Prologue

A biting wind swept over the low hills, howling and moaning as it picked its way through the trees, running before a northern storm that swept the lands behind it. On a small track, barely more than a trail, a lonely figure pulled a ragged deerskin about his shoulders. It was still damp from the rain of the previous day, but it kept the wind from his neck, and he shivered a little less when the wind was not biting at his back.
Rolf was a wanderer, a vagabond with no lord, no place to call home. He was not an old man and was just beginning to feel his full strength, or he would have if food had not been so scarce. His eyes swept the trees and high grass as he walked, looking for the movement that would betray the presence of a rabbit or squirrel. Only the wind, however, moved the damp weeds and dripping branches. The woodland creatures were gone, nestled deep in their dry burrows or curled up in the trees against the oncoming storm.
For months now Rolf had wandered Scandanavia, seeking a jarl who would take him in. Several had allowed him to stay, promising him he would be repaid for his service. They had put him to work in the fields, tending the grain that they struggled to pull from the earth. It was long, backbreaking work with little profit, and when the work was done, he had been rewarded with only a few coins or arrows and told to make his way elsewhere. Food was hard to come by in the north and extra mouths were unwelcome to jarls struggling to feed those who were sworn to them.
But the southern kings were not so poor. To the south lay Geirstad, and the hall of Gudrod the Hunter. He had defeated several of his neighbors, and was now the wealthiest ruler Rolf knew of.
As the grey light began to fade, Rolf made up his mind. He would not ask for work, or for a bed in the king’s hall. He would ask to swear the loyalty oath.
A few drops of rain began to fall. It was ice cold on his hands, and one drop slipped over his ear an down his neck. If Gudrod would grant it, the loyalty oath would make him a member of Gudrod’s house, no mere servant who could be turned out into the cold. If…
Gudrod was sure to accept him, Rolf reasoned. A wealthy king powerful as Gudrod was surely looking for warriors to grow his army. But a small voice whispered to him that he was not a warrior, he had never stood in the shield wall, never fought in a battle.
“I can learn.” He muttered to himself.
The raindrops fell faster now filling the evening with the sound of their pitter patter on the trees. Rolf pulled the deerskin up over his head as he trudged on. With each step the trail grew muddier and soon the skins around his boots were soaked through.
The evening drew into night as he followed the trail up and down the low hills, through the forest as the rain continued its steady fall. When the last light began to fade, he found a tree with thick full branches. Drawing his short knife, he cut several thick boughs from nearby trees and set them up as best he could under it, blocking some of the rain and most of the wind.
He was close to Geirstad he reckoned, less than a day he hoped. He curled up as close as he could against the cold, his head resting on the cold earth. As the night fell, there was nothing to distract him from the cold pit in his stomach. Whether it was hunger or doubt, he could not tell.

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