Tag: Hallingdanse

3.21 – Enticement of Food

Einarr once more offered Jorir the hilt of his sword in token of their pledge, and the dwarf grasped it without hesitation.

“A test, my lord?” Jorir raised an eyebrow, his voice held low.

“I was the one on trial, I think. Well, we gave them a story, anyway.”

“You!” The show-off from the circle thundered, striding into the ring in his spectral fury. “That was no challenge. You planned this!”

“Are not sword dances typically agreed on?” Einarr kept his voice light. If he played this right, the only one to lose honor would be the enraged ghost. “What matter if it was friendly or otherwise?”

“The sword dance is a sacred trial by steel, and you have defiled it! What dispute was this meant to settle?”

“Good sir, I believe you are mistaken. The sword dance is a ritual, true, but one which contains a story. Have we not accomplished that?”

The figure of the show-off wavered, turning almost transparent even as it tried to elongate.

“Stand down!” The voice of the Allthane only seemed to bellow, but it was sufficient to bring the spectre back to its human form. “You forget yourself, and you forget the point of the hallingdanse. The newcomers have impressed me, but you have only served to remind us all of things better left forgot.”

It worked?

“The hallingdanse is over, and the table yet groans with the weight of food. Surely by now our guests have worked up an appetite.”

“Ah…” Even as Einarr was about to object, the light shifted and the room was once again dominated by the feast table and the glow of light reflected off of gold. Even knowing the smells were illusory, the sight of platters of fish – real fish, not the dolphin centerpiece – and the steaming confections like nothing Jarl Hroaldr had ever served now made Einarr’s mouth water. It was true: the hallingdanse had left him hungry.

Jorir, too, stared at the table with wide eyes. He swallowed before turning his head to look at his liege lord. Einarr met his liege man’s gaze and nodded: by winning the hallingdanse, they had left themselves weak to the lure of the spectral food.

Tyr walked up behind them and clapped their shoulders, grinning at each of them. “Well fought out there.”

“Thanks.” Einarr could not keep the dryness from his voice.

“Ready for the harder battle?”

“Not much choice, now is there?” Jorir drawled.

Tyr’s grin disappeared and he turned his face to Einarr. “Not much, no. Any idea how to break us out of the Allthane’s thrall?”

“Not yet. I’d thought to ask for a boon, but somehow I doubt he would wish to hear what I would request.”

Tyr grunted. “You’re likely right, although you may also be on the right track. Now get out there and mingle: we’ll think of something.”

Einarr grumbled. “I’m sure we will. I just hope we can do it quickly enough.”

“That’s what I’m here for, isn’t it?”

Einarr harrumphed and made his way back into the crowd of spirits. When one of them thrust a plate into his hand he took it, not looking at what it held, pretending he couldn’t smell it. Likewise when a cup was pressed into his other hand. That at least he did not have to feign disinterest in: he remembered well the appearance of the liquid without its glamour.

A figure cut across his path, intent on something on the other side of the feast, and it seemed strangely solid. He drew his eyebrows down, remembering the half-alive man from the ring of dancers. Survivors? Perhaps of the freeboaters?

If there were freeboaters caught up in the Allthane’s feast, surely he should try to break them free, as well. Perhaps that was where the key lay? Not in his own men’s freedom, but in that of those who had come before?

He shook his head. No, no-one who claimed to be the Allthane would insist on such disloyalty. Still, though, should he win their freedom perhaps he could also win their loyalty.

Still, though, he was not quite back at the beginning. Should he be able to get through to the captive freeboater, the other man might have valuable insights. It was worth a shot.

Now he mingled with purpose. Einarr had been so surprised by the man’s aspect during the dance that he had not remembered his face, and so he studied each and every man he passed with the intent to pierce their disguise.

So intent was he on his task that he nearly tripped over Jorir, who had evaded all plates and instead been caught up in a game of tafl on the periphery.

“My apologies, gentlemen. Don’t let me interrupt your game… Jorir, is that the piece I think it is?”

“Aye. You’d find his ploy familiar, too. Only, after I win, I’ll not be giving my king away.”

“See that you don’t.” Given the associations Jorir had placed on that piece before, the alternative seemed uncomfortably like being given to the ghosts himself. Now he leaned over and whispered to his warrior. “Keep your eyes open. At least one other man at this feast is alive.”

Jorir nodded. “If I see him, I’ll be sure to tell him.”

Einarr clapped him on the shoulder, nodding in turn. The dwarf was clever: that was no misunderstanding. He meandered back out into the crowd, still studying the men about him in search of one who was actually a man.

“What’s this? Even with food in hand, still you do not eat!” One of the spectral revelers approached, his arms outstretched. It took Einarr only a moment to recognize him as the show-off from the ring.

“Mm? Oh, I do have a plate. I’m afraid my friends and I have much on our minds. If we do not eat, it is only because worry fills our bellies.”

“No worries allowed here, my friend.” He stressed that word in an exceedingly unfriendly way. “Eat! I promise, your cares will vanish with the first morsel.”

“Such a thing will not do, I’m afraid.” Einarr glanced about, hoping there was a table within arm’s reach, to no avail. “Some things simply demand contemplation, and to fail to consider them is the height of indiscipline. Now if you will excuse me, there is someone I am looking for.”

“Oh? How fascinating.” The show-off approached far closer than Einarr was comfortable with. He could feel the cold of the grave emanating from the specter’s body. “Tell me who it is, perhaps I have seen them.”

“I didn’t get a good look at their face, and I’m afraid I know no-one’s name here.”

“That shouldn’t be a problem.”

Einarr wanted to groan as a force pressed briefly down against the plate in his hand. When it vanished the plate was lighter.

“He w-” Einarr cut himself off as the show-off’s hand lifted, a mess of unidentified food clutched in his fingers. Einarr pressed his lips together as he realized what the man intended, but not before a morsel made its way through.

“Relax. Join the feast. Have fun.” The spirit smiled maliciously and thumped Einarr on the back as he stalked away into the crowd. Einarr nearly choked trying not to swallow the tainted food. A warm sensation flooded his mouth.


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3.20 – Sword Dance

Einarr made his opening moves especially eye-catching this round. From his hop-skip out he did a handspring and landed on his toes in a crouch. Rather than rising from his crouch, he bounced around the ring like that, kicking a foot with each bounce, his arms folded. Once he’d completed his circuit he moved to the center of the circle, still kicking with every move. Once he was sure he had their attention, waiting for the inevitable surprise, he leapt straight up into the air and kicked both legs out in front of him. At the apex of his jump he swung them behind and up into the air to land on his hands.

Now he aped some of Jorir’s fancy handwork, partially because it made for a good show but also to give the dwarf an excuse to “challenge” him. When he decided the fancy kicks had had their day, he placed the soles of his feet together and began hopping on his hands.

Then an idea struck. He extended his left leg high in the air and lowered his right down towards the floor. Just when he was sure everyone expected him to come down, Einarr raised his right hand to grab his toe. You can do this. The balance was trickier than he expected, but he had this. From this pose he threw the weight of his horizontal leg outward…

And spun on his palm. Oh, gods, that hurt on the rough stone floor that only looked like polished wood. But it got a cheer from the audience – a cheer he could not quite grin at, under the circumstances.

Thankfully Jorir did not make him wait much longer. The dwarf chose this moment to swagger out into the ring, his arms extended to the audience, his hands seeming to beckon them from cheers to jeers. Four strides into the circle, he pounded a hand against the ground and raised a fist to the air before matching every move Einarr had just made.

When Jorir made it plain that’s what he intended to do, Einarr lowered his feet to the ground and stepped back towards the ring – but not into it. Instead, he pretended as though he were leaning against a wall, his arms crossed, critiquing his liege-man’s performance to the surprisingly solid-looking man behind him in the circle.

Einarr shook his head a little. Now was not the time to focus on that. Right now, he needed to concentrate on beating the spirits who had proposed this contest, for that was likely the only way out. He glanced back at the man again: even after the reminder that the circle was made up of ghosts, he could not see this person as anything other than alive.

Jorir spun on his hand now. I wonder if that’s as painful for his hide as it was for mine? That was his cue, though.

Einarr drove his fist towards the floor – although, with his greater height, he did not actually pound the ground with it – before raising it into the air above his head. Challenge accepted.

Jorir’s dismount from the Thurisaz rune spin was somewhat less graceful than Einarr’s, but not a soul in the hallingdanse seemed to care. Everyone recognized what they intended at this point, and only those who had not cared to share it before knew it was planned.

In the same moment Jorir unhooked his axe from his belt Einarr drew Sinmora, and now the real mutters began from about the circle. Everyone knew the sword dance, knew that it was ceremonial. To use live steel was dangerous, unusual, but not unheard of. Einarr raised his long sword toward the ceiling even as Jorir tapped the haft of his axe against the ground.

No coin changed hands in this circle. Likely gambling had long since lost all meaning among the Allthane’s crew. No matter: they aimed to impress, not to win a pot.

Now they moved into the clash. Einarr made a testing swipe with his sword, which was met easily by his axe. In the rhythm of the dance they both turned toward the crowd to egg them on before the spin took them back into ritual combat.

A pair of testing swipes matched the rhythm of the drum with clashing steel before the dance turned them back around, and then a set of three cuts. Now the tune shifted, and the testing feints were at an end.

Both of them, it seemed, had their battle on the jotunhall’s stair in mind as they came together in the clinch and sprang back again. Einarr was perversely tempted to bark at his liege man, but that would be perceived as an insult too far. Probably by Jorir, as well. Still, though, that meant that soon the dwarf would…

Here it came. Jorir danced back from Einarr’s last lunge a good distance farther than he ordinarily would have and turned, his knees bent. The dwarf ran six paces back towards their duel and launched himself into the air.

Back on the island, had they not been on a stair, Einarr would have slid under the dwarf and cut into his legs without hesitation. Now, though, that was simply not an option. Nor was allowing the dwarf’s momentum to send him barreling into the circle, as would likely have happened if he simply avoided the attack. Instead, Einarr dropped to his knees and raised Sinmora over head. Steel met steel in a thunderous clang.

No sooner had Jorir’s toes touched the ground, though, than Einarr gave a shove with his blade. The dwarf leapt lightly back: perhaps he would have been able to stop himself from hitting the crowd behind them. No matter: an artful dodge, no matter how clever, was still not as well-received as a skillful parry. Both showed skill, but only the former could suggest cowardice.

Now they circled, testing each other’s guards again while the rhythm of the song allowed. Einarr grinned: he saw his chance, and he didn’t mind letting Jorir know he did.

As the music shifted again, Einarr dropped to a low crouch, balancing himself with his hands as he launched a sweeping kick against the dwarf’s stocky legs. Jorir attempted to leap over the sweep, much as Father had last winter, but unlike Stigander Jorir misjudged the height of Einarr’s kick. The toe of his boot caught the back of Jorir’s heel and the dwarf tumbled backwards.

The proper way to end the fight would be to place the tip of his blade at Jorir’s throat. Einarr felt his arm shake as he raised the sword slowly in that direction, though. No. Instead, he flipped Sinmora around and held the blade under his arm, his hand on top of the hilt as he offered it to his liege man.

That was the moment the show-off of the competition realized they’d been had.


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3.19 – Dance with the Devil

The tune the musicians played was an unfamiliar one to Einarr, but that hardly mattered. The rhythm was heavy enough no-one could mistake it, and the fundamentals of the hall dance were in the central competition. Everything else was just warm-up.

What quickly became clear was that Einarr had his work cut out for him if he wanted to have a chance against this crew. Even in the early rounds of the dance, the wraiths’ contortions in the center of the circle were almost inhuman. Don’t get swept away… like I could forget who I was competing against.

As if to underscore his thought, the contestant in the center took hold of his ankle with one hand and then jumped through the gap. This would have been ordinary enough if he hadn’t then taken that same foot in an arc over his head and back down to the floor in front of him. It was a move Sivid might have been able to use if he were ten years younger.

Once the show-off had left the floor, Einarr decided it was time to toss his cap in the ring. He pranced out, and bounced down into a crouch and back as he made an initial circuit. Impressing anyone in this circle, except perhaps Tyr or Jorir, would be a challenge, but even if he was no Sivid, he prided himself on his agility. A handspring followed a cart-wheel followed a back flip, and at the end of it he kicked for what would have been the rafters in an ordinary hall. He held his hands out to the side as he twirled another circuit about the ring and retook his place. If the Allthane’s men did not seem overly impressed, neither did their faces appear bored.

Good. A spirit would always have an advantage over a living man in the hall dance, as they were not subject to the physical limitations of the human body: the trick would be to make that advantage not matter.

More celebrants entered the ring for their warm-up after Einarr’s performance – to his surprise, Jorir did as well. Tyr, old salt that he was, had not ventured into the center since Einarr had been a deck hand. Still, it would be interesting to see how a dwarf fared in the hallingdanse.

Based on his warm-up, he might have a better chance of impressing the spirits than Einarr did, simply because the moves favored by dwarves were by necessity different from those that worked best for men of somewhat taller stature. For his warm-up, he spent a great deal of time walking about on his hands, performing all manner of kicks as he did so, and rolling through no fewer than three different bridges.

Eventually, however, it became plain that no-one else intended to join in the competition, and the competitors moved into their more impressive displays.

The show-off from before proved that he was the one to beat. His second round opened with a series of the stomach-churning leg rotations he had shown before, and became stranger from there. The culmination, to Einarr’s mind, was when the pole was set up for him to kick for the rafters, and instead he did a truly beautiful flip over the pole.

Einarr could not quite repress a growl. For all that the ghosts did not have the same physical limitations he did, he was reasonably certain not all of them realized they were dead. Including, he thought, the one who went to such pains to display inhumanly impressive feats of agility.

For three more rounds, both he and Jorir managed to hold their own in the hallingdanse, but he was running out of both stamina and ideas for new feats to try. Probably this circle would have given Sivid a run for his money, and that man was the best living dancer Einarr had ever seen. At the end of the third round, he arranged to re-enter the circle next to his liege-man.

“You aim for one of us to win this, right?” He whispered as other contestants took their turns – those who had not bowed out after the show-off’s latest performance, that is. The number of entrants was dropping rapidly.

“Aye.”

“Next round, let’s sword-dance.” It had been a stroke of genius on his father’s part last winter, if a bit unconventional – but unconventional was what they wanted here.

“With live steel?”

“Unless you happen to have a pair of staves handy. I don’t think the locals do.”

Jorir nodded. “I shall enjoy testing my blade against you once more, then.”

Einarr offered a cocky grin. “You mean when I actually care about looking good? Perfect.”

“Next round then.” Jorir inclined his head towards his lord, and Einarr matched the gesture before turning his full attention back to the dance in the center.

It was plain that they had not hidden their intentions from everyone in the circle, but those nearest did not seem inclined to share the surprise with those further away. The show-off gave his most impressive showing yet, of course, and Einarr suspected most of the other contestants would have dropped out after that performance, but the anticipation in the circle of what the newcomers would do was palpable.

Einarr grinned. Thus far he had ventured forth earlier than Jorir, and so as with last winter he would be the challenged party in the sword dance. That suited him just fine: for a man to challenge a dwarf, while not actually unfair, seemed distasteful at first glance. For a dwarf to challenge a man, however, was right and proper – as it was when the man, hard-pressed, managed to defeat the dwarf. That was simply how the stories were meant to go, and a crowd such as this would surely enjoy such a tale.

Now it was Einarr’s turn to enter the circle. Still wearing a grin, he did a hop-skip out into the ring.


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3.18 – Allthane’s Feast

“You’re about to go engage a dead man in a battle of wits. I’m coming.” Tyr dusted off his palms as he stepped over toward the other two.

“We’ll be relying on you, then.” Einarr clapped the old sailor on the shoulder.

“Y’got that right.”

“Let’s get to it, then.” Einarr turned from the gathering of his men to face the spectral display and swaggered forward into the light.

He raised a hand and called out to announce their approach. “Hail, my lord!”

“Hail, travelers.” The king’s voice was weary, but he stood to greet them anyway. “We have been waiting for you.”

“My apologies for the delay.”

“I do hope my men were not overly forceful with my invitation.”

“Merely a miscommunication, I’m afraid. To what do I owe the honor?”

“Well you are guests here on my island, are you not? What host would not extend a fitting welcome to those unlucky enough to wash up on these shores? Come! Eat, drink, and be merry, for all who wreck here are lost.”

“We will join you, then.” Does he not realize, then, what we spoke of earlier? Einarr hoped so.

“Wonderful! Please, come, enjoy my hospitality and while away the endless hours.”

Einarr shared a look with Tyr and Jorir. Tyr nodded once, in approval. Jorir shrugged, as though he, too, was not entirely certain how to take that.

Suddenly about him he realized he could hear the accustomed sounds of a feast now, where earlier the cave had been as silent as the artwork Erik had used to describe it. He could catch a whiff, here or there, of roasted meat, as well, as though the illusion were fading into reality.

Not good. Einarr’s breast fluttered as he realized how much more real the feast felt up close. It was to the best that he had Jorir and Tyr along, and that they had left men on the outside to break them free should the need arise.

Einarr took a tankard and pretended to drink as he moved among the other revelers – revelers who, as he moved closer, appeared not-quite solid, or as though their feast day clothes hid nothing but bones. He tried not to shiver: unnerving as it was, he had been granted a boon here. Easier by far to remember the sort of feast one was at when the illusion was thin in spots.

Easier still not to eat when the main course appeared to be dolphin. No-one hunted dolphins. They were a sailor’s best friend, as true as a hound on land. Had the Allthane been so decadent, or was it another artifact of the illusion? Einarr could not tell.

“What a curious table you have set, my Thane,” ventured Jorir. “I see dolphin steaks and Imperial confections… how did you come by such a spread?”

“Oh, one does what one must. The dolphin had been a nuisance for years, interfering with the walrus hunts and stealing fish right from the nets. Finally Svagnar over there… where is Svagnar?”

“’E took sick, ‘e did, milord,” rasped one of the skeletal figures around the table. “Said ‘e had a splitting ‘eadache.”

The skeleton whose head Jorir caved in, perhaps?

“Anyway, finally Svagnar decided enough was enough, got a bunch of the boys together to take him down. Once they’d hunted dolphin, though, we just had to try it. I tell you, some of the best meat around.”

“So this is that same dolphin, then?” Einarr could hear that his voice was faint. The idea of eating dolphin, even one killed as a nuisance, made him feel vaguely ill.

“The very same.”

The food isn’t real. Erik had known that from the very beginning. He had, too, but it was difficult to remember with his eyes and nose claiming otherwise.

Einarr glanced down at the drink in his hand: it no longer looked like mead, even in the golden glow of the feast, but rather stank of fetid marsh water. He managed not to grimace, but he no longer worried about accidentally drinking from the cup, either.

“Tell me, my lord, where was it the dolphin was slain?”

“Just off the southern cape. Come! Eat! Enjoy the bounty of the sea, and the talents of my cooks!”

“…My lord,” Tyr ventured. “There is no southern cape here. Only shifting sandbars and bog.”

“Nonsense!” The Allthane slammed his goblet down on the table, and before Einarr’s eyes the cave walls became dressed stone draped with tapestries far richer than anything he had seen in his visions of Raenshold. The golden glow remained, and now he heard the thin strains of a fiddler’s warm-up. “This is Heidirshold! You mean to tell me you have arrived now, just in advance of the Allthing, and you did not even know that?”

The Allthane seemed to have, at best, a tenuous grasp on reality… although under the circumstances, Einarr wasn’t certain he could blame the man. Spirit?

“Gentlemen! It seems the food is not to the newcomer’s liking. Who will join us all in the hallingdanse?”

“My lord-” Einarr started to beg off that, as well, but Jorir stopped him with an elbow in his side.

“I don’t think we can get out of this,” the dwarf whispered. “Just don’t forget that we’re dancing with ghosts.”

Einarr nodded. “My lord, we’d love to.”

The music picked up, and a drum and a fife joined the fiddle. Before Einarr could blink, the spirits who had been milling about the table, filling their ghostly mouths with insubstantial food, were now forming a circle off to the side. The cup Einarr had held without drinking was no longer in his hand. The men to either side began the side-stepping line dance that marked the outer ring of a hallingdanse.

Einarr waited. He would not be the first in the center. He intended to win – ghosts or no ghosts.


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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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2.21 – A Tune for All Seasons

Einarr furrowed his brow at Runa’s suggestion, confused. “A… tune? But Song Magic is fundamentally ephemeral.”

“Indeed.” All hint of sensuality was gone from Reki’s voice, and Einarr heard what sounded like a warning threat in her tone.

He bristled: this was his wife she used that tone with, after all.

“Song magic is utterly unsuited for such a task. I don’t know what you’re even thinking about.”

Runa looked back down at the table and took a deep breath. She squared her shoulders and looked Einarr directly in the eye. “Yes. Song magic is utterly unsuited to the task I have in mind… at least as it is typically thought of. There is another layer, however. A deeper layer.”

“Such things are not worthy of you, Queen of Breidelsteinn.”

“And yet it is an option I am willing to place on the table, Master Chanter.” She turned her attention back toward Einarr, as though afraid to look away now, and swallowed hard. “Should my lord desire it of me, I am willing to perform a Tuning on the men of the Allthing which will ensure they look favorably on you and your strategy.”

“Such things are forbidden!”

“I know that well, Reki, and yet every Singer learns the practice in her apprenticeship. Such is my devotion, that I will offer the option.”

“Reki…” Einarr had to draw himself together to even ask the question. He had a feeling he was not going to like the answer. “Reki. What is a Tuning?”

“Just as a fiddle or a lyre has strings which must be tuned, so too do the souls of sentient beings. The Tuning works a profound change in the subtlest way, and it is permanent.”

Einarr rocked back on his heels. In that moment he felt as though he was drowning, and had to remind himself to breathe. He looked across the table at Runa: her lower lip trembled.

“Such a thing is possible?” It came out as a whisper, clearly audible over the silence from the rest of the room. Bend the Allthing to my will… and turn thanes to thralls? Never.

Stigander looked shaken to his core: four times married, and four times to Singers.

Runa lowered her head. “It is not permanent. Not truly.”

He almost didn’t hear her, not that her answer did anything to cool his mounting rage. “So when you said you could make me carry you away from your father… this is what you meant?” His voice crescendoed until the last word was nearly a shout. Her eyes went wide but she didn’t deny it. “Have you ever Tuned someone, Runa?”

His wife kept her head lowered and did not answer.

“Have you?”

Still nothing.

“Did you Tune me?” Can I believe her if she says no?

Still no answer.

Einarr growled. He wanted to throw something, but even had something come to hand it would have been a challenge not to throw it at her right then. Red haze danced at the edges of his vision. Soul Tuning. How could such a thing even be possible, if the gods are just?

“There will be no Tuning at the Allthing. None. And if I ever hear talk of you performing this black art, I will put you aside and send you back to your Father’s hall in disgrace.”

He felt sick, and moreso because, for just a moment before the full implications hit, he’d been tempted. The silver bells sounded anyway.

***

Sivid blinked. When he closed his eyes, he was surrounded by the open sky and the side of a mountain above the tree line. Then the sound of bells came to his ears and he sighed. Slowly, the sound of bells faded into the pounding of drums and the jaunty drone of a fiddle and the rattling of dice. When he opened his eyes again, he was in the best sort of public house.

He saw no-one drinking broodily alone or plotting with just their mates. The fiddle and drums were playing for a hallingdanse up near the front of the room, and elsewhere he saw tables full of men telling boastful stories or dicing, and from anywhere in the room he might hear a peal of laughter or a spate of cheering. Even as the grin spread across his face, though, he felt his fingers twitching.

It was a familiar itch, but one he could never quite ignore. The itch to toss the dice and win again, prove to himself that his losses were still only by choice. Let’s find a place in the dance, instead. There would be no unfortunate consequences if he took the prize on the dance floor, after all.

He sidled up to a woman on the outside with a large purse at her belt and a blackboard in hand. “Anything special has to happen for me to join?”

The brown-haired woman spared him half a glance. If she only smiled, she’d be nearly as good-looking as he was. “Entry fee is ten silvers to the pot. Winner gets half, house gets the rest.”

Sivid reached down and tested the weight of his purse. For a wonder, it seemed to be full. “Done.”

He pressed the coins into the bookie’s hand and found himself a place in the circle. The dancers here were fierce for all that their contest was all in fun.

Sivid grinned. The better the competition, the more fun he’d have.


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1.8 – Dance Fight!

Einarr knew those boots very well, in fact. Had watched, in any spare moment she could find, as Astrid stitched them herself from the skins of rabbits she had asked him to catch. Stitched them herself, when it would have been the easiest thing in the world to pass it off to one of the thralls. And now Stigander swaggered onto the dance floor wearing them, courting a wife for his son.

He kicked himself through a backflip to stand upright. Stigander smirked and began to spin around on his heels, his hands held out as if to ask ‘what can I say?’

Einarr matched and opposed the spin, such that they crossed paths twice each rotation. Every few twirls he dropped to a crouch, and now it was Father’s turn to match him.

There was a limit to the acrobatics they could pull off with both of them in the circle, however. The music continued, shifting into the Warrior’s Dance. Stigander motioned to someone in the hall, who tossed him a staff. Einarr looked over at Erik and gestured for the same. He caught it with a flourish before knocking its end against the floor. The knock from his father’s staff rang out a bare breath later. Einarr met his father’s eyes with a boyish grin, and the older man’s confident smirk never faltered.

Muttered voices from outside the circle, those few who were not participating, were punctuated by the clink of coins changing hands. Both of them spun once on their heels, mugging for the crowd. Clack! Einarr’s feint was blocked by Stigander’s.

They exchanged a few more showy feints, their staves cracking against each other with every blow, before the flow of the music suggested a separation. Einarr planted his staff on the floor and pushed off into another cartwheel. Stigander held his at both ends and jumped over the middle of it. The crowd loved it, but Einarr saw the Jarl clench his jaw.

They spun together now, their staves striking with enough force to sting the palms this time. Stigander pressed close and growled at his partner. “So you do have some spirit in you. Give them a good show, now.”

“We’ve got her attention.”

In the moment before they sprang apart, Stigander’s smirk relaxed into a smile. The music led them on from occasional feints and into the “fight” at the center of the dance, and their staves kept time for the piper as much as the drummer did. Before long, the music allowed them to press forward again.

“It’s not her attention I’m worried about.”

Einarr glanced at the Jarl for just a moment and got shoved back three steps. From that third step, though, he leaped forward, staff raised overhead to strike. Stigander raised his overhead, braced in two hands.

“I can’t tell if he’s furious or bored.” Hroaldr was still in the circle, but deliberately not looking at the spectacle in the center.

“Furious.” Stigander looked deliberately over toward the Jarl. “But we might be in danger of boring the rest.” Stigander ducked and spun around behind Einarr, tagging the back of his legs with his staff. Einarr followed suit, ducking into a low spin and sweeping his staff towards his father’s legs. Stigander jumped.

Nice choice, Father. Einarr spun faster, rising gradually from his crouch. With each spin, Stigander had to jump a little higher. Eventually, when the stick was nearly to his waist, he backflipped out of the arc of the strike. Clack! Stigander brought his own staff around to meet his son’s.

Einarr lunged forward, taking his staff in a two-handed grip and driving his shoulder into his father’s rock-hard stomach. The man didn’t even grunt, and so Einarr turned the lunge into a spin on his outer heel, the other leg held out straight. When he turned around, Stigander had once again turned to face him. His face was red as he knocked the end of the staff against the floor, and he seemed out of breath. An icy flood of worry crushed Einarr’s flush of enjoyment, and he knocked his own staff to signal the end of the fight.

Stigander did not give up his swagger as he danced to the outer circle, but it was less certain of itself. He tossed the staff to the waiting Kjelling and moved to take Einarr’s old place in the circle.

The place near Runa was open, but there was no reason Stigander should have conceded there. Einarr tossed his staff back to Erik and tried to follow: a look over Stigander’s shoulder warned him off. Later, then. He stood straighter, ignoring for the moment his concern in favor of a “victory” lap around the stage before he trotted off to take his Father’s former place near the Jarl.

He nearly stopped in his tracks when he saw the Jarl’s face. Hroaldr’s face was redder than Stigander’s, his lips pursed in fury, staring at Einarr. He slid into the proffered opening anyway, giving Runa a thin-lipped smile.

It may have been the single most uncomfortable place he had stood during a Hall Dance, but thankfully it didn’t go on much longer. Even Sivid didn’t try to compete with the father-son show that had just occurred, and he wasn’t usually one to be cautious of the odds.

As the music faded and the circle dissolved, Einarr felt a strong hand grip his arm. A strong, male hand. He turned slowly, knowing who it had to be. Einarr was still unprepared for the fury filling the Jarl’s eyes.

“I’m not blind, boy. Even if I were, Stigander has made things quite plain t’me. D’ye think that maybe, just maybe, there’s a reason Trabbi is courting my daughter instead of the son of my friend?”

Einarr opened his mouth to interject, but the Jarl continued.

“You want to marry my daughter. So tell me, boy: d’ye have a hall?”

Einarr clapped his mouth shut.

“D’ye have a hearth? A ship? Oh, yes, you have a ship – or you will, crewed by your father’s men, loyal to him first, and no port to call your own. Is that what you would have me bind Runa to? Trabbi is a loyal vassal. Trabbi has holdings of his own, and if his boats are fishing boats, there are worse things. Now, tell me, boy, who should I marry my daughter to?”

“My lord, how many wives has Trabbi buried?” It was all he could come up with under the stinging truth of the Jarl’s rage.

“Fewer than Stigander.”

“And how old are his children?”

Hroaldr met his eyes in an icy glare, the anger undiminished, as though to say he had already considered such matters. “Do not test me where my daughter is concerned. Understood?”

“Yes, my lord.”


1.7 – Feast in the Hall 1.9 – Spring Thaw
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1.7 – Feast in the Hall

On their return to the Hall, Einarr and Stigander had turned over their skinned prize to the cooks of Kjell and went directly to the sauna to clean up.

At the feast that night, every time Einarr attempted to approach Runa, an older man of the Hall deftly slipped between them – holding her chair here, drowning his offer of tafl with a spontaneous verse there, and casting challenging looks at Einarr the entire time. Runa took all of this with a polite smile that did not touch her eyes. Meanwhile, at every turn he felt the fire in his breast being stoked.

Then the Jarl called for music, and the tables were cleared to allow for dancing. As the drummer and the piper struck up a lively tune and the revelers formed a circle, Runa took her place at her father’s right hand. Without anyone really noticing how he managed it, her new suitor took her other side. Einarr, meanwhile, ended up sandwiched between Erik and the cook he had last seen cleaning their reindeer.

The circle began it’s bouncing step to the beat of the drum. Then the piper and the lyrist launched into the tune itself – a quick number, such that the Hall’s children and those who had already drunk too much were prone to stumbles. This didn’t continue for long, however: within a few bars of the music, Sivid moved to the center of the circle with a clap to the sole of his boot. He was good, one of the best of the Vidofnings, but the hall dance was a competition in its own right. Rather than leave everything on the dance floor then and there, this was a warm-up. He dropped to a bridge and rose again, his hands never touching the floor, and to the rhythm of the drum performed some simple acrobatics. He kicked for the rafters once, and danced out to rejoin the circle at a favorable location.

A man of the was next to enter the circle, and if his agility was lacking he made up for it with spirit. Einarr caught his father’s eye and quirked his head before following the Kjelling into the center. Let’s put on a show…

When the man of the hall danced out, Einarr trotted in at the first acceptable moment. He clicked his heels and slapped his soles once or twice before dropping into a crouch and twirling on the balls of his feet. Before that could bore anyone, Einarr sprang up directly into a backflip and a one-handed cartwheel. He caught sight of the Princess’ face and saw an encouraging smile there. A few scattered cheers rose up from around the circle, and so he made a bouncing circuit inside the wheel before kicking for the rafters himself. Someone a little closer to the Princess let him back into the outer circle, and he was followed by another young man of the Hall. It was poor form, after all, for the guests to try and dominate the Hall dance.

Einarr paid little attention to the new Kjelling. His focus was on the old man with the Jarl’s favor, who had not looked away since he ceded the stage. The rest of the hall seemed to enjoy the performance, however, and Einarr tamped down on his impatience. The only person he cared about besting tonight was the anonymous suitor – a man Einarr expected chosen more for loyalty than any particular skill.

Eventually the greybeard had an opening to slide out onto the stage. He moved immediately into crouching kicks, all the while spinning as he moved around the circle. A bridge into a backflip – no hands – kick the rafters, and then he walked on his hands before springing back to his feet. More cheering – someone called out “Trabbi!” He trotted around the circle once more, quirking his head at Einarr as he passed, and returned to the circle.

Einarr bided his time. The earliest he could return to the floor would be four more dancers, he thought, based on the number on the floor. Much longer than that, though, and it would look like he conceded. He watched, half his brain weighing the other dancers and half determining how best to play on his rival’s performance.

Finally the Hall Dance came back around to where Einarr could step out, and he opened with a prance into a jumping axe kick that clopped against the floor but rattled no-one’s cup. He skipped only a half-circuit before gathering his strength in his thighs. Einarr launched himself in the spinning kick for the rafters, and no sooner had his first foot touched the floor than he hopped up into a hands-free backflip. He heard his crewmates cheering, and probably some of the Kjellings as well, but all that mattered right then was Runa’s smiling eyes. He grinned then: if she liked that, she would love this.

He bent his knees and bounced on his toes, kicking out like Trabbi had done for a time, and motioned to Sivid. The man tossed him a cap. He pulled it over his ears and sprang forward, somersaulting into a headstand. The floor here was a little rough, but it would do: he spun.

The crowd’s delighted laughter turned to excited muttering. Einarr saw another pair of boots step out onto the floor. He knew those boots: they had been a gift from Astrid before the last Ice.


1.6 – Winter Hunt 1.8 – Dance Fight!
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