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Authors: Rebecca Barnhouse

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BOOK: Peaceweaver
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“This way,” her mother said, leading them the back way into the hall, through the kitchens. It might be the quickest route to the dais, but they had to be careful not to run into someone heaving a bucket of water or pulling a steaming pot from the fire. Kitchen workers rushed past them, barely acknowledging Hild and her mother and sister in their haste, but none of them so much as touched their skirts.

At the door to the hall, Hild paused while her mother checked her over once again and patted a stray hair into place. Then she smiled at Hild, kissed her on both cheeks, and pushed her in the direction of the dais.

Hild fought the impulse to look back at Siri. Instead,
blinking as her eyes accustomed themselves to the firelight, she moved toward the group of men who clustered near the front of the hall. Bragi, his harp tucked under his arm, looked her up and down from the corners of his eyes, but he didn’t otherwise acknowledge her. She held her head higher and kept going, pushing past Hrethel, a high-ranking earl, who smiled at her and inclined his head graciously. Hild smiled back. She moved past two thanes, who were so deep in a whispered conversation that they didn’t notice her, then winced as Olaf the Peacock trod on her toes. “So sorry, my dear, so very sorry,” he said, but he was brushing off his embroidered tunic, not looking at her, as he spoke.

She was almost to the dais now. Where was her uncle? She wondered if she should wait for him, but when a man held out his hand to her and bowed regally, she let him guide her up the steps. It was one of the queen’s kinsmen, a visiting Bronding whose name she couldn’t remember. Her eyes still scanning the crowd for her uncle, she thanked him.

Then she was on top of the wooden platform, alone. She breathed in, then out again to quell her nerves. A slave handed her the long, curved drinking horn and she took it, careful not to spill the mead. She stood uncertainly at the back for a moment, then moved forward, taking her place at the front of the dais, hoping she was doing the right thing.

How different the hall looked from here. She had never seen things from the king’s perspective before. At the far
end, daylight streamed through the massive oak doors, shining on the guards’ spear tips, while a group of grannies sat making thread in the hall’s north corner and three little boys chased each other around one of the brightly painted beams that held up the roof. Her eyes traveled up the beams to the banners hanging from the rafters. Even they looked different from this perspective, torchlight illuminating the woven images of Odin, of Freyja, of the lesser gods. She pictured the tapestry just taking shape on her loom at home and realized she should be considering the role fire and shadow would play on the design. That was where it would hang when she finished it, she decided, choosing a prominent position easily visible from where she stood. The story the banner told would remind the king of the women and children left behind when he sent his warriors into battle.

She looked down again, at the men who stood beside the long wooden mead benches on either side of the blazing fires, the slaves hovering in the background waiting to serve. Women, among them her aunts and cousins, crowded the walls. Her mother and Siri leaned against a beam, their heads bent toward each other. They were too busy whispering for her to catch their attention. But there was Beyla, her hair in her eyes, standing with a group of girls and ignoring their chatter as she waited for Hild to notice her. They gave each other a solemn look before Beyla grinned. She pantomimed taking a slurp from the horn and wiping her mouth
with the back of her hand. Hild hoped her friend had heard how she had made Brynjolf laugh earlier.

When a tall warrior moved, blocking Hild’s view of Beyla, she turned her focus back to the heavy drinking horn in her hands. It was full to the brim. Tiny bubbles on the edges of the golden mead winked at her, and firelight danced on the polished silver fittings. Her arms were starting to ache from its weight. She hadn’t anticipated quite how heavy it was, and she prayed to the goddess that she wouldn’t spill it—or worse, drop it.

A hush fell over the crowd. She heard footsteps coming up the stairs. The boards shuddered beneath her feet as her uncle moved across the dais to stand beside her. Just behind him came Bragi. Hild watched her uncle shift his eyes to the skald. Bragi inclined his head, as if he were giving the king permission to begin.

Then her uncle looked out at the hall, and as he did, Hild followed his gaze, finally allowing her eyes to settle on the five travel-stained warriors, who stood closest to the dais, their mail shirts clinking lightly as they swayed around the men’s legs. She tried to make herself look at the others, but her gaze kept straying to Garwulf. Firelight reflected off the metal band that encircled his arm, a gift from the king for his prowess.

Then their leader stepped forward. Mord, one of the king’s trusted thanes, but hardly one of his shoulder companions, wore two rings to Garwulf’s one.
Not for long
, Hild
thought, remembering the way he’d treated the slaves that morning, and the way he was always ready to start a fight, or to prolong one.

“Hail, Ragnar, King,” Mord said, lowering himself to one knee and holding both hands before him. Gold glittered in his fingers. The raiding party had done well. They had brought not just slaves but also treasure to the kingdom.

Beside her, Hild’s uncle raised a hand. “My hearth companions,” he said, and when Hild stole a glance at him, she could see that he was letting his eyes rest on each of the five men in turn. “You have performed a great service to our kingdom. You are most welcome.”

All five of the warriors bowed, and Mord rose to his feet.

The king turned, his hand going to Hild’s shoulder.

It was time. She tightened her belly.

“Hild, our sister-daughter, gives you our greeting.”

Hild turned to her uncle, sinking into a careful curtsy. She rose and held out the great curved horn. Her uncle took it, sipped, and handed it back to her. As he did, their eyes met and she could see the humor in his.
Easy for him to laugh
, she thought. He didn’t have to descend the dais, mead threatening to spill, skirts threatening to trip his feet.

Nor did he know what she was planning. Beyla knew, of course, and Hild suspected that Thryth did, too. She’d looked for the old woman in the hall but hadn’t seen her. It didn’t matter. Hild had made her decision, and despite the eyes of the kingdom on her, she would hold to it.

She placed her foot on the first step, realizing belatedly that she would have no free hand to hold up her skirts. At least she had to present the horn only to the raiding party, not all her uncle’s earls and highest-ranking thanes. If she had had to serve them all, or the visiting Bronding noblemen, or worst of all, Bragi, she didn’t think her courage would have held. She could feel their presence behind her, and smell the oil the skald used on his harp strings, as she made her way down the steps.

At the bottom, she moved quickly, before she could change her mind. A little too quickly—a trickle of mead spilled over the horn’s edge and ran down its sides and onto her fingers. She ignored it and moved toward the men. As she neared Mord, he reached out to accept the horn. Gathering her resolve and keeping her gaze directly ahead, Hild passed him, leaving his hands to clutch at empty air.

She thought she might have heard murmuring in the crowd, but she closed her ears and kept walking. She passed one warrior, then another, until finally, she stopped in front of Garwulf.

Keeping her eyes on the torchlight reflected on the horn’s silver fittings, hoping no one could detect the trembling in her voice, she spoke loudly enough that the women who stood along the walls would be able to hear her. “Receive this mead, Garwulf, along with our thanks for your service to the kingdom, and for your
honor
.” She emphasized the last word. Then she held out the horn.

For the briefest instant, his clear brown eyes met hers and she saw the confusion in them before he looked down. A flush crept up his neck.

She had put him in an impossible situation and she knew it. He had to insult either her, by refusing to drink, or Mord, who not only had led the raiding party, but, with his two arm rings, held a higher rank among the king’s thanes. Hild was sure she knew what Garwulf would do, but being sure didn’t keep her heart from pounding. She watched him, careful to keep her eyes away from his, trying not to notice the way his dark hair curled around his neck where it had escaped from the leather cord that held it back. She caught a whiff of saddle leather and sweat and autumn leaves. In the now-silent hall, she could feel everyone looking at her, and she hoped her own face wasn’t coloring.

Hurry
, she urged him silently. With her arms outstretched, the horn was getting heavier, but she didn’t want to pull it back or people might think she was changing her mind. She shifted her weight to steady herself.

The movement broke the moment. Garwulf dipped his head. “My lady,” he said, and reached for the horn.

When he gave it back to her, she lowered herself into a curtsy. She wanted to look at his face, to see what he was thinking, but now her courage failed her.

Instead, she returned to Mord, who was rubbing his thumb over the white scar on his upper lip, just below his mustache. As she approached him, he gave someone behind
her—Hild couldn’t see who—a look of withering contempt and took the horn before she even began her greeting. He drank, then thrust it back at her so roughly that mead sloshed over the sides. “My lady,” he said, the tone of his voice making his opinion of her perfectly clear to anyone with ears.

Anger made her resolution return. She met his eyes and held them. “We thank you, Mord, for your service to the kingdom.” She kept her voice icy calm.

She approached the three other warriors according to their rank, first Lyting, then Halga, and finally Gizzur the Loud, a small wiry man whose “my lady” was so quiet that if she hadn’t seen his lips move, she wouldn’t have known he’d spoken.

Then she turned to climb the steps, steeling herself to meet the king’s wrath. She was prepared for it; she knew exactly what she would say.

But he didn’t give her the chance. Instead, he was smiling at her.

Smiling?

As she came to the top of the stairs, he turned her to the crowd, his hand again on her shoulder in a protective gesture. “A first try is often difficult,” he said, warmth in his voice. “This was Hild’s first time passing the mead to my warriors. I’m sure Mord will forgive her.”

Mord bowed briefly, but Hild didn’t look down at him because now her own cheeks were flaming.

The king wasn’t through. “May the next time be without flaw.” Then, raising his voice and pushing her forward, he called out, “I give you Hild, my sister-daughter.”

The crowd roared its approval, but Hild stared stonily ahead, humiliated. It hadn’t been an error. She’d meant to serve the man with the most honor first, as a message to her uncle. But he hadn’t even noticed. And now everyone saw her as a child who didn’t even know the order of rank among the men.

From the corner of her eye, she saw her cousin Skadi standing with the other women, laughing. Hild ground her teeth and stared at the open doors at the far end of the hall, willing herself to be through them.

She couldn’t wait to be dismissed.

THREE

“H
ILD, WAIT
!”

She heard Siri calling her, but she kept going. After the dim hall, the sunlight made her blink and the crisp air cooled her flushed cheeks. She pushed through a flock of geese that crowded the lane. Both they and the slave boy driving them toward the kitchens were too surprised to react, but she heard them honking and clattering by the time Siri got to them.

“Ow! Stop it!” her sister cried out, and Hild turned to see her batting ineffectively at a hissing gander. Hild sighed irritably. There wasn’t much that bothered Siri, outside her worry about her husband, but she had a long history with geese. Hild couldn’t simply leave her sister to deal with them on her own, and the slave seemed too young to be much help. She rushed back, shooed the birds away, and
pulled Siri down the lane. They passed a girl carrying a huge basket and a man leading two nanny goats, everyone busy preparing for the harvest festival, before Siri stopped and brushed at her gown. “I hate that goose.”

“You hate all geese.”

“But especially that one. He needs his neck wrung.”

“He’s not the only one,” their mother said, hurrying toward them, her eyes on Hild. She stopped to catch her breath. “How could you do that?”

Hild’s chest swelled with indignation. “He’s more honorable, Mother. Any woman would agree, especially if they’d seen them when they rode in this morning with the slaves.”

“It’s not about honor, it’s about rank, and you know that.” Her mother’s brows knitted in anger. “You embarrassed me and our whole family—and that includes the king.”

Hild shifted uncomfortably and looked back at the geese. The gander was hissing at his harem, his strong neck snaking around to keep them in line. It gave Hild great satisfaction to know he would soon be somebody’s dinner.

BOOK: Peaceweaver
13.3Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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