They were a band of Viking mercenaries in the eighth and ninth centuries, fearless warriors bound by a severe code of honor and reminiscent of both Mafia gangsters and Arthurian Knights. It is not even known if they actually existed. The Jómsviking stronghold on the island of Jómsborg, for example, has never been identified by archaeologists. Their memory is owed entirely to a handful of contemporary runestones in the Swedish countryside memorializing a battle between Haakon Jarl and King Olaf; a single Icelandic saga, Jómsvikinga saga, written in the late thirteenth century; and a few references of the eleventh century preserved by the historian Snorre Sturlesson in the Heimskringla—most notably Óláf’s saga Tryggvasonar and Óláf’s saga Helgi.
Leif Engberg: born August 1, 1959, Stockholm, Sweden, to Per Engberg, father, and Àsta Engberg, mother. The proof of his power lies in the obscurity of his name. Few people have ever heard it, but the CIA holds regular briefings on his activities as do MI6 and Interpol. After the fall of the Soviet Union it was discovered the KGB kept extensive files on him. Around the globe his name occurs in millions of clandestine communicæ. What is known of his early life is, like the Jómsvikings of yore, suspicious history.
In 1978, he is nineteen and unremarkable. No one would predict the bloody empire to be one day commanded by the bookish, pinched young man with thick glasses and sunken chest. His shoulders slouch and he cannot find well-fitting clothes; either they fit in the sleeve and are baggy through the chest, or they fit in the chest and are too short in the sleeve. He speaks in an effeminate falsetto, mostly about Shakespeare, Socrates, and Sir James George Frazer. He runs with street thugs and petty drug dealers. When he is considered at all by his peers it is with derision. He is laughed at, mocked, occasionally beaten in sport, a fool without motley, persecuted for being shy and weak, and hated for being passive, for tolerating such gross abuse. According to legend, he murders a child the gang has kidnapped for ransom, in order to gain credential as a serious thug. He is paid $1200 for the job and flees the country, some say to Amsterdam, others to ports unknown.
Two years later a Norwegian oil-freighter christened KLM Kristianasdatter docks at Calais, France. Her cargo is delivered and her crew disembarks for a few hours of recreation. The mutiny occurs off-ship. When she sets sail again she is no longer the KLM Kristianasdatter, but the Brynhilda, and Leif Engberg is her captain. She sails due west, out of the channel, into the open waters of the North Atlantic. Oslo hails her by radio without response. Her Majesty’s Airforce scours the coastlines of northern France and western Scandinavia for over a month in a search and rescue operation that fails to render the vaguest clue. She has vanished like a ghost-ship. As shadowy as the two years Engberg spent in hiding are how the Kristianasdatter was taken and what became of her crew and captain. Some say they were murdered and stashed in the ship’s hold. Others, that they joined Engberg as the Brynhilda’s first crew. No one knows for sure. So begins the career of Leif Engberg and the Jómsvikings.
His will to power is swift and terrible. In ‘83 he is in Chile fighting communists. In ‘84 he fights the American sponsored government of Colombia. Reports are made of an oil-tanker rigged with heavy cannon, a towering iron dragon’s head like a perverse demon sutured to the prow. He is a pirate and a mercenary, a marauding thug for hire. He fights Muslims in India and Jews in Palestine. In Afghanistan he organizes insurgency and in Serbia he assassinates rebels. In Bulgaria he teaches counterrevolutionaries how to beat the Russians by showing them how he broke the Serbian revolt. Off the Cape of Good Hope he faces a dilemma but sees no conflict of interest; half his men fight apartheid, the other half enforce it. In Corsica he kills Corsicans; in France, Frenchmen; in Russia, Russians; and in Iran, Iranians. He is in Korea, Indonesia, Czechoslovakia, Senegal. He traverses the entire earth and wherever he goes death follows.
The winter of 1985 a ghost-ship is spotted several miles off the coast of Somalia. It is identified as a pirate ship that has terrorized middle-eastern oil tankers. A Thor’s hammer has been carved in the iron hull with a blowtorch. The deck is slippery with gore, the control-room festively strung with confetti of human offal. In another room the corpses are found, more than thirty of them, skinned, gutted, and boned, lying in a black heap. The note is stuck to the door with a knife. It is a dictated apology from Engberg explaining that the pirates demanded the Brynhilda pull astern and let them board. Engberg refused, the pirates opened fire, the Brynhilda was obliged to reconsider, the pirates boarded and, in Engberg’s words, “reaped their present glory, poor dears.”
The following spring Jómsvikings attach enough explosives to the Suez Canal to drown Cairo, and begin a bidding war as whether or not to detonate. Not only do the Americans pay to save the
canal, they pay to learn how Engberg did it. The explosives are gathered and no one outside of Washington or Moscow is ever the wiser. Shortly after, the first Black-Ops missions begin. Election riggings, propaganda campaigns, kidnappings, coups d’état. The operation has expanded. The Jómsvikings are mere paramilitants no more. When the KGB has a message for the Americans, they entrust it to Leif Engberg, who delivers it to Washington and returns the CIA’s response. When well-known partisan groups need a job done it is outsourced to the group no one knows exists. The White House deems it necessary an ambitious young commandant dies in Smolensk. The Kremlin would like to see a mid-level operative disappear in Boston. Leif Engberg orders both triggers pulled. He is a pawn, but he holds kings in check. The Jómsvikings have co-opted both sides of the Cold War.
Interpol suspects Engberg is bankrolled by the Russians. In Moscow, it is believed the Jómsvikings are a British front. The British say the Americans, and the Americans deny but cannot be certain; perhaps somewhere in the halls of the Pentagon hides the office of the man who created Leif Engberg. No one knows and no one would believe the truth if they knew it.
Leif Engberg is a phantasm to the Jómsvikings. They follow his orders but know nothing about him. He is given to eccentricity and affectation. He keeps a redheaded woman for a totem, and he never makes an important announcement outside her company. When he calls an assembly of his generals they know the gravity of the situation by whether or not she is present. No one knows if he consults her as a sybil or if her importance is purely symbolic, only that when she stands beside him he speaks to them as Jarl of the Jómsvikings, as the instrument of fate. Engberg doesn’t know her significance either.
He is obsessed by the recurring themes of history. He notes that Alexander the Great saw his career presaged in the story of Achilles. He begins to realize the elegance with which history repeats itself. Rather than art interpreting history, he suspects that history interprets art. He observes in the paintings of Renaissance masters how Eve is blonde in the garden and redheaded after the fall, he sees that Mary Magdalene is most often depicted with red hair, as is Delilah, Bathsheba, Salomé, and Jezebel. He is familiar with Romanian folktales equating red hair with vampirism. He finds paintings of Ophelia, Cleopatra and Lady Macbeth as redheads. The women in Klimt’s The Kiss and Munch’s Madonna and Manet’s Olympia all have red hair. He knows it means something but not what, only that if he is ever to become immortal he must be betrayed and the redheaded woman will one day betray him. She is the talisman of his greatness.
He has read Plutarch and knows that Julius Caesar while walking to his fateful appointment on the Senate floor received a letter exposing the plot. Caesar saved the missive for later and died, which is why Engberg attends to all correspondence immediately. He fears old men and beggars—he fears not the Ides of March, but the prophecy to beware. He avoids theatres and open convertibles. He wears on a ribbon around his neck a silver vile containing essential oils of hemlock.
The great conspirator fears the dagger meant for his own back, and craves it, too. Craves it because he knows what makes Caesar immortal is neither his victories nor his death, but his betrayal. He draws parallels between the assassination of the American president Abraham Lincoln and the Roman emperor Gaius Julius Caesar. Engberg is reminded of the sacrificed Kings of The Golden Bough; Lincoln was murdered in a theatre by an actor and what are Brutus and Cassius if not actors, what is the senate if not a stage for the ritualistic slaughter of the old god in deference to the new, a continuous cycle like the repetition of the seasons or the phases of the moon. It is not for Octavius that Caesar dies, but for the Romans. It is not to the Confederacy Lincoln is sacrificed but to the Union.
The Jómsvikings are infiltrated by agents of the American president and the Russian premier—even Fidel Castro, Saddam Hussein, the Ayatollah Khomeini. The Jarl’s inner circle is small and elite, and access is rare. There are would-be assassins, but none that appeal to Engberg. They are Navy Seals; they are like the Jómsvikings highly trained, self-disciplined, covert Hashish warriors. But Engberg wants to be sacrificed, he wants to die upon an altar at the hands of a priest and his opponents have sent trophy hunters for his head. These pretenders get their lungs drawn by metal hooks into the open air through incisions cut between their ribs.
By 1986 the Jarl is untouchable. He is granted amnesty in fifty nations, immune to extradition, exempt from customs inspection. He passes between continents without a trace, he is legendary, there has not been a verifiable record of his existence in nine years. There are those who contend Leif Engberg is a code-word, that like Homer and Shakespeare the name Leif Engberg is a metaphor, it refers to a tradition and no such man actually exists. He builds a house near Uppsala and settles into a premature middle age, more corporate executive than warrior chieftain.
Comparing himself to Homer brings to his attention certain facts. First, that Penelope goes to extravagant lengths not to betray Odysseus and her hair is not red, whereas Joyce’s Molly Bloom’s is, and she cuckolds her husband compulsively, as if driven to Boylan’s great red monster by demonic possession, she is pathologically incapable of fidelity. Next, that Homer is precisely the lacuna of Engberg’s legend. Caesar belongs not to history but to Plutarch and Shakespeare. Arrows blotted out the sun at Thermopylae because Herodotus of Halicarnassus says they did. Jesus of Galilee did not insist he fed the masses with a few loaves and fishes; the Apostle Mark makes that claim. Tristan is the product of Wolfram von Eschenbach, and Parzival, that of Etienne de Troyes; not the other way round. “If I am to be remembered at all,” writes the thirteenth century French philosopher and theologian Peter Abelard, “it will be because I was loved by Heloise,” and indeed, Abelard is not remembered for his own writings but for what the Abbess Heloise wrote about him. Even the Jómsvikings owe their apotheosis to the Icelandic saga-sayer Thòrvaldr Hjaltason.
What Engberg needs, he decides, is a skald. He summons his lieutenant, a tattooed Māori called Wirimu, and the redheaded woman attends. He tells Wirimu to be on the lookout for a poet, and Wirimu is struck by the Jarl’s agitation. Engberg is comforted by dreams of Charlotte Cordet who brought the dagger and bloodstained tresses to the bath of Marat, he dreams of Ildico the Nibelung queen who burned her husband Attila after murdering their children. Medea-like, her gust of flame. Her vengeance blown like her hair across the Hungarian steppes.
When the Jarl’s poet-hunt begins, Lars-Goren Havestrom is twenty-two years from his birth in Lillehammer, Norway. His mother taught him to worship the Æsir—Thor, Odin, Frey, Loke—gods who could not offer peace or salvation, only courage at the moment of death. Gods whose apocalypse lay not in the future but in the distant past. There were no ablutions to these gods, no devotional offerings. Only a constant prayer in the heart; dead gods don’t expect much. His mother taught him how the world would not end, as Christians supposed, in fire. Rather, the earth would be slowly swallowed by eternal night, the cold of encroaching glaciers, the universe frozen under slow-gathering layers of snow and ice and silent millennia of death, until finally it would be devoured by Loke’s son, Fenrir the wolf.
At sixteen he is a foreign exchange student to the United States. At eighteen he returns and joins the Marine Corps in order to gain citizenship. In his spare time he writes poems, sending them sporadically to modest university sponsored journals, receiving the rejection slips with no great heartache. It is during this time he learns how to fight with a knife, thrusting upward with the blade pointed in, meaning to puncture a lung. He is given a Swedish language exam and a philology exam. He is stationed at Butler Marine Base in Okinawa for six months and trained as an intelligence operative. He is told the less he knows about his mission the better, the Jarl can smell a liar at fifty fathoms and he should answer all questions honestly. He is delivered like a golden idol to the Jómsvikings at Gothenburg.
For his holmgang, or ritual initiation, he is forced into a knife-fight with the Māori who recruited him. He takes a vicious slash down the right side of his face which gushes until his right ear is a deaf well of blood. The Māori winks at him and the spectators laugh, but when it is over Havestrom is a Jómsviking and Wirimu is a corpse.
He takes orders from a sallow Croat called Hašek. At first his responsibilities are small. He threatens Burmese gangsters in English over public telephones. In Nicaragua he stands quietly beside the desks of marked politicians, holding an assault rifle while his superiors smoke cigars and make insinuations in pleasant voices, his only instructions to look intimidating. He is a courier of ransom notes in Monte Carlo and blackmail demands in Manhattan. He is the spotter for a sharp-shooter in Damascus. He sleeps in five-star hotels and ten-rupee opium dens. Sometimes he flies first-class—other times he flies in the cargo hold among suitcases. No one he works with has ever seen Leif Engberg, never met him.
And then without ceremony, without even being told, Havestrom is promoted. His responsibilities are increased to driving cars, guarding hostages at gunpoint, standing watch while his comrades sleep. He is trusted with delivering food, a serious matter among men who fear poisoning. Occasionally, he attends briefings in restaurants the splendor of which correspond to the ambition of the prospective job, and oil companies or munitions manufacturers pay the bill.
Havestrom has no way to initiate reports to his handler in the CIA. He receives irregular contact and is never given instructions. He divulges the details of whatever terror he is currently brewing and is told he’s doing a great job, keep it up. In 1987 he coordinates public executions, carrying a walky-talky among the crowd, dressed sometimes as a police officer, sometimes as a construction worker, giving the signal for sniper teams to move into position. In 1988 he is committing private assassinations. Some are informers or planted moles like himself, and these are made to look like suicides. Others are men who have challenged the Jarl openly, men who refuse to be bought, men who have been warned too many times, whose murder must be displayed publicly.
When examples must be made, Lars-Goren Havestrom is who makes them. These are performed with cunning, silently, a knife drawn across the throat in the dark. The victims are dead before they know they are hunted. Whenever he can, Havestrom relates these plots to his handler. The second before the sentence is carried out he feels an ambush will prevent it, the lights will come on and the agents of justice will wrestle him to the ground. This never happens.
He begins leaving calling-cards on the bodies of his victims. Lausavísur, poetry fragments, written in the heroic style, full of alliterated hemistiches, caesura, and complicated kennings. Hašek is irate when he finds out. Havestrom’s impropriety could compromise the Jómsvikings. If the lausavísur are traced back to Havestrom, they will likely be connected to Hašek, which will lead to further connections, eventually to the Jarl himself. This will not be allowed to happen and Hašek would necessarily end up as dead as Havestrom. He’s sorry, he tells Havestrom, he must inform the Jarl and Havestrom will suffer a traitor’s death. The next time Havestrom sees Hašek he is told the Jarl wants to meet him.
Leif Engberg waits in an office in his home near Uppsala with a furious-looking redheaded woman. A heavy lesion scourges his receding hairline. For all his reclusiveness Engberg trusts Havestrom at once. He heaps praise upon Havestrom for his efficiency, competence, ruthlessness. He admires Havestrom’s poetry and recites from memory several strophes in a nasally lisp. He assumes they share a sense of humor, the same snobby aesthetics. By turns he treats Havestrom as if they are old friends, fellow brigands, fighters of a common cause, business partners, peers in everything, the Jarl is felicitous, charming. He asks if tomorrow Havestrom would go to London with one of Engberg’s generals and kill him there, asks as if it were a personal favor and not an order. He insists Havestrom stay the night as a guest in his home. Havestrom is not told why the general should die and finds he doesn’t really care. Engberg offers him expensive cognac and fragrant cigars and the body of the redheaded woman, all of which he accepts. Before dawn the next morning he is on his way to meet the doomed general at the airport in Stockholm. By sunset the general is dead and by the next morning Havestrom has infiltrated Engberg’s inner circle.
Engberg wants Havestrom to learn how to manage the Brynhilda and sends him to sea. It is the first time in his years as a Jómsviking Havestrom has ever seen the ship. He is taught to manage a navy of thirty vessels. He learns to operate and maintain the boilers, the deck, the control room. During this apprenticeship his life takes a startling turn. He falls in love with the sea, is enrapt to it, the calm vastness of it, the irrational violence, the humility and terror it inspires in him. He discovers the sea is in his blood deeper than his ancestors, a dull addiction aching in his bodily memory.
A series of catastrophes culminating in the tumbling of the Berlin Wall cause Havestrom to move through the ranks at a phenomenal rate, and by January 1990 he is chief officer of the Jómsvikings in fact if not in name. Because of his loyalty to the Jarl and the respect he commands among the men, Havestrom makes Hašek his lieutenant. Over a year has passed since Havestrom’s handler last contacted him.
Havestrom keeps permanent rooms in the big house near Uppsala. Whenever he encounters the redheaded woman, usually early in the morning along the halls, barefoot and bath-robed, she sneers at him and retreats. He writes poetry at the Jarl’s request, plays chess, conducts meetings on military strategy and financial assets while Engberg fondles the redheaded woman’s locks with his fingers, like stroking a cat. Havestrom grows to love the Jarl. They are friends, and more: Havestrom is not confused by the inconsistency between the Jarl’s physical weakness and vast power; he sees past this to the recesses of primal energy within him. The younger man is enslaved by a compulsion to earn his master’s approval, and Engberg seems desperate to give it; he circulates rumors among the men that Lars-Goren Havestrom is the blood son of Leif Engberg.
Havestrom perceives he is being groomed for Engberg’s successor. He envies the Jarl’s possessions, not because he wants what Engberg has, but because he wants to be Engberg, to emulate him. Consequently, he covets the three possessions most symbolic of the Jarl’s personality: the big house near Uppsala, the Brynhilda, and most of all, the redheaded woman.
Once Havestrom makes his decision, things happen quickly. He systematically excludes Engberg from the Jómsvikings’ dealings. He ignores Engberg’s orders, hides records from him, plies him with false information, until he is completely ignorant to his own operations. The Jarl requests one thing and Havestrom orders the exact opposite. Engberg tells him he fears betrayal, that someone is plotting his overthrow, and for Havestrom to be careful. A year passes without the two men ever meeting. Several times Havestrom ignores Engberg’s summons to Uppsala. Each time Engberg’s tone grows needier, more desperate, plaintive—but never angry—until finally the requests stop all together. Though Engberg is still Jarl of the Jómsvikings, his orders are not obeyed, and often not even heard.
Under Havestrom’s direction the Jómsvikings’ business interests branch to include white slavery, gun running, whaling, narcotics trafficking, forgery, fine art theft, as well as more legitimate enterprises: nuclear waste disposal, pharmaceutical research, fiber-optics, wind turbines and other alternative energy resources, all kept secret from the Jarl. Ambition moves him, and also the fact he doesn’t know what else to do. He still has not heard from his handler, he fears something black has happened, that he has been abandoned.
Havestrom learns from Hašek the Jarl is ill. He decides the time to act has come and returns to Uppsala. What he finds is worse than he imagined. Engberg motions for Havestrom to approach his sickbed. He is too weak to speak. His body is withered, yellow and purple, devoured by AIDS. Havestrom detects something intimate and pathetic in the Jarl’s eyes. He tells the redheaded woman to leave so he can speak to the Jarl in private. She does not go, but only closes the bedroom door halfway and listens from the other side, and Havestrom decides this is just as well. For a while he lets Engberg hold his hand, stroking the cold fingers. Then he shows him the knife. The Jarl nods and together they look at it for a while. Then Havestrom gives Engberg a piece of paper, a poem, an elegy to the Jarl’s infamy, the assassin’s calling-card. This Engberg clutches to his chest in trembling fingers. He turns away from Havestrom, who takes the gesture as an insult, a feeble attempt to dishonor him. A moment later he thinks the sick man has fallen asleep, but then realizes Engberg is exposing his throat, offering himself to the coup d’grâs.
The knife flashes.
At the door the new Jarl meets the redheaded woman. She glares at Havestrom, spins on her heels, and slamming the door, disappears into her apartment.
The Redheaded Woman
She recalls from her High Anglican youth near Belfast the pungent incense, vaulted ceilings, sore pews, poor lighting, votive candles, the robed priest, the altar, bitter wine, and the malevolent crucifix. Her dreams are haunted by the atmosphere of penitence, reverence before the suffering that heals, a faith more vivid in her sleep than when she is awake, and the only god she believes in is also the only one she hates.
Most nights walking down the hall between their rooms Havestrom finds her doors shut against him. On rare evenings the door to her apartment is left open. He courts her with gifts of chocolate he never sees her eat, clothes he never sees her wear, books he never sees her read. He sits on the bedspread beneath her canopy and tells stories. She is embarrassed by Havestrom’s superstitions, the stories of his mother’s gods which Engberg liked but which the redheaded woman considers absurd. Often she sends him away and locks the door behind him. Occasionally, he is allowed to stay. She does not so much give herself to him as she allows herself to be taken.
Havestrom feels more defeated by her acceptance than her refusal, for if he cannot inspire passion he would at least have her derision. He thinks anything would be better than the apathy with which her body receives his, but the redheaded woman does not feel for the new Jarl anything as strong as hate. He has fallen in love with her but the redheaded woman loves no man; she has seen too much of the true nature of Man to love any of his versions, no matter how pretty.
She rules the domestic tranquility iron-fisted. She prepares menus and instructs the cooks in the specific preparation of meals. She supervises the housekeepers and the gardeners. In the late morning she takes long baths with Egyptian pumice and Indian salts and French perfumes and dotes upon her resplendent red hair. With the midday hours she purchases dining sets of Estonian amber and tablecloths of handmade lace, Turkish carpets, English oak bookcases and matching bedsteads, hand-painted Japanese blinds, the paintings of lesser Dutch masters, Tiffany glass chandeliers. She oversees servants in the rearrangement of rooms that will be rearranged again tomorrow. Her clothes change several times throughout the day, custom-tailored garments of bright colors and understated design made elegant by her body. Her duties are those of a well-bred wife but she has never been anyone’s wife; Engberg was never even her lover. She has taught Havestrom the house does not belong to him; it is hers. All his orders for running the household are ignored without apology. Even his culinary preferences are refused.
What irritates her most about Havestrom is his sincerity. Engberg’s empire relied upon an artifice truer than fact. For him, the Jómsvikings were a vast metaphor; for Havestrom they are the reincarnation of something that never existed. He has no comprehension of metaphor and his literalism betrays a dangerous aversion to reality. The redheaded woman thinks him vulgar and doomed and she knows if she wants to keep the house she cannot ally herself too closely to such a fool.
But the spring of 1992 someone new enters her life.
Pozàn, Poland, June 28, 1956. A workers’ strike gets out of hand when Party Officials order the arrest of union organizers. A raid on the prison extends to the armory. The workers are joined by students and defecting police until ten-thousand armed Poles occupy their own city. They march the streets demanding higher wages, safer work conditions, and cheaper food prices. In the middle of the night a young factory worker suffers a nightmare. His cries terrify the girl he met earlier in the day. The cinderblock flat where they sleep is cool and utterly black and the young man screams long after waking, writhing and coughing beneath the blankets. The dream he describes is of being buried alive in a coffin filling slowly with water. The girl tries to comfort him but he cannot sleep. Never has he known anything as vivid as this dream and he sits on the edge of her bed until dawn smoking cigarettes, his heart hammering. His skin hallucinates the sensation of drowning in bed.
At four a.m. the People’s Army drives a caravan of tanks through the middle of Pozàn and encircles the city. On June 29, seventy-eight comrades, including the young factory worker, are slain in a mortar shelling that lasts into late afternoon. The woman’s name was Masha Gregorskaya; the son she bore nine months later she called Wassiley Gregorawicz.
At seventeen he joins the People’s Army. He advances due to his superior marksmanship and at twenty-five, in 1982, he is recruited by the KGB performing political assassinations in Berlin, Belgrade, Helsinki. His exemplary record as a sniper in Afghanistan combined with his KGB ties enable him to seek prominent political office and he is made intelligence advisory to the Soviet Consul in Lithuania. During the Romanian Revolution of 1989 he is a sniper again in Bucharest. It is there, though he does not know it, Wassiley Gregorawicz first becomes an agent of the Jómsvikings. Through an elegant series of intrigues his KGB handler is replaced by a Jómsviking without either Gregorawicz or the Soviets realizing it. Against Gregorawicz’s knowledge his objectives have transformed to meet the agenda of Lars-Goren Havestrom. Ceauşescu is deposed and the Soviet Union rendered insolvent. It liquidates in 1991 and by 1992 Gregorawicz is a closet cold-warrior and freelance assassin.
Under Havestrom’s authority Jómsviking policy on covert operations has changed to preserve the secrecy of the order. Missions are still plotted, funded, and directed by Jómsvikings but the actual work has been outsourced to private contractors—among them Wassiley Gregorawicz. Gregorawicz has never heard of the Jómsvikings or Lars-Goren Havestrom but when he pulls the trigger his finger is an extension of Havestrom’s finger.
In April 1992 Bosnia-Herzegovina declares independence from Yugoslavia and Miloşeviç sends the People’s Army to suppress the revolt. The target is a Bosnian nationalist preparing to request from NATO official recognition of the Bosnian state. Hašek hires Gregorawicz to locate and dispose of the man before the official request can be made. The Bosnian nationalist proves difficult to locate and Gregorawicz is forced to study him at great length. He questions the neighbors and consults official records. He chases rumors and hunches and stakes out the cafes his quarry is said to frequent. He lies awake late into night brooding over the Bosnian nationalist and how to kill him.
But during these hours something alarming happens. Gregorawicz feels something he has never felt for a target before: admiration. He begins to recognize himself in the Bosnian nationalist. He notices his own best character and also many qualities he does not possess but aspires to, or aspired to a long time ago but learned to consider impossible idealism. Gregorawicz culls this admiration from conversations in the cafes, secondhand accounts, inference, and though he cares nothing for the Bosnian’s cause, Gregorawicz makes of the man an idol in his heart.
Gregorawicz notices something else: there are others frequenting the same cafes, asking the same dark questions. Gregorawicz extends his activities to include these men and learns they are Miloşeviç’s agents. He decides rather than trying to find the nationalist before these men, he will find the nationalist by following these men to him. Eventually, he knows he will have to make a decision. The moment comes when Gregorawicz follows the Yugoslav assassins to a suburban house. From his vantage point across the street he watches through his rifle scope as the structure is surrounded. The Bosnian nationalist is arrested and dragged into the street. He is slight and dark. His eyes are steady as he considers the rifles pointed at him. He answers the questions put to him in a calm voice and his lip does not quiver. As he watches this, Gregorawicz knows that here is the man he could have been. Gregorawicz thinks, This man is a wolf and I am a sheep; he is free and I, enslaved. Gregorawicz is confronted with the man he once, a long time ago, wanted to be but thought impossible, and spontaneously, without a conscious thought, he decides. He pulls the trigger in a rapid succession until the Bosnian nationalist stands baffled in the road surrounded by the broken shapes of his would-be killers.
Havestrom recognizes the signs of a true saga hero and summons Gregorawicz to Uppsala. From the parlor Gregorawicz is shown into an office where Havestrom is accompanied by a redheaded woman who makes Gregorawicz think of a mob moll, one more decoration, like the pale scar twisting across the Jarl’s cheek, one more symbol of his power. When the interview ends Wassiley Gregorawicz is a Jómsviking. He is offered to stay the night in the big house near Uppsala, he is offered expensive cognac and fragrant cigars—but not the body of the redheaded woman. Gregorawicz is ambitious and able and his feats of bravery and disregard for his own life earn him a reputation. He behaves as if his greatest desire is to be slaughtered. In 1996 he helps raise the Siege of Sarajevo which four years earlier he’d helped to start. In 1997 he is in Rwanda, in 1998 he is in Kosovo, in 1999 he is in Chechnya. Again and again Havestrom is regaled by stories of Wassiley Gregorawicz risking his life for fame, finding himself in impossible situations, outnumbered and outmaneuvered, and fighting out of it until he is the last man alive.
Gregorawicz wants to be a general and to create an opening he insults the general most likely to oppose his ascendance. Superficially it is a holmgang but really it is like so many other public executions orchestrated by Gregorawicz. For the stage he chooses the Great Hall where the elite Jómsviking warriors meet to celebrate the autumn equinox. Jealous words are exchanged on both sides and these escalate until Gregorawicz has cleft his rival from the shoulder to the sternum with an iron rod used to stoke the enormous fireplace.
Engberg would never have tolerated such behavior but Havestrom is obsessed with obeying the ancient law and Gregorawicz is promoted. He begins spending more time in the big house near Uppsala. He and the Jarl become close friends, telling stories and discussing policy on a number of topics. Whenever Gregorawicz encounters the redheaded woman along the halls she scowls at him and retreats.
Everywhere he looks he is reminded of the Bosnian nationalist. The symbols of Havestrom’s power become equivalent to the symbols of Gregorawicz’s slavery. He knows he will not be the man he could have been until he answers to no man, until, like the Bosnian nationalist, he is faced with defeat but is in his own heart undefeated.
At the winter solstice he notices the redheaded woman watching him from shadows. Her eyes linger upon him when they cross the Great Hall in opposite directions. Gregorawicz is tormented by her, he can think of nothing else. She personifies his subjugation to the Jarl, her existence is the proof that Gregorawicz’s whole life has been a compromise. His hatred only fans his lust, his desire for her is excruciating, his hatred of her contaminates his blood so that he feels feverish all the time. He determines he must seduce the redheaded woman in order to get rid of her. In his imagination the two images—the redheaded woman and the Bosnian nationalist—dance and mutate until they are indistinguishable, until the achievement of one is the achievement of the other and Gregorawicz hopes that once he has slaked himself upon her, he will be able to forget her.
Years of shared adventure have brought the Jarl’s lieutenant, Hašek, and Gregorawicz close together. Gregorawicz knows he cannot subvert the Jarl without Hašek’s help. The potential dangers are vast but he decides to share his plans with the Croat. With Hašek’s full support Gregorawicz feels he cannot be stopped, it is only a matter of time. The sharp point of destiny drives through him. Gregorawicz learns Havestrom has lost favor with his protectors in both the Pentagon and Kremlin. With the cold war over the Jómsvikings and especially their Jarl are deemed expendable. Gregorawicz decides the time to move has come. The pact between he and Hašek is sealed in blood on December 25 and that night Gregorawicz makes love to the redheaded woman.
The plot is consummated on the final evening of the second millennium, December 31, 1999. The celebration takes place below deck of the Brynhilda deep in the Arctic Sea. The Jómsvikings gorge themselves on roasted reindeer and draughts of honey mead. Gregorawicz is taciturn among the cacophonous men. He notices Havestrom seems morose and he wonders if like Engberg the Jarl knows what will happen, if like Engberg Havestrom has somehow had a palpable hand in the design of his own death. Between these silent poles the night is allowed to take its jubilant course. At midnight the clock begins to toll and when the echoes of the twelfth strike have faded, Havestrom stands and taps his goblet with his knife as if preparing to make a speech. Tears course down his face and the ship is silenced at the sight of her weeping Jarl. Gregorawicz looks at Hašek and the Croat nods.
Finally, Havestrom grabs the redheaded woman by the wrist and yanks her up. “I love you,” he says and hurls her at the other end of the table where Gregorawicz still sits. “Why don’t you two show the men what you’ve been doing together.” Hašek pulls his gun and trains it on Gregorawicz while two men bind his hands and feet and carry him aboveboard where a wooden coffin has been prepared. In a faltering voice Havestrom reads the lausavísur he has prepared for the occasion. Gregorawicz’s lip does not tremble and the more stoic he remains, the harder Havestrom sobs. Gregorawicz is laid inside and the redheaded woman thrown on top of him. The arctic cold is vivified with the screams of the redheaded woman as the lid is hammered down and the coffin thrown overboard.
From the prow Havestrom watches the tiny wooden boat bob and sink. He remembers his mother telling him the world ends in cold and eternal silence. He knows why he has not heard from his handler at the CIA in twelve years: they knew Engberg was untouchable, that he would give himself only to his true heir and not a bounty-hunter. They groomed Havestrom to kill Engberg and they groomed Gregorawicz to kill Havestrom.
The Blood Feud
Almost immediately Havestrom comprehends his error. If Engberg’s destiny was to die and be replaced at the hands of Lars-Goren Havestrom, his own destiny was to die and be replaced by Wassiley Gregorawicz. He fears missing his date with glory. He remembers his mother telling him about Ragnarok, about how Odin went bravely to meet his death. The greatness of the one-eyed god lay not in victory but in death with certain knowledge and the courage to bring fate to pass.
The world’s governments officially declare Lars-Goren Havestrom an international fugitive with a bounty on his head. No mention is made of Engberg or the Jómsvikings since to mention either would be to acknowledge the existence of both. Havestrom is forced to abandon the big house near Uppsala and go into hiding. For a decade he will chase death, trying to return to the moment when everything went wrong. Catastrophe is compounded by insult. In 2005 the Brynhilda is sunk by a tsunami in the south Indian Ocean and in 2007 the Swiss government allows Interpol to freeze Havestrom’s financial assets. He is reduced to a common pirate without a ship. Finally his own men turn on him, hoping to collect the two-million dollar bounty on his head.
By 2012 he is ruined, ill, and wasting away in a dilapidated village high among the Bolivian Andes. His house is a converted chicken coop with a clapboard mattress and no indoor plumbing. He makes himself tea of wild leaves on a gas-lamp stove and watches the sun collide with nearby mountain peaks. One day there is a dark-skinned man covered in blue tattoos and dressed like an Argentine gaucho. The stranger stands at the edge of the yard next to the crumbling cement foundation of a house razed long before Havestrom came to this village. For three days the stranger keeps watch at the edge of the yard. On the fourth day Havestrom goes out to meet him. “It took me a while to figure out who you are, but now I know,” he told the stranger. It was December and bitter and Havestrom was so sick he could not stand upright without wobbling.
“A long time I kept you waiting, but here I am.”
Havestrom nodded and the two men stared at the sun as it dodged between the snow-capped peaks. Havestrom sighed and a deep gurgle filled his lungs. At last he said, “I was afraid you gave up on me. I thought maybe I missed my chance and it was gone.”
“Let me ask you something so I know for sure. Are you Lars-Goren Havestrom? Did you kill my brother?”
“What was his name?”
“Wirimu,” Havestrom mused, “I did.” A coughing fit rattled his whole body and leveled him on the ground. When it passed the Maōri offered his hand and helped him back to his feet.
“I guess you know what I came for,” said the stranger.
“It’s my vengeance, too.”
“I want to tell you. So you know. I don’t intend to collect the bounty on your head. I don’t want the money. I came only for my brother.”
There was a small handgun and a dull burst in the yard. Havestrom lay in the dirt and did not move. The stranger stood over him while he died as if to protect him. He left the body face up at the edge of the yard. He walked away and did not look back.
Adriann Stumpp is a left-handed, Gemini-Taurus cusp, born in the holy land of Afton, Wyoming and raised north of Babylon in Ogden, Utah. He wants to be a dinosaur when he grows up. You can find him online here. And here.
8 thoughts on “Saga of the Jomsvikings by Adrian Stumpp”
A great story. i thought Trevanian was gone…
Nicely done ;0)
Wow!! There is no end to this young man’s talent. He needs to be introduced to the world by Oprah to get the recognition he so deserves.
I, again was drawn into the story with your famous way of hypnotizing the reader. I always am emotionally engaged and when the story ends, it always leaves me in deep thought- kind of like a hangover, or at least dazed and stunned for a while. Fantastic!
Reblogged this on Adrian Stumpp and commented:
An older short story written back in 2012…