When the last of the harvest had been gathered in, a great feast was held in Gudrod’s hall, and there was much drinking and happiness for the end of the work. Amid the drinking, Gudrod announced that he would take with him some members of his household and visit his jarls.
“He intends to collect his due of their gatherings.” Enir said to Rolf as they picked the meat from the chicken bones. “And perhaps get some hunting in while he is about.” He used his first two fingers awkwardly to pull at the meat awkwardly, missing his thumbs. He looked up to where Asa sat beside her husband at the table above them, and his gaze lingered for a moment.
Rolf looked up as well, just in time to catch a slight nod from the queen. Enir took a deep breath as he looked back at the bones before him. He starred quietly at them for a moment, until Rolf shook him.
“What’s the matter with you?”
“Nothing,” Enir said, suddenly laughing. “I miss my thumbs when I shouldn’t, and feel no need of them when I should.”
Rolf offered to help, Enir waved him away. “I can do this for myself a little longer.”
About the hall, the drinking continued, and the singing began. A half verse here, a few lines there as the mead began to run thick in the blood.
Gudrod’s face was bright red under his black beard as he reclined into his chair, and fire burned bright in the center of the hall, casting it’s warm light on the dark oak beams and gleaming off the silver arm rings and bronze brooches that filled the hall.
“Father.” A voice cut through the clamor, and Olaf stood from the end of the table where he had been sitting. “I would ask, will you have me remain here, to guard your hall while you are away? Or will I accompany you and walk behind you while you visit the jarls who are oath sworn to you?”
The clamor died down, and Gudrod starred at his son, as if trying to remember who he was.
“And why would I leave you to guard my hall” he asked. “From who could you guard it? You who are but a child ungrown. Hald will guard my hall, and see that it’s fire does not go out.”
“So I shall sail then with you.” Olaf asked carelessly. “Or will you have me sit here and eat my fill while other men row you from shore to shore?”
“You will do as I command.” Gudrod roared.
The hall was silent, all eyes on the drunken king and the young man who stood at his table. For a moment, only Gudrod moved, his beard rising and falling as he drew deep breaths, feeding the bellows of his anger.
With a half hidden smile that escaped Gudrod’s mead-blurred eyes, Olaf bowed his head. “I am but a servant of the king, and seek only to know what he wishes.”
“You’ll row.” Gudrod barked. “You’ll row from here to Stiflusund if I say.”
“As the king commands.” Olaf replied, and took his seat.
Slowly the hall filled with the sound of talk and laughter, and all returned to their food.
“He does not seem to fear his father.” Rolf looked at Olaf, who sat chuckling with a few companions as he ate.
Enir looked up. “He does not. Though perhaps he should have.” He sighed. “They say he has no fear, but is as cunning as our lady. He has learned much from her in the year he has known her.”
“Does he not hate her? Her son has displaced him and taken what might well have been his throne.”
“I doubt he has much love for her.” Enir shrugged. “But neither he nor she have much love for Gudrod, and both fear him more than each other.” He dug his fingers into his palms as he glanced about the hall. His eyes fixed on Igbert, who sat laughing with his brother Gorlin. “That one is trouble.” He muttered to Rolf. “Do not forget my words in the days to come, that one is trouble.”
Rolf wondered what Einir might mean, but when they cast off from the pier and dug their oars into the dark water, Igbert stood among the crowd on the shore. He waved at his brother, and Rolf smiled a little as he rowed, there would be a few days without Igbert at least.
Queen Asa stood with her husband on the foredeck, the sea breeze blowing at her braided hair and picking at the thick fur cloak she wore. Beside her, Sigrun held their son, Harald, nearly a year old now.
Rowing, Rolf decided shortly, was a pain. Feeling the water pull at his oar and bend to his will was thrilling at first, but the joy quickly faded as he pulled, pulled, pulled and pulled again, over and over. The monotony bored him and left his mind free to think about where he was, an untried boy sworn to a young slip of a queen.
For a year, he thought, he was safe. But after that? Serving the queen would do only so much, only a few queens had lead their warriors to battle, and none with husbands as strong and mighty as Gudrod. The king would have little need for him.
As the shore grew distant behind them and the breeze strengthened into a rippling wind, Gorlin blew his horn. “Bank oars and raise sail!” he shouted. Rolf grinned as he pulled his oar in and heard the great sail being dropped down and tied in place. The long ship shuddered slightly as the wind caught it, and Rolf felt the blanks beneath his feet strain as the whole ship pulled into the wind.
Then, she was off.
Gliding along the sea, slicing through the waves, Vikandr ran with a gleeful rush before the wind. Everyone relaxed as the last oars were tied down, and someone broke open a cask of mead that was quickly emptied. With a little laugh, Rolf stood up and felt the wind in his face and under his arms.
He turned to Einir, who sat against the side of the ship, staring silently at his seat. “Is the sea always like this?” Rolf nudged him.
Einir looked up briefly. “Sometimes.” But there was something in his voice that made Rolf pause.
“What do you mean?”
With a resigned sigh Einir pulled himself to his feet, his four fingers clutching at side of the ship. He looked out over the water as the wind picked at his hair. “Sometimes the sea is like this.” He said. “Alive and cheerful. And there is nothing like it. Nothing so exciting and peaceful, nothing so thrilling and joyful. Nothing.”
Behind them, Gudrod turned from his wife and called for a horn of mead.
“Other times,” Einir glanced at the black bearded king and turned back to the dark water. “Other times, Jormungandr stirs, and the sea is moved. Thor works his hammer, and the Allfather summons the storms. Then we ride in peril upon the waves, and every man on board does battle with the sea as surely as if he was in the shield wall, nay even more. Only the most skilled sea-lords may bring you to safety then.”
Rolf looked at him, suddenly unsure of himself. “You had a ship?” he asked “before…”
“Yes.” Einir said quietly. “She was a beautiful thing. Not as beautiful as the queen, but she was mine, and with her I thought to win a treasure worthy of a jarl.” He heaved a slow, broken sigh and looked away. Awkwardly Rolf reached out, a little unsure of what to do.
“Even so.” Einir chuckled suddenly. “It is good to be at sea one last time.” With that he rose up and walked to where his gear was stowed in the bow, picking his way through the others who were deep into the mead.
“Watch your step cripple!” Gorlin slurred, and Igbert kicked at him as he went past.
The wind blew well, and for that Rolf was thankful. Over two days they set only twice to the oars and even then only for a short while. Rolf found himself enjoying the trip, for after the first day the others drank often and long, and Igbert was often too drunk to toss even the most unimaginative insults.
For his part, Rolf drank little. Einir spent little time talking to him staring often into the sea when he did not sit silently near Asa. The queen only once urged Rolf to enjoy himself and drink with the others, but for the most part she seemed absorbed in thought. Rolf drank a little mead, but he did not belong among Gudrod’s thanes. He was not sworn to the Jarl, and many of them saw him as little more than a curiosity, a beardless youngling too weak to swear even to a man. Only old Ivar One-eye spoke often to him.
“There’s an ache in my bones.” He grumbled to Rolf while the sweet smell of mead mingled with the salt breeze. “Every voyage has a storm. I’ve sailed on many raids boy, and when the sea is calm, the landing is rough. Thor does not deny any man a chance to prove himself.” He scowled at the sky, touched only by the faintest clouds.
Late in the evening, as the moon hung heavy over the dark mountains, Gorlin called out that Stiflusund was not far off. “The wind will take us near enough, but ere the moon rises much higher we will need to set to the oars.” A drunken cheer answered this announcement, and Gudrod hauled himself unsteadily to his feet, leaning up against the mast.
Rolf could see his dark form against the black blue sky, swaying just out of sync with the boat. “We’ll make land and anchor into the shore. Then,” He swayed and nearly fell. “We’ll sleep. Hall in morning.” He finished quickly and sat back down. A broken cheer went up but everyone was so drunk that it had little spirit, drifting across the quiet water with only a few disdainful birds to hear.
“Are you ready to land?” Rolf looked up to see the queen standing beside him.
“Yes lady.” He moved quickly to his feet. “The sea is wonderful, but I am ready to be again on dry ground.”
She smiled slightly, “That’s not what I meant. You have your gear with you? Not scattered about the ship?”
“And your ax, I trust it is not dulled by Ivar’s practices?”
“Good.” She looked into the darkening night sky, the blue slowly bleeding out of it. “I trust Ivar has given to you some skill in it?”
“Some lady.” Rolf glanced down to where the weapon lay, wrapped in his bundle of clothes.
“Ivar? Is this true?”
“Fair enough lady.” Ivar rose stiffly. “In time he may have what some call skill. But he progresses.”
“I do not ask for a teacher’s begrudging compliments.” She looked a queen, Rolf thought, not some young girl stolen from her home. “I ask for a warrior’s estimation. Is he ready to fight or not?”
Ivar’s scowl faded, and he glanced at the water before looking back at Asa. “Forgive me lady. He is fair, no champion, but neither has he wasted his time. I would fight beside him, and not fear him to break the wall. He will make a good warrior in time.”
“We may not have the time.” She sighed.
“Do you expect trouble in Stiflusund?” Ivar asked quietly.
Asa was silent for a moment, the sea wind plucking at her hair. “We will see.” Then she smiled quickly. “There are many beasts about the shore, and I do not feel confident in the company of these drunken warriors. Ivar and Rolf, do me the favor of staying close beside me. I would feel much safer in your presence.”
“Of course my lady.” Ivar answered.
Most of the crew was stumbling drunk, so the row into the shore was a slowly clumsy business. Clouds began to roll in from the sea, and the moonlight became fitful and thin so that Rolf could barely see Ivar’s grey hair as he rowed in front of him. The splashing of our oars mingled with the lapping of the water on the beach until Gorlin gave the call to pull in oars so we could glide into the shore.
He gave the command too late though and we slid quickly into the sand, Vikandr grinding to an abrupt halt that threw us all forward. Laughter filled the air mingled with curses as the drunken men tried to pull themselves to their feet. Gudrod laughed loudest of all, apparently he had fallen on top of Igbert and found the whole thing very amusing.
Slowly we began to unload the ship, most of the men content to fall over the side into the sand.
“Igbert!” Gorlin called to his brother, “Prepare the tent for the king.” Igbert rose, grumbling from where he laid in the hull and crawled across the now slanting deck, searching for the bound tent in the darkness
Rolf gathered his gear and stood close beside the queen, who was with her maid Sigrun. Only a few things she had with her, and between Sigrun and Rolf they were quickly unloaded. Ivar and Rolf together helped Asa out of the boat, the queen carrying her son as she descended onto the sand.
As they made their way to where the tent was being set up in the darkness, there was a sharp cry.
In the darkness, Rolf heard the snick of steel sliding through leather, and the gasp as the breath was driven out of a man. Whoever it was cried out again in drunken pain. From the boat, Gorlin leapt to the sand, the moonlight glinting briefly off his ax.
“What’s going on!” he shouted over the rabble.
Rolf turned to see, but Queen Asa grabbed him by the arm. “Stay with me.” She commanded. Awkwardly Rolf drew his ax free and held it in his right hand, wondering as he did so how he should distinguish friend from foe in the darkness.
Again Rolf heard the steel cutting, and this time he saw the moon gleaming off polished wood and wet steel as the spear was thrust again into a dark figure struggling to rise from the ground. Above him, a second figure wielded the spear, and drew it back again. “For my father, for my brothers, and for King Harald.” The figure hissed, and drove the spear home again. The figure writhed in choking silence on the sand as his killer leaned into the spear. But his victory was short lived.
On hearing the name ‘Harald’, Gorlin lunged forward, pushing through the confusion and heaved his ax. It swung through the air and bounced off the murderer with sickening thud. Hardly had it fell to the sand before Gorlin had bounded forward to catch it up and in one movement brought it down on the murder’s head.
“It is the King!” Gorlin screamed. “The King is hurt! Bring light! Bring fire!”
The lady Asa stiffened, and she turned to Rolf in an instant. “Take him.” She said, and thrust her child into his arms. “Keep him safe, no matter what. Take him to the tent for now.” He stood there baffled for a moment, but she gave him a short push, and ordering Ivar to accompany her, moved toward where the king lay.
Rolf had never held a child before. He squirmed in my arms and Rolf realized in a moment that he didn’t know the child’s name. Glancing at lady Asa as she made her way across the beach, Rolf took him into the tent. He was tired, and laid his head on the young man’s shoulder as Rolf ducked through the door way and sat down on the furs that had been laid down. Shouting and an argument drifted through the darkness, but Rolf could make out very little.
If Gudrod was dead, Rolf suddenly wondered, what would that mean for him? Deep inside him his stomach turned. Would he be turned out again by whatever lord took Gudrod’s throne?
A warm light flickered on the tent, and he peered through the opening to see Ivar bearing a torch before Lady Asa as she walked. Everyone seemed to be dispersing, and Rolf wondered what had happened.
“I will see that guards are posted properly.” Ivar was saying. “I doubt any of the others are sober enough to keep a good watch.”
“Very well.” Asa answered as she came into the tent. She sat down and took her son from my arms. “But it does not matter.”
Ivar looked confused, “But my lady, if Jarl Orvik is seeking to kill King Gudrod he will doubtless…”
“Jarl Orvik had nothing to do with this.” Lady Asa said quietly. “They cannot tell in the dark or by fight light because Gorlin split his head open. But in the morning they will recognize the murderer.” She looked Ivar in the eye. “It was Einir, and he acted on my orders.”