Winter fell hard and fast after the funeral. Three days later, the least experienced of the Vidofnings went to help bring in the goats. Three days after that, Kjellings and Vidofnings alike were snowed in.
That, of course, didn’t mean they were without things to do. There was wood to be chopped, and game to be hunted, and if there was one thing the people at Kjell Hall were good at it was making games out of everyday chores. Then, of an evening, once the sauna fire had been allowed to smolder, there were other entertainments to be had inside.
“Hah!” Erik laughed on the fifth night since the blizzard, shoving aside three empty bowls and various other remnants of their supper. “Anyone who can beat me at arm wrestling tonight wins my share of tomorrow’s mead!”
Einarr laughed to himself and did not step forward. The only person on the Vidofnir who could beat Erik at arm wrestling was Stigander himself, and he and the Jarl were speaking quietly at the far end of the hall. Some of the younger men of the hall tried their luck, though, and Einarr thought to watch them for a little.
After the third Kjelling had lost a night’s share of mead, Einarr found his attention wandering. Elsewhere there were people dicing, and he saw a one-on-one tug of war going on near the door. The figure-eight rope stretched between the two deck hands was dark from years of use as they each tried to pull the other one out of balance and break the tension between their feet. Einarr smiled a little: it didn’t appeal tonight – he’d had enough rowing on the ship for the moment – but as the winter wore on it might be worthwhile.
“Tafl?” A sweetly feminine voice asked from over his shoulder.
Startled, Einarr snapped his head around. He hadn’t realized anyone was there. “Runa! You play?”
“Of course I play! You’re the one who taught me, remember?”
“I . . .” He had forgotten. “I suppose I did, didn’t I. Well, then, let’s see how you’ve improved.”
They spoke as much as played, of old times and of the past seven years. The blue of her pinafore matched her eyes. Einarr found it hard to keep his mind on the game with the fire of her lips swaying in the breeze of every word, and since he was defending that meant Runa captured his king in a humiliating five rounds.
“I won!” She laughed gleefully, and her smile seemed to clear some of the smoke from the room.
Einarr shook his head. “So you did. I don’t know where my mind was. One more game?” He was better than that, and he knew it.
“Fine. But this time, I’ll defend, just to prove I can beat you either way.”
He paid more attention to the game this time, so that it took her a full fourteen turns to escape. Einarr’s brow knit in consternation until he looked up to see her smiling warmly at him. “Who have you played to get so good at this?”
“Father, mostly. Sometimes a visitor will play me, and I always trounce them because they never seem to take me seriously. Even you.”
“Hey, now that’s not fair. I was taking you seriously.” Maybe not quite in the way she meant, though. She was just a little distracting.
“Of course you were.” Her smile turned impish for a moment. She picked up one of the pawns and started to finger it, her face falling. “So, Father is wanting me to get married soon.”
“You are about the age.” So am I, for that matter. But… A strange reluctance crept over Einarr whenever that thought occurred to him. It wasn’t like he had anything much to offer a bride.
“Close, yes. And with Mother gone, I think he wants to know I’ll be taken care of.”
“So, what’s the problem?”
“I think he wants me to marry your father.”
For the second time since they came to Kjell Hall, Einarr felt time come crashing to a stop. The din of the hall around them receded from his ears as he tried to accept her words. No.
“I don’t think he’s decided yet.” She was trying to make him feel better. The shock must have shown on his face. “But it’s not what I want, either.”
“Who was your father speaking to?” He tried to speak normally.
“It’s just the impression I’ve gotten.”
Einarr shook his head. Damn it. “After Astrid’s funeral… I heard Bardr floating the idea to my father.” He looked her in the eye. “I’ll talk to him. He’s a reasonable man.”
“As you like.” Runa’s face was shaded with doubt.
“Hey, smile. No-one gets married in the winter. We’ve got months to talk them out of it. Come on, one more? Or shall we play something else?”
“Hmmmm.” Her smile was mischievous now. “Have your mothers taught you verse?”
Despite himself, he was a little embarrassed. “I’m afraid not. Father always kept me tied up in other things.”
“Well then I suppose it wouldn’t be much fun to play at lausavisa. Tell me about someplace you’ve seen.” She leaned forward eagerly, her elbows pressed together where they rested on her knees. Einarr swallowed hard as his mind raced, trying to think of a story his princess would appreciate.
What am I thinking about, ‘my’ princess? Don’t fool yourself. Despite his status as Stigander’s heir, the Jarl had never given Einarr the time of day. There was no way he’d give up his daughter to him, not with the curse in play.
“Mistress?” A young woman of the hall approached.
“Yes, Helgi, what is it?”
“Your father would like a word with you.”
“Yes, of course. I’ll be right there.” She turned her attention back to Einarr. “I’m sorry. I’ll try to be back.”
Einarr nodded, for once distracted by something other than the beautiful woman who had trounced him at tafl. Stigander and the Jarl were both watching them intently.
|1.4 – Funeral Rites||1.6 – Winter Hunt|
|Table of Contents|