The sound of silver bells rang in Arring’s ears just as he stepped off the ascent and into the broad meadow at the top of the cliff. He rushed to take another step forward, ending up with his chest uncomfortably close to the Captain’s elbow. Then he blinked.

When he opened his eyes again, he was in a thick forest where even the smallest trees he saw were easily as thick as Erik’s shoulders and a diffuse gray light made it hard to tell direction or distance. Off to his left, he heard the sound of axes striking timber. Must be a woodcutter’s camp nearby. With a shrug he jogged off to investigate.

After a while, the sound of men’s voices rose above the continual thock… thock… thock of chopping wood. They were shouting about something, but the voices were still so indistinct he couldn’t quite tell what. Arring picked up his pace.

As he loped around trees as big as three men, Arring caught notes of urgency in the woodcutter’s voices. He snorted and kept on. Sprinting wasn’t likely to accomplish anything other than winding him.

Finally the source of the noise came into view. No fewer than six woodcutters were clustered around a tree large enough one could carve a longship from it rather than cutting it into boards. A large ring of wood had already been chopped. Some of the wedges they removed had been stacked to the side to use as firewood that night. No matter how much he looked, though, he could not see where they intended it to land. There were only two clear spaces wide enough to accommodate that trunk. In one of them, the woodcutter’s camp was plainly visible. In the other stood a village.

Curious, Arring approached a brown-haired man who stood back, directing their progress. “Hello.”

“Marnin’. What kin I do fer ye?” The man’s accent was strange to Arring’s ears.

“I was wondering if there was something I could do for you, actually. That’s a mighty impressive log you’re aiming to fell.”

“Beauty, ain’t it?”

“Mm. But, where are you planning to put it?”

“Why, straight down that’a’way, o’course.” The woodcutter gestured toward the place Arring felt certain there was a village. “Plenty o’ room ‘fore it hits the near fields.”

“If you say so.”

“We measured as close as we can. Couldn’t get the top out, but she’ll make the squeeze.”

The two men stood in silence a moment longer, Arring trying to decide if he trusted the man’s measure, before the woodcutter spoke again. “You still want to give us a hand, we could use an extra pair of strong arms working an axe.”

Arring gave the man an oddly self-deprecating grin. “I think I just might do that.”

Felling even an ordinary tree was hard labor, but Arring enjoyed the warmth it brought to the muscles of his shoulders and arms, enjoyed the rhythm of swinging an axe against a foe that did not move.

Arring’s shoulders had begun to ache by the time the waist of the tree narrowed sufficiently that they could begin to push.

With a crack and a giant’s groan the massive tree swayed as the woodcutters clustered together and shoved. The sound of wind through the branches was like a squall.

Until it stopped, with the tree propped at an odd angle by a trunk somehow strong enough to stop its charge. When the woodcutters saw this they, too, groaned.

“How are we supposed to get this beast unstuck?” One of them complained aloud.

Arring laughed. “I guess the Norns smile on you lot. Let me have a look.”

He leapt up on the stump, rubbing his palms together, and stepped toward the wall of wood he would need to scale. The other woodcutters looked skeptical, as well they might. Even the Captain or Erik would have trouble with that jump, but while they were taller than Arring they did not have the sheer power of his muscles. Arring bent his knees and jumped for the barky ledge overhead, catching it on the first go and pulling himself up on top of the half-felled log in one fluid motion.

“Don’t worry,” he called down. “I’ll set it down gentle as a babe for ye!”

Arring jogged along the top of the log, swinging around the occasional branch that stood to bar his way, until he reached the hangup.

He pressed his lips together, evaluating his options. As massive as this tree was, the one causing them issues was still larger. Worse, the log had caught in a fork of the other tree, which was probably the only reason it caught at all.

Ordinarily, he would cut the fork, but a quick climb along each of the branches warned him against that. To the left the forest became thicker: cutting that side would only get the log stuck again. To the right, the branch would block the road and crush a shrine. Worse, there would be nothing to stop the log from rolling. The woodcutters could easily end up owing their entire season’s take from restitution alone.

Arring nodded to himself and turned around.

“It’s stuck in a fork,” he announced when he reached the cut edge of the log. “I need your best catchers, a barricade, and one massive sling.”

The overseer frowned. “Show me.”

Arring shrugged, and then they both stood on the log just before its nest. “If we split the log, the top may as well just put down fresh roots. It’ll end up vertical before it actually comes all the way down. Same problem if we send it left, although we might lose less. And, well, look to the right.”

“A shrine of Frol, and Galing’s pasture wall.” The chief woodcutter cursed. “Can’t very well drop a tree on the tree-god’s shrine.”

“Not if you hope for a long life. But if your men can rig up a ramp to catch the branch, we can toss the log into a sling and lower’er down to the ground, nice and easy.”

The woodcutter swallowed. “…Toss?”

“Hm. You’re right. I’ll need a platform, too.”

“You intend to toss this monster?”

“Assuming I can get the proper leverage. Is that a problem?”

“…No, of course not.”

“Good. Let’s get to it, then.”

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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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