Part one: The Wolf
Part two: The Historian
Strifbjorn let his lips quirk as Mingan glanced sidelong, folded his gloves, and tucked them into his belt, fastidious creature. He drew a small knife and sliced meat from the haunch on the trestle. The pieces, he laid on the plate he and Strifbjorn shared. "You are troubled."
As the Wolf looked at Strifbjorn, Strifbjorn nodded. If all went well, they'd solemnize a marriage tonight. It would only be a formality: Strifbjorn saw how Menglad's eye followed Arngeir while he drank and feasted in preparation for the coming battle. A lovestruck girl doesn't watch that way, all knowledge and amusement. If she thinks she's watched, she flirts. She preens coyly, and glances and giggles. Adults, confident in another's desire... preen differently.
So there was that to worry him. And, really, the least of his problems.
Strifbjorn watched his brothers and sisters eating and wrestling and laughing, trading ribaldry, and was watched in turn by two or three hopeful waelcyrge. At his left hand, Mingan tore his bread mannerly and dipped a morsel at a time in the juice on the trencher. Strifbjorn thought, He knows me well, to follow my thoughts with the line of my gaze.
"You must choose one eventually," Mingan said, leaning in. His breath stirred the hair that escaped Strifbjorn's braid. Strifbjorn turned enough to glimpse his profile. To say he was hatchet-faced would be a kindness; his nose sloped and broke, and his cheekbones made his eyes seem to sit glittering in caverns.
A quip died a-borning. "You know I can't."
He'd cut the meat. Strifbjorn pushed a morsel across the platter with the tip of his knife. A waelcyrge brought mead and Strifbjorn drained it, returning her the horn with gratitude. A married woman, thank the Light. As if reading his mind again, Mingan chuckled.
"I'd rather you laughed with me."
His hand fell on Strifbjorn's forearm. On the strength of the excuse, Strifbjorn turned to regard him fully, but he watched something the length of the hall away. Mingan's voice came like a tickle inside Strifbjorn's ear, like light caught on cleaved shale. Then choose one who will protect you.
Should I saddle some innocent girl with my secrets? The Children of the Light could not speak untruth.
Silence is no lie. Some would count their luck to be asked.
Brother of my heart-- But he stared at Strifbjorn, and Strifbjorn faltered and turned away. I cannot. A physical liaison would be one thing. I won't pollute a marriage bed.
Then all your conquests are in vain. You will lose them one way or the other. He took his hand from Strifbjorn's arm, leaving coolness where heat had been.
"Then I'll lose with what honor is left to me," Strifbjorn replied, ignoring the hurt he felt in the shifting of Mingan's frame. They knew each other well, truth be told.
But it often isn't.
If Strifbjorn could make Mingan laugh, he thought the wolf would forgive him. He tried through the afternoon, with about as much success as he expected. At least making the effort alone might buy a little pity, later.
After what seemed a long time, Menglad stood in a column of crimson cloth, and accepted a horn from a thrall. The hall fell silent as she paced its length from North to South, walking alongside the seething fire-trench, her gown much the color of the flames.
She strode up the line of Arngeir's party and they stared ahead, silent, and dared no jest. Her reputation with the crystal blade at her belt, bronze hilt sparking, was unmatched. Even by such as Strifbjorn.
She'd stop before Arngeir and turn to him with the drinking horn. Her lover. Strifbjorn wondered if they had been foolish enough to share the vow and the kiss in anticipation.
It'd been a long time since such a scandal had haunted his hall. In any case, it'd be over by midnight. Let it end well for them, whatever risks they'd taken. Oh, let it end well.
Strifbjorn's shield-mate still stared into the middle distance. Strifbjorn said, "It's a time of celebration. Eat."
Mingan turned haunted silver eyes. "For some." He quirked a smile. "Observe, brother. The drama begins."
Menglad paused and turned, raising the horn. Strifbjorn bit his lip; it was all very silly, but it wouldn’t do to ruin the ritual with mirth. From the curve of her mouth, Menglad wasn't having it any easier maintaining a solemn veneer. "Arngeir, my brother says to me that you would have me to wife."
Arngeir deliberately turned from his quiet conversation with the einherjar next to him, placed both hands on the edge of the table and levered himself to his feet. "Your brother speaks the truth."
Where she declaimed, he answered in a calm carrying tone, sounding less like he was about to fall over himself.
"If you wish to drink from my cup this night, O Arngeir, you must best my sisters and my brothers. Stand you ready?"
Arngeir was her brother too, inasmuch as any of them were. We were all born together, of the starlight and the sea. But that mattered not, to how the game was played.
He laughed. "Bring them against me." He turned, stepped over the bench behind him, and strode from the hall. His warriors followed.
Strifbjorn stood, and didn’t look at Mingan. "Ready?"
He nodded. Silent as a padded footfall, he was already on his feet, one hand resting on his pommel. He shot Strifbjorn a wolfish, sidelong grin, starlight pooling in the gray part of his eyes. "By all means, my dear Strifbjorn. Let us find us a war."
Except for Menglad, the waelcyrge had retired to their niches at the women's end of the hall. They emerged re-garbed, clad still in white, rectangular indigo capes swirled and pinned at the right shoulder with a brooch like a four-pointed star. For fighting, they wore split skirts or trousers, and tunics with bloused sleeves and open seams. Herfjotur and Skeold led them among the einherjar, their swordhilts and hair shining in the firelight. It gladdened Strifbjorn's heart to see.
The einherjar retrieved shields from where they hung among the rafters, iron-banded wood painted with brave colors and devices. In winter, the thrall-children used them for sleds.
One of the waelcyrge stalking Strifbjorn, Sigrdrifa, shot a look down the length of the line of einherjar--but chose another warrior to stand beside. Strifbjorn was relieved to see the little historian, Muire, stand with Yrenbend--laying her hand on his forearm and looking up at him with a brief, troubled smile. Herfjotur it was who came toward him, the blue silk of the hall’s pennant laid over her shoulder, the pole in her right hand--Herfjotur, widowed, was a valraven's rider, and seemed content with that partnership over seeking a new husband.
She lifted the indigo banner, showing the silver stars embroidered across its surface: the banner of their hall. The Raven Banner of the Children of the Light hung behind the Lady's chair, a stark white sweep of cloth from hoist to fringe, no black bird marring its surface to portend war.
"Won't you ride your steed?" Only she knew his name.
She pouted 'no.' "He does not approve of ritual combat."
"Ah. I didn't know the valraven disapproved of things."
That made her laugh, which made Strifbjorn glad. He must be so careful, with so many of them, but Herfjotur... she was all right. She didn't require an armored and impervious warleader; just one with a will and a plan.
She checked the hang of the banner one last time. Then she came and took Strifbjorn's arm, leading him forward into battle.
They arrayed on the greensward, in the light of the setting sun, pair and pair. The Grey Wolf stood lean and solitary in his gray wool and leathers. No one had come to fight beside him. He went shieldless also. Arrogance: it worried Strifbjorn.
Mingan caught him watching. Thin red lips parted in a deadly smile. "Do not worry so, Strifbjorn," he called over the jesting and taunts traveling back and forth between the lines. "It will make you old."
Herfjotur braced the banner-stave at her belt and through the loops over her shoulder, drawing her sword Solbiort into her right hand.
Strifbjorn hefted his shield. "It's my nature. I'll try to stop. But by the Serpent that bears all Burdens, get yourself killed and I'll come across the river after you and drag you back by your hair."
Mingan thought and then he said, "Agreed. I shall hold you to that."
Menglad Brightwing came out of the mead-hall and lifted a silver-chased horn in her hand, light sliding like oil along the filigree. The banter silenced. The sun slid down the sky, the cold north sea hissed against the flank of the mountain far below, and silence reigned.
The crimson-clad bride raised the horn to her lips and sounded it, deep and long.
Like ocean falling into ocean, the battle was joined.
Of course Strifbjorn and his hall let them win. Several brothers and two sisters had to be carried inside, bandaged, and laid to bed, but there weren't any deaths. A--fortuitous--omen, supposedly.
Strifbjorn would have had to think back many years to the last time one of the Children died in a game, though they still died when they rode to war. And rest would heal the wounded within days, but they would miss the party.
The waelcyrge carried mead around again while the einherjar found their seats. Strifbjorn crossed the hall diagonally. His place was on the step before the Cynge's empty chair, and Arngeir and Menglad came to stand before him.
He looked over his brothers and sisters, einherjar and waelcyrge, chosen and choosers. They were a brave array, even wearied and bloodied from the fight--Sigrdrifa, with all her wounded pride and the swiftness of her blade; Ulfgar smooth-voiced and sharp-tempered, Herewys who thought no-one knew when he slipped injured birds inside his shirt.
Mine. Strifbjorn swallowed too much pride.
Arngeir had healed the wound across his breast that Herfjotur had delivered him, but the bloody rent in the red of his shirt remained. Menglad looked cool and dignified, but the warleader read excitement and perhaps a little fear in the toss of her head. He wanted to reassure her, tell her that what was coming would complete and not constrain her.
But Strifbjorn wasn't supposed to know that.
"Menglad," he said, when the murmur of voices dropped away, "Take your husband's hand."
Tah dah! That's chapter one, in its entirety.
The rest of the book, you're on your own for. *g*