King Gudrod was a wealthy king and a fearsome man. He had enlarged the kingdom given to him by his father, most notably defeating king Harald of Ager. He had taken Harald’s lands and added them to his own, and taken Harald’s daughter, Asa, as his queen.
With the wealth plundered from Harald’s horde he built new long houses for his chief warriors and warships for them to raid in and bring back treasure. He took the gold they brought, and built for himself a great hall at Geirstad. Loud was that house, for Gudrod loved to hunt in the company of his warriors, and when the hunt was fruitful he held great feasts. Wide spread the word of his wealth, and so came to his hall those seeking a lord, a ring-giver.
One such was Rolf, a young wanderer with no fame. He came from the wilderness north of Geirstad, alone, with no wealth, seeking a lord to take him into his service, to lead him on raids and give to him the chance for wealth, renown, and a life beyond scraping the bare earth for food.
The wind swept over the low hills surrounding the city, plucking at the ragged deerskin Rolf had wrapped around his shoulders. He carried only a small bow, carved from a short, crooked mountain tree, and a short knife hung from his belt. Birds flitted through the air from house to house as the smell of cooking fires mingled with the familiar smell of the sea. Before him Geirstad stretched out, wooden long houses lining the muddy roads and paths that led to a great hall in the center of settlement. To the west, the trees thickened in to a forest that bordered a thinly growing field of corn.
Doubt gnawed at his mind as he took in the size of the city, and the weak fields that had been hacked into the rocky soil. Perhaps Gudrod would not want more mouths to feed, especially from one as young as himself.
He made his way down the road and into the streets. Children ran about in the mud, and here and there dogs padded along, picking their way around the puddles. Uncertainty gnawed at Rolf, should he go straight to the hall? Would Gudrod be there?
No, no, he decided. Doubtless the king would open his hall for the evening meal, there was no reason to rush inside. Along the muddy streets, men and women sat against the walls of their homes enjoying the faint warmth of the sun. This one working on a basket, that one cleaning rabbit carcasses. He tried not to stare, and a few returned his nervous smile, but he kept walking as if he had somewhere to go.
The long houses opened up before the great hall, and a bonfire had been built in the square. Rolf hurried toward it and joined the circle of men an women warming themselves around the blaze.
“I haven’t seen much in the last two weeks.” One of the men was saying. “It is in my mind that the hunting has been thick and heavy these two months past.” There was a mutter of agreement. “I doubt it will be good much longer.”
“We will not hunt here much longer.” One of the older men kicked a burning log back onto the fire. “When the raiders have returned in a few weeks, the king will sail. He will expect the jarls to share with him the spoils. Beyond their halls he’ll find his fill of winter hunting.” A few of the men glanced at Rolf, eying his ragged clothes and muddy appearance.
“Come to seek service to the king?” One of them asked quietly.
“The year is late, you would have been better served coming ere the raiders sailed.” The man shook his head. “But the king is hunting, and if he finds the boar they tracked, then we will feast tonight, and the king will be in a merry mood.”
“I will ask him at the feast.” Rolf said. “And I thank you for your words.”
“Wait till after the feast has started, and he has eaten his fill,” The man said, “but before he has drunk too deeply, and the mead madness descends. I am Alf Bjornsson, and I wish you success.”
“Thank you Alf Bjornsson.” Rolf grinned nervously. “I hope for my success as well.”
As Alf chuckled, the men around the fire stirred, and a flock of birds flew up from the west. A horn was sounding.
“The king returns!” someone shouted, and with a last moment by the fire, the men began moving down the streets, dogs and children yapping along with them as they moved between the long houses till their view of the forest was unobstructed.
The horns sounded again, and the hunters began to appear between the trees as they made their way with long strides toward the settlement, their dogs loping alongside, tongues hanging out and tails wagging. Women and children began streaming out of the settlement to see what game had been caught, and Rolf made his way with the crowd. His stomach grumbled,and he found himself hoping that the hunt had put Gudrod in a pleasant mood.
The crowd shouted and called to the hunters, who waved back, clearly pleased with their hunt. As they came closer, Rolf caught sight of the one who must be Gudrod. The afternoon sun gleamed off a gold hilted sword at his side, and in his hand he carried a long hunting spear. His hair and beard were woven in long braids that hung to his chest.
“Where is my wife!” He shouted as he strode toward the crowd. “Where is Asa!”
“She is with the child, lord.” One of the men responded from the crowd.
Gudrod grunted.“Very well. See that our game is prepared, for tonight we feast!” There was a cheer from the crowd, but Rolf heard several of the women muttering among themselves.
The crowd began to disperse, some returning to the bonfire where the returning hunters shared their tale of the chase, and the battle to bring down the great boar. Rolf listened for a short time, before slipping away to find water with which to wash away some of the mud and grime that stuck to him. It was cold, but when he was done he returned to the bonfire to warm himself.
As the sun slipped lower in the sky, Rolf made his way to the torchlit hall. He did not think himself a weak man, but he still shivered as the chill of the evening wind swept in from the sea. THe guards relaxed by the door as he climbed the plank steps, and pointed to the wall where several swords and axes were set. Rolf nodded, more nervous than before, and setting his bow and knife by the door, made his way into the hall. A great fire burned in the center, the smoke rising to the hole in the roof. A great table stood at the far end, and two rows of tables ran from it, down the length of the hall. Benches and stumps draped with hides and old leather were scattered all about the rough wooden floor.
Laughter echoed through the hall, and voices rose as it filled with Gudrod’s thanes and their families. Rolf stood nervously on the edge of the hall, fear gnawing at the pit in his stomach. If Gudrod would not take him, where would he go next? He had little knowledge of the way north,and without a bow would have a difficult time catching game for food.
The hall roared, and Rolf looked up to see Gudrod step though one of the hide hung doorways in the back of the hall. He raised his arms in greeting, and shouted back.
“A good hunt!” He cried as he made his way to the great table.
“A good hunt for a great hunter!” Someone shouted, and the hall cheered.
“The greatest hunter!” Gudrod answered, and the cheers rose again. Rolf looked about, thinking that perhaps the mead had flowed rather early, and grinned nervously.
“I have slain this day a wild boar, deer, and from our herds have brought in several fat sheep!” Gudrod stood by his chair and looked out over the flame lit hall. “All this I have brought that we might feast! So eat and be merry! And when any ask if Gudrod the Hunter is generous, remember you all this night, and the many like it!”
As servants brought out great slabs of freshly cooked meat, and great barrels of mead and ale, Rolf picked at his food. Though he had eaten little on the trading ship, nervousness was taking away his appetite.
They had not eaten long when a young woman quietly stepped from the same door Gudrod had entered from. She was richly dressed, and her long black hair was braided and bound with silver. She looked quickly over the hall, her eyes sweeping back and forth through the flickering flames as she took her seat beside Gudrod. Her eyes stopped and flicked back to Rolf. For an instant she looked at him, and then she turned her attention elsewhere.
She must be Gudrod’s wife, Rolf guessed, the lady Asa who Gudrod had taken by force when her father refused the marriage.
Rolf continued to pick at his food, his heart beating faster with each passing moment as he waited for Gudrod’s eating to slow. He thought it never would, the king ate and ate and ate, washing down slabs of meat and loaves of bed with great gulps of mead.
Rolf sipped on his own mead, hoping it would calm his shaking nerves. When he put down his cup and looked back to Gudrod, the king shoved away his plate and drained the last of his massive drinking horn.
Rolf’s heart leapt up and his stomach tightened as he stood and made his way between the tables, hoping that he would get near the king before he was noticed.
He was not so fortunate.
Gudrod looked down the hall absently as one of the slaves refilled his drink, and his eyes stuck on Rolf.
“Who are you?” Gudrod shouted.
“I am Rolf Ericsson.” Rolf replied as he hurried forward, absurdly wondering what would happen if he tripped and fell.
“Who?” Gudrod raised his hand for the hall to quiet as Rolf answered again.
“But you have no beard.” Gudrod peered down at him. “A warrior without a beard, such a thing cannot be fathomed.” Quiet laughter spread throughout the hall, and Rolf looked down.
“I do not…” Gudrod began, but the lady Asa interrupted him.
“A young warrior you may train.” She said. “As you are a great hunter, and a great warrior, imagine what men will say if you turn this young man into a fearsome feeder of crows. Truly then, men will say there is nothing you cannot do.”
Gudrod stroked his beard, and looked down at Rolf.
“I cannot take him into my service.” He protested. “He has no beard.”
Asa sighed, but Gudrod suddenly smiled. “A beardless thane for a beardless lord!” He laughed and looked back at the lady. “He will swear an oath to you! And when he has a respectable beard and has proven himself, then I will take him into my service.”
The hall quieted as Rolf felt the blood rush to his face, and felt the burning of a hundred eyes upon him. He looked up to see Asa staring at Gudrod, a keen look upon her face.
“Swear you will serve my wife till you are older.” Gudrod chuckled, “and be swift, for I am thirsty.”
Rolf hesitated, but there was no where else for him to go. He had no money or food to travel to the hall of another Jarl or King, and if he did, who else would take a young man just at the end of harvest time? He took a deep breath, but Asa interrupted.
“If a thing is to be done, it will be done properly.” She said, and rose from her chair and walked around the table to stand before Rolf as he knelt.
“Take my hand.” She commanded, and held it out until Rolf took it in his. “Do you swear your weapon and your life to me, to be my sworn warrior until I release you from your oath?”
“I do.” Rolf answered.
“Do you swear to protect me and my heirs from all who would do us harm, to stand with me before the lawgivers, to aid me in the fat times and the lean, and to go where I may lead?”
“Then rise Rolf Ericsson, Thane of Asa Haraldsdottir, Queen in Geirstad. Eat and be full, drink and be merry, for you are among friends.”