Deleted Chapter 51 – Abridged
It was a long while before either Halvard or Rune spoke again.
“You can count your debt as paid,” he said, sitting forward to slump over the empty tankard. “My men can provide you with food and arms,” he offered. “We invite you to stay and sleep in some proper beds. Drink, eat, and before you go, you are welcome to a mare, and any armament you find in the barracks.”
A sudden pair of thuds jarred their attention to Kallan, pulling Rune’s eye over the two tankards brimming with the tans of freshly brewed mead. Curves of green lined with gold traced the line of her bosom. Soft, brown ringlets of hair fell down her front, their tips brushing the table.
The bathhouse had done as much for her as the tankard of mead had done for him. She was relaxed and at ease, more than she had been in weeks. The blue of her eyes glistened, and the lingering exhaustion that had followed her since Jotunheim had washed away with the bath water. Kallan stared, not bothering to mask her gaze when Rune found her eyes.
“We’re grateful for the offer.” Kallan smiled, forcing her attention to Halvard. “But I doubt you can provide a better sword than Gramm.”
Her voice chimed over the table as Halvard flashed a wide-eyed look to Rune. When Rune answered with an impassive shrug, Halvard looked back to Kallan.
“He carries the elding sword of the Dvergar king forged by Volundr himself,” Kallan explained with a hint of jealousy.
The jingle of keys accompanied the sighs of Olga as she plopped her sturdy frame into a chair beside Halvard. At the end of the table, Emma settled herself on the other side of the Throendr. Blushing red at the wide smile Rune flashed her, Emma looked away, holding back a smile.
“You are a swordsman, Kallan Eyolfdottir,” Halvard said.
“Volundr has forged many swords,” Kallan said, thrusting aside her contempt for Rune, “but there were only a few whose fame exceeded their maker. A swordsman unable to recognize Gramm would be an abomination among swordsmen.”
“You are a swordsman, and yet you carry a dagger?” Halvard used the opportunity to look Kallan up and down, eyeing her curves for the iron sword that wasn’t there. “Surely you have a need for more.”
Kallan’s blood burned and, with a flick of her wrists, fire burst to life in her palm she held at eye level.
Halvard’s eyes hardened with secrets unspoken.
“You are Seidkona,” he said.
Kallan nodded, proudly.
“I am,” she said and extinguished her flame.
“It is you Olaf hunts,” Halvard said, bringing the mead to his mouth.
“Perhaps.” Supporting her weight on her knuckles, she leaned forward onto the table. “But one must ask why.”
Halvard shifted a solemn eye from his tankard.
“Long questions deserve long answers,” he said, running his hand over his beard in thought. With a pensive eye, he looked to Rune. After taking a gulp of mead from his fresh tankard, he slammed the drink back to the table. There was a delayed moment before he answered.
“Olaf seeks to avenge his father’s death by killing Forkbeard,” Halvard said. “He desires to reclaim the throne his grandfather’s father left him in death.”
Kallan stood upright, unsure where to begin with Halvard’s news.
“Forkbeard?” Rune repeated and shook his head. “Forkbeard didn’t kill Olaf’s father.”
“No, he didn’t,” Halvard said. “Bloodaxe’s son, Greycloak, did. To understand Olaf, you must be familiar with Dan’s Reach, The woodland realm of King Dan for which the Dani were named. And Fairhair.” Halvard spoke the name like a dark, distant memory surfaced. He looked to Rune. “You would be familiar with Fairhair.” Darkness that shadowed an unspoken memory fell upon Rune’s face. Without an answer, Halvard continued. “In a way, I guess all of this really stems from him.”
The wooden chairs groaned as everyone shifted and settled themselves in for Halvard’s tale.
“Fairhair, his sons, and their pursuit of the throne of Midgard,” Halvard began. “Let’s see now. Of the sons, there was Erik Bloodaxe, Hakon the Good, and Olaf, King of Viken.” Halvard paused at this last name and looked to each face, anticipating their reactions. When four blank faces stared back at him, Halvard dropped his shoulders and explained. “Olaf, King of Viken, was elder father to Olaf.”
“His elder father?” Kallan asked with piqued interests.
“Aye.” Halvard brooded and took a large mouthful from his drink. He placed the tankard to the table and looked at each face in turn, ensuring he held their attention before continuing.
“Before Fairhair, the land was made up of several smaller kingdoms that spanned all the land. There were constant wars between the kingdoms back then, exchanging out new kings for old. Blood watered the same fields that kings killed hundreds for. The rivalry and wars ended when Fairhair united them under one rule and assigned his three sons as vassals. But to Bloodaxe, Fairhair gave all of Midgard, crowning him high king.”
“Erik Bloodaxe,” Rune mused.
“His cruelty surpassed anything I care to recall. The people rose up against him and exiled him. But Bloodaxe left behind a son who would avenge him. Greycloak executed all the lesser kings of Midgard, including the King of Viken, whose wife and heir escaped.”
A long silence passed over the table.
“King Tryggvi of Viken.” Rune coldly stared at a knot in the center of the table.
“Tryggvi, son of Olaf, son of Fairhair, was father to Olaf.” Halvard brought his mead to his lips. “He was the heir who escaped.”
“It was Greycloak who ran Olaf out of Midgard,” Kallan said.
Halvard gulped his drink. “And Hakon Jarl with the help of Blatonn killed Greycloak.”
“The Blood Oath,” Rune concluded.
Halvard grinned. “Olaf believes the murder of Greycloak belonged to him. And that Hakon and Blatonn stole the Blood Oath meant for him.” Pushing his tankard aside, Halvard leaned his weight onto his arms crossed over the table. “After Blatonn and Hakon Jarl killed Greycloak, Blatonn appointed Hakon as Jarl and sent him here as his vassal. And now Olaf is back.”
Halvard shrugged. “He killed the Jarl to regain his throne. And Forkbeard killed Blatonn.”
“His own father?” Kallan asked.
“Forkbeard inherited two things that day: all of Dan’s Land and Olaf’s blood oath. Dan’s Reach and Swealand united,” Halvard said.
“And now both seek Olaf’s death,” Emma said.
Halvard downed the last of the mead allowing the silence to settle around the table. Before the mead flowed down his throat, Emma asked the one question he had failed to answer. “But why is Olaf after the Seidkonas?”
Halvard dropped the empty tankard on the table and altered his full attention to the Englian. Her blue eyes, brimming with questions, glistened in the fire light.
“Word is, he seeks a pouch that one of them carries,” Halvard said.
Kallan’s face flushed red as she dropped her eyes to the table.
“Why?” Rune exclaimed.
Afraid the words would escape her, Kallan pursed her lips and frowned at Rune. Rune threw her a look that dared her to intervene.
“I’ve known Olaf and his superstitions now for years,” Halvard said. “I have never seen him this obsessed, or this consumed with bloodlust. Olaf believes that pouch will gain him an advantage over Forkbeard, one that will ensure his victory.”
“What kind of advantage?” Rune asked, clutching his tankard.
Halvard shook his head.
“I don’t know.”
A silence settled over the table. In deep, distant thought, Halvard brooded, clearly overwhelmed with the need to give voice to his own notions.
“There is talk about Olaf spanning the kingdoms of Midgard and reclaiming the land Fairhair once united. Those same rumors have secured a fear throughout the land, but I know Olaf,” Halvard finished, shaking his head in doubt. “His visions are not so narrow. That summer, Olaf married Forkbeard’s sister and secured himself a line for the throne of Dan’s Reach right alongside Forkbeard,” Halvard said. “Rumors of vengeance and blood debts have circled the trade routes. The way I see it, last man standing gets Danelaw. And Danelaw spans all of Northumbria, Vendland, Viken, and the Dan’s Reach along with support from Otto III and, possibly, the Empire. But Olaf has Dubh Linn, and the land of Eire and Alba on his side and this…” Halvard shook his head. “This is little more than a race.”
“Last man standing gets the throne,” Rune surmised.
A laugh barked and a slap to Halvard’s back broke the tension that had descended over the table. With a toothy grin and an untamed mop of red hair, a face pinned by a crooked nose peered over their table.
“Brand! You startled me, whelp,” Olga said, adding a firm slap to the youth’s arm that only seemed to encourage his wide, flashy grin.
“Why are you back so soon? I thought you were headed to Lofot?”
“We made port in Maere and I jumped ship.” He pushed back his wide shoulders, not bothering to look at Olga as he answered. “Egil told me I’d find you here with Halvard. Where’d the dark stallion come from?”
After a nod that began with Halvard passed around the table, Brand smiled, holding his full attention on Kallan.
“Where’d the lady come from?”
“What in Odinn’s name would persuade you to jump ship in Maere?” Olga said.
“There was a girl,” he said. He adjusted his position to better look at Kallan.
“There are days I can’t believe you’re my kin,” Olga grumbled to deaf ears then waved a limp hand toward Brand. “This is my brother’s son, Brand.”
Only Emma bothered with a polite nod that Brand ignored.
“And this…” Olga slapped Brand, in hopes to draw his attention from Kallan. “This here is Rune Tryggveson, King of Gunir.”
Slouched in his seat with his legs stretched out beneath the table, Rune stared at the tip of his boots. He didn’t bother to acknowledge the lad, whose interests remained fixed on Kallan.
“And the lady,” Olga said, “is Kallan Eyolfdottir, Queen of Lorlenalin.” Olga’s emphasis on ‘queen’ did little to discourage Brand’s motivation. “The horse belongs to her.”
“The lady is…” Brand said, dragging his eyes over Kallan with a stupid grin.
“Alright, be off with you,” Olga said, giving a shove that slid Brand from her chair.
He pulled himself up, boasting his full height that matched Rune’s and leaned his weight onto the back of Kallan’s chair so that he remained suspended, holding his face inches from hers where her perfumes reached his nose.
“He’s yours?” he said, holding his voice just above a whisper.
“He?” Kallan asked.
“The stallion,” Brand clarified.
“Yes,” she recovered, throwing her full attention into Brand.
“You bought him?”
“A line from the desert sands and my father’s courser.”
Something of an impressed whistle escaped Brand’s lips as he slanted his eyes in envy.
“Show me,” he whispered, holding a hand to Kallan, who beamed.
A stifled hic-cough from Rune’s chair was all the urging she needed to slide her hand into Brand’s outstretched palm. Returning the wide smile, she stood from the table, casting a subtle glance to Rune, who appeared indifferent to the scrape of her chair on the floor.
Pushed to the point where her irritation surpassed her intent, Kallan looped her arm into the crook of the youth’s elbow and permitted him to pull her toward the door.
As one, Olga, Emma, and Halvard turned to Rune who still studied the tip of his boot.
“Well?” Olga pressed impatiently.
Rune glanced up from the floor.
“What?” he asked.
“Aren’t you going to do something?” Olga asked.
Rune shrugged. “About what?”
“About that.” Olga gestured to the dainty swag of Kallan’s rear as she vanished out the door, her arm still hooked on Brand’s.
Rune cocked his head toward Kallan’s backside and, complacently, returned his eyes to his boot, indifferent by anything the woman said or Kallan did.
“The woman brought us mead,” Halvard held back from booming over a half-attempted whisper. “Are you daft or dead?”
Rune raised his eyes from the floor, a grin stretched across his face with a known mischievous look to his eye.
“They deserve each other.” Rune shrugged. “He’s slimy and she’s ornery. Besides, he’ll be begging to bring her back before the night’s end.”