“I could go on,” Jarnulf said, “but I have listed slights enough. Thorhall has named me a fool and a coward, and such insults cannot be tolerated!”
There was a murmur of agreement around the hall. Eyvind, arms folded across his chest, watched his chieftain, there between the pillars of the high seat. Jarnulf let the murmurs rise, letting the anger in the hall build; then abruptly stood, lifting his hand, his spear gripped tightly. The incised blade gleamed red in the firelight.
“And I say they shall not!” he roared, and the clamour rose at once about him, men shouting their affirmation. Swords glinted in the firelight as men raised their own weapons in turn, and there was the sound of metal ringing on metal, a prefix to war. More than one cry of “Death to Thorhall!” started up — Ragi, Eyvind thought, was the first man to shout it — and the cries slowly aligned their rhythm until they had become a chant, punctuated by the percussion of sword upon shield-rim, of spear-shaft on the packed earth floor.
“Death!” Jarnulf shouted. “Death we shall bear to Thorhall! Go, and ready yourselves. Sharpen your blades tonight, for tomorrow we shall sail to Bjornvik, and to war!”
The tumult rose, men laughing at the prospect of the red work, shouldering past one another as they emptied from the hall, bellowing boasts and challenges.
Eyvind let them go past him, as he stood silent; then, once they were gone, he stepped forward, to where Jarnulf had settled himself back on the high seat. The hall seemed strange, now it was not bustling with men.
“You have a solemn look to you, Eyvind,” Jarnulf said.
“My lord, I must speak with you.”
“You have ever served me well. I would be no chieftain if I did not have an ear ready for the words of loyal men.”
“I can not say other than that Thorhall’s insults are intolerable. But… Asny, my wife, is his cousin. How can I take up arms and sail with you tomorrow, to slay my own wife’s kinfolk?”
“How can you not?” Jarnulf’s eyebrows had lifted with what seemed a completely genuine surprise. “You are my man, not hers. Whose land is it that you work upon in spring, and reap in autumn? Whose bull gets your cows with calf? Whose banner do you stand beneath, when the red work is to be done?”
“I have served you loyally ever since you became Jarl,” Eyvind said. “But in this… grant me leave, this once, to stand aside from this fight. If your wife’s kin were attacked, would you not draw blade to defend them? I can take no sides in this, my lord.”
“You have been as loyal as any man in my service; that is the truth of it. So it is that I would have you with me, Eyvind. You are the best of my men; yours is the sword that cut down Bjarki, that hewed the hand from Yngvir when he would have slain me. Do not make me go to war without you.”
Eyvind hung his head, shaking it, slow and sad.
“In all other things, I am your man. But not in this, my lord. Not in this.”
“That is your decision?” Jarnulf asked.
“I can do nothing else.”
“Can you not?” the Jarl asked, settling back into his seat, his voice thoughtful. “Can you not, indeed?”
It was not so very far from the Jarl’s hall up to Eyvind’s farmstead, but his feet were slow on that road. When he entered, Asny was at the loom. She turned.
“I hear the sounds of war,” she said quietly, folding her hands over the swell of her stomach. Their first child, barely a month away.
“There will be war,” he said, nodding as he lowered himself onto the bench, “but I will be staying behind, this time.”
“Then it is Thorhall?”
He nodded, not knowing what he could say.
“Thank you, husband.” Her voice was a small thing, and the touch of her fingers against his cheek was so soft it might have been only his imagination.
What else could I do? he thought, but did not say. And that night, in his farmhouse, there was only silence.
Morning sunlight streamed in as the farmstead door opened; Eyvind looked up, blinking. Ragi stood there, his bulk limned in light, his frame unmistakeable. He stepped inside, unannounced and uninvited. Behind him, just beyond the threshold, stood Jarnulf himself.
Eyvind got to his feet.
“My lord…” he began, but the Jarl interrupted him.
“I gave your decision some thought, last night,” Jarnulf said. “There is no doubt that your loyalty is divided.”
“I cannot sail with you.”
“As matters stand, that is your decision. But matters change, Eyvind. Matters change. Ragi?”
The big man stepped forwards. There was an axe, light in his massive hand.
Eyvind stared. Ragi spoke no word, and Asny barely had time to draw breath as she realised what was about to happen. Her scream died before it was born; her child died before it was born, too. In a moment she was nothing but a corpse, twisted and red beside the firepit.
“And now,” Jarnulf said, his voice quite calm, “you can try and avenge her, and be cut down where you stand; or you can sail with me, at my right hand. One choice, or another; but your loyalties are no longer divided.”
Words would not come. Eyvind stared; first at Ragi, then at Asny’s bloody body, and lastly at his Jarl, impassive in the doorway.
He turned, and reached for his sword.
Brian Dolton is a transplanted Englishman now living in small-town New Mexico.