6. In the Hall of the King
6. In the Hall of the King
Above the roof of the grand hall flew banners of terracotta red marked with the symbol of a white wolf prowling across the centre. Beside the doors at the top of a short flight of steps were guards dressed in like gear to the ones following Valeria; a ringmail hauberk covered on the torso by red-brown banded leather that also covered sections of their tall helms. They bore spears and large round shields emblazoned with the wolf crest while over their shoulders they wore wolf pelts over their grey cloaks. Valeria always pitied them their heavy attire on summer days. As with the gate, she did not need to beg admittance and she was able to go straight from dismounting her horse to the interior of the hall without hindrance.
The grand hall had an adjustable roof and on bright days like this slats would be opened up so that no fires need be lit lest for warmth. It gave the central aisle between the long tables a striped effect where those who entered seemed to pass through barriers of floating dust in the walk up to the throne. There sat King Halvard with his Queen Arnora upon a like-sized throne to his right. Either side of them were a handful of lesser yet still impressive chairs. Two, the closest two, were for Ulfric and Valeria. By custom and for the sake of symmetry Valeria sat by their father’s side and Ulfric sat by their mother. The other seats would be taken by the steward, Henning, the Master-of-Arms, Gunnar and the Queen’s Lady-in-waiting Mabil. There used to be one more seat that was occupied by Wiglaf. Valeria wondered what had become of it. Had her father’s anger with him been great enough to have it burnt or was it hidden away somewhere ready to be recalled at such as time as it occupant was?
Halvard and Arnora rose to welcome their daughter and it was quite an impressive sight. Halvard was almost as tall as Ulfric and heavier set, while Arnora was still radiant in her beauty. It was a strange thought for Valeria that she was now as old as her mother had been when she gave birth to her children. Arnora had often referred to Valeria as the ‘latecomer’ since she had kept her mother waiting in labour for more than hour after Ulfric had come out. Valeria tried not to read too much into this other than an affectionate admonishment for her occasional tardiness. It would be too easy to start dwelling on the notion she was an afterthought. Her brother had uses; he was a warrior and leader and would be King after her father. It was harder for Valeria to divine her particular purpose, particularly when her father seemed uninterested in having her wed.
The Queen reached her first and held her in an embrace then passed her into her father’s arms. “We were so worried.” Arnora stated. “Are you hurt at all?”
“No, I am unhurt.”
“Maybe you should rest awhile.”
“No, I need answers far more than rest.”
“Hmmm, Wiglaf suggested as much in his message.” The King glanced around the room. The Grand Hall was far from empty. Even outside of meal times the Grand Hall served as the chief communal area. There would always be some gathering of the household. “Come, we will talk in private.” The King led Valeria through a side door behind the throne to a smaller chamber arranged around a single table that customarily had a map of the northern kingdoms unfurled over its surface. Valeria did not commonly come in this room as it was where the King talked of battle with his captains and that was considered as much part of the man’s world as the weaving belonged to the women’s quarters in the north wing.
Valeria was surprised to see no-one, not even the Queen, had followed behind them. “Why are we alone?”
“Your mother knows all I am about to tell you and a sudden urgent council would cause rumours.”
“So you are going to tell me something?”
“In time. First, what can you tell me of your attack?”
“I know not what Wiglaf reported to you. Ulfric and I were waylaid by a pair of what we think were dark elves who came at us with spell and blade.”
“You were able to discern these spells, to see them as something solid?”
“I am not sure about solid but yes, I could see something. I know now that Ulfric could not see the same.”
“And what happened with your sword?”
“I am not sure about that either. I was trying to defend myself and it glowed of a sudden like it had caught a ray of sunlight. I felt something too, a warmth of some kind. What does this all mean? Why are the enemies of elves interested in us? We are not part of their world.”
“That is not wholly true. What I am about to tell you I have not told to your brother yet though I had meant to soon. The elves have their world and we have ours it is true but they are not unconnected. The reason we have tales of elves and goblins and other such creatures is because of a time they might cross into our lands.”
“Why do they cross?”
“For many different reasons I would think. In our lands and particularly around Somershalla there is one reason more than any other. For centuries my family has been bound by a treaty that allows the elven folk to cross over to a point deep within the forest where they go to give birth.”
“Why do they give birth in our world?”
“I do not understand it fully yet from what I know it is related to how time flows in their world. When an elf is slain in their world they are reborn again some time later. This means at times of war their numbers may dwindle considerably and in the waiting for rebirth they may be in danger of being overwhelmed. For reasons I know not, when an elf maiden crosses to our world they can conceive far more swiftly and their children will grow swifter even once they have returned to their own world. We provide a nursery for them and a way for them to maintain their numbers. Does aught of this make sense to you?”
“Strangely it does. The woods of Somershalla have always felt magical to me. I assume this treaty benefits our kingdom too?”
“It does. The elves pass us lore and gifts from time to time on occasion they will work magic for us. Most of all though they ensure that the dark things of their world do not roam free in ours.”
“What things are they?”
“Goblins, ogres, demons. If a thing is spoken of in a children’s tale or legend it is likely it has come from that place.”
“Then the arrival of these dark elves so close to the elves’ breeding ground is an ill portent?”
“I fear so.”
“That does not explain one thing.”
“What is that?”
“I can understand why the elves’ enemies might strike at the children of a king who has been their ally. What I can’t understand is why they were more interested in me than Ulfric, the heir to this kingdom.”
Halvard tugged on his golden beard thoughtfully and absently looked over the map. “Are we sure of that?”
“Yes. It becomes clearer every time I think of it. Tell me the truth, father, am I betrothed to an elven prince or some such?”
“Betrothed to an elven prince? Why would you think that?”
“Is it any less strange than to be told that the creatures of tales are real? Why should I not think there is a link to the fact I remain unwed?”
“I grant you that. Indeed, you are not so far from the truth. You are not betrothed to an elven prince or anyone else of that I can assure you.”
“Yet there is a link?”
“Yes, of a kind. From the moment of your birth it was clear that you had been touched by the Gods and that a great destiny lay before you. What we did not know was the path it would take or how it would reveal itself. First, we thought yours might be the path of a volur but it was soon clear that such a life was ill-suited for you.”
“What do you mean?”
“The life of a volur is one of devotion, discipline and obedience.”
“Why should I be ill-suited for that?” Valeria protested. The King looked back at her kindly and said not a word.
“Besides, every volur who met with you said the same. She is blessed but she is not like us. Then we thought you might learn the arts from Wiglaf. You have a quick mind and are apt at study but again, you are no skald. We let you roam free in the woods of Somerhalla to see if you would become one with the ways of the wild. Still, wild as you are this was not your calling.”
“Mayhap I am not blessed in truth. Surely there are some prophecies that do not come to pass?”
“I almost wish that were so. A great destiny is a great burden, one that your mother and I have tried to spare you from as long as we could. Alas, the truth of your blessing is abundant.”
“How can you be so sure?”
“Valeria, I have seen you walk outside in the depths of winter in summer garb and not flinch at the cold. I have seen you take cuts that leave no mark the next day.”
“Is it strange for one who lives well to be hale?”
“Maybe not but answer me this; from the day you were born to this day have you ever taken sick?”
“I do not recall. Surely at some time…”
“Not even when every nose in Stormhold was streaming around you.” Halvard assured her. Valeria unthinkingly settled into a chair and placed her hands upon the table to steady herself. “Mayhap we could have ignored all these signs and finally told ourselves that you could have a simple life if not for what you told me at the beginning of our talk. It is clear that destiny has no want to leave you be.”
“So it is destiny that has kept me unwed?”
“How could we let you be parted from us knowing this fate lay before you? How could we let you face that alone?”
“Does Stormhold have no good men?”
“None equal for a princess. Is your urge to wed so strong?”
“My urge is for love. Let me have love without marriage and I will not complain.”
“It is not seeming for a princess to do so.”
“No. So I am trapped by destiny and trapped as a princess: neither free nor loved.”
“You are loved, Valeria. It may be that one day we will find a man who…”
“Think not on it, father. There are more pressing matters at hand. I was attacked once, I may be attacked again. I fear for those around me if it happens. Ulfric is a great warrior and he was nearly hurt. Someone else might not fare so well.”
“Valeria, there is no safer place for you than here.”
“How do we know these dark elves or those who pay them cannot drift through our walls at will? We need Wiglaf to be here. I need more training with weapons and I need companions who do not bore so that I wish to be alone.”
“I will think on these matters.” Halvard put his arm around his daughter reassuringly.
“Shall we return to the others?”
“I think so.”
If Ulfric had not known the way to Rockfall Keep it would have been easy enough to find. A trail of refugees lined the way from the farmlands at the feet of the Jorngards up to the mountainside fort. At a point where the ravine beside the road narrowed there stood the stone walls and rising towers either side of the cleft, linked by a solid, fortified walkway. The riders galloped to the head of the train of goats, sheep and people cluttering the pass to the open gates of the left-hand of the structures hanging over the cliff-face.
At once they were greeted by the signs of recent conflict; men on biers being treated for wounds, men, women and children, covered by rags and set apart from the living. Every anvil sparked and chimed to the ring of hammers upon metal while fletchers hurriedly assembled new batches of arrows.
“We have ridden into a war here.” Ulfric remarked.
“A war where we do not know the battle lines yet. We know so little of our enemy. We cannot even fathom what their numbers and strength might be.” Sigmund added.
“We should get a better idea soon. Have those who are fit to talk share their tales. I want every attack marked on our maps. I want to know how many goblins have been seen. Once we compare that to Redmore we may begin to understand what we face.”
“Anything else, sire?”
“Yes. I want at least one goblin corpse to be sent back to Stormhold. Mayhap they will know more about them there.”
“And if there are no corpses here?”
“We shall set out to make some.”
Rockfall was not a hold for any community, its function was purely military, a thing most unusual for Svanhald and the north in general. Thane Geirmund held it for the royal family with a small garrison of trained warriors. It did not need many for its location on the mountainside and the danger of the pass made it easy to hold. Advancing armies were as likely to be pummelled by tumbling rocks as stuck by the arrows of the men on the battlements.
The thane received the prince on the roof of the walkway spanning the divide from where they could see into the pastures of Svanhald and trace the rocky trail into neighbouring Nordheim. “We’ve seen trails of smoke both sides of the border around the same time.” Geirmund reported grimly. “From all we can tell the attacks did not start this side or that but have spread out from the mountains themselves. ’Tis as if they’ve crawled out from the earth. How can that be?”
“How can any of this be? What do you know of goblins?”
“Only what old men and women tell in tales. They are ill, vicious, creatures who haunt deep caves or forgotten forests. Nothing of where they come from or how they fight. I’ve never heard of goblins in numbers like this.”
“Forget the tales. What do we know here and now?”
“We know they are fierce. A man may falter at his first kill; these goblins show no doubt. Their weapons and armour are crude but cleverly wrought. They can fashion a great amount from limited materials. Thus far it is mostly, bone, hide and wood I have yet to see mail or swords of iron. That is likely only a matter of time. We have driven off raiding parties only to find them return days later wearing the spoils of their thefts. Have you fought them yet?”
“We bested a large group at Redmore. Too late for half the village, alas.”
“What do you make of their mettle?”
“They have a wiry strength that belies their size and they put all their weight into their swings. They are light and steady on their feet and will charge if they can. Against anything less than a robust defence they will find a way to wound.”
“How did you defeat them?”
“Their defence is poor. If their strikes go awry or are met with strength they will be open to the riposte. Likewise, they are not as strong in their core. Once they start to go backwards they find it hard to hold their ground.”
Geirmund ran his hand through his thinning blond hair and leant on the ramparts.
“Sounds like we could do with a Senatian Legion up here. We northmen are not used to fighting enemies who are wilder than us.”
“All is not ill. We are still bigger and stronger than them.”
“The goblins or the Senatians?”
“We will need to be better armed than these goblins. How many men have you got in mail here?”
“Nearly a hundred. We’re picking up warriors from the settlements but most of those want to fight in hide and fur.”
“What we need now is an army of iron and shields.”
“Then let us hope your father sends us more of his huscarls”
“I pray he is able.”
Two weeks on from the attack and the character of Redmore had changed considerably. The houses that had been burnt during the fighting had been removed, their wood reused by the war effort in the main. Many who had been left homeless had fled to be with relatives elsewhere or, if they had none, to one of the larger holds where they might be surrounded by walls. For every man and woman who had left, as many men had come in their place to join the muster of smallfolk being trained for battle.
Every day Sigrun had trained with axe, spear and shield hitting straw men and sparring with the other hopefuls. Today would be the last day of training for some. Jorund had told them they would be divided into three groups. The first group would be sent directly to Rockfall Keep, the second would stay on for further training whilst the third would be put to other uses; cooking, building, cleaning or whatever else was needed to aid the men sent to battle.
Sigrun was determined to be in the first group. She had not the skill in trades to think of a place in third group as anything other than a dismissal. More time in training would suggest her years with the spear had not put her beyond beginners with an aptitude. More importantly, it would say that a woman, even one who knew something of battle, could not hold her own amongst men; something that she had disproven every day she had spent with her fellow hunters.
Her determination raced through her arm and sent her axe clattering with force against the shield of the man in front of her. He rocked from the blow and lost his footing, skidding backwards over the dry grass and dirt. Sigrun helped him to his feet at once while glancing over his shoulder to see if anyone had noticed. No-one reacted one way or the other. Most eyes were on Jorund as he sparred with three men at once. It was easy to see what he was trying to demonstrate. In spite of their best efforts the three never successfully surrounded him. With every side step he managed to keep them on one side of himself and often blocking each other off so they could not attack as one. Then, as if he had decided the point had been amply demonstrated he let them come at him.
In rapid succession he took down one with his shield and let the next run gut first into his axe. If it had been sharp Sigrun had no doubt it would have shorn through the thick weave practice armour. The last swung at Jorund and found his axe hooked against his own leg. He bowed forward and Jorund brought him to the ground with his shield edge to his back. It all happened in less time than a morning greeting.
“Remember, your enemy’s strength can be a weapon against them. Every forward charge is an opportunity for a counter-strike.” Jorund looked up over the crowd and nodded at Sigrun. “Give her a spear.” Sigrun took the spear and cautiously walked into the clearing. “Pay attention. What has this one got over me right now?”
“Tits!” Shouted someone from the back of the crowd.
“Who said that?” Jorund pointed with his axe. “I’ll speak to you in a moment. Any proper answers?”
“Reach.” Someone volunteered eventually.
“Finally. Reach can be a great boon if used well but it can also be an encumbrance. Let’s put it to the test.” Jorund circled away and Sigrun took her cue to come forward. She jabbed with the blunted spear twice, careful not to follow through too much. Jorund stepped back from the first and swatted away the second attack. She would have to commit more to worry his defences. With a determined stride she pushed at his chest at which he leaned hard to let the spear point pass over his shoulder. Sigrun tried to take advantage and followed with a downward thrust this time finding the centre of his shield. Expecting resistance she drove against him but his shield dropped away by his side and she was pushing against empty space. His axe came down in a languid arc and she reacted just in time putting her shield between the edge and her shoulder. It bit harder than she was prepared for and before she knew it she was backpedalling.
Using his own shield to lever hers upwards, he struck at the inside of her shield opening her defences wide with the backswing. Sigrun barely managed to hold onto it but was just able to hug it back against her shoulder in time to absorb the following stroke than sank her to one knee. The onlookers groaned at her struggle but she was not prepared to accept being an easy demonstration. Before Jorund could swing again she threw aside her shield and grabbed the haft of her spear with her left hand. The butt swung round and smacked against Jorund’s left shoulder above his shield. It wasn’t a heavy blow but it did make him pause long enough for Sigrun to get to her feet and push the veteran warrior backward.
This had to count; Sigrun changed her grip and lashed the spearhead at Jorund making him duck. She followed with a hard, two-handed downward thrust at his chest. The shield was there to intercept and, dropping onto one knee Jorund guided the thrust over his head. The next thing she knew the air in front of her blurred and her back slammed against the dry earth. Shock and dull pain made her mind go blank momentarily before she realised that her trainer had hooked his axe behind her boot and lifted upwards. By the time she had absorbed this thought she knew that Jorund could have finished her if it had been a real fight.
“Reach can be overcome if you keep the fighting close. A spear is of little use once an opponent is within two feet.”
Two men Sigrun did not know lifted her upright again. “My thanks.”
“That is enough for now. It is time to divide. Stay here until you are given a colour.”
Sigrun wondered what he meant until she saw three men coming round with buckets of differently coloured paint. A white smear was quickly daubed across her practice armour and the man moved on without explaining what that colour signified. Sigrun shrugged, it had been decided now and she would know soon enough.
By night the fire crackled in the hearth of the house where Thorstein and his older brother lived. By tradition this had been the house where the hunting party gathered. Egil and Anders had relations taking up space in their homes. Here the group could converse as freely as in the mead hall. “What colour did you get?”
“Did I not tell you? I am not marching forth with the muster. I was only helping with the training. On the morrow I am taking a cart to Somerhalla to join with Snorri. He might have recovered by now.”
“Maybe. His wound was badly infected but they say the herbcraft at Somershalla is the best in the kingdom. Will you join us after that?”
“No. I will join the guard of Somerhalla. For all we know the goblins may strike there instead of Rockfall. You should do the same. We know how to fight in woods not to charge across an open field.”
“I doubt there are many open fields up in the Jorngards. They will need scouts as much as warriors.”
“I say you should join me you say I should join you. How can we resolve this?”
“You know, I am the senior hunter here. Mayhap I should order you to follow me?”
“Alas, you are no longer a hunter but a warrior now. Your commands carry no weight.”
“Well, then it seems we are doomed to part ways.”
“So it seems. I shall be in sunlit groves and you shall be on a cold mountainside surrounded by hundreds of men who will see no other women for months on end.”
“I am used to being the only woman amongst men.”
“Three men who like and respect you. You won’t get that at Rockfall.”
“Not at first, perhaps.” As one Sigrun and Thorstein sipped from their horns.
“Some men won’t ever accept you. They’ll hate that you’re bigger than them and the more competent you are the further they’ll resent you. It’s not easy for a man to look up to a woman; it takes time even for the good ones.”
“You and Snorri and Anders were able.”
“It wasn’t easy.”
“Was it not?”
“Well, it might have been for Anders. He was so strong that no-one threatened him. I know I was embarrassed to be around you when you first let me join the hunt.”
“I thought you’d think I was not much of a man.”
“Why would I think that?”
“I remember Egil. He was a big man you could look in the eye. I was a skinny boy quarter of a foot shorter than you who’d never seen a woman so fair before. I could barely speak around you for those first six months. You must have noticed.”
“I thought you were shy. I know you’re not now, as do most the girls in Redmore.” Sigrun added with a wink and perching next to him on the table edge put her arm around his shoulder. “You should know though I never thought you were not much of a man. Young perhaps, occasionally foolish but never anything less than a man.”
“Compared to Egil…”
“I never compared anyone to Egil.”
“But you haven’t taken anyone else.”
“I wasn’t waiting for someone like him to take his place. A man doesn’t earn a place in my bed by how high his head stands from the ground.” Thorstein threw back his horn and Sigrun did likewise then both set their horns aside. “Come on, stand up!” Sigrun leapt from the table and took Thorstein by the hands. “This may be three years late but I hope it makes amends for those six months.” With that she kissed him on the mouth. At first, she meant it to be a brief touch but once she started it was like water to one who did not realise their own thirst. She felt her pelvis brush against Thorstein’s crotch. He was hard already. To her great surprise her hand went straight to his drawstring and her fingers started to slide inside.
“Sigrun! Are you sure…whoa!” Thorstein looked down in shock to see his trousers and underclothes yanked to his knees. Sigrun looked at his bouncing cock admiringly and her determination strengthened.
“I have to have something to keep me going through the long months on the mountainside.” In one motion Sigrun removed her dress and in swift succession removed her undergarments. Thorstein reached up to her ample bosom, tracing their shape across her chest and feeling their weight beneath his palms before and stroking his hands down her iron hard abdomen and circling around her broad hips and narrow waist. In response his cock pointed further upwards until it met Sigrun’s opening. Putting her hands around his rear she half lifted, half-descended to push it all the way in. She tottered forward as she took him in and clamped her legs around the outside of his. “Yes, this…is…good. Let’s fuck like this.” Sigrun panted. They rocked together, driving into each other hip to hip, breast to breast, while somehow keeping their footing. Eventually their knees would feel the strain but as long as they could keep going Sigrun would relish this passage of lovemaking where both sides took an equal share.
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