3. Some Sons of Tyr
3. Some Sons of Tyr
Redmore’s fair was in full swing and there was a happy sway of movement between the stalls. Sigrun was surprised to have sold all her furs after all the clement weather they had enjoyed over the last few weeks. Presumably, the folk of Redmore were wise enough to know it would not last. With nothing more to sell she packed the stall onto the handcart and wheeled it in the direction of her house.
Applause broke out among the crowd ahead of her. Armod was the winner of the prize hog award for the third year running. A few heads turned and smiled at Sigrun. A few of the men let their eyes linger, which was no surprise. Her attire was matched to the warmth and so she was down to a calfskin jerkin buttoned only over her breasts, a short linen skirt and leather boots. None of them offered to help her with her handcart and that too was no surprise.
Sigrun had studied her reflection enough times to know her features were pleasant. Her wild, flaming hair and pale blue eyes, set against a modest cluster of freckles on her cheeks and a shapely mouth would be called pretty, fair or winsome on most women. Instead, Sigrun heard words such as ‘striking’ or ‘handsome’ and she knew the reason behind it. Pretty girls did not loom over a normal-sized man and verily tower over other womenfolk. Though she had all the right curves of which she was rightly proud, most men fixated on her height either being put off by it or seeing it as some kind of challenge. Sigrun had learned to rise to that challenge. If the Gods were set on granting her this frame she would inhabit it accordingly.
More laughter came from another crowd further along, this time of a less charitable kind. Laughter tinged with the sound of jeers in place of genuine mirth. One of the lads of the village, Rune, was lying on a patch of soggy grass near the well with toppled buckets and wooden pole lying on top of him. Beside the well and at the top of a small mount two dozen paces away were a handful of older men cackling over his misfortune. A larger lad named Kalf stood at the top of the mound with another collection of buckets next to one of two basins. Through his mocking laughter he ran down to Rune and slapped him on the back as he struggled to his feet. “Come back when you’ve grown some muscles, kid.” Rune smiled and tried to look as though he was in on the joke. “Looks like I win again.”
“Quite a feat against a boy eight years your junior.” Sigrun commented. “Are you hurt, Rune?”
“I’m fine, thanks.” His words were belied by the involuntary wincing that went with them.
“You must have thought it funny to egg him on.” Sigrun said to the crowd in general.
“He should have known better than to take this on.” Kalf slapped his biceps demonstratively.
“I see. Do you take on challengers over twelve?” Some of the men started to chuckle guessing where the conversation was going.
“Of course. Do you have someone in mind? I don’t think you hunter friends are here today.” There were a few more sniggers from the men who were sharper than Kalf.
“I need them not. I will take your challenge.” Kalf looked at her nervously for a moment. Sigrun thought he was probably making the same calculations she was. Bare-chested as he was she could get a better measure of him than he could of her. He had thicker arms than her and was broader all round. She was half a foot taller than him but he’d probably reckon height was no advantage in the bucket trial.
“I won’t give you any head start or help for being a woman. You have to play by the same rules.”
“I would want it no other way.”
“You’re on then.” Helpful spectators moved the buckets back to the well and emptied the basins from the previous challenge. Kalf picked up the pole he had been using before; Sigrun took Rune’s. They both took position by the well as buckets were filled in preparation. Kalf cleaned off his sweat with a rag and, along with everyone else, went boggle-eyed when Sigrun started unbuttoning her jerkin. “Why…?”
“Same rules, you said.” Sigrun winked and smiling to herself took the top clean off to many a grateful sigh. The whole village would know about this soon but as a widow with no aim to wed again, her reputation was unimportant. Kalf looked uneasy and that was exactly what she wanted. Aside from the obvious distraction of her shapely breasts, he could now see that she had the most defined midriff of anyone, man or woman, in Redmore and for many miles beyond. He might also start to realise that those long legs of hers were solid power.
Sigrun lifted the pole to her sternum and two full buckets, one either side, were placed either side of her curled arms. The order to start was given and in a few long strides Sigrun was already pulling a gap on Kalf. He may have had the greater bulk but as much of that girth came from soft flesh as hard muscle and that made him slow by comparison. Likewise he had reckoned that his bigger arms and shoulders would win while Sigrun knew that this challenge was as much about having a strong core, a lesson she had learned from her arms training. When Sigrun thrust her boar spear she would use the strength of her arms to a degree but no more than the strength in her thighs, waist and back.
She emptied the buckets in the basin at the top of the mound and rushed back to the well for the next round before Kalf had even reached the top. Four buckets went on this time and she had to move far slower than the first time round. Kalf seemed encouraged by the change in pace and rushed back to the well exhorting the bucket holders to work faster. Sigrun reached the top and emptied the buckets once more. Facing Kalf coming up the mound, she casually brushed away a trickle of water, making her full breasts quiver in the motion. Immediately Kalf stumbled and emptied half of one of his buckets on the ground ahead of him. Almost laughing, Sigrun ran to refill knowing that if she didn’t spill too much she would reach the winning mark without further trips.
Six buckets went on this time and the mound felt like the steep hill going up. Sigrun forced the weight down into her legs and used her long limbs to push herself steadily up the slope. Kalf was hurrying now, desperately trying to keep pace with her. It was making him careless too. If he did overtake her, it would not matter as he would be forced to do another trip for sure. Realising this, Sigrun felt a new wave of confidence pass through her that seemed to offset the effort of the climb. Sloshing water left and right Kalf could make no inroad into her lead and was forced to watch powerless as she calmly set herself down by the basin and filled it passed the winning mark with two buckets to spare.
The crowd, including those who had been sceptical, applauded and Kalf sank to his knees. Sigrun went over to him and slapped him on the back. “Seems like a woman got the best of you. Not to worry, there’s always more children to humble. You should stick to that, clearly.”
By evening Sigrun was at home helping her stepmother Helga with the dinner. Sunlight seeped into the small hut from the open door and windows as well as the odd gap in the thatch and woodwork. Redmore was a reasonably large village, mostly of farmers. Though they were not that far from the Norsholt border, there was little danger of raids. King Halvard had kept a good peace between the two lands for many a year and in worse times the Jorngard’s stood between them.
The nearest fort was Rockfall that guarded the pass between the two kingdoms and most Norsholters knew better than to try to attack that way. Consequently, Redmore was a peaceful place and not a home to warriors and grand thanes. The only long houses were the mead hall and the storehouse. The door to the former of these opened and for a moment the sound of song floated over to them.
Helga looked over at Sigrun sadly. “You can join them if you like.”
“And who would help you with the dinner?”
“Sigrun, you do too much for us. Egil was everything to us but he has been gone for a while now. You don’t owe us anything.”
“I know…I…I have no family of my own anymore. This is my family.”
“Mistake me not, Sigrun. You are every bit a daughter to Galti and me. We love having you here but we don’t want to be selfish. You are still young and beautiful. You could live in comfort if you married again.”
“Who would want a barren widow?”
“Not every man needs heirs.”
“You mean old men who’ve outlived their wives.”
“They are not always old. Some men lose their wives in birthing. They need good wives, particularly if the child survives.”
“I have not met such a man.”
“Besides, an older man is not to be dismissed. With your looks you could get a wealthy Thane.”
“What need have I of wealth?”
“You would not have to hunt anymore.”
“I like the hunts, they keep Redmore safe.”
“Those hunts took Egil from us both. I don’t want to lose you that way as well.” Sigrun put her arms around her mother-in-law.
“I miss him too. How could I replace him?”
Helga recomposed herself and continued chopping the vegetables. “Well it’s clear you are not trying. I heard about what you did at the fair.”
“Kalf was being a bully. He needed to be taught some humility.”
“Did you need to go bare-breasted?”
“Yes. They needed to see it was a woman winning and not something halfway a man.”
“Nobody could think you are halfway a man. But showing off like that might stop you getting one.”
“Really? The men there didn’t seem put off.”
“Not from bedding you, perhaps.”
“That is one benefit of widowhood. Why would I want to give that up?”
“I’d agree with you if you used that benefit. When was the last time you bedded with a man?”
Sigrun wandered over to the window and spoke quietly. “Egil.”
“I thought so.”
“Maybe I will go to the mead hall.”
“Send Galti home when you get there.” Helga said warmly.
Dalla stretched her naked form over the sheets and perched her hands behind her head, addressing him with her lively brown eyes. “How long will you be gone?”
“I know not.”
“Will Princess Valeria stay here?”
“No. She will return to Stormhold.”
“Maybe I should go with her. Does she need a handmaiden?”
“She does, in truth. Do you know the duties of a maid?”
“No. I know horses.” Dalla sat upright. “It always makes me sad when you and the princess leave. Somershalla goes quiet. It’s like the summer goes with you.”
“I’m always sad to leave and I shall be sadder this time than ever before.” Through the window he watched the train of horses and carts working their way up to the east gate. There were more than he had expected. The burnings must have concerned his father more than he realised. Here they had only heard reports relayed from Stormhold. It was possible they had more news in the capital than had yet reached them.
As hard as it was to leave Dalla, he made sure he was ready to meet the warriors when they arrived. The riders stopped in the courtyard and dismounted to greet their prince. At the forefront were two thanes he knew well, Sigmund and Jorund and a third man he did not recognise. Sigmund was tall and lean with long fair hair and ice blue eyes. As always, he was without beard. His friends, Ulfric among them, would often suggest he could not grow one, knowing in truth he was fastidious about his shaving regime. His father was Jarl of Esterhold and Sigmund oft represented him at the royal court forging a close bond with his peer the prince over the years.
Jorund, by contrast, made a feature of his red beard, letting it grow long enough over his chin to twist it into twin braids. He was five years older than Sigmund and Ulfric and had been a valuable guide whenever the prince had spent time with a garrison. There was not a book on military tactics within the whole of the northern kingdoms that he had not read and about which he could give a lengthy opinion. The third man appeared to be in his mid-twenties yet was completely bald. The only hair anywhere on his head was on his chin which hung down in a single short blond braid. This did not stand out nearly so much as his ice blue eyes that he held with such stillness he almost appeared unblinking.
Sigmund and Jorund bowed and clasped arms Ulfric in sequence intoning “my prince.” in turn. As Jorund said his part Sigmund turned to Valeria.
“My princess. Your loveliness never ceases to astonish me. Please accept my humble gratitude that I stand before you.”
“I do not deserve such thanks. It is the earth that keeps you upright.” Ulfric frowned at his sister and it did not go unnoticed. “Nonetheless, we are glad of your presence here. It calms my heart to know my brother will be with true companions.”
“You are too kind. Forgive me, my prince, the princesses’ beauty stunned me from my purpose. May I introduce Henrik Frostbane who has travelled from Hammerfist with twenty men to serve your father at this time.”
“You have travelled far, friend.”
“It is foretold that the children of Halvard have a great destiny and that I must serve them in their hour of need.”
“I pray that this is not a desperate time for us.”
“Have no fear, my prince, we will die for you if need be.”
“Let us not speak of death today.”
“My apologies, my prince. This Somershalla is a fine hold. It is at one with the forest much like the lands where I grew up. I am grateful for your welcome here.”
“Ahh, Ulfric.” Jorund interrupted. “Our forgotten friend is here. You remember Lars of Borrn.” Two men entered into the courtyard; one young and blond and on horseback the other brown haired and struggling to get up from a cart. The blond man dismounted and helped the other to find his feet. Ulfric knew that Lars could not be the younger man but the heavy, full bearded man in the cart did not fit with his memory.
“What happened to him?”
“A great many feasts and a lake of ale, if I am any judge.” Sigmund answered. Ulfric could not believe it. Only two years previously he had trained alongside Lars of Borrn. He had admired him then for he was one of the few who could match him for strength and endurance. He was burly no doubt but muscular to go with it. All that toning was now lost under pounds of excess covering. Out of the cart he came lumbering across the courtyard towards them.
“My prince, an honour to see you again.”
“We are honoured to have you amongst us once more.” Ulfric clasped arms with him and turned to the blond boy.
“My prince, I am Einar of the Royal Guard. It will be my honour to lead the royal princess’ escort back to Stormhold.” He tried to look at both of them in his address. Ulfric could not help but notice that he coloured slightly every time his eyes were upon Valeria. For a moment he was worried his sister might tease the poor boy but instead she smiled warmly and raised her brow in encouragement.
“I have no doubt you will keep me safe.”
“My princess.” His whole face had turned pink. Ulfric hoped he wasn’t so bashful in battle.
“Come, none shall leave today. Horses and men need to rest and rebuild their spirits for their next journey.” Dalla and her father would be busy with all this. He wondered whether he should move her to a position in the long hall where she would be safe from the reach of sweaty riders with eager hands.
Once they were settled, the senior warriors assembled in the great hall of Somershalla while the humbler men-at-arms piled into the cider hall and mead hall of which the settlement had both. Ulfric sat at the high table with Valeria at his right hand. She was dressed more richly than usual in a long green dress and fine cape of white. Tonight a circlet rested on her brow and a choker went round her neck in decorate gold.
Either side Ulfric and Valeria were Sigmund and Wiglaf respectively. Bjorn and Henrik sat the other side of the skald in deep discussion. Somerhalla had no ruling family because it was a second home to the royals. The local hierarchy was represented by the steward, Runolf and Asvald, the chief of the guard sitting at either end of the table where they had the most freedom to depart if they were needed. Beside Sigmund sat Jorund, Einar and Lars.
The young captain looked ill at ease trying to settle his gaze anywhere but on the princess then suddenly looking away guiltily whenever her bosom bounced at an animated moment. Lars seemed far happier, throwing back horns of mead and ravishing his food down to the crumbs and bones. He was not the only one to do so. Ulfric knew from experience that riding with a sore head was a recipe for misery. It was a lesson that many a man learned but never remembered once merriment laid siege upon their better judgement.
“Tis strange do you not think?” Sigmund remarked.
“What is that?”
“His tale of coming here. Did he tell you his prophecy came from a volur who had foreseen her own death?”
“The volur was found slain the next morn by an attacker nobody had seen, as if the culprit had faded away into the darkness. Can you believe that?”
“If you had asked me a year or six months ago I would have said no. Today it feels true.”
“Do you not think it odd that a Norseholter was sent to serve the children of King Halvard?”
“Tis odd without a doubt. That does not mean ‘tis suspicious. You say my father was convinced by his tale?”
“We must trust in his judgement.”
“Have you more tales of burnings in Stormhold?”
“Alas, this is so. There is no seeming sense behind it. Caravans are attacked but not the wealthiest ones and many of the goods are spoiled or burnt. The farms that are raided have no special purpose. Jorund has been going mad trying to see the strategy in it. The truth is we have no clue whom is behind these attacks or what they seek to gain from them.”
“We shall find out soon enough.” Ulfric turned to his right and tried to discretely listen in on Valeria and Wiglaf’s conversation.
“I read that elves have a history in this forest and have been seen here more often than any other place in the kingdom. Is that true?”
“There is every reason to believe that.”
“It is said that they do not age.”
“So it may seem.”
“Why do they not remain children?”
“A slow progression of age may seem like not aging at all. Think of the great oak in the courtyard. Does it seem any different to when you were a child?”
“Yet it has aged. If you could watch a hundred years pass in a day it would age before your very eyes. Mayhap the same is true of elves.”
“It is an interesting thought.” The princess seemed satisfied momentarily before launching into another question. “I found a letter in the library in Senatian script. I could see it was written in some kind of code. From what little I could read it said it seemed like it was from Sommerwold.”
“How long have you been able to read Senatian script?”
“I had to do something when my tutor was banished from Stormhold.” Valeria said with a cheeky smile. “The strange thing was that it referred to dates only a few weeks past.”
“Why is that strange?”
“Mayhap the maps are wrong but is Sommerwold not many hundreds of miles away? How could a letter get here so swiftly?”
“Some loremasters are able to train birds to take messages over long distances.” Wiglaf answered. Normally, Ulfric would have intervened to stop Valeria’s interrogations but in this case he could not help but share her curiosity.
“Will you write back?”
“What will you write?”
“That depends on what your brother finds.”
“What did the letter say? Is something important afoot in Sommerwold? Can something so far away affect us here?”
“Dear princess, why must you ask me questions I am not free to answer?”
“So something is afoot. Does my father need to know about this?”
“Imagine you are playing a game where you can see but a single playing piece on a single square and all else is hidden from your eyes. What move do you make?” Wiglaf put to Valeria. The princess thought for a moment.
“What are the rules to this game?”
“You will not know until you make your move.”
“If you know not which game you are playing how could anyone make the right move?”
“How indeed? I truly wish I could tell you more, Valeria. I am curtailed for now.”
“I will talk to my parents. I need you in Stormhold.”
“That is for your father to decide.”
Knowing what she was like it was only a matter of time before Valeria found a new line of attack. Ulfric decided at last to take pity on the skald.
“Wiglaf, would you do us the honour of a song?”
“Of course, your highness.” Wiglaf stood from his chair and his voice took on a volume and clarity that was little betrayed by his quiet words prior. “Brave warriors of Svahald. A journey you have before you and for a journey it is only right that you hear the song of Eadric Wingfoot…” A hush came over the hall and Wiglaf stridently took up the melody. Ulfric closed his eyes, tasted the sweetness of the mead on his tongue then let the song take him far away from all concerns.