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Will there be much fighting?” came a girlish voice.
“Much,” came the old man’s rasping reply.
“Will she have to kill many men?” came a second young voice.
“Only the Allfather himself knows that.”
The night was moon-bright and as chilled as the depths of a Frost Giant’s cave. Four cloaked figures made their way slowly down a treacherous mountain path and paused on a rock ledge overlooking a dark, silent forest. Far below, beyond the forest and extending into the distance, lay a vast, silvery expanse of water, the great Lake Vanern.
“Is Jarl Borger’s hall large and fine?” the first asked.
“Is it covered with carving and hung with silk banners?” the second added.
“I have said so.”
“The great hall flows with the finest mead?”
“Drunk in toasts by the fiercest warriors in all of farmland?”
The questions wearied the old man; they asked not for information but for assurance. He paused and raised a gnarled hand and pointed to distant specks of light on the jagged line where the forest and water appeared to meet.
“There it is.” His voice was dry and forced. “The village. Even as I remembered.” He looked to the moon-paled faces of his three daughters. “When we enter the hall you remain by the door . . . I will approach the high seat alone.”
The two young ones nodded and he turned to the third, who towered above them all. She stood motionless, staring at those distant lights, which seemed to move and change with each blink of the eye . . . lights that meant an ending . . . and a beginning.
“Are you ready, Daughter?” he said, laying a hand on her arm.
Ready? To take up her life-task and fulfill her destiny?
Aaren Serricksdotter looked down at the anxious faces of her two young sisters and her throat tightened. For one tumultuous moment she ached with longing to go back to the mountains from which they had come . . . back to their log hut in the meadow . . . back to the simple lifeways they had shared. As soon as she recognized that yearning she recoiled from it, naming it weakness.
Focusing on what she could see of the old man’s face beneath his felt hat, she nodded.
As they started off again, descending into shadows cast by the restless, whispering trees, the old man’s question drummed in the chambers of her heart.
Ready? Are you ready?
As she moved along the narrow path, her mind filled with powerful, unbidden memories that crowded out the sounds of owls hooting and the rustle of leaves in the dry autumn forest. Suddenly she was in their home in the mountains once more, tussling and giggling with her little sisters before the evening fire . . . lying on her back in a summer meadow filled with the scent of ripe grass, searching the clouds for a glimpse of the gods who lived in Asgard . . . holding the body of the little forest cat she had raised from a kit, while tears burned down her cheeks.
Her jaw clenched. Her hand brushed the cool metal pommel of the sword at her side and her fingers closed reflexively around its leather-wrapped horn handle. This was what mattered now, she told herself, shaking off the clutch of longing at her heart. This was all that mattered.
One by one she locked those painful remembrances away. There would be no place in her new life for longing, gentle memories, or tender mercies.
Father Serrick had taught her about the world of men. It was a fierce and pitiless place, filled with hard bodies, hard steel, and even harder fighting. That was the way of things in the lands of the Norsemen. The highest glory and surest reward came from fighting well, and if the fate-weavers decreed it, from dying with a blade in hand. Father Serrick would know; he had been a mighty warrior once, in the hall of Borger Volungson.
It was the future she must look to now, not the past. Their futures--hers and her sisters’--would be bought with blood. And it was her task, she reminded herself grimly, to be the one to draw that blood, not shed it.
The village had changed, grown in the years since Serrick last trod those paths; it scarcely resembled his descriptions of it. But they had no trouble finding their way to the jarl’s great hall. Its steeply pitched roof with its dragon-carved ridge beam loomed high above those of the more ordinary dwellings . . . emblem and constant reminder of the seat of power of the clan.
As they approached, they could make out the heads of fierce beasts carved on the ends of the great timbers that supported the roof. The walls were made of thick logs and the main doors--as tall as two strong warriors--were bound with great iron hinges. Smoke poured from the roof opening, flavored with the aroma of fat pork, and the noise of voices and fists banging planks seeped from every opening in those formidable walls.
Aaren watched Serrick pause to assess several men sprawled around the main entrance of the hall, taking in their mead-soaked heads, freshly bandaged injuries, and bruised faces. Their battered state coupled with a lack of sentries said that they had no fear of attack this night. That could only be because they had just conquered their most immediate threat. The noise, then, was a celebration of recent victory-luck.
No leader among the clans of the Norsemen celebrated victory-luck with more vigor than did Jarl Borger Volungson, Serrick had told them. The ale-feasts in his halls endured for days, filled with manly contests, hard drinking, and the distribution of the spoils of conquest. Aaren tensed and gripped the handle of her sword. There was no way of knowing whether the battle and ensuing ale-feast had sated their appetite for fighting or merely sharpened it.
Fortunately, no one rose to challenge them as they reached the doors and Serrick grasped one of the great iron rings to pull the opening wider and slip inside. Smoky torches set in brackets on the walls illuminated long planking tables laden with the remains of a feast and a large company of men who were shouting and laughing and arguing and wrestling with one another. In the center of the great hall was a raised hearth containing the smoldering remains of not one but two roasted hogs. The smoky scents of charred meat and ale mingled with the acrid tang of male sweat and oiled steel to produce a mix of hot, foreign odors that made Aaren’s heart beat faster. It was good, she decided, that she remained with her little sisters in the shadows near the main doors; it gave her time to study the hall and the warriors who called it home. A wise warrior learned as much about an enemy as possible.
Presiding over this rout was Jarl Borger himself--called Borger Red Beard by many--who sat on a great carved chair on a raised wooden platform at the far end of the hall, a drinking horn in each hand and a glow on his ruddy face. Serrick had said that he lived and ruled his clan as a warrior . . . dressing like his men in a sturdy woolen tunic, leather breeches, and wrapped leggings and boots, and leading his men by example . . . especially in the manly pursuits of fighting, drinking, and wenching.
As a pair of men wrestled before his seat, contending for his favor, his body twitched and jerked; he fought with them in his heart and sinews.
“Bite his ear off, man--he’s got another!” he shouted.
The warriors strained and grunted, fingers gouging and legs flailing, until one levered on top of the other and caught his opponent’s neck in a crushing hold. When they were dragged apart by their drunken comrades, both still had their ears and one had a reward to claim for his prowess. The victor staggered before his jarl to be granted a boon.
A woman. He wanted a woman of his own. Dagmar, the thrall woman, to be exact. After some consideration, Borger slapped his thigh and granted the request. But as the victor captured his squealing prize at the rear of the hall and carried her off to her pallet in the thrall house, a protest was raised among a group of young warriors seated near Borger’s high seat.
“Hrolf gets a woman of his own?” one young warrior demanded.
“Why should he get a wife?” another howled. “By Hel’s gate, I drew more blood than him this day!”
Borger turned his craggy head and fixed a hard look on the brash young warriors whose features bore the fierce stamp of his own.
“A thrall woman, even a handsome one like the little Dane, is no fit wife for the son of a jarl. You need freewomen . . . women with hearth-skill, women who will weave strong sailcloth and bear strong sons,” he declared with an edge to his drink-coarsened voice. “Wait until that toothless old boar Gunnar Haraldson pays the ransom for his heir. There will be a hoard of silver to make wife-bargains for you.” He raised his drinking horn.
“To old Gunnar Haraldson! May he sprout grass on his arse and be grazed to death by goats”--he flashed a wicked grin around him--“but not before he pays us a ransom!” Laughter and shouts of “Skoal!” reverberated through the hall as all raised their horns to that toast.
Aaren glanced at her little sisters, who looked to her with widened eyes.
Soon the hall filled with the noise of revelry again, and Borger sank back in his high seat, apparently savoring his victory-luck and his domain. As his gaze scoured the hall, it paused and lingered several times on male faces with features cast in the mold of his own. His chest swelled visibly. He was pleased by how tenaciously his seed had taken root, and for good reason. Having numerous sons ensured there would be many tales told of him around many hearths after he died in battle and was carried off to Odin’s Great Hall.
But the pleasure in his face dampened as he looked to the rear of the hall, by the doors, and Aaren’s breath caught in her throat. Her hand went again to her blade. It took a moment for her to realize that he looked toward the shadowy corner and not the door where they stood. There, in chains, lay a strapping warrior taken prisoner in the recent battle . . . no doubt the object of the ransom Old Borger had mentioned in his toast. She noted with a shiver the dried blood on his garments and the heavy iron chains on his arms and legs and iron collar around his neck.
Take note, she felt Serrick’s gaze saying as it bored into her; such is the fate of the vanquished in the world of men.
The mighty North Wind blew open the door behind them and then, with an icy, impatient finger, nudged Serrick forward. When those nearest the door turned to protest the chilled invasion, they spied his long, dark cloak and flat, wide-brimmed hat, and their complaints died on their lips.
Curiosity rippled through the hall as he moved into the flickering torchlight and headed straight for Borger’s high seat. Those brave enough or deep enough in ale-mist to peer beneath his hat glimpsed a hoary beard and two age-paled eyes that burned with an unsettling light. By the time he stopped before Old Borger, the noise in the hall had begun to quiet and those whose wits were not already drowned by drink watched the jarl and Serrick with interest.
“Greetings, Red Beard.”
“What manner of man is it who greets me so?” Borger demanded with a bleary squint.
“A man who has borne your name in battle,” Serrick replied hoarsely. “A man who has drunk victory-ale in your hall and spilt his blood in your service.”
Borger rubbed his eyes and squinted to see the old man more clearly.
“You sailed a’viking with me? By what name did I call you?”
For a moment all was silent as Borger scowled, scratched his woolly red beard, and shifted from one meaty buttock to the other.
“Serrick”--the old man prompted--“Sword-stealer.”
The name dragged across the strings of Borger’s memory. He sat forward sharply, eyes widening. “Serrick Sword-stealer? The warrior who captured the sword of Ibn Hassadan . . . when I sailed eastway over the world to Byzantium? By the Red Thor’s Beard! I thought you slain and in Valhalla years ago!”
And odd, crackly sound that passed for a laugh rumbled from Serrick.
“Not in that glorious hall yet, Jarl. I was left one viking season to heal of injuries and your village grew too small for a man used to wide-wandering. I took me to the mountains on the far north range of your lands. There I lived”--he drew a sweeping arc above him with a gnarled hand--“among the clouds of Odin’s breath, under stars forged by the Black Dwarfs . . . among the sacred meadows where Freya grows her flowers and the groves where Idun picks her golden apples. There I lived, beneath the earthbound steps of the rainbow bridge of Asgard.”
With each claim, old Borger’s jaw loosened and his shoulder muscles tightened. He stared, seeming unsettled by the glowing eyes beneath that flat, broad-brimmed hat.
“The Serrick I recall had far less word-skill than you, old man. If you are Serrick, what brings you from the very threshold of the gods to the hall of Borger Red Beard after all these years?”
There was a rumble of consternation among Borger’s men and he snarled an order for silence.
“What debt, old man?” he demanded, glowering. “Do you now come to claim a share of spoils long spent from a voyage long past?”
Again a rusty chuckle came from that hoary head.
“Nej, Jarl. I have not come to collect a debt, but to pay one. I had no silver to pay the freeman’s tax. And through the years the debt has mounted. A score of years . . . still owing.”
Borger’s combativeness melted, replaced by a crafty, wide-growing grin.
“This is a grave matter, Sword-stealer.” Borger covered his eagerness with a frown. “No man may take sustenance from my land, drink my water, hunt my game, and cut my timber without paying just tribute.”
“Ahhh, but I have done you service, Jarl. Guarding the north reaches of your realm . . . remembering your name to the North Wind in winter and the Singing Brook in summer,” Serrick responded, watching Borger closely.
“The North Wind owns no silver and spins no silk. Nor do mountain brooks run full of Frankish wine.” Borger had always been one to honor the gods and the forces of nature, but never at the expense of profitable human commerce. “If all of Midgard sighed my name,” he declared, “there would still be mouths to feed and backs to clothe . . . swords to forge and sailcloth to buy.”
From the Paperback edition.