Einarr made his opening moves especially eye-catching this round. From his hop-skip out he did a handspring and landed on his toes in a crouch. Rather than rising from his crouch, he bounced around the ring like that, kicking a foot with each bounce, his arms folded. Once he’d completed his circuit he moved to the center of the circle, still kicking with every move. Once he was sure he had their attention, waiting for the inevitable surprise, he leapt straight up into the air and kicked both legs out in front of him. At the apex of his jump he swung them behind and up into the air to land on his hands.

Now he aped some of Jorir’s fancy handwork, partially because it made for a good show but also to give the dwarf an excuse to “challenge” him. When he decided the fancy kicks had had their day, he placed the soles of his feet together and began hopping on his hands.

Then an idea struck. He extended his left leg high in the air and lowered his right down towards the floor. Just when he was sure everyone expected him to come down, Einarr raised his right hand to grab his toe. You can do this. The balance was trickier than he expected, but he had this. From this pose he threw the weight of his horizontal leg outward…

And spun on his palm. Oh, gods, that hurt on the rough stone floor that only looked like polished wood. But it got a cheer from the audience – a cheer he could not quite grin at, under the circumstances.

Thankfully Jorir did not make him wait much longer. The dwarf chose this moment to swagger out into the ring, his arms extended to the audience, his hands seeming to beckon them from cheers to jeers. Four strides into the circle, he pounded a hand against the ground and raised a fist to the air before matching every move Einarr had just made.

When Jorir made it plain that’s what he intended to do, Einarr lowered his feet to the ground and stepped back towards the ring – but not into it. Instead, he pretended as though he were leaning against a wall, his arms crossed, critiquing his liege-man’s performance to the surprisingly solid-looking man behind him in the circle.

Einarr shook his head a little. Now was not the time to focus on that. Right now, he needed to concentrate on beating the spirits who had proposed this contest, for that was likely the only way out. He glanced back at the man again: even after the reminder that the circle was made up of ghosts, he could not see this person as anything other than alive.

Jorir spun on his hand now. I wonder if that’s as painful for his hide as it was for mine? That was his cue, though.

Einarr drove his fist towards the floor – although, with his greater height, he did not actually pound the ground with it – before raising it into the air above his head. Challenge accepted.

Jorir’s dismount from the Thurisaz rune spin was somewhat less graceful than Einarr’s, but not a soul in the hallingdanse seemed to care. Everyone recognized what they intended at this point, and only those who had not cared to share it before knew it was planned.

In the same moment Jorir unhooked his axe from his belt Einarr drew Sinmora, and now the real mutters began from about the circle. Everyone knew the sword dance, knew that it was ceremonial. To use live steel was dangerous, unusual, but not unheard of. Einarr raised his long sword toward the ceiling even as Jorir tapped the haft of his axe against the ground.

No coin changed hands in this circle. Likely gambling had long since lost all meaning among the Allthane’s crew. No matter: they aimed to impress, not to win a pot.

Now they moved into the clash. Einarr made a testing swipe with his sword, which was met easily by his axe. In the rhythm of the dance they both turned toward the crowd to egg them on before the spin took them back into ritual combat.

A pair of testing swipes matched the rhythm of the drum with clashing steel before the dance turned them back around, and then a set of three cuts. Now the tune shifted, and the testing feints were at an end.

Both of them, it seemed, had their battle on the jotunhall’s stair in mind as they came together in the clinch and sprang back again. Einarr was perversely tempted to bark at his liege man, but that would be perceived as an insult too far. Probably by Jorir, as well. Still, though, that meant that soon the dwarf would…

Here it came. Jorir danced back from Einarr’s last lunge a good distance farther than he ordinarily would have and turned, his knees bent. The dwarf ran six paces back towards their duel and launched himself into the air.

Back on the island, had they not been on a stair, Einarr would have slid under the dwarf and cut into his legs without hesitation. Now, though, that was simply not an option. Nor was allowing the dwarf’s momentum to send him barreling into the circle, as would likely have happened if he simply avoided the attack. Instead, Einarr dropped to his knees and raised Sinmora over head. Steel met steel in a thunderous clang.

No sooner had Jorir’s toes touched the ground, though, than Einarr gave a shove with his blade. The dwarf leapt lightly back: perhaps he would have been able to stop himself from hitting the crowd behind them. No matter: an artful dodge, no matter how clever, was still not as well-received as a skillful parry. Both showed skill, but only the former could suggest cowardice.

Now they circled, testing each other’s guards again while the rhythm of the song allowed. Einarr grinned: he saw his chance, and he didn’t mind letting Jorir know he did.

As the music shifted again, Einarr dropped to a low crouch, balancing himself with his hands as he launched a sweeping kick against the dwarf’s stocky legs. Jorir attempted to leap over the sweep, much as Father had last winter, but unlike Stigander Jorir misjudged the height of Einarr’s kick. The toe of his boot caught the back of Jorir’s heel and the dwarf tumbled backwards.

The proper way to end the fight would be to place the tip of his blade at Jorir’s throat. Einarr felt his arm shake as he raised the sword slowly in that direction, though. No. Instead, he flipped Sinmora around and held the blade under his arm, his hand on top of the hilt as he offered it to his liege man.

That was the moment the show-off of the competition realized they’d been had.

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The tune the musicians played was an unfamiliar one to Einarr, but that hardly mattered. The rhythm was heavy enough no-one could mistake it, and the fundamentals of the hall dance were in the central competition. Everything else was just warm-up.

What quickly became clear was that Einarr had his work cut out for him if he wanted to have a chance against this crew. Even in the early rounds of the dance, the wraiths’ contortions in the center of the circle were almost inhuman. Don’t get swept away… like I could forget who I was competing against.

As if to underscore his thought, the contestant in the center took hold of his ankle with one hand and then jumped through the gap. This would have been ordinary enough if he hadn’t then taken that same foot in an arc over his head and back down to the floor in front of him. It was a move Sivid might have been able to use if he were ten years younger.

Once the show-off had left the floor, Einarr decided it was time to toss his cap in the ring. He pranced out, and bounced down into a crouch and back as he made an initial circuit. Impressing anyone in this circle, except perhaps Tyr or Jorir, would be a challenge, but even if he was no Sivid, he prided himself on his agility. A handspring followed a cart-wheel followed a back flip, and at the end of it he kicked for what would have been the rafters in an ordinary hall. He held his hands out to the side as he twirled another circuit about the ring and retook his place. If the Allthane’s men did not seem overly impressed, neither did their faces appear bored.

Good. A spirit would always have an advantage over a living man in the hall dance, as they were not subject to the physical limitations of the human body: the trick would be to make that advantage not matter.

More celebrants entered the ring for their warm-up after Einarr’s performance – to his surprise, Jorir did as well. Tyr, old salt that he was, had not ventured into the center since Einarr had been a deck hand. Still, it would be interesting to see how a dwarf fared in the hallingdanse.

Based on his warm-up, he might have a better chance of impressing the spirits than Einarr did, simply because the moves favored by dwarves were by necessity different from those that worked best for men of somewhat taller stature. For his warm-up, he spent a great deal of time walking about on his hands, performing all manner of kicks as he did so, and rolling through no fewer than three different bridges.

Eventually, however, it became plain that no-one else intended to join in the competition, and the competitors moved into their more impressive displays.

The show-off from before proved that he was the one to beat. His second round opened with a series of the stomach-churning leg rotations he had shown before, and became stranger from there. The culmination, to Einarr’s mind, was when the pole was set up for him to kick for the rafters, and instead he did a truly beautiful flip over the pole.

Einarr could not quite repress a growl. For all that the ghosts did not have the same physical limitations he did, he was reasonably certain not all of them realized they were dead. Including, he thought, the one who went to such pains to display inhumanly impressive feats of agility.

For three more rounds, both he and Jorir managed to hold their own in the hallingdanse, but he was running out of both stamina and ideas for new feats to try. Probably this circle would have given Sivid a run for his money, and that man was the best living dancer Einarr had ever seen. At the end of the third round, he arranged to re-enter the circle next to his liege-man.

“You aim for one of us to win this, right?” He whispered as other contestants took their turns – those who had not bowed out after the show-off’s latest performance, that is. The number of entrants was dropping rapidly.


“Next round, let’s sword-dance.” It had been a stroke of genius on his father’s part last winter, if a bit unconventional – but unconventional was what they wanted here.

“With live steel?”

“Unless you happen to have a pair of staves handy. I don’t think the locals do.”

Jorir nodded. “I shall enjoy testing my blade against you once more, then.”

Einarr offered a cocky grin. “You mean when I actually care about looking good? Perfect.”

“Next round then.” Jorir inclined his head towards his lord, and Einarr matched the gesture before turning his full attention back to the dance in the center.

It was plain that they had not hidden their intentions from everyone in the circle, but those nearest did not seem inclined to share the surprise with those further away. The show-off gave his most impressive showing yet, of course, and Einarr suspected most of the other contestants would have dropped out after that performance, but the anticipation in the circle of what the newcomers would do was palpable.

Einarr grinned. Thus far he had ventured forth earlier than Jorir, and so as with last winter he would be the challenged party in the sword dance. That suited him just fine: for a man to challenge a dwarf, while not actually unfair, seemed distasteful at first glance. For a dwarf to challenge a man, however, was right and proper – as it was when the man, hard-pressed, managed to defeat the dwarf. That was simply how the stories were meant to go, and a crowd such as this would surely enjoy such a tale.

Now it was Einarr’s turn to enter the circle. Still wearing a grin, he did a hop-skip out into the ring.

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Einarr knew those boots very well, in fact. Had watched, in any spare moment she could find, as Astrid stitched them herself from the skins of rabbits she had asked him to catch. Stitched them herself, when it would have been the easiest thing in the world to pass it off to one of the thralls. And now Stigander swaggered onto the dance floor wearing them, courting a wife for his son.

He kicked himself through a backflip to stand upright. Stigander smirked and began to spin around on his heels, his hands held out as if to ask ‘what can I say?’

Einarr matched and opposed the spin, such that they crossed paths twice each rotation. Every few twirls he dropped to a crouch, and now it was Father’s turn to match him.

There was a limit to the acrobatics they could pull off with both of them in the circle, however. The music continued, shifting into the Warrior’s Dance. Stigander motioned to someone in the hall, who tossed him a staff. Einarr looked over at Erik and gestured for the same. He caught it with a flourish before knocking its end against the floor. The knock from his father’s staff rang out a bare breath later. Einarr met his father’s eyes with a boyish grin, and the older man’s confident smirk never faltered.

Muttered voices from outside the circle, those few who were not participating, were punctuated by the clink of coins changing hands. Both of them spun once on their heels, mugging for the crowd. Clack! Einarr’s feint was blocked by Stigander’s.

They exchanged a few more showy feints, their staves cracking against each other with every blow, before the flow of the music suggested a separation. Einarr planted his staff on the floor and pushed off into another cartwheel. Stigander held his at both ends and jumped over the middle of it. The crowd loved it, but Einarr saw the Jarl clench his jaw.

They spun together now, their staves striking with enough force to sting the palms this time. Stigander pressed close and growled at his partner. “So you do have some spirit in you. Give them a good show, now.”

“We’ve got her attention.”

In the moment before they sprang apart, Stigander’s smirk relaxed into a smile. The music led them on from occasional feints and into the “fight” at the center of the dance, and their staves kept time for the piper as much as the drummer did. Before long, the music allowed them to press forward again.

“It’s not her attention I’m worried about.”

Einarr glanced at the Jarl for just a moment and got shoved back three steps. From that third step, though, he leaped forward, staff raised overhead to strike. Stigander raised his overhead, braced in two hands.

“I can’t tell if he’s furious or bored.” Hroaldr was still in the circle, but deliberately not looking at the spectacle in the center.

“Furious.” Stigander looked deliberately over toward the Jarl. “But we might be in danger of boring the rest.” Stigander ducked and spun around behind Einarr, tagging the back of his legs with his staff. Einarr followed suit, ducking into a low spin and sweeping his staff towards his father’s legs. Stigander jumped.

Nice choice, Father. Einarr spun faster, rising gradually from his crouch. With each spin, Stigander had to jump a little higher. Eventually, when the stick was nearly to his waist, he backflipped out of the arc of the strike. Clack! Stigander brought his own staff around to meet his son’s.

Einarr lunged forward, taking his staff in a two-handed grip and driving his shoulder into his father’s rock-hard stomach. The man didn’t even grunt, and so Einarr turned the lunge into a spin on his outer heel, the other leg held out straight. When he turned around, Stigander had once again turned to face him. His face was red as he knocked the end of the staff against the floor, and he seemed out of breath. An icy flood of worry crushed Einarr’s flush of enjoyment, and he knocked his own staff to signal the end of the fight.

Stigander did not give up his swagger as he danced to the outer circle, but it was less certain of itself. He tossed the staff to the waiting Kjelling and moved to take Einarr’s old place in the circle.

The place near Runa was open, but there was no reason Stigander should have conceded there. Einarr tossed his staff back to Erik and tried to follow: a look over Stigander’s shoulder warned him off. Later, then. He stood straighter, ignoring for the moment his concern in favor of a “victory” lap around the stage before he trotted off to take his Father’s former place near the Jarl.

He nearly stopped in his tracks when he saw the Jarl’s face. Hroaldr’s face was redder than Stigander’s, his lips pursed in fury, staring at Einarr. He slid into the proffered opening anyway, giving Runa a thin-lipped smile.

It may have been the single most uncomfortable place he had stood during a Hall Dance, but thankfully it didn’t go on much longer. Even Sivid didn’t try to compete with the father-son show that had just occurred, and he wasn’t usually one to be cautious of the odds.

As the music faded and the circle dissolved, Einarr felt a strong hand grip his arm. A strong, male hand. He turned slowly, knowing who it had to be. Einarr was still unprepared for the fury filling the Jarl’s eyes.

“I’m not blind, boy. Even if I were, Stigander has made things quite plain t’me. D’ye think that maybe, just maybe, there’s a reason Trabbi is courting my daughter instead of the son of my friend?”

Einarr opened his mouth to interject, but the Jarl continued.

“You want to marry my daughter. So tell me, boy: d’ye have a hall?”

Einarr clapped his mouth shut.

“D’ye have a hearth? A ship? Oh, yes, you have a ship – or you will, crewed by your father’s men, loyal to him first, and no port to call your own. Is that what you would have me bind Runa to? Trabbi is a loyal vassal. Trabbi has holdings of his own, and if his boats are fishing boats, there are worse things. Now, tell me, boy, who should I marry my daughter to?”

“My lord, how many wives has Trabbi buried?” It was all he could come up with under the stinging truth of the Jarl’s rage.

“Fewer than Stigander.”

“And how old are his children?”

Hroaldr met his eyes in an icy glare, the anger undiminished, as though to say he had already considered such matters. “Do not test me where my daughter is concerned. Understood?”

“Yes, my lord.”

1.7 – Feast in the Hall 1.9 – Spring Thaw
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