Tag: dream logic

2.24 – Arring’s Vald

The platform rose eight feet in the air once the woodcutters had it built, and as sturdy as wood could make it. If Arring judged aright, there would be exactly enough room between the platform and the log for him to put his back into it.

While the woodcutters worked at moving the split out of the way, Arring took the time to plan his throw and allowed himself the luxury of a warm-up. That he could do it was never in doubt, but even for him it would be a difficult lift. Off in the distance, he thought he heard the bleating of goats and the whisper of pipes on the wind. Too far away to be in danger.

With a drawn-out crack the smaller log separated from its twin. The sound of it striking the ramp they’d built was like a giant’s drum, and it rumbled like thunder as it tumbled unevenly down toward the camp.

“Ready the sling!” Arring’s voice boomed nearly as loudly as the tree had. A flurry of movement off to the side revealed several of the woodcutters hauling on the end of a truly massive piece of canvas, easily enough for two sails. How they’d come by it, he could only begin to guess.

Arring turned his attention back to the platform ahead of him. Up he went, hand over hand on the ladder they’d brought up from camp, until his feet were planted firmly on the cross-tied beams.

A woodcutter’s voice echoed through the forest. “Sling secured!”

Arring rubbed his palms together and stepped up to the massive trunk, bending his knees as he pressed shoulder and palms against the rough bark of the log. He shuffled his feet a little, feeling out a place where he thought his boots unlikely to slip.

A goat bleated, far closer than Arring was comfortable with. He glanced down toward the road and the pasture wall but saw nothing from under the log.

Breath filled his lungs and he tensed his thighs, pushing. It did not want to move, but he felt the tell-tale shifting that gave away how it would.

He shifted, and with a groan the giant log began to rise off of the tree it had stuck in.

“Hey! Be careful!” The overseer’s voice rang out down below.

“I’ll just be a minute! One of the goats…” The light voice of a prepubescent boy answered.

Arring cursed. “Get the goat and get them out of here,” he grunted, hoping someone would hear.

His legs were nearly straight, shaking with the effort, but no-one had called the ‘all clear.’ He wasn’t about to set this log down again: either it would stay stuck in the fork, or it would roll down on its own, completely missing the protective sling and probably destroying the shrine. If it stayed stuck, odds were decent he wouldn’t budge it again. At least not today.

It felt like an eternity before the overseer called out again.

“Clear!”

Thank the gods. Arring dipped his knees into a shallow squat before giving a jump, pushing out with his hands against the trunk.

A curse rang out from one of the sling-tenders before wood struck canvas. Arring’s gaze snapped in the direction of the sound: the man had the end of the rope in one hand and a foot braced against the tree it was tied to. Arring couldn’t tell what the actual issue was, but it looked like other woodcutters were already heading to assist.

The canvas tightened. A quick glance revealed six men now straining at the edge of the canvas on the end where something had gone wrong.

Down below, back towards the camp, a boy screamed.

Arring vaulted off the platform and pushed off the falling trunk towards the source of the sound. Damn idiot kid…

The thought was angry, but what clutched at his throat was fear for the boy, fear that he wouldn’t be fast enough.

There they were. Tufts of goat hair showed where the boy’s charge had taken off through the underbrush when the tree came down. The goatherd had tried to follow, but somehow his foot was stuck under a root jutting out into the path of the log.

Arring’s strength was a gift from the gods, and he tried always to use it in accordance with that knowledge. Should this boy die, some might say it was the price he paid for stupidity, or it was bad luck. Arring knew better: it would be his fault, because without him the woodcutters would have found another way. Therefore, the young goatherd was his responsibility.

He charged screaming for where the boy lay stretched on the ground. The intervening space was a green-and-brown blur.

Another heartbeat and the boy would be crushed. With the last of his reserves, Arring stepped under the log and lowered his head, raising his hands to the level of his shoulders.

The force drove him to his knees. Bark pressed against Arring’s shoulders and palms where he knelt, panting, under the massive tree.

Silver bells carried on the wind, much as the goatherd’s pipes had earlier.

***

The five querants for the Oracle of Attilsund stood blinking in the red light of sunset at the top of a granite cliff. Einarr still felt the urge to vomit, and as he turned his head to ensure they were all still there he noted Arring picking himself up off of Father’s shoulder. The other three all seemed to have taken this last vision more or less in stride, to judge by the calm, almost placid looks they wore.

He shrugged one shoulder, forcibly trying to redirect his mind away from the revelations of the vision. He would confront Reki about the contents of his vision later, when they returned to the ship. His purpose here would not be so easily swayed, after all.

“Is everyone all right?” Stigander spoke quietly, but the words still carried over the ever-present wind at this altitude. A series of nods made its way around the group.

“Then we’d best get on. Not much light left, and the Elder warned us against camping out here.”


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2.23 – Felling the Bunyan Tree

The sound of silver bells rang in Arring’s ears just as he stepped off the ascent and into the broad meadow at the top of the cliff. He rushed to take another step forward, ending up with his chest uncomfortably close to the Captain’s elbow. Then he blinked.

When he opened his eyes again, he was in a thick forest where even the smallest trees he saw were easily as thick as Erik’s shoulders and a diffuse gray light made it hard to tell direction or distance. Off to his left, he heard the sound of axes striking timber. Must be a woodcutter’s camp nearby. With a shrug he jogged off to investigate.

After a while, the sound of men’s voices rose above the continual thock… thock… thock of chopping wood. They were shouting about something, but the voices were still so indistinct he couldn’t quite tell what. Arring picked up his pace.

As he loped around trees as big as three men, Arring caught notes of urgency in the woodcutter’s voices. He snorted and kept on. Sprinting wasn’t likely to accomplish anything other than winding him.

Finally the source of the noise came into view. No fewer than six woodcutters were clustered around a tree large enough one could carve a longship from it rather than cutting it into boards. A large ring of wood had already been chopped. Some of the wedges they removed had been stacked to the side to use as firewood that night. No matter how much he looked, though, he could not see where they intended it to land. There were only two clear spaces wide enough to accommodate that trunk. In one of them, the woodcutter’s camp was plainly visible. In the other stood a village.

Curious, Arring approached a brown-haired man who stood back, directing their progress. “Hello.”

“Marnin’. What kin I do fer ye?” The man’s accent was strange to Arring’s ears.

“I was wondering if there was something I could do for you, actually. That’s a mighty impressive log you’re aiming to fell.”

“Beauty, ain’t it?”

“Mm. But, where are you planning to put it?”

“Why, straight down that’a’way, o’course.” The woodcutter gestured toward the place Arring felt certain there was a village. “Plenty o’ room ‘fore it hits the near fields.”

“If you say so.”

“We measured as close as we can. Couldn’t get the top out, but she’ll make the squeeze.”

The two men stood in silence a moment longer, Arring trying to decide if he trusted the man’s measure, before the woodcutter spoke again. “You still want to give us a hand, we could use an extra pair of strong arms working an axe.”

Arring gave the man an oddly self-deprecating grin. “I think I just might do that.”

Felling even an ordinary tree was hard labor, but Arring enjoyed the warmth it brought to the muscles of his shoulders and arms, enjoyed the rhythm of swinging an axe against a foe that did not move.

Arring’s shoulders had begun to ache by the time the waist of the tree narrowed sufficiently that they could begin to push.

With a crack and a giant’s groan the massive tree swayed as the woodcutters clustered together and shoved. The sound of wind through the branches was like a squall.

Until it stopped, with the tree propped at an odd angle by a trunk somehow strong enough to stop its charge. When the woodcutters saw this they, too, groaned.

“How are we supposed to get this beast unstuck?” One of them complained aloud.

Arring laughed. “I guess the Norns smile on you lot. Let me have a look.”

He leapt up on the stump, rubbing his palms together, and stepped toward the wall of wood he would need to scale. The other woodcutters looked skeptical, as well they might. Even the Captain or Erik would have trouble with that jump, but while they were taller than Arring they did not have the sheer power of his muscles. Arring bent his knees and jumped for the barky ledge overhead, catching it on the first go and pulling himself up on top of the half-felled log in one fluid motion.

“Don’t worry,” he called down. “I’ll set it down gentle as a babe for ye!”

Arring jogged along the top of the log, swinging around the occasional branch that stood to bar his way, until he reached the hangup.

He pressed his lips together, evaluating his options. As massive as this tree was, the one causing them issues was still larger. Worse, the log had caught in a fork of the other tree, which was probably the only reason it caught at all.

Ordinarily, he would cut the fork, but a quick climb along each of the branches warned him against that. To the left the forest became thicker: cutting that side would only get the log stuck again. To the right, the branch would block the road and crush a shrine. Worse, there would be nothing to stop the log from rolling. The woodcutters could easily end up owing their entire season’s take from restitution alone.

Arring nodded to himself and turned around.

“It’s stuck in a fork,” he announced when he reached the cut edge of the log. “I need your best catchers, a barricade, and one massive sling.”

The overseer frowned. “Show me.”

Arring shrugged, and then they both stood on the log just before its nest. “If we split the log, the top may as well just put down fresh roots. It’ll end up vertical before it actually comes all the way down. Same problem if we send it left, although we might lose less. And, well, look to the right.”

“A shrine of Frol, and Galing’s pasture wall.” The chief woodcutter cursed. “Can’t very well drop a tree on the tree-god’s shrine.”

“Not if you hope for a long life. But if your men can rig up a ramp to catch the branch, we can toss the log into a sling and lower’er down to the ground, nice and easy.”

The woodcutter swallowed. “…Toss?”

“Hm. You’re right. I’ll need a platform, too.”

“You intend to toss this monster?”

“Assuming I can get the proper leverage. Is that a problem?”

“…No, of course not.”

“Good. Let’s get to it, then.”


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2.22 – Hall Dance

Sivid gave himself a few turns to size up the opposition before venturing in for his warmup round. The puffed-up rooster of a man who looked just about to take his leave was not likely to be much competition, but he thought he saw a few others who could put on a show. Others like him – small, wiry, quick, better at dodging than taking a blow and might just have something to prove because of it. They always made the best dancers, and he should know.

The rooster pranced out of the center after nearly botching a simple handspring to be replaced by a serious-faced young man – one of the ones Sivid thought would be a worthy opponent.

The boy put himself through a number of contortions in the center – more than Sivid would ordinarily consider for the first round. He watched and weighed: the boy had promise, but no joy. Well. Time to show him how to have some fun out there.

Sivid danced. He hadn’t intended to pull out all the stops in his first run out there… but the music and the cheers from the crowd and the glares from the rooster and the too-serious kid all egged him on and it was fun. If he judged right, he could have his pick of the ladies tonight if he wanted to.

Oops. Best let someone else have the stage for a bit. He pranced around the outside of the circle, offering a small bow to a few of the other competitors, before slipping in to a gap that opened for him – not coincidentally flanked by a pair of lovelies he might be willing to buy a drink later.

His choice of location earned him even harder glares from the rooster and the kid. Sivid quirked an eyebrow. Interesting.

He still wasn’t going to take it easy on them. If he didn’t make them fight for the attention of the girls they liked, the girls wouldn’t be properly appreciated.

Three more rounds this went on. Ordinarily he would remember every move that was made in the rounds, but tonight they were a blur. He knew they’d made him work for it, though, just like he knew he’d risen to the occasion. The purse for the hallingdanse was his, and the comely young blonds who had so graciously opened the circle for him fluttered their eyelashes his direction.

“That was a good dance, everyone. This round’s on me!” He wouldn’t actually do more than buy a drink and flirt with the women here: unlike Erik, he’d taken Lord Raen’s lesson to heart. On the other hand, openly flirting with those two women seemed like to provoke a duel he didn’t care to fight.

The rooster and the boy accepted their mugs with tight-lipped smiles, not mollified but not yet certain how best to challenge Sivid the interloper. For his part, Sivid bought the round and then directed his attention to a pert redhead, rather older than the two blonds and saucy in the game they played.

It was the rooster who first approached him, but the over-serious boy stood at his shoulder with his arms crossed. Had they… ah, the rooster was playing the fool to make his friend look good.

Sivid crossed his arms and shook his head, not bothering to hide his amusement. “It was a good hall dance, boys, let’s leave it at that.”

“I’m afraid I can’t do that. Dagny’s been trying to convince her father to call off her engagement with my friend here, and after what you pulled she won’t even look at him.”

“And why does Dagny want to end the engagement in the first place? Good-looking lad like him, surely it can’t be that he doesn’t know how to smile? How to enjoy himself?”

Based on the glowers coming from the younger men, he’d hit the nail on the head.

“It’s not my dancing that made this Dagny turn away from you, son. Learn to have a little fun. Relax. If you can’t even lose a simple hall dance without taking it so hard, what’s going to happen if, gods forbid, the flux takes your son?”

The boy’s face started to redden with anger. “She’d have come back to me tonight, if you hadn’t shown me up so badly.”

“I showed up everyone out there tonight. But if I hadn’t been there, she’d have turned to someone else instead. Someone who had a smile on his face and didn’t move like he’d just been buggered with a pole.”

Fire burned in the boy’s eyes now, and his face was redder than the saucy wench’s hair.

Sivid gave a mental sigh. He’d wanted to avoid a fight here, but if someone didn’t set him straight this kid was just going to make some unlucky wench miserable for the rest of their lives. “Oh, I know. You’re still blaming me. That a habit o’yours, blaming someone else when things don’t go your way?” He looked levelly at the boy for a long moment. “Try me again when you’ve grown up a little, let me enjoy my evening.”

Sivid turned back to his drink and the game of wits he’d been engaged in.

“Dice with me.”

Sivid sighed and looked back down at the table before turning his attention to the earnest brat. “No.”

“You have offered me a mortal insult. You have robbed me of my chance to win back my love. There may be truth in what you say about me, which is why I challenge you with dice rather than swords. But you will dice with me.”

Sivid’s fingers twitched. It would be the easiest thing in the world to trounce this brat with a roll of the bones… but when he won at dice bad things happened. Randomly, but without fail. “I will take any challenge other than dice, boy. You look like a hearty sort: why don’t we arm-wrestle. Then you can show off your strength to this Dagny you’re so intent on.”

“My strength has never been in question. My luck, on the other hand…”

Sivid shook his head. As much as he wanted to teach this brat a lesson… “That wouldn’t be a fair test of your luck, boy.”

“How could anything be a better test of luck?”

“Because I always know how the dice will fall, and the Norns always correct their weave. Either I give you a hollow victory, or I bring calamity on my own head.”

Silence fell in the hall.

“Go away, kid. Find some other way to impress your wench.”

Silver bells tinkled.


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2.20 – The Third Trial

They finished their lunch in silence. For his part, Einarr kept turning over in his head Jorir’s revelation – the one he plainly did not wish to speak more of. He wasn’t quite certain what to make of his father’s new scrutiny, either. That ‘cursebreaker’ had the ring of a title about it. I’m not entirely certain I like the sound of that.

He found that he had little appetite left. None of the others seemed terribly interested in more food, either: another handful or two of nuts, or a dried fish, and all five of them were on their feet again.

“Well,” Einarr said. His voice felt unnaturally loud after the long silence. “Lead the way.”

Jorir nodded and quick-stepped back toward the path. I should have a word with him about that… but not in front of everyone. Maybe if he could learn what the Oracle had actually told his liege-man it would clear matters up.

Einarr didn’t mind the idea of having a calling, per se. But for that calling to be cursebreaking… that was troubling. Urdr was supposed to be the exception among Weavers, after all, not the rule.

The trail entered a series of steep switchbacks up a nearly sheer granite face.

“Watch your step,” Jorir warned.

Einarr shuddered at the idea of the last vision hitting when a single misstep could send any of them plummeting to their doom. With every step he half expected the sound of bells to ring on the wind, heralding the final test… but with each step all he saw was the trail and the granite face beside him.

The air burned in Einarr’s lungs by the time the trail opened back out into a meadow once more. There were no trees now, and the grasses and shrubs grew low to the ground. He stepped to the side to stand in the grass and catch his breath while Stigander and Arring completed their climb and the sound of bells rang in his ears.

He blinked, and the mountainside was replaced by a large, dimly recognized room. The tapestries hanging on the stone walls were warm and properly abstract, suggesting rather than showing animals and plants, and a large and detailed sea chart was spread out on the table dominating the center of the room.

Standing with him around the table was a white-haired version of his father, Reki, Erik, Jorir… and Runa, also looking older but no less lovely for the matronly cast to her face. I can win her.

“Every last Clan of the north has suffered at the hands of the Order of the Valkyrie. Why will none of the other thanes see that together we have a chance?” Einarr heard the words coming from his own mouth, saw his own fist bang against the table. Oh. So that’s what the situation is.

“Oh, they see it,” Stigander rumbled. “But someone would have to be chosen to lead the navies. They worry more about what that someone might do with command of so many ships and warriors once the threat is eliminated than they do about the Order or the Empire.”

“They’re worried I’ll decide to name myself Althane? Are they crazy?”

“It’s been tried before,” said Jorir. “By rulers older and supposedly wiser than you.”

“Bah. We’ve only just got Breidelsteinn back under control.”

“And not quite that.” Erik crossed his arms. “A couple of the more westerly Jarls are just biding their time, methinks. A lot of trust was lost while we were all out at sea.”

“That was none of our doing, but you all see my point.”

“There’s not many outside our waters who know that, though, son, and if they did it wouldn’t necessarily help us. There’s not a lot within the Allthing with quite the experience we’ve had, and they all have their own priorities to consider as well.”

“You’re right, of course, Father.” Einarr looked back down at the map and snorted. “So. I guess that means the first question is how I convince them, first, to trust me and, second, that doing away with the Valkyries is in their best interest.”

“Start with a story, my lord.” Reki’s low voice had not lost its purr in the years since she joined the Vidofnir. Einarr turned his attention to the Singer’s red eyes and waited. “Tell them, over drinks at the hall perhaps, how the Hunters nearly wiped us out while we still wandered. Tell them of the battle that lead you to swear vengeance. That alone might win you a few.”

“Many of them have already heard the story.”

“Have they? The times I’ve overheard you speaking of it, you’ve said nothing of the actual battle.”

“’At’s a good idea, Reki. Why don’t you let me handle that part: I’ve a fair bit of experience spinning yarns over drinks.”

“Thanks, Erik. I never quite know where to begin.”

The big man laughed. “That is because you didn’t do nearly enough stupid shit while we were roaming.”

Einarr and Stigander both shook their heads, each laughing under their breath.

“All right, so that’s a good place to start. What else might help?”

Jorir glared up at him like he was being stupid. “You’ve got an actual plan in place for winning this, don’t ye? Give them some inkling what it is. Ye’ll be relying on independent action in a buncha different places anyway – why not let them know that. Put their minds at ease a bit.”

“Those independent forces are still going to have to coordinate together, but if they’re not fully under the command of the central force… Father? Do you think that would actually make a difference?”

“For some, maybe. Don’t expect it to allay everyone’s suspicions, though.”

“Of course.” Einarr looked across the table: Runa was biting her lip, as though she were weighing something. “Well, my love? Do you have an idea.”

“Um. Well, there is something I could do to help. I’m not sure it’s a good idea, though.” Runa glanced over at Reki, and suddenly her expression seemed less weighing and more nervous.

Reki’s attention was turned toward the map, and she didn’t seem to catch the look.

“There could be a Tune that might convince them.” Runa emphasized the word tune strangely. Reki’s head snapped up: daggers of ice seemed to shoot across the table at the other Singer.


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2.18 – A Father’s Honor

“If your heart does not remain with the Weaver and the Wolf, swear again before me as you once did before my father Raen.”

A number of grim faces around the hall met Stigander’s request, but no-one protested. Stigander would have been well within his rights to have them put to death, or trial by sword. Within his rights, but foolish: such a blood-letting would have taken generations to return from.

Stigander stood on the dias, flanked by Einarr and Bardr, with Gorgny standing watch just below. Man after man stepped forward and knelt before him, forswearing any allegiance to Ulfr and pledging allegiance to Stigander or his line. No few Singers also presented themselves. Before accepting and offering his counter-pledge, Stigander would look to Gorgny for his affirmation of their sincerity.

Meanwhile, the Vidofnings stood guard around the edges of the hall, looking as uncomfortable and impatient as Stigander felt. That this was necessary at all was a travesty, caused by a single ill-advised dalliance in his father’s youth: never in his life had Stigander been more glad of his policy to never bed a woman not his wife.

At least I won’t have to worry about Einarr. He found his mind wandering as the line moved on – never far, of course, in the seemingly endless stream of pledges and counter-pledges.

After what felt like an eternity of this those gathered in the hall once again stood assembled to either side. Stigander’s gaze slid across the entirety off the hall, and as his eyes lit on each familiar face he smiled a little more openly. “It’s good to be home,” he said, his voice unexpectedly hoarse.

“Tomorrow, there will be work to be done. Tonight, though, let us feast!”

A cheer rose up across the hall, and Stigander stepped down to stand in front of his father’s right-hand man. “Where is Father?”

The scene shifted. Last night’s feast had been one of the wildest Stigander could remember, before or after the Vidofnir had become a vagabond. He thought he had drank too much, although what he felt was more akin to the idea of a hangover than the actual thing. And the next task of the day was to be an unpleasant one, one he’d hoped to avoid.

“When the Weaving unravelled, it came undone all at once,” Gorgny explained. “The Weaver realized what had happened at the same time as all the rest of us, and we caught them before they could escape. They await your judgement.”

Stigander gave a heavy sigh. “Best be on with it.”

Gorgny bowed, and then an unfamiliar-looking woman and appeared before him with a startlingly familiar-looking man, shackled and weighed down with chains, the sole purpose of which seemed to be the weight. The woman, a withered old crone whose long white hair had gone thin and who had lost more than a few of her teeth, stood defiant, but her son was on his knees and would not look up at him. We could almost be twins… The newly resworn jarls formed a circle around them in the center of the room: the Thing would judge.

I suppose she must have been pretty enough in her youth, or she’d never have caught Father’s eye. Stigander met her eyes with a cold stare. To punish her was easy: it would take years for father’s mind to recover, even if his body seemed hale. Gorgny, at least, thought Raen’s mind was still whole enough to mend. Ulfr, though…

Stigander rose, and went to join the circle of leaders surrounding the usurpers. “Weavess Urdr. You stand accused before the Thing of high treason, treason against your husband, practicing the black arts, murder by means of magic and poison, and of practicing the torturer’s arts. Among your accusers, your victims, are members of this Thing. Have you any defense?”

“You dare to try me here, with my accusers among the judges?” The woman may have been a crone, but her voice was as strong as a woman thirty years her junior, and she stood straight and proud.

“You would rather rot in the dungeon until I can call on the thanes and jarls of other lands? Winter approaches: I should think in your shoes I should prefer swift judgement to spending the winter in the dungeon, wondering every day if you might simply have been forgotten. Cold, damp, dark, drafty, and worse than it was before the Weaving forced me into exile.”

Her only response was to meet his hard stare with one of her own.

Stigander gave her a moment. He did not think her neck would bend, and it soon became plain it would not. “Are there any present who will stand in her defense?”

Ulfr moved as though to stand. He planted one foot on the floor, but then placed it back again.

“Even your own son will not stand to defend your actions. Can there be any more damning statement?”

Still Urdr stared at him, but Stigander would not be cowed. “If you will not defend yourself, so be it. The penalty for any one of these crimes is death, and so I put the question before this Thing. Did this woman conspire to overthrow the rightful Thane of Breidelsteinn?”

Not a single Jarl said nay.

“In the overthrow of the thane Raen, by whom she bore a son, did she practice the black art of curse-weaving?”

Once again each man in the circle answered aye.

“Was the rightful Thane, a man she has called her husband, tortured by her hand?”

Some few did not verbally agree to this one, but still there were no nays.

“So be it. Based on the determination of this Thing, who have witnessed the actions of the accused, the weavess Urdr is guilty. You shall be stripped of all you possess and hung in a cage over the sea. You shall be afforded neither food nor fresh water, and even the salt spray shall not reach you. If in four days you yet live, your cage shall be recovered and you shall be burned at the stake.”

He worried for a moment that the punishment would be too harsh, but then the child-like babbling of his father returned to him. This was just.

“Ulfr, son of Urdr. It can be denied by no-one here that you were a willing co-conspirator in your mother’s plan. By strict justice, you should meet her same fate.”

“I cannot deny this.” Even the man’s voice sounded like Stigander’s.

“…Why?”

Ulfr gave no answer, merely continued to stare at the rug beneath his knees.

“If you had come on your own, we could have been brothers.”

“But I could not have come on my own. From the time I was a babe, Mother has spoken of our father as her husband, and alternately doted on his memory and railed against his cruel absence. She promised me the thanedom was rightfully mine… and with the credulity of a child I believed her. The wrong we have done here only became clear to me after we had seized this land and it began to fall apart, and I believed there was naught I could do but try to hold everything together. I will submit to exposure in the cage.”

Justice must be served, but to execute Ulfr would make him a kinslayer. There had to be a better way. “But will you submit to exile, if the Thing agrees?”

Only now did Ulfr look up at Stigander. It was like looking into a mirror. The sound of silver bells drowned out the mirror’s response.


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2.17 – Vision of Home

Stigander caught the sound of silver bells in the wind and steeled himself. The last trial had tried to make him choose between his birthright and his son’s future, as though the two could be separated. That had been bad enough, but surely the trials ahead would be just as wrenching. He took a step forward on the path…

…And found he now stood on a different mountain path, on an island he had not seen in more than a decade. I’m… home?

He blinked, hardly believing what his eyes were showing him. The road beneath his feet, laboriously cut into the granite face, switchbacked above and below. Behind him marched the Vidofnings, savage jubilation painting each and every face. Even Einarr’s, which left a twinge of heartsickness behind. Far below, the Vidofnir bobbed in the water alongside a ship with an unfamiliar ramshead on the prow – Einarr’s ship, it had to be.

The men behind him furrowed their brows. They’re waiting on me. He stepped forward again even as he turned his head to look up the rock face. There, rising above, were the unmistakable grey stone walls of Breidelsteinn. I’m home.

His pace quickened. The Usurper must have already lost, or there would be warriors on the road, and arrows would rain on their heads. Instead, all was peaceful. It was time to reclaim the honor stolen from his father.

As they marched, he heard the strains of the Lay of Raen carry up the road and the corner of his mouth quirked in a smile. That was some impressive breath control Reki had, if she was willing to sing while they marched. At least, he thought it was Reki.

At the top of the switchbacks Stigander stopped again. The gates stood open wide. In the center of the passage, his father’s first liege-man knelt before him. Clustered in the shadows behind, the Jarls and Captains of Breidelsteinn prostrated themselves. No. Not like this. These men were my friends.

But now they were his subjects. Even if his father were still fit to rule, which Stigander thought unlikely, the Clan would never accept him at its head again. They might not accept him, for that matter. Stigander closed his eyes and swallowed hard on the melancholy that threatened to overtake him. Done is done. You knew this would be part of the price.

When he opened his eyes again they were hard. He had hesitated too long already, when now was the time for decisiveness. Three firm steps forward brought him to just ahead of where the man knelt. “Gorgny Agnarsson, do you swear on the names of your father and your grandfather that the Weaver’s sorcery no longer holds you?”

“In the names of Agnar and Hagrlaug, I swear my mind is no longer clouded by sorcery, and may my heart burst if I lie.” Shame practically dripped from the man’s voice.

Stigander nodded, accepting the attestation. Uncle Gorgny had always been an honest man. “Then swear to me as you once swore to my father.”

“My lord prince, Lord Raen yet lives, and though all the clan may forsake him, I will not.”

Stigander snorted, but his face softened a little. “You realize under the circumstances that could mean your death?”

“I do, and I will make any oath you ask of me – except that one, so long as my lord Raen still lives and breathes.”

“Rise, then.” Stigander suppressed a sigh. If he had wanted to prove the man wasn’t a traitor, this managed it nearly as well. “How is Father?”

“Battered but not broken. Never broken.”

“Good.” He smiled at the man he had always thought of as an uncle and clapped him on the shoulder. Stigander had not dared hope that his father would survive this. It would be good for Einarr to meet his grandfather again.

Stigander turned his father’s liege-man and stepped over the threshold. “What of the rest of them?”

“The ones you see? Penitents all. It’s as though we all woke from a bad dream not long ago. The rest are shackled and awaiting justice.”

He nodded now. “I will take the oaths of the penitents in the main hall.”

“Yes, my lord prince.”

His father’s hall had changed under the influence of the Usurper and the Weaver. Raen had made it larger than it had to be so everyone would be welcome, and they were. The lively good cheer he remembered had fled over the intervening years, tossed out with the rugs and candelabrum that were nowhere to be seen on his return. His brother had left it empty, cold, and dark.

Stigander set his mouth in a hard line. Restoring the hall would be easy, compared to the rest of what he had to do. He slowed for the last few steps up on to the dias, feeling their weight.

The seat of the Thane stood before him, polished and painted wood that had never before this moment intimidated him. Stigander blew a breath through his moustache. Rather than sit, he turned to face the men now filling the hall behind him and motioned at a few of them to join him: Gorgny, Bardr, Einarr. As Gorgny stepped into place beside him, he caught the man’s eye. “Uncle, where is Father?”

“Resting, under the care of an herb-witch.”

Stigander winced a little. “Urdr was quite cruel, then.” When Gorgny nodded, he shifted his attention to the hall.

“People of Breidelsteinn,” he began, his voice filling the hall. “It has taken long years, but at last Urdr’s Weaving has been unraveled – by none other than my own son Einarr.”

He allowed a minute for the cheering to die down before he continued. “I do not believe that any of you who stand before me were in their right mind during the Usurper’s reign… but much can change as the years fall away. My friends, I believe that you are all still my friends, and I would ask you to swear to this. If your heart does not remain with the Weaver and the Wolf, swear again before me as you once did before my father Raen.”


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2.16 – Desperate Battle

One down, five to go… Four. Einarr stared through the gap in the circle where his fallen opponent had been and set his jaw. A cry of shock from the other side of Arring said his partner had felled another, but already more Valkyries rushed towards their circle. In only a moment, the two fallen would be replaced by four more. A hollow space opened up in his belly: if there were this many men to deal with the two of them, the fight was going badly all over.

Four men became eight. Einarr could spare no thought for the shallow cuts that got through his guard or for the fate of his fellows. Three times his boot nearly crushed Bardr’s nose as he dodged a blow. Three times he moved in time, but on the third he stumbled.

“Einarr!” Arring lunged, ignoring for a moment the flock of vultures trying to peck out their eyes. Einarr’s shoulder slammed into his crewmate’s back, but the man didn’t budge.

“Thanks,” he grunted. Einarr took the opportunity to lash out with a boot toward one of the Valkyries within range. He heard the satisfying snap when foot hit nose, and the sailor cursed even as blood began to flow down his face.

Such a minor thing was not enough to knock the fight out of a Valkyrie, of course. Einarr launched himself off Arring’s back with a roar. Sinmora whistled as the blade drove for the man’s skull.

He, too, had allies, though. A saber flashed, and instead of the sound of steel biting flesh it was steel striking steel that rang out.

Einarr snarled, ripping his blade back to cut thrice at the three men ahead of him. Blood bloomed on their tunics. Two of them turned a sickly green and dropped to their knees, clutching their stomachs as though to hold in their innards. The third snarled back.

Moist heat gushed from Einarr’s calf. Pain would come later. That was a deep one, but not as deep as the one the Valkyrie got in return. If he lived, he would never father another child.

Einarr’s lungs burned. Even under the full strength of Reki’s song fatigue slowed his arms and fear clutched at his throat. This was like no other battle he had seen. It seemed as though there were no end to the Valkyries, even though their hunting parties were never more than two ships together. Their assailants had ebbed, if only for a moment. He inhaled deeply, smelling sour bile and the iron tang of blood.

Arring’s voice rang out. “Behind you!”

Einarr turned. A javelin – not a crossbow bolt, a javelin – hurtled for his breast. Ah, so that’s why I didn’t feel anything. There was no time to dodge. There was no time to bring his shield or sword to bear. The fates had decreed that this moment was his time.

Einarr lowered his eyelids, accepting his fate. In the moment before they closed, Arring’s sturdy figure seemed to fly into the path of the javelin.

Einarr’s eyes flew open again when he saw what was happening. He screamed in denial.

The javelin found the weak point in Arring’s mail. Blood spurted from his back even as Einarr dashed forward to catch his crewmate… his friend. The world went red.

The next thing Einarr was aware of, he stood alone in a pile of corpses. At his feet lay Bardr and Arring, both gone. A few other lone figures remained of the Vidofnir’s crew, each surrounded by a ring mound of bodies. Jorir. Reki. Erik. One or two others… Father.

He strode to where the others gathered around Stigander, the wound in his leg somehow vanished. “Father.”

“Einarr.” The words were calm and level, but both knew the other’s heart at this moment.

“How many are left?”

“Just those you see here.”

Einarr nodded, looking down at his blood-stained boots. “Where will you take us now?”

Stigander’s voice was tired when he finally answered. “I don’t know.”

“You’re not giving up?” He lifted his head to meet his father’s gaze with a challenge.

Stigander shook his head.

“Good.”

“I’ll be damned if I know how we’re supposed to win back Raenshold with just the few of us, though. And this just cost us everything we’ve earned towards winning the hand of your bride.”

“It was always going to be a matter of wits, Father. Our birthright was stolen from us by guile, and by guile it shall be won.”

“We will still require force of arms to back up our wits, son. After this, we’ll be lucky to find enough men to crew our ship, let alone turn our cause from doom.”

“We’ll find a way. If for no other reason, Father, than the battle here today.”

Now his father looked alarmed, but Einarr did not give him the chance to interrupt.

“The Order of the Valkyrie has wronged the sons of Raen and the men of Breidelsteinn this day – grievously. And they will pay, Father.”

“They already have, Einarr. Look around you. We were outnumbered, and yet it is we who yet live.”

“Are you really all right with that, Father?”

“Even our entire clan does not have the resources to go after the Order of the Valkyrie. Others have tried, and wiped themselves from the map in the process.”

“Then we shall gather other clans to our cause.”

“You realize they’ve an agreement with the Empire, right?”

“So be it. The Vidofnir is my home, and her crew my family. I will not allow this to stand.” He heard the coldness in his own voice as the words left his mouth. He had never experienced rage as a cold thing before, but in this moment it was right. The Order of the Valkyries, and by extension the Empire, would not rest until every Clan was wiped out – their hunters today showed that well enough. If defending his kin meant taking the battle to them, then so be it.

“I swear before all of you, by steel and by stone, by the one bound beneath a tree and she who stirs the winds, that our kin shall be avenged, even if it takes my whole life to do it.”

He stood there, staring, for a long moment before he realized that his father was frozen rather than speechless. The sound of silver bells drifted to his ears on the wind from out of nowhere.


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2.14 – Heart of a Dwarf

Thane Soggvar turned to the advisor standing behind the throne to his left – a cadaverous shaman Jorir did not recognize. In that same moment, his attention was caught by a figure who very much did not belong in this hall: an elven woman in white, her tall and willowy figure exaggerated by the short, stocky dwarves filling this hall. No-one else took any notice of her, but Jorir thought there was something familiar about her flowing white gown and long golden locks.

When he turned back to the hall another figure had joined them, looking nearly as out-of-place as the elf did. He stood tall, tanned as a sailor and strong in the way of the wolf, but beer soaked his otherwise well-groomed beard, turning the shock of red a dirty brown. Lord Einarr watched Jorir levelly, his proud gaze never faltering even as the contents of another tankard were thrown in his face. The dwarves to either side of Einarr moved, and it was only when Einarr moved with them that Jorir realized his liege lord was shackled.

Horror rose in his breast. No! He opened his mouth to protest, but he was cut off.

Thane Soggvar rose from his throne and took a step towards their captive. “So this is the human barbarian I was told wandered our halls. Bring him forward.”

“My Lord…” Jorir ventured. No-one so much as glanced his way except for Einarr, whose level stare carried a challenge on the back of its disappointment.

“I don’t know how you came here, human, but your kind has no place in my Hall.”

“My Thane.” He tried again, more forcefully this time.

The cadaverous dwarf whispered something in Soggvar’s ear and the Thane nodded.

Jorir blinked in the same moment his Thane began to speak again. When he opened his eyes, the scene had changed.

Jorir now stood in the chapel field, a meadow half-way up Eylimi’s Mountain, above the mines. In the center of the meadow, in a direct line from the chapel doors, stood a stone slab carved with runes and dedicated to the gods of sea and storm. There had been no such thing here when Jorir had left, but the blood-stained granite had plainly seen heavy use in the pair of centuries since. Jorir’s kinsmen stood about the altar, awaiting the presentation of the sacrifice, but he heard no livestock.

Dread sank like a stone in his gut: there was only one way this was likely to go.

A murmur arose from the crowd around him. He turned and saw his kinsmen parting to allow three figures through. Two guards, and the sacrifice.

Einarr.

The man he had sworn his life to for so long as he had use of it. Impulsively, but sincerely. And the man who could save not just himself but the entire holding.

And the man he called Thane was about to sacrifice him to the gods.

Jorir’s feet felt rooted in place, and he could not tear his eyes away from his lord’s face. Bloodied, as though he had been beaten in the dungeon that Jorir had failed to save him from. An iron band was clasped about his neck, and a chain led from it to the hand of one of Einarr’s escorts.

Einarr turned cold blue eyes to Jorir, and the weight of their accusation jolted him out of his shock. He ran forward to the clear space in front of the altar where Soggvar stood with his unfamiliar advisor, somehow looking even more deathly under the morning light.

Two steps from the old king, Jorir fell on his knees and pressed his forehead into the grass. “My lord, please do not do this.”

“Do not do what?”

“When I left, we did not even have this altar. Now you are about to sacrifice a man on it?”

“Blood sacrifices have placated the gods and allowed us to continue our work.”

“But men? Are there no cattle? Have we descended to savagery?”

“The human is a trespasser here and no connection to any of us. I fail to see the problem.”

Now Jorir looked up, betrayal warring with shock in his eyes. He could find no rational response to the implications of his Thane’s assertion. “My Lord, he is the Cursebreaker! If you sacrifice him, it will never end!”

Soggvar turned his head to allow his deathly shaman to whisper in his ear.

“The sacrifice of the Cursebreaker is what the gods demand of us. Step back.”

“My lord, I cannot.”

“Step back.”

“Who is this shaman, my lord? Why does he pour poison in your ears?”

“He is my priest, blacksmith. Return to your place.”

“My lord, I have sworn!” The words ripped from his mouth. “He is my liege lord, and my friend. I cannot allow you to sacrifice him.”

“You have renounced your clan?” Distance had filled the thane’s voice, the sound of surprise and disappointment.

“No, my thane.” He rose, unbidden, not caring anymore if he incurred Soggvar’s wrath. “But since you say the gods demand the sacrifice of a man, let them take this cursed soul instead of his.”

Silence filled the meadow.

“Everyone here is bound by a grim fate – no less is he. I have sworn my life to his service and I have sworn my life to the clan. Therefore, my blood should serve just as well as his, and the curse shall not trouble me in the afterlife. I shall sup with the gods, and perhaps see your true selves again, for your ‘priest’ leads you astray, my king.”

“And now you claim to understand the will of the gods? You, a common smith?”

“Not as such. But blood sacrifice has never been a part of our ways, and your priest advises you to murder the man I was told might be able to save us. What else could that be but the influence of Hel?”

Thane Soggvar opened his mouth to speak and froze. Silver bells rang out over the meadow.


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2.13 – Fidelity & Honor

“Runa is my only child, and likely to remain so. He who marries her will become my heir. Rise, son, and take the hand of the prize you’ve fought so hard for.”

Raenshold. The Jarl was asking him to forswear Raenshold… his father… his birthright… and accept a jarldom in its place? Einarr shook his head as he climbed unsteadily to his feet, certain he must have heard wrong. “My lord, surely you jest?”

“Not at all.” The Jarl’s face was open and honest, as though the thought never crossed his mind that Einarr might be bound by another oath.

Einarr risked a glance back at the hall: his father’s face was grim, as was Bardr’s. Erik and Tyr looked concerned. Now he glanced down to Jorir, and unless Einarr was very much mistaken that was fear he saw there. Runa, though, gave him an encouraging smile and nod, trying to convince him to go ahead and accept. As though she did not know what her father asked of him.

Einarr set his mouth and turned his attention back to the Jarl. “My lord Jarl, every man under my Father’s command has sworn to return and reclaim Breidelsteinn.”

“Do you not have your own ship, your own crew, now?”

“Why would that matter?”

The Jarl blinked now. “Is Raenshold truly even a memory for you? Is it not merely the stories your father’s men tell to while away the time as you wander the waves? I am offering you the security of your own lands with my daughter’s hand.”

“It is true, we have lived as vagabonds since the Weaving, and my memories of home are faint and dim, their patchwork filled in by the stories told aboard the Vidofnir. But Raenshold is and ever will be home, and I was born to be a Thane, as was Father before me. You ask me now to settle for a jarldom in foreign waters, and let my birthright be usurped again?” Einarr raised his gaze to meet the Jarl’s, unflinching, and pursed his lips. Anger was beginning to smolder in his breast, and he worried he would say too much.

“You have been a homeless wanderer, sailing from port to port with never an end in sight. While you are unwed, that is fine for you, but I am no father if I allow my one and only daughter to lead that kind of life. Her hand in marriage is bound to these lands by a chain even the gods might not shatter.”

“Bound by you alone, and you hold the key.” Rage threatened to boil up, but if he fought his father-in-law over this he lost, no matter who won. “You say you are my father’s friend, and yet you try to seduce me into betraying him? Nay, Jarl. Runa shall be my bride, and none other, and no other than Raenshold shall be our home.”

“You’re being unreasonable.”

“Actually, I rather think you are. You would make a nithing of me.”

The sound of silver bells filled Einarr’s ears and the Jarl froze. Einarr looked about, surprised: no-one in the Hall so much as blinked, save one. The strangely familiar lady’s maid with the long golden hair and the elfin features. She curtsied, and as she rose she turned to walk away. The scene in Kjell hall faded with every step she took into the distance, until it was replaced with the alpine meadow where he had first seen the woman. Einarr shook his head to clear it before stepping back toward the path where he had evidently left the rest of his companions. I hope I’m not too far behind.

***

The sound of silver bells rang in Jorir’s ears and he stepped forward over the threshold between reality and dreaming. He didn’t know how it was done, but he had been through the tests before.

The scene in front of his eyes was the last one he expected, however. The light faded, its color yellowing, until he stood in a torch-lit stone hall. To every side svartdverger made merry. It took his eyes a minute to adjust, but when they did he saw the sigil of Chief Soggvar – King of Iron and Brass. I’m… home?

Jorir’s face lit up, for now he recognized the faces of his kinsmen. Some of them he was quite sure were dead, and others he suspected were, but in the world of the Oracle’s trial that did not matter. His eye lit on his brother’s face and he could not smother his astonished grin. He stepped over and put a hand on the other dwarf’s shoulder. “Brotti? What’re you doin’ here?”

“Waiting, little brother. We all are.” When his brother turned to face him, Jorir had a moment’s double-vision: Brotti’s face turned ashen, and the shadow of an axe cut across it. Jorir blinked and the vision cleared.

Jorir smiled again at his brother, but this time it was wan. I had a feeling.

“Go. The Thane would welcome you himself.”

“Aye.” He nodded, studying Brotti’s face even as he clapped him on the shoulder. Living or not, this would likely be the last time Jorir saw him. After a long moment, he turned towards the throne where Thane Soggvar sat looking dour – moreso even than Jorir was used to. Things must have got bad after he left.

Slowly Jorir stepped towards the throne, and slowly he knelt before his chieftain and bowed his head. He felt the large, heavy hand of the king settle on the back of his head with surprising gentleness. It was cold and clammy.

“Welcome home, son of the mountains. We have expected you.”

“I beg you to forgive my tardiness, my king.”

The hand raised again off his head. “It is of no matter. We have endured.”

Have you? “Thank the gods,” he said, as though he had noticed nothing amiss.

“What have you discovered on your long journey?”

“I have found the Cursebreaker.”

“Well! Cause for celebration indeed! Bring out the mead! In the morning, we will sacrifice to the gods for their beneficence!”

Jorir tried to smile in response to the Thane’s enthusiasm, but the signs within his vision suggested he was too late.


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2.12 – Faithless Hospitality

The tinkling sound of silver bells filled Einarr’s ears. Testing the fidelity of my love for Runa? Nothing simpler… surely that can’t be it, though? Well, no matter. He hefted the sack of treasure slung over his shoulder so the weight rested more comfortably and the coins tinkled again. Walking along the path up towards Kjell Hall, he whistled a jaunty tune. Jorir was only a pace behind him with another sack of treasure, and over this last quest they had filled out the crew of the Hvalaskurdr. His longship Hvalaskurdr. He had a ship. He had a crew. He had brought more gifts than even Jarl Hroaldr could have thought to ask for. If that wasn’t sufficient, even yet lacking a hall of his own, Einarr could rightly accuse the man of faithlessness.

Einarr stepped through the tree line and into the meadow. Not another quarter-mile in, the gate of the palisade around the hall stood open for them. The crew of the Vidofnir awaited inside, with the Kjellings, for news of his success. A broad grin split his wide moustache and he strode on, stopping just two steps outside the door.

“Hail to the Jarl of Kjell! Einarr, son of Stigander, son of Raen, has returned from his quest!”

“Hail, and well-met!” The Jarl’s voice carried out of the hall nearly as cheerfully as it had for Stigander just after their encounter with the Grendel. “The son of Stigander is welcome to my hall!”

Einarr stepped across the threshold and into the shadow of the hall. He reached up to remove his knit cap – when did I put that on? – as his eyes adjusted to the dimness. The smells of meat and mead filled his nose, and rowdy calls of greeting and good cheer assaulted his ears. Stigander stepped up in front of him and clapped him on the shoulders, grinning behind his yellow beard.

“We carried word ahead of you, my boy, since you had someone to retrieve. Everyone’s dying to hear it from your own lips, though.”

He returned his father’s smile in kind, certain that Stigander saw the warmth of his affection behind it. Soon, very soon, they would find a way to reclaim their birthright, and then Stigander could be the thane they all knew he should have been.

The Jarl’s voice rose above the crowd. “Come! Show us the proof of your valor!”

“Well, go on.” Stigander took his cap from him and offered a wordless nod of appreciation to the dwarf.

All eyes – Vidofning and Kjelling alike – were on Einarr and his liege-man as they strode the length of the hall towards the clearing in front of Jarl Hroaldr’s seat.

The light shifted, and Einarr caught a glimpse of Runa, sitting with her lady’s maid in the corner. It was strange: Einarr had thought the maid was a mousey little brown-haired woman, but today the one who attended his love had elfin grace and ridiculously long gold hair – fairer, if it were possible, than Runa’s. He took in so much with a glance before his eye was drawn back to the princess. She sat with her hands pressed against the seat and her shoulders thrust forward, looking up at him furtively from under lowered brows. When she met his gaze, she bit her lower lip. His heart began to race. My lady…

The Jarl cleared his throat: evidently Einarr had been staring. Abashed, he knelt before his father’s friend and set the sack down in front of him with a clatter of precious metal.

“My lord Jarl, I have returned under my own sail and with my own crew, bearing gold and treasure in accordance with the tasks you have placed upon me.” He opened the sack and reached down in among the silver and gold and jewels, looking for the artifact he knew the Jarl would want. There it is. He reached both hands down into the treasure sack and carefully began to remove the goblet.

“In token of these accomplishments, I offer you the Fierbinte, taken from the Imperial city of Krasimirburg during our raids.” He raised the goblet by its stem, resting its base on his other hand to keep it steady. The cup was solid gold and encrusted with rubies and sapphires over every inch of the outside. Inside, it was perpetually filled with a blood-red wine that never seemed to spill. “According to the Imperials we questioned, it is said that the one who drinks from the Fierbinte shall know neither disease nor the progress of time for a full turning of the seasons, but that the god of war shall be their constant companion.”

Jarl Hroaldr reached out to cup the goblet’s basin with both hands and lifted it overhead. A cheer rose up around the hall from the Kjellings: the Vidofnings, Einarr was certain, wanted no part of such a thing. Not until they reclaimed their home.

Once the cheering had died down, the Jarl turned and set the goblet carefully on the table as though it were capable of spilling. His attention returned to Einarr. “Rise, Einarr, son of Stigander, son of Raen. Your dedication is most admirable, and so I am willing to overlook that you have not gained a hall. Rise, and take the hand of Runa, and make Kjell your home henceforward. My Thane, Lord Hragnar, sails for Kjell even as we speak to take your oath to him and this land.”

The hall fell silent. To Einarr, the sudden stillness felt as though the world were crashing around his ears. His face felt slack. “I… what?”

“Runa is my only child, and likely to remain so. He who marries her will become my heir. Rise, son, and take the hand of the prize you’ve fought so hard for.”

Raenshold. The Jarl was asking him to forswear Raenshold… his father… his birthright… and accept a Jarldom in its place? Einarr shook his head as he climbed unsteadily to his feet, certain he must have heard wrong. “My Lord, surely you jest?”


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