The morning after he had sworn his oath, Einir had woken him from where he slept, curled up against one of the beams in the great hall and taken him to his own room behind the hanging furs that separated Gudrod’s family quarters from the main hall.
“Here you will sleep.” Einir said. “This is my side. That is yours.” He pointed to where a a couple of deer skins had been laid over the floor, but Rolf was staring at his hand.
“What happened?” he gasped. On each of Einir’s hands, the thumbs had been cut cleanly off just below the second joint.
Einir looked at him calmly. “When Gudrod took my lady from her homeland, and slew her father and her brother, she begged him that I and two others she might keep to ease her transition to her new home.” He smiled faintly. “Besides myself, the lady Asa was granted the life of Vigdis and Sigrun. But when we were on the boat, Gudrod cut off my thumbs that I might never wield a blade against him. Thus, though I failed to save my King, I serve still his daughter, and my oath is not fully broken.”
Rolf muttered something apologetic, but Einir shrugged. “Such is the way of things. Now, come, for we have work to do.”
Einir had care of the queen’s livestock, so it was with them that Rolf first set to work. Pigs, cows, and sheep they fed and watered, ensuring that straw was piled up in the barns against the cold. But the pride of Asa was not her sheep.
Three great horses stomped and moved restlessly in their stalls, blowing and snorting and they glared at Rolf when he entered their stable. “These are the horses of Harald.” Einir said as he entered the barn behind him. “Gudrod took them from Ager when he burned Harald’s hall, and later gave them to my lady as a gift.”
“You should address my father as the king.” A boy, lean and fair haired carried a saddle through the door. “He may be a foul bastard, but he’s still the king.”
Einir nodded in acknowledgment. “Of course.” He glanced at the saddle. “We were just about to feed them, perhaps you could ride later?”
“Or perhaps you could feed Seiglund later,” The boy retorted opening the middle stall and setting the saddle on the horse inside. Softly he stroked it’s neck, and whispered to it as he fastened the saddle in place. “Besides,” he added as he vaulted into the saddle, “a little fresh grass will make a better breakfast this morning.”
Rolf stepped back against the wall as the boy urged the horse out of the stall and out of the barn, ducking to avoid the low beam over the door.
“That was Olaf.” Einir commented as Rolf peered out the door. “He is Gudrod’s first son, growing into a man and beginning to try and show it.”
“He doesn’t seem to care much for his father.”
“No.” Einir tossed an armful of hay into the first stall, “He doesn’t. Since his mother died and Gudrod took my lady as his wife, he has been mostly left to himself. Gudrod cares little for people who are not immediately useful to him.” He dug his fingers into his palms, rubbing at the base of his missing thumbs.
“Yes, it still aches.” He said when he saw Rolf starring “No it doesn’t hurt, yes I’m fine. Just throw more hay into the stall.”
When the horses were fed they returned to the great hall, where an old man with rough, white hair and leather patch over one eye sat by the door. He glared at them as they approached.
“You are the one who swore the oath to the queen last night?” He shouted to Rolf as they climbed the steps.
“Good. I’ve been waiting here too long.” The man grumbled. “Einir you grow fat and slow. I will take this youngling for a time, the queen wishes me to teach him to fight.” He peered at Rolf out of his one good eye. “It may be a useless endeavor, but I shall try nonetheless.”
Thus Rolf met Ivar One-eye.
The first day the old man gave him a staff and beat him mercilessly with one of his own. The next day he gave him a club an old wooden shield and beat him mercilessly again.
Rolf’s time over the next few days was split between helping bring in the harvest, and training with Ivar. Some days he spent cutting wheat with a scythe, some days he helped on the fishing boats, and in the evenings he trained with Olaf One-eye in the courtyard before the great hall.
The time on the fishing boats he enjoyed the most. There, with the sea breeze blowing and the boat moving freely beneath his feet, he felt truly alive. His training with Ivar however was a different matter. While Ivar himself was instructive, there were always a few of Gudrod’s younger thanes there to laugh and jeer anytime he made a mistake. They were led by Igbert, a lanky young man with long hair he wore tied in a long braid that swung as he walked. Rolf’s lack of beard was a common theme, and they seemed to enjoy peering closely at him to see if there was any growth. Once Igbert came so close that Ivar nearly took off a nose.
“You should not come so close.” Ivar snapped when Igbert shouted at him. He was a good teacher, and Rolf felt that he learned much from the man. Usually Einir would sit and watch, and Rolf suspected that he reported what he saw to Asa. It seemed that the two were ever close.
As the harvest time drew to a close, Gudrod began to grow restless. He was finding less game on each hunt, and the work of preparing for winter was nearly done. Gudrod grumbled more with each passing day, until at length word passed through the hall that they should sail up the coast to Stiflusund and visit Jarl Orvik, one of Gudrod’s sworn men and an old friend.
Rolf smiled when he heard the news,for he hoped that Igbert would be taken on the journey, for he had grown tired of his constant jeering. But as he ate a small meal in the hall that night, he was approached by Sigrun, the lady Asa’s maid.
“The queen wishes to speak with you.” She said. “Come with me.”
Rolf rose quickly and followed her out of the hall and down the rocky path toward the piers. The sea wind was blowing gently,the smell of salt and fish and storm heavy in the air. Dark clouds hung on the horizon, smoldering in the red light of the setting sun. The sky burned like fire, and an orange light fell in from
Asa stood on the longest pier beside Gudrod’s warship, Vikandr, as she looked across the rolling water. When they reached the pier Sigrun stopped and stood a short distance from the queen.
“A fair evening to you, Rolf Ericsson.” She said without turning.
“Thank you lady.” Rolf replied, suddenly unsure what to do with his hands, or where to stand. The longships creaked on their ropes, and the fishing boats knocked against the piers as waves rolled in.
“I imagine that even so will be the first coming of Ragnarok.” She continued. “The blotting out of the sun, and the rising of the first rumors of Surt as he storms across the bridge.” She turned at last to look at him. “Do you also hope to be there, to fight in the last battle?”
“Of course.” Rolf replied.
“Why did you come here, seeking a lord?” She asked. “Of all the kings, you came to the court of Gudrod, why?”
“I went to several halls in the north.” Rolf shrugged. “All turned me away or turned me out after some weeks of work. I had heard your husband was wealthy. I thought a rich lord would be more willing to accept a one as young and unproven as myself.”
Asa smiled faintly, “And in the end” she mused “it was not the wealth in his horde nor the food in his larder that denied you, but the hair on your face.”
Rolf felt his cheeks redden, but Asa looked back to the sunset. “And now you are sworn to a lady. A queen, but a lady none the less. I am sure it was not what you intended.”
Rolf was silent, unsure of what to say.
Asa turned to him with a small smile. “But I am still your lord, and I know my duty as I am sure you know yours. Stand by me till the harvest is gathered in this time next year. I give you my word, if you wish it I will release you from your oath. Stand you by me for one year and if I do not reward you as faithful, then let all say I am faithless and find a lord who will accept you for your loyalty.”
Rolf nodded, but he did not know why she was asking him to stay faithful, had he not sworn himself to her the day before? “I will not be faithless”, was all he could think to say.
“Then neither shall I” Asa answered. “The time is coming when I shall need you to stand by me.” She looked long at the sea. “And if you are faithful, you will not find me slacking at the gift giving.”
The next morning, as he prepared for his daily beating at the hands of Ivar, the blacksmith’s son Alf found him. “My father bade me bring you this.” He said. “He made it at the request of the queen.” And he handed Rolf and ax.
The handle was of smooth dark wood, bound with leather strips at the base, and oiled to a fine sheen. The edge was bearded and ground till the black iron gleamed silver. Rolf swung it twice, and it felt alive in his hands. The balance let each stroke flow into the next, and the weight of the head seemed to pull it into each vicious cut.
“A fine weapon.” Ivar growled at him. “Lets see if you can use it”.