Pilgrim Reindeer in Pisa, 1348

a free multimedia novel by

Thomas A. DuBois, University of Wisconsin-Madison

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Detail, Triumph of Death. Camposanto. Pisa

Sálle has waited all his life to be contacted by the spirits. Now that they've called, there's no turning back—not until the spirits say STOP.

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30. Heroes in Aix [November 5, 1347]

Your strength is not in numbers, nor does your power depend upon stalwart men; but you are the God of the lowly, the helper of the oppressed, the supporter of the weak, the protector of the forsaken, the savior of those without hope.

The next day, Jacques and Bávlos walked into the great city of Aix to visit the holy shrine of King Charlemagne. Bávlos found his church magnificent: a massive domed building that reminded him of a Sámi hut made impossibly gigantic. Despite its size, Bávlos still felt comforted by being beneath a rounded ceiling again, enclosed in a building that was rounded rather than square. And the reliquary that held Charlemagne’s remains seemed every bit as impressive as the one cherished in Köln as the resting place of three kings. How much trouble went into disposing of kings! If such things were done for every king that came along, would there ever be space or wealth or metal for anyone else? He reflected on the way the dead were cared for back home: secreted away in a spot that only a family member would know of, brought simple gifts of food and perhaps antlers from time to time, kept apprised of the family’s news. Everything in this land seemed to demand so much more grandeur and artifice and wealth.

During the day, Bávlos took up his new role as Jacques’s assistant. Jacques took to calling him Ogier in public and Nieiddash seemed to be all the proof anyone needed to confirm the fact that Bávlos and his strange mount had come from the fabled Danemarche. There were plenty of Hanze traders about who said that this Ogier did not seem to dress or act in any way typically Danish, but Jacques always managed to drown out such doubters with a sprightly song or recitation. People enjoyed the boy’s singing as well as the sight and touch of Nieiddash, and again, the friends amassed a small cache of coins as a result of the afternoon’s work. Bávlos got to hear many more songs of chevaliers and ridders, as well as great kings, fine ladies, and all manner of love encounters. When at last evening approached, the friends used the money to purchase more food and drink and then returned to the countryside outside of Aix to spend the evening in tales. They made camp on the south side of the city and built a small fire.

“Now it is your turn to tell me a tale,” said Jacques happily. “A tale of another great hero like Ogier!”

“I will tell you such a tale,” said Bávlos. “Of a boy who must have been the same age as Ogier was when he first saved the king. A boy not much older than you, I should think.”

“Fine!” said the boy. “I like such tales!”

“Well,” began Bávlos. “This is a true story and it happened in a place not far from where I grew up, and not so long ago.”

“Ah,” said Jacques a little disappointed, “a tale of modern times.”

“It is that,” said Bávlos. “Is that all right?”

“If you have no tales of ancient times,” said Jacques, “I suppose it will have to do.”

Bávlos was a little surprised by his friend’s remarks. It had never occurred to him that stories should be of times long ago. But then, the people of this land seemed to live amid all sorts of reminders of times past—great castles and churches and bridges and reliquaries and the like—so it was only natural that they should spend their time telling stories about the people who had made them.

“Well,” he said after a pause, “as I mentioned, there once was a boy of about your age—”

“What was his name?” asked Jacques with enthusiasm.

“His name? I do not know his name!”

“How can you tell a story about a hero without a name?” asked the boy. “Was he disguised?”

“He was not disguised,” said Bávlos. “I just don’t know his name. I have never heard tell of it.”

“But that makes no sense,” said Jacques with finality. “Start again.”

“Fine,” said Bávlos with some impatience. “His name was Sálle.”

“Sálle,” said the boy thoughtfully. “A strange name. In our language it means that he was dirty, or sordid, or crude. Where was he from and of what parentage?”

“His name was Sálle of Sállevárri,” said Bávlos, “and he was neither dirty nor crude. His parents were barons who owned a small estate.”

“Did they have many servants?” asked Bávlos.

“Some,” said Bávlos evasively. He decided that children and reindeer should count as servants.

“Were they wealthy?” asked Jacques, his eyes half-closed as he settled down by the fire to imagine the story.

“Tolerably wealthy,” said Bávlos in Hanze speech, “they seldom lacked for anything they needed.”

“Ah,” said Jacques, “they must have been wealthy indeed.”

“Now,” said Bávlos. “It befell that on a day, the boy Sálle was walking in the forest some distance from the border of his father’s estate. And all at once he heard voices and the tramping of heavy feet on the path behind him.”

“Thieves?” gasped Jacques.

“Not exactly,” said Bávlos. “They were collectors of tribute.”

“Tribute?” said Jacques doubtfully.

“Yes, they were tribute takers, come to collect tribute from a foreign king.”

“Ah,” said Jacques. He offered no further opinion.

Bávlos continued. “Now it had always been the practice of Sálle and his parents to simply run and hide whenever tribute takers came near, so that they would not have their lives endangered or have to pay a portion of their wealth to a foreign king.”

“They would run and hide?” said Jacques in disbelief. “What sort of people were these? They gave their son a name that means ‘dirty’ and they do not even deign to receive an emissary from a king? They do not sound very honorable to me.”

“Perhaps they were not,” said Bávlos musingly. “Although I think they were happy just the same.”

“What happened next?” said Jacques acerbically.

“Well,” said Bávlos, warming to his theme. “These evil men soon captured poor Sálle. And they held a sword to his throat and they said

‘Take us to where your parents live so that we can take all their wealth!’ These men spoke a foreign language, but Sálle had a magic gift that he could understand their speech nonetheless.”

“Ah,” said Jacques, “imagine that!”

“Yes, well,” said Bávlos. “Anyway, the boy, er, Sálle of Sállevárri spoke and he said this:

‘My father’s lands lie a ways from here: we must trek by land or float by boat.’

‘We have a boat not far from here,’ said the leader of the men. ‘Come with us and show us the way. Or we shall put you to death!’”

“Were these men Saracens?” asked Jacques. “They sound like Saracens to me.”

“I believe they were Danes,” said Bávlos. “Danes who needed tribute that they could turn over to Charlemagne.”

“I see,” said the boy.”Then this did happen in ancient times!”

“I guess it did,” said Bávlos. Jacques seemed quite pleased with this shift in the story, and Bávlos was encouraged by the greater enthusiasm he was beginning to show. “Anyway,” he continued, “they made their way back to the shore of the river and found a large, heavy boat that the men had arrived in. They pushed it out into the river and Sálle sat in the stern, steering the boat along. This place has ever since been called Guosseguolbba, the marshy place of the strangers.”

“This Sálle did not offer to enter into combat with a chosen champion of their side?” said Jacques, “That would have been a brave thing to do.”

“Perhaps,” said Bávlos, “but the men did not offer him that option, and Sálle felt sure that if one attacked him, they all would follow suit.”

“Scoundrels,” said the boy. “Poor Sálle.”

“Well wait to you hear what he did!” said Bávlos. “Now the estate of his father lay upstream from where they put in on the river, up a rather small river that connected with the one they were on. But Sálle headed the prow downstream instead, and soon they were drifting swiftly down the valley away from the place where Sálle’s family lived. The river is very wide in this place and the water is slow, so we call it Riebansavu. A rieban is a small animal that looks like a dog, but with pointy ears and a big bushy tail.”

“Renard,” said Jacques. “We have many stories about Monseigneur Renard.”

“Ah, “ said Bávlos. “I should like to hear these. Anyway, Sálle spoke to the men and he said:

‘We must stay in the deep part of this river, for there are many spots where the river is shallow and your boat is heavy and rides low in the water.’

‘All right,’ said the leader of the men. ‘Do as is needed, but do not try any tricks!’

‘I shall not!’ said Sálle to the men. ‘Relax, it shall be some time before we reach my father’s lands!’”

“I should think it would be some time,” said Jacques, “since this Sálle has lied to the men!”

“Nothing he said was a lie,” corrected Bávlos, “although it is true that he headed the boat in the wrong direction. But the rivers in my land are very numerous and it is often possible to reach the same place by going either direction in one’s boat.”

“I see,” said Jacques. “Still, it does not seem very honorable.”

Bávlos decided to ignore the statement and simply to continue his tale. “Now it was summertime and the sun did not set—”

“Ha! “ laughed Jacques, “Now you are being silly, my friend. How can the sun not set?”

“It is so in my land,” said Bávlos a little perplexed. “Is it not so also here? Does the sun not stay in the sky all the time when it is summer in this land?”

“Of course it does not!” said the boy. “The days grow longer, but in due time the sun sets and cedes the sky to the moon.”

“I see,” said Bávlos uncertainly, “in our land the sun remains in the sky for nearly all of the summer.”

“That is impossible!” said Jacques. “How can the sun remain in the sky in your land when it sets in ours? Either the sun is in the sky or he is not. There cannot be anything else.”

Bávlos could see the boy’s logic, but he did not know how to explain why the sun behaved so differently here than in his land.

“I cannot explain this thing,” he said, “but if you wish, I can continue my tale.”

“Continue,” said the boy. “But it does not make much sense to me.”

“Anyway,” said Bávlos, choosing his words carefully, “the day was long, and the sun strong, and the men grew very sleepy in the boat. And one by one they began to drift off to sleep. Sálle continued to guide the boat down the river. Before long, even the leader had fallen asleep. Now on this river, not so far down from where the men fell asleep, there is a great rapids called—”

“I do not need to know the name of the waterfall,” said Jacques. “That’s not important.”

“Of course it is important! “ said Bávlos. “The rapids are nearly the most important part of the whole story!”

“That makes no sense!” said Jacques.

“As you wish,” said Bávlos. “But the name is a very fine part of the story.”

“I’m sure it is,” said Jacques. “Now please continue.”

“All right,” said Bávlos, still a little annoyed. “After the long and slow waters of Riebansavu, the men were sound asleep and quiet relaxed. But now the sound of the large rapids began to come to their ears. And the leader of the gang of tribute takers awoke and said:

‘Boy, the winds sound loud in your land!’

‘Relax!’ said the boy, ‘and I will tell you when we have reached my father’s lands.’”

“And was that not a lie?” asked Jacques.

“In fact, it was not,” said Bávlos. “It was the leader who said that the sound was the wind, not Sálle.”

“I see,” said Jacques, closing his eyes again. “Continue.”

“Well, the river began to pick up speed and soon they were headed straight for the rapids. And Sálle steered toward a large rock that was partly submerged in the river and that led directly to shore. And as they passed it, he lightly sprang out of the boat and made his escape!”

“And what happened to the soldiers?” said Jacques, sitting up.

“Well they went right on sleeping,” said Bávlos, chuckling, “and the boat drifted into the rapids. And then they awoke to find themselves surrounded by furious waters, and the boat capsized and they all drowned!”

“Ah,” said Jacques, quietly.

“And then what happened?”

“Well,’ said Bávlos happily, “Sálle went downstream to where the bodies were washed up on the shore, and he took their fine armbands and rings and other goods.”

“Very heroic,” said Jacques, with a small shudder.

“Yes, wasn’t it though!?” said Bávlos. “Sálle knew what to do in a pinch! Would you like to hear another?”

“I suppose,” said the boy, somewhat hesitantly. “You say that this Sálle is a great hero in your land?”

“He is,” said Bávlos. “For this boy saved his family from a terrible situation.”

“Paying tribute, you mean?” said Jacques.

“Indeed!” said Bávlos. “For if the men had found out where Sálle’s family lived, they would be back every year, demanding more tribute each time. And they would have perhaps taken Sálle’s sister, or killed his father, or who knows what!”

“Tell me your next story,” said the boy.

“Well, it also concerns Sálle,” said Bávlos. “This happened in the great lake called Anar, near where my mother grew up.”

“I have not heard of this place,” said Jacques.

Bávlos was not surprised, of course, but he felt that the story would be better if the boy knew the place he was talking about. He decided to at least try to explain some of the important details of the place.“Well,” he said, “in my country, even the big lakes freeze in the winter, at least in places. And then folk can walk between islands without difficulty. But then the spring comes, and the waters melt, and one needs a boat to go from place to place. Without a boat it is hopeless, for the water is icy cold, and one cannot swim or wade through it.”

“I have never heard of anyone swimming in a lake,” said Jacques. “It does not sound wise.”

“Well, it is not wise in the early spring, anyway,” said Bávlos. He wondered if swimming were really that unfamiliar in this land. He was going to ask, but then he decided to simply continue with the story.

“Well, Sálle’s family had a place of worship on an island.”

“A church?” asked Jacques.

“Well, a chapel of sorts,” said Bávlos. He decided not to try to explain what a sieidi was. “And anyway, after Sálle was successful in drowning the tribute-takers, he brought some of their treasure and left it here at the chapel to thank the, the saints for their help.”

“I see, “ said the boy. Bávlos could tell that the boy could understand this detail, since the same tradition seemed in practice in this land: chapels and churches were filled with goods that had been taken in war, or left by grateful people, all of fine silver and gold and copper.

“Well, one day in early spring, some more tribute takers arrived in a boat.”

“Not again!” said Jacques with a sigh.

“Yes, of course!” said Bávlos. “These tribute takers knew that there was wealth in this land and they wanted to take it for their king.”

“Go on,” said the boy.

“They captured Sálle and they said,

‘Take us to the place where you keep your finest goods, or we shall put you to death!’”

“And he fought them?” asked Jacques, hopefully.

“No, of course not!” said Bávlos. “There were too many of them, and he was just a boy. So he got in the boat with them and directed them to the island with the chapel. It lay far out in the lake, a long, long way from shore.”

“I see,” said the boy.

“Well, when they arrived there, the men made Sálle get out of the boat and show them where the goods were. And he did so. And when the men saw the treasures, their hearts were filled with joy and with greed. And they started to fight each other for the fine armbands and other things.”

“These were ignoble soldiers,” said Jacques.

“They were disagreeable indeed, if that is what you mean,” said Bávlos. “Anyway, two of the men started to fight fiercely with each other and one called out to Sálle.

‘Boy! Go fetch us a pair of swords from the boat and we shall finish this fight with a battle to the death!”

“Hurray!” said Jacques. He felt that the story had now finally turned toward something he could understand. Bávlos saw his delight and continued avidly:

“Well, Sálle saw his chance. He raced down to the boat and pushed it out into the water and jumped into it himself. And off he started to paddle!”

“What?” said Jacques in disbelief, “What about the swords and the battle to the death?”

“Well, that is exactly what the tribute takers said,” laughed Bávlos. “They called after him:

‘Boy, come back with that boat and our swords at once!’

But Sálle just laughed and said, ‘You have frightened me with your fighting and now I must flee! I will come back another day!”

“And did he?” asked the boy, incredulous.

“Oh yes,” said the boy. “Later that year. After midsummer I think.”

“But the men?” said Jacques.

“All starved to death!” said Bávlos laughing. “Some tried to swim to shore right away, but they quickly drowned. The rest simply died there, waiting for the water to get warm enough so that they could attempt a crossing. I have been to that island many times, and I have seen their bones: they were placed by the chapel to thank the saints for their help!”

Jacques was silent for a long while. “This Sálle,” he said at last, “He is rather like the renard, isn’ he?”

“I suppose he is,” said Bávlos musingly. “Those who are small must make their way somehow in a land of the great.”

“It is true,” said Jacques. “When I think of it, there are perhaps many more such small people than the great ones, though I have seldom heard tell of their deeds! Thank you for these stories!”

“We cannot all be eagles,” said Bávlos, switching into Hanze speech. “Some of us must be jackdaws instead.”

“Or songbirds!” said Jacques with a laugh.

“Yes,” said Bávlos, “We are always in need of songbirds.”