleased with Gardar’s popularity every weekend. People came to see him to have problems and disagreements resolved. Gardar’s reputation as a young troubleshooter was growing.
The winter remained green, and the water never froze. Late spring was almost over when an unexpected message came from Visby. It was a message written in runes on birchbark from Sigurd, the brother of Brynhild, the fair wench Gardar had bedded on Midsummer’s Eve. Later that same night, Brynhild murdered her rival Gudrun.
The message from Sigurd stated succinctly that Brynhild had given birth to a girl, and it claimed that Gardar and no one else was the father. Gardar did not have to count on his fingers to realize that her claim fit with their meeting during the shortest night of the year.
There was an addition in the letter, which Gardar found important. Brynhild did not want to keep the child. If Gardar accepted the child as his, he would be free to take care of it.
When Gardar told this to his mother, she became very happy. “You must immediately travel to the island of the Guts and pick up your daughter. And it’s about time you had a wife. You visited that fair wench during the winter, and she covets you. Now you need her, for I have other things to do than take care of your kids.”
It was unusually warm when Gardar walked the long way to Ullergård, where he was well received by Sigfar Sigtyrsson and his wife Gunnlaug Egilsdotter, even though he arrived when they were in the middle of a game of chess. Gardar told them of his daughter.
“We are not against it if she approves,” Sigfar Sigtyrsson said.
And Gunnlaug Egilsdotter added that of all the lasses crazy about Gardar, their daughter Sigryn was the craziest. “Your request should not run into difficulties,” she said.
Gardar asked where Sigryn was to be found. As he spoke, she came forward out of the darkness of the house. Joyfully, she said that she was prepared to go with him straightaway. But Gardar rejected the idea out of hand.
They agreed that mother and father would bring their daughter to Gardar’s home later in the summer, when he had picked up his daughter in Visby.
“What is the talk about finding my intended brother-in-law?” Gardar wondered.
“We’ve received information that he has been seen in Miklagård,” Gunnlaug said. “We are both getting older and want him to come back and take care of Ullergård. At this time of his life, he should have knocked around enough and seen more than enough of the world. We think that you’re the man to find him, wherever he is.”
These tidings were welcome in a sense. His friend Halvdan Svensson, who had served as a Varangian with the emperor in Constantinople, had asked him to go with him to the big village, but Gardar had brushed aside the tempting suggestion. Now he had a reason to travel to Miklagård.
“When all matters have been attended to, I will consider joining a lething or a merchant knarr bound for that place,” he said. And with that they all rested.
That night he spent in great delight on Sigryn’s broad pelt. They did not fall asleep until after mutual assistance when the pale daylight breathed behind the small wind-eye, which was covered with a sheep’s bladder.
* * *
The next day, Gardar returned to his home village and after a few days he donned his kit bag as usual. Leaving the village and the happily yapping dogs, he walked towards the sea. A few days later he arrived at the harbor village, which consisted of a row of pit houses along the shore.
Gardar found that the Danish king’s trelleborg was almost completed. It was a mighty ring structure with wooden scaffolding supporting the bulwark behind the village. It towered above the thatched roofs of the small pit houses.
Work was continuing in fitting the wooden bulwark with an exterior row of oak stanchions, which propped up the central row of bars. The bulwark stood seven ells tall. In the small cove, which was near one of the castle’s openings, there were some small merchant knarrs. They were well protected even when storms gusted on the sea.
The harbor village did not look at all like Birka or even Visby. It had its own shape and style, with pit houses extending in a long row along the coast. But with the round trelleborg, it could at least show one building that was not in any way less than the castle at Birka.
There was a bigger knarr in the harbor, but its destination was not to the north; it was bound for Hauthabu. Gardar got a kit with skimmed milk and tossed off a couple of guksis. Then he entered the tavern by the landing stage and strengthened himself by drinking a horn of honey mead. It was a drink of the more powerful kind, which the Vikings, who travelled far beyond Miklagård in the west and Jorsala in the south, used to call elephant mead. It was said to have been named after an giant animal with a tail in its face.
Gardar felt a heavy hand on his shoulder. When he turned around, he looked straight into a well-known face: a weatherbeaten and abominably ugly, pockmarked face with a potato-like nose and a pair of powerful blue eyes under light eyebrows. The man, his hair thin on top, smiled a friendly smile.
Gardar, startled, came to his feet and found that he was now taller than his father. “When did you arrive?” he exclaimed.
“Yesterday,” Varin Eriksson replied. “I’ll walk home to the village today when I have sold some things I brought from Ravenna.”
Father and son had not seen each other for many a sun-turn, and they celebrated the reunion with more drinking horns than was advisable.
“Are you still involved with those damned troll runes and death riddles?” the father boomed. “And where are you going?”
When Gardar told Varin that he was on his way to pick up his child, the father went into a good mood.
“At last you’ve shown you have a prick,” he said in a genial way. “If you get rid of those hag things, we can make a man of you.”
Varin did indeed firmly believe in the gods, and he participated in the offerings, but he was totally against runic magicians and senseless sorcerers, arousing themselves and losing full possession of their senses. He treated all forms of priests the same and regarded them all as troll hags. “Worship and galdering should not be a profession for men,” he would say. “Join a lething, become a Viking or a Väring or a skinner if you don’t want to stay at home working the land.”
“No, Varin,” his son said. “We live in new times nowadays, and I’ve found my niche, a slot that no one else has. With all due respect, violence and robbery are not bad, but trade is better. What I do is outstanding and without parallel. Neither robbery nor trade, farming nor stock-raising measures up to what I do. Look into mother’s chest when you’re back at home and you will see that our wealth has multiplied since I began to get payment for solving riddles.”
They continued squabbling and became drunk until at last they wrestled on the landing-stage until Gardar, with a traditional glima-clasp, threw his father into the shallow water by the shore. Gardar helped Varin to get back to his feet and with their arms across each other’s shoulders, father and son lurched to the shelter where they would spend the night. They stumbled into the pit-house and fell immediately asleep on their pelts.
* * *
Varin, who had been delayed by meeting his son, left the harbor next day with a splitting hangover, while Gardar, who had been wise enough to down some high-fat milk before he went to the tavern, escaped a headache. In the evening, a couple of knarrs arrived. One of them came from Pavika, on the island of the Guts, and would return to Pavika the following day after the transshipment and loading of new commodities. It suited Gardar perfectly. He haggled over the price and got off with a few silver coins embossed with Kufic letters.
The chief of the ship was Ragnar Halvdansson. Ragnar was a pleasant seafarer with a broad smile and an upper lip furnished with a light moustache, which he kept trimmed. In the evening, Gardar and Ragnar became good friends. Ragnar told Gardar that trading had expanded very well lately and that was why his knarr was in shuttle service.
“I’m more like a ferryman than a dragon chieftain,” he said while he downed some mead at the tavern. “It’s arid after a life as a Viking.”
Ragnar narrated his life. It had been filled to the brim with assaults and excesses, forked skulls, raped widows, abused slave women, hand-to-hand combat and much more. Seeing the healed sword-strike wounds on the man’s arms and the big scar on one of his cheeks, Gardar realized that Ragnar was not exaggerating. Ragnar was someone who had been there.
“I’m more mutilated than can be seen with the naked eye,” he said seriously. “I’ve heard that you solve death riddles. But I’m sure you can’t solve all riddles.”
“Up till now I’ve always been successful,” Gardar replied and told Ragnar about his exploits.
Ragnar listened carefully and laughed. “There are riddles in Pavika that are at least as puzzling as the riddles you have solved. Let’s see what you make of them. I don’t think that you’ll be able to solve them.”
“Tell me!” Gardar requested.
“You’ll see when we get there.”
* * *
Copyright © 2014 by Bertil Falk