The tinkling sound of silver bells filled Einarr’s ears. Testing the fidelity of my love for Runa? Nothing simpler… surely that can’t be it, though? Well, no matter. He hefted the sack of treasure slung over his shoulder so the weight rested more comfortably and the coins tinkled again. Walking along the path up towards Kjell Hall, he whistled a jaunty tune. Jorir was only a pace behind him with another sack of treasure, and over this last quest they had filled out the crew of the Hvalaskurdr. His longship Hvalaskurdr. He had a ship. He had a crew. He had brought more gifts than even Jarl Hroaldr could have thought to ask for. If that wasn’t sufficient, even yet lacking a hall of his own, Einarr could rightly accuse the man of faithlessness.

Einarr stepped through the tree line and into the meadow. Not another quarter-mile in, the gate of the palisade around the hall stood open for them. The crew of the Vidofnir awaited inside, with the Kjellings, for news of his success. A broad grin split his wide moustache and he strode on, stopping just two steps outside the door.

“Hail to the Jarl of Kjell! Einarr, son of Stigander, son of Raen, has returned from his quest!”

“Hail, and well-met!” The Jarl’s voice carried out of the hall nearly as cheerfully as it had for Stigander just after their encounter with the Grendel. “The son of Stigander is welcome to my hall!”

Einarr stepped across the threshold and into the shadow of the hall. He reached up to remove his knit cap – when did I put that on? – as his eyes adjusted to the dimness. The smells of meat and mead filled his nose, and rowdy calls of greeting and good cheer assaulted his ears. Stigander stepped up in front of him and clapped him on the shoulders, grinning behind his yellow beard.

“We carried word ahead of you, my boy, since you had someone to retrieve. Everyone’s dying to hear it from your own lips, though.”

He returned his father’s smile in kind, certain that Stigander saw the warmth of his affection behind it. Soon, very soon, they would find a way to reclaim their birthright, and then Stigander could be the thane they all knew he should have been.

The Jarl’s voice rose above the crowd. “Come! Show us the proof of your valor!”

“Well, go on.” Stigander took his cap from him and offered a wordless nod of appreciation to the dwarf.

All eyes – Vidofning and Kjelling alike – were on Einarr and his liege-man as they strode the length of the hall towards the clearing in front of Jarl Hroaldr’s seat.

The light shifted, and Einarr caught a glimpse of Runa, sitting with her lady’s maid in the corner. It was strange: Einarr had thought the maid was a mousey little brown-haired woman, but today the one who attended his love had elfin grace and ridiculously long gold hair – fairer, if it were possible, than Runa’s. He took in so much with a glance before his eye was drawn back to the princess. She sat with her hands pressed against the seat and her shoulders thrust forward, looking up at him furtively from under lowered brows. When she met his gaze, she bit her lower lip. His heart began to race. My lady…

The Jarl cleared his throat: evidently Einarr had been staring. Abashed, he knelt before his father’s friend and set the sack down in front of him with a clatter of precious metal.

“My lord Jarl, I have returned under my own sail and with my own crew, bearing gold and treasure in accordance with the tasks you have placed upon me.” He opened the sack and reached down in among the silver and gold and jewels, looking for the artifact he knew the Jarl would want. There it is. He reached both hands down into the treasure sack and carefully began to remove the goblet.

“In token of these accomplishments, I offer you the Fierbinte, taken from the Imperial city of Krasimirburg during our raids.” He raised the goblet by its stem, resting its base on his other hand to keep it steady. The cup was solid gold and encrusted with rubies and sapphires over every inch of the outside. Inside, it was perpetually filled with a blood-red wine that never seemed to spill. “According to the Imperials we questioned, it is said that the one who drinks from the Fierbinte shall know neither disease nor the progress of time for a full turning of the seasons, but that the god of war shall be their constant companion.”

Jarl Hroaldr reached out to cup the goblet’s basin with both hands and lifted it overhead. A cheer rose up around the hall from the Kjellings: the Vidofnings, Einarr was certain, wanted no part of such a thing. Not until they reclaimed their home.

Once the cheering had died down, the Jarl turned and set the goblet carefully on the table as though it were capable of spilling. His attention returned to Einarr. “Rise, Einarr, son of Stigander, son of Raen. Your dedication is most admirable, and so I am willing to overlook that you have not gained a hall. Rise, and take the hand of Runa, and make Kjell your home henceforward. My Thane, Lord Hragnar, sails for Kjell even as we speak to take your oath to him and this land.”

The hall fell silent. To Einarr, the sudden stillness felt as though the world were crashing around his ears. His face felt slack. “I… what?”

“Runa is my only child, and likely to remain so. He who marries her will become my heir. Rise, son, and take the hand of the prize you’ve fought so hard for.”

Raenshold. The Jarl was asking him to forswear Raenshold… his father… his birthright… and accept a Jarldom in its place? Einarr shook his head as he climbed unsteadily to his feet, certain he must have heard wrong. “My Lord, surely you jest?”

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For more than a week the Gufuskalam sailed south, pushing as hard as its crew could drive the boat with sail and oar, and for more than a week the black-haired dwarf on board hovered over the injured sailor who had been given into his care. If Erik did not seem to be improving, neither did his condition seem to worsen. He even regained consciousness a few times. In spite of his better judgement, Einarr found his attitude toward Jorir softening. Even Tyr could acknowledge his efforts were genuine.

Mid-morning of the eighth day, Einarr stood up to stretch and caught sight of land on the horizon. “Hey Tyr, double-check the chart, will you?”

The older man was still unrolling the parchment when he answered. “That should be the place, and if I’m right we can make landfall today.”

Einarr whooped, the last week’s worry lightening in a rapid burst of exuberance. Jorir looked up like a spooked cat before his gaze darkened to a glare.

“Don’t disturb me patient.”

“Does he look any more disturbed now than he was five minutes ago?” It was a nagging concern of Einarr’s that his friend had hardly stirred during their journey. He still breathed, though, and the leg looked a little better since it had been elevated. “If you’ve got nothing better to do than fuss you can help me row. The sooner we make port, the sooner we can find us a proper healer.”

“An’ how will we be paying this healer?”

“All else fails? It can come out of Erik’s share. Given the choice between keeping his leg and having a pretty for a mistress, I’m sure he’d choose the leg.”

“You might hide that bauble about yer neck, then, before we go ashore. Anyone who sees it will know it’s the most valuable thing aboard.”

Einarr nodded. “Good thinking. I hadn’t intended to keep wearing it, mind, although it’s been good having the goddess of winds on our side this trip.”

“’Course not.”

* * *

The Flatey Islands were among the southernmost lands controlled by the thanes and jarls of the north, and the influence of the Empire could be seen even before one made port. The harbor was built up, and ships of all sizes docked to either side of concrete piers. Those piers were the first, most obvious sign of the southern influence, though the roads that came into view behind them were pale dirt. Two- and three-story buildings rose up behind the harbor, but if the building materials were the same the construction still looked alien to Einarr.

A man in official-looking robes with a pair of glass lenses resting over his nose already stood at the pier as the Gufuskalam nosed between two larger karves that sat high in the water, their hulls evidently empty for the moment. The wood of their hull knocked against the pier and the harborman motioned for Einarr to toss him the docking line.

A moment later their skiff was tied and Einarr took a large step up onto the concrete pier.

“Welcome to Kem. What business are you on?”

“We require a healer.” He gestured toward where Erik lay, his leg still held up by a rope tied above the yardarm.

The harborman’s eyes widened to see the extent of the injuries. “I’ll say. …How?”

“Fimbulvulf. This was the nearest port where we thought there might be aid.”

“I see. …Well, for a boat this size, there is just the small matter of the harbor tax, and then I believe I can direct you where to find a capable healer.”

Einarr suppressed a groan. He had not expected to need coin on this voyage, given their route and their goal, and so had little on him save the gifts from the jotünhall. “How much?”

“For a craft that size, and given the nature of your business, two silver marks per day.”

Einarr growled, but he already heard the knocking of wooden planks. What would be pocket change for his father was going to be a near thing for the four of them. “Tyr, I believe you’ll find some silver belowdecks. Will you pay the man?”

“Already got it.” Tyr met Einarr’s eyes and held it for a long time, his expression saying plainer than words that they would not have many days’ toll for this.

“Thanks.” Einarr nodded his understanding to Tyr, and the marks were passed from Tyr’s hand to Einarr’s to the harborman’s. “Now. You said you had a name for me.”

“Indeed. This way, please, and I will sketch you a map.”

Jorir stepped up to the prow of the Gufuskalam. “If it’s all the same to you, my lord, I would come along.” When Einarr gave him a questioning look, he continued. “His condition’s not changed in days, and anything more I could do for him at this point Lord Tyr could, as well. It might be good if I talked ta the healer meself.”

Tyr looked amused every time the dwarf called him a lord, but had not yet told him to drop it.

“You may be right at that.” Einarr reached down to give the dwarf a hand up to the pier. “We’ll be back as soon as we can.”

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