Viking 3: King’s Man, page 22
‘Only as far as the Danish lands, if the rain holds off for another week or so. I don’t like squelching through mud.’
‘Many berries on the bushes this year,’ the man said. ‘And the swallows left early. Snow will come sooner than rain, I’d say. Not that it means much to us in these parts. We don’t travel except to the great Hof, and it’s a three-day walk to reach anywhere worth visiting.’
‘Yet I saw a memorial back along the road to a man who died in Serkland. That’s a great distance.’
There was a sudden tension in the room. The farmer looked uneasy.
‘Have you been to Serkland?’ he enquired.
‘I have, or at least close to it,’ I said. ‘I served with the emperor’s guard in Miklagard, and he sent me to their Holy Land. That’s close by. It’s the place where the White Christ God lived.’
‘Don’t know about this Holy Land. We’re too remote to see the White Christ priests. One of them did visit a few years back, but found us too set in our ways. He left and never came back.’
‘Perhaps you were fortunate,’ I commented.
The farmer seemed to reach a decision. ‘It was I who cut that memorial stone,’ he acknowledged. ‘Did my best, though the work is rough. Should have picked a better rock. A corner broke off in the winter frost two years later. We wanted to have something to remember him by. He was married to my wife’s sister.’
He glanced across the room towards the woman who had been cleaning up the hearth. She was standing still, staring at me, hanging on every word.
‘News reached us, third or fourth hand, that he had died in Serkland. But there were no details. He had set out from here to make his fortune, and never came back. Vanished. We don’t know anything of the place where he met his end, or how it happened. His name was Thorald.’
‘I didn’t know anyone by that name when I was in Miklagard,’ I said, ‘but if it will repay your hospitality, perhaps I could tell you what I know of Serkland.’
The farmer nodded to his sister-in-law, and she stepped closer. Her eyes were still fixed on me as I began to describe my time in the Hetaira, my visit to the Holy Land, and how I had met Saracens both as friends and enemies. It was a lengthy tale, and I tried to tell it briefly. But the farmer soon detected that I was leaving much unsaid, and he interrupted.
‘There is so much we want to know. Would you not stay with us a few days and tell us your tale more fully? It would help Runa here.’
I hesitated. The family lived in such straitened circumstances that I was reluctant to impose myself on their kindness. But then the farmer, whose name was Folkmar, insisted, and I agreed to stay one more day.
It was among the best decisions of my life. That one day became a week, and by the end of it I knew that Folkmar’s home was my haven. Nothing could have been a greater contrast to the sophistication and luxury of Constantinople with its broad avenues, well-stocked markets, and teeming crowds. There I had enjoyed the comforts of fine food, public bathhouses, and lavish entertainment on a scale unimaginable to my hosts in the harsh barrens of Vaster Gotland, where much of each day was spent in routine labour to achieve the basics of everyday life, whether drawing water, mending farm tools or grinding grain. Yet Folkmar and his wife were content to place their trust in the Gods, and in consequence there was nothing fearful in their lives. They were deeply fond of one another and their children; they lived simply and frugally, and they were sure of where they stood in relation to the land and the seasons of the year. Every time I accompanied Folkmar to his work in one of his small fields or to gather firewood in the forest, I saw how he respected the unseen spirits around him. He laid small tokens, even if they were no more than a broken twig or a leaf, on the isolated boulders which we passed, and if the children were with us he would insist they hushed their voices, and he forbade them to play games close by the sacred rocks. To him the deep forest was home to skogsra, female woodland deities who, if respected, would return a cow or calf that wandered from the meadow. If insulted, they would feed the stray to the wolves.
Folkmar’s devotion to his main Gods, Frey and his sister Freyja, was uncomplicated. He kept their statuettes in his home, Frey with his enormous phallus, and Freyja voluptuous and sensual, but he knew little of their lore other than the popular tales.
‘Cats,’ he said. ‘Freyja’s chariot is drawn by cats. Just like a woman to be able to harness cats. That would be something to see. Hereabouts in mid-summer a man and woman dress up as Frey and his sister and travel from farm to farm in a cart to collect offerings, but they are drawn along by a working nag.’ He paused before saying, ‘I’ll be bringing those offerings to the Great Hof next week. Care to come with me? It means delaying your trip to Denmark, but Odinn has his own place in the Hof as well. It would be a chance for you to honour him.’
‘How far is it to the Hof?’ I asked.
About ten days. Lots of people will be going. The king himself could be there.’
This time I did not hesitate. My trip to Denmark could wait. I had heard about the Great Hof from the Swedish Varangians I had met in Miklagard, who had told me about the festivals held near a place they called Uppsala where, since time out of mind, there had been a temple to the Old Gods. Here, in spring and just before the onset of winter, appeared great gatherings of Old Believers, who came in multitudes to make their sacrifices and pray for all the blessings that the Old Gods can bestow: health, prosperity, victory, a good life. The Swedish king himself often attended, because his ancestors traced their line back to Frey himself. I decided that after many years of living among the followers of the White Christ, now, at last, I could immerse myself again in the celebration of the Old Ways.
Folkmar was delighted when I agreed to accompany him, and our journey proved to be what the Christians would have called a pilgrimage. We were like a master and disciple as we trudged along and I answered his questions about the Gods, for he was keen to learn more and I was slowly coming to realise that my knowledge of the Old Ways was more profound than most possessed. I told him how Frey and Freyja belonged to the Vanir, the primal Gods who had at first resisted the Aesir under Odinn and fought against them. When peace was agreed, they had gone to join the Aesir as hostages and had been with them ever since.
‘Pity the Norwegians and the Danes can’t do the same. Make peace with one another, I mean,’ Folkmar observed. ‘It would put an end to this constant warring between them which does no one any good. I often think how fortunate it is that my people live so far out of the way. The quarrels of the outer world usually pass us by.’
‘Perhaps that is why Frey and his sister chose not to live under Odinn’s roof in Valhol. They have a space to themselves,’ I answered. ‘Frey has his own hall in Alfheim where the light elves live. And he and his sister have their special privileges. Frey is near equal to Odinn, and his sister in some ways is superior. After battle she takes half of those who have died honourably and brings them back to her hall, Sessrumnir, leaving Odinn and the Valkyries to select the rest. Freyja gets to make the first choice among the dead.’
‘You would need to be a God to share power like that, never quarrelling over precedence,’ observed Folkmar.
‘I saw it done back in the Great City,’ I said. ‘Two empresses sharing the same throne. But I admit, it was unusual.’
‘It’s against nature. Sooner or later, there must be a contest for power,’ said Folkmar. With his native shrewdness he had forecast what was to follow.
THE GREAT TEMPLE at Uppsala was worth our ten-day walk. It was the largest hof I had ever seen, an enormous hall of timber built close beside three large barrow graves which contained the bodies of the early kings. In front of the hof grew a huge tree, the very symbol of Yggdrasil, the world tree where the Aesir meet. This giant was even more remarkable because its leaves never faded, but remained green throughout even the hardest winter. To one side, clustering like attendants, smaller trees formed a sacred grove. These trees too were very ancient, and each was hall
‘Does that include human sacrifice as well?’ I asked.
‘In earlier times, that was so,’ explained Folkmar, ‘But no longer.’
He led me inside the Hof. Even though the autumn festival was of less importance than the spring celebration, the dark interior of the temple was crowded with worshippers bringing gifts. The builders of the temple had left openings in the high roof so that the daylight fell in shafts, illuminating the statues of the Gods. And today, despite the fact that it was cloudy, the three Gods seemed to loom over the congregation. Thor was in the centre – powerful, bearded, and holding his hammer aloft. To his right stood my own God, Odinn. Carved from a single enormous block of wood, and black with the smoke of centuries of sacrifices, Odinn squinted down with his single eye. To Thor’s left stood Frey’s image. This statue too was of wood, but brightly painted with the colours of the bountiful earth – ochre, red, brown, gold and green. Frey was seated cross-legged, a conical helmet on his head, one hand clutching his pointed beard, which jutted forward, the other hand on his knee. His eyes bulged. He was stark naked, and from his loins rose the gigantic phallus that was the symbol of the fertility he controlled, and also of physical joy.
Folkmar approached one of the Frey priests and handed over the package he had carried on his back all the way during our walk. I had no idea what the package contained, but knowing the poverty of Folkmar and his neighbours I doubted it was anything more than a few items of farmer’s produce, yet the priest took the package as if it was of great value and thanked the farmer graciously. He beckoned to an assistant, and a moment later a small pig was dragged out from the shadows, and with a quick movement the priest cut its throat. The assistant already had a bowl in place, and as the blood drained into it, the priest took a whisk of twigs and, dipping it into the blood, flicked the drops towards the image of the God, then over Folkmar, who stood with bowed head.
I had expected the priest to set the pig’s carcass aside, but instead he handed it to Folkmar and said, ‘Feast well tonight.’
His duty done, Folkmar turned and began to leave when he remembered that I had not yet honoured Odinn. ‘I am sorry, Thorgils, I did not think to keep something back that you could offer to your God.’
‘Your people collected for Frey’s honour,’ I said as we moved through the crowd towards the soot-black image of the father of the Gods. ‘It would not have been right to divert the slightest morsel of it elsewhere.’
We had reached the foot of Odinn’s statue. It towered above us, twice the height of a man. The image was so old that the timber from which it had been carved was split and dry, and I wondered how many centuries it had stood there. Apart from the closed eye, the details of the God’s face were blurred with age. I reached inside my shirt where my money pouch hung on a leather thong around my neck, then laid my offering at the God’s feet. Folkmar’s eyes opened wide in surprise. I had set down a solid gold coin, an imperial nomisma, worth more than all the farmer’s worldly possessions. To me, it was a small token of my gratitude to Odinn for having brought me to Folkmar and his home.
‘YOU SAY THAT you follow Harald Sigurdsson and are sworn to serve him,’ said Folkmar to me that evening as we roasted the sacrificial pig, ‘but it is too late in the season for Harald to arrive. The earliest he can be expected is in the spring. Why don’t you spend the winter with us. I know that would please my wife and her sister.’
‘First I must visit Svein Estrithson in Denmark so that later I can tell Harald what the man is like,’ I answered cautiously, though Folkmar’s invitation had forced me to acknowledge that perhaps I was not as solitary and self-possessed as I had always imagined myself to be. During the days I had spent with him and his family, I had experienced a sense of quiet harmony that I had never expected. Gazing into the flames of our cooking fire, I found myself wondering if my advancing years were having their effect, and whether the time had come when I should consider forsaking my rootless life and, if not settling down, at least having a place where I could stay and rest. So I allowed myself the luxury of calculating just how quickly I could complete my mission to Denmark and get back to Vaster Gotland.
Odinn must have favoured me because snow fell the very next morning and the ground froze hard. Travelling across a frozen landscape is far easier and quicker than in spring or autumn mud, and I made the journey to Denmark in less than two weeks’ travel. I found that I neither liked nor trusted Svein Estrithson. He was stout, foul-mouthed and a great womaniser. He was also a powerful advocate for the White Christ, whose priests overlooked his lewd behaviour. For some reason, the Danes were very loyal to him, and rallied to his cause whenever Magnus’s Norwegians threatened. I judged that Harald would find it almost as hard to dislodge Svein as to replace Magnus.
It was no hardship to cut short my visit and retrace my steps to Vaster Gotland. On the way there I stopped in a trading station to make some purchases and hire a carter. The man demanded a substantial sum to make such a long journey, but I was wealthy and his payment barely touched my store of ready funds. Thus, soon after I was once again back with Folkmar’s family, a shout brought them to the door. Outside stood two small and sturdy horses with shaggy winter coats, their breath steaming in the cold air. Fitted to their hooves were the spiked shoes that had allowed them to traverse the icy ground as they dragged the sled that contained the furs, cloth, utensils and extra food that I now presented to Folkmar and his family as my guest offering.
Runa and I were joined as man and wife soon after the Jol festival, and no one in that remote community was in the least surprised. Runa and I had discovered that we were quietly suited, as if we had known one another for many years. We shared a mutual understanding, which neither of us mentioned because we already knew that the other was equally sensitive to it. In the confines of the little cabin our harmony occasionally revealed itself in a shared glance, or a half smile that passed between us. But more often it was simply that Runa and I were gladdened by each other’s presence, and savoured the contentment that flowed from being together. Naturally Folkmar and his wife had noticed what was happening, and took care not to intrude.
Our wedding was not, of course, a marriage in the Christian rite, all priest and prayers. As a young man I had married that way in Iceland, and the union had been a humiliating failure. This time Folkmar himself performed the ceremony, because Runa and her sister had been orphaned at an early age and this left him as her senior male relative. Folkmar made a simple declaration to the Gods, and then, standing before the images of Frey and Freyja, took steel and flint, and, striking one against the other, produced a trail of sparks. It was to show that within each substance, stone and metal, as in man and woman, lived a vital element which, when brought together, provided life.
Next day he hosted a feast for our immediate neighbours, at which they consumed the smoked and salted delicacies that I had earlier provided, and toasted our happiness in mead made from forest honey and shoots of bog myrtle in place of hops. During their toasts, several guests gave praise to Frey and Freyja, saying that the Gods had surely arranged for Runa to marry me. The Gods had taken her first husband when he was far away in Serkland, they said, and from Serkland they had sent his successor. They were fulsome in their congratulations, and during the winter months several of them came to help to construct the small extension that was built on Folkmar’s cabin where Runa and I had our bedchamber. I could have told them to wait until the spring, when I could hire professional builders and purchase costly materials because I was rich. But
From the outset Runa herself took great comfort from her sister’s open approval of our union, and she went on to make me very happy. She was to prove to be an ideal wife, loving and supportive. On our wedding night she told me that when she heard of her first husband’s death, she had prayed to Freyja, pleading that she did not wish to spend the rest of her life as a widow. ‘Freyja heard my prayers,’ she said quietly, looking down at the earthen floor.
‘But I’m fifteen years older than you,’ I pointed out. ‘Don’t you worry that you will again be a widow one day?’
‘That is for the Gods to decide. Some men they bless with health and allow to live. To others they give a life of drudgery which brings them to an early death. To me you seem no older than men of my own age, for already they are half worn out by toil.’ Then she snuggled down against me, and proved that Freyja was indeed the goddess of sensual joy.
I was so utterly content all that winter and the following spring that I might have set aside my promise to serve Harald had not Odinn reminded me of my duty. He did so with a dream that was both shocking and, as it turned out much later, a deception. In my sleep I saw a fleet of ships coming across the sea and disembarking an army whose commander sought to seize a throne. The leader’s face was never visible but always turned away from me, and I took him to be my liege lord Harald, for the man was uncommonly tall. He boldly led his army inland, his troops marching across baked and barren fields until they were brought to battle by their enemy. The fighting was intense, but gradually the invaders were gaining the upper hand. Then, just on the point of victory, an arrow flew out from nowhere and struck the tall commander in the throat. I saw his hands go up – his face was still turned away – and I heard the breath whistle in his torn windpipe. Then he fell, dying.
I woke in a cold sweat of alarm. Beside me Runa reached out to comfort me. ‘What is the matter?’ she asked.
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