Oath Bound Part 5: Oaths Undying

So it happened that Asa told of how she was courted by King Gudrod some three years before, and rejected his advances. She told how her father had denied Gudrod her hand in marriage and sent him home empty handed

“He sailed from Agder,” she said, “He took his ships, and left. And as we watched his ships sail away and vanish around the coast line, we thought that was the end of the matter. But it was not so.”

He came as a thief in the night, as an outlaw.” She said. “He burned our hall, he killed our servants, slaughtered our warriors as they woke.” She told of how he tore her from her father’s arms and laughed as his servants thrust their blades into Harald’s chest. “Thus Harald Herbrandsson, King of Agder, and my father was wrongfully and falsely slain by one who had promised friendship.” She told of how Gudrod had laid waste to Agder, and taken only two of her servants, Sigrun and Einir to be with her, and how he had torn Einir’s thumbs from his hands to ensure he could never wield a weapon or enter Valhalla.

“In that moment,” Lady Asa spoke to all those gathered round,”I swore before Freya and Thor, that I would slay the one who destroyed my family.” Jarl Orvik sighed heavily, but the Queen was not yet done. “I have broken no marriage oath, for the law says a man may not force an oath before a weapon, and Gudrod held his blade bare as he forced my oaths. They therefore have no power. I have not been faithless to a friend, for Gudrod was never a friend to me or mine. I have not murdered in cold blood, but have settled a blood debt, and kept my sacred oaths by which I bound myself. I have done no wrong.”

Her speech took most of the morning, and when it was done Jarl Orvik called for food to be prepared, and all broke away from before the judgment stones to eat.

Asa made her way to where Sigrun held her child under a great pine tree. The old lady crooned softly to the child, who stared with wide, blinking eyes at the cold sunlight dancing among the thick branches. Sending her to bring food, the queen took her child and settled against the tree. For a long while she was quiet while Rolf and Ivar stood by, watching the crowd mill about. “Thank you.” She smiled at last. “It is good to have you near me. Both of you.” The Ivarr nodded quietly, his eyes down cast.

“You seemed to do well lady,” Rolf offered.

“Ha.” She laughed quietly. “That was the easy part.” She looked at the people milling about as they waited for food. “Many of them may be on my side at the moment, but we will see what happens when they question me.”

“Lady,” Ivar said quietly.

“Yes?”

“You have spoken now, and next they will question you.” Ivar’s voice was low, as if he did not wish others to hear. “But afterwards they will ask for one to speak on King Gudrod’s behalf.”

“Even so.” Asa said evenly.

“If no one steps forward, I may be called. As his eldest thane here…”

“You will not be called.” Asa interrupted. “Either Orvik will speak himself, as the Jarl here and as Gudrod’s sworn vassal, or Gorlin will volunteer. If Orvik speaks today, then I have little chance of leaving these stones alive. If I can bear their questions till the evening, I have a good chance. If Orvik allows Gorlin to speak, then I have a better one.” She smiled at Ivar and Rolf. “Whatever happens, I must keep them questioning me till the sun sets. If my case has an evening to settle in their minds ere they hear counter arguments, they may well be disposed to see my side.”

Ivar nodded.

“And if they do not lady?” Rolf asked nervously. A blister seemed ready to form on his fingers from worrying at his ax haft.

“Then I shall be executed.” Asa said quietly. She glanced back at Rolf. “Do not fret. I did not bring you here to suffer in my pain.” She looked back to the crowd, and Rolf followed her gaze to where Gorlin and Igbert sat, gnawing on a loaf of bread.

“They will be trouble.” She muttered. “Einir warned me as much, though I may have underestimated the depths of their loyalty to Gudrod.” She took a deep breath. “I fear they may have foul intentions if the trial does not go the way they wish. Do you both keep them in your sight and if, when, I am acquitted, do not give them the opportunity they seek.”

Rolf pressed his worn fingers against the cool iron of his ax and nodded.

When all had eaten, the time came for the lady Asa to be questioned by the law readers as they sat before the stones. And many were their questions.

Why had she taken the steps she had, instead of charging him with murder at the yearly Thing, where all might be accused? Why had she not resisted in swearing her vows?

The questions were long and seemed endless, for it was the duty of the law readers not to convict the accused, but to see that every side had been examined and every matter had been considered.

When she began, the sun hung just overhead, and Rolf marked the shadow that the queen cast on the dark autumn grass. With each question the law givers asked the sun moved across the sky, and with each answer she gave her shadow grew longer. She never faltered, never flinched, but stood before them, straight in the sunlight, and gave answer to every question the old men offered.

At last, the law givers conferred among themselves and Jarl Orvik stepped forward to address the gathered crowd. “The day has been long, and all are weary. Before we return each to his own bed, there is one more matter that we would settle. Who will speak for the deceased?”

Rolf held his breath, and when the jarl opened his mouth to speak again he was sure of the worst, but that was not yet.

“The deceased’s wife cannot speak for him, as she is the accused.” Jarl Orvik said. “Are there any who will volunteer to speak for King Gudrod the Mighty?”

“I shall!” Gorlin stepped forward, his brother, as always, not far behind him. “I will speak for my King, the generous ring giver who never let his men go hungry, or held back his hand when the spoils were to be handed out.” He looked about to all the men gathered about, and glanced back to where Olaf stood with his arms crossed and head hung down as he watched.

“I will speak for our king,” Gorlin continued, “who never fled from foe or shrank from fight.”

“Especially one he started in the middle of the night.” Ivar said in answer, and a chuckle passed through the crowd.

“It is then settled.” Jarl Orvik said. “You may speak on the morrow, for it has grown late.” Rolf sighed in relief, and from where he stood it seemed to him that Asa did as well. “When the sun rises, we shall return to this matter.”

So ended the first day.

Jarl Orvik provided for Queen Asa a small house beside the great hall and, at the urging of several others, placed two guards there to stand watch. Ere long, lady Asa went to her bed and Rolf was left with Ivar and Sigrun by the fire.

“Will it really make such a difference?” Rolf asked as they watched the flames gnawing at the broken limbs. “Having a night pass after her speech?”

“When it gives every man’s wife a chance to give them their thoughts, yes.” Sigrun smiled. “And it does not hurt for Jarl Orvik to be reminded of his own daughter. He is not likely to set at nothing the way she was taken from her home and her family slaughtered.”

“Perhaps,” Ivar muttered. “Perhaps it will all work out wrong. Men do not like to fear their wives.”

“Then they should not marry them by kidnap and murder.” Sigrun smiled. She held Asa’s son in her arms, the small boy asleep on her shoulder. “The queen knows well what she is doing.” The old lady smiled at them both. “She has planned this since the day we landed in Geirstad. Often she has spoken with the wives of Jarl Orvik, never showing what was in her mind but seeking what was in theirs. Few favored Gudrod’s actions, and they will see that their husbands remember the slaughter that was visited on Agder.” She rose, cradling the child in her arms. “It is time he was in bed.” She said, I shall see you both in the morning.”

When she was gone, Ivar sighed heavily. “I’ve but one good eye, and the other is cloudy. What have Gorlin and Igbert been doing all day?”

“They’ve been at the trial.” Rolf was somewhat confused.

“Curses boy.” Ivar muttered. “A pity we’re all she’s got. We are guarding the queen. Never look at the one you’re guarding. Is she going to attack herself?”

“No,” Rolf looked down, and Ivar poked him hard in the shoulder with a stick.

“Head up and pay attention.” He snapped. “You’ve a strong arm and good head if you’d have a little confidence every once in awhile.” He sighed and poked at the ground with the stick. “They’ve been talking a lot. Not to the other men, but to each other. They’re confident that our queen will be executed. Gorlin isn’t smart enough to have something up his sleeve, but that means he’ll be all the more dangerous if he loses.”

“Why does he care so much?” Rolf asked. “Gudrod was less than kind to me, I imagine he was not more kind to the others? Or did the years sour him?”

Ivar sighed and stared into the fire. “I was with him in the beginning. When his father died and he gathered about him such men as he could trust, when he brought the jarls together. Some he befriended, some he tricked, and some he defeated. The little raids along our coast came to an end, and we had peace and wealth. It was no longer necessary for raiders to sail in search of food, so they stayed home and farmed. The land was farmed well, and crops grew. No more did we sweep down and carry off cattle and sheep, so our herds grew fat and plentiful.”

“Gudrod was a mighty warrior.” Ivar muttered. “But perhaps it all came too easy. When Sara, his first wife, died, he demanded  of Harald the hand of his daughter in marriage. When Harald refused, Gudrod was angered beyond all reason. Gorlin was with him then, he had come in from one of the renegade bands and rather than fight the king decided to join him.

When Gudrod determined to lead a night raid on Harald, it was Gorlin who showed the men the best way to darken their faces, and it was Gorlin who chose the time for the attack, the hours just after midnight, when sleep is deepest. Gudrod listened to him, not me, not any of his old counselors, because Gorlin told him what he wanted to hear.”

Ivar looked at Rolf out of his one eye, flickering in the firelight. “Gorlin is dangerous, and more so because he is a fool. He worries me.”

Rolf remembered Igbert’s words from that morning. They were confident that Asa would be executed. What would they do if she was not?

The next morning dawned slowly. A grey light hung over the clearing where Jarl Orvik’s hall sat as the sunlight trickled down through the thick fog that had rolled down out of the mountains and settled among the trees. But even so, ere the darkness had given way to daylight, the Queen stood at the judgment stones, and the law readers were there to meet her.

It was Gorlin who spoke then, a tall warrior he was and though the air was cold and damp, he wore no shirt. Only a long cloak hung from his shoulders. All about his chest were the scars of many wounds, some deep and long, others aged into only thin white lines barely seen. But it was not only scars that he wore. Gold and silver rings hung gleaming about his arms, arm rings and twisted gold that Gudrod had given him, and many were amazed to see so many on one man.

“But half of those came from from Agder.” Asa said quietly. Ivar nodded.

With a loud voice, Gorlin called on each man to remember the oaths he had sworn. He called on them to remember the deeds with which each had earned his own. “All these,” He cried to the crowd. “Were given to me by Gudrod the Hunter, Gudrod the Mighty! Many great deeds he did, many battles he won, and now he lies slain.” He turned and pointed at Asa with an arm trembling with rage. “Slain by the evil and treacherous cunning of that woman.”

For sometime he raved, calling upon the men there to think of their own lives, and the lives of their lords. Would they stand by, he asked, for a woman to murder her husband over every petty grievance? Would they stand by, he asked, and see set at naught the oaths each swore to defend ring-givers and hall-wardens?

“Will you let a man with a crown cast aside every law?” Asa asked when he paused for breath. “Even those he himself has made? Will you allow a king to take your daughter by force because he has more swords?” Her eyes fell on Jarl Orvik as she spoke.

“We have heard enough.” The Jarl said heavily. “It is a weighty thing to be called to judge the death of ones’ own king. May none here bear this burden again.” And with that the law givers took themselves behind the great stones and spoke amongst themselves for some time.

Rolf waited nervously, his fingers running over the smooth head of his ax. In front of him, Asa stood alone. The crowd about them filled the air with their clamor. The tree tops about them swayed ever so slightly, and a gentle breeze swept down from the cloud capped mountains. Rolf felt it on his face, like a cool kiss, and the fog began to move. Slowly it opened above them, and the golden sunlight filtered down into the woodland glade.

“It is a good omen.” Ivar growled next to him, and even as he spoke, the law readers came from behind the stones and raised their hands to speak.

“The case here rests upon three arguments.” Jarl Orvik spoke so that all could hear. “First; Was Queen Asa rightly married to King Gudrod or forced thereunto against her own will as well as that of her father? Second; What oath bound more firmly the queen, her oath to avenge her family, or her oath to be married to the King? And third; If she was wrongly married, and her family’s oath had precedent, then did she have any better action than the murder the King?

“We find that Queen Asa was wrongfully married against the will of herself and her father. Do any dispute this?” Gorlin and Igbert shouted loudly at this, but most voiced their agreement.

“We find also,” Jarl Orvik continued, “That since her marriage oath was sworn at sword point, that it is no true oath and she is not bound thereby over and against her oath to Freya and Thor. Do any dispute this?”

Again Gorlin and Igbert were the chief of few voices raised against this.

“At the last, we do not find any other alternative to her actions. Since her oppressor was the king himself, there were none to whom she could go and seek recompense or fair judgment. Were this not the case, she should have gone to her jarl, or her jarl’s wife. But given the special circumstances, we do not see what she could have done otherwise. Do any dispute this?”

Gorlin spat on the ground, and Igbert seemed somewhat stunned, but all others nodded in agreement, solemn and quiet.

“Then it is our judgement that the Lady Asa is guiltless before the law in this manner.” Jarl Orvik declared. “She is not declared outlaw, she is not to bear any punishment under the law for this crime.”

With that the trial was over.

Rolf breathed a deep sigh of relief and smiled at Ivar, but the old man paid him no heed. His eyes were fixed on Gorlin and Igbert staring darkly at Asa.

Her head hung upon her chest, her dark hair hiding her face. Yet her shoulders rose and fell as she breathed, in weariness or relief Rolf did not know.

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