The classic team role-playing game of conspiracy and strangeness
The Lindorn of Storsjon
9.30 pm, Thursday 12th September 1998
Moved with a single impulse, the all members of the group push aside their empty plates, and move towards the exit. Out in the courtyard, Helga welcomes the five additions to her one-woman search party.
"Thank you, thank you. It is my dog, the Dalmatian with all the spots, you know him? He is not come home. I am hoping he is not in the town eating rubbish. He has the allergies, the rubbish makes his fur fall out..."
Loki takes the others aside. At the suggestion of a threat to the animal, he appears to have shed much of his usual sang froid, and now displays signs of genuine concern and distress.
"I think we should all help her look for the dog. After all, it's possible that the 'beast' may have carried it off." The others agree, and the SITU operatives fan out to search for the dog through the fading light. In accordance with Mal's previous suggestion, however, they take some care not to lose sight of one another in the twilight. Michael mentions the animated barking he had overheard earlier that afternoon, and the group begin their search at the location from which the sound had seemed to issue.
The water of the lake is an endless flux of sunset pink and glossy black, which rakes the sand with a sound like tearing paper. Across the waters the lights of Ostersund glitter through the rising mist. The thin, pale wails of birds filter through the evening air, from a remote region of Storsjon. All else is silent, but for the sound of six people scuffing the rocky path with their feet, and whistling to the unresponsive animal.
The sun sinks, leaving a ruddy wreckage of clouds to dull like embers on the sky line. One by one, the SITU agents succumb to weariness and despondency. Loki is the last to return to the hotel, accompanying a now tearful Helga Njalsonn. After she has been reassured that the search will recommence the following day, she retires. The operatives retreat to the relative privacy of Robert's room.
"What do you all make of that? It seems as if Michael overheard the dog being taken by the lindorn. If so, it would seem that the creature is carnivorous. Granted, if it is preying upon dogs it may be smaller than we imagined, but we should still consider it potentially dangerous." Robert is also intrigued by Loki's description of the sound he heard while stranded upon the rock face.
"This may well be the cry of the creature we are looking for - we should all listen out for it in future. It might also be worth looking out for a 'smell like roses.' Local folklore describes such a smell being perceptible all over Froson when Ostmandur died. This might be connected with the lindorn in some way."
Conversation then passes to the other great disappearance of the day.
"Where the hell is Harriet?" Robert Montague Flint is clearly both anxious and annoyed at the vanishing act performed by his colleague. "Disappearing like that and asking us to cover for her is simply not good enough. We had better make every effort to find her again - perhaps we could come up with an excuse for returning to the caves where she was last seen?"
"If you ask me, that's a waste of time." Daniel gives a bitter, little shrug. "Yes, I agree with you, her actions have been stupid and against the team spirit, but I don't think it's worth going out looking for her. She's made it pretty damn clear that she thinks she can look after herself."
It is decided that since Mal has succeeded in scraping an acquaintance with the elderly kite-flyer, that he should visit the old man once again, and look out for any trace of Harriet while he is in the area. The operatives are eager to know more of the little man, and of the 'she' he mentioned during his last meeting with Mal.
It is also resolved that the entire group will attend the ritual of the Children of the Lindorn that afternoon.
Loki mentions the disappearance of Dubois's boat, the Elise.
"If he's coming anywhere, he's coming here. Would it be worth taking a boat out onto the lake to look for the Elise? Maybe Daniel could talk Belle-Marie into lending us her boat." From conversation with Daniel, Loki learns that the Irish girl does not in fact own a boat of her own, but works on the docks, assisting all boats that moor there. An examination of the map, furthermore, satisfies the agents that sailing the Elise from the outer Swedish coast to the inland lake of Storsjon would be at best difficult, at worst impossible. Such a journey would involve sailing north up the Swedish coast, and then sailing a thirty foot boat up a narrow river for about a hundred miles without being detected. At the very least, such a route would involve significant delay.
Robert surveys the map pensively.
"Loki, would it be possible to calculate a likely time of arrival for Dubois given his departure time and expected route?"
Daniel suggests that Jan Fjard might be a useful source of information on such matters. It is decided that Micheal will visit the sailor the next day.
Several members of the party are eager to achieve contact with the VAM. Robert is of the opinion that the green-dreadlocked girl glimpsed the previous evening is probably the leader of the local movement. He suggests that the 'Sweden Invites representatives' approach her as an official deputation, preferably while she is unaccompanied by her colleagues. Other members of the group, however, are in favour of sending only a couple of younger members with whom the VAM members might feel some affinity.
A little after midnight, the party retires to bed, still suffering from the missed sleep of the night before.
"Good morning, Mr Stockton. Did you see his eye last night?" Jan Fjard laughs as Micheal looks blank. "It is Mr Lindorn's red eye. Sometimes, late at night, it gleam under the water like fire. It is lucky to see it. I see it many, many times, that is why I am so lucky, sail with me and you will always be safe." He mouths the words loudly to make his meaning clear over the wind. A sturdy breeze is sweeping in from the west, chilling all exposed skin, despite the efforts of the sun. Finding himself fighting the weather for the attention of his audience, Fjard invites Michael on board his boat.
Within, Micheal is plied with coffee that has been stewed to the blackness of squid-ink, and an acridity that numbs the tongue on the first sip.
"It is a little like the rainbow, you see. After a storm sometimes, the red eye shines under the water, saying that the storm is over, there will be no more danger for a bit." Michael encourages the older man's sailing reminiscences, and manages to steer the conversation towards Gerard Dubois, and the possibility of bringing the Elise all the way from northern France to Storsjon. Fjard seems quite flattered to have his professional opinion consulted.
He pushes aside the cups, using a finger-tip dipped in coffee to draw a rough map on the wood of the table.
"Here is France, here is Sweden, you see? And the little stain there, she can be Lake Storsjon. So. His boat is moored here, first, yes? And you ask me how long he will take. I answer you, this will depend upon what kind of madman he is.
"All yesterday, over the sea here, there are the strong winds. Very strong. And he is alone in his sailing, yes? Well, if he is a careful man, he will sail up the coast of France, and he wait until the wind is dropped before he sail across. But if he is not afraid, or if he want to cross quickly, he then cross straight away, he use the wind to blow him right to Sweden. And if he has done this I say either he is on the floor of the sea, or he has reached the coast of Sweden. Maybe yesterday evening, maybe last night.
"Now, what does he do? If he is afraid to leave his boat, he may travel up the eastern coast, as you say, looking for a river. If so, the police will catch him, take him away. But if he is a cunning madman, he get off his boat, he change his clothes, he travel up north on one of the trains of the Inlandsbanan. Much more quick. If he do so, then he arrive... today, maybe. At earliest, he get to Ostersund in time for lunch..."
"Louis, can I have a word when you're free?" The interpreter is halfway up a ladder leaning against the front wall of the hotel, but turns his head at the sound of Daniel's voice. He beams and waves, little suns dancing on the lenses of his spectacles.
"Certainly, Mr Masterson. I'll down in a jiffy."
He nearly fulfils his promise in rather drastic fashion when a gust of wind snatches his boater from his head, and his sideways lunge to catch it almost loses him his hold upon the ladder. Nonetheless, he recovers and continues his ascent. Carefully, he reaches towards the wire fastenings of the great 'H' of 'Hotell Lindorn' which decorates the front wall. When he draws back his hand, it contains a small knitted doll in a worn, blue dress.
"See, Molly's fine! She wasn't hurt by her fall at all, was she?" He holds up the doll to be seen by a little girl who seems to be drying her tears at a window further up the wall. "I'll bring her up in just a little while, alright?" He descends the ladder, and joins Daniel, the doll jutting from his pocket.
"I was just wondering whether you'd mind telling me more about the history of the hotel. I was particularly hoping you might tell me about the tragic death of Ingvar Njalsonn." The interpreter raises his eyebrows and pauses. He blinks a couple of times, as if a little embarrassed by the subject.
"Hmm. Well, not much to say, really. Mr Njalsonn always had a certain amount of problem with his blood pressure. And I think heart problems lurk in his family line, as well. His physique was a little..." Louis holds his hands out several inches from his stomach, to indicate a somewhat portly figure. "You know how it is, youthful muscle tends to run to... well. Still an impressive figure, though.
"Well, he never really came to terms with losing his youthful figure, I think. He went in for jogging, skiing, swimming, muesli, you name it. He was always talking about other men his age, and the way they'd let themselves go, while he still had it in him to break local swimming records. Mr Njalsonn always went for the newest and most fashionable designer sportswear. It was all part of being 'young,' you see.
"Anyway, one summer day he went out for a swim and didn't come back. Despite the warnings of the doctors, he would insist on swimming every other evening in icy water. If I remember correctly, the weather was on the turn, and so I suppose the cold must have done for him, and his heart must have seized up."
Without difficulty, Loki succeeds in gaining an interview with Gunnlaug Gunnlaugson. His suggestions for improvements to the hotel's computer system is met with enthusiasm, as soon as Gunnlaugson realises that the suggestions are not a slur upon the hotel's efficiency.
"I see. A network linking all my hotels, yes, yes, very good. And a web site, which everyone can read all over the world? With a blue background and gold letters, that will be good, so everyone can know of the Hotell Lindorn." From behind his father, Sihtric Gunnlaugson directs an almost pitiful glance of gratitude and relief at Loki, like one who after struggling in the wilderness for leagues has been offered a view of the Promised Land.
Since he has the hotel manager's attention, Loki brings the subject round to the escape of Gerard Dubois, and the disappearance of the Elise.
"To be honest, I'm a little worried about this. There are rumours that the man is returning to Sweden from France. If he turned up at Storsjon, it might make a bit of a news splash, you know the way everything gets out of proportion when the papers get hold of it. Could you tell me more about this man and his links to Froson, so that I will know what to say or deny in the guide?"
Gunnlaugson's face ebbs into an impressive shade of sunset crimson.
"Dubois is a man of France, not of Froson. Is it our fault if strange Frenchmen decide to come here and go mad?" He swallows, and composes himself a little. "It is all very sad, that his brother died, but all this happened two years before I moved here. No-one has drowned or gone mad since I took over the hotel. And it is all very bad that he should burst in on the opening ceremony for the new Hotell Lindorn, with his great harpoon gun. He says, what was it, Sihtric?"
"I believe he said, 'All of this must end. Only I can see what must be done."' Sihtric repeats the words in the steady monotone of one reading from an eidetic record in his own mind.
"Yes, yes, he says this, and then he shoots Mr Cormac in the shoulder, and then five or six men - men from my staff - pin him to the ground. He fight and fight, but they hold him, and he is crying when they carry him away. But now the security in the hotel is very, very good, and no-one with a harpoon gun can get into the building. And if Dubois comes back to Sweden, the police will find him. He is badly hurt in the arms and legs, and he has a walk that is broken, like the string puppet. They will know it is him when he takes his first step." Gunnlaugson chuckles.
Loki asks whether the Frenchman owned a dog, and Gunnlaug and Sihtric are of the opinion that he did not. However, they seem to possess little more information upon Dubois. After Loki has left the hotel manager's office, a polite cough attracts his attention. Sihtric has followed him into the corridor.
"I am very happy that you have persuaded my father to improve our information centre. These improvements are long overdue - if we might discuss them further?" Loki finds that, for a layman, Sihtric has a fair grasp of the implications of the alterations that he had suggested, and has a few ideas of his own. The Swede appears to have a highly acute business sense, and while discussing questions of finance even becomes articulate and animated, like a shy man lured into talking of the woman he loves.
Sihtric seems willing, or even eager, to have his own suggestions passed off as those of the computer analyst. Loki even begins to suspect that Sihtric doubts of a ready audience for any ideas of his own.
Intrigued by the legend recounted to him by Dr Massey, Robert begins researching the Froson runestone. The hotel has a fax machine, so he takes the opportunity to fax one of the rubbings of the stone to a couple of friends who are professors in the appropriate field. From his hotel room he telephones another colleague, who has an especial interest in Swedish culture, in the hope of discovering whether any records from the sixth or seventh century mention the runestone.
His friend responds to his suggestion that the runestone had been improved by a later artist, with a mixture of surprise and scepticism.
"Where did you get that from, Robert? From whom? Massey. I know that name. Oh God. Yes. Him. I've read some of his stuff. Robert, he's a complete fruit bat. Very brilliant, and a lot of his work is good, solid research, but every now and then, when the moon is in the right phase or whatever, he comes out with a real screamer. There was that whole business about the poem Wulf and Eardwaca being a coded message for a military force. And there was that article arguing that the sculptor who had created the Christ-figure for a certain small Danish church had actually carved a thinly disguised image of Odin as a gesture of defiance against the new faith. I mean, it's all plausible the way he puts it, but his premises are loopy.
"No, there's not many local contemporary records surviving from that era. If I remember correctly, Ostmandur spent some time ranting about the use of graven images, and some people take this to refer to specific carved artifacts or stones, but it looks like standard Evangelical bellowing to me. Frankly, you're not going to find any books surmising the 'original condition of the stone' - as far as I know, no-one else has discussed the possibility of a Viking alteration."
Responses to the faxes arrive an hour or two later. One correspondent is mildly enthused by the suggestion of hidden runes, and promises to use her resources to look into the history of the stone further. The other is frankly incredulous at the concept, and faxes through an article written three years before, which argues that the stone had probably been imported to the island by the early Viking settlers.
When Michael has finished talking to Jan Fjard, he joins Mal Harris and the pair walk north towards the residence of Leif Bjarnison. The little man has taken advantage of the increase in the wind, and his kite of the day has reached such a height that it is barely visible, a silver spark in an expanse of blue. The string is stiff as a rod. Bjarnison's fingers are deep pink, the twine rapped about and about them to ensure his hold, cutting off the circulation. The effort required to retain his hold is clearly colossal, as he were gripping the reign to the clouds which the wind is tearing like paper and chasing across the sky.
"Who is he?" The old man speaks, without appearing to look in the direction of the new arrivals. Mal introduces Micheal. Bjarnison mutters something under his breath that may be intended as a greeting. It quickly becomes clear that an invitation into the house is not imminent, and the SITU agents seat themselves upon nearby rocks, and watch patiently as the crippled man continues his silent struggle against the might of the weather. At last, the string lashes back on itself like a loosed whip, and sags at the little man's feet. The distant kite dwindles to a point, released from earthly considerations by the snapping of the string.
"Too much wind. Too much weather." Bjarnison labours his way to the door, then turns to give a curt gesture of invitation to the other two men.
Within the house, the guests are treated to coffee, oatmeal biscuits and the old man's unyielding glare. It takes the combined efforts of both to prevent the conversation sinking into an icy, silent death. Bjarnison has a confusing habit of over-using pronouns, and it is therefore difficult to be sure to whom he is referring most of the time. However, once or twice, when he uses the term 'she,' Bjarnison makes a little gesture towards a photograph on one of the side tables. This picture shows a younger Leif in a smart suit, alongside a woman in a bridal costume. The woman is long-boned, and has a thin, rather tired-looking smile. She is stooping a little to let her arm loop through that of her diminutive husband.
When Mal repeats his questions concerning the disappearance of the schoolchildren sixty years before, Bjarnison waves his hand irritably.
"Long ago," is all he will say. He is similarly reluctant to elaborate upon his cryptic remark about 'little dogs,' instead muttering a word in Swedish, which the operatives take pains to memorise.
"I need stronger string," he announces suddenly, just as silence seems unavoidable. "If you come back, bring the strongest string. There is too much wind." He stares unblinkingly out through his window at the race of the clouds. "See, the clouds fly faster than the birds. I do not know what it is this time. I do not know what she is doing."
Before meeting the others for lunch, Daniel seeks out Helga, ostensibly to ask whether her dog has reappeared. Her tearful appearance is answer enough. Her son Olaf is seated beside her, screaming at the top of his lungs.
"Oh, see how upset he is to lose his little playmate!" Helga's voice ascends in a pitch to a tearful whimper, and she blows her nose, taking care that the handkerchief does not smudge lipstick or eye shadow. Daniel voices sympathetic sentiments. Under a pretence of taking her mind off her loss, he gently introduces other subjects, and with time even succeeds in introducing the subject of Ingvar Njalsonn, and his engagement to Belle-Marie Prior.
"Oh, you've heard of her, have you? Well, whatever you've heard is probably true. I don't like to say anything bad about anyone, you understand, but one has a debt to honesty. In a way I can't blame her for trying to catch Ingvar - after all, she'd never had money, you see. I even feel quite sorry for her, going to all that effort and losing out after all.
"What I do blame her for is staying here after she has no excuse, when she must know that no-one wants her here, and that her presence only brings back painful memories. Every time Gudmund meets her, I think he will have a heart attack and die, right there on the spot. Does she want to kill all the men in the family? I sometimes wonder. I often think it can't have done Ingvar's heart any good, getting involved with an eighteen-year-old..."
Lunchtime arrives, and there is still no word from Harriet. Mal and Michael, who have been scouting around the north of the island, have found no trace of her. The mood is rather sombre and anxious as the group discuss their findings.
After the meal, the five remaining SITU agents stroll in the direction of the docks, to witness the ritual of the Children of the Lindorn.
The square is already crowded, the throng a mix of grinning, relaxed locals and inquisitive, excited tourists. A wooden platform has been erected on the waterside, and some dozen girls aged between twelve and sixteen stand along it, their flimsy white dresses flapping vigorously in the wind. One or two are hugging their shoulders and shivering. All are barefoot.
Some half dozen of them are making at least a passable attempt to look spiritual and otherworldly, generally by holding a statuesque pose and staring into the middle distance. At least one such, however, is clearly doing so in an attempt to avoid the eye of a young man on the crowd who is imitating her stance almost perfectly. She is clearly on the verge of laughter. Her dress is rather low cut, and she manifests a less than virginal tendency to push back her blond hair every time it threatens to conceal the fact.
Cormac is visible across the quay, opening a deckchair for the elderly woman the party had previously noticed in the hotel dining room. Today she is wearing a black and neon-green approximation to a kimono, and a creamy-yellow, tasselled turban-like head-dress. She is gesturing towards the waiting girls, and orating, while beside her Cormac bends to catch her words as if with breathless attention.
"...chaste and yet sensual..." are the only words that drift across to the party, in a creaking, American drawl.
Pamphlets advertised as containing "The Mysteries of the Lindorn" are available for 10 krona apiece in a number of languages. These are a little like theatre programmes, in that they seem designed to explain the events of the forthcoming ritual.
Welcome. You have felt something missing in your life. You have been unhappy, and have longed for a sense of oneness and community. You have longed to understand the mysteries of the universe, and learn to be at peace with them. You are welcome, brothers and sisters...
Looking up from the pamphlet, Mal notices the girl with green dreadlocks at the corner of the crowd. She is standing, arms folded, directing a narrowed vitriolic stare at the crowd of tourists, where cameras flicker and crack.
...welcome to share with us a special moment of love and spirituality...
The blond girl on the platform succumbs to laughter, and directs an angry smile at her young admirer in the crowd.
...first there will be an incantation given by Steingerd, the spae-wife (see glossary)...
A middle-aged woman is climbing onto the platform, somewhat heavily. It is evident that the photograph of Steingerd in Cormac's headquarters was taken several years, and many substantial meals, ago. Her dark hair is streaked with grey, and is tied back into a bun.
...(Glossary) Spae-wife: An old Norse term for a female practitioner of magical or prophetic arts. A wise woman. A healer. A witch...
The woman walks to the centre of the platform and subsides a little, as if through weariness. Her head bows. Then she pulls herself gradually erect, spine first, then neck. Her eyes are wide, black and distant. She raises her arms, and her hands appear from hanging, voluminous sleeves. She begins to call out words in a rapid, nasal monotone.
...Steingerd will offer a prayer to the lindorn, and then the nymphs of Storsjon will sing one of the ancient songs in order to help her to enter her trance...
Evidently taking some form of cue from Cormac, the girls start to sing, each taking a different part. Perhaps as a result of the amount of attention they are receiving, or perhaps as a consequence of concentrating upon their music, all now seem serious and involved. The spae-wife in their centre is entirely motionless, but for a slight trembling of her fingers, and one flicker of an eye-lid in response to a camera flash.
...visitors will feel a sense of well-being and warmth settle upon them. They are encouraged to think of departed loved ones, or to concentrate upon the sound of the waves, which the singing is designed to complement...
The chanting has been continuing for some ten minutes now. The crowd seems a little restless. A small child attempts an experimental wail. Suddenly Steingerd holds her hands above her head, signalling the music to cease. She shouts jubilantly, point to the sea, then spreads her arms out to indicate the crowd.
...sometimes the spae-wife will sense that the ritual has been found worthy, and that the spirit of the lindorn has come upon the crowd to bless it. Such moments are rare, and are treasured by all who experience them...
The girls on the platform clasp their hands, and gaze upon the ecstatic Steingerd with rather bored-looking countenances that are evidently intended to express awe and delight. The spae-wife emits a sequence of breath-taking ululations, her arms still spread as if to embrace the assembly, then she subsides into herself once more. There is a respectful pause, then some polite applause.
...tokens of this memorable experience may be bought after the ritual. For a negligible donation, why not have yourself photographed with the amazing Steingerd or the lovely Storsjon nymphs? Give your friends at home a memento they will cherish!
Mal gains the attention of his colleagues, and points out the girl from the VAM. She is striding away along the quay, tongue pushed into one cheek, fists in the pockets of her frayed denim shorts. By the time she turns the corner, Loki and Mal are following her.
The green-haired girl leads the agents to a run-down looking house a couple of streets from the waterside. One of the downstairs windows appears to be broken, and has been shabbily patched with wrapping paper. The girl takes a key out of her money belt, unlocks the door, shoulder-shoves it open, and enters.
After a hesitation, the operatives approach and knock. The door is answered by a woman of about forty in a blue, quilted dressing gown. Her face is pale and puffy under a mess of dyed red hair, as if she has just been woken. Hearing a voice in English, she interrupts.
"You are a tourist. Wanting my daughter. It is no good coming to me, you know. She is an adult, and what she does is on her own head. She does not even live here some of the time. Is it breakages? No good coming to me to get money for them. Ulrika! You see, no respect. Ulrika! Where are you going?"
Ulrika, who has been passing behind her mother, shouts something in Swedish and accompanies the phrase with a gesture that needs no translation. There is a brief and practised screaming match, at the climax of which the daughter succeeds in dodging her mother's attempt to grab her by the hair. Ulrika bolts out of the hall into the nearest room. There is a rattle, like that of a window sash being thrown up. There is a clatter, and the dwindling sound of running steps outside.
"You see? No respect."
The other members of the party no longer manifest any trace of surprise when, at about five, Daniel leaves the hotel in the direction of the docks.
Half an hour later, he is walking along the quay with Belle-Marie, who laughs at his wry description of the 'Mysteries of the Lindorn.' Working on the docks as she does, she has seen many of the rituals, and is able to confirm that Steingerd 'senses the spirit of the lindorn' at each and every one.
"She's sweet enough, really, but she will try to sell you things if you as much as say 'hello' to her."
Daniel also mentions having seen the green-haired girl from the VAM among the crowd. He describes the scene outside the hotel two nights before.
"That sounds like Ulrika Berget. She's VAM alright - not a leader or anything, but one of the loudest voices. She's all talk, you know. I wish they all were." Watching Belle-Marie talk, Daniel is once again struck by the way her face changes when she relaxes.
Dinner passes very pleasantly. Instead of using the meal as an opportunity for gleaning information Daniel allows the conversation to take its natural route, and the various anxieties that have been preying upon his mind slip one by one from his mind. With a slight shock, he realises at last that it is a little before eleven. The pair leave the restaurant and walk slowly back to Belle-Marie's house.
At the doorway, somewhat impulsively, Daniel gives his companion a small kiss on the cheek. Belle-Marie turns pink, looking confused and even slightly angry. Then she stands on tiptoe and kisses him, very lightly and briefly, on the mouth. Her face is turned away as she enters her house.
Daniel returns to find the others sitting in the hotel bar, discussing the events of the day. No message has yet arrived from Harriet Shen, and the group are attempting to decide how to deal with the situation.
At a pause in their discussion, they become aware of a raised voice in the hallway. They recognise the rough-edged drawl of the American woman who had attended the ritual that afternoon.
"...well, I guess when the spirit of the lindorn came upon us all, it must just have chosen me to be among the blessed. There I was walking the paths just now, and out of the water it came, real slow and majestic. What do you think of that! Wait till I tell Haarkon I've seen his lindorn!"