All were weary, for few had slept since Vikandr had landed, and there had been many secret councils and hidden words in the dark hours after the law readers had left the judgement stones. Without asking anyone, Asa led her companions back to the small house where she had spent the previous night. But they were not the first ones there.
Olaf was waiting for them inside, patiently tending the fire pit in the center of the floor.
“Welcome, mother,” He said, not without sincerity, but not full of it either. “I see that your head remains attached.”
“What is it to you?” Sigrun asked, but Olaf only chuckled and pulled himself slowly to his feet.
“I may have spoken to a few here and there.” he grinned, “Several times we have spoken, you and I.” He fixed Asa with keen eyes. “Do you remember them?”
“Well and clearly.” She said. “My words were chosen with care, then as always. I hoped that you would remember them as clearly and know that I have little wish to rule in Geirstad, or to sit in the throne of Gudrod. It is hateful to me.”
“The man was not well loved by many.” Olaf answered. “And I had less affection for him than most.” He looked at her in silence for a moment, seeming to gather himself. In that moment, Rolf felt he was watching a boy become a man. The childishness of his eyes melted, replaced by boldness and cunning.
“Then you will not challenge me for the crown?” Olaf asked quietly.
“I will not.” Asa answered. “On one condition.”
Olaf stiffened, and Rolf noted his fingers twitch toward his knife. “And that is?”
“You return to me the land of my birth. I will rule Agder. It is mine.”
Olaf’s fingers danced along the hilt of the bone knife that hung at his side. “You may rule it, but a small payment each year, a gesture of good will, you will send me at harvest time.”
“No.” Asa’s voice was hard. “Much of Agder’s gold now lies in Gudrod’s horde, or about the arms of the men who slew my family. I do not ask for it back, but neither shall you receive one kernel of wheat more from me or mine in payment, tribute, tax, or blackmail.”
“Then you must speak for me to the Jarls.” Olaf said. “There are some who will set weight by your words, and it would ease my path.”
“If you give to me Agder, from its old borders to the sea, then I shall do all that you ask.” Asa replied. Olaf thought for a moment, his leather boots scraping back and forth on the floor.
At last he straightened and threw out his hand toward the queen. “Done then.”
“Done.” Asa replied. “And may there be peace and good will between our houses.”
Olaf grinned. “No longer is my brother hateful to me, mayhap we shall be friends in years to come.”
“It would make me happy.” Asa smiled. “I thank you for your words.”
“You shall make a fine king,” Ivar told him as he turned toward the door, “if you learn from your father’s mistakes.”
So Olaf the Wild parted from Asa Haraldsdottir in peace.
They sat down, to warm themselves by the fire, but they had hardly done so when Jarl Orvik arrived and knocked on the door as he entered.
“Welcome, Jarl Orvik.” Asa greeted him.
“You cannot stay here.” He sighed. “You have been found guiltless, and for that I am happy, but you cannot remain here in my lands.”
“Would you have us leave with but a few hours of sunlight?” The queen asked. “Must we gather our things this moment?”
“No, not today.” Orvik answered. “But you must leave at morning tide tomorrow. I will send you back to Geirstad in a ship. But I tell you this, you cannot remain queen. There are too many old Jarls and warriors, men who swore oaths of loyalty to Gudrod and they will not allow his murder to sit in his throne no matter what the law readers of Stiflusund say.”
“I will not remain the queen in Geirstad.” Asa assured him, and he looked relieved.
“You will not?”
“No, Olaf will sit in Gudrod’s throne until the Thing may crown him properly.” Asa continued. “If your ship might take me as far as Agder only, I would be most grateful.”
“You will return to Agder then.” Orvik nodded thoughtfully. “And Olaf will sit on the throne.” He looked at Asa admiringly. “You thought this very well through, did you not?”
Asa was silent, and Orvik shook his head. “Never, no matter the promise, will I cross Asa Haraldsdottir. A pity about the throne. You would have made a good queen.”
“Yes.” Asa smiled. “I shall. I will rebuild Agder, and make there a throne for my son to sit in like his grandfather.”
They slept deep that night. Ivar sat beside the door as the moon rose over Stiflsund and the others slept, preparing for the voyage the next morning. But not all of them would sail from that place.
Rolf stirred in the night, thinking he heard the footsteps of Ivar come to wake him to watch. But the old man did not touch his shoulder or rouse him in anyway. But still he heard footsteps.
Slowly he turned in his blankets on the floor to look across the house. A dark shape passed silent through the moon-lit door, like a shadow on the wind it moved toward the great furs that hung across the room where the Lady Asa slept.
Rolf’s throat was suddenly dry, and his legs it seemed would not work. His finger groped through his blanket till they rested on his ax.
The shadow paused by the curtain, and the moonlight glinted off a blade in his hand.
Rolf blinked for a moment, then gently pulled the blankets back and rose to his knees. A silent hand was placed on the curtain, and slowly drew it aside. He was on his feet now, and inching toward the figure, his hands gripping the ax as Ivar had taught him. Beads of sweat were forming on his forehead as he walked forward. It was not Ivar, of that he was sure. Closer now, he could see the great mane of hair and the hulking form of Gorlin, sneaking toward the queen.
“Halt!” He shouted, and the sound of his voice startled even him.
Gorlin jumped and whirled around, his short bladed seax dripping blood. He cursed and lunged toward Rolf, but he was too far, and the blade caught naught but air as Rolf ducked to one side. His ax swung, and landed with a sickening crunch. Gorlin’s eyes bulged, and there were a few little clatters as teeth fell to the floor. Then he crumbled to the floor, dragging Rolf’s ax with him still lodged in his head.
Rolf looked up to see Asa sitting upright in her bed. “My lady…” He stammered and looked down at the body before him.
“Who is it?” She asked.
“Gorlin.” He stared down at the body at his feet. When he looked up, Asa had arisen and pulled a cloak about her.
“Call the guards.” She said. “But be ready to fight. If he was sent by Orvik…” Her voice trailed off. “Call the guards, and rouse Ivar.”
Rolf nodded and turned. Ivar’s bed was empty, he had been at the door. Rolf wheeled, bringing up his ax swiftly. Ivar had been sword to Gudrod after all, had he let Gorlin in?
He had not.
Ivar was slumped against the wooden walls of the house, his face bloodied and bruised where Gorlin had pressed him against the logs as he struggled. A long thin line wrapped about his neck, and his lifeblood pooled into the ground where he lay.
Rolf starred into the darkness, his breath coming slow as he looked about. Higher on the hill, torch light flickered around the thick pillars of Jarl Orvik’s hall.
The guards came,and the bodies of Gorlin and Ivar were taken. Rolf watched as Ivar was wrapped in his cloak, the dark folds were folded over the familiar one-eyed face, and he was gone.
“I owe you my thanks.” Asa said quietly.
Rolf turned to find her standing beside him in the doorway, watching the torches fade as the bodies of the dead were carried away.
“The two of you alone among all the warriors to swore to protect me, you alone have stood by me.” Her voice seemed for a moment to falter. “We will keep watch together, the rest of this night.” Rolf shut and barred the door. Behind him, Asa tossed a few of the smaller twigs on the fire which had burned low, and they gathered about it. Asa, Rolf, and Sigrun warmed their hands over the flame and were silent.
The crackling and popping of the fire was the only sound, save for when the child, Asa’s son, turned in his bed.
“We will go to Agder?” Rolf asked after some time.
“We will.” Sigrun answered as Asa nodded.
“I have not seen it.”
“You shall.” Sigrun smiled, “though,” and her smile faultered. “We have not seen it since that night.”
“When Gudrod came?”
“I am glad I killed him.” Asa said. “But poor Einir.” her shoulders sagged. “And Ivar…” With a sigh and a shaking voice she looked at Sigrun. “Perhaps I should not return to Agder. Death follows close on my heels, and strikes any who draw close to me.”
Rolf felt helpless as Sigrun stood and wrapped her arms around the queen. What would Ivar have done? He always seemed to know the right thing to say, to do.
“Einir and Ivar are drinking in Valhalla.” He said quietly. Sigrun paused, and Asa looked up from the fire to stare in his face. “A cripple and an old man, both died in battle, a weapon in their hands, for you. They have kept their oaths to you, and you to them. A lord may do nothing more.”
“Thank you.” With a small smile, Asa rose. “I am tired. Forgive me, but I must sleep.”
“Of course my lady.” Sigrun assured her. “Rolf and I will keep watch together. Go! To bed with you.”
With a quick laugh, Asa stepped behind curtain, and Sigrun sat down beside Rolf.
“What will it be like?” He asked. “Agder I mean.”
Sigrun shook her head. “I do not know. I have heard that they have rebuilt but little of it. A thane, Torig, was sent by Gudrod to rule it after he slew my lady’s father and brothers.” Sigrun stretched her hands toward the fire. “It is the final step in her plan. It would have been difficult with only two, but with only you…” Her voice trailed off.
“What do you mean?” Rolf looked up. With Asa acquitted by the lawgivers, he had thought their troubles might be over.
“She will have to convince them to let her again rule in Agder. Olaf will be too busy wrapping up his own rule to come and help. Torig will not simply leave of his own free will.” She sighed. “When last Agder saw her, she was a young girl. Her father and brothers were the rulers and leaders. She must convince the men of Agder that she will be a better lord than Torig. Whatever hatred they may have for Gudrod, it was Harald who brought fire and death upon them in the dead of night. However Torig may be disliked, he has given out gold to the right men, and bound them to himself with many oaths.”
The fire crackled before them, and Rolf placed another small log on the growing pile of embers. “I take it the queen has a plan?”
At that, Sigrun smiled into the fire. “You have learned.” She smiled. “Queen Asa always has a plan.”