“I ordered him to kill Gudrod when we grounded the boat.” The Queen told us calmly.
“You ordered your servant to kill your husband, the king?” Ivar asked.
“I ordered my servant, my sworn thane, to kill the man who murdered my family, destroyed my home, and would have raised my son.” Asa replied. “I will not allow it.”
“But” Rolf asked quietly. “What happens in the morning?”
“They will realize it was Einar who killed him.” Asa answered. “I will acknowledge it, and demand a trial. You will stand by me Rolf, and Ivar, I would take it as an honor if you would as well.”
The old man looked up in the darkness. A tremor went through his white hair as he breathed deeply. “I will my lady.” He said. “But how will this trial go? Every jarl will see you killed that they may stake their claim to the late King’s throne. Olaf will…”
“Olaf will stand by me.” Asa interrupted. “Come now Ivar, you have known me nearly a year, did you think I would come to this wholly unprepared?”
“Who else knew of this?”
“None knew save Einir and myself” she answered. “There is an understanding with Olaf that I do not wish to see him replaced as Gudrod’s heir. Jarl Orvik and his wife had little reason to love Gudrod, and few of his jarls did either.”
“Love him or not, they will not turn a blind eye to his murder.” Ivar pulled at his beard. Rolf sat still on the ground, wondering just what all this might mean. If they did decide to execute his queen, would he be called to fight to defend her? Was he supposed to stand idly by while his oath-lord was killed?
“They will not” Lady Asa acknowledged. “But many were not pleased in how he took me to wife, and I shall use that. Jarl Orik’s daughter is nearly of age, and Jarl Havar’s daughter has received suitors already. I do not think they will support the right of a dead king to carry off by force any woman from among our people.”
Rolf thought Ivar’s beard might be about to pulled out. The old man stood hunched over in the middle of the tent, pondering. “I will stand with you lady.” He said at last. “Whatever good it may do.”
“I do not ask you to stand against the law.” The queen replied. “Whatever is decided in a trial will be the verdict, and we shall abide by it, but I think we win any challenge. I worry though that some of Gudrod’s thanes may not be so forgiving. In the morning they may wish to kill me.”
She looked from Ivar to Rolf, her eyes glinting in the darkness. “I would have you see me safe to Jarl Orik. Watch the others, and see that I come to the Jarl safely.”
“We will.” Ivar answered.
“That is not all. When I am brought before the court, you must guard me.” She laid her son down. “If all goes well, I will leave and return to Agder with my child, and Olaf will remain here.” She wrapped the boy in furs against the night’s chill breeze, and turned back to them. “Stand by me, and you will not find me ungenerous. Ivar, I have kept you in the house, given you work, a place, and importance when my husband would have thrown you out is it not so?”
“It is lady.” The old man replied heavily.
“And Rolf, have I not given you a weapon worthy of a warrior? Have I not seen that you were trained and treated as a thane when others mocked you?”
“Yes.” Rolf struggled to find his voice after being silent for so long. “Yes lady.”
“If I have done all this ere you have done aught for me, how much more shall I do for you when you have stood by me in my hour of need? Will you honor your oath Rolf, and Ivar, will you stand by a friend? Or are the odds too great?”
“I will fill my oath.” Rolf answered quickly.
“I will stand for you lady.” Ivar answered “Though I fear this will not be an easy doing.”
“I have succeeded so far.” Asa replied, and Rolf heard her smile. “I am not so short of reach as many seem to think. Many messages have traveled across these seas in the past year, and not all of them in Gudrod’s knowing. Go, take watches for the tent, and we will see what the morning will bring.”
Outside Rolf could hear the sea rolling softly onto the beach, and, further out, the sound of it breaking upon the rocks down the coast line and on the small, rocky islands they had passed on their way. The stars were out overhead, the same stars that he had glimpsed through storm clouds to find his way to Gudrod’s hall.
“I’ll take first watch.” Ivar said. “Get your rest. You’ll need it come morning.”
It was a bright, cold morning. From the staggering walks and squinted eyes of many of the crew as they woke, Rolf guessed that the mead had only begun to wear off. A black sail had been hung over the body of Gudrod and his murderer, and, Rolf thought of Einir.
Listlessly he shuffled about in the sand, wondering what had driven Einir to throw away his life. Had he volunteered to kill Gudrod, or had Asa asked it of him? How long had she planned this? Would she ask something similar of him?
From one of the scattered piles of blankets on the shore, Olaf rose and looked about. His eyes met Rolf’s and a half smile flickered across his face as he turned to his kit. The young man donned his armor as Rolf watched, and finished by belting on a sliver hilted sword. With another glance at Rolf, Olaf began moving about the camp waking those who were not already about, and ordering fires to be lit and food to be prepared.
The sun had not yet cleared the eastern edge of the sea when Queen Asa stepped from her tent. She wore a red dress, and her black hair was bound with thin strips of dark leather. She wore no weapon, but the lady called to herself Rolf and Ivar, the grizzled warrior on her right and the young thane on her left.
Little was said as they ate. A wariness hung over the camp, and few words broke the quiet crackle of the fires amid the washing of the sea.
When food had been eaten and there was naught else to do, Gorlin drew back the black sail. “We must prepare a burial for the king.”
“We will send to Jarl Orvik.” Asa declared. “He will aid us in seeing the king is buried well.”
“What?” Gorlin asked as they all drew near to the body. “Have we learned in the night that he was not the one who sent the assasin?”
“He could not have.” Olaf replied. “It is Einir.”
“May Wodin have him hunted through the halls of Hel” Gorlin swore. “To raise a hand against the king who spared his life.”
“And who tore his hands bone from bone.” Queen Asa said. “We will go to Jarl Orvik, as Olaf has said, and see that the king is given a burial as befits him.”
Gorlin looked up from his king and stared at the lady. “Einir was a quiet man.” He said. “And how is it that he managed to grasp a spear in his hands?”
“He used leather strips.” Olaf grabbed two of the men who stood nearby and ordered them to make a stretcher. “He tied his hands to the spear, doubtless using his teeth.” He spoke quickly, but Rolf thought he caught Olaf glance with narrowed eyes at Asa, as if searching her.
“Olaf has spoken.” Queen Asa reiterated, “We shall make for Jarl Orvik’s hall. The body of the king we will bring with us. The body of his killer we will bury here.”
The journey through the woods was short. Rolf had little time to look at the great trees that overshadowed the narrow trail before they met several of Jarl Ovrik’s servants and laborers in their farms, and saw the smoke rising through the tree tops before them.
The gray clouds of coming rain hung in the sky, mingling with the smoke that rose from the dark stone chimney as they approached the hall. The long wooden beams were darkened with weather and the mud that had been used to plug the chinks between the logs. A warm light shone from the open doors behind Jarl Orvik and his family as they stood to greet the travelers. The Jarl stood quiet with his wife and daughter, a young girl almost of age to be married as the party approached.
Olaf led them, followed closely by Gorlin and Igbert, who spoke much to each other in low voices as they walked. Rolf’s hands worried at the haft of his ax as he and Ivar flanked the queen, while Sigrun followed close behind with Asa’s son.
“Welcome my friends.” Jarl Orvik and his wife came down the steps as they drew near, his arms outstretched. “We are sorry that you come with such tidings as have reached out ears.” His eyes flicked to the back, where Gudrod’s body was being carried. “It is true then?”
“The king is dead.” Olaf said. “At the hand of one of his slaves.”
“Though we believe that some others may have had a hand in it.” Gorlin inserted.
“Be silent.” Asa stepped forward, her hand lightly pressing Gorlin aside as Rolf and Ivar moved close behind her. “It is not fitting that a thane should speak before his queen.” She stood before Jarl Orik straight, and though she was not as tall as he, she did not flinch, nor was there any tremor or sign of fear in her voice.
“I can speak well enough, young though I am, and taken from my home before my time.” Her eyes glanced to the Jarl’s daughter at the top of the steps.
“The law permits one who has a hand in murder to pass as many as two houses before they report their deed, if they fear that the friends of the one they killed live in them, is it not so jarl?”
“It is.” Jarl Orvik said slowly, and the blood seemed to leave his face as he stared fixed at the queen before him.
“Then I say to you, Jarl Orvik” The queen looked about at the gathering of the Jarl’s men and women who had by now come to stand about them. “Einir, my sworn man, killed Gudrod, called the Hunter, on my orders, though he was not displeased with the task.”
A murmur passed through the crowed, and Rolf tightened his hand on his ax. Gorlin looked surprised, and Rolf thought that even if he had suspected as much, he had not expected such a confession. Then a look of anger came over his face and he moved to step toward the queen, but he did not move far. Rolf suddenly found himself in between them, his ax held before him at the ready, and it seemed to him that his feet were in lead, and his legs shook, but his arms were steady. His eyes watched Gorlin’s hands as they slowed, then moved away from his sword.
“ I request a trial before the stones and the law men.” Asa said. “I ordered the death of Gudrod, and before the law I was justified. I have broken no sacred oath, I have kept faith with my father, and I have righted a wrong that was done to me. This I will prove before the stones of judgment and the readers of the law.”
So it was that Queen Asa Haraldsdottir was tried before the hall of Jarl Orvik. Seated before the three judgment stones were three men to preserve the law. Jarl Orvik, and two others chosen by lots from the old men of the village. None of them wore any ring or silver, each wrapped only in the dark robes of the law readers.
All about them were gathered the men of the village, and those of Gudrod’s party who had sailed in Vikandr to these shores. “Your queen will die soon.” Igbert whispered to Rolf. “And when she is beheaded for murder, who will protect you then, piglet?”
Then came queen Asa, clad in a red dress, clasped about with a black belt. Her black hair gleamed as it hung about her shoulders, and all there gazed on her in wonder. Jarl Orvik called the assembly to order and, after the oaths had been sworn, ordered the queen to tell her tale.